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moon river, wider than a mile

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Minghao isn’t sure which one of them broaches the topic first.

In fact, it takes a while for it to come up. First, Minghao spends two weeks crawling out of bed in the middle of the night to lay alone on the couch instead. Xiaoba sleeps on his chest— it keeps him from feeling too alone. He hates keeping Mingyu up all night— especially because he’s still student teaching and Minghao’s hours have become considerably more fluid since he quit his magazine gig.

Things have been better. At least, better for the most part. They have a bigger apartment and Mingyu’s family agreed to be introduced to Minghao. It’s progress. It took months for Mingyu’s mom to stop pressing him to patch things up with Eunwoo.

In the other room, Minghao can hear the steady gusts of Mingyu breathing. He does his best to focus on it— line up his breathing with Mingyu’s. It’s easier when they’re laying right next to each other but he can hear well enough to keep time like this. It helps calm him down, sometimes. He needs reassurance.

But that means he notices when Mingyu’s breathing changes— goes from slow, steady puffs of air to a hitch and a long yawn. He must reach out across the bed because the springs creak and then he grunts.

Minghao counts Mingyu’s footsteps approaching in the dark. When Mingyu leans over the couch to look down at him, Minghao opens his eyes. There’s no use in pretending he was asleep, anyway.

“You’re not in bed,” Mingyu says, frowning.

“You’re not either.” Minghao is struggling to keep Xiaoba from launching herself off his chest.

“Dreams?” Mingyu asks. The cat abandons him and Minghao reaches out to take Mingyu’s hand instead.

“Yeah.” Minghao toys with Mingyu’s fingers in his grasp, looking up at Mingyu’s face with a little scowl. “Go back to sleep.”

“Not unless you’re coming too,” Mingyu says. He doesn’t give Minghao a chance to argue with him. He clambers over the back of the couch, almost upending it, so he can settle heavy on Minghao’s chest. Out of reflex, Minghao’s hands go to his hips in an effort to keep Mingyu from losing his balance.

“Mingyu.” He means to sound admonishing but falls short. There’s a hint of fondness there— the smile that wants to crawl onto his face.

“I’m up anyway,” Mingyu says, his chest vibrating against Minghao’s.

Minghao might be happy to stay like this, with Mingyu warm and solid on top of him. He spreads his hands over Mingyu’s back, arms circling around him.

“Have you thought about it at all?” Mingyu asks after a few quiet moments. His head is on Minghao’s chest and he doesn’t pick it up when he speaks, muffling his voice a little. “Going home?”

Yes. No. It was easy to leave his past far away— another place, another life. There is a deep score etched between the life he had in China and the life he has now. A schism. The two of them aren’t meant to mingle. He could give an excuse and Mingyu would probably drop the topic, at least for a while. But Minghao kept too much of himself secret for too long. It feels good to finally have someone to share some of the load with.

“I’m scared of it,” Minghao says, running his fingers through Mingyu’s hair. “I haven’t been back since…”

Mingyu’s fingers are tracing a nonsense pattern into his chest. “What if I go with you?”

Minghao is worried at first about telling his parents that he’s bringing someone home with him. The suggestion of him coming home at all nearly sent his mother into tears and the last thing he wants to do is ruin it for her.

As it turns out, he’s worried over nothing. When he does finally confess that it won’t only be him coming, he has to spend the next forty-five minutes talking her out of buying Mingyu’s plane ticket on the spot.

It’s a cold, dark morning when the two of them arrive at the airport. Minghao’s dragging both of their suitcases along in his wake. He’s walking slouched over, with his hood over his head and the sight makes Mingyu smile a little.

“It’s a long flight.” 13 hours, in fact. “You can catch up on sleep on the plane.”

Minghao lifts his head up enough to shoot Mingyu a sour look before he nods his head. “Yeah, I’ll try.”

It’s not hard to sense the reluctance Minghao has about returning home. Even though he put himself in charge of planning their trip, it’s been without a sense of enthusiasm.

He doesn’t have a hand free to hold so Mingyu puts an arm around his shoulders, kissing the peek of bare skin at his temple.

