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Elbow Rub

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“Elbow Rub,” the app was called, and apparently it had been around for awhile—under the radar, kind of chill. The parts of Ten that weren’t decidedly un-chill (the parts that got him swinging into teary-eyed loneliness and fits of neediness from his friends whole countries away, the parts that were a little excessive in their passion and optimism) found this appealing. Supposedly, it was a dating app that didn’t take itself too seriously or demand any excessive amounts of effort. All dating apps were a breeding-ground for certain issues, “but this one’s pretty well-managed,” Sicheng had told him. “Or so I’ve heard,” he'd deflected—as if he knew Ten would tease him for the mere implication that he was dating (He did. "Good god, Winwin, who is it? Who are you dating?").

The app reminded Ten of a creamsicle with its soft orange and white logo, though the resemblance thankfully ended there—he wasn’t sure he could have powered through the innuendo. If anything, the symbol looked like two simple arms getting ready to wrestle with a surrounding, cute and little sparky halo.

Plugging his info in was fun, though it took a grand chunk of time out of his usual after-work downtime. He curated a diverse collection of five photos, but omitted his occupation in light of the message he was committing to on his profile:

“bendy and flexible. dancer. i like glitter and edging. take me somewhere $$$”

To complement the caption, he had chosen some professional pictures taken for his web portfolio that had never seen the light of day and, in a burst of nervous inspiration, a picture of him smiling properly. He could thirst trap just fine, he knew, but if he only wanted sex, he’d go to a club.

He wanted some kind of…light blend of playful and something real, but enough contrast with his personal life that he could feel himself live a little with whatever collection of men he could snag. That was his goal. Hence the edging.

Ten wiped his hands on his jeans as he finalized his profile, then shut off his phone. He still had to tweak last year’s preschool lesson plan before he could go into tomorrow with confidence.

With his fluffy slippers on and a blanket snagged around his shoulders, he shuffled into his too-cold kitchenette to make himself green tea, mulling over the activities he remembered not working for this planned unit. He had about five years under his belt teaching preschool, but that didn’t mean he could coast on his old lessons.

The little ones were wild.

From his fridge peeked out a picture he had taken with Sicheng some five months or so ago, stuck with a clumsy clay magnet one of his kids had put together last year of a “sheep.” It resembled more of a mangled cloud with black blobs and thumbprints, and it deserved the highest honor of keeping the picture of his best friend up.

It had been years since the injury that took Ten out of his professional dancing career, but Sicheng was in his prime these days. He somehow always managed to wrestle in time with Ten and choreograph some cover with him—just to push him to his creative limits again after so long of simply dancing for recreation and groupwork.

Ten hummed against the dry rim of his mug, looking away from Sicheng’s beaming picture and across the other pictures of his friends. The miscellaneous children’s drawings he’d taken home with him from work, too.

Most days, he didn’t feel too lonely with what he had.

With his tea poured and steeping, he started up his little mounted CD player Johnny had gotten him one year and settled down to Avril Lavigne with his laptop of lesson plans, flexing his toes with every beat and typo. By the time her 2011 album had run itself through, he was several days ahead and trying to blink himself awake enough for one more sentence.

Kids should nkow how to

Kids shouldk   now

Kids should

“I give up,” Ten announced in a murmur, hefted himself from his chair, and only barely remembered to grab his phone before leaving for his bedroom.

For some reason, he didn’t expect to get anything from Elbow Rub right away. He imagined for himself a message over the weekend. Maybe a 3AM dick pic.

He turned his phone back on before tucking in so he could set his alarm and was met with a half-dozen notifications in white and soft orange.

He stared at them, thought about it, turned on his alarm, and put his phone on Do Not Disturb. His heart worked at triple volume in his ears, but it was late, and preschoolers would not allow themselves to be taught by a sleepy teacher. Not going to bed on time was only a last resort.

Approximately seventeen hours later, he plopped himself down on the floor of his tiny sitting room with a bowl of softening instant pad thai and finally opened up the ultimate mystery box.

The messaging interface was blessedly simple, directing him to each profile first for him to briefly peruse before he could tap “accept” or “pass.” At that point, he could then see whatever pickup line they’d prepared for him from “You wouldn’t mind having sex with a four, right? Lmao” to “u’re parents rly knew what they were doing wen they named you ten bc damn u r”

These made Ten laugh, mostly, snorting into his noodles until he developed a bad enough cough that he had to retreat to the kitchen for some water. He was even amused by the lazy “hey” he got as he tucked his legs under himself on the knotted rug and leaned on the coffee table. He did expect more from, supposedly, a pottery enthusiast with impeccably strange green streaks in his hair.

Even to that one he responded, though. The only profile he rejected was from a 20-year-old, since at 26, Ten would rather not. He had the option to reject anyone at any time and close his profile off to them completely, so he wasn’t fussed by an opportunity to play around. He could also go out into the wilds of the app and find someone for himself, but these seven or so people he’d collected passively over the day were more than enough to scratch his itch, he was hoping.

