The list of names in front of Yixing was short, a handful of seven all scribed in on the paper and five of them were already crossed out. Yixing had always liked writing checklists. Ever since he was a child, he would have his notepad in hand to jot down things in an orderly fashion and then strike them off when they were either completed or irrelevant. It usually made him feel accomplished, a visual sign that he had succeeded in something and had tangible evidence of it.
That list, that one specific list of names, was not one he felt happy running through.
That list, that one specific list of names, was a step back into his past he constantly wanted to bury.
That list, that one specific list of names, was a collection of all of Yixing's ex-boyfriends.
How he got to writing those seven appellations was intricate but broadly simplistic―Yixing wanted to run his grandfather's company, Yixing needed to be espoused to do so, however, Yixing was not married. Or even anywhere close to dating somebody. Yixing didn't even have any romantic feelings towards anybody.
He worked with others constantly, his office was like Grand Central Terminal with how many people strode in and out of it in a single day and he lived alone to escape from that. It was tiresome to greet people, build rapport and carry through with plans both in his work and out of it. He had countless faceless names in his phones. The fact that he even had to have three phones was evidence enough to Yixing that he needed to step back from meeting people.
That's what gave Lu Han, Yixing's overly pestering best friend and personal assistant, the idea of rekindling something with one of his ex-boyfriends. It had seemed like the worst idea in the world when it was first suggested but as the months stretched onwards, the notion had grown more alluring to Yixing.
Yixing was twenty-six, almost at his peak and he had learnt about many of the cogs that made the whole of his family's business turn so well. He shadowed, assisted and worked with his grandfather in order to see what a CEO did and the decision-making processes they took to reach their final outcomes. In reality, Yixing thought he was ready for the day that his grandfather would retire and he would step up to take on the task.
And still, life never really worked that way.
The Zhangs were filial and completely orientated on the wellbeing of one another, everybody had somebody they could rely on and everybody loved the times when they would all come together at Yixing’s grandfather’s house to celebrate their holidays. It was out of the norm for a Zhang to be so focused on their work and unconcerned about dating and marriage as Yixing.
Since Yixing had been twenty-three and certifiably single with no prospects on the horizon, his grandfather had written a clause that the CEO of his company had to be married. It didn’t matter if they were a member of the Zhang family, it became a concrete idea that the CEO was obligated to be married, divorced, or widowed, to take on the company.
Yixing had found the whole idea rather tedious. He believed that any person, wed or not, could make the level-headed decisions needed in running a large corporation. His grandfather, however, disagreed. He had laughed and said,
“Anybody can make a decision but it's making the right one that's important. If you ask any married man, or woman, on this floor if they talk to their spouse about something before doing it, to get a second opinion, then almost every answer you will get will be yes. Every action I take or think of taking is run past your grandmother, she helps me to see the wood for the trees among the mess of numbers and statistics I am given for every possible outcome.
“I’m not saying that a married mind is better than yours, sometimes a partner can’t help with work-related matters but they can supply a break or an escape for a person. You can return home to somebody who can comfort and love you like nobody else can. It isn’t a matter of ‘married is better’, divorce rates show that often isn’t the case, but this job can be lonely. Sometimes you need another person to go home to that can make your day brighter when you need it.”
Yixing hadn’t quite understood the logic but he knew the sincerity that his grandfather had spoken with, it was the kind that told Yixing he had his best interests at heart. He didn’t fight the clause when he was younger and the future was a distant notion.
With his grandfather’s ability to sustain such a demanding job decreasing by the day, Yixing had taken on yet more of his tasks and worked in his stead more often than not, he knew something had to change.
That was when ‘Operation: Last Resort’ had been devised by Lu Han. It was only a plan for when Yixing had hit his lowest point in his prospects of alleviating some of the strain off his grandfather's shoulders.
Rock bottom, it seemed, came faster than both Lu Han and Yixing had expected. With a string of failed dates behind him, a mix of whisky and whichever potent cocktails Lu Han had been supplying him with and the stress of a week’s work under his belt, he had found himself asking Lu Han to put ’Operation: Last Resort’ into action before it was too late.
By monday morning, Yixing had a sheet of paper with names and telephone numbers on his desk. He had tucked it into his pocket, tried to forget about it but found himself drawing out the list to stare at whenever he took a short bathroom break.
He had Lu Han and a crate of twelve beers to keep him company as he called around his ex-boyfriends when he got back to his apartment that evening. The first few calls were awkward and stilted as Yixing tried to rejig the memories of his earlier partners to remind them of who he was, there were the strange silences when Yixing was politely declined when he asked to have a catch-up at a bar and Yixing pressed his head to the table in defeat as wives, husbands and children were mentioned.
“Why is everybody married?” Yixing whined, his breath whistling over the top of his half empty beer bottle. “Am I the only one who isn’t?”
“Do you see a ring on my finger?"
Yixing snorted, his mind muddled up slightly from the alcohol in his veins and his mood lowered by his fruitless endeavours. "You don't count..."
"What do you mean, I don't count? I'm older than you, you little shit." Lu Han's words made Yixing smile as he punched in the next number.
The phone dialled twice before it was cut off by an automated voice. He tried to call it once more before scoffing and crossing that name from his list with a scowl. He wasn't entirely happy that almost all of his options had been narrowed down to one. The name, the only remaining one, was the most dreaded. It was the most depressed into the page, the nib of the pen had risked upon breaking and Lu Han had given over the telephone number with a hesitance that foreshadowed the way Yixing tapped it into the dial screen of his personal phone.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Lu Han's voice was calm with a hint of empathy and Yixing gulped in an entire lungful of air, he nodded.
He this thumb circled the around the green digital button a few times before he tapped it and brought the device up to his ear. It was different to the other calls, no loudspeaker where Lu Han could hear the tinny voice flowing through the connection and the two of them could stifle giggles as Yixing made numerous mistakes in his speech.
