There was something about Mark that just irked Ou Wen, irked him in way that was impossible to ignore like an itch in the middle of Ou Wen’s back he couldn’t quite reach. Sometimes it took all of Ou Wen’s self-control not to reach over and strangle Mark into shutting up. It was important to remind himself that murder was very illegal and Ou Wen would not do well in prison.
At first, Ou Wen thought it might be the homophobia. Who liked homophobes? Absolutely no one worth knowing, that’s who. But Ou Wen quickly scratched that possibility off the list. The disdain he felt towards Mark was nothing like the usual disgust he felt towards bigots. He wanted to smack Mark on the head sometimes- correction, all the time- but he wasn’t exactly repulsed by Mark and the usual warning bells didn’t go off when he was around. Besides, Mark’s reactions were almost too comical and Ou Wen not so secretly took delight in making the other man uncomfortable to run out of room like he was being chased by a ghost. He had experienced worse bigotry in his life- high school had been a particularly trying time- and it wasn’t difficult to recognize that Mark came from a place of ignorance rather than spite given how quickly his attitude towards Ou Wen had changed. Give him some more time and who knows? Ou Wen might even be able to make an ally out of him. The idea of Mark looking panic stricken dressed in his dark outfits among the rainbows and glitter of gay pride was almost too good to resist and Ou Wen made a mental note to check the dates of Pride this year.
All that being said, Ou Wen was sure that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. The fact that Mark was still alive at the moment was a testament to Ou Wen’s patience and self-control.
Somehow, Mark managed to follow him from the salon all the way to the gym. Ou Wen wasn’t even sure where he pulled work-out clothes from- he distinctly remembered Mark leaving the salon empty handed- yet there he was on the treadmill next to Ou Wen, unrelentingly chipped. He was impervious to the way Ou Wen was trying to ignore him, chattering so incessantly that Ou Wen could still hear him through the music blasting from his earphones. How was he not winded by talking so much? Ou Wen was tempted to reach over and increase the speed. See if that would shut him up.
He resisted the urge though and instead hopped off the machine to go to the next one. Mark trailed after him like an imprinted baby bird with no sense of personal space and Ou Wen half wanted to laugh at the irony. Suddenly, Mark was fine with gay people- or at least with Ou Wen- as he hovered over him, every few sentences a well-placed compliment in a blatant attempt to butter Ou Wen up in his quest for Joanna’s number. This had to harassment. Was this harassment?
Ou Wen soon concluded that Mark was either completely oblivious and without shame, or he had perfected the skill of feigned ignorance, because there was no other explanation as to why he couldn’t sense how close he was to being kicked in the shin. Even the other patrons at the gym avoided the areas Ou Wen was in, sensing the murderous intent in the air. Maybe he should just throw in the towel and end his work out early. What was the point of having washboard abs if the tradeoff was to mentally suffer like this?
He switched to another machine, but it was another fruitless attempt to get rid of Mark. He was there yet again, so close he was almost clipped by the moving parts of the chest press. Gym etiquette, what was that?
Through the beats of his music, Ou Wen heard Mark mention Joanna for what must have been the thousandth time and rolled his eyes as he felt a surge of annoyance. It seemed like Mark’s plan was to talk him to death, but that was fine because Ou Wen was a stubborn bastard as well and he was determined to ignore him until the end of time.
In retrospect, he should have just let those guys in the alley beat up Mark. At least if he was in the hospital, he wouldn’t be actively sabotaging Ou Wen’s entire image. Looking this good took hard work and maintenance, maintenance he couldn’t do because Mark barely left him any room to breathe. Also, it was a commonly known fact that stress caused wrinkles and Ou Wen had never met someone that stressed him out so much before.
Finally deciding to give up, Ou Wen stood up. Predictably, Mark stood up as well and immediately invaded his personal space, offering to wipe away Ou Wen’s nonexistent sweat. The unimpressed glare should have been enough to scare Mark away, but instead, he grinned and offered to help Ou Wen stretch.
