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by my own law

Chapter Text

PART I 

COVERT

 

If I’m gonna die for you

If I'm gonna kill for you

Then I spilled this blood for you

Just in case my faith go

I’ll live by my own law

 

Xu Minghao looks better in person than he did in the countless pictures in Junhui’s files. Junhui knows him by heart. His piercing eyes, his imperious smile, his blood type, his family tree, his favorite dish; Junhui has it all catalogued, tucked away neatly into a corner of his brain.

It took him months to arrive here, standing on one side of this long oval table, Minghao on the other. There are other people in the room, but Junhui doesn't care. Almost a year getting his hands dirtier than he ever thought he would, and all for this. All for Minghao to look at him like he does right now, with begrudging respect and recognition. For Minghao to wave at him, order him closer.

For Minghao to let him in.

 

--

 

“Wen,” Chief Zhang tells Junhui the day before he’s scheduled to leave. “I know you think you’re ready, but you aren’t.”

Junhui tries not to take it personally. “If you have any last minute advice,” he smiles instead, “I’m all ears.”

Chief Zhang does not smile back. “I disagree, you know. I voted against sending you in.”

Junhui frowns. “I’m the perfect candidate. I trained for this. I want this.”

“You have nothing to return to,” Chief Zhang shakes his head.

“I have nothing holding me back,” Junhui counters. “Nothing anyone can use against me.”

His superior officer just gives him a sad look. “You need something, Wen. Something to anchor yourself. It gets harder, after a while. It gets harder to remember who you really are.”

Junhui knows the case that made Chief Zhang’s career. Everybody does. Most undercover cops remain in the shadows all their life, but Zhang Yixing brought down Wu Yifan. Junhui has read all about it, like everyone else at the Academy. Chief Zhang—Yixing, Yixing, Junhui needs to drop all this official bullshit, get himself in the right headspace. Yixing knows what he’s talking about, that's exactly why he leads this unit.

“You remembered,” Junhui says. “You came back.”

“Not entirely,” his elder says bitterly. Junhui thinks of the newspaper clippings from the Wu trial, the pictures of a younger Yixing with bags under his eyes, clearly uncomfortable in his tailored suit at the stand. “You don’t understand,” Yixing continues. “Not until you’ve had to pull the trigger because it’s some poor asshole or your cover. Not until you’ve had to shoot up the same shit you're fighting to get off the streets directly into your veins because it’s proving yourself or blowing the whole op. No amount of studying will prepare you for this, Detective Wen.”

“You never call me by my title, boss,” Junhui laughs weakly. He doesn’t want to think about the rest of what Yixing said. Until you’ve had to pull the trigger.

“No one will, for a long time,” Yixing sighs. “Keep it close. You say you have nothing, but that's not true. You have this job. You have a purpose.”

“Serve the people,” Junhui recites.

“Serve the people,” Yixing confirms. “Make this world a better place, one goddamn gang at a time.” Then, after a short beat of silence. “I’m proud of you, Junhui.”

Junhui feels his cheeks burning. “You said you didn’t want me to go.”

“Yeah,” Yixing says. “Still. I’m proud of you.”

This is what Junhui vows to take with him. Tomorrow, when he stops being Wen Junhui, Detective, and he just becomes Jun ; he will carry Yixing’s I’m proud of you like a good-luck charm, pressed close against his heart.

 

--

 

The Xu Clan is tight-knit but spread out. Xu Senior is the indubitable boss, but his wife is far from being just a pretty face. She rules over half her husband’s empire with an iron fist, independent in the fiercest way. Junhui has seen her once in the nine months he has spent undercover, and even that was just a stroke of luck. The higher-ups are supposed to be invisible, that’s the whole point of organized crime; but Junhui knows everything there is to know about the Xu family, could recognize Lady Xu by her ankle alone.

Xu Minghao, heir to their fortune, their only son, is a whole other story all by himself. His nickname among Xu footsoldiers is The Prince, because he acts like one. Always draped in long luxurious coats and European designer clothes, he dresses like one, too. Junhui finds it distasteful, but then again, he supposes Minghao fits the image his family is trying to project: perfectly legal billionaires with a rowdy but harmless child, too stupid and doped-up to warrant any sort of surveillance. Minghao is rowdy, but he is far from harmless; and while Junhui has seen him act drunk and high on multiple occasions, he’s never witnessed him actually intoxicated. The reality of things is this: Minghao is responsible for the Korean side of his father’s business, extending the drug trade across the border. And while there is already a solid case building up against Xu Senior’s activities on the Mainland, the police has nothing substantial on Minghao’s dealings.

This is Junhui’s goal, really. Infiltrate the Clan, yes, but more particularly, get close to Minghao. He was chosen because he’s smart and hardworking and willing, but also because he and Minghao are close in age, and because the profiler assigned to the operation deemed their personalities compatible, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Junhui has studied Minghao like he’s the most important exam of Junhui’s life, and he can say with assurance that the compatibility thing is pure BS, but he can make it work. He’s a good actor. He’s always been too good at lying.

 

--

 

“This is Jun,” Minghao introduces him to the four other men in the room. “My father likes him, so I guess we’re going to be seeing him around.”

You’re damn right your father likes me, Junhui thinks angrily. I had to shoot a man in the kneecap for him.

“Jun,” the guy on Minghao's right repeats pensively. Kim Mingyu, Junhui’s mental encyclopedia supplies. Right-hand man. Korean. “I didn’t know we were taking in new people.”

It’s voiced like a statement, but it’s clearly a question. Minghao shrugs. “We’re not. Dad seems to think I need a bodyguard.”

“He’s skinny,” Mingyu raises a dubious eyebrow.

“I’m a good shot,” Junhui leers.

“He’s a good shot,” Seokmin confirms. Supplier. Also Korean. He was there during the kneecap incident. “And he’s not that skinny.”

“Thanks,” Junhui says dryly.

“You don’t need guarding,” Mingyu insists, still speaking only to Minghao, body now angled away from Junhui. “You have me.”

Minghao looks unaffected. “I think dad thinks I’m getting too bold. You’re a mole, right Jun? He wants you to report back?”

If only you knew.

“Yes,” Junhui says, because it’s true, and because it feels like that’s exactly what Minghao wants to hear.

“I don’t care,” Minghao says. “I have nothing to hide from him. I make him more money than all his other lieutenants combined, and I’m his blood. You can tell him that.”

“I will,” Junhui says, holding his gaze. It’s intense, dark and defiant. “He’s actually concerned, you know,” he pushes his luck, speaks out of turn. Mingyu turns to him again, clearly furious, but he remains silent. “He did primarily send me to ensure your safety.”

“I like him.” Yoon Jeonghan, accountant, Junhui’s mind chimes in.

“You like that Mingyu hates him,” the fourth of Minghao's men huffs, amused. He has a slight accent Junhui can't quite place. He looks Korean, but he doesn't sound Korean. He wasn't in any of Junhui’s files.

“You’re dismissed,” Minghao informs Junhui. “I just wanted them to know your face, you can go stand in front of the door, or whatever it is bodyguards do.”

Junhui does go stand in front of the door, but it is completely useless, because there’s always armed men protecting meetings like this one anyway. He takes out his phone, scrolls through Weibo for a while, plays three rounds of Tetris. He wonders what Chief Zhang is doing, lets his imagination run wild, pictures his precinct and allows the nostalgia to envelop him. He misses everything about his real life, even the shitty coffee from the machine at the station. He misses the familiar weight of his badge, the easiness of his government-issued weapon. He misses his small apartment. He misses being called Junhui.

The door opens, shaking him out of his daydream. The foreigners exit first. Minghao looks content but tired.

“Drive me home,” he orders Junhui as soon as their eyes meet.

You have a driver, Junhui almost retorts. He bites his tongue and leads the way, opens the door to the backseat of the sleek black car he was given with his new job assignment so that Minghao can slip inside.

“You’re too pretty to be hired muscle,” Minghao says out of nowhere after a good quarter of an hour of utter silence.

“Thank you,” Junhui answers reflexively, before his brain catches up with his mouth. What the fuck. “I am, though. Hired muscle, I mean. I don’t see what my face has to do with it.”

“Everything,” Minghao sighs. “My father thinks he knows my weaknesses.”

Junhui frowns. “I don’t follow.”

“You look like someone I would fuck,” Minghao says bluntly. Junhui swallows down the hints of panic he can feel bubbling up inside his throat. That wasn’t in the file. How could something this fucking big not be in the file? “Did he send you here to seduce me?” Minghao asks.

“That would be messed up,” Junhui says, and he’s glad his voice still sounds steady, normal.

“Daddy and I have a messed up relationship,” Minghao sneers. “But he’s wrong. I can manage my shit by myself. And I’m not a teenager anymore, it takes more than a beautiful boy to distract me.”

“Glad to hear it, boss,” Junhui says, but inside his head beautiful boy runs on loop, like a cursed echo.

 

--

 

Kim Mingyu hates Junhui’s guts. It makes meetings Junhui sits in unbearable for everyone except Jeonghan, who seems to be having the time of his life. Junhui doesn’t really care, but Jun does. In the past month, Junhui has recalibrated his persona, molded it around what Minghao needs. And what Minghao needs is—well, what Minghao needs is a fucking therapist, but more realistically, what Minghao needs is a confidant. And Junhui can tell that used to be Mingyu, once upon a time. There is a fluidity to the way he and Minghao interact, the weight of history heavy between them. Sometimes Mingyu seems to know what Minghao is going to say before he says it, always one step ahead. Body language rarely lies, and Junhui thinks that even if he didn't know about Minghao’s… preferences, he would have ended up guessing. Mingyu touches Minghao like a lover.

Junhui doesn’t think it’s unrequited love, not exactly. Minghao is too relaxed around Mingyu, too open. Junhui knows him well enough by now to understand it isn't simply trust: Minghao trusts Seokmin with his life and still flinches when Seokmin gets too close.

He gets his answer a few weeks later. Minghao texts him to have the car ready in thirty, but there is less traffic than he expected, and Junhui gets there ten minutes early. Just in time to see Mingyu at the window, shirtless, smoking a cigarette. When Minghao finally sits in the car, he doesn’t smell like himself.

Maybe Junhui’s acting skills need some work after all, because Minghao notices his stiffness.

“You saw Mingyu,” he says. It’s not a question.

“It’s none of my business, boss,” Junhui shakes his head.

“Damn fucking right, it isn't.” He takes a moment after that, looks outside. The highway is almost empty. It’s raining. “I used to be in love with him,” he tells Junhui.

“You shouldn't tell me these things,” Junhui says.

“Why, because they make you uncomfortable?”

“No,” Junhui says truthfully. “Because they can be used against you.”

“You’re mine,” Minghao shrugs. “You haven't reported back to my father in a long time, Jun. I have moles too.”

I know.

“Your father is the least of your problems.”

“You’re gonna sell me out?” Minghao smirks. Junhui basks in his warm playful tone. This tentative trust they're building is worth so much. It feels like he’s been here forever, but objectively, Junhui knows he’s moving surprisingly fast. Maybe the profiler was right, after all. “There’s nothing to sell, Jun,” Minghao continues. “I don’t love him anymore.”

“You sleep together.”

“Sometimes. Most of the time we just fight.”

There is sadness in the way he says it, but mostly there is exhaustion. Junhui understands. He hasn’t been in love before, but he understands tiredness. He understands giving up.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“It’s okay,” Minghao sighs. “He’s my best friend. That hasn’t changed. He’s damn good at what he does, too.”

Junhui knows Minghao is referring to the whole dealing drugs business, but for a second his brain glitches and he chooses to believe Minghao means good in bed, and suddenly he is flooded with mental images.

“You’re thinking about it,” Minghao says, because apparently he reads minds, or something. Or maybe not exactly, because once again he misinterprets Junhui’s reaction as disgust. “Get over it, Jun. I like dick. It’s 2018.”

“I don’t care,” he says, hopes Minghao can hear the sincerity in his words. “You’re just very brash with it. It’s my job to protect you, remember?”

Minghao laughs, but it’s a cold laugh. It’s sharp. Junhui doesn’t like it. “I work hard, Jun. I’ve worked hard. Specifically so I could do whatever the fuck I want. Whoever the fuck I want, too. There's a lot to hide, in this line of business. This, though… this is mine. I get to choose, and I choose to be open. If people don’t like it, then that's too fucking bad.”

Jun would say something like that's brave, right now. But Junhui thinks Minghao is a fucking hypocrite who has had it too easy his whole life, and he’s afraid that if he opens his mouth, that’s what’s going to slip out. So he tightens his grip on the steering wheel and takes a deep breath, keeps quiet. He thinks of the orphanage he grew up in, of being thirteen and confused and terrified of being a sinner. He thinks of Yixing asking him no girlfriend? two Christmases ago, and how it felt to simultaneously discover you have a father figure after all and to disappoint them in the same breath. He thinks of all the men he almost fell for, and how if he had been Minghao, there would be no almosts to his story.

He’s angry as hell. His hands shake.

Minghao doesn’t notice.

 

--

 

The man with the mysterious accent is American. His name is Joshua Hong, and he’s bad news. He is good news, technically, because Junhui gets to add him to the pile of brand new information he is going to bring in, and it means he’s not doing all this for nothing. But his presence means the Xu Clan most likely has ties overseas, and that is a hell of a lot more influence than what Junhui’s bosses are picturing. Minghao, Junhui is slowly realizing, is not just an easy way to bring Xu Senior down. Minghao is one of the most powerful men in Shanghai.

It’s doesn't feel like it, right now. Minghao’s bleached hair is a mess, his ridiculously expensive white T-shirt is all rumpled. He’s sprawled all over this red velvet couch in the VIP section of one of his mother's nightclubs, surrounded by models and B-list celebrities. He looks a lot younger than his 26 years. He looks like any rich kid on a Friday evening. He looks…

He looks hot, objectively. Subjectively, too. He looks, to mirror what he told Junhui on the first night they met, like someone Junhui would fuck.

It doesn’t matter, obviously, because nothing is going to happen, but it’s the first time Junhui thinks of him like that, and it changes something. Minghao gulps down a glass of Champagne and some of it spills down his jaw, rivulets along his throat, and Junhui can’t stop looking. He hasn’t gotten laid in so long.

Minghao picks up a girl and makes Junhui drive them to a hotel. They make out in the backseat, sloppy and slow, and Junhui has to turn on loud music so that he can focus on the road and not the way he can see Minghao’s hand disappear under the girl’s skirt in the rearview mirror.

“We’re here,” he announces as he stops the car. His voice sounds painfully strained even to his own ears. If Minghao notices, he gracefully chooses to ignore it.

“Wait for me,” he orders as he gets out. “Go get yourself a drink at the bar, or something.”

“How generous,” Junhui deadpans, but Minghao is already gone, door slammed.

Junhui jerks off in his car, in the parking lot of a five star hotel, fast and rough and sad. He doesn't get that drink at the bar.

 

--

 

The thing is, Minghao is a real person, not a name and a number on glossy paper, not a picture pinned to a cork board.

Minghao is a real person who's grumpy in the morning if he has to get in the car before 8 AM, who likes his coffee with exactly two sugars and no milk and his instant ramen with an egg on the side. Minghao is a real person who color-coordinates his shirts with his socks and always stops to pet dogs on the street. Minghao is a real person who takes candid pictures of his friends whenever they're not looking, who turned one of the rooms in that big house his father bought him into a studio because he loves to paint.

Minghao is a real person who knows how to disassemble and reassemble an assault rifle in record time, who can order a murder by simply raising his eyebrow, who is flooding the streets of the city Jun swore to protect with poison.

And even if Jun knows every facet of him, it's almost impossible to reconcile them, so hard to remember that the sweet boy who offers his arm to grandmothers’ crossing the street is also the man who sits at negotiation tables and holds his own against some of the most infamous names of Shanghai’s underground.

Because Minghao, Minghao is at his realest with Jun, sometimes, wary and defenseless at night, right as Jun parks into his driveway at the end of the day. And Jun… Jun has to tell himself, repeat it like a litany, like assigned Ave Maria s after a sin, this is your enemy.

This is your enemy.

 

--

 

“You look awful,” Yixing says.

“Thanks,” Junhui smiles tiredly. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

They’re on a rooftop, away from the noise of the city, high enough. They don’t meet often, but when they do, it’s always high, and always in the open. Junhui has a handler, technically, but Yixing isn’t here to collect manilla envelopes.

“I can pull you,” he says. “Junhui, anytime. You say the word, and I’ll get you out.”

“No,” Junhui says firmly. “I’m close. I’m getting closer by the minute. He trusts me.”

Yixing just looks more alarmed. “At what cost?”

“My sanity,” Junhui grumbles. “Not like that ,” he says hurriedly when he sees horror on Yixing’s face, “Just… he’s a child, sometimes. Sometimes it feels like I’m a fucking babysitter.”

“Yeah,” Yixing sighs, loosening his tie absent-mindedly. They don't say anything for a while, and then Yixing tells him, quiet and fast, “I went to see Kris.”

Throughout the trial, and then later, every time he had to mention the Wu Affair, Yixing has never called Wu Yifan by his real name. When he was studying the case, Junhui used to think it was a way to put a distance between him and his mark, but he knows now that’s not what it is. Yixing says Kris like it’s a secret he’s been keeping for far too long.

It gets harder, after a while. It gets harder to remember who you really are.

“I thought he couldn't get visitors,” Junhui quirks an eyebrow. What he really wants to ask is when did you realize that you loved him? How much did it hurt to betray him anyway?

“They make an exception for the man who put him behind bars.” Yixing stares at the horizon, fingers still playing with the knot of his black tie. “He still has contacts. I asked about Junior.”

Junhui perks up at that. “And?”

“Kris says the Zhu Clan wants him gone.”

Something dark and unfamiliar floods Junhui’s system, making him a little dizzy.

“He can’t die,” he says dumbly. “I need him to close the case.”

“I don’t think they’re planning to make a move anytime soon,” Yixing reassures him. It sounds like he believes it, but Yixing fooled the entire nation once, so Junhui isn’t so sure. “I just want you to be ready. They’ll try to take you out too. Wang Ziyi doesn’t care about collateral.”

“I’m not getting out,” Junhui repeats, because he can sense Yixing is going to enquire again. “I’m going to see this to the end.” He grins, as convincing as he can, stares his chief in the eye. “And I’m going to steal your spot as best undercover agent in the history of the country.”

“Ambition is good,” Yixing smiles. “Channel it. Don’t get yourself killed, Junhui,” he adds, suddenly serious again. “I’d be really mad.”

 

--

 

Someone does try to murder Minghao. Three men in black masks ambush him and Junhui as they’re coming back from a meeting, on the one night Minghao decides to change their carefully planned itinerary because he’s hungry.

It’s almost comical. The takeout is spilled on the asphalt, noodles and blood. Junhui’s fist connects with a jaw and he hears a sickening crack, but he keeps hitting. One of their assailants is already on the ground, bleeding profusely from a knife wound to the thigh. He’s going to die like that, Junhui knows, and there is nothing Junhui can do about it.

Minghao moves like water. He has a dagger in one hand, brass knuckles on the other. The dying man was his doing, in the first two minutes of the attack. The moment they tried to grab him, before Junhui could even react, Minghao had his blade out, lunging with a primal scream. Now he undulates, impossible to catch. He looks like a cat, hissing, circling his enemy like a hunter does a prey.

Junhui has none of his finesse, but he has years of law enforcement training and a serious amount of pent-up rage to let out. He stops when the guy he’s fighting goes limp under him, face wet with hemoglobin, unrecognizable. He turns to help Minghao, but Minghao has his guy in a headlock, dagger pressed against his carotid. He looks almost deranged, happy. It’s the adrenaline, Junhui realizes. He himself probably doesn’t present a much nicer image.

“Tell Zhengting that if I ever even smell any of you near me or what’s mine ever again,” Minghao whispers in the guy’s ear, but the alleyway is empty, and Junhui hears everything, “I’m going to personally kill everyone he loves, and I’ll do it slowly.”

He lets him go, and the man falls head first onto the pavement. Minghao turns his back on him like he just threw a cigarette on the ground, not a human being.

“Let’s go home,” he tells Junhui. His voice sounds weird, but Junhui can’t quite place what’s different about it suddenly. His choice of words is off, too. Not take me home, not let’s go back to the house.

He climbs into the passenger seat next to Junhui, and that, too, is completely new. As they drive away, Minghao calls a number he seems to have on speed dial, mutters “Clean up crew” and gives an address before hanging up. Junhui inhales deeply and wills the panic away. The car smells faintly metallic. It’s all the blood on their clothes.

“Are you okay?” he asks. It feels like something he should ask. God, he hates the silence.

“Never better,” Minghao deadpans, but his voice is still weird. “You almost killed that scumbag with your bare hands.”

Junhui takes a deep breath again. “It’s my job,” he says finally.

“You’re stronger than you look.”

“I go to the gym,” Junhui rolls his eyes. That’s a little bit more comfortable, already. Hints of their usual banter, his constant annoyance at Minghao resurfacing again.

“For a second,” Minghao says, and the strange tone is back in full force, “I thought you were dead.” Junhui doesn’t say anything, keeps driving, eyes glued to the road. “You tumbled down, and he was on top of you, and I thought you were dead.”

Junhui doesn’t know why, but something in the way Minghao admits this is making him want to cry. “I’m tougher than that,” he tries to joke. It comes out choked. The adrenaline is winding down, and now his body just feels cold and sore.

They don't say anything else for the rest of the ride, but when they get to the house, Minghao pushes Junhui in front of him through the front door. Junhui has never been inside before, because he’s nothing but a glorified chauffeur, and it is not his place.

“We need to clean up,” Minghao explains when he senses Junhui’s discomfort. “Come upstairs. The staff is sleeping already.”

In the bathroom, Minghao peels Junhui’s dress shirt off him gently. He takes out rubbing alcohol and gauze and sets them down next to the sink, takes Junhui’s hands in his and inspects them wordlessly. Junhui's knuckles are a mess, already swollen and bruised, littered with cuts. Junhui hisses in pain as Minghao presses an alcohol-soaked cotton pad to his skin.

“Don't move,” Minghao commands. Junhui stills. “You’re hurt all over,” Minghao remarks, voice cracking a little.

“You look like shit too, you know,” Junhui tries to defend his honor. It’s not exactly true—Minghao looks exhausted and paler than normal, and there's a nasty purple mark blooming on his right cheekbone, but that's about it. Junhui catches his own reflection in the mirror. He looks like he was run over by a truck.

Minghao maneuvers him so that he’s facing the bathtub, back turned to him, and he runs a warm washcloth down Junhui's shoulder blades, wiping the dried blood away. It stings, but it’s also soothing.

“I’m going to get you an ice pack. Go lay on the bed.”

He must be more dazed than he thought he was, because he only realizes he’s on Minghao's bed once his body has actually settled onto the mattress. It's soft, and it smells nice, and he doesn’t want to move. There are a lot of guestrooms in this house, he knows. He doesn't understand why Minghao didn't bring him to one of those, they all have bathrooms attached to them anyway.

“Ice,” Minghao informs him, extending something wrapped into a towel to him. “Start with your eye. I can get some for your chest as well, if you need.”

“Where are you going to sleep?” Junhui asks, pressing the bundle to the left side of his face.

“Don’t worry about me,” Minghao shakes his head. “Mingyu is coming over.”

Junhui doesn't like the sound of that, but he’s not sure why. “You need to sleep,” he insists.

“I need to make sure we’re not under attack,” Minghao says sternly. “Jun…”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For putting your body between me and what looks like a serious fucking beating, what do you think. And don't say it's your job.”

“It is,” Junhui smiles. He regrets it immediately. Smiling hurts. Minghao sees his grimace, reaches out to smooth two fingers over the corner of Junhui's mouth; but then he seems to realize what he’s doing and takes back his hand like he's been burned.

“Sorry,” he mutters.

“I don’t mind,” Junhui says, because apparently his brain to mouth filter is gone.

“You’re still so fucking beautiful,” Minghao says. “Even like this.” Something in Junhui’s stomach twists. “Maybe even more, like this.”

You should kiss me, he wants to say. It’s going to hurt, and I want it to.

Instead, he says, “Mingyu is right behind you,” because Mingyu is right behind Minghao, leaning against the doorframe.

“You look like death,” Mingyu greets Junhui.

“And you look like an asshole, 24/7, so I don’t know who the loser is here, really” Junhui retorts.

Mingyu doesn't take the bait. “Thank you for keeping him safe,” he says. “Get some rest.”

They close the door behind them. Junhui wants to stay awake, wants to get up and explore the room, or maybe stick his ear against the door and try to make out their conversation, wants to do his fucking job. He passes out thirty seconds later.

 

--

 

“Tell me about your life, before,” Minghao demands. They’re lounging on a couch in one of the countless properties the Xu family owns. Something changed, after the attack. Many things changed, first of all their location: Xu Senior ordered them out of Shanghai for a while, so Minghao and his inner circle are now stuck in the countryside until the Big Boss allows them back in. Minghao hates it. Junhui hates how Minghao gets when he's antsy, so all in all, he’s not a big fan of the arrangement either.

The change in scenery isn't the only transformation. It’s like Junhui passed some kind of test, because now everyone is… not nicer to him, exactly, but mellower. Even Mingyu, who is also cooped inside this mansion in the middle of nowhere with them, treats him more or less neutrally now, which is a huge step-up.

“There’s nothing to tell,” Junhui sighs.

“There’s always something to tell,” Minghao counters. He lets his body slide against the thick leather of the sofa, until his head is resting on Junhui’s thigh. “I want to know.”

“My parents died when I was an infant. I grew up dirt-poor in an orphanage, and no one liked me enough to adopt me. When I got out, I lived a life of petty crime until I started working for your father, and then for you. How’s that for a bedtime story?”

He doesn't mean for it to come out so sharp, for the words to be dripping with bitterness. He doesn’t realize he’s trembling a little until Minghao turns his face and noses at his stomach through the thin material of his sweater, mumbling sorry almost too low for Junhui to hear. He cards a hand through Minghao’s hair almost reflexively.

“You’re mine,” Minghao whispers. It’s not the first time he says it, but it sounds different now, possessive in a personal way. “I take care of what's mine.”

I am, Junhui thinks. Not in the way Minghao believes, but Jun is Minghao’s. A lie crafted just for him, with patience and dedication.

“I know,” he says. “I’m grateful.”

“I don’t think this is what my father had in mind when he gave you to me,” Minghao muses.

“No,” Junhui agrees. He’s still petting Minghao’s hair. The tenderness of it all weighs on him like the world on Atlas’ shoulders.

Somehow, at some point, what Yixing was afraid of must have happened to him. Wen Junhui knows his mission. Wen Junhui doesn’t waver, doesn’t doubt. Wen Junhui looks at Minghao and feels pity and repulsion, keeps the prospect of Minghao rotting in prison just like he deserves like a talisman, like a guiding light.

The problem is, Wen Junhui hasn't be there in a while. He was left behind in a dark alley in Shanghai, right next to a bloody corpse.

 

--

 

Who are you? Who are you?

 

--

 

My name is Jun.

 

--

 

Jun is in love with Minghao.

It’s not hard to figure it out, once he sheds Junhui behind him like dead skin. Minghao laughs, and Jun’s entire universe shakes. Minghao glances back at him sometimes and catches him staring, and Jun’s guts tie themselves into unbreakable knots. It’s like his world has shifted on its axis, rearranging itself so that Minghao occupies every waking thought Jun has, blinding like the sun.

Minghao still sleeps with Mingyu, probably even more than before, because he’s bored and there's nothing else to do in this giant house. Jun watches them leave the dinner table together every time, masochistically. He doesn’t hate Mingyu for it, but it’s hard to be around him sometimes. Minghao’s confession replays itself in Jun's mind— I used to be in love with him. Jun isn’t so sure about the past tense. He doesn’t think Minghao was trying to lie to him, but he’s more than familiar with the concept of lying to oneself.

At some point, Seokmin and Jeonghan join them, and the atmosphere relaxes a little. It’s less claustrophobic, more… reluctant summer camp. There is a cook living with them, technically, because all the houses that the Xu own are fully staffed; but most of the time Jeonghan shoos him out of the kitchen and prepares traditional Korean dishes, and everyone gathers around the big table in the dining room and eats cheerfully. If it wasn’t for the guns on the white tablecloth right next to the silverware, one could think they were a bunch of grad students on vacation, renting a place out in the country. The normalcy is disconcerting.

Minghao and Mingyu argue all the time. It’s always behind closed doors, and they're careful to keep their voices low, but Jun sleeps one room down, and if he can’t make out the exact words, he definitely knows how to decipher intonation. They always fuck right after, too, and it’s rough and mechanical, headboard banging against the wall and stifled groans. Jun touches himself to the sounds sometimes, on nights where he really hates himself.

“My father called,” Minghao says one morning, as Seokmin is passing the coffee pot around. “The storm has passed. We’re going home.”

 

--

 

God, Junhui,” Yixing exclaims. He gapes at Jun’s sorry state for a while, wordless. The swelling has gone down, but Jun knows there’s still bruises everywhere, angry purple and sickly yellow twirling around each other like Jun’s skin is a Pollock painting. “Is this why you disappeared?”

“Yes,” Jun nods. “Yes and no. Zhu Zhengting sent his men after Minghao. We left to avoid an all-out gang war, I think. They still don’t tell me much, boss.”

“You know my offer still stands,” Yixing says. He sounds so worried. Not in a professional way, either. Jun tells him.

“You care too much for me, Chief. The mission, it should come first.”

“Someone has to,” Yixing cuts him, severely. “Care for you, I mean. You certainly don’t.”