“Your parents are gonna be happy to see you,” he says, squeezing Minghao’s shoulder in his grasp.

That gets Minghao to smile at him, leaning into Mingyu’s side a little. He’s said very little about Hong Kong. When Mingyu prods him, he’ll talk about places they should go see or foods he wants Mingyu to try. Neither of them has been calling this a vacation.

“They’re happy about seeing you too,” Minghao says. He releases one of the suitcases and passes it over to Mingyu. It leaves him with a free hand for Mingyu to hold onto. He laces his fingers through Minghao’s, giving his hand a tight squeeze.

He wants to promise Minghao that things are going to be okay. He wants to say that they’ll go and have fun and return to their lives only better for it. But he’s not certain that all of that is true. He’s not sure that’s what Minghao needs to hear, either.

Minghao sighs when they finally find seats at their gate, sinking down into the uncomfortable plastic chair. The black hoodie he has on threatens to swallow him up— probably something of Mingyu’s he stole. Mingyu keeps hold of his hand and when he sits down, Minghao leans to the side to hide against his shoulder.

“You said you got us a hotel?” Mingyu asks, tracing the tips of his fingers over the lines of Minghao’s palm— head line, life line, heart line.

“I don’t think we’ll both fit in my old bed,” Minghao says, a sliver of a smile on his face. “The place is pretty small, anyway.”

“Are your parents meeting us at the airport?” Mingyu asks, trying to mask the spike of anxiety with a smile.

Minghao catches on— he always does. “No. I told them we’d need a little time to settle in.”

It can’t be any worse than the nightmare dinner they had with Mingyu’s parents a few months ago. Mingyu continues toying with Minghao’s fingers.

“Did you tell them that we’re…”

“They know who you are,” Minghao says, a little softer. “They’re excited about that too, I think.”

“Really?” Mingyu asks, sitting up a little straighter. Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise. It makes sense that they would want their son to be happy after losing his soulmate. But it’s an adjustment, too. He probably wouldn’t blame them for not wanting to see him at all.

“I didn’t tell them all of it,” Minghao says, barking out a little laugh. “They would think the whole thing is kind of…”

“Scandalous?” Mingyu fills in, using his mother’s favorite word to describe the relationship.

“Something like that,” Minghao says. His jaw stretches open in a yawn and Mingyu settles low in his seat. Minghao smiles, tipping his head to the side to lay it against his shoulder.

It’s easier to worry about what Minghao’s parents will think of him than anything else. It’s going to be a hard trip, no matter what he does to try and keep Minghao’s spirits up.

“You can shut your eyes for a while,” Mingyu says, squeezing Minghao’s hand in his. It’s hard to tell if his nightmares have gotten worse or not. Before they booked their flight to Hong Kong, it already seemed like Minghao never got any sleep.

“You’re tired too,” Minghao says, just short of complaining.

“I can stay up.” He captures Minghao’s hand securely in his own.

Minghao presses his lips into a line and Mingyu knows he wants to keep complaining. But the offer of sleep must win out because he just sighs and lays his head back down.

“Keep an eye out for delays,” Minghao says, pulling his hood down over his face. “Wouldn’t want to miss the flight.”

Mingyu smiles, giving Minghao’s hand another squeeze.

The neighborhood he grew up in is not how Minghao remembers it.

When he was a kid, the corner of Hong Kong he was allowed to roam seemed massive. It was bright and crowded— the entire world in twenty blocks of dense city.

Now, almost a decade later, it doesn’t seem quite as big as it once did. The dance studio he used to go to with Zhennan is gone, replaced by a trendy coffee shop. The little corner store is gone too. Most of his childhood has been lost to time.

But the building his parents live in hasn’t changed quite as much. There are still clothes lines hooked between it and the next building and someone’s sheets are fluttering in the breeze high above their heads.

“This is where you grew up?” Mingyu asks when he climbs out of the cab. Minghao nods, looking up at the window he remembers so clearly. He should’ve worn a few extra layers— according to the forecast it wasn’t supposed to be so cold, but his hands haven’t stopped shaking since they got off of the plane.

He doesn’t answer. Mingyu probably isn’t expecting him to.