What was there to stretch? In his attempt to avoid Mark, Ou Wen hadn’t been on any machine long enough to even warm up his muscles. He should have just taken a walk in the park. It would have saved some time and been the same amount of exercise. He might have even been able to lose Mark between some trees or bushes or something.
Of course, rather than reading the room, Mark took Ou Wen’s silence as acceptance. He reached out to grab his arm and Ou Wen reacted instinctively.
“Don’t touch me,” he snapped, pulling away. There was a pause, surprise flitting across Mark’s face, and for a moment Ou Wen felt a spark of hope. Maybe Mark finally got the hint! But then Mark’s grin slowly widened and Ou Wen felt himself plunge into the icy depths of despair again. He was stubborn, but he was starting to realize that Mark might have him beat.
“You’re finally talking to me,” Mark said happily and if Ou Wen wasn’t actively trying not to strangle him, he might have felt a flicker of amusement at the peace sign he shot Ou Wen.
How childish. What had Joanna been thinking, sleeping with him? This was below her standards.
As Mark started rambling again, Ou Wen bent down to grab his water bottle. He knew it was empty before he brought it to his lips, but it was better than paying attention to the other man. Maybe he could use refilling his water bottle as an excuse to escape Mark- take a sharp left just before he reached the water fountain and book it out of the gym before Mark could even realize what was happening. The owner of the gym was a close friend, so Ou Wen could always come back to pick up his stuff later. Yet before Ou Wen could do anything more than glance at his empty water bottle, it was somehow in Mark’s hand and he was offering to fill it up. Either Mark was an absolute genius and somehow sensed Ou Wen’s escape plan, or he was the luckiest bumbling idiot in the world. Either way, there was nothing much Ou Wen could do other than to heave a heavy sigh as he watched Mark’s retreating back. He made a mental note to visit the temple this weekend to burn a few sticks of incense. This had to be karmic retribution of some kind, though for what, Ou Wen was not exactly sure. He was sure he’d remember if he’d done something particularly awful lately.
Listlessly, Ou Wen wandered over to the next machine and popped his earphones out. There was no way for his to run now- the water fountain was too close to the exit and Mark would definitely spot him- so he might as well enjoy the first moment of silence he had experienced in hours.
He should have kept them in.
At first, he thought he was mistaken when he caught the low timbre of Benson’s voice. After all, he was supposed to be in England, not Taiwan, and definitely not at the same gym as Ou Wen. He leaned forward, half convinced he was hallucinating, only to feel his heart stop. There was no mistaking those broad shoulders and muscular arms.
It felt a little like getting hit by a truck.
The thing was, as cool and collected as Ou Wen seemed, he was a romantic on the inside. He would never admit it- Sheng Ying could pry that admission out of his cold, dead hands- but he unfortunately believed in love. There was a reason he chose to work at a matchmaking agency. As scientific as the Love is Science team made romance seem, there was still something heartwarming about watching the right people meet and click together. He hadn’t found his happily ever after yet, but at least he could help others ride off into the sunset.
His relationship with Benson had been something of a fairytale, disappearance at the stroke of midnight included. They had met at a mutual friend’s bar and just fitted the same way puzzle pieces slid into place. Ou Wen had never met another person who understood him so well and they didn’t so much date as much as existed together for a blissful half year. Benson had been able to see through his cold demeanor and sharp words, never shying away when Ou Wen was being particularly venomous. On especially bad days, he had wrapped Ou Wen up in the safe cocoon of his arms and hid him from the world before Ou Wen even realized that was what he needed.
Then one day, Benson announced that he wanted to move to England to study and train. I got a scholarship. I could go to the Olympics, he had said and it broke Ou Wen’s heart, but he knew he couldn’t keep Benson from pursing his dreams. If you love something, let it go, right? So he let Benson go because somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he was confident that Benson would return. The romantic in him was sure that Benson was the one, his soul mate, his forever and more, so rather than truly being heartbroken and wallowing in post-breakup sadness, Ou Wen had secretly waited. He never told anyone- pining was entirely too off-brand and would ruin his reputation- but he never gave up hope, convinced that he and Benson could pick up where they left off once he returned.