“Minghao does,” Jun says before he can stop himself. He hopes Yixing mistakes the dismay in his voice for… anything else, really. “He likes me, I think.”

“You think,” Yixing scoffs. “Junhui, no one new has ever gotten this close to the inner circle this fast. No one.” He leans back against the brick wall behind him, doesn’t look Jun in the eye. “I have to ask, I’m sorry.”

“Uh?”

“Are you… are you having sex with him?”

Jun almost chokes on his own saliva. “Excuse me?”

Yixing raises his palms up, the universal sign for I come in peace. “There are rumors about him. I told you, I had to ask. It doesn’t make sense, how fast you got to the top.”

“So your first thought was, what, that I slept my way to it?” There is anger bubbling up inside him now, ready to spill out everywhere. He knows Yixing well enough to stab him where it hurts. “I didn’t fuck my goddamn target,” he snarls. “I’m not you.”

Yixing stumbles. Pain flashes in his eyes, and Jun immediately regrets that last jab. But it’s too late now. There's no taking it back. He wonders if he’s the first to guess. He wonders if Yixing has ever told anyone, anyone at all.

“I never—,” Yixing starts after a long, heavy silence. His voice breaks, his hand tightens into a shaking fist. “I never touched Kris.”

“But you wanted to,” Jun realizes, and oh, oh, this is so much sadder. “Yixing,” he says hurriedly, the full extent of what he just did slowly dawning on him, “I’m sorry, I didn't mean it.”

“I loved him so much it felt like I was going to die,” Yixing confesses quietly. His eyes widen a little as the words pass his lips. “I’ve never said it out loud before.”

“Yixing,” Jun repeats, “You don’t have to tell me.” Yixing ignores him.

“But I took an oath, Junhui,” he says. He sounds so resigned, so defeated. “And Kris had—has blood on his hands.”

“Does he know?” Jun can’t help but ask.

“I’m sure he does,” Yixing shrugs. “He’s always been too good at reading me for filth.”

 

--

 

Jun replays his last exchange with his superior officer many times in his head in the following days. He can’t get but I took an oath out of his mind. He closes his eyes, imagines Minghao being dragged away in handcuffs. He can see it clear as day. A guy in uniform twice Minghao’s size pushing him into an armored car, rough hand on the top of his head, Minghao’s arms twisted behind his back. Mingyu being taken in next time he crossed the border, right outside the airport. Jeonghan, God, sweet, bright, beautiful Jeonghan, who wouldn't last a day in prison, especially not here. Seokmin would get away with the least time, Jun knows, because he’s never killed anyone. Minghao… Minghao would get life without parole, just like Wu Yifan. Jun would never see him again.

 

--

 

He calls Yixing in the middle of the night, from a payphone in the red district. He’s almost hyperventilating, fighting off the impending anxiety attack. “You need to pull me,” he pants into the receiver. “I can’t, I can’t, I’m compromised.”

Yixing misunderstands him at first. “You got made?”

“No,” Jun shakes his head, even if it’s stupid because Yixing obviously can't see him. “Yixing,” he begs, “Please. Just get me out.”

For someone who was so against Jun going in at all, Yixing is extremely hesitant, suddenly.

“Sleep on it,” he instructs Jun. “Call me again in three days.”

Jun wonders if it’s payback for the Kris incident, last time, on the roof. But Yixing would never. Yixing is a cop. Jun is already thinking like a mobster.

 

--

 

Jun is a good actor. He wakes up in the morning on his shitty mattress in his shitty apartment that looks nothing like his real one, the one he bought after a year as a detective, and he puts on his clothes, from his shitty closet filled with outfits Junhui would never wear. He goes to work in his black Hyundai, a car he has no use for, because Junhui owns a small red Toyota Corolla already. He drives Minghao around town, shuts his mouth and stands besides him when he as to, hand always close to his gun, always ready to turn himself into a shield.

Jun is a good actor. Minghao says he needs to clear his head, so Jun takes him to that hole-in-the-wall noodles place he discovered when he was still in school, and they sit huddled close together in a booth. Minghao makes happy slurping noises around his ramen. He’s talkative afterwards, in the car. Relaxed. Like he knows he’s safe, like he knows he’s allowed to let go for a short moment.

Jun is an excellent actor.

 

He doesn’t call Yixing.

 

--

 

Jun shoots a man in the head. Minghao buys him a whiskey afterwards, the two of them sitting huddled close together at a dive bar, and Jun swallows all of it down at once and prays for his hands to stop shaking.

 

--

 

In his latest report back, he puts down the man he killed, but he erases Minghao from the narrative carefully. He dutifully writes down self-defense as many times as he can. It tastes sour, lying to his own people. Jun should be used to it by now, because his entire existence is a lie, and yet. He’s read enough of these reports to craft a believable story, to paint a glossy picture that some idiot with a desk job will read once and stamp OK without thinking about it twice.

Firearm pointed at me. Feared for my life. Didn’t have a choice.

 

--

 

“You’re insulting me in my own house?” Minghao had laughed in disbelief. “Do you realize who you're talking to?”

Jun remembers thinking, Mingyu would have his gun out by now. That’s why he had aimed at the guy’s face, to begin with. Because he was threatening Minghao, and Jun’s job was to make sure no one felt like they could breathe wrong in Minghao’s direction, let alone talk to him that way.

“Jun,” Minghao had said softly. “Put that away.”

Jun had lowered his Colt. But the guy had shoved a hand into his own jacket, where the outline of a weapon was clearly visible.

So Jun had raised his gun again and pulled the trigger.

 

--

 

“I heard you killed someone for my son.”

Xu Senior looks slimmer than the last time Jun saw him. In a suit that looks like it costs more than Jun makes in a year, a square glass in his hand, he could be a Mafioso in a Hollywood movie.

“Don’t think you’re special, boy,” the mobster chuckles before downing his drink. “My Minghao has a habit of making others do his dirty work.” He stares at Jun severely above his thick-rimmed glasses. “I should have known, when I placed you with him. That you would be an issue.”

“I’m sorry, sir?”

“Are you fucking my son, Jun?”

Jun is so tired of people asking him that.

“I’m really not,” he says, and he must sound bitter enough about it, because Xu Senior smiles contently.

“Good,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily want to have to kill you.”

 

--

 

“What did my father want,” Minghao hisses as soon as he sees Jun, and Jun rolls his eyes.

“Good morning to you too.”

“Good morning,” Minghao complies, annoyed. “What did my father want.” He has the infuriating tendency of phrasing evident questions like they're statements.

“To offer me a raise,” Jun says. “Also, to know if we’re sleeping together.” Minghao cackles at that. Jun feels kind of offended, and he informs Minghao of it.

“I mean,” Minghao says, chest still heaving from laughter, “You’re just so straight.”

Jun blinks. “I am what?”

“Straight,” Minghao repeats, slowly, like talking to a child. “You know, as in heterosexual.”

“I heard you the first time,” Jun says, a little strangled. He’s reconsidering a lot of their interactions lately. “I’m just trying to understand where exactly you got that impression.”

Minghao frowns. “You always look, I don’t know, constipated. When I mention dudes. Also, you got all weird after you realized I have sex with Mingyu.”

“That’s just because I hate Mingyu,” Jun says, before his brain catches up with his mouth. “I mean, uh.”

“Wait,” Minghao says. Jun does wait, gazes at him expectedly. He can almost see the gears shifting inside his head. “You mean to tell me that you are not straight.”

“Minghao,” Jun grimaces. “I don’t know how to break this to you, but I am literally the gayest guy you’ll ever meet.”

“Wait,” Minghao says again. “Wait a goddamn second—

 

--

 

The Shanghai Police Department raids a ship and make twelve arrests in one night, all thanks to Jun.

Minghao is livid, pacing all over the place, wondering how the schedule got leaked.

“That’s 500k down the drain,” he spits out, rageful. “Plus men I’m going to need to replace. Fuck. Fuck!

“There’s a mole,” Mingyu says calmly. “I told you so.”

Minghao glares. “Did you really just—”

“Yes,” Mingyu interrupts him. “I told you so, and you didn't listen, so now that we got screwed, allow me at least the satisfaction of reminding you I fucking told you so.”

“Don’t fucking take this tone with me,” Minghao warns him, ice cold. In the corner of the room, Jun feels like he's intruding on something much more private than an argument over business.

“I’ll take whatever tone I fucking want, Minghao,” Mingyu snarls. “What are you gonna do, shoot me? Oh, wait, no, are you gonna get your dog to shoot me, maybe? I hear that’s all he’s good for.”

Jun only realizes Mingyu’s referring to him when Minghao lunges at his best friend and punches him in the face. Jun body’s moves almost of his own accord, breaking the fight before it even really starts.

“Minghao,” he urges, anxious. He wraps his arms around Minghao’s chest, tugs him away from Mingyu, who’s busy pinching his bloody nose and looking scandalized. “Minghao, calm down.”

“Hao,” Mingyu starts, his voice contorted because he’s still holding his nose closed.

“Get out of my sight,” Minghao jeers, thrashing against Jun, trying to free himself. “Don’t fucking talk to me.”

Mingyu obeys, walks out of the room backwards, stunned. Minghao sags in Jun’s arms.

“Hey,” Jun murmurs against the back of his neck.

“I hate him, sometimes,” Minghao mumbles. “I hate him right now.”

“You’ve been fighting for a while,” Jun notes. He’s still holding Minghao, only now it’s less of a preventative lock and more like an embrace.

“He disagrees with my leadership style,” Minghao wrinkles his nose. “He thinks he has any right to talk because—because what, I spread my legs for him once in a blue moon?”

Jun tries not to focus on that particular mental image and fails dramatically.

“You trust his judgement,” Jun tries. “That’s why he’s your number two. I don’t think he—God, it pains me to say this, but Minghao. I don’t think Mingyu is the type of person who would stop respecting you because you slept together.” Absently, he starts rubbing soothing circles with his thumb onto Minghao's solar plexus through the fabric of his shirt.

“You don’t know what type of person Mingyu is,” Minghao says darkly. “Hell, you don’t know what type of person I am.”

“You don't know what type of person I am,” Jun retorts. “None of us know anything about each other, really, that's how it fucking works.”

Minghao lets his head fall back against Jun’s shoulder. His throat is exposed like this, slender and soft. Jun is suddenly overwhelmed with want. Unthinking, he bends down and presses a chaste kiss onto Minghao’s Adam’s apple. Minghao whimpers, hand shooting up, freeing itself from Jun’s now relaxed grip to grab the back of Jun’s head and press him closer. They stay like this for a few seconds that feel like hours, until Minghao whispers, “Are you gonna kiss me?”

Jun recoils like he’s been electrified, letting go completely. Minghao stumbles, destabilised.

“Minghao,” Jun starts, but his apology gets all jumbled up in his vocal cords, doesn’t make it out.

“It’s alright,” Minghao shrugs. “I got it.”

“No,” Jun says. “No, I want—”

He doesn't know how to finish this sentence. I’m in love with you and I’m the one who ratted you out tonight don’t go very well together.

“I got it,” Minghao repeats, a little harder this time. “It’s better that we don’t, anyway. I messed that up with Mingyu already.”

There’s so many things Jun wants to tell him. It’s not that I don’t want you. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life.

Or maybe, you have ruined me. You have reached inside me and twisted everything good into chaos. I would die for you. I would kill for you again.

Or maybe, maybe, Minghao, please, let’s just leave all this behind and go.

Instead, he says, “Sorry,” and Minghao says “I need to go punch Mingyu again,” and life goes on.

 

--

 

It's early September when Minghao makes Jun move in with him. And makes truly is the right word: Jun comes back to his ratty flat downtown to find it empty, Minghao leaning against a stripped wall nonchalantly. He dyed his hair back to black recently, and it makes him look paler than usual, but not necessarily in a bad way. Jun misses the platinum blonde a little, still. It made Minghao look like an asshole, but the kind of asshole Jun would get on his knees for after a few drinks.

“Uh,” Jun says, staring blankly at the utter nothing where all his stuff used to be.

“I paid off your lease,” Minghao says, like it’s nothing, like he bought Jun a cup of coffee, or something. “Until this shitshow with Zhu Zhengting blows over, at least, I want you in the house.”

Jun slants his eyes, confused. “You already have guards all around the block, what difference would I make?”

Minghao smirks. “Who said it was for my protection?”

Jun feels a little insulted. “I can take care of myself. You can’t just— Minghao . You can't just uproot my life like that.”

“I really, really can,” Minghao says, and well, he’s not exactly wrong. “Come on,” he pushes himself off the wall swiftly, gestures at Jun to follow him, “We have errands to run, and I want fried shrimp for dinner.”

Jun follows him, dumbstruck.

 

--

 

Yanan is sweet and kind and beautiful and so, so different from Minghao. Which is, at this point, all Jun is really looking for.

Jun fucks him nice and slow, the opposite of what he really craves, and bites his own wrist when he comes so that he doesn’t call out the wrong name.

 

Minghao is in the kitchen when Yanan leaves and Jun finally emerges. He pushes a mug of black tea towards Jun, quirks his eyebrow inquisitively.

“You never said I couldn't bring people over,” Jun defends himself, because he’s feeling kind of judged right now. He wonders fleetingly when his relationship with Minghao shifted into this. When he stopped calling him boss, when he started talking back.

“You can bring people over,” Minghao says impassively. “I’m just curious about your new boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Jun huffs, irritated. “He works for your father, kind of. At one of the hotels. He’s a good lay. That’s it.”

“You’re allowed to date,” Minghao insists.

“I don’t want to date Yanan, Minghao.”

Minghao looks like he wants to argue, but his phone starts vibrating on the table. It’s Mingyu, Jun knows before he even glances at the screen, because Minghao starts glaring at the device like it has personally offended him.

“You need to work… whatever this is out,” Jun sighs. “It’s bad for business.”

Minghao redirects his glare to Jun, but he picks up the phone, so Jun considers it a victory.

“What do you want?” Minghao hisses into the receiver. Jun can’t hear what Mingyu is saying, but Minghao’s expression softens after a while. “Don’t move,” he says. “I’ll meet you there.”

“Hot date?” Jun teases.

“He bought me a nightclub,” Minghao grins. Jun doesn’t think he realizes he’s smiling. “I’ve always wanted one of my own.”

“Jesus,” Jun laughs, “Most people just send flowers.”

“You wanna come with?”

“To awkwardly third-wheel? No thank you.”

Minghao rolls his eyes. “I told you, it’s not like that.”

“Please go have your inevitably loud makeup sex in his apartment and not here,” Jun pleads.

“It’s not like that,” Minghao repeats, but he's still grinning.

Jun almost convinces himself he’s happy for him.

 

--

 

The club, that Minghao proudly names Infinity, becomes their unofficial HQ. Meetings are held in one of the private rooms, and when Minghao is courting a new big client, he brings him to the Infinity instead of one of his mother’s spots. Mingyu, Jun realizes slowly, didn’t just get Minghao a shiny new toy; he bought him a piece of independence.

More leeway means more deals, and more deals means more information. Jun passes most of it along, careful to tweak enough details so that Minghao never crosses paths with his colleagues. Most of it is superfluous anyway: Yixing doesn’t want to just raid the Xu Clan a few times and simply lose them a couple millions, he’s out for blood. Jun was sent in to collect intelligence, and so he does. Gradually, he also becomes a fixture by Minghao’s side, especially during the long weeks that Mingyu spends in Korea. Even Xu Senior’s men recognize him now, and simple soldiers bow when Jun enters a room, acknowledging a rank Jun doesn't really have. It’s both strange and exhilarating. He’s starting to understand this world a little better, but it still shocks him, how removed it is from his old life. It took years for Jun to climb from patrolman to officer to Detective. Eighteen months among mobsters and he’s towering over Shanghai's drug trade, in Minghao's orbit like a stray meteorite turned planet, and all it took was shooting a bunch of people and taking some punches.

(It took more, it took more, it took all of Jun, it took Junhui.)

 

--

 

“Jun,” Minghao starts, “How far would you go for me?”

The strobe lights flash across Minghao’s face, painting him blue, then red, then orange. The music is loud, but not loud enough that they can't hear each other. It’s only nine in the evening.

“Is this a test?” Jun asks. “I thought I had proven myself already.”

“It’s always a test,” Minghao says. “How far?”

“The end of the world,” Jun smiles.

“Yah,” Minghao punches him lightly in the arm, “Be serious.”

“I am. I am serious. I’ve killed for you. I would do it again.” As the words escape his lips, he finds that he means them. Junhui truly is gone. Jun is too comfortable here, among the lowest of the low.

It’s neither the time nor the place for this conversation, but apparently Minghao wants to be having it like this.

“You would? Anyone I asked you to?”

Jun can feel the dragon of anxiety unfurl itself at the pit of his stomach. “Minghao, what do you need?”

“Nothing yet,” Minghao says elusively, which does nothing to reassure Jun.

“Are you in danger?”

“Always,” Minghao says.

“You know what I mean.”

“Not yet. But if we go through with it, we're all going to be.”

Jun frowns, presses a hand to his forehead tiredly. “I still don't know what it is.”

“I know. Later.” Minghao gestures to the dancefloor. There’s no DJ yet, there won’t be one for another hour. “Dance with me?”

“To an MC Jin song?” Jun chuckles.

“To whatever song you want,” Minghao shrugs. “I own this place, remember?”

It’s Jun’s turn to hit him playfully. “Stop bragging.”

The current track ends, hip-hop fluidly turning into pop. Jun recognizes Li Ringhao’s voice.

“Quit Smoking!” Minghao exclaims happily. “I love that song.”

He looks so young, suddenly. When he smiles like that, genuine and excited, Jun catches glimpses of another life, one where Minghao doesn’t know how to use a gun. In that alternate universe, he’s still sharp as hell, just softer around the edges. Easier to love, probably also easier to leave. In that alternate universe, Jun still loves him. He knows that, deep in his bones.

Minghao drags him away from the bar counter, grabs him by the hips and starts moving for two. Jun lets the rhythm envelop him, swaying gently. His hands find Minghao’s waist almost by rote, and Minghao moves his own, wraps his arms around Jun’s neck. They're so close Jun can distinguish the speckles of gold in his dark brown eyes. Minghao smells good , like vanilla and laundry detergent and cigarette smoke, like home . Not even in the corny way—Minghao literally does smell like home, because he and Jun live together . Jun feels a lump lodge itself in his throat. Minghao rests his chin on Jun’s shoulder.

“Did you really mean it?” he asks. “To the end of the world?”

“Yes,” Jun says, firm. “Anywhere you want. Anything you need.”

“Take me home, Jun.”

Jun stills. “You mean—?”

“You said anything,” Minghao says. “I want this.”

“Okay,” Jun says. It feels a lot like admitting defeat. He’s pictured this moment, of course he’s pictured this moment, but he always thought he would be… happier. Happy. “Okay,” he says again. Minghao untangles their bodies but takes Jun’s hand in his, links their fingers together. Jun feels like he’s going to have a panic attack right in the middle of the stupid goddamn nightclub. He thinks of Yixing, pain contorting his expression, talking about Yifan. He thinks of his graduation day, how proud he felt when the badge was pinned onto his uniform.

He thinks of Minghao in that alleyway, months ago, blood at the corner of his mouth.

“Okay,” he says for the third time, and it comes out steady


Chapter Text

Jun remembers the first time he got to hold a gun, metal cold against his palm, heavier than he thought it would be. He remembers learning how to shoot, the pulse of the aftershock, the smell of it, like smoke, like burned wood. He remembers how powerful he felt hitting the center of the target after only a few tries, how the ground felt against his body as he laid down to practice his aim with a rifle, how going to the range always made him antsy in the best way. Adrenaline has always been a close friend.

Kissing Minghao is a little bit like shooting a gun. Something Jun has to learn, something Jun imagined too many times, something he had to earn. It makes his heart beat faster, his hands shake. It’s dangerous, it’s crazy, and he shouldn't want it as much as he does.

 

--

 

Minghao kisses him for the first time under the moonlight, right outside Infinity. There’s a line of people waiting to be let into the club, the air is frisky, and Minghao is still holding Jun’s hand.

Jun says, “I’m gonna get the car.”

Minghao looks at him, looks at him, like he can see inside Jun; like he could reach into Jun’s ribcage with his hand and tear out his heart if he wanted to.

“I’m going to kiss you,” he says, and does just that.

It lights a fire in Jun, fast and devastating. He moans low in his throat as Minghao pries his lips open with his tongue, slides it inside Jun’s mouth. It’s forceful and passionate and hot, and Jun can hardly breathe. Minghao lets go of his hand to slip his fingers through Jun’s auburn hair, curling possessively. When they break apart to catch their breaths, Minghao looks as dazed as Jun feels, and there's something reassuring about that. There’s something gratifying about it, too.

“I’m going to get the car,” Jun repeats, his voice a little wobbly.

 

--

 

In the months he’s known Minghao, Jun has seen him from pretty much every angle, in every possible setting; from incredibly mundane—still too sleepy in the morning, wearing his fluffy red robe, or chewing on prawn chips stressfully while watching months-old soap opera episodes—to plainly disturbing—the muzzle of his gun pressed to someone's temple, clothes drenched in blood, his gaze too hard and too sure.

This, Minghao unbuttoning his black dress shirt without taking his eyes off Jun, cheeks a little red and visibly hard in his jeans; this is new, and Jun doesn't know how to categorize it quite yet. The storm building up inside him is too many things at once—lust and fear and despair and love, love, love that threatens to choke him with its intensity.

Minghao discards his shirt, climbs up on the bed, cages Jun with his body. This kiss is languid, slower. It renders Jun dizzy with frustrated want, and he whines, grabs Minghao by the neck to urge him closer. Minghao’s mouth migrates south, planting soft kisses to Jun’s jaw, the base of his throat, the dip of his collarbones.

“I’ve wanted this for a long time,” he murmurs against Jun’s skin, making him shiver.

“I’m sorry,” Jun feels the need to say, but he doesn’t really know why. For resisting for so long? For caving in?

“Shut up,” Minghao says, but it’s gentle, fond. “The hell you apologizing for?”

“I don’t know,” Jun answers, too honest. “Minghao, I—me too. Me too.”

“Yeah?” Minghao smiles, looking up at Jun. “Thought you hated me, in the beginning. I wanted you so badly, from that very first night.”

Jun reaches for him, traces his bottom lip with his thumb. “You grew on me,” he teases, surprises himself with the raw affection in his tone.

Their foreplay is uncoordinated, messy and aimless. They make out like teenagers for what feels like hours, until their lips are red and swollen. Minghao almost falls off the bed when he tries to remove his pants, and at some point he elbows Jun in the nose, and that, too, is reassuring. They laugh, and it’s smooth, and it’s easy. Jun forgets everything that isn’t Minghao, and suddenly he’s mad at himself for having waited so goddamn long, because there is no reason that sounds good enough right now. None at all.

So, it takes a while, but they find themselves completely naked, bodies fitting together like puzzle pieces. There is desperation in the way Minghao touches him now, like they have no time at all, like he has to explore all of Jun at once or he might die . Jun cants his hips and Minghao inhales sharply, fingers digging into Jun’s forearm almost painfully. Jun wants this, wants it to hurt, wants it to leave bruises. A physical reminder that at least for tonight, Minghao wants him back.

“Jun,” Minghao gasps, breath warm on Jun’s cheek, “Shit, please.” He’s still gripping Jun’s arm too tight, and for a fleeting second Jun thinks I want his hand around my throat and a terribly embarrassing whimper escapes his mouth. The sound does something to Minghao, because he crashes their lips back together, gives Jun the filthiest kiss of his life. “Wanna fuck you,” he pants once they break apart, leaving Jun infuriatingly hard and a little light-headed. “Yeah?”

“Please,” Jun says, “Please.”

He hasn’t let anyone top him since before going undercover. Minghao settles between his legs, kisses the inside of his thighs as he works the first finger in.

“You’re so tight,” he marvels, and Jun blushes furiously.

“More,” he demands, probably too soon, definitely too soon. The stretch isn’t exactly painful, because Minghao is using a frankly ridiculous amount of lube, but it’s there. Jun lets out a deep breath that comes out a little choked.

“You look so good,” Minghao says, his other hand slithering up Jun’s chest, and Jun hisses when it rubs against a nipple. “You’re taking it so well, Jun. Ready for three?”

Jun nods frantically. He closes his eyes, expecting some discomfort, and wills himself to relax. What he gets instead is Minghao’s mouth on his cock, swallowing most of him down at once. Jun’s eyes shoot open in surprise, a quiet gasp tumbling from his mouth. The third finger goes in smooth as butter, Jun too busy trying to control his hip movements for his body to offer any sort of resistance. He feels Minghao smile around him, the smug bastard. He curls his fingers and Jun’s back arches off the bed, and he has to tug Minghao off him frenziedly in order not to come right there and then.

“I’m ready, I’m ready—”

 

--

 

Jun realizes that they’re making love in the middle of it, awareness dawning on him like a wave crashing on the shore. Minghao is fucking into him unhurriedly, his forehead pressed to Jun’s, hand curled around Jun’s nape. Their eyes are locked, and Jun feels so full. Surrounded. Claimed.

“I would do—anything,” he says, because he has to, he has to make sure Minghao knows. It comes out shaky, the sentence broken in two by Minghao’s thrusts. “Hao, I’m yours, I would do anything for you.”

Minghao grunts, his motions a little less controlled, a little more urgent. “Yeah, you’re mine.”

It should feel—creepy, or too much, or—

It just feels right, because Jun suddenly understands what it means. You’re mine. You’re on my side, you’re in my corner.

“You’re mine,” Minghao says again, drawing Jun’s face closer so that they can share a slow, open-mouthed kiss, “And I want you safe. M’gonna keep you safe.” They’re not really kissing anymore, just panting into each other’s mouths. Jun feels flames lick at the base of his spine, hot flashing pleasure building up increasingly fast. “Say my name, baby,” Minghao commands.

“Hao,” Jun moans. “Ming—Minghao, please—”

The roll of Minghao’s hips is torturous now, the head of his cock hitting Jun’s prostate relentlessly.

Minghao,” Jun says again, and Minghao gasps “Yeah, just like that.”

Jun comes first, untouched, his orgasm knocking the breath out of him. Minghao fucks him through it, until Jun is bordering on hypersensitive, almost sobbing. His body clenches around Minghao reflexively and that’s what tips the younger man over the edge, spilling inside Jun with a quiet groan, face pressed into the crook of Jun’s neck.

 

--

 

If he had to describe that night, Jun would say it was like drinking water after days spent lost in the desert, like quenching the most unimaginable thirst.

They rest in silence for a moment, a short respite while their bodies recuperate, but even that they do too close to each other, fingers intertwined, breaths mingling. Facing each other on the mattress like parentheses, noses touching, they share slow, sleepy, searching kisses.

Minghao’s hair, always so carefully styled, is an absolute mess right now. Jun drinks in the sight of him, naked and beautiful and imperfect. They don’t exchange words.

Minghao takes him again, this time from behind, Jun’s face pressed into a pillow. It’s less feverish but it’s still too intense to be just sex. Jun thought that maybe he imagined the connection, but he didn't; Minghao still touches him with reverence, even as he’s pounding into him at an unforgiving tempo. It’s that contrast that gets Jun, a soft ache in his sternum. He comes with a choked cry, thrashing under Minghao.

In the shower, later, once they've slept for a few hours and regained their motor functions, Jun gets on his knees, eyes never leaving Minghao’s. How fitting, he thinks, and it's what compels him to press his lips to Minghao’s knuckles. Minghao’s gaze darkens, hungry in the most primal way. Jun knows how to read him now, understands what it is that he has awoken.

It should revulse him, Minghao’s clear desire to own him. It doesn’t. It makes him feel warm and protected, cared for. It makes him feel seen. Right now, above all, it has him so hard he’s leaking.

He bends down, licks a stripe up the underside of Minghao’s cock. Minghao shivers, his hand immediately flying to Jun’s hair, dragging through it before he stops and fists it tightly, pulling Jun forward. There is a question in the way he's looking at Jun. Jun takes him in his mouth and hopes that it's answer enough. He wants Minghao to use him, wants Minghao to hold him there and fuck his face, hard enough for him not to be able to use his voice the next day. He wants many things, but he doesn’t know how to vocalize them yet, too scared to disturb their fragile new equilibrium.

“Jun,” Minghao says, but Jun is hollowing his cheeks around him, and the rest of his sentence gets lost in a shaky moan. Jun swallows down the bitter saliva flooding his mouth and takes down another inch, letting his eyes close as he works his tongue over the throbbing length. He tears up a little when it hits the back of his throat, but keeps his gag reflex at bay, wills himself to relax, focused. Above him, Minghao is trembling, breathing hard, his jaw locked tight.

It doesn’t take a lot. Jun claws at Minghao’s thighs, urging him to move, and Minghao is happy to comply. Hand still in Jun’s hair, he drags him up and down his cock, cants his hips up and takes what he needs ruthlessly, rendering Jun into a whimpering mess. The spray is still hitting them, but Minghao’s back is taking the most of it, and Jun wonders why he doesn't feel cold, the thought forming on its own, a little like he’s watching himself from outside his own body. Minghao lets out a strangled cry and pulls Jun off his dick, but he doesn’t let him go.

“I’m really—I’m really close,” he pants, chest heaving. “Wanna come on your face, baby, can I?”

“Yeah,” Jun says, and fuck, he sounds wrecked. “Yeah, sure.”

