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It Was Only A Kiss

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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?

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.”

“Huh?”

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.

Except…not quite.

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.

Chapter Text

Falling for a straight guy was essentially a rite of passage. There was something tempting about. Maybe it was the idea of forbidden fruit. Maybe it was the romance of things that could never be. Maybe it was the inevitable self-heartbreak. Whatever it was, pining over an unavailable man for an extended amount of time just because he smiled was an unavoidable part of the gay experience. Ou Wen had been through it before. All of his gay friends have been through it. And even Sheng Ying’s been through the lesbian version of the experience.

Ou Wen understood this. That wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that he thought he left all of that behind in university.

Back then, he had been young, immature, and starved for affection. It had been a chaotic mess of trying to getting comfortable with his sexuality and it was kind of embarrassing the amount of straight men he ended up having crushes on just because they paid a little extra attention on him.

But that was then. This was now.

Now, he was a successful, mature man with at over a decade of experience under his belt and the ability to flirt his way into any gay man’s bed. So why, exactly was he so stuck on Mark? It had been a week since the incident at the gym and he was still thinking about that kiss. It popped into his mind at the most inopportune moments, usually causing him to startle, and he had spilled so much coffee in the past few days that even Boss Fei was starting to get suspicious. That’s not accounting for the number of times he had woken up in the middle of the night sweating, gasping, and half hard with the memory of Mark’s lips against his and his hands on Ou Wen’s skin. It was like he was a teenager again, unable to get a hold of his libido. Out of pure spite, he would stubbornly force himself to go back to sleep without relief, but he knew it was a losing battle. Each dream was more intense than the last and even he wasn’t that strong willed. If he was, he wouldn’t be having this problem in the first place. At a certain point, Ou Wen realized he hadn’t even thought about Benson at all. Somehow this confusion over Mark had negated his heartbreak and when he thought about the whole situation all he felt was a slight pang in his chest and a lot of embarrassment. He was thankful not to be heartbroken, but at the same time he was a bit perturbed. Was that really all he had to show for someone he thought he would spend the rest of his life with? No tears, no ice cream, no melodrama binge. Just a slight wince every time he remembered how foolish he had been and then that inexplicable flare of heat when his thoughts inadvertently led him back to Mark and the kiss.

The thing was- objectively- Mark was attractive. Not Ou Wen’s type, not by a long mile, but he wasn’t going to deny the fact that objectively, Mark was easy on the eye. With big eyes, pouty lips, a slim figure beneath his layers, and an easy smile, it was no wonder he was able to charm girl after girl. Ou Wen was even willing to admit that Mark had a great sense of style, though no one would ever be allowed to know that he kind of liked the grungy punk thing Mark had going on.

But beyond that, what else was there? Mark talked so much sometimes and half of it was absolute nonsense on a good day. On bad days, Ou Wen usually tuned him out because a kid was more likely to say something enlightening. He complained, he nagged, he told immature jokes that Ou Wen had left in high school and overall irritated Ou Wen like he was being paid to do so.

So why, why did his heart beat faster every time he thought of Mark? Why did his palms start sweating every time he has to walk into VooDoo? Why did his eloquence and sense of dignity fly out the window every time Mark turned his big puppy dog eyes on him? He made his reputation out of saying no and yet, he found it increasing difficult to refuse Mark’s requests, as frivolous as some of them were.

Why did Ou Wen, at 30, an established, mature, sophisticated, experienced gay man, have to fall for the absolute straightest man he knew? The one that had looked at him with fear when he first found out about Ou Wen’s sexuality, who still made off color remarks on occasion-, no ill intentions, but ignorant nevertheless- who was so completely on the other end of the spectrum that he might as well be across the world.

Ou Wen glared at the dregs of Bordeaux in his wine glass, but, predictably, it gave no answer.