One month became two. Two months became six. Half a year became a year. Ou Wen had gone on some dates to appease his friends, hooked up a few times to scratch and itch, but none of it led to anything because his heart had always been too occupied. He started to doubt if Benson was actually going to return, the stubborn part of his refused to give up hope.
So now, seeing the lithe little thing hanging off of Benson’s arm, hearing them both laugh at how deluded he had been, Ou Wen wasn’t sure what was worse- the feeling of betrayal, realizing Benson had lied all this time, or the mortification of know that he had fallen for that lie and waited like a distraught housewife at home while her husband ran around with a different floozy every night.
He hadn’t experienced heartbreak in a while, so he had forgotten that sometimes it hurt so much it stopped hurting. Instead, numbness set in like a black hole bleeding around the edges, slowing down time and draining color out of the world. All Ou Wen could do was stand there in shock, his normally sharp tongue unable to find any words. He should walk away, salvage any remaining pride that could possibly be left, but he couldn’t feel his legs, much less move.
Each whispered word between Benson and his boyfriend, each mocking glance felt like a vice around his heart, squeezing, twisting, crushing until every heartbeat felt like a fight. He barely remembered how to breathe and a low buzzing was growing louder in his ears. It felt like the floor had given out from under him and he was falling, falling, falling.
Off-handedly, Ou Wen wondered if he was about to have a panic attack. He never had one before, but considering his luck lately, this would be the perfect time. Top off the betrayal by breaking down in the middle of a gym in from of his ex-boyfriend and his ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend- the epitome of humiliating experiences. What was even worse was that his eyes were starting to burn, the edges of his vision blurring with the pressure of unshed tears.
He really, really didn’t want to cry, but his body wasn’t exactly listening to him right now. Just as he felt himself losing the last of his control, Ou Wen was suddenly jarred back to reality by the weight of an arm around his shoulder, pulling him against a warm body.
Ou Wen looks up, startled, to find Mark smiling brightly at him. “Darling, have some water,” he said, shoving the water bottle back into Ou Wen’s hands. Normally, he would wince at how straight Mark sounded saying that, but at the moment all he could was cling to the familiar presence that had followed him around all day. Sure Mark was annoying, but at least Ou Wen knew he was honest and he held onto that, using it to try and steady the turmoil churning under his skin.
Because of this, he was only half listening as Mark talked. He caught on slower than usual and Mark had already said, “You have me now,” by the time Ou Wen realized what was going on.
It wasn’t hard to see that Mark had a bit of ‘white knight syndrome’. This was the second time he had swooped in to save Ou Wen like he was some sort of damsel in distress and while it was annoying, Ou Wen would be lying if he said he wasn’t a bit touched. After all, pretending to be Ou Wen’s boyfriend in order to defend him was a few steps beyond what was necessary and it was quite an improvement for someone who was blatantly homophobic just a few weeks ago. Still, Ou Wen really wished he had been paying attention. Anyone with a semi-working gaydar could tell that Mark was as straight as an arrow and the point was proven when Benson and his boyfriend started laughing. He was grateful that Mark tried to help, but at the same time, he cursed Mark’s dumb pride for making things even worse.
“What the hell are you laughing at?” Mark asked. His voice held a note of warning in it, but Ou Wen was too distracted to notice. As Benson talked, Ou Wen gripped his water bottle so tightly his knuckles turned white. The worse part wasn’t that it was all true- Mark was as straight as a flag and Ou Wen really did hate being called darling- but the fact that Benson still knew him well enough to be able to read every expression on Ou Wen’s face. Once he had used those skills for good, teasing Ou Wen until he smiled, coaxing him until he gave in, flattering him until he calmed down. Now he used it to openly mock Ou Wen’s naiveté.