It easy to make Minghao fall apart like this. It's what Jun loves the most about sex, really; the power it gives him even in situations where he's submitting, the wild dissonance of it. He keeps one hand wrapped firmly around the shaft to jerk Minghao off and bobs his head quickly, sloppy, no finesse.

Jun,” Minghao rasps out, tugging him off again.

“Come on,” Jun says hoarsely, about half a second away from his own orgasm. “Do it, I want you to.”
Minghao obeys.
Jun catches the first spurt on his tongue before drawing back, keeping his face tilted toward Minghao as the next shots of come land on his cheeks, his chin, his open mouth.
God, fuck, Jun needs to get off right now. He fists the hand that isn't gripping Minghao's knee tightly for support around his dick, and ah, he's so close, all he needs is a few flicks of his wrist and—
Minghao sweeps his fingers over the mess on Jun’s face and into his mouth and it's all it takes, really. He comes so hard his vision whites out and he sways into Minghao’s thigh, struggling to regain his breath as the water falls on him, already cleaning the evidence away.
Minghao slides his back along the shower wall, meets Jun down and cups his face to kiss him fiercely, chasing his own taste in Jun’s mouth. All the roughness from earlier has bled out, and now Minghao oozes gentleness.

They wash each other, and it feels like a ritual. The water has gone lukewarm, but it's alright, because Minghao peppers Jun’s shoulders with burning kisses as he shampoos Jun’s hair, and Jun feels good, perfectly comfortable.

Minghao insists on helping Jun dry himself, wraps him in a large fluffy towel and then in his arms, and Jun is floating.

It dawns on him when they're back in bed, Minghao nuzzling at the hollow of Jun’s throat, their bodies tangled together. Oh, his brain supplies, this is aftercare.

In Jun’s defense, it's been… a while.

“How do you feel?” Minghao asks. “Do you need anything?”

Jun thinks about it. “Water,” he decides, and as he says it he suddenly becomes aware that he’s actually really thirsty. “Water would be nice.”

Minghao pushes himself off the mattress, presses his lips to Jun’s temple and says, “I’ll be right back.”

He comes back with a water bottle and a straw, and it's so Minghao Jun doesn’t know wether to kiss him or laugh. Minghao guides the straw to his mouth and Jun accepts the liquid greedily.

“You said you'd tell me what's on your mind,” Jun says once they've settled back on the bed, backs propped against the headboard, Minghao’s head on his shoulder.

“Not yet,” Minghao says. “I’m not sure,” he admits after a beat of silence.

“Tell me anyway,” Jun insists. “I could help.”

“Jun, I said no.”

Minghao uses his professional voice to say that last sentence, so Jun bites his tongue and stops prodding. He doesn't know if he's fishing by force of habit, or because he's genuinely worried. It's a mix of the two, he thinks.

He doesn't want to let his mind wonder to the mission, would welcome any conversation that helps him get away from that, but that still doesn't explain how he allows his next question to pass the threshold of his lips.

“Are you going to keep sleeping with Mingyu?”

Minghao shifts on the mattress to look him in the eye.

“Would it bother you, if I did?”

Jun tells himself, play it cool.

“Yes. You know it would.” So much for playing it cool.

“Then I won't,” Minghao says, like it's that easy. He must catch Jun’s doubtful expression, because he sighs, “I told you, I don't have feelings for him anymore. And we haven't fooled around since before our fight.”

“Okay,” Jun says.

Minghao arches an eyebrow. “You don't sound convinced.”

“You have a very intense relationship,” Jun says accusingly. “I’m allowed to feel threatened.”

“He’s my best friend. I grew up with him, conquered half this city with him, of course our relationship is intense.” He lets his fingers trail down Jun’s bare chest, a ghost caress. It’s too soon for either of them to be aroused again, but it feels nice, already familiar. “Don’t feel threatened,” Minghao says, voice low. “You’re my favorite.”

It’s as close to a confession as he’s ever going to get from Minghao, so Jun takes it. He takes it and tucks it at the back of his brain, where all his fears sleep; like a nightlight, to keep the monsters at bay.

 

--

 

Minghao tells Jun his plan in the middle of the night, a hushed whisper against Jun’s collarbone.

“I’m going for the crown. I’m going to kill my father.”

 

--

 

“Is that why you finally made a move?” Jun asks, conversational even though nothing about this is casual.

“Yes,” Minghao says. He’s at his desk, frowning at a map. Jun was meant to drive him to a meeting half an hour ago, but the guy they were supposed to be introduced to today turned up face down in the water early in the morning. Mingyu is convinced this is Wang Ziyi’s doing, but Minghao is hesitating.

Jun pushes himself up on the table. “It’s cruel, don't you think?”

“Uh uh,” Minghao nods automatically, attention fully on what he's reading, but then he realizes. “No, what?”

“Sleeping with me, if you think you're going to die.”

“Maybe,” Minghao says. “But I don't think I’m going to die. I think I’m going to war, and that's different. You’re my Patroclus. I wanted us to have at least one peaceful night before everything goes to hell.”

“Have you actually read the Iliad?” Jun huffs, trying to hide how affected he is. Minghao just says shit like this, like it's nothing. “This is the opposite of reassuring.”

“I don’t deal in false promises,” Minghao shrugs. “And Achilles won, even if he died. There is nothing left of Troy.”

“What's the point, though? If you're not there to enjoy it, what's the point of winning?”

“Glory,” Minghao says. “According to Homer, at least. The Greek word for it is kleos, eternal glory. Immortality through song. In a way, Achilles never died.”

Jun leans in, and Minghao curls a hand around his nape, brings him closer.

“I’m going to be a better Achilles,” he murmurs, breath hot on Jun’s mouth. “I’ll get both Agamemnon and Hector, and I’m going to stay alive, and you’re going to stay alive. I just needed to know, before going into battle. That you’re with me, all the way. I didn’t fuck you because I thought that was my last chance, I did it because you drive me crazy, and I need to keep my head cool if any of this is going to work. ”

Jun smiles. “Did it work? Did you get me out of your system?”

Minghao kisses him, hard, possessive. “No,” he says against Jun’s lips when they break apart. “You’re still very much there.”

 

--

 

“I like you way too much,” Minghao breathes out, his hands framing Jun’s face. “Mingyu says I’m being stupid, letting you so close. He doesn’t know the half of it.”

“He’s right,” Jun says, slipping his thigh between Minghao’s legs. He has Minghao pressed against the wall, in one of the backrooms-turned-offices at the Infinity. It’s risky. Anyone could walk in.

“I don’t care,” Minghao smiles.

“Good,” Jun says. “I like you way too much, too.”

 

--

 

Jeonghan looks distressed, going over the numbers over and over again.

“We took a big hit. Someone’s selling on our territory, Hao. Zhu Zhengting, most likely. And we can’t counterattack before we get the next shipment.”

Minghao’s knuckles turn white where he’s gripping at the armchair he’s sitting on. “Seokmin?”

“Not before next week,” Seokmin shakes his head sadly. “And even for that, I had to push my guy. There are rumors.”

“Rumors?” Minghao repeats, expression unreadable. Jun wants to reach over and smooth the thin line of his lips with his thumb.

Seokmin grimaces. “That people who sell to you find themselves floating in the Huangpu River.”

Minghao says, “I see.” Seokmin goes from uneasy to visibly anxious. Jun, for the very first time, wishes Mingyu was among them.

“You could always—,” Jeonghan starts, but Minghao interrupts him with a fiery glare.

“I’m not asking my father for help, Jeonghan.”

Out of all his men, Jeonghan has worked for Minghao the longest, Jun has learned very recently. Like many other details, the police had that one wrong, always assumed it had been Mingyu. But while Mingyu has been in Minghao’s life since early years, the son of one of Xu Senior’s business partners, Jeonghan has managed Minghao’s finances since day one, way before Mingyu went from childhood friend to right-hand man. So he presses, knows how much he can push before Minghao shoves the muzzle of his gun in his face.

“Just 10k would get us out of the red, Hao.”

“I said no.”

That’s when Jun realizes, really. That Minghao hasn’t told anyone else. That they’re all still operating under the assumption that their loyalty lies with the Xu Clan.

That Minghao trusts him more than anyone.

 

--

 

“You’re my family,” Minghao tells him. They’re getting ready to turn in for the night, the domesticity of it a dull ache flashing through Jun’s body. He doesn’t usually sleep in Minghao’s bed on nights where they don’t fuck, but tonight they kept working after hours, files sprawled all over the bedspread, Minghao chewing absently on a ballpoint pen as he perused documents Jun knew anyone back at his old station would probably sell their left kidney to access. At some point, around one in the morning, Minghao had put all the papers into a neat little pile, and declared he was tired.

Jun doesn’t really remember how the discussion got there, but he knows it became about Minghao’s father somewhere down the road, the logical conclusion to any personal conversation with Minghao, these days. “You, Mingyu, Hannie and Seokmin. You’re my family. I don’t care about blood ties. They say you can choose your family, and I pick you.”

Jun’s hand finds his. “You don’t have to kill him. Not literally.”

“I do,” Minghao says. His stare is hard. “You don’t know—you don’t understand. I don’t really want his empire, I want—I want to be free.”

He’s wearing a large white tank-top and black boxers briefs, his go-to attire for sleep, even though Jun knows he owns about ten sets of silk pajamas. It makes something hurt in Jun’s heart, like a large hand crushing it. He’s familiar with the sensation by now, even if he still can't quite name it.

In that moment, he knows. There are parts of his soul he would gladly give up for Minghao to never have to look in the mirror and see himself the way Jun sees himself—disconnected, empty, homeless.

He wraps himself around Minghao, Minghao’s back warm against his chest. “I’ll do it for you,” he murmurs. His hand slips under the hem of Minghao’s shirt, feeling lean, hard muscles shift under his palm. “I’ll do it for you,” he repeats, teeth grazing the pale skin of Minghao’s throat. Minghao lets out a short breath, head lolling back on Jun’s shoulder. Jun bites down softly, sucks a mark right under Minghao’s jaw, impossible to hide.

“I have to do it myself,” Minghao gasps. Jun continues his ministrations to his neck. He’s so sensitive there, Jun has discovered. “Fuck, Jun.”

“He’s nothing to me,” Jun says, his hand slowly sliding down Minghao’s abs, toying with the waistband of his boxers. “It would mean nothing, it would be easy.”

“I don’t want it to be— fuck,” Jun has a hand around his half-hard cock now, “Easy, I don't want it to be easy. It has to be me. I want him to see me.”

“I don’t want you to pull the trigger,” Jun says quietly. Minghao’s length is warm and hot and heavy in his hand. He thumbs the slit, spreads some of the formed precome up and down. It’s not enough. He releases Minghao to spit into his own hand, and then slides it back into Minghao's boxers and resumes stroking him. The glide is slick, good. Minghao shivers.

“It wouldn’t—ah, Jun—be the—the first time. God, just like that.”

“You’ve never shot someone you cared about before.”

“I don’t,” Minghao pants, grinding his ass back against Jun’s erection. Jun’s breath catches in his throat. “Care about him, I mean.”

“I want to fuck you,” Jun says. “Not tonight, you’re too tired. But I really want to.”

“When all this is over,” Minghao promises. “Gonna ride you, gonna sit on your cock and make you scream.”

There must be something seriously wrong with Jun. Something twisted, something dark. That's why it was so easy for him to mingle with criminals, probably. You were made from dirt, and you will return to dirt.

Jun grunts, rubbing himself against Minghao a little desperately.

“I’ll tie you up,” Minghao continues. He’s bucking up, fucking into Jun’s fist.  “With my belt, to the headboard. Gonna fuck myself on you, take what I need, and you won't be able to touch.”

Jun has never been this turned on in his life. He buries his face into the side of Minghao’s neck, mouths hotly at his jugular, and Minghao fights down a shudder. His legs are quivering. He’s so close, Jun can tell. He can tell because he knows what Minghao sounds like on the brink of release, he knows, because this is something they do. It makes Jun a little dizzy.

“Come on, Hao,” he breathes out, close to Minghao’s ear. “Come for me.”

Minghao’s back bows into a perfect arch, his head turned to the right, mouth blindly looking for Jun’s. Jun kisses him, and it's messy, mostly tongue and spit. Minghao groans into his mouth and comes, hot and abundant over Jun’s hand, body trembling through the aftershock. Jun stays still as he comes down from it, chest heaving with the need for air. After a few second, when his breathing seems to have returned to normal, Minghao extricates himself from Jun’s embrace and turns around. His eyes are glassy. Jun is rock hard in his sweatpants.

“What do you want?” Minghao asks. “My hand? My mouth?”

Jun doesn't take long to think it over. “Your mouth,” he answers almost immediately. “Please.”

Minghao nods, gets on his knees. He pulls Jun’s pants down to his ankles, but when Jun raises a leg to help him kick them the rest of the way, Minghao’s fingers dig into his shin.

“Don't move,” he orders. Heat pools at the pit of Jun’s stomach. Minghao takes him in, for a second, the same way Jun has seen him look at incoming cargo on the very rare nights he comes down to the docks personally to inspect new shipments. Then he bends down and swallows Jun down, going slow, taking in as much of Jun as he can, throat fluttering around him to accommodate. It takes all of Jun’s willpower and then some more to stay immobile.

“I’m not gonna last,” he warns, voice strained. Minghao hums in acknowledgement, the vibration eliciting a loud moan on Jun’s part.

It's good, it’s just so good, there is no other word for it. Minghao looks up at him from beneath his lashes, beautiful and wild and so fucking in control. Warmth explodes all over Jun’s body, tiny stars flashing through his peripheral vision, and for a short moment it feels like projecting right outside of his physical form and then being snapped right back into it. He spills in Minghao's mouth, and Minghao doesn't budge, swallows his come like it's the best fucking thing he's ever tasted, moaning as he does. He’s grinning when he pulls away. Jun is so in love with him.

 

--

 

Let me kill him for you, he wants to insist. In the middle of the most random scenes, during dinner, at meetings, in the evening as they drink their tea; Jun wants to get on his knees and beg. Let me set you free.

He doesn't bring it up again.

 

--

 

The way Minghao looks at Jun, sometimes, when they're alone in the semi-darkness, when they're surrounded by people at the docks, when they're driving around the streets of Shanghai, when they're sitting side by side during meetings at HQ, when when when always ; the way he glances over when he thinks Jun isn't looking, when he thinks Jun won't notice, it's terrifying.

If he knew, a tiny, strident voice screams inside Jun’s head, he would hate you. He would kill you. You'd deserve it. Everything he likes loves? everything he loves about you?—is a lie.

 

--

 

Not everything, Jun knows. In a rare moment of clarity, of honesty towards himself, he knows. The secret smiles exchanged where no one else can see, his blood on the pavement, his body trembling under Minghao, all this, all this is true, all this is real, it's all Jun, it's all Junhui.

 

--

 

Mingyu and Jun have been alone in Minghao's office for exactly thirty-seven minutes, and neither of them has said a single word. Minghao is going to come back and find them exactly as he left them, staring each other down like guard dogs.

“You don't like me very much, do you?” Jun asks finally, to break the oppressive silence.

“I don't like the power you seem to have over him,” Mingyu says. “I don't trust you.”

Jun’s first reflex is to ask, what power? But if he thinks it over objectively, puts the self-loathing aside for an instant, Mingyu is right. Minghao, as much as he can be wrapped around a little finger, is wrapped around Jun’s. It's just that Jun doesn't see it, most of the time, because the feeling is mutual.

That's what he should be telling Mingyu. Instead, he decides to attack, like a venomous snake.

“You’re not worried about my trustworthiness, Kim. You're just bitter because you used to have that power.”

“Yes,” Mingyu sneers, his gaze hard as stone. If Jun was less trained, less observant, he would have been fooled. But Jun got where he is first and foremost because he's always been excellent at the practical aspect of his job at least, so he notices the flash of hurt in Mingyu's eyes. “I used to be the one he’d come to for everything. I know all his secrets. I’ve known him all my life. I know his body, too, exactly how to make him scream. I know what he looks like with my cock down his throat.”

The backrest of the chair squeaks where Jun is gripping it, almost snapping. His knuckles are white.

“I’m going to kill you,” Jun grits through his teeth.

Mingyu pushes himself off the wall gracefully, takes off his tailored jacket and rolls up the sleeves of his white dress shirt.

“Come and get it, loverboy.”

It's not a clean fight. Mingyu has never played by the rules in his life, and Jun hates him too much to be fair. They tumble onto the carpet, roll around in a hurricane of fists and scratches. Mingyu lands a punch on the lower part of Jun’s face, and the metallic taste of blood splashes inside Jun’s mouth. Jun retaliates by trapping Mingyu between his legs, straddling him, and wrapping a hand around his throat. He presses down against the carotid, just enough to make it very hard but not impossible to inhale. Mingyu’s eyes are dark, staring directly into Jun’s, pupils blown. He looks furious. He—

Jun stills. He relieves the pressure of his palm, lets Mingyu blow out a sharp breath but doesn't completely move his hand. Surely he’s mistaken, but he has to make sure. Tentatively, he rolls his hips. Mingyu grunts.

“You’re hard,” Jun marvels. “Fighting turns you on.”

Yes,” Mingyu hisses through his teeth.

“I’m gonna get up,” Jun says. “Don’t trip me.”

Mingyu’s hand shoots up, grabs him by the forearm. “Stay here.”

“Mingyu…” Jun warns, unsure. He’s starting to feel the heat of arousal, like a fireball slowly forming in his belly. He shifted when he was trying to stand, and now Mingyu’s erection is unmistakable against his ass, even through their pants.

“We either finish this or we fuck,” Mingyu says. “Your choice.”

If Jun closes his eyes, all he can see is Minghao. Minghao smiling up at him sleepily in their bed, Minghao in one of his anthracite suits that cost more than Jun’s apartment, Minghao naked and writhing under him, Minghao at the shooting range, Minghao playing poker at one of his father’s underground casinos wearing the most devious grin, Minghao in the 127 photographs in Jun’s dossier about him.

“Okay,” he says, and starts unfastening his button-down.

 

--

 

Minghao is waiting for them in the hallway. There is no question that he knows what just happened—Jun doesn't think they were particularly loud, but he knows they were not quiet either. There is a hand-shaped bruise on the back of Mingyu’s neck, and an ugly cut on Jun’s bottom lip. There are other traces, too, but those are hidden underneath clothes. Underneath skin.

“Don’t speak to me,” Minghao orders Jun as soon as he sees him. It’s strained and angry, but it's contained, too, like Minghao is making an immense effort. Jun opens his mouth then closes it, like a fish out of water.

Mingyu sneers smugly. Minghao turns to him.

“Happy now?”

“Very,” Mingyu replies. “I was right.”

“You have no idea what you're talking about,” Minghao snaps back. Jun feels nauseous. “Go wait for me in the car,” Minghao tells him. He complies, but not before throwing a worried look to Mingyu, who just nods, trying to convey I got it under control through his gaze.

 

“Get out,” Minghao says in lieu of greetings as he opens the car door. “Leave the keys. I’m driving today.”

“You’re not supposed—,” Jun starts, but Minghao glares.

“I asked you not to talk to me.”

It's like walking through a waterfall. Jun feels the chill down to his bones. He takes the risk anyway.

“What did you expect would happen? When you left us alone in that room.”

Minghao pinches the bridge of his nose, tired. “Jun,” he says, suddenly deflating, more defeated than irate. “Right now, if we have this conversation, I’m going to be mean.”

“I don't mind.”

“You will.”

Jun moves to the passenger seat.

 

--

 

It takes five days for Minghao to come back to him. Life goes on, because it has to, but Jun feels unsteady as he goes through the motions, unbalanced. He’s had too much time to think himself into a black hole, even though technically they've been busy as hell. There's new product coming in, and Minghao wants to be present every step of the way, after the fiasco with the last shipment. Jun trails behind him, because it's his job, and Minghao lets him do it, but the only words they exchange are for the benefit of onlookers. At the house, in the evenings, Minghao eats in his room, doors closed.

The part of Jun that is still good, still Junhui, adapts to the new situation easier than he expected. Compartmentalizing, he's good at it. Used to be, at least. It's an occasion, he realizes. To untangle himself from Minghao before it's too late. He could go to the phonebooth right now, call the emergency number. He knows enough. He's done enough. If he came in now, it would make a real difference. Not exactly what he had hoped for, almost two years ago, but enough to make a significant dent in the schemings of the Xu Clan.

That part of Jun never wins. It didn't the first time he tried to leave, and it won't win now, not when Minghao just entered Jun's room uninvited, determined look on his face. Jun sees him and his body immediately angles itself towards him, like a plant to the sunlight.

“Get undressed,” Minghao says, no preamble.

“Hao,” Jun tries to say, needs to say, “Hao, I'm so s—”

Minghao's voice is ice cold. "Shut up. I don't want to hear it.” Jun seals his lips immediately. “Here is how this is going to work. You don’t speak unless you are spoken to. You don't touch unless I tell you to. Is that clear?” Jun nods vehemently. Minghao’s expression softens for a fraction of a second. “Get undressed,” he repeats. Jun does, hastily, his clothes discarded on the floor one by one. Minghao is still dressed from work, black slacks, white button-down. Jun wants him naked, wants skin on skin, but he can't ask. “Get on the bed,” Minghao commands. “On your back. Grab the headboard. Can you hold still, or do you need me to cuff you?”

Jun thinks about it. He wants to be good, wants Minghao to know that he can follow orders. He’s not sure, though, that right now is the best time for a challenge.

“Handcuffs,” he decides. “I need the handcuffs.”

Minghao narrows his eyes, unreadable. “Don't move. I’ll be right back.” As if Jun was ever going to go anywhere.

He comes back with more than the cuffs, settles a bottle of lube and a condom on Jun’s bedside table. There's a metallic click as the lock twists. Jun tests the give, and the carved wood of the headboard whines.

“Give me a safeword,” Minghao says.

“Shenzhen,” Jun replies immediately. It hasn't changed, since his first foray into less conventional sex, almost a decade ago, when Jun was an aimless college freshman, right before finding his path and abandoning everything to join the police academy. His hometown, what he left behind, it's always been just heavy enough to use when he needs to snap out of a scene. It's a good safeword. Jun never pronounces that name in other circumstances.

They always kiss, during sex. Jun likes making out, could spend hours simply enjoying the way their mouths fit together, the small sounds Minghao makes, the way his hand cradles the back of Jun’s head, reflexively. For Minghao, Jun has come to understand, kissing is a means to convey affection even in moments where everything else about him is steely, unforgiving. He’ll fuck Jun hard, use him in the roughest ways, but he always kisses like Jun is precious—like, like drinking expensive white tea in fine porcelain cups.

Minghao doesn't kiss him this time. He grazes his teeth down the column of Jun’s throat, bites a necklace of bruises over Jun’s collarbones. He closes his lips around one of Jun’s nipples and sucks, hard, rolling the other between two teasing fingers, making Jun arch up on the bed, tug at the handcuffs desperately. Jun bites his bottom lip to remain silent, chest heaving.

He wishes Minghao would be harsher. This—whatever it is, it's supposed to be punishment, he knows. But maybe, maybe Minghao knows him better than Jun thought, maybe he knows that more than physical pain, more than frustration, it’s the gulf between them even as they are touching that hurts, hurts like a bitch.

“Tell me what you were thinking,” Minghao says, orders, nose dragging over Jun’s navel, lips a breath away from his hipbone.

“That’s how I’ve always solved my problems,” Jun says, too honest and not enough at the same time. With my body goes unsaid.

Minghao stills. “Is that why you're sleeping with me? I’m a problem you have to solve?”

“No,” Jun says, chokes on it, and there's a flash of pain in his wrists when he tries to free himself so that he can reach out, touch. “No, I—” I love you, it almost slips out, I love you, I want you, it has never been like that with you.

“You what, Jun?”

Shame prickles on Jun’s skin like a shiver, like standing outside naked in the snow. He knows his cheeks are red. Minghao is looking up at him, staring, drinking in the sight of him, there are no other words for how fucking intense this is.

“Don’t make me say it,” he pleads. Minghao, surprisingly, allows him this.

His hands feel strong, so grounding as they span Jun’s hips, press him down firmly. He lowers his head, drags the flat of his tongue along the underside of Jun's cock once, humming softly as Jun's thighs jerk. And then he's urging Jun's legs over his shoulders, mouthing lower, reaching over blindly for the lube, and Jun groans then, low in his throat, deep with desire, body trembling as Minghao eases his first finger inside.

He's not kind about it. One becomes two becomes three, and soon enough he's fucking Jun with his fingers relentlessly, the heel of his palm clapping against Jun’s skin as he curls, pushes, takes. The stretch burns in the most delicious way, and Jun hiccups around a moan. But then right as Jun is getting somewhere, Minghao slows down, his thrusts suddenly shallow, and Jun breaks the rules.

“Please,” he pants, “Please—I just—”

Minghao bites the inside of his thigh. “Patience.” Squeezing Jun’s hip in a quick warning, he slides his fingers free, and before Jun really has the time to register the emptiness, replaces them with his mouth.

He takes his time with it, eases Jun open with wide, wet strokes. He licks and licks and licks until Jun is a quivering mess, broken, mewling sounds trickling from his lips.

Jun almost sobs when Minghao stops, digs his fingernails into his palms to keep himself quiet.
“I should leave you like this,” Minghao says. If it wasn't for the rough edge to his voice, it would sound almost conversational, disdainful. But Jun knows him, and Jun knows that look, too. Minghao has never been very good at hiding that particular hunger from him. “Aching for me to touch you, tied to my bed.”

Jun almost corrects him, but Minghao isn't really wrong. It is his bed, just like it is his room, technically, his house, everything here Minghao's, even Jun, especially Jun.
“Please,” Jun begs, too needy to care that he's breaking the rules again, “Please, please fuck me, I'm sorry. Hao, I'm sorry, please.”

Minghao presses two fingers back inside him, no warning. Jun’s body spasms.

“Tell me how he touched you. Tell me where.”

And Jun, Jun isn't sure this is a good idea, isn't sure this isn't gonna make things worse, but also he can’t, he cannot think

Minghao finds his prostate and pushes and pushes and holds, and Jun cries out, “He fucked me, I let him have me, he bent me over your desk and fucked me, I’m sorry, Minghao, I’m sorry—”

And Minghao, beautiful, sweet, lethal Minghao, Minghao kisses the side of Jun’s knee and whispers, “Shh, baby, sshhh. I got you, stop apologizing.” Brilliant, too perceptive except about the one thing that truly matters, he starts moving his fingers again and cajoles it out of Jun, unfair, “Now tell me why you really did it.”

“Because I don't deserve you,” Jun gasps, torn between intense pleasure and deep, mournful sorrow. “So that you'd have an—ah, fuck , a real, a concrete reason to hate me.”

So that'd you'd let me go.

“That's not how it works,” Minghao says, his hand still working methodically, sending sparks through Jun’s nerves. “You don’t have to deserve me. I want you. I chose you. I choose you.”

You don't know me, Jun wants to scream, but he can't, he can't, so he swallows it down, and it tastes bitter like burnt toast on a Sunday morning, like the mold-infested air back at the orphanage, like failing at the most primordial task.

“Please,” he says instead, again. “Please, I need you inside me.”

And there is something primal, something holy, in the act of love. In becoming one, in melting into one another, in accepting a foreign body into your body. There is something mystical, in how Jun opens up for Minghao, pliant, ready, soft in ways he never is outside of this very moment. And Minghao takes Jun’s face in one hand, forces him to look him in the eye, fucks him hard while staring right into his fucking soul, and Jun sobs, tears streaming down his cheeks, wrists stinging from the strain.

“Mine,” Minghao pants, breath hot against Jun’s lips. “Mine.”

“Yours,” Jun agrees. “Yours, yours, take me, take me, please, I’m yours.”

“Nobody else,” Minghao grunts, “Jun, please, never again.” And the authority is gone from his voice, evaporated. It’s a plea—vulnerable, open, young. And suddenly Jun remembers, that Minghao is younger than him, the two years between them like a gaping hole.

“Kiss me,” he asks, demands, breathless, “Minghao, kiss me.”

It’s like inhaling again after minutes underwater. Jun wishes his hands were free, wishes he could slide his fingers into Minghao's hair, could bring him closer, closer, almost too close, the line between him and me blurred. He moans, exhales breathily at the slick push and retreat of Minghao’s tongue in his mouth.

“I’m gonna come,” Minghao says as they break apart, and he sounds surprised, almost disbelieving, like somewhere along the road he forgot somehow that this wasn’t just about Jun.

Jun groans, throws his head back. He can feel his own orgasm building up, like hearing a melody from another room.

“On me,” he tells Minghao, “Mark me.”

Minghao makes a sound then, half moan half growl, and when he pulls out Jun feels empty empty empty but the view is enrapturing, Minghao stroking himself in hasty, shaky movements, watching Jun with hawk-like focus, teeth digging into his bottom lip.

And Jun is hard, feels like his whole body is on fire, but Jun is also so, so in love, and he remembers how Minghao’s voice wavered when he told Jun I choose you, and he remembers Minghao wanting him from that very first night, in the car.

“Come on,” he encourages, eyes mapping the slope of Minghao’s shoulders, the faint scars on his arms, the graceful curve of his mouth that Jun wants to kiss until they are both dizzy with it, “Come on, boss, come for me.”

And it does something to Minghao, his breath hitching, but it's when Jun says Minghao that he lets go, with a choked up moan, painting long white streaks all over his hand, Jun’s belly, Jun’s cock. He’s trembling, breath coming out in harsh huffs.

Jun gives him a minute, then smiles, “You made a mess.” His voice comes out less teasing than he was aiming for, more ruined, more dying to be touched, and Minghao hears it, mouth curling up in a feline smirk.