The dialling beep connected, the ringer sounded in his ear and he heard it a total of three times until it ended. There was a moment of silence, seconds dribbled by like glacial waters and Yixing's breath remained in his lungs.
The voice brought back memories that hit him like numerous bullets to the chest and brain; not enough to take him down but triggering adrenaline that dulled out the aches of pain. They flashed like blinding lights behind his eyelids as they fell shut and his free hand clenched around his bottle of beer. It was cold feeling, the glass, but he couldn't really register it.
Lu Han nudged his arm and Yixing let out a muted splutter.
He took in another breath.
It calmed him. Only a little.
The phone call was only the beginning of Yixing's woes. The subsequent days were littered with nerves and text messages that had Yixing jolting at almost every noise. It was uncomfortable that the mere sound of a phone vibrating in a pocket during a business meeting was enough to set him off. Lu Han noted how Yixing's eyelashes fluttered when his phone rang out and told the CEO-to-be that he needed to relax.
His main issue was that he couldn't find that harmony within himself knowing that there was a date scrawled in his diary with an address and time that he was terrified of. His head ached when he thought about it, his fingers trembled as he traced over the lines of Yifan's name and there was a heavy numbness weighted in his stomach that did nothing but sit as a constant reminder.
There was a level of anxiety that went with the whole situation. Yixing hadn't seen Yifan in years. He was a reminder of numerous things Yixing wanted to forget or let go of, there was history there. More than he cared to think about on most days. The phenomenon was estranged from Yixing's reality, he was certain that it was alienated from anybody's norm and it was the origin of that thought that had him so highly strung.
Yixing believed that relationships that had once failed were unlikely to work again the second time around. Humans rarely showed enough of a genuinely positive change to themselves and he couldn't ignore that simple fact, a person's character was likely to remain unmoving and unevolved once it had been fully developed.
He hadn't ever been in that position, though. Never had he opened up his arms to somebody from his past that he thought he'd let go of.
Thinking about the meeting with Yifan was completely different to the feeling of physically going to meet Yifan. The solid sensation of emotional comatose that had once rested in the pit of his stomach had shifted into thick, knotted ropes made of coir, which was pulled in every which way inside him. It was the step up from butterflies, even birds, in his stomach. It was a swirling tumultuous disturbance within him.
He knew of no way to quash it as he stood outside of the bar he'd been told to go to on that specific date at that specific time. Lu Han had been no help at all, his advice of drinking to gain some liquid confidence had Yixing splashing a little gin in with his morning orange juice and then in with his subsequent drinks until fell into a half-drunken slumber at 3PM. It was a thoroughly bad idea.
Yixing turned up at the bar already nursing the beginnings of a faint hangover from his little tipples and the prospect of meeting with Yifan churned like the food he'd piled into his stomach to stave off the need to be sick. The whole of his Saturday had been a disaster and the last thing he wanted to do was sit in a bar with an ex-boyfriend and yet, that nagging voice in his head had him stepping into the establishment quickly. It was for the business and the ache that was applying pressure to his head was his own fault. There was nothing to fear if it was for the benefit of his ailing grandfather.
The band-aid approach seemed to work best for Yixing. He stepped into the building with his head held high and found that his nerves disappeared when his eyes found a vaguely familiar form sat at one of the booths at the back of the bar. It took him six evenly paced strides to make it to the bench seat opposite where Yifan was and he settled onto it with relative ease.
Yifan's eyes were closed as if he was sleeping, but Yixing knew otherwise. It was a habit the elder clearly hadn't lost in the years they'd been separated. His eyebrows were furrowed, his lips pressed into an impassive line and his breathing was steady, rhythmic and deep. Yifan was thinking. Yixing had seen that face numerous times in the past, it normally meant nothing good was to come but instead of having a sense of foreboding, it sparked a hint of excitement within Yixing that he didn't want to shake.
"Yifan," the name came out solid and strong. Yixing felt a small well of pride fill inside himself for not stuttering.
The other man's eyes fluttered for a few fast blinks and half-blinks until his dark eyes were gazing straight into Yixing's. The tumult from before was a distant memory as all Yixing felt was unmistakable familiarity.
"You're here," Yifan's voice was deeper than Yixing could recall it ever being.
The elder's response was all too obvious. "As are you."
It was quiet from then onwards, the table had two glasses and a jug of iced water resting on it, set between them and Yifan poured them both a decent amount of the drink. Yixing's headache and drying throat were calling out to gulp the entire thing down, to consume everything quickly and rid himself from the grogginess that was sure to set in.
He had the glass in his hand and at his lips within moments of Yifan's hand nudging it towards him and he had never felt so soothed by water in his life. He had englutted the drink in three large mouthfuls and he felt it sit in his stomach as he shifted to become more comfortable on the cushioned seat. He set his glass back down and used three fingers to pull an ice cube out and crunch down on it with his teeth once it had been placed on his tongue. Yifan's expression showed visible signs of amusement as he observed Yixing closely.
"As nice as it is to hear from you and find out that you're doing well, I know you only eat the ice from your drinks when you're nervous or stressed. So why did you call me here?"
Yifan's words had spliced through Yixing's veneer of nonchalance and the reality of the moment hit him full force, he swallowed down the jagged but rapidly melting shards of ice immediately and placed both of his hands on the table. His fingers were curled into his palms, his fists rested on the wood for a few instants before he spread his hands out to stop them from shaking under Yifan's gaze.
"I need a favour," he began and Yifan's left eyebrow rose upwards in a silent reply. "I need to call in that favour you owe me."
Although Yifan's expression screamed calm and collected to the untrained eye, Yixing saw how his last sentence caused a strain for the elder. His tongue poked out to lubricate his lips, he blinked fastly twice in a row and his other arched eyebrow flattened out. They were tells for Yifan's nervousness―Yifan wasn't the only one who knew how to read the other.