Had Ou Wen really been so blinded to what kind of person Benson was? It must be true what they said- that love gave you rose colored glasses- because otherwise how could he have been so pathetic as to believe that Benson moved to the UK. It was such an obvious lie now that he looked back on it. It had happened too randomly, too suddenly. They hadn’t even discussed it, not really, Benson just announced his intention to move and was gone the next week. And Ou Wen, being the dumb, deluded romantic that he was, had decided to wait for Benson to come back because he had somehow convinced himself that love worked the same way in real life as it did on TV. But clearly he did not live in a fairytale and Benson was not his prince charming and there was no such thing as true love and-
And Mark was kissing him.
By the time Ou Wen realized how close they were, Mark had already yanked him in by the back of his neck. Ou Wen was too stunned to move at first. The initial impact was jarring- he had been pulled in too fast and their teeth knocked together- but Mark immediately adjusted himself. He slid his hand down Ou Wen’s bicep to hold him in place and tilted his head slightly so their lips fit against each other better. Ou Wen spent the better part of a second staring at Mark’s closed eyes in shock before he even thought about placing his hands on Mark’s shoulders to push him away.
Ou Wen learned two things that day. Well…three actually. The first was that Mark had long eyelashes and Ou Wen never really noticed until now, seeing them cast shadows on his cheek. The second was the Mark was surprisingly strong. Though Ou Wen shoved at his shoulders struggling to free himself, Mark held on, the grip around his biceps and waist so tight Ou Wen suspected they would leave bruises.
And then there was the third thing, the worst thing, the thing Ou Wen wished he never found out because it inevitably sent his life into a tailspin.
Mark was a really, really good kisser.
It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise considering he was a known playboy. He must have had some experience otherwise Joanna would have never even given him a chance to get close. However, Ou Wen never expected those skills to be used on him. Nor did he ever think they would work against him. Except…they obviously did.
Mark wasn’t exactly an aggressive kisser, but he started out demanding. He moved with a single minded focus, intent on coaxing Ou Wen to respond.
In retrospect, responding was a mistake.
The moment Ou Wen started to kiss back, everything changed. The kiss became softer, less frantic and Mark’s grip loosened into something gentler. But rather than losing steam, there was a building heat in the way Mark slotted his mouth against Ou Wen, a desperate trace of hunger that sent a delicious shiver down Ou Wen’s spine. His lips were soft and plush and he tasted vaguely sweet like he had been eating a hard candy. Ou Wen couldn’t quite place the flavor, but he found himself chasing it as he angled his head to deepen the kiss. His hand slid up from Mark’s shoulder to cradle the side of his neck and his thumb pressed against the underside of Mark’s jaw. He felt Mark’s heartbeat racing beneath the palm of his hand, rabbit quick, matching the thudding in his chest.
When they finally broke apart, it wasn’t so much because Ou Wen wanted to stop as much as it was because they both needed air. Panting, Ou Wen rested his forehead against Mark’s and took a moment to compose himself. It had been a while since he had been kissed so thoroughly, much less by someone who was supposedly straight. Much less by someone he disliked. He was maybe going to have to re-evaluate some of his views on Mark because he wasn’t sure he had an adequate explanation as to why he had lost himself so easily
The dazed look on Mark’s face when they took a step back reflected how Ou Wen felt and he was relieved to know that he wasn’t the only one unsettled. It felt akin to falling into the ocean and being swept up by the riptide. By the time he was spit back out he was disoriented and dizzy. It was like the whole world had shifted beneath his feet while he wasn’t looking and the reality he returned to after the kiss was different than the one before. How else could he explain the way Mark’s taste lingered on his tongue or the way his lips tingled pleasantly, not quite kiss bruised, but almost. There was a residual heat burning low in his stomach and Ou Wen knew himself well enough to recognize it as the beginning of desire. In what world was a mere kiss enough to make Ou Wen’s body to betray him? Mark wasn’t that great of a kisser.