They whittled down slowly. Some went straight to propositions, which he wasn’t feeling. One just had an air about him that suggested he’d dominate a conversation ad nauseum.

He didn’t really take any of the banter seriously until maybe the one. Maybe the one who interrupted with a banner mid Ten’s message about how he was indifferent to the various brands of maple syrup.

Qian Kun has bumped into you! the app announced, and Ten forgot to finish his drafted message, tapping the notification on impulse.

The first picture of “Qian Kun, 26” was of a man smothered in colors, hands up to defend himself from an incredibly high-definition arc of turquoise interior paint. The edge of the photo was just a portion of a scrunched up face, but the center was Mr. Qian, face so full of mirth and unfortunate splotches of color that Ten found the corners of his lips tweaking on instinct. He wore a paint-ruined and baggy white t-shirt tucked into cutoff shorts, and Ten could just see a slip of collar bone from the way it hung off him.

The next photo was less chaotic—just the man nuzzling into the short, white belly fur of a sweet-eyed dog, lips ducked out for an errant paw. Like this, Kun’s eyes were visible. Warm. With humor.

Ten hummed and flicked through the rest of the pictures. None of them looked quite curated, but none of them looked like they were picked on accident, either. Kun was handsome, playful, colorful. Something about his choices made him seem like someone deliberate.

He scrolled down the profile.

Qian Kun, 26

Project Manager at Architectural Firm

Chinese, single, gay, looking for something

I like music, cooking, and willfully forgetting what time it is.

Ten snorted and hit “accept,” and Kun's first message popped up in his private messages.

He had to read it three times over for it to click in his brain.

“Hey, Ten! I love edging. It really helps keep the royal icing from going everywhere. Coffee?”

Royal icing.

Ten blinked.

He took a bite of his pad thai, now cold, and exited out of the app to pull up google. He typed in “royal icing edging” and ended up with a dozen baking blogs and “SATISFYING VIDEO: ICING TO LO-FI MUSIC”s. He watched a few of the latter, one of which gave a recipe tutorial.

Ten didn’t know jack shit about baking. Cooking was stressful, and throwing science in there was giving him traumatic flashbacks to his high school chemistry teacher saying, “Chem is try!”

That being said…being with someone who could both cook and bake was a very different matter.

Ten held his tongue between his teeth and brought Elbow Rub back up. He couldn’t tell if Kun was teasing him or if the joke really did go over his head.

He messaged back, “i dunno my royal icing tends to go everywhere after some good edging.” He then set his phone down, staring at the orange and white interface for a moment before picking up his chopsticks and staring at a wall instead.

When he returned from throwing away the packaging bowl, noodles gone and chopsticks in the sink, Kun had messaged back.

“Oh really? Maybe you're not using the right technique?”

Ten chewed on his lip and sent, “maybe you should come over to show me your technique~” to which he almost immediately saw the little typing ellipses.

“How about a coffee first before you invite me over to play with your toys,” Kun’s message said, paired with the app’s endearing emoji of a winky face.

The warmth in Ten’s face registered some three seconds later, and he dropped his phone onto the coffee table to hold his cheeks. “Damn it,” he hissed and tried not to laugh. He’d been expecting to continue this awkward condition of wondering if Kun was being intentional or not, and then the winky face brought it all together at once and Ten was flustered.

He let himself go through the stages of grief (attraction-variety!) very quickly, then responded to Kun because damn. “i should let you know i don’t actually bake,” he texted, “but a coffee sounds great.”

Again, the ellipses popped up almost immediately, but it disappeared almost as quickly. The pattern repeated, and Ten found himself smiling into his hand. He went to type “i mean you can try teaching me how to actually ice cookies” when Kun’s reply popped up.

“That’s okay! The three bases of dating: coffee, edging, and then edging 2.0.”

Ten pressed his mouth up against the coffee tabletop and didn’t bother stifling his laugh. “which type of edging comes first” he responded.

“Depends on if I like you as much as I think I will.”

Ten’s laughter turned into a groan and he pushed his phone away from him, burning a blush into his palms. “What the fuck,” he breathed. He was going to be so disappointed if Kun ended up being an asshole.

They couldn’t actually meet until several days later. Kun’s project site where he managed was too far away to sneak in a substantial lunch hour, even if they met in the middle, and...well. Ten was a preschool teacher, so he spent his lunchtime breaking new records for speed-eating, then sprinting to make sure Lucy Butterfingers didn’t break her nose on the monkey bars.

Saturday rolled around with several quiet and encouraging messages from Sicheng to bolster Ten. It was Johnny who Ten called, though, when he was getting ready. Two hours of a timezone difference was a lot more forgivable than what Ten would have to inflict on Sicheng.

“Why not wear the uh…mmmlow-cut shirt you own?”