"And why is that?" Yifan's voice grew deeper and Yixing found himself watching the way Yifan's lips moved, how his perfectly shaped teeth peeked out from behind the plump flesh in flashes of pearly white.
"There's a problem I have." Yixing's throat closed around nothing as he tried to pick the right words.
"And that problem is...?"
"I have to get married."
"Oh, you're getting married." Yifan's face picked up in a smile but Yixing could see the rough edges of it more than clearly. "Congratulations."
"No, not yet," Yixing shot down. "I need to get married to somebody to take over the company from my grandfather."
"Why?" Yifan's face screwed itself up slightly. "You've got an incredible brain for business. You're a little forgetful but you have your lists for that, and I'm sure you've got an assistant to cover the little things you don't remember, too."
Yixing had to pretend not to be both struck and warmed by Yifan's words, it was like he echoed every thought Yixing had since being reminded of the contractual clause in the handing over processes of the company.
"It's something my grandfather wants," Yixing reasoned with a gentle shrug. "I need to find somebody to marry."
"And you need me to find you somebody to marry?" Yifan's eyebrows were in a straight line above his eyes, a clear sign of confusion. "I don't where you got the idea where I could help you out with this, I'm not a matchma―"
"No, I need to marry you," Yixing blurted out and Yifan's face twisted into a mix of emotions before falling into an unimpassioned mask.
"Excuse me? What?"
"I know," Yixing leant forward as Yifan tilted his head to the side. "I wouldn't be doing this but my grandfather growing sick, he can't be in his position for much longer and I need to be married to take those burdens away. I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't desperwithiate."
"How do you know I'm not seeing somebody?"
Yixing's felt himself go rigid, his muscles stuck themselves to his body and his throat closed over on itself. "What? Are you?"
"No, not right now."
"Then what's the problem?" Yixing's muscles let the tension go and he plucked yet another ice cube out of the cup in front of him. "You owe me a lot and you always liked my grandfather; we don't have to stay married. I just need to be married to do what I need to for my family and the company."
"The problem is that I don't love you and you don't love me, Yixing."
Yifan's words were bold and almost harsh, it reminded Yixing that he hadn't factored in Yifan's own views on marriage. He knew the importance it held to the elder but had smothered that in his own need for success and filial wellbeing.
"You once did, though, right?" He spoke cautiously, he looked out for clues that Yifan was going to disagree with him and calmed into talking again. "It won't be forever, we can get divorced and you'll never have to see me again. You said you'd do anything to repay me for what I did for you, and I know you're not a liar or one to break your promises, but this is something I need you to do for me. I know how manipulative this is but I wouldn't be doing it if I wasn't desperate."
"You can't just sit down here after five years and expect me to say yes to this, Yixing," Yifan's hands moved to rest on the table in a mirror of how Yixing was sat. "I can't process this. Not this fast, anyway."
"Yifan, please," Yixing felt himself beg. "I need this."
The elder covered his face with his hands, Yixing could hear him breathing deeply and all he could do was wait until the other spoke.
"I need to think about it." The words filled Yixing with hope and Yifan slid out from the seating of their booth, took a step and let out a long exhale. "Let me think about it."
"Thank you so much, Yifan," the younger spoke calmly and well.
"I didn't say I'd do it."
"I know but still, thank you."
Yifan looked at Yixing for a heartbeat longer before he turned on his to leave the bar and disappear completely from Yixing's sight.
"How are things with Operation: Last Resort going?" Lu Han pushed his way into the crowded elevator with Yixing and handed his boss the coffee he had bought with the company card barely five minutes previous. "Get anywhere?"
"It was somewhere between successful and disastrous."
Lu Han shot Yixing a look as he gulped down his drink. "Well, thanks for narrowing all those possibilities down for me."
"Anytime," Yixing smiled into the lid of his paper takeaway cup. Lu Han jabbed his side harshly and Yixing was sure a woman behind them let out a short gasp at the sight of the assistant prodding the CEO's grandson so harshly.
"You're a real pain in the ass, you know that don't you?"
"Oh, gege," Yixing laughed out once he'd taken a sip of his milked down coffee, "don't be so mean. I'll tell you everything over lunch."
"But you're having lunch with that woman from that hotel chain today," the elder reminded him and Yixing groaned.
"I'll tell you this evening then."
The both of them got out when the elevator reached their floor, they wove between the outer desks until they reached Yixing's office. Lu Han followed the younger in and immediately started to rattle off his schedule and hand over notes detailing what was what in the day.
Yixing jotted down everything he had to accomplish and achieve onto the first page of one of the blank notepads he kept well stocked in his bottom drawer. His desk was clean and simple, there was the odd stained ring mark every so often on the surface from late nights drinking coffee but that was a scar of their hard work on the otherwise unblemished mahogany.
His phone began to ring as Lu Han stepped out of the office, the assistant picked up and deferred the call as Yixing took a sip of his drink and powered up his computer. The caffeine of his second coffee of the day began to pump in his veins and he felt that little bit more prepared to be a fully functioning adult.
The hours passed by in meetings, appointments and document checking. For each of them, Lu Han was at his side pestering him with questions about Yifan and Yixing had to constantly swat him away with his hands like he was a small fly.
With the day long behind him, Yixing settled on one of the stools that lined the breakfast bar in his apartment. His tie hung askew at his neck, his shirt was rumpled and his slacks clung to his legs as the humid air of the transitional weather of September struck him on his drive home. He had taken a beer out to sip on when he’d passed the fridge. The cool bottle and fluid soothed him more than he thought was possible.
He hadn't ever been a fan of beer, the taste was too bitter and malty for him but he ignored that in favour of the way it felt like cold fingers running down his perspiring body. Everything was too stuffy and muggy for him to fully operate.