Why couldn’t he have fallen for Hsuan Yu? Then at least he would have been rejected in the kindest way possible, probably with red ears and soft spoken stutters as he tried to explain why he couldn’t like Ou Wen. It would have been so pathetic that Ou Wen would have eventually taken pity on Hsuan Yu, clasped his shoulder in a brotherly way, and told him not to worry about it.

But no. He had to fall for Mark and he didn’t even want to begin wondering how Mark would react if he found out about Ou Wen’s crush. At worse Mark would…what? Punch him? Doubtful. Mark wasn’t a particularly violent person, especially considering how bad he was at fighting.

Maybe he would slap Ou Wen, then? That would be unnecessarily dramatic and humiliating. Ou Wen had never been slapped in his life and he’d be damned if Mark was the first. But then again, Mark wasn’t the type to slap people. He was surprisingly principled beneath his foolish exterior. Though it was impossible to tell at first, he was a genuinely good person, if a little dumb about it. He was loyal and self-sacrificing and the type of friend that people spent a lifetime trying to make. What was that word Ou Wen used before? Noble. Like a goddamn knight. Maybe he should use old-fashion instead.

With loud sigh, Ou Wen downed the last of his wine and signaled the bartender for the bill. His original plan had been to come to this gay bar and blow off some steam. He would find someone up for a romp in the sheets and hopefully knock out this strange infatuation he had with Mark. Even if it didn’t, at the very least it would scratch the itch that had been building up all week and maybe lesson the tension he felt whenever Mark was too close. However, when it came time to put his plan to action, Ou Wen couldn’t find it in himself to leave with anyone. At least three guys at the bar eyed him the moment he walked in and took a seat at the counter. Two of them were his type – tall, broad shouldered, simply but stylishly dressed. One of them even approached him, offering to buy him a drink.

Ou Wen had entertained him for a while, desperate for a distraction. He coyly tucked his hair behind his ear, touched the man’s arm, leaned in close, and laughed at all the right moments. The man was nice, intellectual, attentive with a low rumbling voice and usually Ou Wen would have suggested they leave the bar for a more private conversation. Yet, the more they flirted, the more Ou Wen lost interest. He was…for a lack of a better word, bored, with the conversation. It was too civil, too polite, too calm. It lacked that spark, that bite, he felt when he was talking to Mark. They may argue every time they meet, but the current of energy that pulsed beneath their banter was undeniable. Mark brought out the immature side of Ou Wen, but maybe that was what he needed sometimes – to stop being sophisticated and put together and to just be.

Talking to Mark was a bit like getting on a roller coaster and, well, how was he supposed to compare that to the quiet conversation he was having now?

Eventually the man could sense that he was getting nowhere. He took the initiative to withdraw and Ou Wen didn’t bother to hold him back, sending him away with a close lipped smile. He tried not to examine that fact that he felt relieved rather than disappointed as the man walked away, but it was a little hard not to when all he could think about was how different his silhouette was from Mark’s.

That had been three glasses of wine and an hour and a half ago. Ou Wen had been wallowing in self-pity ever since. He had considered flirting with the other men in the bar, but each time he thought he had settled on one, his mind would unhelpfully point out how different they were from Mark and suddenly, he wasn’t that interested anymore.

God, this was ridiculous. Having no strings attached sex with a stranger should not be so difficult. He didn’t even have this problem when Benson left.

The bartender returned with Ou Wen’s bill and he checked the number before throwing down some money. It was time to call it a night. Nothing was going to change, and continuing to sit at the bar wasn’t going to help anything. Might as well leave and wallow in the comforts of his own home.

Ou Wen wasn’t drunk by any means, but the night breeze was cool against his skin and he swayed a bit as he walked along the sidewalk. It was one in the morning and the silence was peaceful, meditative almost. Though it would take a half hour to walk back to his apartment, he was in the mood to enjoy that air tonight. The half-moon was high in the sky and Ou Wen found himself watching it as he strolled along. There were no stars in a city like Taipei and it made the moon seem lonelier than usual. It felt somehow familiar.