“Let me clean that up for you.”

And oh, Minghao’s tongue, dipping in the hollow of his navel, lapping at Jun’s abs, licking his own come off Jun, if that isn't the hottest thing, if that doesn't have Jun shaking, begging again, please please please Minghao until Minghao takes him in his mouth, and Jun is coming a millisecond later, back curved like a bow, profanities spilling from his lips.

Minghao slithers up his body, unlocks the handcuffs and presses soft kisses to the red lines on Jun’s wrists, wordless apology. Jun sags against the mattress, exhaustion bone-deep. Minghao brings up the blanket over them both, not caring that they're sticky and sweaty, and Jun curls up against his side, Minghao’s arm around his waist. Minghao presses his lips to the top of Jun’s head, murmurs, “Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry,” Jun says, because he can’t think of a truthful way to answer his question.

“Stop—stop saying you're sorry. I knew it would happen. I hoped it wouldn't, but I knew it would happen. I forgive you. ”

“You knew I’d—with Mingyu?”

Minghao shakes his head. It makes the mattress wobble. “Not necessarily, no. But I knew something like that would happen. You don’t… you look at me, sometimes, like you're just waiting for the other shoe to drop.” I am. “I don’t—I know there is no stability, in our world. And I guess we haven’t talked about… this, whatever it is, we haven't talked about it that much.”

They haven’t. They talk a lot, for two people with supposedly nothing in common, but they haven't really discussed this , this relationship. They just fell into it, Minghao just dragged Jun down with him, brave enough for the both of them, but maybe lacking this particular brand of courage, the one needed to put words on emotions and actions.

“So I want you to know,” Minghao continues, “For me, right now, for me there is only you.” Jun turns his face into the crook of his neck, presses his open mouth to the base of his throat, I love you silent but audible in the quiet, like a prayer, like a confession at the altar. Minghao knows, Jun is almost sure. He has to, the way it irradiates from Jun’s every pore, the way it guides Jun’s every move. “I got mad, because—because it was Mingyu, because I know why he did it, what he was trying to prove. He’s wrong. I know he’s wrong. You’re not a mistake.”

“I am,” Jun says, low. “I am, but I’m not going to try to convince you anymore.” He can feel Minghao’s pulse like this, thump thump thump. “I’m too selfish, I want you anyway. It’s—for me, too. Minghao, there's no one else for me but you, too.”

 

--

 

Minghao runs a bath for him, as soon as Jun feels like he can move his limbs again. They soak in the warm bubbly water together, wash each other's hair, exchange lazy, aimless kisses.

“I’m sorry I got angry,” Minghao says finally, nuzzling at Jun’s jaw. This is the only way they know how to communicate, really, what they feel, Jun realizes. Skin on skin. “I don’t—I don’t own you, I know I say—”

Jun interrupts him. “Let’s just agree not to hurt each other again.”

He can’t deal with talking, he can’t deal with Minghao fumbling with explanations, not when he’s carrying the heaviest secret, when the lie colors everything. He should be upset, maybe, at how territorial Minghao had been, how presumptuous, too, but it’s hard to think clearly when all he breathes in with each inhale is guilt. And it used to be Yixing, that Jun felt he was betraying, his brothers and sisters in arms, his duty; but now it’s Minghao, loyalties completely overturned, and there is no turning back from that. There is no hiding from the kind of person it makes him.

“Let’s,” Minghao agrees, gentle like the breeze back home near the coast.

 

--

 

The person Jun meets on the roof is not Yixing. It’s not his handler either, a fat man who always wears his tie crooked. It’s a woman, beautiful and severe in her inconspicuous work attire, a simple navy pencil skirt and a white blouse.

“I’m Jieqiong,” she says, “And I’ll be your liaison from now on.”

Jun frowns, thrown aback. “Is Chief Zhang okay?”

She makes a dismissive hand gesture. “Don’t worry about that. He’s busy.”

“Busy how?” Jun insists.

Jieqiong gives him a pointed stare. “ Busy busy.” She tucks a lock of jet-black hair behind her ear. “Update me.”

Jun’s stomach is tied in knots. “There’s a ship coming in in three days, with cocaine, and one leaving in five, with guns. I can have the manifesto by tomorrow, but I don’t think meeting again is a good idea. I don’t think doing anything about it is a good idea, really. Minghao has been on edge, recently.”

“When I was being briefed for this job, I was told you were afraid of falling in too deep.” She looks at him, really looks, right into his eyes. “Are you in too deep, Wen Junhui?”

“No,” Jun says, and he sounds so sure, so stable , he’s always been so good at lying. “I’m close, though. Really close to something concrete.”

“That’s good,” Jieqiong smiles. “Because the people from on-top, our boss’s bosses, they want this case closed by the end of the year.”

Ice floods through Jun’s veins. “I need more time. That’s—that’s too soon, I need more time. I’m just one man.”

“You’re not stupid, Wen Junhui, you know we have others in the Xu Clan. You’re just the only operative working embedded with the son.”

“Might as well be,” Jun snarls. “I know who your men are, working the docks, doing side gigs as bouncers, desperately trying to climb up. I live in Xu Minghao’s house .”

Jieqiong grimaces. “And we are all very impressed, but—”

“I need more time,” Jun cuts her off. “Minghao is planning something big. Go in now, bring him in now, and you’ll have to let him go. I have enough on his father, but not on him.” It’s not a lie. It’s also not exactly the truth. “Give me six months. I’ll give you the entire family on a silver platter.”

Her expression softens a little. “Listen, if it were me, I’d give you all the time you need. I know some things can't be rushed.” She worries at her bottom lip with her teeth, telltale of how uncomfortable she is. “But I don't make the decisions, I just convey them.”

“Then please convey this: I gave more than two years of my life, while I could have been securing myself a cosy government position, to this operation. I gave… most of my soul, really. You have no idea how fucking dark it gets down here. So tell them, whoever the fuck you're reporting to, that if they want to waste all my hard work, everything I sacrificed, then sure, go ahead, pull me in February.”

 

--

 

When he was fifteen, Jun participated in the orphanage’s musical production of the year. First role, the full thing, dancing, acting, singing. The director, their literature teacher, told him he had a bright future in front of him as an entertainer. Jun found himself dreaming of the Beijing Dance Academy, maybe even of flying away to Korea, joining the idol training system. Anything to leave, anything to get free. Dancing felt like flying, then, in the small lapse of time where it was a fantasy and not a burden, a constant reminder of failure.

But no one had taken Jun in, no one had ever picked him, and it cost too much to get to the capital for auditions already, Jun didn't even want to think of tuition. And Korea… Korea was so far away, so out of reach it might as well have been heaven.

 

Standing opposite Zhou Jieqiong, waiving lie after lie, careful constructs of an alternate reality in which Jun is a good man, an honorable man, he thinks back to his literature teacher, the pride in her scintillating eyes, the faith she had in him.

 

Look, Laoshi, I am an actor after all.

 

--

 

It’s cold in December, the wind blowing hard, even standing right in the middle of the city, surrounded by skyscrapers. Jun zips up his parka and glances over at Minghao, who's only wearing a long felt coat, because it “fits his aesthetic better”—those were Minghao’s words. Mingyu is finishing his cigarette, and Minghao won’t get in the car without him, and Jun won't move without Minghao, so they're all stuck outside, slowly turning into icicles.

Things are better, with Mingyu, lately. The tension is gone. Jun isn’t sure if it’s because they literally fucked it out of their respective systems, or if it’s a result of whatever Minghao said to Mingyu afterwards, but he’ll take whatever it is. It makes his life easier. In another lifetime, Jun knows he and Mingyu are friends. There is something, something they recognize in each other, a distant sort of familiarity. In this life, they are tied by their profound devotion to the same person, and it's enough.

“You only smoke when you’re nervous,” Minghao remarks. His tone is neutral, measured.

“No,” Mingyu smirks, “I also smoke right after sex.” Minghao glares. “I’m not nervous,” Mingyu says. “I’m carefully optimistic. This meeting could mean a lot.”

“It could also end with guns drawn,” Minghao says.

Mingyu tilts his head to the side. “Now who's nervous?”

Minghao doesn’t answer. Jun presses his palm to the small of his back, hopes Minghao can feel it even through several layers of clothing. Mingyu takes one last drag and then crushes the stub under the sole of his shoe.

“Let’s go.”

Jun lost his job, technically. Minghao almost never lets him drive anywhere, now. There’s a guy he doesn’t know the name of in the driver's seat of the SUV they're getting into right now, and Jun itches to be at his place, doesn’t know what to make of his new unofficial position. Everyone knows, he’s certain of it. The way Minghao looks at him, touches him, even in public, especially in public; it leaves little to the imagination. He wonders what they’re calling him, in their heads. He likes to think of himself as Minghao’s lover. My Patroclus, Minghao had said. But he knows the most likely answer is bitch. He minds it more than he thought he would.

Mingyu climbs up in the front, his phone out in one hand already, eyes glued to his screen. From the outside, they look like businessmen, and Jun supposes they are, in the strictest sense of the term. He sits on the backseat with Minghao, side pressed to the door to leave some respectable distance between them. Minghao curls a hand around his wrist and tugs him closer.

“I don’t want you getting trigger-happy in there,” Minghao whispers, words meant just for him. “Even if someone gets in my face.”

It’s half a joke. Jun is known, now, even outside their circle, for how easily he reaches for his gun when someone insults Minghao. There are worse reputations to have.

“I’ll try my best,” Jun laughs. “Can’t promise anything.”

“I’m serious,” Minghao insists. So, maybe not a joke, after all. “This is your first time on Zhu territory as one of my men. Behave. Wait for my instructions.”

“Jun doesn’t know the meaning of the word behave,” Mingyu cackles. It’s said without venom, it’s banter, so new it still catches Jun by surprise. Minghao sneers.

“Oh, trust me, he does.”

Jun chokes on his own saliva. Mingyu huffs, grimaces in exaggerated disgust.

“I don’t need to know these things, thank you.”

“Then don’t make assumptions,” Minghao says, but he says it teasingly, voice warm and happy, and in moments like these it’s easy to understand that him and Mingyu are friends, best friends. It’s easy, too, to believe Minghao when he says they were in love once, but aren’t anymore.

“I will,” Jun tells Minghao, once he’s done coughing. “Behave, I mean.”

“That’s my boy,” Minghao smiles, and Jun’s face reddens, burning.

 

The Next is the most lavish, exuberant place Jun has ever walked in. It’s not exactly a club, not exactly a restaurant, not exactly a bar. On the internet, it is soberly described as an “upscale lounge”. There’s a DJ, but while the music is loud enough to reverberate through Jun’s sternum, it’s low enough that one can have a conversation if they’re seated at one of the tables on the mezzanine level. The decor is chic in a very European way, all velvet and dark, rich tones. It screams opulence, like everything about Zhu Zhengting. Old money. Deep pockets. Expensive taste.

The man who greets them at the door should be a stranger to Jun, but Junhui knows him—knows of him, has seen his picture many times, on computer screens, glued to paper, taped to a whiteboard.

Lin Yanjun bows to Minghao, his mouth curling into a feline smile. Minghao’s eyes narrow, and for a second Jun holds his breath, whole body tensing. He counts the possible exit points. His Colt feels too hot against his heart.

But then Minghao nods, and Lin Yanjun motions to the stairs, and Mingyu advances, and Jun exhales.

“You’re lucky,” Yanjun says as they walk past the public area of the upper floor, towards the back, “He’s in a good mood.”

In the room Yanjun ushers them to, splayed on a large black leather couch, surrounded by half-naked girls in lingerie and thigh-high boots, Wang Ziyi does indeed look quite pleased. There is another man, too, sitting cross-legged next to him, white shirt unbuttoned, lipstick traces smeared all over his jaw, blond hair tousled. Ziyi’s expression is soft when he turns to him and says “Kun, leave us.” Then it turns hard and serious again. He doesn’t get up, just stares Minghao up and down and finally grins, “Ah, the Xu prodigy. Welcome.”

“I was under the impression,” Minghao says, and he may sound normal to the rest of the world, but Jun knows him, and he is pissed as hell, “That I would be meeting with your boss.”

“You were mistaken,” Ziyi shrugs. “Zhengting doesn’t busy himself with small matters.”

Oh, that’s not going to go over well.

“I am hardly small matters, Wang.”

“Don’t take it personally,” Ziyi leers. “Most things are small matters to him.”

If the Xu Clan has an empire, Zhu Zhengting owns an entire galaxy. Mao Zedong may have cleared the mainland of the Triads, but the Zhus, somehow, have survived every purge. Zhu Zhengting comes from a long, long line of skilled criminals. Leading is in his blood. Strategy, playing everyone like pawns on a checkerboard, too.

Most people in the business, no matter how high-ranking, never even catch a glimpse of him. The police have photos, obviously, but those are few and rare. Jun has been made privy to exactly two of them.

Minghao, he knows, knows Zhu Zhengting personally, well enough to call him by his first name with no formalities. Zhengting sending his second in his place to discuss a potential alliance that would drastically alter the landscape of Shanghai's underground, it’s an affront. Minghao is right to be fuming.

“If he’s not going to take this seriously,” Minghao says, “I’m leaving. I’m not going to waste my time.”

“Waste your time? Your time?” Ziyi laughs. “Come on. Let’s not pretend we are on equal standing. This,” he gestures to the space between them, “Is a courtesy. A favor for an old friend. We don't need you. You , on the other hand, are quite desperate.”

Behave. Wait for my instructions. Jun repeats it mentally, as much as he can, to shut himself up.

Mingyu seems to have no such qualms. “Mind your mouth,” he hisses through his teeth, takes a step closer to the couch, now standing right next to Minghao. Wang Ziyi looks thoroughly unimpressed.

“The truth hurts.”

Mingyu looks ready to jump him. Minghao rests a commanding hand on his forearm.

“Mingyu-ah,” he says in Korean, low. “Stand down.” He looks back at Ziyi, calculating. “We’re leaving,” he repeats finally. “Tell Zhengting to grow some balls. Exactly like that.”

Ziyi laughs again at that, a full-throated cackle. “Will do.”

 

Outside, Mingyu kicks a trash can. Minghao talks him down in hushed, rapid Korean that Jun isn’t fluent enough in to understand.

“We’re going out for drinks,” he turns to tell Jun in Mandarin. He’s holding Mingyu by the elbow.

“Okay,” Jun says. He’s not sure he understands the full scope of what just happened, but Mingyu seems to need Minghao more than Jun does right now, and something tells him it’s reciprocal. “Are you—are you taking a cab, or keeping the car, or?”

Minghao frowns, confused. “What? Why would we leave the car?”

Jun blinks. “So that I can drive home. Or I can take a taxi, I don’t mind—why are you laughing?”

Minghao takes a second to collect himself. “I meant we, as in, we. You too, obviously.”

“Aw,” Mingyu coos, and Jun takes it back, Mingyu still very much is his worst enemy, “Baby thought we were leaving him behind.”

“Don’t mind him,” Minghao rolls his eyes. “We just need to put some soju in him.”

“Infinity?” Jun offers.

Minghao shakes his head. “I want a breath of fresh air. Let’s go somewhere where people won’t be calling me boss for a change.”

Which is how they find themselves in a small bar downtown, the kind of establishment they usually never go to. It looks nothing like the  Infinity, nothing like Next, for sure. It’s as far removed from their world as can be, and as they down their third row of shots, Jun imagines an easier life, where this is just a casual night out spent between three friends, and not the sad aftermath of a failed mob deal.

“To Jun,” Mingyu announces drunkenly, raising his glass.

“It’s empty, dumbass,” Minghao sighs.

“It’s what he deserves,” Mingyu retorts, and Minghao hits him on the head.

“I want to hear the rest of the toast,” Jun demands. Mingyu orders more alcohol.

“To Jun,” he says again. “For making Hao happy.”

Yah,” Minghao groans, dragging his hands down his face. “This is embarrassing.”

You’re embarrassing,” Mingyu parrots. “Last time you texted him during a meeting and he was grinning for ten minutes,” he tells Jun, swinging his stool back so he can look directly into Jun’s eyes literally behind Minghao’s back.

Minghao glares. “You’re fired.”

“You can’t fire me,” Mingyu singsongs, “I have enough blackmail fodder to ruin you ten times over.”

“I’m going to have you assassinated,” Minghao insists.

“Then who would kick Zhu Zhengting’s ass for you, babe?”

“No one is kicking Zhengting’s ass,” Minghao says urgently, “We just had a conversation about this, remember?”

“Details,” Mingyu dismisses him, waving his hand as if trying to swat an invisible fly.

“What happened to cautiously optimistic?”

“Fuck caution,” Mingyu says. “And fuck Wang Ziyi, that fucking tool.”

Jun laughs. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“No, I kiss your boyfriend,” Mingyu shoots back instantly. It doesn’t sting, Jun realizes, surprised.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” he says, because it’s true. He’s not. They are… something, for sure, but boyfriends isn’t it.

Boyfriend makes it sound like Jun is a sixteen year old girl,” Minghao says.

“The only other term I can think of is partner,” Mingyu frowns, “And that makes you sound married.”

Ah, hell, Jun thinks. “I’m his lover,” he says, tries it out, feels how it rolls on his tongue. It sounds right. It sounds good. Minghao turns and looks at him, really looks . Mingyu doesn’t say anything for a while, and when he does, his mocking tone is shaky, his aw, lame a throwaway line.

 

Lover, Minghao repeats later that night in between kisses that taste like maotai and prawn chips; like he’s trying it too, testing how it fits, lover.

And Jun grabs him by the collar, pulls him closer, whispers Yeah, yeah, it’s me.

 

--

 

Zhu Zhengting, apparently, does grow some balls, and comes to see Minghao on Xu land, on a sad, rainy Friday. Jun just happens to be staring out the window in Minghao’s office when a long white car pulls up in front of the Infinity. Zhengting comes out dressed in all black, protecting his blond hair with his Louis Vuitton pouch even though his driver is holding an umbrella above his head. Tall, lean, face like an angel; he doesn’t look like a mobster. Minghao, too, is beautiful; but it’s a beauty that makes sense here, sharp angles and thin smirk and piercing eyes. Zhu Zhengting belongs on a runway, features too delicate to exist so close to Death.

“You have a visitor,” Jun informs his boss, and Minghao sighs deeply.

“I figured. I wish he would call. He always shows up unannounced.”

“You talk…” Jun starts, doesn’t know how to phrase it. “Like you know him very well.”

“We have history,” Minghao shrugs. “My father used to work for his father, ages ago.”

Jun catches himself right before it slips out. That wasn’t in the file. His shock must show anyway, and Minghao interprets it the only logical way.

“Yeah, I know. As I said, it was a long time ago. Daddy prefers not to mention it, and almost no one who knew him at the time is still alive, so. Anyway,” he grabs his phone from the table, unlocks it, “That’s how I know Zhengting.”

“Do you want me to leave?” Jun inquires.

“Yes,” Minghao says. “I’ll fill you in later anyway. But Zhengting won’t like it if you’re here. He doesn’t know you. Send Mingyu in on your way out, please.”

Jun grimaces. “I don’t think Mingyu is in the building.”

Minghao swears softly under his breath. “Then tell Jeonghan to be on standby for me. And find me Mingyu.”

 

--

 

Mingyu, it turns out, is at the shooting range.

He’s wearing dark grey sweatpants and a black V neck T-shirt, the most casual Jun has ever seen him. His hair, usually slicked back with gel, is unstyled today, falling softly right above his eyes. He looks good. Approachable, or the closest to it Mingyu can get, Jun supposes. It’s a strange thought to have about someone holding an AK-47.

“Take a picture,” Mingyu smirks, not even deigning to turn around. “It’ll last longer.”

“Minghao sent me to fetch you,” Jun informs him, ignoring the snide remark. “Zhu Zhengting finally showed up.”

Mingyu nods, still not looking at Jun. “Let me finish this set.” Jun leans back against the wall, waits.

He puts his earplugs back on, lowers his visor, takes aim. He’s an impeccable shot, the bullets hitting the paper swiftly—head, head, heart, heart, heart. Jun remembers the first night they were introduced, Mingyu’s angry You don’t need guarding, you have me.

Mingyu sets the gun down after having inspected his handiwork, finally turns to face Jun. The skin on the side of his neck is glistening with sweat. Jun wonders how long he’s been in here.

“Liked the show?” Mingyu grins.

“You’re good,” Jun shrugs.

If this was happening… anywhere else, really. If this was happening anywhere else, at any other point in Jun’s life, Jun would be crowding Mingyu against the wall already. There is something electric in the air, still, and Jun has only ever known one way to deal with it. He bites his bottom lip, breathes through the wave of heat in his sternum.

“I promised Hao I wouldn’t touch you,” Mingyu says, and his voice has dropped a good octave. His eyes are dark. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” Jun asks, presses.

In the end, Jun is the one who ends up pinned to a hard surface. Mingyu gets all up in his space, growls, “Like that,” and puts his hands on the wall on either side of Jun’s face. Jun’s right hand automatically rises to curl itself around his bicep, and Lord, okay, Mingyu works out, Jun definitely didn’t imagine the muscles last time.

“You want me?” Mingyu asks, voice raspy, punctuating the question with a roll of his hips against Jun’s, and God, he’s already half-hard. Jun gulps.

No. Yes. I don’t know.

“Don’t tell him,” is what leaves his mouth instead. Mingyu freezes.

“I wasn’t going to,” he says slowly. They’re standing too close, now that the spell is broken. Mingyu’s pupils are still blown, and his breath is still ragged, and Jun still feels lightheaded, but he also feels nauseated with himself.

“I’m in love with him,” he says. Mingyu doesn’t say anything, just looks at him, intent. “I’m in love with him,” Jun repeats. It’s the first time he’s voicing it out loud. It’s easier than he expected. The skies don’t come crashing down. “I’ve never been in love before.”

I don’t want you. I just want him him him him.

“Me neither,” Mingyu says, quietly. He pushes himself off the wall, away from Jun. “I thought I was, once.”

Jun can’t help himself, he asks. “Was it Minghao?”

“Yes.”

They just stare at each other for a while. The silence in the room is deafening.

“I thought you were just—,” Mingyu starts, then frowns, interrupting himself. He’s looking for the right words. “Using him, I don’t know. Making your way to the top. He’s been pretty obvious about you since day one.”

“I didn’t notice,” Jun says, truthful.

Mingyu makes a face. “I know that now.”

“Was today a test too?”

“No,” Mingyu shakes his head. “I see the way you look at him. I believe you. I, uh, today. That was all me. I’m sorry.”

“I think I started it,” Jun says. “Don’t apologize.”

Mingyu chuckles darkly. “You think?” He grabs his leather jacket from the hanger on his right. “You’re pretty as hell, Jun, but that doesn’t mean people are allowed to just jump you.”

Jun blushes. It’s endearing, kind of, that Mingyu can be who he is and still have morals.

“We need to get back to the club,” Jun says. “Minghao looked stressed when I left.”

On their way to the parking lot, Jun recalls every other time he slept with someone just because he could , not because he wanted to. When he was still in college, the one therapist his best friend at the time forced him to see called it self-sabotage and threw around heavy words like trauma and sex as self-harm. Jun didn’t go back to her office. He regrets it now, maybe, a little, as he tries to understand what the hell went through his mind earlier.

Mingyu drove to the range, so they both have to take their cars back to the Infinity, which gives Jun more time alone to think. It doesn’t really help. If he lets his mind wander, it always circles back to Minghao.

 

--

 

He almost opens with it, the moment he sees Minghao. I almost fucked Mingyu again. The worst thing about it is that it wouldn't even be his most terrible confession. He daydreams about it sometimes, just grabbing Minghao by the sleeve of his vest, tugging, telling him, I met with my handler yesterday. My bosses are planning your demise.

I’ve been lying to you, I’ve been lying to you all this time.

But Minghao cups his cheek, slides a hand into his hair and brings him close enough to kiss, close enough to share air with. So Jun says, “Good meeting?” and Minghao smirks before pressing their mouths together, and then all Jun can think is I want you I want you I love you and the events of earlier that afternoon suddenly feel surreal, foreign.

“You could say that,” Minghao says, a little breathless as they separate, and it takes Jun a second to realize it's the answer to his previous question. “He’s open to the idea of doing business with us.” Minghao kisses him again, this time a little bit more assertive, backing Jun up against his desk, the wood sharp against the back of Jun’s thighs. “This could be a game changer.”

He sounds excited. Young. A wave of affection crashes over Jun, overpowering, taking everything in its passage.

He opens his mouth to say Let’s celebrate, hopes he can make it sound sexy even though Minghao obviously already is in the mood.

Instead, he hears himself say, “Minghao, I’m in love with you.”

Minghao stills. Jun’s heart is beating so fast and loud he can hear it, deafening, blood thumping under his skin. Boom boom, and for one beat Jun thinks shit, I fucked up.

Minghao’s other hand comes up to cradle Jun’s face, and this time when they kiss it’s slow and sweet and deep, Minghao angling Jun’s chin upwards and leading, stealing Jun’s breath away. Jun moans quietly, grabs the front of Minghao’s shirt. Minghao blindly swipes his hand across the surface of his desk, doesn’t stop kissing Jun as he knocks over folders and objects to the ground. Then he fucking lifts Jun and deposits him on the table, and Jun parts his legs and wraps his arms around his neck reflexively.

Minghao smells like Jun’s shampoo, coconut and vanilla, because he woke up in Jun’s bed this morning and used Jun’s shower. He’s touching Jun like he’s playing an instrument he was trained in all his life—knowing, sure motions that make Jun’s body sing underneath him. He strokes Jun to full hardness through the material of his pants, messy and almost uncomfortable, teeth dragging along Jun’s jawline slowly. Jun’s hips buck up, desperation hot in his bloodstream like boiling water, bubbling up. He knows he’s making embarrassing noises, small breathless whines that Minghao seems to enjoy like nectar under his tongue, but he can’t really bring himself to care.

“Who gets to see you like this, pretty baby?” Minghao asks huskily, right into Jun’s ear. “Who fucks you?”

“You,” Jun gasps, back arching, dying to get closer. “You, only you—”

Minghao leaves a trail of wet, open-mouthed kisses along the curve of his throat. “That’s right, baby. Only me.” He starts unbuttoning Jun’s shirt, then gets annoyed at how long it’s taking and just rips it open, tiny nacre buttons flying everywhere, cling cling cling on his office’s spotless floor. His mouth descends lower, lingering at every sensitive spot he’s discovered over the past weeks and remapping them with his tongue and teeth. Jun’s head is thrown back, his breath coming out ragged and short, but when Minghao’s knees hit the ground, he forces himself to look back down. Minghao stares up at him through long black lashes, and his voice is syrupy-sweet when he asks, “You know why? You know why no one else gets you like this?”

Jun reaches for him, traces the shape of his smile with his index finger. “Because I’m yours,” he says.

“Because you love me,” Minghao corrects. “And because I love you.”

He undoes Jun’s fly, tugs his slacks down, presses his face to Jun’s clothed erection, nuzzling at the soft cotton of his boxers. Jun very tentatively buries a hand in his soft dark hair, and Minghao leans into the touch, the picture of submission. Jun feels like he’s about to pass out.

“You’re mine,” Minghao says, voice barely above a whisper. “But I’m yours, too. I’m yours.” He mouths at the outline of Jun’s cock through his underwear, sucking and scraping his teeth gently over the head. Jun’s grip on his hair tightens. Minghao continues licking until there’s a wet spot on the front of Jun’s boxers, and he has to hold Jun’s hips down to keep him from writhing.

“Fuck, Hao,” Jun gasps.

When Minghao finally slides his underwear down and takes him in his mouth, Jun’s legs are shaking, his breath a rapid staccato; muscles locked and fingers grasping and eyes fighting to stay open, desperate to watch.  Minghao smiles, lips curling with it, humming low in his throat and sending up vibrations that Jun feels in his gut, his spine tensing like a wire.

Hao,” he says again, like a question this time, only Jun isn’t really sure what he’s asking for.

Minghao’s hand on Jun’s upper thigh relaxes, his thumb rubbing gentle circles onto Jun’s sensitive skin. Permission, Jun realizes through the haze clouding his brain. He thrusts once into Minghao's mouth, testing the waters. Minghao moans, jaw going laxer, and it’s all the encouragement Jun needs. His hips snap up, and he loses himself in the hot wet friction, thrusting again and again and again, harder, faster, almost delirious with how good it feels, his hand still tangled in Minghao’s hair. Minghao looks so beautiful like that, lips plush and red around Jun’s cock, slick with saliva and precome, taking it over and over again like he was made for this, on his knees for Jun.

“Mine,” Jun pants, fingers trailing down to his cheek, feeling his own movements against his palm. Minghao closes his eyes. “Mine,” Jun repeats, “All mine, so fucking beautiful,” and he thinks he understands now, how Minghao feels when Jun lets him have him like that, how addictive it must be, the rush of it. “Touch yourself, Hao,” Jun orders, and there’s a metallic sound as Minghao undoes his belt, and when he slips his hand into his own pants he grunts around Jun’s erection, his forearm moving frantically. Jun loves this, loves how affected he sounds, loves knowing that Minghao is getting off on sucking Jun’s dick, loves Minghao, is drunk on it. So he tells him.

And Minghao falls apart, makes a strangled sound and spills all over his hand, coming undone as Jun murmurs I love you, I love this, I want you like this forever. And Jun follows suit, his orgasm devastating, body spasming and Minghao’s name on his lips like a prayer.

 

--

 

Minghao fucks him on his back that night, languid and lazy, eyes locked, shared breaths and hushed promises in the darkness.