Ten made a sound of discontent around his toothbrush, and Johnny laughed on the other end, voice muffling as he seemed to adjust his phone to his other ear. Ten could hear Johnny typing every so often over the feed, very likely multitasking work with this chat—though Ten couldn’t be sure for which of his duties it was for.

He washed out his mouth and picked up his phone again. “It’s too warm out for that one,” he said finally.

“For what? Oh. The shirt.”

“I think I'll just wear one of the ones Tern sent me in her last package.”

“When are you going to send me the sweater she intended for me?” Johnny laughed. The sweater wasn’t the only thing Ten had forgotten to send Johnny—he’d been sitting on a care package for him for just about seven months now.

“When I stop being lazy about it,” Ten said, shuffling through his closet for the red-hemmed tee. “Going to the post office is a hassle.”

“Your apartment is too tiny for this hoarding.”

“It suits me.”

Johnny’s laugh this time was bright, his humor tinkling over the speaker phone as Ten changed clothes, but petered out when Ten let out a hum of doubt. The shirt sat right above his waistband.

“Too slutty?”

“Can’t see.”

“Right. Hold on.”

He snapped a picture using his body-length mirror, ripped jeans on along with his bracelets and earrings already. He then lifted his arms a little and took a picture like that, too, where the inches of his skin flashed the reflection.

When Johnny received them, he scoffed. “I was expecting a thong showing or something. You’re fine.”

Ten laughed, then sighed. “Fine or good?”

“Good for a coffee date, I’d say. No reason to overdo it.” Johnny hummed in thought, no more typing noises coming from his end. “If I’d give it a fashion evaluation…with your yellow shoes, maybe a small eight.”

Ten considered this, smoothing his fingers over the waistband of his jeans. “I’ll take it.”

He shouldn’t have worried he wouldn’t recognize Kun when he approached. It was pretty easy to see the absolute stud of a man jogging up to him from the other side of the street in a rolled-sleeve t-shirt and belted slacks, messenger bag slapping his thigh. His hair was disheveled, and maybe that was the best part.

“I had to change,” Kun said breathlessly as he approached, and he was a little taller than Ten. He’d just assumed somehow he’d be on the shorter side what with his bio not including his measurements, which made this a pleasant discovery. He was also way more handsome in real life, which he’d hoped for. Most people were.

“You what?” Ten asked, distracted by Kun holding the door open for him.

“When I was driving up,” Kun said, following him in and rummaging in his bag to pull out his wallet, “I saw what you were wearing and I came straight from work and looked like…like some white-collar. So I changed in the car.” Kun laughed, and Ten didn’t know what to do with himself.

He’d dated before. This was not his first time meeting an almost-stranger for a date, but it was almost certainly the first time someone just jogged up and went straight in as easy as butter melting into hot toast.

“I—” Ten began. Kun’s laugh was more disarming when it was happening in real life. He was still frazzled even as it had died out and Kun looked at him for whatever he had to say. “I wouldn’t have minded seeing you in a button-up. Those can be sexy with the sleeves rolled up. To the. Uh. Elbows.”

Kun’s eyes glinted pleasantly. “Next time, then.”


“What would you like? I’ll pay, unless you would prefer to. Or split,” Kun moved on, stepping between the stanchions to tag onto the end of the short line.

“That would be great, thank you,” Ten said, though he felt a little disembodied. He wrestled himself into the present moment. “Um. Give me a second.”

He finally took in the coffee shop—its charming pastry setup and bottled drinks, the little table to the side of the line stanchions decked with handmade jewelry and business cards. The bright windows and scattering of two-person tables and wall booths.

Right. Right. Ordering.

Ten stared at the menu above their heads painted quaintly to mimic chalk. 

“Cold brew’s fine,” he said after a moment.

“Got it,” Kun said. “Do you want anything else?”

Ten took a deep breath and let out a laugh, stealing a glance at the way Kun paid attention to him. He didn’t seem nervous or fidgety. Just looking at him for responses and being warm about it while doing it. “The chocolate pound cake looks great,” he pitched, and Kun just said, “Nice.” as they stepped up to the barista.

Ten slid to the side behind him to indicate he wouldn’t be ordering as Kun asked for a mocha on top of it all. Ten allowed himself a glimpse at Kun’s ass, then promptly looked away, biting his lip like it might shake away renegade thoughts.

It was a nice ass.

He almost jumped when Kun reached to touch just the outside of his elbow. Kun retracted immediately. “Sorry. Can you choose where you want to sit?”

The barista was still putting the order in for a charge, and so Ten nodded and moved away to snag one of the empty tables at the far end.

Even from a distance, it was obvious Kun was being polite to the service staff, and he accepted the plate of cake with both hands and this little head bob that made Ten’s heart tug.

He let out a tight exhale and pushed the tiny plastic advert frame aside as Kun found his way over and slid into the chair opposite Ten. Kun, too, let out a breath as he passed Ten a fork. “I’m sorry for touching you without asking first,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking.”