Lu Han buzzed himself into the apartment a few minutes later, his sweat-matted hair fell onto his forehead and he mirrored Yixing's actions almost exactly when he slipped onto the leather covered foam stool top. They were quiet but Yixing knew that the questions were clawing at Lu Han's mind, begging to leave his mouth.
"It went okay. I talked, he listened. He said he'd think about it and then he left," Yixing broke the tension easily and Lu Han's bottle was placed down on the granite worktop with more power than Yixing expected, making him startle slightly.
"You made me wait all weekend and all day for that?!" Lu Han was in a state of outrage, Yixing could see it clearly. "No, you are telling me everything, Zhang. What was he wearing? Did he look differently to when you last saw him? How did he react to what you said? Like that initial reaction in those first split seconds, not that 'he said he'd think about it' shit. How did you feel seeing him?"
Yixing blinked a few times in a row before his mouth opened up, the words tumbled out without much thought.
"He was in black ripped jeans, he had a ridiculously well-fitted leather jacket on over an ironed white dress shirt. His hair was shorter than it used to be, it sculpted his face more and he still had that 'I'm good-looking and I know it' aura about him. He was shocked when I first started talking, it threw him off a lot and I knew it was something he really hadn't ever thought about. He was nervous, I could see it, read it even, it was strange.
"It was like I was nineteen and in love again. I wasn't ready for it, in reality. I have had so much time to move on. I cut him out of my life, I had nothing to do with him for so long and then he was there, he was right there in front of me after years. I was too blinded by nerves to notice this when I was there but I was excited in the most familiar of ways. I don't know, I've found myself panicking over whether or not he would reject the idea of marrying me. I was worried he would say no, not because I need this to work but because I didn't want him to."
"Shit," Lu Han whistled out. "You're so fucked, Yixing. Either way, you're completely and utterly fucked."
Yixing bowed his head down to the table and let out a breath that condensed wetly against the polished stone.
Lu Han was right. Yixing was fucked.
[ (1) Message(s) Received: 03:38AM From: Wu Yifan]
― Do you have time to meet up today?
Yixing's phone fell out of his hand as he fumbled to place it back onto his dresser table and his stomach plummeted to what felt like the floor. He threw himself out of his bed, stumbled into the shower and made sure it was switched to a freezing cold temperature to ensure that he was fully awake. He washed his face, body and hair. The bitterly sweet scent of beeswax twining with tea tree filled his bathroom. Like it did with every passing morning.
He moved more slowly as he looked at his phone and took in the message he had been sent by Yifan once more, he blinked over and over then read it a few times before it sank in that the older man had messaged him. The CEO-to-be checked the calendar on his work phone and saw that his day finished at 17:30 that day.
The fingers on his hands typed out his response for Yifan to meet him at the same bar as the first time at just gone eight, it gave him more than enough time to finish working and get across the city to meet the other.
Nervousness chewed him up inside, again. There was a ringing in his ears, it sounded like what he expected a dog whistle to be and it was far more frustrating to him than the incessant questioning Lu Han subjected him to whenever he did anything ever. He felt like he wasn't in his own body as he strode into his office with an equally blank expression and brain.
He drowned out his assistant's words by playing with his fingers and the rest of the morning passed in a blur. He ran on automatic. Phone calls were politely answered, e-mails were responded to and his mouth spoke in terms of deeper business as he met with associates at numerous times of the day.
Even his lunch faded into the back of his mind. The food was as tasteless as the sickening flavour of bile that lingered in the back of his throat and even starting his journey home was more than he was sure he could handle, along with the prospect of meeting Yifan.
He was terrified of what was to come. He didn't know how Yifan would react to him, he didn't know what Yifan would say as the time passed between them and he wasn't even sure if Yifan would turn up, despite being the one to contact Yixing. He hadn't told Lu Han, he hadn't told anybody, and he didn't want to. There was too much suspense, a humming of the Jaws theme song played in his subconscious as he walked into the bar he had told Yifan to meet him in.
He saw the elder instantly, just like before. He made his way over and was relieved to see that Yifan had bought him what appeared, and smelled to be, a double rum and coke. Yixing took the drink and consumed half of it before making eye contact with Yifan.
"I'll do it," Yifan opened and so did Yixing's mouth. "But on one condition."
It took Yixing a few seconds to catch up before he swallowed around a suddenly formed lump in his throat. "Which is?"
"We're totally honest about everything between us. Nothing is hidden," Yifan outlined. "I want complete transparency. Oh, and a prenup."
"Why do you want a prenup?" Yixing frowned, surely it was supposed to be him who had that condition.
"I take it that your grandfather doesn't know that this thing will more or less be a sham? We need to have something concrete that would confirm that I am not marrying you for money, it would make us seem serious. And, this is just a guess, but it seems like the best business move. So that would reflect well on you."
"Oh, right..." Yixing drank the rest of his drink and rubbed his eyes. He was still disbelieving that Yifan had said what he had. "Why are you doing this?"
"I want to keep at least one of the promises I ever made you," Yifan mumbled, it would have been drowned out by the rest of the crowd at the bar had Yixing not strained to hear it. But he had. He wasn't sure what it was in reference to but he took it with a nod.
He smiled at Yifan as softly as he could and held his hand out to the other for him to shake. A seal for their deal. Yifan stared at his palm for just long enough to flood Yixing with doubt that Yifan had actually agreed but then a warm hand wrapped around his in a gentle squeeze.
Yixing tried to battle the abnormally soothing quality to feeling Yifan's skin under his, he shook so many hands during the day and none quite felt like that for Yixing. He didn't know what to make of it but he accepted it as easily as the night claimed the sun.
That night, Yixing held his breath awkwardly as he dialled his grandfather's phone, he was half riding a high and half plummeting at the idea of lying to the man he admired most in the world. When the call connected, he let the words of engagement and marriage fall from his lips with an ease he hadn't anticipated and Yixing had never heard his grandfather sound so animated over anything he'd ever said before.