Mingyu lays his hand at the small of Minghao’s back and Minghao exhales for the first time in hours.

“Are you holding up okay?” Mingyu asks, his thumb rubbing circles into Minghao’s back.

“I’m fine,” Minghao says. His voice sounds distant to his own ears and he clears his throat, giving his head a shake. “I’m doing fine.”

“Okay.” He’s biting the edge of his lip, a spot already worked raw over the last few days.

“It’s different,” Minghao says, looking at the building again. He hasn’t gotten any closer and Mingyu seems reluctant to push him into it.

“It’s been awhile,” Mingyu says. He’s more cheerful than he needs to be. Minghao almost smiles— not at the forced optimism but at the thought behind it.

“Sorry,” Minghao says, shoving his bangs away from his eyes. “We can go inside. I’m just…”

“Take your time.” There’s a furrow between Mingyu’s brows and Minghao reaches to smooth it out with his thumb. It’s hard to reconcile the sight of Mingyu standing on the doorstep of his parents' apartment building. Mingyu in Hong Kong, a city Minghao hasn’t dared to return to in almost a decade.

Slowly, he pulls his hand back. “We can go in.”

This time he backs it up with action, pressing the combination into the keypad at the door. He’s almost surprised that he still remembers it. He’s less surprised to find that it hasn’t changed.

“It’s nice,” Mingyu says, once they’re in the elevator up to the apartment. Minghao is holding onto his arm, nails probably biting into his sleeve through his sweater.

Minghao nods his head once, scuffing his shoe over the carpet. “They replaced this.”

“You can tell?” Mingyu asks, looking down at it as well.

“I dropped a whole ice cream cone in that corner,” Minghao says, pointing ahead of them. “There was a huge stain for years.”

The ride up isn’t very long, but Minghao feels a little steadier for it. It’s easier to think about introducing Mingyu to his parents than the rest of it. He hasn’t spent much time worrying about it but he knows Mingyu has.

“They don’t speak English,” Minghao says, watching the steel doors part. He steps forward but Mingyu hesitates.

“Korean?” He asks, hopeful. Minghao shakes his head. Mingyu sighs, his shoulders slumping.

“You could’ve told me before we got on the plane,” Mingyu grumbles, following Minghao out of the elevator before the doors close.

Minghao pauses outside the door. Mingyu stops just behind him, shuffling his feet.

“Are we going in?” He asks when Minghao doesn’t move after a long moment.

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to knock.” He’s oddly dismayed by it.

“Do you still have a key?” Mingyu asks, skepticism twisting his voice.

“I lost that like three apartments ago,” Minghao says.

He knocks on the door of the home he grew up in like an outsider, listening to the hollow thud of his fist against the wood.

In the scant few seconds it takes for someone to answer the door, Minghao convinces himself that he’s somehow at the wrong place. Mingyu’s hand is at the small of his back, rubbing circles into it.

The door does open, and it’s his mother smiling at the two of them that finally makes Minghao start to relax.

“You’re here!” She says, putting her hands on either side of Minghao’s face. He ducks his head slightly forward, anticipating the kiss the places on his forehead.

There’s the heavy, familiar smell of her cooking filling up the hall. There’s a sharp pull in the center of Minghao’s chest and he has to do his best to choke down the lump in his throat.

She lets go of his face and Minghao stands up straight again.

“This is Mingyu,” he says, reaching back to grab onto Mingyu’s wrist and pull him forward. “He’s…” Minghao has yet to come up with the right word to describe it. “With me.”

“He’s handsome, isn’t he?” She says, lowering her voice down to a whisper. Minghao laughs, glancing back at Mingyu and shaking his head.

“He doesn’t understand,” Minghao says, whispering as well. He can feel the nervous energy that radiates off of Mingyu. He turns back with a little smile. “This is my mom, Yun.”

Mingyu starts to extend one of his hands like he’s expecting to shake. But he quickly thinks better of it, bowing at the waist instead.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Mingyu says in unsteady Mandarin. He must’ve used some of the time on the plane to try and teach himself a little while Minghao slept.

Minghao watches his mom’s face go instantly bright when Mingyu straightens up to his full height, his head just short of the low ceiling. She clicks her tongue against her teeth, giving Minghao’s arm a shake.