Ten blinked at him and his handsome face looking so careful now, fork dangling from his fingers. His brain rebooted. “Oh god no,” he said and was grinning before he properly realized it. He saw Kun’s lips twitch. “You can touch me. I was just zoned out.”

The breath Kun let out this time was more pleasant and relieved. He bit into the cake with his fork. “Is that something you do a lot?” Miraculously, Ten was not distracted by the way Kun wrapped his lips around the tines of the utensil.

“Maybe a little more than some people,” Ten said, “but I was really just thinking about your ass.”

Kun coughed on the tail-end of swallowing down his cake, then immediately laughed and showed Ten the brightest smile. “If you like it, we might have an issue,” Kun mused, mirth heavy in his voice.

Something told Ten there was a flirtatious punchline to that premise, so he sat forward in his seat. “Oh?”

“I’m going to have a really hard time turning my back to you. That involves looking away,” Kun said, and there was a tension of happiness in his voice somewhere among his execution.

Ten hiccuped a laugh, then cut a bite out of the cake to finally eat some of it. “Just suffer the crick in your neck,” he murmured, intentionally coy, and Kun just laughed.

“Quinn?” the barista called out, and Kun pushed his chair back to stand up.

“Quinn?” Ten laughed, and Kun grinned at him. Kun had shown him the Chinese characters of his name the first evening. There was a voice note option that had allowed Ten to get the mouth shape just right and also match a voice to a face without Kun witnessing his private swooning.

“Don’t make fun,” Kun said warmly, then tapped the table once before pulling away. “Enjoy it.”

Ten didn’t think Kun meant the cake on the table.

When Kun came back with the coffees, they spent the majority of the time just trading questions and getting to know each other—from Kun admitting he owned a hard-hat to Ten promising to show Kun his Instagram when he felt a little less nervous about showing an acquaintance his dancing and art.

Their coffees and cake remained finished for a time before they uprooted themselves and elected to walk along the streets of downtown. Ten was the one to ask if he could hold onto Kun’s arm, fingers entwined and leaning into him, and Kun said yes, and eventually Ten had to ask.

“Which edging do I get?” Ten asked, and it was meant to be playful, but somehow he sounded nervous nonetheless.

Kun looked at him and slowed in his steps as if he could only walk so fast while saying something important. “If I fuck you tonight I’ll fall too quickly to be healthy,” he said simply. “I can either do flings or I can take things slowly. I would love to bake with you, but I don’t know if I can—” He breathed in through his nose and stopped completely. Ten stopped with him. “I’m very attracted to you, and I feel like we have a lot of chemistry. And so far I think you’re an amazing person. I would rather date you than—” He waved his free hand and Ten watched his fingers, chest tight with a feeling that most closely resembled endearment. “—fuck you once and then mope for weeks.”

“Weeks,” Ten repeated, and he knew the smile he was wearing must be tremendous.

The look Kun gave him was incredibly bare and heartfelt, which was charming at the very least and enough to tug his heartstrings at most. Dangerous. Kun was dangerous. But Ten was in the immediate process of deciding whether he wanted that kind of dangerous. “I really like you already,” Kun said, quiet and charged, and Ten let out a heavy exhale.

“Okay,” Ten said, the conclusion coming to him faster than he’d anticipated.

Kun swallowed, opened his mouth to say something, and Ten darted a finger up to press to his lips. Kun immediately looked taken aback, then softly amused. He pressed a kiss against the pad of Ten's finger just as Ten was going to continue speaking.

The words left him.

His lips were so soft. Fuck.


“Sorry,” Kun mumbled against Ten’s finger. “I’m listening.”

Ten searched for his words, then found them. “I’m willing to try. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a real relationship.”

Kun squeezed his hand as if to nod.

“I like you enough.”

Kun seemed to be trying very hard not to smile against his finger.


Kun schooled himself, and Ten rather thought “like” was a bit tame for how much he adored this particular acquaintance in that moment.

“Commitment is hard, so be gentle with me.”

At that point, Kun reached his free hand up and gently brought Ten’s hand down by the wrist. “Slow for me, gentle for you. Got it.”

Ten nodded, smiled, and said, “Okay.”

The app remained on his phone, but it was shoved into one of his folders on the third page somewhere. It was mostly for Ten’s psyche—feeling a little less like what they were doing was the equivalent of “going steady.” He still had the app if he wanted it. He didn’t want it at the moment, but just in case.

For the first two months, Kun neither invited Ten over to where he lived nor entered Ten’s apartment. It felt like a modern spin on traditional courtship, hanging around in the mall plaza after a movie. Walking a meal off after dinner at a restaurant. Visiting the local park that split the distance between their apartments and sharing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Visiting a bowling alley, rock climbing, going to an arcade. Meeting early on Sundays for runs.

Ten also felt a little like a teenager who was too nervous to bring his boyfriend home, scared his parents would walk in on them kissing.