He had only walked a few more blocks when he heard shouting. At first he couldn’t tell where it was coming from. The voices echoed in the empty street and seemed to come from everywhere.  However, after a few minutes, the sound became clearer and he started differentiating different voices from behind him.

Warily, he glanced over his shoulder. Taipei wasn’t normally a dangerous place, even in the middle of the night, but it was better to be safe and sorry. If it was just a bunch of drunk, rowdy kids being obnoxious, he would ignore them and keep walking. He doubted they would try to pick a fight. If it was anything more threatening, he would duck into the closest convenience store until they passed.

A figure barreled down towards Ou Wen. He was obviously running away from a group of pursuers and Ou Wen squinted a little to see clearer, weighing the possible danger. Then his eyes widened in recognition. Speak of the devil and he shall appear.

“Ma-?” Before he could even finish a word, Mark reached out, grabbed his arm, and yanked Ou Wen after him. Instinctively Ou Wen started running, following after a blur of black and blue. It wasn’t too much of an effort to keep up with Mark - his legs were longer and he was in better shape - but after a few seconds, he realized he didn’t even know why they were running.

Taking a quick peek over his shoulder, Ou Wen counted at least five men chasing after them. Though they didn’t seem too threatening, they looked very angry and- considering the time of night it was- they were probably very drunk. A series of thought flashed through Ou Wen’s mind, none of them polite, before it settled on one.

“Again?” he spat, loud enough for Mark to hear. Mark glanced back at that and had the audacity to throw him a sheepish smile before dragging him around a corner and down another street.

Ou Wen changed his mind. He had been wallowing for no reason. He didn’t like Mark at all. In fact, he was pretty sure he hated Mark with every fiber of his being.

They ran for a few more minutes and in this time, it occurred to Ou Wen that he could simply stop running. The men were after Mark, not him. If questioned, he’d play innocent and claim to have been grabbed as collateral. What were they going to do? Try and prove him wrong? Besides, that wasn’t even technically a lie.

But then Mark’s fingers tightened around his wrist, indecently hot against his skin, and Ou Wen was resigned to the fact that he wasn’t about to leave Mark to fend for himself, be it because he couldn’t bear it or because it insulted his sense of loyalty. All he could think of as he stared at the silhouette of Mark’s back was that maybe he was drunker than he thought because this felt a little too much like chasing after a shadow.

They went around another corner and entered a narrow, dark alley that Ou Wen almost immediately recognized. They were on the outer edges of the XiMenDing shopping area, behind the Red House. The old opera house marked Taipei’s gay district and a handful of gay bars and businesses stood clustered around the building. Just a few more turns and they would be in XiMenDing, though at this time of night, it would be dead other than the few food stalls that were still opened to feed random drunk people wandering home.

Mark pulled them to a stop in the alley, probably convinced they were safe in the dark, and leaned against the brick wall, breathing hard. Hand still around Ou Wen’s wrist, he looks up with bright eyes and an exhilarated grin. Ou Wen suddenly really regretted that last drink. They were standing so close he could almost feel Mark’ chest heaving and it did not help Ou Wen’s ability to think straight at all.

He had spent the last few days avoiding Mark, hoping that distance would lessen this…thing going on inside of him. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Obviously it didn’t work. And not only did it not work, but it seemed to have made the craving even more intense. He wanted to press in close, feel Mark’s breath against his skin, lick the sweat beading along Mark’s jawline and oh, this was so, so, so bad. Maybe he really was drunk.

Mark definitely was, or at least he had drunk enough that Ou Wen could smell the alcohol in his breath along with the smoky sweet smell of his cologne. Ou Wen grabs onto that, trying to hold on to his original spark of annoyance.

  “Can you not keep it in your pants?” Ou Wen hissed. He was also a bit winded, but he suspected it had more to do with how close Mark was rather than from the running. He had to remind himself to focus.