By the time he was tucked into bed, his grandparents had informed most of his family and his phone was constantly alight with phone calls and messages. He was overwhelmed. It told him how seriously his family took marriage if they were so insistent in talking to him, it made him feel guilty when he realised that he was lying to them all when he said how happy he was, how he'd found The One and how he would introduce his fiancé to them at their next family occasion.
He laid under his duvet in a storm of dread and anticipation. He didn't know what to expect, he didn't know what was to come but all Yixing knew was that if he messed up, he was likely to lose everything. His family, the company and, to an extent, Yifan.
Yixing held his breath as he braced himself for what he could see was coming, Lu Han was staring back at him with a frantic look in his eyes and the CEO-to-be made sure to grip the edge of his desk as his office door was pushed open. The man who entered was aged but well built, his skin was smooth where it hadn't wrinkled and his skin was a golden shade of tan.
"Yixing," the man greeted in the most endearingly soft manner.
"Yeye," Yixing bowed his head down to his grandfather politely before standing to draw the man into an embrace.
The two of them held each other for almost a minute, they hadn't physically seen each other for a while given how sick his grandfather had been and how busy Yixing had become caring for his business in his stead. The younger male guided the more frail one to a chair and helped him to sit down on it, he combed through his hair affectionately before sitting in the chair next to him, not the one he normally occupied on the other side of the desk. It made the meeting seem a little more intimate, seeing as Yixing knew it was a more personal talk rather than a check-in to see how the company was faring.
"So, my baby boy is engaged," Yixing's yeye commented with the gentlest of smiles. "I knew this day would come but I didn't realise it would be so soon. The last time we spoke, you didn't seem to have anybody on the cards and now you're getting married. I can't quite believe it."
Yixing couldn't either. Everything was happening far too fast for him to process; one day he was unsure of whether or not he'd be eligible to take over the company and the next he was one step closer to that goal but wading further into the unknown.
"Who's the lucky person?"
"Do you remember Yifan?"
Yixing licked his lips. "The guy I dated until I was twenty-one."
"The one that got you into trouble then broke up with you because of it?" His yeye asked, his eyebrows were furrowed deeply and Yixing's heart began to pick up in pace.
He nodded, slowly at first but confidence brewed beneath it as he sped up. He could see something flicker, disappointment maybe, on his grandfather's face. It hurt, somewhat. Yixing knew the truth about Yifan, the one nobody else seemed to want to believe and his grandfather was evidence of that very point.
The older man chewed on his cheek for a long while before opening his mouth up. "Congratulations, Yixing. I might not agree with who you've decided to spend the rest of your life with but I will celebrate your happiness."
"Thank you," the grandson muttered with a bow.
It was better than nothing, he decided. There was so much more he could grow hung up on but he knew he couldn't. He didn't like the way his grandfather regarded Yifan but not everything was in focus for everybody else as it was for Yixing. He knew the inner workings, he knew the complexities and had years to mull it over.
"I want to meet him," the elder announced and Yixing expected nothing less. It was his family and his supposed 'fiancé’ in question and, of course, the two were going to convene somewhere in the middle.
"I'll sort something out for you," was the reassurance given to the ailing man. "Lu Han has our diaries."
"No, nothing formal," the man dismissed and Yixing's mouth dried up like a dessert in a hundred day long blistering summer. "I'll go to your apartment if that's where you're both living. Or to his... You would have to give me an address for that, though."
Yixing blanched, his jaw hung open and slack. "When?"
"Thursday," the man spoke with confidence, Yixing knew from that moment that his grandfather had entered his office with a predetermined plan of action. Yixing would have been disappointed if anything less had happened. "I've got a few hours in my evening free. That should be enough. I'll be dropping by more often, much like I used to, I want to get to know your fiancé before he comes into the family."
The only thing left for Yixing to do was give a nod and accept what the elder had to say.
"I'll let Yifan know."
After hours of talking on the phone, Yixing was clearing up his apartment in waiting for Yifan and whatever he was bringing along with him. He'd managed to persuade the elder into moving in with him for the purposes of maintaining appearances for his grandfather. Yixing had managed to persuade the tall male by playing on the fact that his grandfather was the deal maker, or breaker, in their family. If he didn't approve then the rest of the Zhang clan wouldn't approve either. It was as easy as that.
Yifan had told Yixing that he was an artist, much like Yixing had always known he wanted to be, and it would probably appear as a complete shock to his grandfather to know that the Yifan from Yixing's past was the Yifan who made his money from canvases and prints.
When Yifan arrived, he had numerous bags, a few boxes and four large carriers of easels, art supplies and some works of his own. Yixing could see a handful of people behind Yifan, all of them were dressed in similar ways. A simple hoody and jeans mix, it was comfortable and easy to dress like that. The complete opposite to Yixing's dress pants and shirt combination.
"I've only got two bedrooms, we can turn one into a studio with a bed in," Yixing explained as Yifan followed behind him as closely as with items clutched in his hands, the other people trailing at a little more leisurely pace with the rest of Yifan's belongings in their grips. "We can always hire somewhere else out if that is what you want."
Yixing opened the bedroom door. The walls were cream, the flooring went to match and all the furnishings were a simple shade of chrome. Yifan nodded when he saw it. Yixing assumed that it was clear that the room had sat unused since he'd begun living there, it was basic and bare like the rest of the apartment when he had first moved in.
"What do you think?" Yixing rolled onto the balls of his feet, sinking back onto his heels and repeating the motion over and over again.
"I can make it work, it's large enough for the studio and for me to sleep in."
"Okay," Yixing stepped out of the room and Yifan, along with his friends, moved in with a speed Yixing couldn't quite believe.
They were working hard, placing everything where they all agreed they should go and Yixing faded away into the kitchen to pull a large pack of beer out. He took the tops of them off with an antler bottle opener Lu Han had bought him after a summer trip to Finland and he took a deep breath in before taking them all into where Yifan and his friends were discussing the layout of the room.