But in a lot of ways, this pace was something Ten earnestly appreciated and enjoyed. Kun felt more and more like his friend with a slightly romantic trajectory. Kun flirted way too much to pass for a platonic interest, and Ten was guilty of the same tricks in his own style. 

There were boundaries this way, and a way of feeling each other out without lighting any emotional fires. The first date had felt so charged, but things slowed down as they set out at a walking pace, then flattened into something more like a valley between high hills. Calm. And not too stressful.

Like this, Ten didn’t feel as skittish about calling Kun his boyfriend. It felt almost pleasant rather than heavy—like Kun was this cute little part of him who would see him after work on some days and flirt with him until he was laughing into his fist.

They hadn’t even gotten very far in kissing. The first one had been so chaste it took Ten’s breath away and possessed his brain for days. And that obsession, too, slowed down and flattened out, and kissing was less daunting the second time.

He learned how to push Kun’s buttons. The right ones. The ones that wound him up into a scrunch between his eyebrows like Kun found him confounding but wonderful. Kun was fun and easy to tease, and he tended to play along like it brought him genuine fulfillment. 

The least chaste kiss he’d captured from Kun had been after he kept stealing his food without asking. The park had been green and wide that day, comfortably warm if they hugged the shade. Kun had brought out a quilt made out of his old high school t-shirts that his mother had crafted for him, heavy and worn, and they had their own sacks for lunch (Kun learned Ten was insufferably picky early on and left him to his own devices for the most part). Ten narrowed in on the things in Kun’s prepared lunch that he was interested in stealing, then began his small larcenies. As soon as Kun caught onto Ten being playful about it, he began to complain, and then resorted to physical restraint, and then he simply wrestled him to the blanket and downright growled.

Ten had never been so thrilled about a development in his life, and was delighted to have the laughter kissed right out of his mouth. For about one minute, it devolved into something smoother and slower, and then Kun was pulling away and blinking. His breath shucked out of his lungs, and he stole one more kiss against Ten’s lips before sitting up again.

Ten’s heart was trembling in his chest, but in an excited, fluttery way. He liked him. Really, truly, so much.

“You’re testing my patience,” Kun said after that, returning to being cross-legged on the blanket and casting a side-eye at Ten that blazed just a little.

Ten hummed, then crawled back closer to him, slumping down and across Kun’s lap to watch his exasperation inevitably morph into warmth. “You like me,” Ten said, smugly sure of himself.

Kun rolled his eyes with a sigh and leaned back on his palms, refusing to brush through his hair. Or it simply didn’t occur to him. “You know I do,” Kun said, shifting his weight to take a sip of his water.

“Play with my hair,” Ten suggested, curling the fingers of his hand into the back belt loop of Kun’s pants.

Kun laughed, the sun splaying across his face through the leaves and turning sections of his eyes a delicious sand gold. “No. You already goaded me into a kiss, darling.”

Ten considered the pet name a close win.

At around the three-month mark, Kun invited him over one weekend to “edge, and I mean it platonically.” Kun had said it with enough laughter in his tone that Ten knew he was serious. It was a step forward, but one of a size reasonable enough for where their relationship was at the moment.

Kun’s apartment wasn’t much bigger than Ten’s own—the kitchen only slightly more generous. He had more plants and an actual bookcase, squat as it was. The entire place smelled like baked cookies and something else that Ten automatically associated with Kun.

“You really started baking the cookies without me?” Ten asked, teasing as he slipped into the spare house slippers Kun made room for in the small entryway.

“Decorating them will take up the entire evening. Trust me,” Kun said, already back in the kitchen making metallic sounds and sounding very busy.

Ten had only snatched a brief look at him for when he’d opened the door, Kun having said that needed to take a fresh batch out of the oven and disappearing like some slippery thing. As Ten settled himself up against the countertop to pilfer a fresh cookie and settle down, he could appreciate Kun’s I’m-not-leaving-the-house clothes. Baggy, sleeveless, arms out like a gift from god, neckline loose.

“You look hot,” Ten said around a nibble of cookie, and Kun threw him a knowing look.

“The oven’s been running,” Kun deadpanned, sliding a new sheet into that same oven, then tossing the oven mitts onto the counter. He crossed the small distance to Ten, leaned in, and instead of stealing a kiss, took a bite out of his cookie straight from his hand. “Quit snacking.”

“Give me something else to use my mouth for, then,” Ten said, finishing off the rest of the cookie and trying not to think the juvenile thought that he’d just shared an indirect kiss.

Kun cocked his head, eyes flicking over his face, and smiled, so close Ten could feel the soft breath from Kun’s nose. “Bringing you over was a mistake.”

Ten sagged against the counter and groaned, feeling the tension snap and mourning the loss. “It’s difficult.”

Kun backed off with a big sigh and a small chuckle, refocusing on his baking task by grabbing his spatula. Ten watched as he began to slide the cookies off their sheet and onto the cooling rack just next to him. “I think so too,” he said finally, balancing the cookies on top of other ones. They varied in shape from squares to circles and triangles. “But,” he said, “I think I want to get used to you being here a few times before I let you drive me absolutely mad.”