“How was I supposed to know she had a boyfriend? “Mark whispered back. There was shouting in the distance and Mark stilled for a moment, staring hard at the opening of the alley before deciding the men were far enough away. “Besides, she came up to me on the dance floor and it would have been rude to turn her down!”

Ou Wen rolled his eyes, not even bothering to keep his voice down. “You know you don’t have to sleep with every woman that smiles at you, right?”

Offended, Mark straightened up and puffed out his chest slightly. “Firstly, how is it my fault that I’m so handsome every woman notices me?” Mark said. “Secondly, I don’t sleep with every woman that smiles at me. Just most of them.  And thirdly-”

“Do I even want to know?” Ou Wen cut in. Mark still hadn’t let go of Ou Wen’s wrist, but he didn’t seem to notice. Unfortunately, Ou Wen did and he found it very, very distracting. He should really be repulsed by this blatant show of male ego, yet the only thing running through his mind was how much he wanted to shut Mark up with his mouth. He wasn’t going to do it- he was too sober for that- but the temptation of it was testing his self-control.

He had really fallen down the rabbit hole with this one, hadn’t he?

Thirdly,” Mark said, raising his voice and glaring at Ou Wen, “I didn’t sleep with her. I didn’t even kiss her! We just danced a bit and when I went outside for some air, those guys appeared out of nowhere and started threatening me.”

Ou Wen hummed and raised his brows, unconvinced. Mark had to be one of the most irritating people he’d ever had the misfortune of meeting. Saying he didn’t do anything was like saying the sky was green.

“Then why did you run?”

“Because they were chasing me!”

“Uh-huh.”

“Dai Ou Wen! I swear-shit!” Mark swore and sucked in a breath. The sounds of footsteps running and vaguely familiar voices shouting to each other were getting closer. The men must have heard Mark when he raised his voice and decided to investigate.

“What’s your bright idea now, genius?” Ou Wen asked snidely. He was more curious than concerned.

They could always stand their ground and fight. The quick glance Ou Wen had caught of the hooligans earlier was enough to tell him that he could handle them if he had to. They weren’t very big and being drunk would mess up their coordination. Ou Wen was pretty sure it’d be a quick and easy fight. However, it was late, he was tired, and he really didn’t want to make a habit of getting into fights to defend…well, whatever he was defending it certainly wasn’t Mark’s honor. His libido, maybe? His right to be a fuckboi?

The sadistic part of him wanted to see how Mark was going to get himself out of this situation. Maybe he’d learn a lesson after getting punched a few times.

But then again, maybe not. Getting beat up last time seemed to have left no impression at all from what Ou Wen could see.

“I’m thinking,” Mark hissed, eyes darting around frantically. It was too late to get to the other side of the alley without being seen and that would mean more running and getting chased. Staying put wasn’t that great of an option either. Running out from where they came from was akin to suicide at that point.

“Well think faster.”

Ou Wen couldn’t help but say it mockingly and Mark paused in his panic just to throw him a scowl.

“Are you enjoying this?” he asked incredulously. Ou Wen shrugged in response and jerked his head towards the opening of the alley where the sound of voices was getting closer.

He had suffered all week because of Mark. He was suffering now because of Mark. Might as well let Mark suffer a bit as well.

“You-!” Mark finally let go of Ou Wen’s wrist only to point an accusatory finger in his face. Whatever he wanted to say was cut short when he heard how dangerously close the footsteps were. “I’ll deal with you later!”

Ou Wen was about to make a scathing remark when the hand pointing at him suddenly curled around the back of his neck and yanked him forward.

On one hand, this was a little bit genius. Mark had angled them so that Ou Wen blocked most of him from view and really, who was going to barge in on the two of them, knowing that the gay district was right around the corner? Nor would they consider the possibility of the straight guy they were chasing making out with another man in an alley. At most they’d shout some things at them before awkwardly stumbling away.