“I’ll give you anything you want,” he whispers into Jun’s skin, “Anything you want, baby, anything you need.”

“I just want you,” Jun says, and Minghao laughs, crystalline and light, because he doesn’t understand what Jun means, doesn’t understand the impossibility of his demand.

“You have me. Jun, I love you, you already have me.”

Come with me, Jun doesn’t beg. Away from all this. Let’s both free ourselves.

Instead he revels in the novelty of hearing Minghao say I love you, basks in it like a lizard in the sun and wills himself to forget he’s not the man Minghao has fallen for; not really, not entirely, not enough.

 

--

 

“When my father dies,” Minghao says, “It will be chaos.”

There are empty takeout containers all over the kitchen island, dirty chopsticks discarded on the marble next to used napkins. If Jun were to kiss Minghao right now, he’d taste like sesame chicken and lychee soda, and the domesticity of it grabs at the strings of Jun’s heart, tugging insistently. He takes one sip of his own drink, nods quietly.

“We’ll have to act quick,” Minghao continues. “My mother will try to take over. I don’t doubt for an instant she has a contingency plan already all laid out. That’s where our alliance with Zhengting comes into play.”

“What about outsiders?” Jun asks. There aren’t many families big or bold enough to challenge the Xu Clan, but if there's something Jun learned while preparing for this mission, it’s that when the leader of a crime syndicate passes away, the power vacuum left behind gives birth to the most improbable situations.

“I’m more worried about the cops,” Minghao says, and Jun’s stomach twists. “Zhengting promised me that the word would slowly get around, that we’re under his protection. No one will dare. The pigs, on the other side, they’re not gonna be happy.”

Jun frowns. “What do you mean?”

Minghao smirks. “They think they're slick, but we’ve known that my father is under close surveillance for years. I’m positive they have a decent file on him by now. If he dies, all that work goes down the drain.”

Ice floods Jun’s veins, anxiety loud like a tempest. “What about you?” he hears himself ask, voice too agitated, emotions too visible. “Do they have anything on you?”

Minghao, wonderful, stupid Minghao, unknowingly staring at his greatest mistake, at the love that might cost him his life, interprets Jun’s worry the only way that makes sense to him. The open fondness in his gaze stabs Jun right between the ribs. He reaches out to smooth the nervous line above Jun’s eyes with one finger, smiles, “I’m way too careful for that. Nothing can be traced back to me, I’ve made damn sure of that. No one’s gonna take me from you, baby.”

Jun knocks over a glass in his haste to crash their mouths together, halt his words. Minghao makes a small surprised sound but kisses back eagerly, sweet and aimless. His hands settle on Jun’s waist, steadying him, and Jun’s heart breaks in a myriad of tiny pieces.

“Hey,” Minghao breathes out when they break apart, noses still touching. “Stop worrying about me.”

“It’s my job,” Jun smiles weakly, the joke old and easy. “Literally.”

Minghao grins. “You’re fired.”

He’s pliant under Jun when Jun kisses him again, lets Jun tilt up his chin and chase the sweetness of the juice they shared earlier with his tongue. “What does that make me,” Jun whispers against his lips, “Your kept boy?”

“My love,” Minghao says, curling his fingers around the back of Jun’s neck. “My love.” A mournful expression on his face, he shakes his head, moves away. “We need to get back to planning. Sit on the other side, I can’t think with you this close.”

Perched on a stool, the kitchen island between him and Minghao like an ocean, Jun attempts to clear his head. Fear curls at the base of his spine like a tired dragon, talons dug deep into Jun’s insides already. He concentrates, tries to recall exactly how much directly incriminating information he has sent back to his superior offices over the past two years. Without his testimony, would Minghao still get a life sentence? Jun tries to imagine himself on the stand, enumerating the times he’s seen men die at the snap of Minghao’s fingers. He can taste the bitterness of nausea on his tongue.

Who am I? rings frantically inside his skull as Minghao keeps listing precautionary measures. Who have I become?

He’s been lying to himself, too, all this time. Not just to Minghao. Fooling himself into believing he could play both parts, somehow get out of it with both his oath and his heart intact. But deep down, he’s always known. That’s why a part of him has always been so insistent on ruining this, on pushing Minghao away. Deep down, he’s still Wen Junhui, Detective, sworn to the people of Shanghai, with all the sacrifices that entails. Jun used to think he would give his life in the line of duty, one day. Observing Minghao right now, pouring all his secrets out to Jun, with the knowledge that he’s going to betray him so soon, it feels a little bit like dying anyway.

He wonders if that’s how Yixing felt, too. Wonders if Yixing still carries that hurt with him everywhere he goes, like a stone tied to his ankle. Jun closes his eyes furtively, remembers his freshman class on Leninism, that one famous line from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire.

 

History repeats itself. First as a tragedy, then as a farce.

 

Chapter Text

INTERLUDE

MINGHAO

 

Throw yourself into the unknown
With pace and a fury defiant
Clothe yourself in beauty untold
And see life as a means to a triumph
Today of all days, see
How the most dangerous thing is to love


When Xu Minghao was thirteen years old, he learned how to shoot a gun. His father took him to an abandoned field in the countryside, the back of their pickup truck filled with different sorts of firearms, and they spent the evening putting bullets into pine cones, beer cans, green glass bottles. Minghao loved the rush that came after pulling the trigger, the warmth flooding through his system, the sweet sweet satisfaction of aiming for the target and succeeding. More than everything, Minghao loved his father’s proud gaze, his father’s hand on his shoulder, the gentle squeeze that came as a reward every time Minghao got it right.

 

When Xu Minghao was fourteen years old, his father found him kissing Zhu Zhengting under a tree in the very same empty field, an old revolver abandoned at their feet, Minghao’s hands in Zhengting’s hair.

 

Things changed, after that.

 

--

 

Minghao wakes up in cold sweat in the middle of the night, chest heaving lightly, sheets sticking to his skin. On his left, the mattress creaks as Jun shifts, disoriented, sleepily reaching for Minghao. His hand finds Minghao’s arm, curls around his bicep and tugs him closer.

“What’s wrong?”

His voice is raspy, heavy with sleep. Minghao kisses his forehead, whispers, “Nothing, go back to sleep. It’s three in the morning.”

Jun makes a small contented noise, presses his nose into the crook of Minghao’s neck. Minghao can’t quite control the swell of affection in his sternum.

“You, too,” Jun mumbles. “Sleep.”

It’s easy to give in to slumber, with Jun pressed to his side, the gentle rhythm of Jun’s breathing the ghost of a metronome against Minghao’s skin. Minghao inhales deeply, takes in the fruity smell of Jun’s shower gel—it’s mango this month, fresh and joyful, completely out of season. Minghao closes his eyes, lets the darkness overtake him.

 

The second time he wakes up, it’s to sloppy kisses on his bare shoulder, Jun’s twinkling eyes a shade lighter under the sunlight. Minghao stretches like a cat, grunts drowsily when his wrist hits the headboard. Jun kisses that too, playful and entirely too awake for Minghao’s taste.

“Good morning, Hao,” Jun smiles against the soft skin on the inside of Minghao’s forearm.

“How much time until we have to be downtown?” Minghao asks.

Jun rolls over, untangles himself from his embrace swiftly so that he can kneel above him, stare directly into his eyes. “Enough for me to suck you off,” he grins.

Minghao buries his hands in Jun’s hair, throws his head back as he basks in the warm, languid feeling of lazy morning sex. He allows himself sounds he wouldn't otherwise let himself make, and Jun responds enthusiastically, rubbing himself against the mattress in search of relief, cheeks hollowing around Minghao’s cock.

 

They get ready together in Minghao's bathroom, even if it would be more practical and less time-consuming for Jun to go back to his own across the hall. There’s something about Jun brushing his teeth on Minghao's left, toothpaste on the corner of his mouth, hair still wet from the shower; there's something about that image that grabs Minghao by the throat, chokes him with the intensity of the emotion overtaking him.

“You make me so happy, baby,” he hears himself say, fingers dancing down Jun’s arm. It’s too much, too real, so easily usable against him.

But Jun beams at him, drags him closer by the belt loop of his jeans and presses a chaste kiss to his mouth, and it’s worth it. It’s worth it.

 

--

 

When he was younger, much younger, Minghao used to think he would never fall in love. The stories in his picture books were all about knights and princesses, soldiers and maidens. Minghao didn’t care much about girls, couldn't see himself ever marrying one. At age eight, he concluded something had to be wrong with him, and decided to focus on more important things, like finger painting and action figures. At age eleven, his father introduced him to the son of one of his associates, and Minghao remembers thinking, oh, okay. This is what it feels like.

Mingyu was the most beautiful boy in the world. He spoke in broken Mandarin, obviously uncomfortable but too eager to communicate, and Minghao fell for his smile first, that big goofy grin bright enough to power up a whole row of street lights. With Mingyu, Minghao discovered the meaning of many idiomatic expressions, like butterflies in your stomach and blushing like a tomato and falling head over heels. With Mingyu, Minghao discovered pining and heartbreak and sorrow, the bitterness of watching the person you love hold hands with someone else.

If Minghao shuts his eyes, he can watch it all unfold all over again. Growing up with the knowledge of being different lodged between his ribs like a dagger, the wound never closing. Growing up watching Mingyu come and go, always trailing behind his father, his Mandarin getting better with every visit—Minghao’s Korean getting better, too, Mingyu’s eyes lighting up with every word Minghao got right.

Looking back, being so entirely, devastatingly in love with Mingyu for more than a decade saved Minghao from most of the drama one is supposed to go through during their teenage years. His first kiss was uneventful, messy and bad and over too fast, with a girl he couldn’t bring himself to care about. His second kiss was better, slow and practiced, Zhu Zhengting’s obvious experience showing through the expert twists of his tongue. His third kiss he will always remember, interrupted by his father’s angry screams. His fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh kiss, all of these were Zhengting again, easy and gentle and hot, tasting like strawberry chapstick and teenage bravado and shame.

His first time—shaky hands and sweaty skin and tears and embarrassment—his first time, he only thinks of once in a while, fondly, usually after seeing Zhengting, wondering how two people who saw everything of each other could end up almost estranged, caught on opposite sides of a war neither ever wanted to fight.

His first time with Mingyu, drunk and fumbling and disbelieving, intoxicated on Mingyu’s kisses, soft gasps and almost-spilled confessions and love, love so strong Minghao thought he would die of it, breathless—his first time with Mingyu, he carries the memory of it like a brand, fire on his skin, a constant, bittersweet reminder. Like a polaroid, a snapshot of a moment frozen in time that he can never go back to.

With Mingyu, Minghao discovered his own body, and the rush that comes with holding someone down, and the rush that comes with loving someone with the strength of a hurricane. But Mingyu was always a breath too far, unreachable and yet too present, smoke in Minghao’s lungs, hurt in Minghao’s sternum, sun in Minghao’s sky.

 

And then came Jun.

 

--

 

There is a man Minghao has never seen before standing behind his father. He’s tall, pretty as hell, auburn hair and a face like a porcelain doll, but somehow not out of place among all the ugliness that surrounds them. There’s something in his stare, something hardened. Minghao catches himself following him with his eyes, regretting that the guy obviously isn’t important enough to warrant an introduction.

“I haven’t seen you in a while, son,” his father says, taking Minghao out of his thoughts.

“I was in Korea, Father,” Minghao says, as deferential as he can muster. “You were informed.”

Xu Senior waves a dismissive hand. “Ah, yes. Your little project.” Minghao’s fingers curl into a tight fist. He wills his anger down.

“My little project is bringing seven million in this quarter alone.”

The mysterious guy perks up at that, interest clear in his bright eyes. Minghao glares. He doesn’t appreciate strangers, no matter how beautiful, sticking their noses where they don't belong.

His father seems to follow a similar line of thought, because he turns around and tell his man, “Jun, leave us.”

Jun, Minghao repeats mentally, marks it down for later, tucks it into a corner of his brain. Jun.

Jun does as he’s told, but not without a last glance at Minghao. It’s too rapid for Minghao to analyze it, but he knows he’s not imagining the way Jun’s gaze lingers on his face.

 

--

 

Minghao knows his father’s men call him the Prince, knows it’s never said without a mocking edge to it. Still, he dresses and acts the part, keeps the unmanufactured side of him a secret, hidden, for his own people only. If his father wants to believe his only son is a spoiled brat, Minghao can be a spoiled brat. He talks out of turn, puts his feet up on antique ebony tables without taking off his shoes, lets his eyes wander after anyone who catches his attention, too obvious and brash for his purpose to ever be misunderstood.

It's like that with Jun, at first; an act of defiance. Jun is Minghao’s father’s, a small piece of a kingdom that should be Minghao’s but isn’t, and it’s fun to toy with him. His father must notice, because he assigns Jun to Minghao, like a present, like a cruel joke. And Minghao falls for it, falls for it like a fool, does exactly what his father predicted and curiosity turns into want, turns into a thirst so deep it would take the Black Sea to quench it.

It doesn’t matter, because Jun doesn’t want him back.

 

--

 

Jun standing in Minghao's bathroom, blood on his knuckles, blood on his chin, blood on his shoulder blades; Jun looking at Minghao with pupils in the shape of question marks, entirely too breakable and human, pain that should be Minghao's written all over his strained features, it’s too much for Minghao, it’s too real and palpable to ignore.

The bruises stay for weeks, fade slowly into a rainbow reminder of these few damned seconds during which Minghao’s brain turned into a blaring siren, he’s dead he’s dead he’s gone frantic and red, red like Minghao’s rage, red like Minghao's hands. And Minghao has to look at himself in the mirror, stare at his own reflection and smother the nascent feeling, phantom hands wrapped around his heart like a boa constrictor.

He lets Mingyu fuck him with Jun in the next room, closes his eyes and thinks of Jun’s soft smile, closes his eyes and thinks of Jun’s sharp anger.

It doesn't matter, because Jun doesn't want him back.

 

--

 

Jun kills a man for Minghao, point blank, hand way too steady—hand trembling around his glass later, liquor burning as it travels down his throat. And in the still air of the night, the bright colored lights of Shanghai reflecting dancing figures on their faces, Jun walks with him and their shoulders touch, and Minghao leans into it, greedy, irresponsible.

Jun is—Jun is good, bad, dangerous, gentle, unpredictable, Minghao’s, something to protect. Something to be protected from. There is an easiness to his flirtatious smiles, sometimes, that tells a story Minghao isn’t sure he wants to know the depths of just yet. But behind the facade, behind the walls so clearly erected; Jun cares, almost too much, probably instinctively. And Minghao is weak for it, weak in ways a shrink would be delighted to unravel, in ways so cliché it’s almost laughable. Minghao is like a wounded animal on the side of the road, fur bloody and teeth bared, and Jun is the first driver to pull over, check for a pulse, wrap him into a blanket and nurse him back to health.

Minghao’s father laughs at him, smirk all-knowing and stare steely as he watches Minghao watch Jun.

“I see you still have your priorities in order,” he remarks slyly.

Minghao learned a long time ago how to hide this particular brand of hurt. It still stings like a motherfucker, like having a billion tiny paper cuts all over your skin and being doused in lemon juice.

“Does Mother know about the woman in red that left your penthouse downtown two nights ago?” he asks, voice carefully measured.

His father is too old, too much of a salesman to show his surprise. Still, there's a fast flash of… something, in his eyes. He recovers quickly. “We both know you have too much to lose to be threatening me like this, Xiao Hao.”

The use of his childhood nickname is a low blow. The hand on his shoulder an even lower one. Minghao grits his teeth.

“Just don’t put your nose in my private life,” he grunts, shakes him off.

Xu Senior raises an eyebrow. “What private life, son? Are you sleeping with that boy?”

“It’s none of your fucking business,” Minghao mutters under his breath.

“It’s always my business, Minghao,” his father says severely. “That’s what you've consistently failed to understand. Who you bring in, who you trust, it’s business, and your business is my business.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Minghao spits bitterly. “Seeing as you don't even care enough to keep yourself updated on who I’m selling to.”

His father’s features twist into a grimace. “You’re smarter than that, Xiao Hao.”

“Apparently not.”

“You know there’s a spot right by my side waiting for you, as soon as you decide to be a man and honor your duty to your family.”

“I’m not going to stop being gay, dad.”

The word slips out, too familiar, too childish, before Minghao can catch it. If his father notices, he doesn’t show it.

“You are a spoiled child,” he says. “Always had it too easy. Even now, still under my wing, operating under my name, and you dare complain.”

“Maybe I don't want your name and all the bullshit it brings.”

“Don’t try me, Minghao. You wouldn't survive a day.”

I don't care, Minghao thinks, surprises himself with the intensity of it. I’d rather die, sometimes. He keeps his mouth shut, lowers his eyes, and it must be enough of an apology to his father for now, because the man turns his attention to something else. Minghao’s stomach feels like a bag of knots.

The thought forms on its own, like a character in a novel running away from its author. This should be mine. All this should be mine.

I’m going to take it from him.

 

--

 

Minghao remembers the first deal he closed by himself, Jeonghan counting the money before slamming the briefcase shut again and handing it to him, the adrenaline in his veins like a drug. They had all gone out to celebrate afterwards, gotten drunk on Moët, enough for Mingyu to feel daring, to try and kiss Minghao in the middle of the street. Minghao had gone back home alone, had opened the case and scattered bills all over his bed before falling head first onto it, overtaken by the strangest melancholy. He remembers crying. He doesn't remember why.

 

Sometimes, in the depths of sleep, Minghao dreams that moment all over again. In his nightmares, the figures on the bills wear his father’s face, turn into open mouths and swallow him alive. He wakes up quivering, sweat beading at his temples, his body feeling weary and old.

 

--

 

It was easier, when Minghao thought Jun wasn’t interested in men. The longing in Minghao’s gut felt less heavy then, almost evanescent. Now it’s vivid, painted in bright colors, unsaid words hanging between them in every beat of silence, endless possibilities waiting for Minghao like ripe fruit at the end of a branch.

Jun fucks other men, brings them home, allows them inside the space he shares with Minghao, inside Minghao’s house , and Minghao puts on his bravest mask and smirks, teases, projecting the most unaffected image he can. Because his claim on Jun extends to his life but not his body, not his heart. And it’s fucking Minghao up, that Jun would step right in front of a bullet for him but won’t kiss him.

 

It doesn't matter—it shouldn’t matter, shouldn’t grip Minghao’s insides like a tight fist, shouldn’t occupy his every waking thought even now that he’s planning the biggest move of his short career; it doesn’t matter, because Jun doesn't want him back.

 

--

 

Jun wants him back.

 

--

 

In the cold night, the rumble of traffic in the background, Minghao drinks Jun’s breath directly from his lips, steals the precious molecules like they’re standing underwater. Every part of his body that isn’t touching Jun feels like it doesn’t exist.

The kiss tastes of alcohol and mint, because they just walked out of the Infinity and because Jun’s always chewing gum when he drives, Polar Ice Sugarfree.

Jun says, “I’m going to get the car.”

Minghao watches him walk to the parking lot, conscious of a terrible kind of yearning already.

Oh, he realizes. I’m going to feel like this every time he goes away, aren’t I?

How will I bear it?

 

--


“The mightiest kings have had their minions; Great Alexander loved Hephaestion, the conquering Hercules for Hylas wept; and for Patroclus, stern Achilles drooped. And not kings only, but the wisest men: the Roman Tully loved Octavius, grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.”
― Christopher Marlowe, Edward II

 

--

 

When Xu Minghao was fourteen years old, his father found him kissing Zhu Zhengting under a tree, and after a long, wordless drive home, he took off his belt and gave Minghao a scar on his lower back that never quite faded.

 

--

 

In the calm and icy air of January, elbows resting on the balustrade, his unstyled hair falling in front of his eyes, Jun looks stunning, straight out of a painting. He must have heard Minghao’s footsteps, because he turns around to look at him, and the warmth in his gaze is enough fuel to brave the cold in just a suit jacket, and there's an invisible hand wrapped around Minghao’s heart that squeezes and squeezes until it's wrung him completely out.

And it was never like that with Mingyu. Minghao doesn’t doubt that it was love, but it was love that burned and fizzled and turned the garden in Minghao’s head into dry bushes and wild weeds.

This love, this love smells like iodine and salt, feels like warm sand against sun-kissed skin, like the stillness of the ocean.

This love makes Minghao shudder, unsure and irrevocably certain at the same time, his hand reaching for Jun’s in the darkness, always finding him, because Jun has made a home for himself in Minghao’s shadow.

And it’s a stupid way to feel about someone he doesn’t know that much about, really, but instead of an obstacle it just sounds like a promise. The last time Minghao asked Jun about his past, Jun reacted like a cornered animal, panicked and defensive, but things are different now.

Minghao says, Tell me about your life, before, just like he asked what feels like a lifetime ago, in that old safehouse in Zhoushan.

This time, Jun tells him.

 

 

Chapter Text

PART II

OVERT

 

Give me the burden, give me the blame
I’ll shoulder the load, and I’ll swallow the shame
Give me the burden, give me the blame
How many, how many Hail Marys is it gonna take?

Don’t care if he’s guilty, don’t care if he’s not
He’s good and he’s bad and he’s all that I’ve got
Oh Lord, Oh Lord, I’m begging you please
Don’t take that sinner from me

 

Raindrops fall heavy on the large window of the small café, tic tic tic like the hand of a clock. Jieqiong’s usually perfect hair is frizzy at the ends, curving inwards. She looks exhausted, even with makeup covering the bags under her eyes.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” Jun says. She keeps chewing on the cap of her blue pen, arches her eyebrows.

“The number you used is for emergencies,” she says. “Of course I came.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t sure you’d come,” Jun says again.

Jieqiong cocks her head to the left. “You wanted Chief Zhang,” she guesses.

Jun doesn’t deny it. “He knows what I’m going through. No offense.”

“None taken,” Jieqiong shrugs. “You’re still stuck with me. Tough luck.” She gets up, the legs of her chair dragging noisily against the tiled floor, rearranges her skirt and shoots Jun an expecting look. “Come on, then. We’re going to take a walk.”

In this weather? Jun almost scoffs. He follows her outside, tightening the hood of his coat around his head. It’s smart, even if Jun isn’t exactly looking forward to getting drenched in dirty water. Even if someone braves the rain and tries to tail them, it’s way too loud for anyone to overhear them without getting way too obviously close.

“How did you land this job?” Jun enquires. “You don’t look like the handler type.” Jieqiong scowls.

“We’re going to make small talk, really?”

“No, I’m genuinely curious.”

“I wanted to serve my country,” Jieqiong says. “But I didn’t like the idea of the army. I’ve always been good at talking people into things, so.”

“And my case?”

“Nepotism,” Jieqiong smiles. “Not a lot of people know about this op, obviously, but it’s a pretty big deal. My uncle got me moved up when Chief Zhang requested a new liaison, said it’d make my career if you succeeded and my name was associated with yours.”

If you succeeded.

“You’re weirdly unphased by it.”

“I have the qualifications, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

“I was just making a remark.”

“Can we get back to why you called me down here, or are you still curious?”

Jun reaches into his pocket and fishes out the crumpled post-it note. “I made a list,” he starts.

Jieqiong blinks. “A list?”

“Of conditions,” Jun explains. “If the higher-ups really want to pull me soon.”

“They’re afraid you’re going to get made. Chief Zhang thinks you and the son have gotten too close. It took him years to enter Wu Yifan’s inner inner circle, and he stayed there less than you’ve been around Xu Minghao.” Jun doesn’t need her to tell him that. He knows. He knows the Wu case by heart, down to the most insignificant date. But he gets what she’s getting at. The longer an undercover agent stays in the spotlight, the higher his chances of getting discovered. It’s simple math, really.

“I know,” he says. “That’s why I called. Minghao… Minghao is preparing something big. If you catch him red-handed, you’ll have the upper hand.” He takes a deep breath, wills his erratic heart to slow down. My love, forgive me. “But you have to catch him alive. He’s not—he’s not afraid to die, he’ll probably even try to get himself shot during the arrest.” It hurts to say it, in a sort of far-away, absent way, like rubbing his palm against sandpaper. Stepping back into Junhui’s shoes after so long feels a little bit like dissociating. “But you have to catch him alive,” Jun repeats, watching Jieqiong’s eyes slant with intent, focused.

“The plan was always to try,” she says after a second of pause.

“You need to do more than try,” Jun says, tone firm. “I’m not going ahead with any plan that doesn’t assure me no one on our side is going to shoot to kill.”

Jieqiong stops walking. Her hair is dripping into her collar. She must be freezing. “Give me a good reason, Wen. You’re asking for a lot.”

Here it is. Jun’s joker, his trump card.

“Because Xu Minghao is in possession of the names of every single Party official with links to the Zhus, and if properly motivated, he’s going to give that list to us.”

Jieqiong’s stricken expression is comical. Jun wishes he was in a position to appreciate it. It takes her a while to speak again.

“Properly motivated?”

“He won’t budge,” Jun says. “Not if you threaten him with the death penalty, or life in prison, or anything like that. He’ll take anything you throw at him.”

“That doesn’t sound like good news to me, Wen.”

“Let me finish. Everyone has pressure points. Xu Minghao’s just happen to be other people.”

Jieqiong is clever, she figures it out. “You want us to threaten these people with capital punishment,” she realizes.

“Yes.”

“You need to give me names, Wen,” she presses. “I need to know who they are in order to make sure this is something I can actually make happen.”

“It’s on the list,” Jun says.

Jieqiong frowns. “The list?”

“The post-it,” Jun clarifies.

She looks down at her hand, unfolds the bright yellow piece of sticky paper.

“So, what?” she asks. “You’re telling me these are the people Xu Minghao would risk selling out the Zhu Clan for?” Jun nods his head, affirmative. His stomach is in knots. He’s vaguely aware that his body is trembling from the cold, but the information doesn’t seem to really register in the active part of his brain. His whole focus is on the paper between Jieqiong’s fingers now. On Minghao’s salvation. “Yoon Jeonghan,” she reads out loud. “Kim Mingyu. Lee Seokmin.” She stutters on the fourth name, raises her eyes to meet Jun’s. “Wen,” she says, her voice strangely shaky. “What—?”

“And me,” Jun confirms, gaze locked with hers. “Me.”

 

--

 

Jeonghan is waiting for him at the door in the back of the club when Jun comes back from his meeting with Jieqiong. Jun spots him as he’s parking his car and doesn’t think twice about it—Jeonghan comes to the back to smoke sometimes, on slow days. But as he approaches he sees that there is no cigarette in Jeonghan’s hand, and when their eyes meet, the Korean man’s expression is preoccupied, and that’s not a look Jun sees on him often.

“There you are,” Jeonghan hisses when he sees him. “I’ve called you seven times!”

Jun fishes his phone from his pocket. It’s dead. He shows his black screen to Jeonghan, his lips curving down apologetically.

“I had the morning off,” he says. “Did something happen?”

Jeonghan shoots him a look. “Did something happen? Of course something happened, you think I’m standing in the rain because I enjoy the symptoms of the common cold?”

Jun’s stomach twists. “Is Minghao all right?”

“If Minghao was hurt, I wouldn’t be here, Jun.”

Jun grabs him by the arm. “That’s not an answer.”

Jeonghan sighs. “Come inside. The big boss is upstairs, with Minghao.”

Oh, Jun thinks.

 

Minghao is facing his father, his desk between their bodies. They seem to be in the middle of a conversation. On the wooden surface, Jun can distinguish a pile of papers, Xu Senior’s hand splayed open over it. Minghao’s face is expressionless, lips a thin tight line, but Jun knows him better than that. The light has fled from his deep brown eyes, replaced by flickering agitation. When he sees Jun at the threshold, something in his body snaps free, his whole posture shifting. Jun wants so badly to reach out and touch him. He stays at the door, hand on the frame, Jeonghan behind him. Xu Senior, noticing the change in his son’s behavior, turns around and sees Jun, too. His gaze is heavy, cold.

“Jun,” Minghao says. It’s clear, in the way his arm almost lifts and then comes back to his side, shoulders tensing, that he wants to reach out and touch, too. It makes something in Jun’s belly tighten. “Are you okay?”

Jun frowns. “Yeah, I’m fine. I—is something going on?”

“You weren’t picking up your phone,” Minghao says, and it sounds a little accusing. He looks like there’s a lot more he would be saying if he could. “Thank you, Jeonghan,” he tells his treasurer. “You can go.”

Jeonghan slips away silently.

“I got caught in the rain and ran out of battery,” Jun explains. “Really, Hao, I wasn’t even gone that long.”

Xu Senior arches an eyebrow. “Hao?” Jun can feel the heat spreading on his cheeks.

“My apologies, boss,” he starts, but Xu Senior isn’t talking to him.

“You let all your men speak to you informally?” he asks his son.

Minghao’s right hand tightens into a trembling fist. “Jun,” he says, voice strangely uneven. “Give us a minute.”

When their gazes lock, there is something in the way Minghao looks at him, an emotion Jun hasn’t seen before. He nods wordlessly, turns on his heel and closes the door behind him, but he doesn’t leave. Even if they’re not yelling, if he stands exactly outside the room, he can still hear what’s being said inside.

“Don’t ask me questions you know the answer to,” Minghao says. “Not when we both know you hate that answer.”

“Minghao,” his father says, his son’s name sounding like a warning bell; and then he must lean in, because the rest of his sentence is unintelligible from where Jun is standing.

“No,” Minghao replies, firm. “This is mine, this is my life. He's mine. This is the one thing you don't get to touch.”