“You could’ve picked much worse,” she says, still keeping her voice low. She weaves away around a stack of books at the end of the couch and back to the kitchen, waving her hand back at Minghao. “Make sure he’s comfortable!”

The approval stirs something in Minghao’s chest that he wasn’t expecting. He didn’t bring Mingyu here in search of it— since he moved across the globe, they’ve largely left him to make his own choices.

Mingyu takes his shoes off and puts them carefully in line with each other. He has the corner of his lip trapped under one of his sharp canines. “What’d she say?”

“She’s gonna invite all her friends over to coo at you, I think,” Minghao says, looking back at him with a grin. Mingyu relaxes a little. He steps all the way inside, looking around the room.

Slowly, Minghao does the same. He’s only seen the room in pictures for the last few years. Mostly, it’s the same. The couch is new and they’ve changed the direction it faces, but things aren’t so terribly different.

“Wow,” Mingyu says. Minghao pulls his attention away from studying one of the throw pillows to look at what he is.

On the opposite wall, taking up almost the whole space is a framed photograph. Minghao recognizes it immediately— it’s one he took.

The photo is bright and airy; an old man reclining in a subway seat, the sky like a brilliant blue painting behind him. Minghao tries not to take pictures of strangers when they aren’t expecting it but he showed the man the picture after because he liked it so much.

It’s old now. It was the first time Minghao looked at one of his photos and felt like he had created something— done more than just capture things he can see.

“I didn’t know they had this one,” Minghao says. It feels like admitting something heavy.

“Can I see your room?” Mingyu asks. He’s tipping forward slightly in excitement.

“I don’t know if it’s still a room,” he says, leading the way. The door is closed and for a moment Minghao has a beat of irrational terror about what might be on the other side.

The room is pretty much how he left it, if a little cleaner. Most of his things are long gone, sent to him over the years or disposed of. But there are still sheets on the bed and a thin stack of photos laying on the desk.

But the posters on the wall, the view from his window, the smell of the air. These things are all the same.

For a moment, he’s thirteen, carving the characters of Zhennan’s name into his bedpost with a pocket knife. He’d slipped and cut his thumb. There’s still a scar there, a thin silver half moon.

He’s seventeen, pulling Zhennan into bed with him even though they’re supposed to sleep apart.

He’s nineteen and making up his mind to leave.

“Hey,” Mingyu says, hushed. Minghao realizes he’s been quiet for a long time, standing at the doorway and looking at the empty room with tears prickling at his eyes. Mingyu’s hand covers his shoulder, turning Minghao away from the room and towards him instead.

“Hey,” Minghao repeats, his voice thick. He presses his face into Mingyu’s chest, shutting his eyes and taking a few shuddering breaths.

“Want me to shut it?” Mingyu asks, rubbing Minghao’s back, in between his shoulders.

“No,” he says, a little sharp. It would be silly to fly all the way here and stop in the doorway. “No. We can go in.”

“Okay.” Mingyu doesn’t move immediately. Minghao doesn’t either, stroking his fingers over the thick knit of Mingyu’s sweater.

“It’s pretty much the same,” Minghao says when he finally pulls himself away from Mingyu.

For a long moment, Minghao has to take it all in. He runs his fingers over the frame of the bed and stops in front of the window, looking at the white sheets blowing in the breeze outside.

Mingyu is lingering in the door behind him still, the width of his shoulders taking up the whole doorway. When Minghao looks back to him, he starts to smile.

“Does it feel good to be home?” He asks, tipping his head to the side.

“I don’t know,” Minghao says, raw.

They eat mapo tofu with his parents and Mingyu does his best to keep up his end of the conversation with Minghao’s translations to help him.

It’s a good meal— comfortable. Minghao isn’t surprised by that part of it. Mingyu is charming, even with all his words passed through Minghao first. They ask him about his degree and his family and Mingyu is happy to answer.

Even better, they don’t really ask about his soulmate. Minghao isn’t sure they would be very happy to hear the truth.

He helps his mom clear the plates and waves off Mingyu’s attempts to do the same. Everything gets carried into the kitchen and deposited in the sink.