On the other hand, this was decidedly very not good because Ou Wen had imagined kissing Mark all week and it was embarrassing how he didn’t even bother to struggle. Instead he sank into the familiar feeling of Mark’s lips against his. He had hoped that last time had been a fluke, that Mark wasn’t actually that great of a kisser, that Ou Wen had just been swept up in the moment and romanticized the whole thing.

It had not been a fluke.

Mark was as good of a kisser as Ou Wen remembered. His lips were as soft as before and tasted slightly sweeter, the remnants of whatever fruity cocktail Mark drank earlier in the night. The hand on Ou Wen’s neck slipped into his hair and he maneuvered Ou Wen’s head, tilting it until their lips fit against each other just so. His other hand found its way inside Ou Wen’s blazer and pressed against the small of his back, pulling him in.

It was a just a bit too much like those dreams Ou Wen had been waking up from, aching and frustrated, except this was frighteningly real. Mark was a hard line against his body, impossibly warm and impossibly close, and he filled Ou Wen’s senses until there was nothing left. Ou Wen was trying his best not to lose himself, not do something he’d regret later, but that was becoming increasingly difficult when Mark seemed determined on kissing all sense of reason out of Ou Wen’s head.

And then it became impossible.

Mark dragged his fingers up Ou Wen’s spine, blunt nails scraping against sensitive skin through the thin fabric of his dress shirt, and Ou Wen couldn’t help the way he involuntarily shuddered, couldn’t quell the sudden heat that curled low and dangerous in his stomach. A desperate little sound escaped from Ou Wen, too close to a moan, and he would be mortified by it, except Mark did it again, this time with a bit more pressure, and there was no way that was a mistake.

A little bit frantic, a little bit desperate, Ou Wen pressed Mark into the alley wall hard, leaving him no room to move. One hand came up and against pushed Mark’s collarbone, holding him in place because he was afraid of what Mark would do next. The other settled on Mark’s waist and squeezed just enough to be a warning. He should have known that Mark would have taken it as a challenge instead.

The hand in Ou Wen’s hair tightened in response, enough to cause Ou Wen to gasp and fuck, fuck, fuck it all because Mark took the opportunity to slip his tongue in and deepen the kiss. Ou Wen must have gone a little bit insane- really that was the only explanation- otherwise, how was he supposed to explain the fact that all he could do was whimper and let Mark lick into his mouth, confident and demanding like he had a right to be there. Mark seemed intent on chasing the lingering taste of wine on Ou Wen’s tongue and while he wasn’t exactly languid about it, but he didn’t rush either. It was like he enjoyed ruining Ou Wen, enjoyed taking apart the thin threads of self-control Ou Wen had left.

There was a mounting tension inside Ou Wen. He wasn’t sure if Mark could feel it in the way his hand trembled against his collarbone or the way the grip around Mark’s waist had turned too tight, but it starting to overwhelm him and Ou Wen wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold on to it. He wasn’t used to being so passive and there was a heady feeling of want clawing at his throat, begging to be released. He wanted to slip his hands beneath Mark’s shirt, leave scratch marks on pale skin and bruises on places that would never see the light of day. He wanted to bite down on Mark’s lower lip, hard enough that he’d whine, and then proceed to leave marks down the long column of his neck. He wanted to grab Mark by the ass, lift him up so he could wrap his legs around Ou Wen’s waist, and press him so hard against the alley wall he could no longer breathe, until the only air he was allowed to have came from Ou Wen. He wanted to destroy Mark the same way he was destroying Ou Wen, destroy him until he begged, so incoherent the only things coming out of his pretty mouth were sobs and Ou Wen’s name. He wanted, oh how viscerally he wanted, but want was a dangerous thing and once he started he wouldn’t be able to stop.

So instead, he held himself back, let Mark take the lead, and tried not to drown because what else was he supposed to do? His only other option was to pull away and unfortunately, Ou Wen wasn’t strong enough of a man to do that.

He wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, but however long it was, it was simultaneously too long and not long enough. Mark pulled back first, nipping sharply, almost smugly, at Ou Wen’s bottom lip before he leaned his head against the alley wall. His mouth was kissed bruised, his eyes half-lidded and unfocused, and it seeing the real thing was so much better than anything Ou Wen’s imagination could have dreamed up. It took all of Ou Wen’s self-control not to lean back in.

They stayed like that for a moment, Mark with his fingers still tangled in Ou Wen’s hair, hand pressed against his back, barely any space between them. Ou Wen couldn’t move away even if he wanted to. Good thing he really, really didn’t want to.

The air around them crackled dangerously and everything was silent except for the sound of both of them gasping for air. Ou Wen felt Mark’s chest rising and falling beneath his hands and he couldn’t help but tighten his fingers slightly. It wasn’t a lot of pressure, just the lightest squeeze around the base of Mark’s neck before he loosened them again, but it was enough to make Mark part his lips and let out a soft, breathy sound that went to Ou Wen’s cock. The flare of desire was so sudden and so strong it startled Ou Wen with its intensity and he immediately dropped his hand like it was on fire.

The abrupt movement broke the tension. Clarity returned to Mark’s eyes after a few blinks and when he finally realized the position they were in, he quickly withdrew his hands and pushed Ou Wen away. Physically it was barely more than a tap, but the obvious rejection resonated through Ou Wen and he stumbled back two steps feeling like he had been punched in the stomach.  He watched as Mark glanced around the alley, looking everywhere but at Ou Wen.

Right. How could he have forgotten? Mark was straight. The kiss had been nothing more than a distraction, a way to avoid a fight over a girl. Mark might have been enthusiastic about it, but the mechanics of a kiss were the same regardless of gender. It released the same endorphins, elicited similar reactions. He had just been caught in the moment, maybe even in the challenge of it.

There was a strange feeling in Ou Wen’s chest, more of an ache than a pain. Somehow Ou Wen was sure that was worse. Pain was quick. It came, sudden and intense, but left just as fast. Aches lingered in the background, a constant reminder that slowly too over your life. If Ou Wen had been a mess after the first kiss, what was he going to be like after this one? It reminded him of the beginning of addiction. He got taste and the promise of could have been and now he could never not know.

“I think-” Mark tried to speak, but it came out too hoarse. He ran a shaky hand through his hair and cleared his throat. Trying again, he said, “I think we’re safe. I think they’re gone.”

It took an embarrassing long time for Ou Wen to catch up. The running, the hooligans chasing them, how they ended up in the alley making out. This was the second time Ou Wen had forgotten himself and to say he found it troubling was an understatement.  

“So that was your genius plan?” Ou Wen finally said, and if his response was a bit too late, a bit too high pitched, a bit less biting that usual, they both chose to ignore it.

“It was pretty genius, wasn’t it?” Mark said. He turned to Ou Wen and flashed his usual mischievous smile. For a few seconds, everything was normal, but then Mark’s eyes dropped to Ou Wen’s lips and he quickly looked away again.

“That didn’t–you know–it was just–it didn’t mean anything. I just had to-” Mark couldn’t seem to stop moving, tugging at the hem of his shirt, twisting his rings around his fingers, pulling at the chain around his neck. Even from a few steps away, Ou Wen could feel the nervous energy rolling off of him. He was afraid Mark was going to bolt out of the alley like a skittish stray cat.

“I really shouldn’t have drank so much,” Mark half-mumbled and Ou Wen didn’t know who he was trying to convince. It was an excuse if he ever heard one- no one kissed like that drunk- but he let it slide. The air between them was stifling for all the wrong reasons, so if saying that helped lessen the awkwardness, so be it. Ou Wen had been avoiding Mark all week, but he wasn’t sure how he would feel if Mark suddenly started avoiding him. For some reason, that idea didn’t sit well with him.