“This is exactly how these things happen.” Xu Senior’s voice is dense with disdain, and something else Jun cannot quite place. “You surround yourself with strangers, with foreigners! And then you wonder who is blowing holes in your operations.”

“Get out of my office,” Minghao answers, icy.

“What happened today affects the entire family, Minghao.”

“I said get out.”

“Do not talk to me that way.”

“Get out!”

It’s a yell, this time. Shaky and upset, a tone Jun doesn’t associate with Minghao. Xu Senior opens the door abruptly, too soon for Jun to have the time to step back. They stand nose to nose for a second, before the older man pushes him, strong hand on Jun’s sternum.

“Be careful, boy,” he tells Jun, eyes piercing. “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

“Jun,” Minghao calls. Jun, a little stunned, steps inside. He barely has the time to close the door before Minghao is on him, hands coming up to cup Jun’s face. “I thought something—Jun, the cops raided three of my ships at the docks, there was a shootout at one of the warehouses. I didn’t know—”

“Shit,” Jun mutters. “I’m sorry, I went for a walk, it started raining, and after that I didn’t have my charger.”

The lie spills out easily, so natural Jun chokes on guilt.

Minghao rests his forehead on Jun’s shoulder. “I’m just glad you’re okay,” he mumbles. “No one knew where you were, I really thought…”

Jun’s thumb starts tracing random reassuring patterns on Minghao’s lower back. “I’m fine,” he whispers. “I’m okay. It was just a shitty coincidence.”

Minghao kisses his collarbone through the fabric of his shirt, the pressure feather-like. When he detangles himself from Jun, his face is an unreadable mask again, all worry and softness drained from it. It’s his professional look.

“I need to deal with this,” he tells Jun. “Now that I know you’re safe.”

Which really, translates to I just put my entire operation on the back burner for you; and while Jun knew that, rationally, getting vocal confirmation is… a lot. He shakes his head, tries to chase away the thought of Minghao alone in a grey cell, cuffed to a metal table, Jun’s absence heavy in the air, a bargaining chip.

“I’ll get the car.”

“No,” Minghao says. “You stay here.”

“Minghao.”

“Until I know more about what’s going on,” Minghao says—pleads .

Jun sighs. “This is demeaning.”

Minghao chews on his bottom lip nervously, visibly torn. “Please,” he says finally. “It’s not that I don’t think you can defend yourself—I know you can. This is for me. I can’t think clearly if I’m not certain you’re safe.”

Anger, like gas turning solid, floods Jun’s veins. “But I’m supposed to be okay with you fucking off into danger?”

“Jun,” Minghao stammers, taken aback. “Jun, please. Just this time. Baby, I really have to go.”

“I’m coming with you.”

No.” There’s a hint, in that word, of whatever was in Minghao’s voice earlier when he was talking to his father.

Jun scoffs, bitter. “You pulling rank on me?”

Minghao’s stare is hard. “Yes. Stay put. I’m going to see what the fuck is going on, and then we’ll talk about this.”

 

Jun sits on Minghao’s leather chair, face buried in his hands. He takes one, two, three deep breaths. Walks to the adjacent bathroom, splashes some cold water onto his face. Walks back into the room, grabs the phone that sits on the desk, punches in a number, hangs up before the first ring. Picks up the phone again, calls back.

Mingyu’s voice is hoarse when he answers, like he’s spent the past hour yelling. He probably has. He sounds pissed off.

“Kim,” Jun says. “ Mingyu. Are you with him?”

“I have fifteen men to bury,” Mingyu says, curt. “I don’t have time for your lovers’ spat.”

Jun is already standing, putting on his coat. “Give me the address.”

“Jun...” Mingyu warns.

“Give me the address,” Jun repeats. Sighing, Mingyu does. “Don’t tell him I’m coming,” Jun says.

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Mingyu mutters. “I value my life.”

It’s a short drive, even if one isn’t breaking traffic laws, and Jun is. He arrives in front of the building in record time, parks badly and jumps out of the car.

The warehouse has been emptied. The last time Jun was here, there were crates everywhere, waiting for shipment. There are large dark stains on the dirt—dried blood, Jun’s mind supplies. In the center of the room, Minghao is standing in front of a man tied to a chair. When he raises his fist, there is a glint. It takes a few more steps for Jun to realize he’s wearing brass knuckles. When his hand connects with the man’s jaw, there’s an awful crack, and then a strangled cough. The man spits blood.

“Is that why you didn’t want me to come?” Jun asks. It reverberates in the empty space, echoes. Minghao turns to him abruptly.

“What are you—”

“You already knew, when you left,” Jun says. “What you were coming here to do.” It’s a shot in the dark, but Minghao looks like he just swallowed a lemon, so Jun guesses he was right.

“This piece of shit was passing info to the pigs,” Minghao spits.

“I don’t care. I care that you lied to me.”

It’s hypocritical, maybe. But Jun feels cold, winter in his bones. This is the man he loves. At his most true, stripped down to his essence, this is Xu Minghao: violence dripping from his smile, blood on his shiny black shoes. He has seen Minghao pull out guns on people, he has seen Minghao stab someone, God, he has listened to Minghao plan patricide all this time; but this, this is animal, unadulterated brutality—Minghao driving his fist into soft places, one, two, three, four, five times.

Minghao knew what it would do to Jun, seeing this. Or if he didn’t know, he at least didn’t want to take any chances. Jun can see it in his eyes now, the intense, sharp sting of regret. So he walks to him, wraps his hand around Minghao’s fingers before he can hit again.

The man in the chair is still conscious, although his head has lolled to the side, his neck too weak to support itself. There’s a bruise already forming around his left eye, his bottom lip is split open, and his nose is broken. He’s not a cop—Jun would know if he was a cop—, which means he most likely was never trained to withstand torture.

“I didn’t want...” Minghao starts, avoiding Jun’s gaze. His chest is heaving slightly, adrenaline pumping. “I don’t want you seeing me like this.”

This is the man Jun loves.

Jun uncurls Minghao’s fingers, tugs the brass knuckles off gently. They’re slippery with blood.

“Let’s go home, Hao,” he says.

Minghao shakes his head. “I need to know what else he’s told them. I can’t—I need to protect my people, Jun.”

And he’s right. It’s a twisted kind of logic, but he’s right. And Jun can’t tell him that it’s all useless anyway, that he has a much bigger Trojan horse sleeping in his own bed. So he nods. But he doesn’t let go of Minghao's hand.

Instead, he pushes him to the side, and slips the brass knuckles onto his own fingers.

When he throws the first punch, the man screams. Jun closes his eyes, inhales slowly, and hits him again.

 

--

 

Back in Minghao’s house, in the semi-darkness, Jun washes the blood off both of them, presses his lips reverently to the inside of Minghao’s wrist. The water in the tub is pinkish, and no matter where Jun looks, he sees the man he beat to death, hears him shouting. Minghao lets himself be guided, for once. He’s trembling a little, and he tells Jun it’s the cold. Jun doesn’t point out the warm spray is hitting both of them.

 

--

 

Jieqiong sounds panicked on the phone. Jun doesn’t care.

“None of this is going to work if you keep pulling the rug from right under my feet like that,” he hisses into the receiver. “Who the fuck gave the order for that raid?”

“Wen,” she says, and she truly does sound sorry, “I don’t know what happened. It didn't come from us.”

“Minghao is on edge now,” he grits through his teeth. “I don't know if he’s going to change his plans.”

I don’t know if I can trust you to keep him alive.

“It won’t happen again,” Jieqiong assures him. “And I’m going to find out who gave the green light for this.”

“I don’t believe you,” Jun snarls. “I want to talk to Yixing.”

“I told you,” Jieqiong says, “He’s b—”

“He’s busy,” Jun interrupts her. “I don’t care. I want to talk to him. Make it happen.”

She makes an unhappy noise. Jun hangs up with no goodbye.

 

Yixing is waiting for him on their usual rooftop, four days later. The lines of his face are tired, tense. He’s wearing casual clothing, dark blue jeans and a grey hoodie with a puffer coat on top; not the type of look Jun is used to seeing on him.

“Junhui,” Yixing greets him, and it takes Jun a second. He hasn’t heard his full first name in a while. He hasn’t heard his full name in that tone in much longer.

“Hey, Chief,” Jun smiles, anger forgotten for a fleeting moment. Honestly, he adds: “Long time no see. I missed you.”

Yixing’s expression turns pained at that.

“I had things to deal with,” he says, but that doesn’t sound like him at all. Jun fixes him with a pointed look. Yixing sighs. “I pulled myself out of this case,” he ends up admitting. “I’m not objective, not enough, when it comes to you.”

The child inside Jun, the child that never quite grew up because he was robbed of his childhood, that child looks at Yixing expectantly, stomach curling tightly in anticipation. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean, Jun. You’ve said it yourself, I care too much. I think I see myself in you, maybe. Or the little brother I never had. It doesn’t matter, what matters is that it prevents me from doing my job correctly.”

It matters to me, Jun wants to scream. I’ve never had a family, it matters to me. And that’s his inner child again, trying to claw his way out. Jun silences him, bites his own tongue until he can taste blood.

“I needed your advice,” he confesses. Yixing is staring at him with a sort of longing Jun thinks he understands. It must mirror his own expression, really. They’re both too far for the other to reach, now. “What you warned me about, in the beginning. Before I went in.”

“Yeah?”

“I think it happened, ge.”

The term of endearment slips out, really, without Jun realizing it. It only confirms what Yixing was worried about.

“I’m going to ask you for the last time,” Yixing says. “Do you want me to pull you? No questions asked. No extraction plan, no trial, no nothing. We cancel the op. I’ll find you somewhere safe to go to, lay low. Just tell me. There’s someone high up in the Party that owes me a favor. I’ll cash it in for you.”

It grabs Jun by the throat, chokes him. A maelstrom of emotions, and they spill out in the shape of traitorous tears at the corner of his eyes. He considers it, for a long minute. It’s an out he should have taken months ago, but months ago, he wasn’t in deep enough for Yixing to offer it. It’s an unbreakable, ironic vicious circle.

“I’m going to finish this,” he says, decisive. “Just like you did.”

Yixing blinks. “You’re sure?”

“I thought you were only going to ask me once,” Jun deadpans. Then, more serious, “I’m going to need you, though, if I—if I want to make it out alive. You have to come back and oversee the whole thing. I don’t trust anyone else.”

“Junhui…”

“No, hear me out. Someone fucked up, with the last raid. It can’t happen again, not if we want to pull this off.”

“Junhui,” Yixing says again, this time a little severely. “Don’t give me orders.” He fixes the collar of his coat, sighs. “I read the progress reports Jieqiong sends in. Your plan, it’s bold. Maybe too bold.”

“It’s genius,” Jun protests.

Yixing arches an eyebrow. “It keeps Xu Minghao alive.”

Jun stammers. “Yes, because we—I—we need info only he has, and, and a trial—”

“Don’t lie to me,” Yixing says. “Not to me.”

Jun swallows down saliva with difficulty. “I’m not lying.”

“There’s a name for it, you know.”

“I don’t have Stockholm Syndrome,” Jun says through gritted teeth. “And I’m not lying.”

“He’s a terrible person, Junhui,” Yixing says softly. “He is exactly what you joined the force to fight against.”

“And I’m bringing him to justice,” Jun counters. “Alive, because I’m not a monster.”

“You can convince others, maybe. Actually, I really hope you can.” Yixing says, his lips curved in a sad smile. “But not me.”

Jun scoffs. “Because you’ve made the same mistake?”

Yixing doesn’t laugh along. “Because I made the same mistake.”

“You never told me why,” Jun says. “I’ve studied this case, from every angle, and I just—I don’t understand why.”

“He saved my life. He didn’t have to—I was a nobody, low on the food chain, and he never showed any sort of grand respect for human life. But I was going to die, and he chose to step in.” Yixing chortles bitterly. “And then I spent years watching his every move. I don’t think it was ever a matter of if I was going to get attached. Only of when.”

“And yet you took him in.”

“Because it wasn’t me, Junhui. That’s what I’m trying to tell you here. It wasn’t really me. The man I had to be, to survive underground, that man loved Yifan.” It’s the first time Jun hears him address Wu Yifan by his real first name. “But he wasn’t really me. He’s something I left behind, like a change of clothes. But while I was in, it felt real. Because it had to. It was becoming Lay or dying, and I didn’t want to die.” Yixing looks him in the eye, gaze way too discerning for Jun’s taste. “Tell me you don’t think of Jun as a different person. Tell me he’s not a role you’re playing.”

Jun can’t. He doesn’t voice it, but it doesn’t matter. Yixing knows.

“Whatever you think you’re feeling, it’s not real. It’s real enough, right now, it’s real to Jun, but you’re not Jun. It’s like a dream. The hardest part… the hardest part is making the decision to wake up.”

 

--

 

Jun carries that sentence with him, going through his life on autopilot. The hardest part is waking up. With Yixing back at the helm of the operation, he thought he would at least feel a little settled, but he doesn’t. He still tastes panic on the roof of his mouth, acrid like smoke.

Minghao has his own demons. The massacre at the warehouse doesn't leave him, and Jun has to wake him from many nightmares. Minghao has seen many dead bodies over the years, Jun knows, but these were fifteen of his own men, at once, and he walked in to find their corpses on the ground.

There's something else, too, something he refuses to share with Jun. But Jun can see it in the way he carries himself, read it between the tense lines of his shoulder blades. When he puts his palm there, warm and open, Minghao melts against the touch, but doesn't allow him in. Jun isn't used to being shut out, not anymore. He wants the easy openness back. Minghao just drifts further away.

It comes out to the surface when they fuck. Minghao holds him like he’s afraid of his own hands. It leaves Jun unsatisfied and hollow, desperately trying to get him to let go. But Minghao doesn’t yield, no matter how much Jun pushes, no matter how prettily Jun begs— harder, Hao, please—

And it’s not that Jun doesn’t appreciate tender and loving, it’s not that he doesn’t want sweet and slow and languid; it’s that Minghao isn’t quite there, isn’t really with him, and Jun doesn’t know how else to bring him back. So he offers his body, Minghao’s to take, to use however he sees fit. It’s a fruitless effort. Minghao keeps treating him like he’s made of glass.

 

--

 

They’re face to face, Minghao above Jun, thrusting into him unhurriedly, his eyes never leaving Jun’s. It’s intense, Minghao’s gaze pinning him down better than any material restraint ever could, but Minghao’s movements are still guarded, contained. Jun lets his head fall back, throat bared, the invitation clear. Minghao kisses him there, lips hot on sensitive skin, but it’s a close-mouthed kiss, no teeth, no lingering. Jun could cry of frustration. Minghao is grunting, which means he’s close, but not quite there yet, and he picks up the pace, but not by much. Jun’s fingers curl around Minghao’s right wrist clumsily, tug until he lets himself be maneuvered. His eyes widen in surprise when Jun brings his hand to the base of his neck. Jun keeps it there, cants his hips upwards to meet Minghao’s thrusts. When Minghao tries to retract his arm, Jun’s grip tightens like a vice.

“Jun,” Minghao rasps out warningly, strained. His eyes are dark.

“I know you’ll know when to stop,” Jun says, and he’s proud of how even his voice sounds, even though it shakes a little in the end, as his body is jerked back onto the mattress. “Do it. I want you to.” Minghao tries to move his hand away again. Jun doesn’t let go. “I want you to,” he repeats. “I trust you.”

Something in Minghao cracks. He says Jun’s name again, desperate and broken, and Jun relaxes his hold. Minghao wraps his hand around Jun’s slender neck, the bottom of his palm pressing lightly against the hollow of Jun’s throat. It’s not enough to cut off air circulation, but Jun already feels a little lightheaded. Minghao’s gaze is questioning, searching Jun’s face for clues. It’s hungry, too, and Jun smiles. He was right. He takes one long gulp of air, and he feels the constraint on his trachea as he does. The feeling goes straight to his dick, and his fingers spasm where they’re clutching the bedsheets. He sinks his teeth into his bottom lip and nods.

Minghao doesn’t add any pressure, not at first. He fucks into Jun faster, and Jun has to push his palms against the headboard to avoid knocking his head on it. Long, strangled whines tumble from his lips every time the tip of Minghao’s cock hits his prostate, the sound altered by the hand around his throat. The edges of his vision are whitening, purple spots dancing before his pupils. And then Minghao squeezes, cutting off his air flow completely.

Fuck, Jun thinks, the world blurring around him, the lack of oxygen making him feel like he’s floating. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. He thrashes against the bed, losing all rhythm.

Minghao lets go. Jun takes a frenzied breath. Minghao squeezes again.

This is the hand of a killer, Jun thinks, delirious.

He comes untouched, legs shaking, the tense coil in his belly snapping like a stretched rubber band. Minghao fucks him through it, pounding into him hard, unrelenting. Jun is tight around him, body convulsing through the aftershocks of his release, and it’s not long until Minghao comes as well, face buried in Jun’s chest, grunting.

 

--

 

“Are you gonna tell me, now?” Jun asks quietly, curled around Minghao in their bed. “What’s wrong?”

Minghao shakes his head no like a child, capricious. Jun kisses his nape, tightens his embrace.

“Tell me what’s going on, Hao,” he whispers. Minghao is silent for a long while, and then he rolls over without leaving Jun’s arms. They’re nose to nose now, so close Jun can feel Minghao's breath hot on his cheek. Minghao’s voice sounds raw when he finally speaks.  

“For the first time… for the first time, I started thinking about who I am. What I do.” Jun wants to ask, what do you mean? But it feels wrong, interrupting. So he just remains silent, matches his breathing with Minghao’s heartbeat and waits patiently. “I’ve never really questioned it, you know? This life. When I was twelve, my dad made me watch as he stabbed someone I thought he loved in the guts and left him to bleed out.”

Hao,” Jun says, anguished.

“I don’t...” Minghao says. “I don’t want you to pity me, or anything. I just mean, this has been my entire life. There was never another option. I didn’tthere was never a major to pick, or, I don’t know, there was just never another path to take, and I—”

Jun threads his fingers carefully through Minghao's hair, pushes his bangs off his forehead and presses his lips there, softly.

“I know,” he says. “I know.”

“The way you looked at me, back at the warehouse,” Minghao says, voice small. “I never wanted you to look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you were afraid of me,” Minghao says. “Like one looks at a monster they let into their house.”

Exhaling softly, Jun slides his right hand between their faces. His knuckles are still bruised, the small scrapes only just starting to heal.

“If you’re a monster, Hao, what does that make me?”

Minghao kisses the wounded skin, eyes locked with Jun’s. “I love you,” he murmurs. “Because you’re a good man.”

Jun’s heart squeezes. “You know I’m not.”

“But you’re good to me,” Minghao insists. “Stepping in, at the warehouse, it wasn’t—that doesn’t make you a monster. It was a sacrifice.”

The words come out with difficulty, like piled glass in his gullet, when Jun answers. “I’ll always be good to you.”

“Even if I’m drenched in blood? I can see that you hate it. The violence. You do what’s necessary, but you hate it.”

“I said the end of the world, Hao,” Jun says. “I meant it.”

Outside, the alarm of a car goes off in the night, breaking the deep silence they were swimming in. Minghao breaks eye contact, turns the side of his face into his pillow. He looks so young, like this.

“I know you hate it too,” Jun says, hoping this is one of these fences he’s allowed to jump. “You don’t want to admit it, and I’m not going to push, but you don’t take pleasure in any of this.”

“You’re wrong,” Minghao says, half-muffled because he’s speaking into the fabric of his pillowcase. “But that’s because you look at me and you see something worthy.”

Jun’s rib cage hurts like a fissured rock. It’s a throbbing ache, an incurable one. If he could, he would gather up all the light left in him and give it to Minghao, blow it into his mouth like shared cigarette smoke. Instead he smiles sadly and wraps his arm around Minghao again, scoots as close as possible, until there is no air between their bodies, every point of contact burning. This is the one language they know best, the one in which no sentence is clumsy.

And this love, this love is intoxicating, it gets to Jun’s head like wine, sets everything on fire in its wake. This isn’t real, Yixing said, but Jun has never held anything realer than Minghao. Everything Jun has loved before has slipped between his fingers like water, crumbled like a sandcastle under a wave, but Minghao is solid in his arms, real because he’s flawed—real because he’s Jun’s. Real in all his glory and all his darkness, real and tangible like the gun on the nightstand, so fucking real it hurts, it’s blinding. Maybe too real, even, for Jun, who is a little boy still, running after dreams, chasing chimeras and memories. Maybe too real, and yet—and yet, with all his might, Jun holds on.

Chapter Text

INTERLUDE

JUNHUI

 

Funny you’re the broken one

But I’m the only one who needed saving

 

Age 2. Happy gurgles. A pink pacifier shaped like a mouse. A clear voice singing O Little Lotus Flower, adoration pouring out like sunlight. A deeper voice, strained, anxious. The smell of roses. The static of the car radio under a tunnel. A big loud noise. Screams. Pain. The darkness.

 

Age 6. A ratty green blanket. Metallic bunk beds. Endless chatter in the hallway. Learning how to read, finger tracing the characters slowly. Tasteless soup for lunch. Dance class. Soccer practice. Paper cuts. Building blocks. Friendships that end abruptly and friendships that fizzle out.

No one to sing you to sleep.

 

Age 13. The pale blue wallpaper in the Principal’s office. Your friends’ beaming smiles, signed papers with names that aren’t yours written on them in neat cursive, the sound of suitcases shutting closed, the hollow ring of the words forever home. Not making the Varsity Soccer team. Taking up martial arts instead. Dropping dance. Smoking your first cigarette, the taste acrid on your tongue, the smoke a bitter cloud. Loving a boy for the first time, the taste acrid on your tongue, the smoke a bitter cloud.

No one to sing you to sleep.

 

Age 15. The strong smell of stage makeup. The familiar creaking sound of the wooden floor in the dance studio, more welcoming than any human voice. The weight of a gold medal on your sternum. The perfect fit of the staff in your hand during Wushu practice. The ache in your vocal chords. Your trembling fingers, clutching the hem of your sweater, right before the premiere of the school play. Your trembling fingers, clutching the hem of your sweater, right before you tell the boy with the green eyes that you want to touch his lips with yours. Your trembling fingers, spasming against wet grass, right before he kicks you in the stomach for the third time.

No one to sing you to sleep.

 

Age 18. College dorms, the burn of hard liquor, the burn of hands against naked skin, the burn of tears that refuse to fall, the burn of knees dragging against carpets, the burn of failure, the burn of always wanting more.

Rinse, repeat.

No one to sing you to sleep.

 

Age 20. Gunpowder and sweatpants and a hundred pushups and running out of breath and leaving everything on a whim and being terrified and being exhilarated and finding a purpose and holding on and holding on.

Putting on your uniform proudly in the morning.

Singing yourself to sleep.

 

Age 21. Yes sir in the street and yes sir in the bedroom. Men that love to watch you cry and men that love to make you cry and men that do both, and more, and then make you cry again. Your body is a temple in the sense that everyone prays inside it and everyone finds shelter between your ribs except yourself. Your body is a wonderland in the sense that beautiful boys dream of making their home there but leave you after just one summer, when they start to see what’s hidden behind the sheetrock, and no matter how many pieces of yourself you carve out to offer on a silver platter, they never stay.

 

Age 28. The love of your life is a man who doesn’t know your name. You get on your knees for him and he gets on his knees for you, and even when he’s holding you down, he looks at you like you have a knife to his throat. You kiss his knuckles like a knight bows to his king, and he calls you Patroclus, most beloved. For you, he swears, he’d set the world on fire. You don’t have the heart to tell him you’re the match and he’s the forest, and the only world that will be set aflame is his. What’s in a name? The power to ruin him. What’s in a name? Everything you have.

 

Age 28. Beige leather seats in a shiny black car, the steering wheel smooth against your palm. His hand splayed open high on your thigh, too warm even through the fabric of your slacks. He’s always too warm to the touch, a veritable furnace. You love him so much you could die. Windows open, hip-hop playing too loud, the vibrations of the bass reverberating through your chest, you think maybe you will.

In the night, eyes fixed to the ceiling, you ask him for a lullaby. His voice is hoarse, sleep-heavy. He says pick a song, you tell him whichever is your favorite. He starts humming the melody of O Little Lotus Flower. Your hands shake. This is worth dying for, you think.

           

You close your eyes. He keeps singing.

Chapter Text

Minghao leaves a long rectangular box for Jun at the center of his bed. It’s a warm mustard color, the material glossy, and when he unties the large black satin bow it’s suddenly impossible to miss the FENDI printed in fat black letters on the lid. White tissue paper crinkles under his fingers when he opens the box carefully, and as he unfolds it he uncovers soft, black silk. It’s a tie, he realizes, taking it out. It’s a beautiful black tie, the double F monogram discreetly printed on the lower triangle in dark grey. Minghao loves fashion, and drags Jun out so he can shop for himself fairly often, but he doesn’t do things like that—Jun has never been one for expensive gifts. It’s instinct that makes him walk to his closet and open it, and sure enough, there it is: a garment bag in the same mustard color, hanging on the left side. Jun takes it out cautiously, unzips it. It’s a goddamn silk tuxedo, the fabric a light cream shade, black lining along the lapels. It’s fucking gorgeous, the type of piece one sees in magazines. Jun runs a finger down the smooth material delicately. It feels like water.                                                                                                                                                        

There’s a light knock on the door, but Jun doesn’t turn around. Minghao slips inside the room, comes up behind Jun and wraps an arm around him. His lips are cold against Jun’s nape when he speaks, his breath hot. The contrast makes Jun shiver.

“Do you like it?” Barely a whisper.

“It’s beautiful. It’s also too much.”

“It’s my mother’s birthday soon,” Minghao says. He presses a kiss to the back of Jun’s neck. Jun relaxes back into him. “She’s throwing the party of the century. My date needs to look exceptional.”

“You’re taking me to your mother’s birthday celebration?”

Lady Xu’s parties are infamous. The deep red envelopes that contain the precious invites only go to the most select list of people. The Xus are not usually shiny about how rich they are, but these soirées are an exception. In the two years Jun has spent in service of the Clan, Lady Xu has thrown thirteen of them. Birthdays. New Year celebrations. Galas. Jun used to dream of the day he might maybe be allowed in as part of the security detail—the parties are a goldmine of information, full of important people rendered stupid by the flow of free Champagne.

“I used to bring Mingyu, to these events,” Minghao says. Jun isn’t sure if he’s doing it on purpose, trying to light the flame of jealousy to get his way. He wishes they were having this conversation face to face, but Minghao shows no sign of letting him go.

“You could still bring Mingyu,” he tries. “If you think that’d be more acceptable.”

Minghao’s laugh comes out in huffs, warm air a tickle against Jun’s skin. “I don’t want to do what’s acceptable,” he says. “I want to have you by my side. I want everyone to see you. It’s not like they don’t know already.” It makes something warm pool at the bottom of Jun’s stomach, molten lava floating through his veins. “Come to the party with me,” Minghao murmurs. His mouth drags against Jun’s jugular, and Jun tilts his head to the side to grant him more access. He expects Minghao to suck a mark there, like he usually does, but instead he just receives a second kiss.

“Does the tux even fit me?” Jun laughs weakly. His legs feel like jello.

“Of course it fits you. I still had your measurements from when we had that black suit made for you,” Minghao shrugs. “But I’ll have someone come in just in case the day before.”

This is what his life could be, Jun realizes. He could be the J to Minghao’s K, til death tears us apart. They live in the same house. Minghao wants to bring him to family functions.

Minghao slides his hand lower, palms Jun through his pants. Jun lets out a fractured breath.

Hao.”

Minghao bites the shell of his ear, light and teasing. “Been thinking ‘bout you all day,” he admits, voice rough. “Couldn’t get out of the office fast enough.”

Jun extricates himself from his embrace, turns around. “You have a dinner reservation in an hour.”

Minghao’s smile is easy, familiar. The look he gives Jun is one Jun sees more and more, lately. Minghao used to stare at him carefully, like he wasn’t sure he was allowed to, even after they started sleeping together. There’s still a question in his irises, now, but it’s not the same.

“That’s plenty of time.”

He fucks Jun against the wall, the muscles in his forearms straining as he holds Jun up, still fully dressed, black dress pants barely pulled down. It’s hot and fast and rough, and Jun has never felt the need to call Minghao sir in bed before but he does now, and the word spills from his lips almost against his will. Minghao growls, places his hand where Jun’s jaw meets his throat to force his head up and kisses him open-mouthed and filthy, and Jun’s hands clutch at his perfectly ironed white button-down, rumpling it. He’ll have to change it, he thinks absently, and then Minghao pushes into him deeper as the angle shifts, and suddenly Jun isn’t thinking anything at all, just screaming as he comes all over himself, staining his own shirt.

“Come to the restaurant with me,” Minghao asks later, putting on a new dress shirt. He only had time to wash his face, and he smells like aftershave, but also a little bit like Jun, still.

The meeting is with an investor. A lot of what Minghao does is finding new venues to funnel his drug money into; this one is interested in the Infinity, wants to help Minghao open a second club downtown. It’s a golden opportunity, more potentially valuable intel in a single night than Jun usually gathers in a whole month.

“You know that’s a bad idea, babe,” Jun smiles softly. He’s reclined on the bed, back to the headboard. He still hasn’t zipped up his pants. “You’re wooing the guy’s wallet, he’s going to want your whole attention.”

“I know,” Minghao whines, sounding ten years younger than he really is, “But I still really want you to come with.” He opens the drawer where Jun keeps his ties. “I’m taking the red one,” he informs him uselessly, as if Jun could stop him. It’s an Armani, the one Minghao got him with the one tailored suit he practically forced on Jun, mumbling about his chauffeur slash bodyguard needing to be well dressed. Jun is starting to detect a pattern. “Hey,” Minghao says, suddenly grinning. “You called me babe.”

