At eighteen, Nie Mingjue lost his parents, dropped out of college, and fought the entire world to keep custody of his baby brother and control of his family business.
At twenty, he stopped by the math tutoring center to pick his brother up, looked across the room, and felt his heart skip an actual beat at a soft, dimpled smile and beautiful wide eyes.
At twenty-two, he made a mistake. He stole a kiss from a laughing mouth, their fingers covered in melted chocolate and marshmallows. He’d stolen another one, and another, and had one stolen from him over and over again until he was fucking his--Meng Yao--on the kitchen floor. And he made that mistake over and over again almost every night for four years until it all ended in shattered glasses and angry shouting and accusations that still rang in his ears during his darkest moments.
At twenty-six, he had to keep his mouth shut as his former lover and his best friend became a couple. He kept quiet until three years after they started, when they also imploded, with less shattered glasses and yelling, but with an equal world of hurt. And then he’d confessed to his best friend, comforting Xichen as his heart broke in more ways than one. Blaming himself for seeing his friend like this, knowing that if he’d just fucking spoken up, if he'd just been honest and brave and open six years ago, maybe it could’ve all been prevented.
That was one of the worst things he’d done. No one deserved a broken heart, but least of all, Lan Xichen.
At twenty-nine he made a mistake and that time it felt like a betrayal. His plan had been to confront Meng Yao over the words he’d spat at Xichen. To force him to apologize and mend what was broken. Instead they’d come together--violently, viciously and explosive, like they so often did after long stretches apart. Mingjue had hated himself for days after that. Hated himself and his weakness for that sly little fox that had long ago run off with part of his soul and most of his heart.
At thirty, broken bridges were rebuilt. Xichen remained the most forgiving soul on the earth, and was determined to make them all as close as friends as they’d been before. Of course, Mingjue and Meng Yao had never been friends, not really, but they were both willing to try for Xichen. And that worked, for a few years.
At thirty-four, he made the same mistake he’d made at twenty-two. Still desperate for one man only, but refusing to let his heart get crushed this time. He tried to keep him out, but like always, Meng Yao stole away his better senses.
At thirty-five, he ended it again. Because he couldn’t be with someone who would deliberately ruin his best friend’s happiness. Because he couldn’t be with someone he loved so much, but who apparently didn’t love him back, or didn’t care about him enough to try and fight and stay. Because he couldn’t be with someone he didn’t trust.
Because he wanted a future--marriage, kids, retirement to the farm and a country life--and if he couldn’t have that with the man he loved, then he needed to at least find someone he could have that with, even if most of his heart would always be with someone else.
The Nies were known for their anger. Their wrath. Their tempers. For their violent ways. Butchers they’d always been and butchers they’d always be.
He’d made sure, Huaisang had made sure, they wouldn’t only be butchers now.
Because the Nies were more than wrath and blood. They loved deeply and joyously and passionately; often playing jump rope with that thin line between love and hate. They were devoted and proud. Engagements, weddings, and birthdays were extravaganzas in their family; a family that loved to welcome in new members and celebrate life’s joys, because the Nies also had a sad tradition (some said curse) for tragedy.
Nie Mingjue had fucked his relationship up from the very start. Because he saw a gorgeous smile and pretty eyes and tried to bury it deep when he should’ve done a proper courting. And then he lied and hid his love and kept it a secret, when it should have been celebrated.
There were many things Nie Mingjue could blame on Meng Yao, but his feeling of resentment from Mingjue’s lack of publicly acknowledging their relationship? That blame rested firmly on Mingjue’s shoulders. He’d offered this time around, begged, and been refused. Meng Yao was the unwilling one now, trying to be the perfect image of a virtuous man for his absolute bastard of a father.
At twenty-two, at thirty-four, part of him had still been that scared eighteen-year-old, worried that someone was going to snatch everything he loved away again. So this time he’d destroyed it first, before someone else could.
As he sat in his bedroom in his Back Bay apartment, staring out at the city lights, he took a sip of his whiskey and marveled at his brother’s bravery.