Ten bit his lip around a laugh.

“Otherwise,” Kun continued, eyes glinting the way they did whenever he amused Ten, “I’m going to have a pavlovian sexual reaction to you being in my apartment.”

“You better pin me to a wall when you snap,” Ten ribbed, and Kun drew in a tense breath.

“Don’t give me that mental image.” Kun laughed, then groaned and dropped the spatula on the counter to run his hand over his face. “Christ. Go easy on me. I beg.”

Ten couldn’t help it. “Begging,” he said. “Sexy.”


He giggled, hitching himself up on the counter as Kun looked at him with a mixture of pleading, pain, and something unfathomably affectionate. “Alright, alright,” he promised, and let Kun go about his business.

They ended up eating cold noodles Kun had prepared earlier while waiting for the cookies to cool, after which they made and color-mixed the royal icing.

“I can make neat straight lines and things, but any art I attempt is going to look like a child’s,” Kun admitted, halfway through filling a piping bag with pink icing.

“Well, if it ends up too horrendous,” Ten mused, “you know I’ll have to—”

“Love me more.”

“Yes, th—…”

Kun stared at him, and Ten stared right back.

“I’m so sorry,” Kun blurted, hands frozen around the cup he’d been using to assist filling the bag. His eyes were wide and startled. “It’s been pinging around in my head. I’m so sorry.”

Ten looked away from him to gaze at the little piping tip he had in his fingers. Love, huh?

“Ten, I don’t even know if I’m there yet,” Kun said, and his voice was tilting into pleading now, and Ten could almost feel panic start to diffuse into the air from how tensely Kun was holding himself.

“It’s okay,” Ten found himself saying, and leaned into Kun to drop a kiss on the stiff corner of his mouth. He settled back onto his heels and dropped the piping tip into the bag where the snipped edge was. “It’s okay,” he repeated. “You’re not sure, I’m not sure, so let’s not talk about it yet.” He offered up a smile to Kun, who was unwinding very slowly. Visibly.

“So long as…” Ten continued, then rolled the words around in his mouth. “If you say it first, please know it just. It just might take me awhile.”

Kun let out all his air at once, and Ten could see his eyes close like something heavy had dropped from his back. “No, of course,” he said, shook his head a little, then went back to the icing. “I won’t say it for some time more,” Kun promised. “I’m really trying to think with more than just my romantic instincts, here.”

That made Ten laugh, and Kun looked incredibly relieved, seemingly tracing his laugh lines with his gaze. “And I’m trying to think with more than just my irrational fears. I really like you, Qian Kun, so let’s go carefully.”

All the same, Ten found himself deleting the app no more than a week later. Kun had visited his apartment by then and let Ten teach him one minute of choreography around stiff hips and a loose smile.

Once the word was out there, it was suddenly so nearly-tangible Ten’s heart started aching on the regular.

It seemed silly to start falling for Kun in different ways than how he already liked him. It started being the tiniest fragments of things and then all the bigger things he’d come short of processing properly before. The cowlick hidden in his hair and the way he murmured while collecting ingredients for dinner. The way he was attentive and so interested in Ten, asking questions and investing in his answers, committing them to memory, sending him messages every so often when things reminded Kun of him. The little exhale Kun always gave right before a kiss like he was setting his intention or asking himself if he was being reasonable. The way Kun balanced teasing the ever-living daylights out of Ten while still accepting him in every possible way for who he was already.

Things started coming together like this, and Ten found himself falling for the pine needles and the forest, already intimate with the trees.

“I love you,” Ten said while Kun was stressing over a plant that just “looked sick, Ten, and nothing was working and I—what?”

The statement seemed to startle Kun right out of his temporal grasp on the moment, staring at Ten like one might look through stained glass.

“I love you,” Ten confirmed. “I thought you should know.”

Kun just stood there still partially hunched over his plant, dressed in a t-shirt and button-up and comfy, after-work jeans. And then his throat started to work, and Kun crawled back into  existence inch by inch. His voice was thick when he spoke. “Okay. Thank you for letting me know.”

Ten smiled at him, lifting his thumb to his lips to gnaw on a hangnail if only to stifle a laugh. He hadn’t known what Kun’s reaction would be, but this was the cutest permutation. “No problem.”

It was almost fun waiting for Kun to catch up, because Ten rather thought Kun had been in love with him for a while and had simply been dragging his feet around in a desperate hope to mitigate his eager heart.

There was this tinge of helplessness about Kun for almost two straight days that Ten couldn’t even kiss out of him. He suspected that Kun didn’t think that in any universe, Ten would be the one saying the words first.

And now he was a little lost.

It was precious.