Ou Wen made a decision. Somehow Mark had wormed his way into Ou Wen’s life and he didn’t think he could handle it if Mark started looking at him differently. He had a crush, but that was ok. He would get over it eventually. Maybe it’ll take a week, maybe a month, maybe even a year. But at the end of it, he still wanted their friendship, for Mark to be there annoying him about stupid things, for him to argue with Ou Wen over pointless topics, for him to defend Ou Wen over things he would usually ignore.  

He tugged his blazer back into place. Then he brushed his hair back and aimed for unconcerned like he hadn’t been shaken by that kiss, like his feelings weren’t twisting themselves into endless knots in his stomach, like nothing had changed between them.

“Don’t make excuses. You make stupid decisions sober, too,” Ou Wen said.

When Mark swiveled his head to glare at him, it was so familiar, Ou Wen felt a little relieved. If there was one thing that could get them back to normal, it was fighting and Ou Wen could antagonize Mark for hours at a time. Mark launched into a rant about how unhelpful Ou Wen was which led to Ou Wen forcing him out of the alley by threatening to kick him.

As he checked around the corner for danger, Mark caught sight of a sweet potato ball cart still open for business.

“Sweet! You want some? My treat,” he said, already halfway across the street. Ou Wen followed with a roll of his eyes and a small smile. Looked like everything would fall back into place.

Still, a distinct coldness lingered on his skin and Ou Wen wrote it off as the chill of the night. It was easier than acknowledging the chasm that was growing inside him, deep and uncross-able, threatening to swallow Ou Wen whole.

Chapter Text

It was one of those days. The ones that started off crappy and progressively got worse until the only thing Ou Wen wanted to do was go home and sulk under his blankets with a tub of ice cream and his favorite movie.

First, he forgot to set his alarm for the morning. Luckily, his body was used to getting up around the same time every day, so Ou Wen woke up with just enough time to swear colorfully, brush his teeth, throw on some clothes, and make it to work. He caught sight of himself in the elevator mirrors and almost turned back around. His socks didn’t match, he was wearing the wrong tie, and he was pretty sure this was the same shirt as yesterday. Not to mention there was stubborn piece of hair that seemed intent on curling outwards no matter how hard Ou Wen pressed it down. Ou Wen had never let the house looking so messy before.

Then there was his client- a fickle, rude, middle-aged man that seemed determined not get matched even though he had paid a ridiculous amount of money to join their marriage agency. Preparations for the meeting started off normal enough. Ou Wen swallowed his pride and changed into the ‘female repellant’ outfit Boss Fei had gifted him, though in his opinion, he didn’t need it. The outfit he had on now was already a disaster. Sheng Ying openly snickered at him, but it wasn’t anything less than what he was expecting, so he made him usual comments about her lack of taste and moved on.

When Ou Wen shows up at the cafe, it was obvious that his client was in a bad mood. He scowled and complained about Ou Wen’s lateness the moment he spotted him.

Ou Wen was, in fact, thirty minutes early.

Pasting on a fake smile, Ou Wen bowed his head in apology and sat down at the table next to his client, his gut telling him that things would not be getting any better.

Sometimes it sucked that he was always right.

It continued to go downhill from there. The new waitress mixed up Ou Wen’s drink order and he ended up with some strangely sweet concoction instead of his usual sugar-less latte. He felt his teeth starting to rot the moment he took a sip.

The woman the client matched with was clearly uncomfortable on the date. She glanced at Ou Wen one too many times in a silent plea for help and the client took it as a personal offense. After getting berated in a cafe full of people – not the first time, wouldn’t be the last time, but embarrassing nevertheless- he returned to the office for a soft scolding from Boss Fei. He felt a strong sense of deja vu.

To make things worse, he happened to run into one of his exes on his way to his second appointment. It was humiliating enough to have to wear these nerdy glasses and monotone suits - a far cry from his usual modern chic style – but to be caught in it by someone he knew? The day seemed determined to ruin Ou Wen’s life.