Except…maybe he was because already Ou Wen was replaying it in his head.
Thankfully, before Ou Wen could dwell on it anymore and spiral again, the floozy said something high pitched and annoying, snapping them both back to reality. It was then that Ou Wen realized that he had completely forgotten about his ex-boyfriend and the fact that they were in the middle of a gym. Normally, he would have been mortified at such a public display of affection, especially with someone who was barely a friend, but for some reason, as he watched Mark turn defiantly towards Benson, he found that he didn’t really mind. It seemed like Benson bought their act.
Foolishly, Ou Wen thought that would the end of it, but then Benson metaphorically threw down the gauntlet and Mark took the bait. As he went to follow Benson, Ou Wen stopped him. The least he could do was warn Mark. It didn’t surprise Ou Wen that Mark went anyway. He was like a dog with a bone when it came to things he deemed important. What did surprise him was that Mark somehow ended up winning. He had apparently underestimated Mark’s spite and sheer power of will.
As Mark stumbled forward on shaky legs, Ou Wen reached out and caught him before he collapsed on the ground. He was breathing hard, body shaking in Ou Wen’s grasp, and it sent an unfamiliar pang through Ou Wen’s heart. It had been a while since anyone had treated Ou Wen like this, defended his honor without question, protected him at the expense of themselves. Most of the time people assumed Ou Wen could fend for himself and usually that was true. His words were sharp enough to cut down most people and anyone else that didn’t get the hint met the business end of his fist. He had forgotten what it felt like to have someone fight for him, to be important enough that someone might want to fight for him. And while he knew part of it had to do with Joanna, it didn’t change the fact that Mark went above and beyond for him.
“Did I win?” Mark asked between pants.
And all Ou Wen could say was, “You won,” the words thank you stuck in his throat, refusing to come out. He suddenly found himself with so much to say, but no way to say them. He wanted to call Mark an idiot for competing with Benson. He wanted to scold Mark for getting involved in his business. He wanted ask Mark what he had been thinking, kissing Ou Wen like that. Was Joanna’s phone number really that important? Most importantly, he wanted to tell Mark that he was grateful, that maybe Ou Wen had misjudged him, that maybe he wasn’t that bad of a guy, and that maybe Ou Wen didn’t really mind him after all. But Ou Wen had never been good with words of the sentimental kind, so instead, he helped Mark wipe off some of his sweat and told himself that he’d figure it out later.
He never got to figure it out though because Mark looked up at him, still trembling, and flashed a smile that shook Ou Wen to his core. It’s two parts vulnerable, one part proud, one part knowing, and it’s so genuine that Ou Wen’s heart skip a beat. And oh, wasn’t that ironic? Turned out he was the damsel in distress after all, swooning as his white knight rescued him.
The gods must be laughing at him, trying to make him fall for a straight guy like this.
Later, as he helped Mark up the stairs, he tried to return to their usual banter, though his words didn’t have the same bite to them. It was obviously that Mark felt the shift in their relationship as well, allowing Ou Wen close enough to help him up the stairs and joking with him about his ex as though they were friends. Except they weren’t, not really, and Ou Wen couldn’t help but feel guilty as he watched Mark wince and struggle to take a step.
“Do you really want Joanna’s number that much?” he snapped, unused to the heavy feeling in his chest. He didn’t like owing people and he really didn’t want to owe Mark, not when he was starting to realize that he didn’t hate the other man as much as he originally thought.
He didn’t expect for Mark to turn to him, clearly offended that Ou Wen would even think that, and say, “I didn’t do it for her.”
That made things worse. At least before, he could use Joanna as an excuse. If he convinced himself that Mark was nothing more than a sleazy playboy that was willing to do whatever he needed to in order to get a girl’s number, then he could put off examining his own reactions. In fact, he might have even been able to trick himself back into hating Mark.