Jun blushes furiously. “I did?”

“Yeah.” Minghao sounds… abnormally happy. “You never call me any nicknames.”

“I call you Hao,” Jun protests.

“Mingyu calls me Hao,” Minghao rolls his eyes. “You called me Hao before we started dating. It doesn’t count.”

Jun’s heart is racing like a schoolgirl’s with a crush. Dating?

“I, uh, wasn’t sure if you were into that.”

“Oh,” Minghao smirks, devilish, and he advances towards the bed, “I’ll show you how into that I am.”

“Stop,” Jun laughs, pressing his palm to Minghao’s chest, half-heartedly pushing him away, “You’re going to be late!” Minghao smacks a kiss to his nose. “Hao,” Jun chuckles, “Go away.”

“I love you,” Minghao says, suddenly serious. He’s so close. Jun closes his eyes, angles his chin up. He’s rewarded with a chaste kiss to his lips. “I love you,” Minghao says again when he draws back.

“Me too,” Jun says. His throat feels tight. Minghao beams at him, walks to the door backwards. He mouths I love you for the third time before disappearing. Jun screams into his pillow when the front door closes.

 

--

 

Minghao drives them to the family mansion in a white Maserati. There is a valet waiting for them as the car pulls into the large driveway, behind a marble fountain adorned with tiny dolphins made of lapis. Jun throws a wide glance around him, stepping out. There are three other sports cars waiting to be driven away, cocktail dresses and black ties and pearl necklaces making their way up the shiny white stairs. Minghao places a gentle hand on the small of his back.

“Ready?”

Jun flashes him a grin. This, at least, he was trained for. This he’s got under control.

Minghao is wearing a sleek black suit combined with a white dress shirt with the top three buttons unbuttoned. There is a Chanel brooch pinned to his lapel, the two Cs decorated with tiny lozenges of jade. He looks like a movie star. When Jun tells him so, he smiles like a happy cat.

The lobby is… ridiculous. There is no other word for it. The Persian rug on the floor looks so expensive Jun feels terribly guilty to be walking on it, and there are several heads of embalmed wild animals hanging on the walls. The array of people around them, too, have that air about them—like they’re used to a type of oxygen Jun wouldn't know about. This thought he doesn’t share with Minghao, but it must be written all over his face anyway, because his lover chuckles knowingly.

“We don’t have to stay long,” he tells Jun magnanimously. Jun sighs.

Minghao appears more at ease here than Jun has seen him in a long while. He slithers through the crowd, hugs and kisses and greets and beams at everyone like they’re the closest friends. He calls multiple middle-aged women auntie and promises several men with receding hairlines to “catch up with them later.” Jun trails behind him aimlessly, a flute of Champagne in hand, looking pretty and shutting up for the most part. Minghao introduces him to everyone, a smirk followed by this is my good friend Jun, and the way people nod immediately tells Jun no one here misses what Minghao is implying. It would be really hard to anyway, Jun realizes in the middle of the living room, given the way Minghao keeps touching him. Hand on Jun’s arm, he keeps leaning in to whisper in his ear when the music isn’t even that loud. Earlier he swiped his thumb across Jun’s bottom lip, shrugged when Jun’s brows furrowed. You had shrimp sauce on you. Jun isn’t quite sure what all the PDA is for—is Minghao marking his territory, or is he making some sort of grand statement, showing off his male lover in his mother’s house? Or maybe, a traitorous voice murmurs inside Jun’s brain, maybe there is no ulterior motive, and he just can’t keep his hands off of you. Jun shakes the thought off.

“Having fun?”

Mingyu’s familiar face is a welcome sight in this sea of imposing strangers. Minghao is still at arm’s length, but he is deep in conversation with a media mogul, and Jun has been staring at his own shoes for a few minutes now. He was never the introverted type, but something about this house makes him feel small and hounded.

“You’re here,” he remarks lamely instead of answering Mingyu’s most likely rhetorical question.

Mingyu scoffs. “I’m a family friend.”

“You know what I mean,” Jun rolls his eyes.

“Yeah,” Mingyu laughs again, “I do.” He picks up two tiny canapes from a passing tray and thanks the server, offers one to Jun. It looks like some sort of ham sandwich. Jun shakes his head. “Your loss,” Mingyu shrugs before stuffing both in his mouth. “Ah, this is delicious. One year, Minghao and I were fighting and I still came to his mom’s New Year’s party, just for the food.”

Jun can’t help the urgent need to know more. “Fighting?”

“We had just started working together. I can’t even remember what it really was about. He wouldn’t talk to me for weeks, though. I remember that.” There’s a wistful expression on Mingyu’s face. Jun feels a pang of affection he doesn’t know what to do with. “Hey,” Mingyu says suddenly, tone shifting, light again, “I’m going out for a smoke. Come with?”

We’re not friends, Jun almost answers. “Yeah,” he forces out instead. Minghao still has his back to him. Two women have joined his side, and one of them has a manicured hand on his forearm. Her red dress looks like something out of a period drama.

On the balcony, the air is cold enough that Jun’s breath fogs up. Mingyu lights his cigarette, angles his pack towards Jun, a silent question.

“I don’t really smoke,” Jun says. Mingyu nods, unbothered. He pushes the pack back into his breast pocket, exhales a ring of smoke followed closely by a happy sigh.

“I’m worried about him,” he says, without a preamble. Jun looks around. They’re alone. Mingyu follows his gaze carefully.

“He’s good at what he does,” Jun chooses to reply.

“He’s fragile,” Mingyu says. “You wouldn’t know.” There is no venom to it. It’s a simple statement.

“I know he has his weaknesses,” Jun starts to say. There’s more words, ready to slip through his lips, but Mingyu interrupts him.

“I’ve known him for more than fifteen years. I’m not trying to say I—I’m not saying I know him better. You clearly have him. Everyone with eyes can see that.” It should be said with bitterness, Jun thinks. But Mingyu’s voice is unwavering, the only color to it fierce protectiveness. “What I mean is that I’ve seen him break. I know what it looks like.”

Jun takes a deep breath, the sort of inhalation that makes one’s chest feel hollow like an empty cathedral. “You think he’s breaking now?”

“I think he’s digging his own grave.”

By loving me, Jun thinks, even if he knows Mingyu means something completely different. It doesn’t change reality.

“I’ll take that cigarette,” he says. Mingyu obliges.

“He won’t tell me what he promised Zhu Zhengting in exchange for his protection,” Mingyu says after a beat of silence.

The sliding door squeaks slightly when it’s pushed open.

“Oh,” Minghao’s voice rings too bright in the icy breeze, “So that’s where you two have been.”

“Sorry,” Mingyu grins, like he wasn’t dead serious barely a second ago. “Nicotine calls.”

Minghao raises an eyebrow at the sight of Jun smoking. Jun crushes the stub under his shoe.

“I only do it socially,” he defends himself.

“You’re a grown man,” Minghao shakes his head. “I’m just surprised. Come back in, fuck, it’s freezing.”

Inside, Minghao links their hands together, fingers intertwined. He navigates through the crowd, leaves Mingyu with some vaguely famous film star and drags Jun to the men’s room. It’s big enough to be a hotel’s. It’s surreal to think this is someone’s house.

When they close the door behind them, the music is suddenly muffled, like it’s coming from far, far away. It reminds Jun of college house parties, the memories a little hazy, like grainy polaroids, a lifetime away. There’s a guy washing his hands at one of the three sinks. He gives them a once-over, eyes stopping furtively on their joined hands. Minghao leers, wolfish. The guy’s gaze drops.

When he leaves, Minghao locks the door and pushes Jun against the rose gold marble counter, cages him in with his body. He tastes like strawberry mousse and expensive wine when they kiss. Jun lets his hand trail down the front of Minghao’s tailored suit, but Minghao’s fingers curl around his wrist, stopping him.

Jun frowns, surprised. “I thought...”

Minghao nuzzles his jaw. “I just wanted to kiss you.” He presses his lips to Jun’s cheekbone, feather-light. There’s a trembling staccato to his voice, almost imperceptible. Vulnerability.

Jun cups his face, leans in so their mouths can meet again. It’s slow, soft in a way that only comes with practice. He bites gently at Minghao’s bottom lip, begging for access that is granted to him a second later. As the kiss deepens, Minghao makes a low, choked kind of noise. When they break apart, he’s panting a little, and his lips are red and slick. Jun is sure he looks equally debauched.

“Come on,” Minghao smiles. “I’m sure there’s a line in front of the bathroom by now.”

He’s right. They exit still holding hands, and Jun’s heart is dancing the salsa.

Around nine, one of Lady Xu’s close female friends clinks her small dessert fork against her flute, asking for the room’s attention. Someone has lowered the intensity of the lighting. When the cake comes out, the whole house starts singing. Lady Xu looks appropriately delighted, a pink blush to her cheeks. Minghao kisses her there once she blows her candles, his hand light on her shoulder. She stares at Jun right after, her eyes piercing and severe, as her son makes his way back to his side.

“I want to go home,” Jun whispers into Minghao’s ear. Minghao squeezes his hip furtively.

“My father just arrived,” he tells Jun, tone just as low. “Give me five minutes. We leave after that, I promise.”

Jun doesn’t want Minghao close to Xu Senior, not for five minutes, not for five seconds. He doesn’t think Minghao has talked to his father since the incident at the docks. He meets Mingyu’s eyes across the room, finds them fretful.

Uneasiness still scrapes under his skin when Minghao opens the door of the car for him after the promised five minutes.

“I used to do that,” Jun reminisces. “It’s fucking weird, you opening doors for me.”

“It’s a date,” Minghao says, almost offended. “I’m a gentleman. Get used to it.”

Jun cocks his head to the side. “Is it, now.”

It’s funny, observing Minghao’s face turn red. It lifts some of the weight away.

“Shut up,” Minghao mumbles. “See if I put out now.”

Jun snickers. “There isn’t a somewhat flat surface in the whole house we haven’t had sex on, Hao. I think I know for a fact you absolutely do put out on and before the first date.”

Minghao elbows him. Jun accepts that he deserved it.

They’re at a red light when Minghao says, totally casual, the demon, “Not in the car.”

Jun shakes himself out of his reverie. He had been watching the landscape outside. It’s raining a little, fuzzing the red lights through the window into bright strokes of shiny immaterial paint. “Uh?”

Minghao turns his head to face him, smiling deviously. “We have fucked everywhere in the house, true. But never in the car.”

Jun chokes on his own spit. “Absolutely not.”

“Oh, come on,” Minghao whines, stepping on the accelerator. The Maserati’s engine roars.

“This is a sports car,” Jun says. The back of his neck is way too warm. “It’s tiny, and the leather on the seats is way too nice. No.”

“Your SUV, though,” Minghao argues. “There’s enough space in the backseat.”

“I will strangle you,” Jun warns.

“You’re the one who’s into that,” Minghao shrugs, and Jun actually chokes then, coughs until Minghao takes pity on him and claps him on the back.

“I could have died,” he glares, but Minghao’s small chuckle is worth it. He fiddles with the controls of the radio, settles on a station that plays western pop. “Hey, how did it go, with your dad?”

It’s an innocuous question, on the surface. Minghao scrunches his nose.

“Okay, I guess. Does it matter?”

“Yeah,” Jun says. “I mean, do you still want to—”

“Yes,” Minghao cuts him off immediately. “Nothing has changed.” He’s pulling in to the driveway.

“Okay,” Jun says. “Then it doesn't matter, I suppose.”

“I’m not going to change my mind,” Minghao says. He sounds like he's trying really hard to convince someone. Jun isn't sure who that someone is, exactly.

“Okay,” he says again. This time, he exits first, holds the door for Minghao.

“Hurrah for equality,” Minghao deadpans in the flattest tone.

In Minghao’s bedroom, Jun takes off the tuxedo cautiously, lays it on the back of a chair. Minghao’s suit is on the floor, Minghao himself in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. He’s trying to tell Jun something, but it comes out gurgled through the foaming toothpaste in his mouth. It’s all awfully domestic. This could be your life, Jun thinks again, drawn to the idea like a moth to a lightbulb.

Don’t fly too close to the sun, Xu Senior had said. The air smells of defiance as Jun looks out the window and whispers to the wind, Too fucking late.

 

--

 

“Thanks to Detective Wen, we have the blueprint of the building.”

Standing in front of a whiteboard, Yixing points the red dot of his laser pointer to the flickering image from the projector, hits the large machine lightly once when the visual doesn’t get better. The projection finally stabilizes, and the layout of Xu Senior’s house appears clearly for the whole room to see.

“The tentative date for the intervention is two weeks from now, but we will have confirmation soon from our agent on the ground. In the meantime, familiarize yourself with the perimeter.” Yixing turns to the SWAT team. “The map will be made available to all of you as soon as this meeting is over.”

Jieqiong advances to Yixing’s side. She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear nervously, but her hand is perfectly steady. “The information we have for now is the following: at 1800 on D-Day, Xu Senior is meeting with a big potential buyer from Hong Kong in his own house. His inner circle will be there, including his enforcer, whose identity Detective Wen still hasn’t uncovered. At 1830, Xu Minghao is planning on walking in with ten of his men and executing his father in front of his associates. Detective Wen will be one of these ten men. Your first priority will be getting both him and Xu Minghao out of there alive. These three men,” Jieqiong moves on to the next slide, three close-up shots respectively labeled YOON, LEE, KIM, “Are priority 2. Taking them in alive is preferable, but the Xu son and our agent come first.”

“By moving in like we are planning to, we ensure two things,” Yixing takes over. “We are confident the file we have built over the years on Xu Senior thanks to multiple successful infiltrations will be enough to stand trial. As for the son, he will be tried for attempted murder and multiple charges of homicide that our agent can testify for, and he will never see the light of day again. The Xu clan will not recover from this.”

 

--

 

The night before D-Day, Minghao climbs into bed an hour after Jun, covers Jun’s body with his and kisses him hard and demanding. He tastes like minty toothpaste, and he smells like shower gel, the tip of his hair still damp when Jun cards his fingers through it.

“Jun,” he says, a breath in the dark, “Jun, I want—”

Jun already knows, lips gentle on Minghao’s neck, teeth teasing. I want you, I want you, always.

“Want you,” Minghao says, and Jun is busy pushing down Minghao’s boxers, letting Minghao’s honey-warm voice wash over him like music because this is the script of a movie he’s watched countless times. “Want you to fuck me,” Minghao finishes, raspy, low.

And oh, this is a new variable, a shift in their carefully constructed pattern. Oh.

Minghao rolls his hips. Jun grunts.

“Hao.”

“Can you do that? Can you do that for me?” His breath is hot on the side of Jun’s face, words syrupy-sweet in Jun’s ear. “Can you fuck me, baby?”

“Yeah,” Jun says, fingers digging into Minghao’s lower back, bringing him closer.

“Prepped myself in the bathroom,” Minghao whispers. “Wanted to be ready for you, wanted to just sink on your cock and ride you.”

Jun’s hand drags lower, searching. “Fuck, Minghao—”

The first finger slides in so easy Jun adds a second one immediately. Minghao makes a small choked noise at the back of his throat. “I don’t need—”

Jun plants a kiss to his cheekbone. “How long has it been?”

“A while,” Minghao says. Since Mingyu, Jun guesses.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he says. “I never want to hurt you.”

Not in this bed, not outside of it.

“You’re not going to hurt me,” Minghao urges him, “Come on.”

Three fingers now. Minghao’s breath hitches, his body tensing. Jun watches, transfixed, the movement of his own hand.

“Wanna make you come just with my fingers,” he says, almost absently, a thought he did not mean to voice.

“Not today,” Minghao orders, gritted, wanting. But one day, Jun hears, one day.

Only not really, because this is the last time they touch each other. The thought is sobering. Jun pushes it away desperately, not wanting to taint his last night.

“Jun,” Minghao demands, “I’m ready, that’s enough.”

Jun flips them around.

Foreheads pressed together, they share gasped breaths as he pushes in. The heat around him, the tightness, none of it is as intoxicating as the symbolism of the act. I’m inside him, Jun thinks deliriously, a broken moan escaping his mouth.

“Minghao,” he calls out helplessly.

“Fuck me,” Minghao grunts, nails dragging down the expanse of Jun’s back, most likely leaving long red lines behind, “Fuck me, fuck me, come on—”

It’s a dance. It’s their bodies, searching and finding each other, and it’s a claiming. Both of them move like it’s the last time. Jun kisses Minghao and thinks, If I die tomorrow, I will still have his marks on me.

 

--

 

“Zhengting didn’t order the hit on me,” Minghao says, words ringing too clear in the darkness. Jun rolls around to face him, squinting to make out his blurry shape. “I’ve known since that meeting with Wang Ziyi.”

“You didn’t tell me,” Jun says. He sounds bitter, he knows. He doesn’t have the margin to sound bitter. What Minghao gives him isn’t owed, it’s offered.

“Because I wasn’t sure. I am now.”

“Who, then?”

Minghao lets time trickle down in silence, so heavy it seems material, sand dribbling down the smooth curves of an hourglass. Jun’s fingers find his face, the angle of his jaw, and trace lovingly. “My mother,” Minghao says. Jun’s hand stills.

“Your mother,” he repeats.

“We’ve always had a very similar way of thinking,” Minghao scoffs. “I should have known I wouldn’t be the only one planning Father’s downfall. I’m annoyed, really. She’s a step ahead, if she planned to get rid of me first. I was going to keep her out of this, as a show of respect.”

All Jun knows of motherhood is his mother’s voice, sweet and faceless. Absent, and thus unflawed, unstainable. He asks Minghao how he knows.

“One of her men talked.” I pulled his secrets like teeth, Jun translates. The truth stains like blood splatters on white silk. “We’re changing the plan a little,” Minghao continues. “I’m sending Mingyu to her instead of with us. She knows him. She loves him. She’ll let him in. When the time comes, he can restrain her.”

Mingyu being with them when they get arrested is the centerpiece of Jun’s plan. He doesn’t doubt Minghao is fiercely loyal, but there are lines he will not cross, not even for Jeonghan or Seokmin. He might cross them for Jun, but Jun doesn’t know how long it will take Minghao to piece everything together, figure out who sold him out. Mingyu is the real bargaining chip. Minghao would go to hell and back for him, no conditions.

“I’ve seen Mingyu shoot,” he tries. “He’ll be more useful with us. There has to be someone else that can deal with your mother.”

“There is no one else I trust to deal with my mother,” Minghao says, and his tone is final. Jun doesn’t press, forcibly swallows down the need to scream in frustration. “I just wanted you to know. No one else does, except for Mingyu.” Jun slides his hand to the back of Minghao’s neck, scoots closer. Minghao leans into the touch so that their noses graze. “We have a long day tomorrow,” he whispers euphemistic, like they’re going on a field trip, or something. “Go to sleep, love.”

 

--

 

In the morning, Jun throws up in the toilet before he can make it to the breakfast table. Minghao kneels next to him, worried, rubbing soothing circles onto the small of his back with one hand, keeping his hair out of his eyes with the other.

“I ate something bad yesterday,” Jun croaks miserably. Minghao stares at him silently for a while, like he’s arguing with himself about calling Jun out on his obvious lie.

“The rice will help,” he apparently settles on saying. He passes Jun a wet towel that he accepts gratefully and wipes his mouth with. “Come downstairs with me.”

The rice does not help. Jun feels it settle in his stomach like a stone, like an anchor. He drinks too much tea and almost chokes on a gulp. Minghao finishes his food fast and pushes a corner of the tablecloth up, and then proceeds to clean and reassemble his favorite pistol right there on the kitchen table.

“He gave it to me for my twenty-first,” he tells Jun. “It’s ironic, really.”

Jun sets down his mug. “What, that you’re going to shoot him with something he gifted you?”

“Nah,” Minghao smiles. “That he thought it would make me a man.”

Jun doesn’t know what to answer to that. He looks away, tries to pinpoint what exactly has him so uneasy. It’s the anxiety of anticipation, yes, but he has been working on this plan for weeks now. Months, technically. Technically, well, years.

Minghao gets up and grabs the black shoulder holster that was hanging on the back of his chair. He clips it on and then holsters the gun, with the rapidity of habit. It’s a motion Jun has observed countless times, but he still finds it entrancing. It’s attractive, if he’s being honest, and he hates thinking of why.

Minghao recognizes the glint in his eye and smirks. “Down, boy,” he drawls, teasing. Jun feels his whole face heat up in humiliation. “We don’t have the time today, sweetheart,” Minghao adds, softening the blow.

We won’t have the time ever again, Jun wants to yell at him. He wants to touch him. He wants to drag both of them right back into their bed and never leave the safety of their blankets.

“Minghao,” he starts, voice a little hoarse. Minghao’s expression immediately turns serious. “Minghao,” Jun tries again, “I—” He shakes his head. What can he say? There is nothing he can do now. Minghao stares expectantly. “Nothing. Nothing, I—I’m just worried about tonight.”

Minghao reaches for him, cradles his face in one hand. Jun leans in, presses his cheek into Minghao’s open palm.

“Don’t be. We’re as ready as we’ll ever be.”

The police too, Jun thinks bitterly. God, Minghao has no idea.

They’re interrupted by the doorbell. Jeonghan is there, along with two other men Jun knows by name but hasn’t really seen around much. These are Minghao’s footsoldiers, he knows. Occupying the sort of post he thought he would be occupying when he had first started training for this operation. Replaceable, discardable, means to an end.

Jeonghan is wearing a bulletproof vest under his jacket. His long hair is up in a bun, which is unusual—most of the time it’s down, sometimes in a ponytail if he’s running errands. He looks older like that. It’s the strained lines of his face, too. He’s anxious.

“I still think ten is too low a number,” he tells Minghao.

Minghao’s gaze is steely. “I’ve been planning this for years, Han.” Jeonghan takes out a pack of cigarettes, lights one up without waiting for permission. “We won’t need back-up. If we do, it’s over anyway. There’s no coming back from what we’re about to do. It’s win or die.”

“Boss,” Jeonghan says. There’s something about the tone of his voice Jun cannot quite place, but it’s particular. He’s reminded of the fact Jeonghan has worked with Minghao the longest. “I’ll follow you into Hell, you know that.”

“Yeah,” Minghao smiles. It’s a tired smile, but it’s a real one, too. He squeezes Jeonghan’s shoulder. “I know that, Hannie.”

 

--

 

Mingyu drops by the house at four in the afternoon. He and Jun exchange a heavy look at the door, but no words. By that point, the living room is bustling with voices, everyone tense, waiting. Like a General’s tent before the attack at dawn, on those French paintings of the Napoleonic era. Minghao leads Mingyu to his study, talking in hushed whispers as they cross the hallway.

When Mingyu leaves, Jun is the one to close the door behind him. He pretends he doesn’t notice his red-rimmed eyes.

 

--

 

“There are things you only say when you’re about to die,” Minghao tells him in the car. Jun’s body is buzzing by that point. It’s the adrenaline, in the weirdest way. He feels himself splitting again, just like at the beginning. Junhui knows they’re walking right into the spider’s web. Jun is stressed for an entirely different reason. This is the only way he has found to be able to keep playing his role; convince a part of him that he’s nothing but an orphaned street rat that clawed his way out of the gutter and into a mobster’s bed, and today he’s marching alongside his lover to kill the king. “Mingyu said stuff, to me,” Minghao continues, “That I thought we had silently agreed to never tell each other.” His tone is conversational, even if the content evidently isn’t. Jun unconsciously pats the gun resting at his hip. “Jun,” Minghao says, suddenly urgent. “Look at me.”

Their eyes meet. Minghao’s irises have always had an intensity to them Jun doesn’t know how to deal with. Sitting this close, he can see every imperfection on Minghao’s face. He can count eyelashes, too.

“I’m looking,” he says quietly.

Minghao says, “I’ve already been talking to you like I thought I would die tomorrow.”

“How’s that?” Jun asks, hating the way he sounds.

“Honest,” Minghao says. “I’ve lied to everyone before you.”

“You’re trying to tell me something,” Jun says, “And I’m not sure I get it.”

Minghao rubs the back of his neck, flushing a little. “You’re the love of my life,” he says finally. It hits Jun like a punch in the gut. “I don’t think I’ll die,” he smiles, golden, confident, truly Achilles. “But if I do, it’ll have been worth it.”

 

--

 

It’s like something out of a movie, the way they exit the three armored SUVs, how they walk into the mansion. Jun glances around, spots two of the hiding places he suggested to Yixing, occupied.

In the stairwell, they are all silent. Minghao has his gun in his hand, leading them. He wants it to be spectacular, that’s why he picked today’s meeting. In front of a big buyer, someone who’ll circulate the word. In front of his father’s most trusted men, too. He’ll make them kneel before he shoots those he knows will never turn their coat, so that everyone else understands.

They’re almost on the second floor when Jun grabs Minghao by the sleeve of his jacket.

 

--

 

“It’s a trap. Hao, it’s a trap.”

Hissed. Whispered. Minghao turns to look at him, confusion etched on his face. Right beside Jun, Seokmin’s eyebrows go so high they almost disappear into his hair.

Minghao tilts his head to the side. “Jun?”

Jun still has his hand fisted around his sleeve, tugging. “Please,” he begs, “Turn around.”

“Jun,” Minghao repeats, “How do you know?”

He can’t. He can’t say it, he can’t form the words, he just—

He cannot let Minghao walk into that room.

“I’m a cop. Minghao, I’m a cop, I—”

The door of Xu Senior’s office opens.

 

--

 

Someone is shouting. The front door bursts open, the SWAT team flooding in. Hands behind your head, nobody moves—

Minghao has his Colt in his hand still, Jun realizes. In the chaos, there is no way for him to slowly put it down.

He senses it before he sees it happen. One of the guys in full tactical gear raises his rifle, panic in his eyes. Jun doesn’t think.

 

--

 

Someone is shouting.

 

--

 

The shot rings in Jun’s ears long after the bullet leaves the muzzle of the gun. There is something wet spreading across his abdomen, he notes, like he’s writing down the grocery list. He puts his hand to his chest, and it comes away red and sticky.

The pain registers then.

 

--

 

Minghao is shouting. A long, drawn-out guttural sound, like a wounded lion.

No.

 

--

 

Don’t shoot, Jun tries to say. Don’t shoot, I couldn’t get them to promise they wouldn't shoot back.

The world goes black.

 

Chapter Text

PART III 

UNVEILED

 

An ode to the boy I love
Boy, I'll die to care for you
You're mine, mine, mine, tell me who do I owe that to?
And as the days fly by
We'll be more than getting through, yeah
And in time, time, time, we'll build a home for two

 

Jun regains consciousness on the backseat of a car driving at full speed on a rocky road. There’s a hand pressing on the wound on his abdomen, slippery with blood. With every bump on the road, his body jolts, sending another jab of pain through his nervous system. He grunts weakly, and the person holding him tightens their hold around him. That’s when he notices his head is resting on somebody’s knees. He knows he should open his eyes, say something, but the mere prospect of it feels herculean.

“Jun?” The voice is familiar. It sounds important, the pull to answer almost stronger than the pain. “Jun, you need to stay awake. Please just stay awake.”

“Hurts,” he croaks. “F-fuck, Ming—”

“Stop talking.” Minghao. Minghao, it’s Minghao, the voice is Minghao’s. “Shut up, just stay awake. Open your eyes for me, come on.” Jun wants to obey, but he can’t. He can’t. Another wave of hurt floods his body, potent and heavy. “Drive faster,” Minghao orders, urgent, and it takes a second for Jun’s foggy brain to understand that last part was not directed at him. “You can’t die,” Minghao says. “You’re not allowed to die, you belong to me.”

He latches on to that. Mine, you’re mine. He was never anybody’s, before. This is why he joined the police, really. Not just the need to belong, but also the distinct knowledge that he was disposable. That’s why he volunteered for this mission, too. Nothing to hide, he had told Yixing, nothing they can use against me. What a joke.

He must have drifted away into nothingness again, because next thing he knows, they’re not in the car anymore. Minghao is—somewhere, he has to be, but Jun cannot see him. He panics. He can’t speak, blood flooding his mouth again, and when he goes to call for help it’s a gurgle instead, and he coughs it out, red like his country’s flag, red like anger.

“Jesus,” an unknown voice says, “Lie down, kid.”

He’s forced back down onto whatever surface he was lying on. His body isn’t really his body anymore. There is no pain, in the sense that there is only pain, and he has become one with it, and with the oxygen around him. Where he begins and where his surroundings end, he does not know. Floating, clinging to the very last crumbs of life force he still has, he wants to—

“Bite this,” someone tells him, before stuffing fabric into his mouth. That voice he knows. It doesn’t have a name, he can’t give it a name, but he knows it.

The pain that follows is surreal. It feels like he’s being torn open, and then there’s—a hand? A hand, God, searching inside him, he thinks, he’s screaming—

 

--

 

When he comes to, he’s in a hospital bed. Wait, no, not really. He blinks, lets his eyes roam. The bed sure looks like a hospital bed, but one quick glance around tells him he’s in a basement. There is no natural light coming in, and the walls are dark grey, rugged. He’s hooked to a machine, beep beep steady like a heartbeat. There’s an intravenous drip, too, tube sinking under skin on his left arm. He wonders what he looks like, in this shady room underground, in his light green hospital gown. Probably like some sort of human experiment in those terrible horror movies Minghao likes.

Minghao.