He knocked awkwardly on the door, Yifan was the first to turn his head towards him and Yixing stepped towards him with the bundle of beer in his hands.
"Uh, I don't drink," Yifan commented quickly and Yixing's spine went rigid.
"These guys do, though," he reassured the smaller and Yixing nodded his head up and down. He showed the others the brown bottles and they took the beer with ease. "Does it matter if paint gets anywhere or should I buy some tarp?"
"No, it's more than okay," Yixing had one bottle left in his hands and he waved the free one in front of his body. "You can get this as messy as you want. Use it as a studio, it's your space to use as you please."
Yifan smiled at him, wide and bright, and Yixing wasn't sure if his chest could handle how that expression made him look much like how he did when they had first met each other. Despite the sharpness of his features, the darker quality of his eyes and the change in hair colour from blond to his natural black, his smile hadn't changed. And neither had the effect it had on Yixing.
"I'll be in my office but come to me when this is all sorted and I'll show you where everything is," Yixing bowed himself out and retreated to the small room that sprouted off from his bedroom, an old walk-in closet that had been turned into a decently sized study.
He tried to concentrate on his work but he could pick out Yifan's voice from all of the ones in his bedroom as clearly as he had when they were in the same room and Yixing's heart dropped down into his stomach whenever Yifan laughed. It was the dorky sound that echoed through so many of Yixing's teenage memories and he could picture the way Yifan's eyes screwed up on themselves.
The CEO-to-be could only relax when the front door opened and feet disappeared out into the main hallway, it was enough to have him standing up from his desk and peeking out into the rest of the apartment and he saw Yifan strolling around the rest of the place with a thoughtful expression.
Yixing watched for a little bit longer, he felt like he was in a split universe where his past converged with his present. Yifan was there, in the apartment that he, Yixing, himself had bought and was investigating everything he could without intruding. It made Yixing remember how considerate Yifan had always been with Yixing's possessions, how he would handle them with care and would always try to return them back to his owner in the same condition it was given.
The younger had always come from the richer family, Yifan wasn't poor but he had always had to work to help his mother out with paying his share of bills. Yixing had dated Yifan during the years he'd not wanted to be cornered into taking on the family business. The younger had felt trapped in learning the ways of business that he needed an escape and the rough but artsy troublemaker, who was his senior in university, was just that for him.
Yifan was the accent on Yixing's rebellious youth and he was there, in his more conservative present.
"Do you want that tour?" Yixing's voice broke through the air and Yifan looked over his shoulder, he nodded and Yixing approached him slowly. "This is the living room, obviously. I keep all of my DVDs in the cupboard under the television, they're in alphabetical order. The CD and record racks are in name order, too. You can use them whenever you want, just be sure to put them back in the right places."
"Okay, DVDs, CDs and records in alphabetical order. Got it," Yifan stepped in closer to Yixing and the younger had flashes of the first time Yifan kissed him.
An empty corridor, a smirk and the heat of chewing gum scented breath. Lips that were sharp with the taste of mint, the feeling of a paint splattered shirt beneath his fingers and hands elevating his jaw in the most delicate of grips.
Yixing coughed, stepping back from Yifan's closer presence and the memories, he led the elder wordlessly to the kitchen. He opened every drawer and cupboard to show Yifan what was housed there and what shocked him the most was that Yifan was tailing him with a small notepad in his hand. With a flick of his eyes, he could see that Yifan had drawn a rough sketch of the kitchen layout and had written what was where in each segment.
It amazed Yixing but he was glad that Yifan was following him intently, he couldn't avoid how wonderfully it made him feel to know that he was Yifan's only focus.
To have the other so close was like the merging of a dream and a nightmare, he had always wished for it but knew there were things lurking that he would dread. The lingering sensations his heart harboured were what filled him with the most unsettling feeling, he knew that he had to be careful with those unresolved parts of his past.
Once he had shown everything to Yifan that he needed to, he retreated back into his bedroom without a word and nibbled on his bottom lip. He could hear Yifan pottering around, opening cabinets and muttering things to himself. There was a warmth in having Yifan so near that Yixing could remember from his younger years.
Yifan was a safety blanket. He was, at times, reckless and utterly stupid but that didn't mean that Yixing didn't find something to latch onto. He kept those notions of security far closer to his chest than anything else when they were around one another. Yixing could walk around at night with his hand in Yifan's and never worry about what would happen around the next corner. There was nothing teenage Yixing didn't fear when he was with Yifan.
There was still that part of him, it was buried beneath years of adulthood, living alone and working hard but it was still very much there. He could feel it boiling, mixing and churning until it licked at the inside of his throat and he knew that exposure to Yifan was exposure to everything he had tried to shut out over the years.
Yifan was an easy person to live with. He was clean, he was quiet and he often spent hours locked up in his room-cum-studio with music vibrating on the walls. Yixing would go to sleep with the sounds of Yifan 'umming and ahhing' over small details and wake up to the noises of Yifan making a pot of coffee for them both to drink from in the mornings.
Within three days, Yixing was used to the smell of paint and paintbrushes littering his sink as they sat in the powerfully scented turpentine. The businessman had even posed the idea of removing some of the hangings he had on the walls to put some of Yifan's work up, the artist took delight in that and they both agreed that it would only be natural for a couple to have artwork created by one of them littered across their home.
Sometimes Yixing popped his head into Yifan's space and was in awe of how lived in the room looked. There were black scuff marks on the walls under where canvases were propped up, there were splatters of paint both trodden into the carpet and bubbled on the top of it and the bed sheets were rumpled up. It looked like Yifan had been living there for months, maybe even years, with how well used every surface and object was, not just a meagre seventy-two hours.