Huaisang had never been afraid to love and express every emotion. Open and joyful. Soft some had sneered at him, Mingjue among them at one time, but Huaisang had built an entire business off contacts he’d made, with his artistic skills and his gossip and his friendship. He used his brilliant mind and his innate Nie stubbornness to succeed. And he’d found someone to love. Even if it was still early days, Mingjue wouldn’t be surprised when those particular wedding bells rang in the future.
And Mingjue? He had a cold empty apartment with sheets that still held the faint scent of Meng Yao’s cologne. He had half-empty bottles of another man’s shampoo and a few stray items of clothing and unopened bottles of coconut water. He had memories of that devious fucking smile and that devious fucking laugh; that knowing quirk of wicked lips.
His little fox, how he missed him even now.
He could still taste him.
This apartment was haunted.
He had to leave before he gave in. Again.
This is why he didn’t fucking come to Boston.
And he had even less of a reason to now.
He should probably just put this place on the market. He was either in Springfield or at the farm more often than not now. If he needed to be in the city, he could just stay with his family.
He didn’t need to try and make a home here. Not anymore.
He put his whiskey down on the closest table before he could throw it. He could feel the frustration and anger and grief pulling him apart from the inside out.
Out there, right now, his brother was getting his fairy tale ending. Out there, in this city, his best friend was in the arms of the man he’d loved for a damn near decade. Mingjue could let the envy overtake him, but he decided to reach for the joy. The joy of their happiness. Fires of love and affection he could maybe warm himself beside.
He looked around the apartment, saw nothing but memories, and knew he’d have to leave. He wouldn’t be able to sleep here tonight. He knew his breaking point and he was teetering on that edge.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the box he’d carried to that dinner. The one where he’d ended it. He hadn’t gone on their date intending to end it all. He’d gone there to ask Meng Yao to the Esplanade Ball, to have their own reveal, and he’d had a felt box with custom cuff links for his little fox made. He’d had it in his hands, the question on the tip of his tongue, but he’d sat at that dinner and waited for Meng Yao to even look up at him, or in his eyes, or anywhere. Instead he got downturned glances and fingers tapping against a wine glass, and eyes that wandered.
He couldn’t even hold his attention for a meal.
Dreams and illusions were pleasant until you woke-up and they shattered.
He left the box on the counter with a note. Meng Yao would be by sooner or later to gather his things. He’d ask the cleaning service to come through next week, empty out the fridge, close the apartment up until further notice.
It was late, perhaps too late to drive, but he couldn’t stay here and the open road would clear his mind.
He packed two bags, taking the things he wanted to keep from this place, and then walked away. There was nothing for him here, not anymore; not for a long time.
He started his truck and headed out of the city.
To new roads and new beginnings, wherever they may lead.
The apartment was dark when he entered. And quiet.
No one was here. It was empty. Devoid. Tomb-like.
His memory and mind went into overdrive as he realized things were missing. Mingjue’s favorite sweatshirt. That throw pillow he’d insisted Mingjue buy because the pig looked like Lulabelle. The picture frames from the bedside table. The keepsake box his mother had given Mingjue on his last birthday. Their blanket, the old grey one, frayed and fallen apart, but the one Mingjue had wrapped around him after that first night so many years ago.
Meng Yao put a shaking hand to his mouth and tried to refuse what he was brain was telling him. What he could so clearly see.
Mingjue had meant it this time.
In the kitchen was something new. A note. A felt box.
Something to remember us by.
Trembling fingers opened the box. Golden fox head cuff links with ruby eyes. Extravagant, to fit Meng Yao’s tastes. Personal, to fit Mingjue’s own.
Ten years of on and off and yes and no and push and pull and joy and pain and did it really come to this? An empty apartment and a pair of cuff links?
It hadn’t been real before. They’d fought and disagreed and ended things for days or weeks or months, but this felt permanent. It'd never felt permanent before.
Their game, finally over, and Meng Yao feeling the weight of his loss.
He wiped his eyes and lifted his head. No one would see his weakness and he wouldn’t break down here, in a place that held good memories.
He took the note and the box and locked the apartment.
There was nothing there for him now, not anymore.