“He’s a nice boy,” his mother says. Minghao smiles, his hands already sunk in the soapy water in search for the brush.

“Thanks,” he says even though it wasn’t exactly a compliment paid to him.

“I wasn’t sure you’d ever…” She trails off, looking down at the clean glass in her hands. She has a towel to dry it, rubbing the glass over and over even though it’s dry now. “Well. It’s good to see someone make you laugh.”

He wasn’t sure he would ever move past the loss of Zhennan either. He can hardly blame her for it.

Even now, he’s half expecting Mingyu to change his mind and go back to Eunwoo. Mingyu hasn’t said anything about his soulmate, really. Minghao doesn’t even know if they still dream together. If they do, Mingyu has never said anything about it.

Minghao pulls his hands from the soapy water and lays them out on the corner, leaning over to press a kiss to her cheek.

“I’m happier now,” he says. It’s a small measure of honesty— he doesn’t think of his life as being so bad, most days. But he is happier with Mingyu than without him, that much he knows.

By the time they get back to their hotel room, it’s late and Minghao should be tired. Mingyu is already in bed, his hair damp and ruffled around his face from the shower.

Minghao is lingering by the window, looking over the bright lights of the city.

“Do you wanna come to bed?” Mingyu asks, sitting up.

“Yeah,” Minghao says, the word balling up in his throat.

“There’s a tub,” Mingyu says, continuing as if Minghao didn’t answer. “In the bathroom. It has jets, I think.”

“Is there?” Minghao asks. He saw it already. Mingyu nods his head, throwing the blankets off of his legs.

“We can probably both fit in it,” Mingyu says. That gets Minghao to turn around, a helpless smile on his face. Mingyu is already up on his feet.

“You took a shower,” he says, reaching up to pat Mingyu’s damp head.

“So what?” Mingyu catches Minghao’s hand, pressing a kiss to his palm. “We can drink the champagne from the mini bar.”

Minghao takes a minute to think about it. Mingyu doesn’t— he lets go of Minghao’s hand to pull the navy glass bottle out of the small fridge, peeling the gold foil off the top.

“That’s probably like a hundred dollars,” Minghao says, watching him. Mingyu looks at it, rolling the bottle in his hands before shrugging.

“I’ll pay for it.” Mingyu swings the door open and turns on the light.

Minghao gives in and follows after him.

He has the bottle sitting precariously on the sink, bent over to toy with the knobs of the tub. His shirt rides up his back a little, revealing a patch of tan skin and one of the bumps of Mingyu’s spine. Minghao runs his palm over the spot, fingers sliding under the hem of Mingyu’s soft shirt.

Mingyu jumps a little then laughs, peering over his shoulder. In the yellow light, Minghao can see the circles under Mingyu’s eyes. He must be tired. The trip is so short they won’t even have the time to sleep off the jetlag.

“Did you get cups?” He asks, standing slowly. Minghao keeps his hand on his lower back, shaking his head.

“Didn’t see any,” Minghao says, giving his head a shake. “We can drink out of the bottle.”

“Oh.” Mingyu scratches the back of his neck and then laughs.

He shuffles a step closer to Minghao, tugging the edge of his hoodie with a laugh. “You gotta take this off.”

Minghao lifts his hands over his head and Mingyu is quick to comply, pulling the hoodie up over his head and tossing it back out the open door of the bathroom.

The room is beginning to fog with steam from the hot water and somewhere in the middle of undressing each other they get distracted kissing and manage to almost make it overflow.

They finally turn off the water and Minghao turns the jets on as well, making the surface of the water come to life.

When Mingyu pops the cork off the bottle it makes both of them jump, white bubbles running down Mingyu’s knuckles. He laughs, tossing the wire cage and the cork into the sink.

The water runs over the edge when they both sink in. It’s hot enough that Minghao’s skin blooms pink under the water. He ends up with his head on Mingyu’s shoulder, leaning back on his chest. They do mostly fit— though Mingyu has to bend his legs at the knee, still too long for the space they have.