By the time Thursday came around, they had something that resembled a routine. They had their jobs around the apartment and they could speak with almost the same freedom as they used to. Yixing was surprised by how fast it took him to feel comfortable enough with Yifan to tuck his feet under the elder's thighs on the sofa and the number of times he laughed in an unrestrained way he'd forgotten.
Lu Han dropped by twice, he had gushed to Yixing over how attractive Yifan was and how the whole dark, brooding artist look seemed to suit him. When Lu Han said 'him', Yixing didn't know if he meant that demeanour suited Yifan or if somebody who had that appearance matched well with Yixing. His mind told him it was the former but his heart, and those broiling feelings, that told him it was the latter.
The verdict Lu Han gave was a positive one. He hadn't known Yifan, Yixing had met his best friend not too long after his break-up with the tall man and Lu Han didn't know the exact reasoning behind the break-up. Very few people did.
But, just those few times were enough for his assistant to notice things. He noted how Yixing was a little looser in work, that he didn't look so exhausted all the time and how he drank less. Not that he drank often, stress was often best relieved through a bottle of beer or double rum and coke for Yixing. With the responsibilities in his home decreased by half, he could focus more and rest earlier.
Yifan moving in, according to Lu Han, was more to Yixing's benefit than his detriment. Yixing, however, didn't always agree. He struggled to keep his pink cheeks and staring eyes away whenever Yifan did something that struck a chord in Yixing's chest. He was painfully aware of how attracted he was to Yifan. He could ignore that when Yifan wasn't so wonderfully soft or when Yifan didn't wander around in nothing but paint-stained jeans and socks. Yixing's heart couldn't take that, it went into overdrive and he was sure that a heart attack was more imminent given the amount of time they spent together.
Everything gave Yixing confidence for when his grandfather came over.
Yixing got home from work on that Thursday evening to find Yifan cooking Cantonese dishes in the kitchen, apron tied around his waist and a clean outfit worn underneath. While the clothes were nothing flashy, Yixing could see that they had been chosen with care. Yifan's shirt was neat enough to meet Yixing's yeye in but just relaxed enough to show that he was comfortable in his surroundings. His jeans weren't ripped but were a pure jet black, they clung his legs nicely and Yixing found himself staring up and down the long limbs with a hum of appreciation in his throat.
Yifan was serving up the dishes and running his fingers through his matte waxed hair when the buzzer to Yixing's door went. The two of them looked at each other and Yixing panicked for a moment. He didn't know if they would be believable, he didn't know how his grandfather would treat Yifan and he wasn't sure if anything would go right.
The elder picked up on his uneasiness like he always did and stepped forward to Yixing, he pulled him into a hug. It was the most physical contact they'd had since their reunion and Yixing was in awe of the way it felt like two magnets joining after repelling for so long.
He took in Yifan's scent, the way his clothes smelt and how much heat the other was producing. It took his mind off what he was struggling with and he fell into a dumbstruck state of shock when Yifan kissed his cheek as he pulled away.
Yixing flushed instantly, he stepped out of Yifan's grip to press the buttons that would let his grandfather in, then they only had to wait. Yifan moved closer to Yixing, he was stood just behind the younger at a distance that was too near to not appear intimate but far enough to show that they were being respectful. Yixing wondered how Yifan could tell those things so easily as if his acting skills surpassed what Yixing knew.
"Where's my little bunny?" A familiar voice called into the apartment as the door opened and closed. Yixing couldn't see him but he knew his grandfather was there, walking through and most likely alone.
Yixing hadn't anticipated his grandmother to turn up, and she hadn't. It was clear the evening was a test―don't expose Yifan to the rest of the family if the arrangement feels like a farce or if Yifan really is the disrespectful person Yixing's parents had often painted him as.
"We're in here, yeye," he raised his voice a little to give a clearer indication of where they were.
Hands were on Yixing's hips within moments, it wasn’t possessive or claiming. It was a gentle touch that Yifan nudged into and Yixing took the cue to start moving, his skin prickled and burned where Yifan's forefinger found a small slither of Yixing's hip to press onto.
When Yixing's grandfather turned the corner, Yifan's hands moved quickly away from his pelvis. The move was purposeful, Yixing watched how the elder of the three observed the movement with calculating eyes. Yifan's hands, when placed on Yixing's hips, made them seem as if they'd been caught being closer than appropriate for Yixing's grandfather's presence. His quick release was both a sign of respect to the older man and that the two of them were comfortable with that kind of interaction behind closed doors.
It was a small, tiny instant but it seemed to have worked in loosening his yeye's frown by a millimetre.
"Yeye," Yixing stepped forward and away from Yifan. He could hear his 'fiancé' shift his weight around and fiddle with nothing in his hands, slipping into the role of the nervous other half meeting the family of their partner. "This is Yifan. Yifan, this is my yeye."
Yifan bowed instantly, he retained that position until Yixing's grandfather held out his hand for Yifan to shake. Yixing knew that Yifan was firm and strong when joining hands with a person, it was hard for him not to be when his hands were far larger than the average human's were. He could sense the approval in his grandfather's eyes when their hands released. It was only the first hurdle and Yixing could see that Yifan had passed.
The youngest ushered them around the apartment and coaxed his yeye into sitting opposite himself and Yifan but the elder didn't seem to budge in his want to sit next to his grandchild and Yixing knew that Yifan had to decide carefully. He either had to act like the 'fiancé' who didn't want to sit apart from his lover or play the role of the young man respecting his elder's wishes.
Yifan's internal debate wasn't long and Yixing knew his grandfather was watching between the two of them, he wanted to see if Yixing would prompt any clues for the answer Yifan had to give and so Yixing busied himself with small details on the table. Filling cups, straightening cutlery, pouring a jug of water to lay between them.
"I'll sit on this side," Yifan smiled, it was confident and self-assured. He had chosen to sit on his own on one-half of the table.
Yixing's heart slowed where it was pounding in his chest, Yifan had chosen correctly.