But now, now, Mark was telling him that he did everything for Ou Wen’s sake and how was Ou Wen supposed to take that? What was he supposed to think? What was he supposed to say? Considering how Mark reacted when he found out Ou Wen was gay, he was still partially under the assumption that Mark only helped him because of Joanna which he was fine with. How was he supposed to deal with the fact that Mark actually cared about him as a person or the fact that he was so goddamn noble under that foolish exterior of his?
Even as Ou Wen struggled to keep his thoughts and feelings under control, he felt his body betraying him. His pulse picked up speed as he observed how annoyed Mark was at being scolded by Ou Wen when he had tried to defend him at the cafe. A pleasant warmth spread from his chest to the tips of his fingers and the edges of his lips curled up though he tried to stop himself from smiling. Maybe that was why those damn words inadvertently left his mouth, slipping out without a thought.
“You’re lucky I love you, otherwise I would have hit you for that.”
Ou Wen only fully realized what he said when Mark stopped and turned to him curiously. He immediately froze. They had just stopped hating each other and Ou Wen was already accidently confessing his love? Somehow this was even more mortifying than Benson laughing at him. Trying not to stammer, Ou Wen spewed out some excuse about the internet. Even to his own ears they were unconvincing.
“Anyway, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Ou Wen said as he turned away. He hoped against all odds that Mark would leave it alone. Unfortunately, that was like hoping the sun wouldn’t rise in the east and the skies would stay clear during rainy season.
“That’s not right,” Mark said and Ou Wen mentally went through every swear word in the Chinese dictionary and then some that weren’t. “It doesn’t seem like you didn’t mean anything by it.”
Ou Wen heard the teasing note in Mark’s tone and he had to find a way to pass it off as a joke. Otherwise, there was no way Mark was going to let it go and there was no telling how Mark would react if he even caught a hint that Ou Wen might…kind of…maybe…be interested in him…just a bit. They had finally reached a point of civility and Ou Wen didn’t want them sliding backwards.
He felt Mark creeping up behind him, but that still didn’t prepare him for when Mark finally spoke. His voice was low and intimate, his breathe stirring up the hairs at the nape of Ou Wen’s neck. His chest pressed against Ou Wen’s arm and the vibrations when he spoke sent a delightful spark through Ou Wen’s body. He could feel his own breath hitch slightly.
“Otherwise, why did your heart speed up?”
Startled, Ou Wen groped the front of his shirt, actually believing Mark for a moment.
“No it didn’t!” Ou Wen protested. In a panic, he spun around only to find Mark much closer than he had expected.
Neither of them moved. What had been a light, playful atmosphere was suddenly replaced with a strange tension and Ou Wen hardly dared to breathe lest he break it. He didn’t know what to make of this as he searched Mark’s face. If it had been another man – if it had been a gay man – Ou Wen would have said that the air between them was heavy with anticipation. The memory of the kiss still lingered on his lips and he could swear he saw Mark’s eyes flicker down. But that wasn’t right. He had to be mistaken because this was Mark and Mark was decidedly not gay or interested in men in any way. At most, it was probably the result of some lingering adrenaline from earlier or something like that.
Yeah, something like that.
Maybe if Ou Wen told himself enough times, he could pretend that he wasn’t fighting the urge to lean forward and close the distance between them. He could pretend like he was just confused, swept up in the heat of the moment. He was only human after all. He could pretend that his heart wasn’t racing and the heat of Mark against him wasn’t stirring up a familiar feeling of want. There was no way a damn kiss changed things that much between them. It couldn’t. It shouldn’t, no matter how good it was.
Mark broke the tension first. He stepped back and made an awkward, offhanded comment about his own handsomeness that was half serious, half a joke. It was enough for Ou Wen to latch on to and he pulled himself back with a roll of his eyes. He threatened to kick Mark down the stairs and just like that, things fell back into a semblance of normal.
As Ou Wen slipped his arm around Mark and helped him down the steps, he couldn’t shake the foreboding feeling that something had fundamentally changed.