There’s music playing softly from the speaker in the main room and when Mingyu passes him the bottle, Minghao takes several long drinks from it. It’s good champagne— they probably can’t afford it.

“It doesn’t feel like being home,” Minghao says, the truth reluctant to leave his mouth. Laying like this, he can’t see most of Mingyu’s face. All he catches is the way his mouth twists into a frown.

“I thought seeing your parents and stuff might help you feel better. We can go back early if you want to,” Mingyu says, fretting, drumming his fingers on Minghao’s ribs.

“It’s two more days,” Minghao says, shaking his head. “I’ll be okay.”

“What does it feel like?” Mingyu asks, real curiosity in his voice.

Minghao rolls his head back against Mingyu’s shoulder, blowing out a long sigh. He reaches his hand out and Mingyu passes the blue bottle back to him. He drinks, then lets it dangle from his fingers.

“Another life,” Minghao says, his forehead against the side of Mingyu’s neck. “Like… it’s my family and my house but someone else grew up there.”

Mingyu nods slowly though Minghao isn’t sure if it’s in acknowledgment or understanding. He decides it’s doesn’t really matter which.

“I guess that makes sense.” He keeps going, eyes shut now. “I couldn’t even stand coming back here. I guess it hasn’t been home for a long time.”

The jets cut off as he finishes speaking and the air goes sharp with the sudden silence. Mingyu’s chest lifts as it inflates with air.

“Where do you want home to be?” Mingyu says. Minghao traces a wet hand over his bare chest, considering.

There’s an answer there, wedged in between his ribs. It’s stuck in the chambers of his heart, not quite ready to emerge. But it’s there— the beginning of a thought.

“I’m still figuring it out.” His hand stops for a moment at the center of Mingyu’s chest, just above the pounding of his heart.

“We can skip sightseeing if you want to.” Mingyu angles his head to the side, trying to catch Minghao’s eyes. His mouth is still turned down at the corners, the heat making his face shine with a thin layer of sweat.

“And just stay in here?” Minghao asks, frowning in return.

“Sure.” Mingyu’s smiles easy as ever. “I can get food and we can download some movies…”

He looks tired. Even while waiting for Minghao to answer, he’s fighting to keep his eyelids from drooping. They’ve finished half the bottle of champagne but the water is still hot and the combination is starting to make Minghao sleepy as well.

“You do too much,” Minghao says, sharper than he means to. Mingyu’s smile wavers and Minghao shakes his head, wishing he could pull the words back. “I mean… you don’t have to do all this for me.”

Mingyu bends his head and kisses Minghao’s temple. “It’s not too much.”

Minghao takes another drink of champagne, letting it fall into the hollow space in his stomach.

“We can go see the city,” Minghao says, passing the bottle back to Mingyu. “It’ll be fine.”

They get out of the bath when the champagne is gone and the water has started to cool. Mingyu wraps one of the fluffy towels around Minghao's shoulders, the heat and alcohol making him away slightly on his feet.

Minghao smiles, tossing a towel over Mingyu’s shoulders in return. It ends up draped over his head, obscuring part of his face. It doesn't hide the way he breaks out in a grin. Minghao reaches forward, putting his hand on the back of Mingyu’s neck and pulling him in for a kiss.

Mingyu is easy to reel in, loose-limbed and relaxed as he is. It takes a little bit of negotiating to get the two of them in bed— Minghao in his hoodie and boxers and Mingyu in a different shirt since his ended up getting wet somehow.

Most of the time when they’re going to bed, Mingyu tucks his head under Minghao’s chin and clings to his waist. Sometimes, it’s the other way around, with Minghao spooned up against Mingyu’s back. It’s easier that way. Mingyu is a heavy sleeper and Minghao needs freedom for his own restlessness.

Tonight, however, he draws both of Mingyu’s arms around him and buries his face in Mingyu’s shoulder, settling in. He’s not sure that they’re really drunk, but he did have enough champagne to make his eyes heavy. Mingyu only adjusts the way he’s holding Minghao, fingers passing through his hair.

The lights are off but neon still bleeds in through the shades, casting a green hue over the room. Minghao lays with his eyes open, soaking in the now unfamiliar sounds of the city below.