The third day, Kun was almost entirely back to normal, and the days passed quickly after that, but with a lot of curiosity on Ten’s end. Nothing much changed, which made Ten feel very much like he’d been awfully lucky in falling for this man in particular.

“Is it silly,” Kun finally said, cooped up against the headboard of Ten’s bed while they watched the weirdest niche indie movie ever, “that I feel awkward saying I love you second?”

Ten laughed. He buckled over the pillow in his lap until he was laughing only air and no sound.

“Hey,” Kun whined. “Hey, just. I love you, okay? And I—I didn’t know when to say it.”

Ten very nearly kicked his laptop away from them, still biting down on tears and laughter, and hitched a leg over Kun’s lap so he could hold his face in both hands and say, “You’re wonderful and I love you too, you big silly.”

Kun didn’t complain into the kiss Ten left against his lips. And neither of them complained or felt any seeming loss when the kissing didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t the time.

It was the time when the holidays rolled around and they had to acknowledge that at least for now, they’d be leaving for two different places in two days. It took two minutes max on Kun’s couch before they forgot about dinner and Ten had his knees on either side of Kun’s thighs.

It didn’t matter, really, with which intent Kun kissed. His lips were warm and plush each time. Pushed back against the seat cushions, Kun held Ten’s hips while his neck craned up to push back into the kiss. To drag his teeth softly over Ten’s bottom lip and breathe, then pull him closer, lay his mouth against Ten’s neck and leave earnest, phantom tingles after he was gone. Ten did his best to mess up his hair. Kun did his best to have patience for the small stretch of couch until he aborted the effort entirely.

When they moved to the bed, pressure jumped from Ten’s stomach to his heart with just Kun’s shirt off. He’d learned and unlearned, then relearned to see Kun with clothes on as just as much of a potentially erotic thing as anything else, but Kun was handsome like this. Handsome trying to keep his heavy breaths soft as he kissed over Ten’s belly.

“I can’t edge you tonight,” Kun rasped out like the sexual tension had grabbed him by the throat. “I’ll die.”

Ten laughed—loved laughing during foreplay and in everything that happened after it, and he loved even more the smile Kun pressed into his hipbone as one controlled breath trembled over his skin. “So dramatic,” Ten said and propped himself up on his forearms, “but don’t edge me.” Kun laughed, fingers already unbuttoning the front of his jeans. “Don’t edge me or I’ll die,” Ten teased, but in full honesty, and then squeaked when Kun came back up to kiss him with a warm hand rubbing over his underwear through his open jeans.

It made so much sense with how they were that they didn’t even get to fucking, orgasming over the ridges of someone’s hand and the heat of their mouth. Ten woke up giddy the morning after, feeling impossibly more in love with the man who had made fun of himself the night before for “not even lasting a minute, fuck. It’s like I’m a teenager with you.”

What were the odds, he wondered, that someone could just instinctively know just the right formula—just the right pace—to make Ten fall in love with them and feel safe while doing it.

Tern very nearly reshaped him with clay from all her teasing and grousing that her little brother had gone and turned into a lovesick puppy.

“How long’s it been?” she asked, rummaging through the packages of clothes she had brought for the holidays and wearing some herself. She threw one at him, and he investigated the olive color of what he could see. “Two weeks?”

“Four and a half months.”

Tern gaped at him, and then her expression hardened, and Ten was already slipping from the bed and trying to run. “Four and a half months? And you didn’t tell anyone? Come back here, you prick!”

It didn’t feel nearly as bad as Ten thought it would be—being away from him. There had been a couple times when Kun couldn’t find the time to see him for a few days or when Ten was too busy with conferences and preschool do-dads to make time either. The slow, easy pace worked in their favor over the holidays, though there was something about seeing him again for the first time that was absolutely ruinous.

“Oh you’re like handsome handsome,” Ten said when he saw him again in nothing more than a sweater and jeans. Kun laughed and pulled him into a hug that filled all the spaces in Ten that he hadn’t realized were emptying, reveling in the sweet way Kun snuggled into his neck and slouched to fit him. “I thought my memories were exaggerating.”

“I missed you,” Kun said, and having heard what “I love you” sounded like coming from Kun, he rather thought these were one and the same.

If Kun without a shirt was a blessing, Kun without pants was a downright affliction. Kun complained loudly as Ten bit kisses into the tops of his thighs against the wiry, worn hairs, then up to the crease of his hip where he sucked at the fragile skin around breathless giggles with Kun’s groan.

Kun had anxiously asked if he should “landscape” after their first night, and the mere question had defeated Ten for at least five minutes of fitful laughter. He pressed his lips to the base of Kun’s shaft, now, where his curls brushed up against his lips. Kun’s face glowed a fitful pink.

“What are you so shy for with a body like this?” Ten crooned, and brushed his fingertips over his balls to his perineum.

“Stop teasing me,” Kun gasped. “I’m sensitive.” And he could have meant any number of things when he said that, so Ten naturally, absolutely melted. Damn him.