The three of them got settled and Yixing took the lids off the dishes that were placed in dragon decorated bowls, they were a gift from his grandparents and Yixing couldn't help but smile because that would be enough for Yifan to acquire some points in his favour from the older man sat beside Yixing.
Yixing, being the youngest, served the food and ensured that each man had their favourite parts of each dish. Yifan's hands took over Yixing's halfway through, the connection was warm and comforting, making Yixing look up at Yifan.
"Let me take care of this."
Yixing's fingers loosened on the chopsticks and spoon he was using to serve up the food Yifan had prepared, the elder took them easily and Yixing sat back down in his seat. Yifan copied the action of the businessman and Yixing couldn't stop beaming as he realised that Yifan remembered how much he adored certain things from when the elder had cooked basic things for them in their younger youth.
They ate in relative silence but Yifan played the caring 'fiancé' well, he was tender and sweet towards Yixing and overly respectful to Yixing's grandfather. Halfway through their eating time, Yixing's yeye excused himself to head for the bathroom and before he'd even stood up, Yifan's feet had hooked around Yixing's ankles. By the time the older man could see under the table, the two youngers appeared to be eating comfortably.
Yixing licked his lips and let out a sigh as the bathroom door clicked with the sound of the lock down the corridor. It was surprisingly easy to pretend to love Yifan like he used to. They fell into old patterns when Yifan handed Yixing his spring onions and coriander, and Yixing unloaded chopped carrots onto Yifan's side plate. A few things had changed, Yifan ate far more quietly than he used to and Yixing used his spoon with more freedom than he once did.
They were smaller things, too tiny to notice without knowing a person well, but Yixing could pinpoint them all.
When the lock of the bathroom had slid back across and the sound of the toilet flushing seeped into the kitchen, Yifan lifted Yixing's hand and kissed each of his knuckles slowly and affectionately. Behind Yifan's back, he could see his grandfather spying through the slit he'd left in the door but Yixing pretended his didn't notice. It was far easier to do that than Yixing anticipated as Yifan's mouth inched its way around to Yixing's palm and set numerous kisses there, he made his way up to the younger's fingertips and Yixing let out a short giggle.
Emotions were raging beneath his skin like a hurricane, it was black and foggy until all he could see, and feel, was Yifan in the eye of the storm. Their stares kept constant on the other's eyes, Yifan's mouth was more than affectionate enough that Yixing's heart skipped beats an unhealthy number of times. He felt like he was in love.
It was like that moment was a whole other world where Yixing's love wouldn't be unrequited if it was to rear its head up from the depths of his heart. It was like an alternate universe that they had slipped into. One where Yifan loved Yixing wholeheartedly, their engagement was real and they weren't being spied on by the eldest member of Zhang family.
A throat being cleared was enough to kill the storm, douse the flames and break the dream in Yixing's head. Yifan set his hand down on the table gently before allowing his own hand to retreat, he didn't look at Yixing but the younger could see his pink cheeks. Yifan's acting went way beyond Yixing's expectations.
"I think it's best if I shoot off now," Yixing's grandfather concluded. "Your nainai has been working today, I need to make sure she's rested before she works herself to death."
"But you've not finished your food," Yixing argued back, he didn't want to be alone with Yifan just yet. His heart still hadn't recovered.
"You can put it in the freezer, eat it when you're both too tired to cook."
"Would you like to take some with you? And some for Yixing's nainai, too?" Yifan's voice was steady, sincere and sturdy. "I don't think either of us will rest well knowing you didn't get to finish your dinner."
Yifan started to collect up the bowls and dishes of food before Yixing's grandfather could respond, approval was alight in the man's eyes and Yixing couldn't stop his smile.
When Yifan had disappeared into the kitchen to look for Tupperware, Yixing's grandfather stepped close to him to speak.
"I like him," the white-haired man whispered. "He's different to how your parent's described him, he's genial and respectful."
"He is," Yixing agreed, nodding his head.
"What does he do? He seems like the type to be a teacher."
"He's an artist," Yixing muttered, gesturing to the painting that hung above his dining table and Yixing's grandfather let out a short gasp.
"These are his?" The question was posed and all Yixing could do was nod in reply. It was a grey painting, the palette is cold and lost. Yixing didn't like it so much but Yifan had insisted on placing it there, somewhere he could see easily. "And does it pay the bills? Artists aren't always known, no matter how brilliant they are."
"It pays his bills," Yixing said truthfully and his grandfather tilted his head to the side. "Yifan wants to be self-sufficient. He works better when he has to work, he's always been like that."
"And how is that going to pan out when you're married?"
Yixing hadn't thought that far ahead, he had been so focused on getting through the engagement that nothing about the marriage had been discussed between Yifan and himself. He didn't know how to answer without deciding it with Yifan. "We haven't talked about it yet."
"You really should. Marriage isn't only about emotional or physical compatibility. It's everything else, including financial."
"Yifan wants a prenup," it sounded almost defensive when it came from Yixing's mouth. "He's not with me for the money or a share of the business."
"I never said he was," his grandfather's words were apologetic but his smile wasn't. "You really love him, don't you?"
Yixing swallowed the lump in his throat. The lie slipped out easily, "I do, yeye, I really do."
"I know," the older out reached out his hand and squeezed Yixing's arm. "I can see it, he feels the same as you."
He wanted to snort, to refute that claim but he let himself smile like he his heart told him to. Not too long later, Yifan appeared back in the room with boxes that were translucent with condensation and Yixing's grandfather accepted them happily.
As he said his goodbyes, he kissed Yixing's cheek and shook Yifan's hand as the tall man bowed deeply. Yixing watched the scene with a fondness in his chest, it was something he would have longed to see when he was a teenager. He always wanted Yifan to build a bond with his family but they were a little too rebellious and Yixing's family was a little too serious.
It made Yixing wonder if he really had lied when he said he loved Yifan and if it was easier to tell himself that he had.