It’s quiet so long that he assumes Mingyu has already fallen asleep. But his voice cuts through the darkness makes Minghao jump in place.

“Hey,” he says, his fingers curling around Minghao’s head. Minghao hums, just to show that he’s awake— listening. “I love you.” He presses his face into Minghao’s hair.

“Me too.” The words have ceased sticking in Minghao’s throat. He doesn’t feel the guilt he used to. He shuts his eyes, curling his fingers in Mingyu’s shirt to keep him close.

He falls asleep like that and doesn’t open his eyes again until morning.

“You didn’t have to come with me.” Minghao adjusts the crinkling plastic bag in his arms.

It’s a cold day— the breeze cutting across the waves and chilling down to the bone. Next to him, Mingyu shrugs down deeper into his scarf and shakes his head.

“It’s fine,” he says, muffled by the fabric covering his mouth. “Unless you want to… um, go up alone.”

The cemetery is built on a hill, winding upward like a conch shell. Minghao knows exactly how many steps it is up to the proper headstone— 875.

He doesn’t know what exactly compelled him to invite Mingyu along with him. It didn’t seem strange until this moment, standing outside the arch of the entry.

They had to stop on the way for a small bottle of wine and a few sticks of incense.

“No,” Minghao says after a moment of thought, shaking his head. “Come with me?”

He tries to make it sound like an offer, not a demand. The truth is, he’s not sure Mingyu would turn him down either way. Mingyu lifts his head to flash the tips of his teeth in a smile.

The walk up the hill is slow, made longer by the cold. Mingyu doesn’t complain though Minghao suspects he’d probably like to. There is still fog rolling across the side of the hill, the sunlight too muted to banish it. There is a green railing and the whole way up, Mingyu keeps his hand on it.

“I don’t talk to it,” Minghao says, the words leaping from his lips.

“What do you do?” Mingyu asks. He pauses, looking up at Minghao standing a few steps higher than him. He blinks, pulling the scarf away from his mouth again.

“Just… the normal things,” Minghao says. He lifts up the bag, shaking his head. “Pour a little wine, light the incense…”

“Nothing else?” Mingyu asks, his brow furrowing.

“What else?” Minghao asks in return, shrugging his shoulders. He starts walking again and so does Mingyu. He jobs a few steps to catch up to Minghao’s side again.

“You could leave him something,” Mingyu says, maybe a dozen steps later. “A picture. Something of yours.”

He has a few tucked away in his wallet— stuck there the day before when he made good on his promise to take Mingyu around Hong Kong. It seems an odd choice to leave a picture at the two of them at Zhennan’s grave. But he decided to bring Mingyu along in the first place.

“Maybe,” he says, hands tucked into his pockets.

When they finally make it up the hill, Mingyu stops a few feet away. He’s doing his best to pretend he isn’t watching while Minghao goes through the usual rituals. He brushes the stone clean with the edge of his sleeve before he stands up again.

Mingyu shuffles his feet and Minghao looks over at him with a helpless smile.

“Do you want to say something?” He asks, brushing the dirt off his knees.

His cheeks flush pink. Mingyu doesn’t come any closer until Minghao waves him over, reaching out to take his hand.

“Not if you wanna stand here in meditative silence.” Mingyu’s hands are warm and as soon as his fingers close around Minghao’s he brings his other hand over, rubbing heat into Minghao’s cold hands.

Minghao hasn’t spent much time considering the afterlife. Even visiting Zhennan’s grave is a formality— trying to force the emptiness in his chest to take the proper shape. All he’s learned is that it doesn’t fit. In nearly a decade he hasn’t begun to understand his grief; the vastness of it.

“I don’t know what to say,” he admits.

“We used to talk to my grandma’s grave,” Mingyu says, his thumb still rubbing back and forth over Minghao’s knuckles. “To tell her that we missed her and stuff.”

Minghao frowns, unconvinced, but Mingyu keeps talking anyway.

“It can be anything.” Slowly, Mingyu releases his hand. “Whatever you want him to hear from you."

“Out loud?” He already knows what Mingyu’s answer will be.