Hitching a leg over him, he straddled his hips, feeling his cock settle up against his ass as he bent to kiss him. “I love you,” he nipped into his lips.

“You’re terrible,” Kun whispered with so much emotion that again, Ten very much thought he was saying the same thing back.

Ten grinned. “I haven’t even said I want you to fuck me, yet.”

Kun groaned with his whole chest, stretching out in torture at the thought, and he spread his hands over Ten’s waist, up over his chest as Ten’s skin fluttered with warmth at the attention.

“You’re terrible,” Kun said, but differently this time with his voice creaking into something both warm and dangerous. He led Ten down for a kiss again, full and searching as he thumbed at his nipples with one hand and held his neck with the other. He rolled his hips up into him slowly until Ten was shivering and hard from the attention, lips sensitive from the barest, rough hints of shadow on Kun’s upper lip.

“Can you prep me?” Ten asked in the low light, pressing kisses along the trace edges of shorn hairs on Kun’s face, then up to his unpierced ears. “Do you need me to get lube?”

“No,” Kun murmured, breathy with shudders as Ten sucked on his earlobe. “No, I got it. Just a second, baby.”

Kun rarely used pet names, but they dripped like honey when he did, and Kun held his waist steady as he reached down across the edge of the bed for the side table. Ten gave the side of Kun’s face attention instead as he rummaged, brushing his lips over his cheek and browbone.

“What do you like?” Kun asked, settling back onto the pillows. “How do you want me to do it?”

“Slowly,” Ten said, the first word that came to mind, and he laughed a little. Kun smiled on instinct, but didn’t seem to know why Ten was laughing. “And gently.”

Kun laughed, then, understanding turning to amusement and warmth as the cap clicked and he rubbed the lube between his fingers. “Of course. As always. But—”

“I’d like to keep facing you, if that’s okay,” Ten said, and Kun tilted his head back with a breathless smile, exhaling like his heart was restricting his lungs.

He did go slow. He went slow in a way that made it so obvious he knew what he was doing that for Ten, relaxing was easy. At some point, he rested himself down against Kun’s chest and pressed his mouth to his neck, capturing the small waves of pleasure and contentment and the shuddering zings when Kun found his prostate from the angle he’d entered. He went slow in a way that made the process feel fast, shifting him up to get three fingers in after what felt like just a few minutes but was likely longer, mouth on his nipples and stroking his walls and prostate with the tips of his fingers until Ten murmured some unintelligible plea for him to stop and put a condom on.

Even then, they faced each other, Kun’s eyelashes fluttering with a groan as Ten sank down and stretched with his sex, arcs of excitement and pleasure and slow, slow want sweeping through him and settling in his belly. Settling in the way the tip of his own cock rubbed against Kun’s bunched up stomach.

They adjusted into something more comfortable, Kun sitting more upright and no longer hunched, hands back on Ten’s waist and throat working like it did when there was emotion in his airways.

“You’re really beautiful,” Kun croaked, and Ten laughed because he adored him, and wiggled in his seat until Kun’s abdomen flinched with pleasure. “You’re incredible,” he said as Ten began to move with greater purpose.

“Am I incredible or terrible?” Ten asked, snagging on a huff as Kun dragged against his walls just right.

“You’re everything I want,” Kun said, and well. That was almost enough to make Ten cry, so he just kept going. Sliding up and down on Kun’s cock, shifting with him when he moved until they were lying down and Kun could meet him in rhythm, the bedroom fading in heat and pleasure.

Ten saw as Kun came, and his face pinched, muscles shaking. He reached for Ten’s cock only seconds after to stroke him past his own with trembling fingers and wide, blown out eyes, still sheathed and settled, blinking against the aftershocks of pleasure.

Ten thought back to his app profile as Kun so gently helped Ten off of him, abdomen painted with Ten’s cum. Glitter and edging. Taking him somewhere nice.

Kun’s eyes glittered when he made Ten laugh, and he got his edging and would probably still get the sexual one someday. He thought, very probably, that Kun took him to nicer places in warm, gold-leafed memories and present times than any random bloke with a loaded card could manage.

He sat back on the duvet as Kun kissed the corner of his eye and said thank you with a blush coloring his bare chest, struggling off the bed in sex-weak limbs after just one go to clean the ejaculate off his skin and dispose of his condom. Ten could see a freckle on the curve of his ass as he slipped into the bathroom, could smell his shampoo off his pillow, could imagine seeing him murmur over his cooking and plants every day of Ten's life.

Ten buried into the pillows and welcomed Kun’s naked body and the warm washcloth for the lube that had smeared down his inner thighs.

“I love you,” Ten told him, more positive than ever, and Kun looked up at him from his neat wipe-down of his legs and breathed out a smile.

“I love you, too.”

And Ten could feel the future unfold a little brighter with every second of every day he spent with Kun, and he couldn't imagine wanting something other than this.

He ducked his head to kiss Kun’s ear. Just to hear him laugh.