Memories flood Jun’s brain like a violent wave crashing on the shore. Hao, I’m a cop. His stomach twists, nausea permeating his senses. He makes a move to get up and gets a flash of hurt through his chest for his troubles, sharp and blinding. It must have made his heart rate spike, or something, because the machine suddenly goes crazy, beeping like a distressed animal calling for help.

Of all the people to run into the room, he certainly wasn’t expecting Mingyu. And yet it is Mingyu, rushing to his bedside, kneeling to check the readings, press on a few buttons to silence the strident repetitive sound. It’s Mingyu sliding a hand behind Jun’s neck, careful and strained, his other hand rearranging the flimsy covers.

“You’re awake.” It’s not a question. Jun doesn’t answer, doesn’t even nod. He figures their locked eyes are enough. “Here,” Mingyu says, turning around to grab a glass of water, unwrapping a straw, “You’re probably dehydrated.”

Jun accepts the liquid greedily, slurps it down, probably too fast. Definitely too fast, judging by the stabbing pain in his abdomen.

“Hey,” Mingyu says, noticing the wince, “Careful. Slow.”

“More,” Jun croaks, “Please.”

Mingyu gives him a long, heavy look. “Let me get the Doc first, okay?”

An image flashes through Jun’s mind. Smooth cotton shoved between his teeth, and Mingyu’s voice, urgent, pressing, bite this.

“Okay,” he says. Mingyu squeezes his forearm before leaving. It’s only when he sees him at the threshold that Jun realizes what he forgot to ask, but before he can formulate a sentence, the darkness claims him once again.

 

--

 

He wakes up to fingers delicately stroking his hair.

“Minghao,” he mumbles, eyes still closed. He doesn’t need to check. He tries to shift, turn towards Minghao, lean into the touch. His body screams.

“Don’t move,” Minghao orders. His voice sounds strange. He knows, Jun’s brain reminds him. He hates you now.

“I’m sorry,” Jun says, fighting his traitorous organism. He still can’t open his eyes. Since when does moving one’s eyelids take so much strength? “I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”

He coughs, words jumbled inside his mouth, letters all messed up, tangled up in one another. It hurts to breathe.

“Don’t move,” Minghao repeats, and now the strain is clear in his tone, almost anxiety. It has the opposite effect on Jun, pushes something inside of him to snap, and finally there is light hitting his irises. He blinks like a newborn pup, furiously, trying to adjust.

Minghao is staring at him, pale and rigid and devastated. There is a line of faint bruises under his eyes, like he hasn’t slept in a while.

Fear inundates Jun’s system.

“How long—how long was I out?”

“With interruptions, two days.”

Two days. Way too long, the cop in Jun says, the criminal in Jun says. Never stay more than 24 hours in one place. On the run, there are strict rules to follow.

“You need to leave,” he tells Minghao urgently. “They’re going to find you.”

“No,” Minghao says, but Jun is already shaking his head, you don’t understand. “We’re safe here. I made sure.”

“You’re not safe anywhere,” Jun protests vehemently, and then he’s coughing again, but this time it sounds wet, and when he moves his hand from his mouth, there is blood on his palm. Minghao is standing up the next second.

“Doc!” he yells, running to the door but not leaving, just passing his head through to be heard up the staircase, “Mingyu, call Kun right now.

A stranger appears a minute later. For some reason, Jun expected him to wear a lab coat, but he’s just dressed in beige slacks and a mustard knitted sweater. His voice is soft when he asks, “How are you feeling, Jun?”

“He’s coughing blood,” Minghao answers for him. His leg is bouncing nervously, Jun notes. The need to reach out and hold his hand is overwhelming.

“Mmh,” Kun nods, “Let me see.” He pulls out a stethoscope from the metallic drawer in the corner of the room. It’s cold against Jun back. “Take a deep breath.”

Jun tries. Coughs again. This time, he doesn’t have the time to raise his hand, taken by surprise, and ends up spitting red splatters all over the thin blanket and his own gown.

“Kun,” Minghao warns, anguish visible on his face. Jun doesn’t understand why.

“I need to put him under,” Kun says. “He’s bleeding internally again.”

Panic floods Jun’s veins like acid, and he feels it everywhere at once, even in his throat, bubbling up, drowning him. He doesn’t want to close his eyes again.

“Minghao,” he calls, an edge of desperation to his voice, “I—”

He doesn’t know what to say. Nothing about this feels real enough.

Minghao is by his side instantaneously, albeit not touching, carefully not touching.

“Kun knows what he’s doing. Let him help.”

“You need to know,” Jun says, babbles, incoherent but not caring, because it’s true, Minghao needs to know, has to. “I wanted to—I wouldn’t have let you, walk in, I wouldn’t have let them take you—”

“I don’t care.” It’s harsh, final, and it makes Jun recoil, ready to accept it; but suddenly Minghao is so close, forehead pressed to his, hands cupping his face. “I don’t care, shut the fuck up, God, you almost died. I almost lost you.” Whispered, hoarse. “Let him help you. Come back to me.”

And the fragility in Minghao’s murmur, the despair that laces his words, it takes Jun out to the ocean, away from his own body, away from everything. Ready to forget, ready to believe again. For a minute, he’s Jun, he’s just Jun, and he has somewhere to be.

He has somewhere to return to.

 

--

 

He dreams of explosions in the sky. Black clouds, fire, stars like blood oranges, dripping red. Through the chaos, through the smoke, a hand reaches for his. Minghao, he calls, but his voice is distorted. He sees Jieqiong’s face, severe, judging. I’m sorry, he tries to tell her, but nothing comes, nothing but pain, dull and throbbing. I’m sorry, he attempts again, but this time he doesn’t know who he’s addressing it to. Minghao. Yixing.

His mother.

 

--

 

He stops counting. He wakes up, falls asleep, faints, wakes up again. And again. And again. It’s a cycle of hurt, constant, evergrowing. There are two scars on his chest, now, fresh and raw. He catches a glimpse when Kun helps him into a new gown. He thinks it’s been a day, but he cannot tell, not for sure. No one informs him. It might have been a week, he wouldn’t know. At some point, he feels like he can tempt fate, form some words.

“You know who Minghao is.”

He doesn’t formulate it like a question. Kun takes it as one nonetheless.

“Yes,” he says, eyes still fixed on Jun’s arm, where he’s changing the catheter. “Hold still.”

“It doesn’t… bother you? You’re a doctor.”

“I owe him a debt,” Kun says. “Plus, as you said, I am a doctor. I couldn’t just let you die.”

“Is this—is this the first time?”

Kun shakes his head. “No. He brings everyone he can’t bring to a hospital to me. Although it’s usually in nicer places than this.” He stabilizes the tube with gauze and medical tape. “I’ve pulled bullets out of Mr. Kim twice.”

Jun can imagine that. Mingyu’s teeth digging into his bottom lip as Kun extracts metal from his shoulder. There is a scar there, circular and puffy, Jun has seen it. Touched it.

“Not Minghao?”

“A few stitches,” Kun says, taking off his latex gloves, throwing them in the bin. “He’s a very careful man.”

Jun looks away, takes a long, painful breath. Asks his forbidden, undeserved question. “How is he?”

Kun smiles a secret sort of smile. “I’ve had to order him out of this room seven times. He insists on sleeping on the chair.”

“That’s not an answer,” Jun frowns.

“He’s exhausted and worried. They don’t tell me anything about—their business, obviously, but Mr. Kim has been coming and going a lot. You were shot, and he’s hiding you, so I assume there is something big going on.”

“I almost got him killed.”

Kun remains silent, which Jun doesn’t blame him for. He checks the machines one last time, then drags the blanket up so it covers most of Jun’s body.

“You need rest. Your body is recovering from a lethal wound and two rounds of guerilla surgery.”

I want to see him, Jun almost begs. He reins it in. “What’s my prognosis, Doc?” he asks instead.

Kun gently squeezes his shoulder. “You’re going to be okay. Won’t be doing any sort of strenuous activity for a while, but you’re out of the red now.”

It doesn’t bring the relief he thought it would bring.

 

--

 

The next time he opens his eyes, Minghao is at his side, a chair pulled close to the bed, head pillowed on his crossed arms on the mattress. Even in his sleep, he is restless, the lines of his face taut, bothered. But there is finally some color to his cheeks. Jun will take what he can get.

Minghao is a light sleeper, always has been, but in this uncomfortable position, it just takes Jun inhaling profoundly—his first deep breath in a week!—to rouse him.

“Jun,” he says immediately, eyes snapping open, his voice heavy with sleep.

“I’m here,” Jun confirms. “I’m alive,” he adds, almost an afterthought. It’s the right choice, though—it seems to calm something inside Minghao. It quiets the storm in his eyes.

“You are,” Minghao says, a little dumbfounded. His pointer finger retraces the slope of Jun’s nose, like he’s making sure Jun isn’t a hallucination. Then his shoulders hunch, and his head drops, and he buries his face into the crook of Jun’s neck, and takes a shaky intake of air.

Jun raises his right hand, tentatively puts it on the crown of his head.

“Hao, I—”

No,” Minghao hisses. “Not now.”

Jun swallows down his protestation. They stay like this for what feels like hours but is actually only a few minutes—he knows, because he counts the seconds. Then Minghao straightens his head again. The way Jun is propped up, two pillows behind his neck, they end up looking each other straight in the eye.

“I’ve given them all the aliases you have,” Jun says. He sounds robotic. Them. “Early on, I found—the passports, the stack you keep in—”

Minghao swallows dryly. “Before or after we started sleeping together?”

Jun cannot control himself. He lets a strangled, brief laugh escape him at that, almost manic. “This is seriously what you’re going to focus on?”

Before or after, Jun,” Minghao repeats, and this time his tone is steely.

“Before. The—the passports, before.”

He sees understanding pass through Minghao’s eyes. “But other things,” Minghao guesses. “Other—information. After.”

Jun shuts his eyes, tries to keep the beating of his heart steady. “Hao, I’m—”

Don’t. I don’t want to—just don’t. Focus on recovering, and I—I, I don’t know.”

Jun laughs again, this time full-on, hysterical. “Focus on what? Are you serious? You need to get out of the country. Tell me you have someone who can get you the papers.”

“I do.”

“Then what the fuck are you waiting for?”

Minghao stares at him like he’s lost his mind. “I’m not leaving without you,” he says very, very slowly.

“You don’t understand,” Jun presses. He pushes himself onto his elbows even though it hurts, it burns, pain liquid in his body, overflowing. “You don’t know the amount of resources that went into this operation, they’re not going to stop, they want you dead.

Minghao puts his hand on Jun’s shoulder, pushes him back down firmly. “You’re going to ruin your stitches. Stay down like Doc told you.”

“And you’re going to end up in the chair, ” Jun yells, exasperated.

“Well,” Minghao says, taking his hand off him, “Maybe you should have thought of that before you fucked me and then lead me to my end.”

 

--

 

By the end of the second week, Jun stops needing a humiliating amount of help to get around, starts being able to use the bathroom by himself without falling over. Kun drops by twice, to check on the healing. He seems satisfied.

Mingyu comes by, too, a surprising amount of times.

“You don’t hate me,” Jun remarks, trying to stabilize himself. He got up too fast, too confident, and now he’s dizzy. Mingyu is there immediately, grip tight and solid around his bicep.

“I don’t,” he confirms. Then, quietly: “You took a bullet for him.”

Jun shakes his head, unconvinced. “You hated me before. You were right, I was using him. This makes no sense.”

“You did what I would have done. You look at him the way I—the way I used to. You betrayed your people, for him.”

“I betrayed him first.”

Mingyu releases his arm, but holds his gaze. “Who are you trying to convince exactly, here, Junhui?” He cocks his head to the side when Jun freezes. “Yes, I know your name. It wasn’t difficult to dig once I knew where to look.”

“Junhui is dead,” Jun says.

“Not to me.”

That lights a fire in him, anger finally seeping through, blurring the edges of his vision. “You don’t know me.”

“You’re wrong,” Mingyu says, still infuriatingly calm. He hands Jun a glass of water and his evening dose of Motrin. “Open up.”

Jun glares. “I can do that by myself. I’m not an invalid.”

Mingyu raises an eyebrow. “You’re busy having a temper tantrum.” When Jun swallows the medicine, he smiles. It’s a soft, indulgent smile. The sort of smile Mingyu only directed at him twice before: the night Jun slept in Minghao’s bed beaten black and blue, and that one time at the shooting range. And Jun is tired, tired. He lets his head drop, rests his forehead against Mingyu’s chest. Mingyu cards his fingers through his hair, a reassuring, circular motion. Jun can feel him breathing, the rise and fall of his solar plexus.

It is human, and it is real. An anchor to reality. It feels like he could slip any moment, lately. He wakes up, sometimes, and it takes him too long to remember.

Who are you? Who are you?

 

--

 

My name is Wen Junhui. My name is Jun.

 

--

 

The day Kun removes the sutures, leaving behind two thick raised pink lines, Minghao enters the room again, finally. He has a grocery store bag in one hand, dangling from two fingers. He takes out two tubes of hair dye and slams them on the counter.

“Doc says you’ll be cleared to travel in a few days,” he offers in lieu of preamble. They haven’t spoken in days. Jun watches him, observes the tense line of his shoulders, his closed fist. He pushes himself into a sitting position, legs dangling off the mattress.

“Minghao,” he calls. Minghao takes an instinctive step towards him before he realizes what he’s doing and stops. “Minghao,” he repeats, softer.

It’s a heady feeling, the confirmation of the power he still, apparently, holds over Minghao.

“Don’t touch me,” Minghao grits out, but he walks to him, closes the distance. The few centimeters left between them are a canyon, impossible to bridge.

“You’re taking me with you,” Jun says, tentative.

Minghao’s gaze is hard. “There is nowhere else for you to go.”

“There is. You could leave me here. I’d make it.” He doesn’t want to say, my cover isn’t blown yet, doesn’t want to tread these waters yet.

“I don’t want to,” Minghao says, and there it is. Finally, they’re moving, iceberg thawing, towards something.

“I understand,” Jun starts, “That you—”

“You don’t understand anything,” Minghao interrupts him. “I brought you into my home. Into my bed.”

Inside me, in every possible way.

“I’m sorry, I’m so—”

“Don’t speak. Let me finish.” Jun shuts his mouth, nods. Minghao looks away for the next part. “I trusted you with parts of me no one had seen before.” His voice hitches. Jun waits patiently to be allowed to talk. Minghao slowly looks back at him. His dark eyes are shiny and furious. There is doubt, too, somewhere in there, deep. Between the lines. Jun can tell he wants to ask something but doesn’t know how to materialize the anxiety into a question. Has witnessed that process before, enough times to familiarize himself with it. Only for the first time he can’t coax the words out of Minghao; doesn’t have the right to kiss the corner of his mouth, smooth the sad lines of his forehead with two tender fingers. “I need to know,” Minghao says finally, a prelude, but then he stops there, and doesn’t advance.

“Anything,” Jun promises, even though his word is worth nothing, “I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

“I need to know,” Minghao repeats, like he’s putting the accent on it, making it clear—he doesn’t want to know, he needs to. “If they sent you to—if they sent you to seduce me.”

Jun is thrown back into the past violently, as if pushed under an impromptu cold shower, back back back to that very first night, first contact. Did my father send you here to seduce me?

Then fast forward, again. Is that why you're sleeping with me? I’m a problem you have to solve?

He hadn’t been able to answer, then.

“No, Minghao, never. It’s against protocol, but also, I—I wouldn’t do that to you. Minghao, I chose you.” I love you, he doesn’t say, this time not because he’s afraid of the power these words hold, but because he’s terrified that they’re not welcome anymore.

“How am I supposed to believe you?”

Jun hates the way he sounds. Hollow. Disdainful, in a way that Jun only knows from afar.

He wishes he could sink to his knees. Considers it.

“Because you know when people lie to you,” he decides to say instead. “Look me in the eye. I’ve never lied about this. Never. Everything, everything I said, the way I touched you, the way I—I meant it.”

His body hurts where they’re not touching. His body hurts everywhere.

“You were supposed to be mine,” Minghao says, low, and then he takes the last step. Jun spreads his legs, and Minghao settles between them. They’re still not touching. “You were supposed to be safe.

Wasn’t I? Jun wants to yell. Wasn’t I your shelter the way you were mine?

Movements slow, like one circles cautiously inside a circus cage in order not to spook the tiger, Jun raises his hand to Minghao’s jaw, slides his fingers along the sharp line, the angle of it. Minghao lets him, lets him, shifts impossibly closer. He smells like cheap laundry detergent and shampoo Jun doesn’t recognize. It’s foreign, strange.

“I gave you everything I had,” he whispers. “My body, my loyalty, my morals, my first kill, my job, my name.” Minghao exhales shakily. “I’d do it all over again.” With his free hand, he grabs Minghao’s, brings it to his chest, presses it at the level of Jun’s heart. “Feel it. Steady. This is what you are to me.”

When Minghao kisses him, he’s ready for it, sees it coming. Closes his eyes only at the last minute, to focus on Minghao’s lips on his, forbidden sensations he thought he’d have relegated to memories by now. And when Minghao pulls away to breathe, Jun kisses him above the mouth, then on the tip of his nose, then on his right cheekbone, his eyelids, his forehead, his nose again. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Forgive me, repeated like a litany. Minghao’s hand clutches at his sweater, tugs, until they’re kissing again, fully.

“I saw the blood,” he gasps against Jun’s mouth, “And the world stopped turning.” Jun thinks, hazily, back to that night in the streets of Shanghai.

“M’not gonna die,” he says, shakes his head. “Not as long as you’re there. I’m not leaving you. I promised.” Minghao kisses him again, fast this time, maybe a little dirty. Jun groans. “I never pretended, with you. Never had to.” And in the end, there is no need for fear, not when the words come naturally, like the river. “Because I love you, Minghao. I fought so hard against it, but I love you.”

Minghao sighs brokenly, lets his head rest at the juncture of Jun’s neck and shoulder, nose digging right above his collarbone. Jun watches the rise and fall of his back. Erratic.

“I can’t go anywhere without you,” Minghao confesses quietly, not meeting his eyes. “I tried. I tried to leave you behind.”

Jun tries to ignore the sting, pushes the thought away. The days where Minghao was nowhere to be seen, the days where Jun was waiting in the basement, breathing still an Olympic event… they were spent planning, attempting, to flee. From the police, from—from Jun. Same old, after all, in Minghao’s brain.

“You’re the love of my life,” Jun tells him, an echo, a mirror image. He wonders if Minghao even remembers. These admissions, in the backseat of a black SUV with tinted windows, feel like they took place a lifetime ago. “I’d do anything for you.” Minghao lifts his head. They’re face to face again, at last. “There is no rule I wouldn’t break.”

 

--

 

Minghao’s hair is a light chocolate color, wavy. Jun stares at his own reflection in the mirror, his freshly dyed black locks. He hadn’t gone back to his natural color in years.

“You both look ridiculous,” Mingyu says as he zips one large bag closed. Minghao punches him in the shoulder.

 

--

 

It’s a tight fit, two adult men in the trunk of a minivan. Minghao folds on himself, as much as he can, so that Jun doesn’t have to exert pressure on his abdomen with his knees. He ends up with his legs between Minghao’s, Minghao’s hand on his calf to stabilize him. There’s a loud clicking sound when Mingyu locks the door.

The ride is long, and Jun discovers that traveling without being able to look outside messes with his sense of time. Minghao doesn’t let go of his leg, his palm warm against Jun even through the fabric of his jeans, a gentle pressure. Every time the car slows down, Minghao’s hand spasms, and tendrils of fear curl like angry snakes tightly around Jun’s torso, but nothing happens. Mingyu never actually stops driving.

They arrive in Xiamen in the middle of the night. Jun must have dozed off at some point, his head lolling to the side. The inside of his mouth tastes like sleep.

Mingyu parks the van in a lot. There are countless cars around them, no humans. When the back doors open, Minghao jumps out first, offers Jun a welcome hand. There’s an ache in his sternum, where the two scars crisscross.

“It’s a ten minute walk to the port,” Mingyu says once Jun stops needing to lean on Minghao to stay upright. “It’s better if I don’t come with.”

“Yes,” Minghao says. One syllable. It resonates in the air like a prison sentence, the judge’s mallet hitting hardwood with a bam. “That would,” he adds after a beat, “Indeed, be smarter.”

Mingyu moves first. Wraps his arms around Minghao, pulls him as close as can be. Minghao’s body tenses, then goes totally lax. He sags in Mingyu’s embrace, takes one long, shaky breath. Jun watches them, counting seconds, growing unease at the pit of his stomach. Mingyu closes his eyes, lips a thin pink line, strained—words sealed inside, so carefully, always so tightly controlled. Jun’s heart aches.

“You should give him a proper goodbye,” he hears himself say. Mingyu’s eyes snap open. Jun holds his gaze.

Mingyu kisses Minghao with the sort of ease that only comes with years of profound intimacy. Minghao melts into his touch, kisses back so very, very softly.

“Come here,” Mingyu beckons Jun once they break apart.

Mingyu hugs him tightly, hand on the back of Jun’s head. He’s warm and solid, and the sudden unaltered affection that swells inside Jun’s chest takes him by surprise, by storm.

“Thank you,” he mumbles against Mingyu’s shoulder.

“I know you’ll do,” Mingyu says, voice lighter than a whisper, directly into his ear, “But take care of him. Please.”

And Jun thinks this, finally, was the way Mingyu was always supposed to love Minghao. It was chaos, before, two atoms depolarized, a violent tug and pull. There is a newfound balance, here. It’s unfair, that they’ll never get to revel in it.

Then he remembers. They’re the bad guys. Nothing about this is unfair. They’re getting away with so much.

It’s an unsettling contradiction, to be running for your life and to feel lucky.

“We’re going now,” Minghao says. The emotion is gone from his voice, the only remains visible to Jun’s trained eyes in the way he looks at Mingyu one last time, for one last breath under the same moonlight.

 

--

 

The morning Jun and Minghao reach Taipei hidden in the belly of a cargo ship, a patrol officer finds a charred body in a burned car on the outskirts of Shanghai.

Dental records comparisons identify the corpse as Detective Wen Junhui.

Captain Zhang Yixing of the anti-corruption brigade resigns from his position three days later.

 

--

 

Wen Junhui takes the plane for the first time in his life under a fake name, an American passport in his bag. The United Airlines lady inspecting his ID during the boarding process doesn’t even blink at his clear strong Chinese accent, simply wishes him a pleasant flight home.

He lets the word roll on his tongue, as he waits for the airplane to take off, crammed against a window, a screaming child to his left. Home.

Minghao is somewhere, seven rows down, pretending to read a book in french. He boarded the aircraft with a Swiss passport he’ll never use again.

They’re not supposed to communicate until they land at LAX, but on the seventh hour, Jun passes him on his way to the restroom, and Minghao extends his arm, lets the back of their hands graze.

 

--

 

Jun’s first impression of America is that everything is too large and too noisy, in a radically different way from bustling, colorful Shanghai.

Jun’s second impression of America is that Minghao looks gorgeous under the neon lights of the airport terminal, in his crumpled clothes, bags under his eyes, hair mussed from his latest catnap.

 

--

 

They rent a car in Los Angeles and drive through California. It’s slower than it could be, because Jun is still healing, and Minghao is overly zealous about following Kun’s instructions. Jun learns a lot, on the road. Nothing, not even the landscapes, looks like he thought it would, like in the movies. At their first gas station stop, he follows Minghao into the Seven Eleven when he goes to pay for the diesel, and looks for a can of Suanmeitang for a long while before realizing he’s not going to find any and settling for a bottle of Coke.

 

--

 

In a motel in Overton, Nevada, they share a bed for the first time since leaving China.

 

--

 

In the bathroom of a McDonalds in the middle of nowhere in Colorado, Jun presses Minghao to the wall and kisses him hard, chases the taste of cheap fries and soda and freedom.

 

--

 

They return the car in Denver, board a Greyhound bus to Illinois, huddle close together in the back. Minghao falls asleep against Jun’s shoulder, and maybe for the first time in weeks, he looks peaceful. Not quite rested, not yet, but on his way there.

In Chicago, they take the train. The infrastructure is impressively archaic, but it gets the job done. In twenty-seven hours, they’re in New York city, and that does look just like in the movies.

The metro is crowded, the buzz of it pleasantly familiar. Minghao talks to him in hushed Mandarin, his hand wrapped around Jun’s wrist for balance. They’re both deadly tired even though they slept on the train, but they have to meet someone.

In Chinatown, Minghao smiles, fully, for what feels like the first time in years. They stop to get dumplings, order in their native language. It doesn’t taste exactly how it’s supposed to, in a weird, unplaceable way. Jun gently knocks his knee against Minghao’s under the table. There is a stirring in his gut, still subterranean, but slowly coming closer to the surface.

 

--

 

The exterior of the building is decrepit, the red and orange neon sign flickering out of rhythm, one letter off. MASSAGE PARLOR, it advertises, both in English and in Chinese characters. Minghao pushes the door open. Inside, the wallpaper is gaudy, the smells heady and oriental in an unsettling way.

“Come on,” Minghao pushes him lightly, hand on the small of his back, “End of the corridor.”

There is music playing softly from speakers nailed to the ceiling, not loud enough to drown the unmistakable sounds of sex. Jun bites his bottom lip, furtively shuts his eyes. He’s out of practice. It takes him a second to tune it out.

The man in the office at the end of the hallway looks Chinese but speaks Mandarin with the inflections of someone who learned it late in life. His smile is wide, his shoulders wider. The way he stares, the way he catalogues, it reminds Jun of Yixing. Efficient, clean. He’s a leader, evidently. There’s another man in the room, hair bleached, pretty face, frame leaner but still muscled. The rifle hanging casually at his front, attached by a leather sling, certainly gives him a certain allure. His boss, seated, back relaxed into his luxuriously padded chair, doesn’t need a firearm to be intimidating.

Jun has never seen him before, but he has seen his ships, his red containers, coming in via Hong Kong.

“You want my protection,” Jackson Wang grins, like a shark; question phrased as a statement.

Minghao slants his eyes. Jun observes him, fascinated, as he turns back into Xu Minghao, the first son, the Prince.

“I have a business proposition,” he says. “For your ears only,” he adds, pointing to the blond man with a short movement of his chin.

Jackson’s laugh is surprisingly hearty. His piercing eyes stop on Jun. “You keep your backup, I keep mine.” Minghao tenses, but eventually nods. “Sit down, then,” Jackson tells him, pushing himself upright in his own seat. “Let’s hear what you think you can offer me that I don’t already have.”

 

--

 

They planned it together, before leaving, in that tiny basement where Jun learned how to breathe again with a pieced-together lung. In a way, maybe it is cosmic justice, maybe fate has a sense of humor. Minghao giving up his fledgling empire just like Jun gave up the only family he ever had. Sacrifices as wedding vows. Look, I cut up a piece of me in exchange for our forever.

 

--

 

More than just the chance to step in and take over the gaping power vacuum left behind by the crumbling of the Xu Clan, Minghao sells Jackson information. Secrets, names, secret names. The triads have no interest in the Mainland, but Jackson is particular—one foot in the States, one in Hong Kong.

“Let’s say I bite,” he says, and he sounds pensive, but this, still, is Jun’s arena. Reading people, anticipating. “What do you want?”

Minghao looks at Jun, then back at Jackson.

“To disappear.”  

 

--

 

It takes four months for Jun to get used to the rain in Portland, but only half that time for him to start responding seamlessly to the name Jake. Minghao has more trouble with becoming Adam, but that might have something to do with the way Jun stubbornly refuses to call him anything but Hao, whispered sweetly at night, shouted from the kitchen in the morning, thrown around like it’s nothing when it’s everything, when it’s all they have left from before.

 

--

 

Jun’s body is a malfunctioning machine, wires all wrong. He has used it as a tool all his life, and now that it refuses to obey him, now that it fights back, he doesn’t know what to do with it.

Minghao does. Drags him outside for walks even when Jun would rather stay inside and dissolve into the carpet, talks him through his reeducation exercises, dutifully follows dietary instructions and eats the same sad, sad meals as Jun in solidarity.

The first time Jun runs a mile and doesn’t feel any sort of pain afterwards, Minghao presses him to their fridge and kisses the lights out of him, and then bakes him a celebratory cake.

 

--

 

They learn how to talk to each other again through their fingertips, forever better at silence than at words. Skin on skin, slow and equal. Skin on skin, no expiration date.

And it’s unfair, Jun thinks, as Minghao puts his mouth on him, licks and sucks until Jun’s thighs are trembling and his throat is raw from pleading. It’s undeserved, it’s stolen.

It’s his.

And he’s selfish, he’s not the good person he built so meticulously for years, wandering aimless through existence, looking for any excuse to stay.

Minghao makes him come like that, on his tongue, the coherency fucked out of him. Takes him while he’s still pliantly blissed out, murmurs encouragements against the jut of his collarbone.

“They were all wrong,” Jun tells him, nails digging into Minghao’s shoulder blade, voice gravelly, “You’re the realest thing, you’re the only real thing I’ve ever had.”

Worth it, worth the thunderstorms, worth the ugliness of foreign words, worth the scars, worth the days where nothing makes sense, worth it, his.

 

--

 

Snow isn’t anything new to Jun, but the lights, and the music in every shop, the Santa at the mall, it’s eerily different, although not completely unfamiliar. He walks into a CVS to pick up a new toothbrush for Minghao and exits it with two boxes of liquor-flavored festive chocolates and a postcard with a cat dressed in a red sweater on it.

He posts the card two days later, Yixing’s address in neat characters that look nothing like his own handwriting, no message except for the stamp.