“Yeah,” Mingyu says, gathering the bag and the spent bottle of wine up and shoving them into the pocket of his jacket. There’s a small smile still on his face. “I’ll wait for you at the bottom.”

He pauses for a second, standing close enough to reach out and touch. He hesitates there for a moment, color rising in his cheeks.

“This seems like a weird place to kiss you,” he says, shaking his head. The helpless, honest way he says it makes Minghao smile.

He twists the watch around his wrist twice, nervous, before stepping away and walking back down the spiral path by himself.

It takes a few minutes for the steady beat of his footsteps to fade, leaving Minghao alone.

It is still cold, the wind damp where it finds his skin. The longer the silence goes on, the less Minghao wants to interrupt it with his own voice. He would have to say a lot to explain his life as it is now— in another country, working as a photographer, living with Mingyu. It’s a life that would’ve been impossible for him to picture at eighteen.

But it’s the life he has and he’s beginning to find the good in it.

He doesn’t say anything to the stone that makes Zhennan’s grave. He takes another piece of Mingyu’s advice; he opens his wallet and takes out one of the pictures.

It’s the two of them crunched together in the slim space of Minghao’s childhood bed. This one Mingyu took, evident from the high angle and the slight shake at the edges where his hand wasn’t quite steady. Minghao isn’t making eye contact with the camera— he’s picking his head up from Mingyu’s neck, half his face still hidden.

Mingyu is smiling, a ray of sunlight falling over both of them. He lays it carefully next to the incense holder, using a rock to hold it in place.

It probably won’t last long, left out and exposed to the elements. He tells himself he’ll come back again and leave another one behind— a piece of the life he’s living. He draws an X over his heart the way they used to, making it a promise.

Alone, the way down is long and cold.

At the end, Mingyu is still there. He’s sitting on top of a large rock, long legs stretched out in front of him, huddled in for warmth.

“Sorry,” Minghao says. He can barely feel his fingers.

Mingyu perks up, lifting his head and hopping to his feet. “Hey!”

“Let’s get some coffee,” Minghao says, stretching a hand out toward Mingyu. “You must be freezing.”

His cheeks and the tip of his nose are both pink, but the first thing Mingyu does is lean in and press a soft kiss to Minghao’s mouth.

“Okay,” he says when he’s finished, eyes crinkling when he smiles. “Coffee sounds good.”

They’re taking a red-eye flight back, the cheapest one Minghao could find. It’s bound to be an uncomfortable trip.

Minghao is still looking forward to it, somehow.

Mingyu has never had such bad luck traveling.

Their plane takes off four hours later than it’s supposed to— two of which they’re forced to spend sitting on the plane in close quarters, waiting for take off.

It takes so long that their connecting flight back to Seattle is gone, along with any hopes of getting back on the next flight in nine hours.

Which is how they end up in a rental car on a dark stretch of highway at 3:27 in the morning. Minghao is slumped over in the passenger’s seat, his head bumping against the window.

“Sorry,” he says, not quite looking at Mingyu. “I should’ve picked a better flight.”

“It’s okay.” There’s snow flying against the windshield but none of it sticks, melting away into dew. He means it but Minghao frowns and turns away, looking out the window into the dark instead.

“It’s a long drive,” Minghao says after a moment. “We can switch.”

“It’s just a few hours,” Mingyu says, doing his best to soothe. “It won’t be so bad.”

“I wanna get home.” Minghao heaves out a sigh, shutting his eyes.

Mingyu can’t help the grin on his face, hands going tight around the wheel. It’s a tiny victory. A tired slip of the tongue.

“Are you sure you’re good to do this?” Minghao asks, his eyes open just a sliver. “You look manic.”

“You called it home.” Mingyu dares to look over at him just for a second. He can barely make out more than the dark outline of his features— the ghost of his smile. It’s enough, though. It’s more than enough.

Minghao laughs, a bright sound in the quiet car.

“I did?” He asks. Mingyu nods even though Minghao probably wasn’t looking for an answer. He goes quiet again and Mingyu is almost holding his breath.

Minghao’s hand slides down his shoulder, lingering at the bend of his elbow, then the watch on his wrist.

“I meant it,” he says, assured. “Let’s go home.”