His ex-boyfriend didn’t say anything, but he was clearly trying to hold laughter. He made a vague comment about lowering standards and Ou Wen couldn’t help but wonder why all his exes seemed to be assholes. First Benson, now this guy. Had they been assholes all along and Ou Wen had somehow missed all the signs because he had been swept up in the romance? Or were they assholes because there was some sort of unwritten rule on how to treat your ex?

Ou Wen didn’t know, but neither option was particularly reassuring. Maybe be just had bad taste in men. Mark involuntarily flitted through his mind and he had to sigh.

Yep, he definitely had bad taste in men.

Ou Wen reached VooDoo in a foul mood, the beginning of a headache pressing against the temple. He stopped right out front and glared at the door like it had personally offended him. The last thing he wanted to do today was deal with Mark. It had been a few weeks since the second kiss and Ou Wen was stuck in some kind of stalemate with both Mark and his own feelings. When he was around Mark, it mostly felt like nothing had changed. They still bickered all of the time. Mark would say something annoying, Ou Wen would say something snippy back, and Mark would sputter in indignation, unable to find a comeback, until he picked something else to complain about.

It was familiar and comforting and it almost convinced Ou Wen that things were ok between them. Except sometimes, Mark’s eyes would suddenly widen and he’d start stuttering mid-sentence. He’d mumble some excuse and run away, his ears bright red. Other times, Ou Wen found himself staring at Mark’s lips when he talked, subconsciously leaning closer to the heat of Mark’s body. He seemed unable to resist touching Mark, a hand on his shoulder, a brush against his elbow, a smack on the arm. They were harmless touches. If only they were meaningless.

What happened in the alley hung over them like some sort of strange guillotine waiting to drop. Avoiding the subject worked so far, but Ou Wen wasn’t sure how much longer this fragile peace could last. It would be easier if he was able to get over his feelings for Mark, but that was a separate mess entirely.

His feelings were like a web of knots, so tightly woven Ou Wen had no idea where to begin untangling them. Somewhere along the line, his crush had become more than a crush. He wasn’t quite in love yet, but he was a little lovesick and he knew that if he kept it unchecked, he was only setting himself up for heartbreak. Already he had to watch Mark flirt with almost every girl that passed through his life – the cashier at the pharmacy, the waitress at the restaurant, the make-up artist the agency had hired for one of the clients – with a sour taste in his mouth and a distinct pressure in his chest. That was not even counting the amount of times he had brought up Joanna to Ou Wen, almost swooning as he mentioned how beautiful and strong and assertive she was.

Jealousy was an ugly color on everyone. It’s not a good sign that Ou Wen was getting used to wearing it.

Then, there was the damn pining. It was a blow to Ou Wen’s pride more than anything else. People pined over him, not the other way around! Yet no matter how many times he reminded himself that Mark was very, very, very straight, it did nothing to stop him from gravitating towards the other man when he was in the room. Nor did it stop the way his heart threatened to pound out of his chest every time Mark came to close or the way he teased Mark just so he’d punch Ou Wen in the arm or pinch his waist in annoyance.

In fact, just last week, Sheng Yin had taken the liberty to inform Ou Wen that he looked disgustingly fond whenever someone so much as mentioned Mark and it made her want to projectile vomit everywhere. After she finished making puking noises, she had been surprisingly sympathetic, grimacing and patting him on the arm.

“The straight ones always get you the worst,” she said wistfully and if Ou Wen hadn’t been so wrapped up with his own problems, he would have asked her what she meant by that. It didn’t seem like she was just talking about him. However, Ou Wen’s need to wallow trumped his curiosity, so he made a mental note to revisit the subject when his attention was less occupied.

Taking a deep breath, Ou Wen steeled himself and entered VooDoo. A familiar mix of anticipation and nervousness ran through his veins, but it faded into disappointment when he almost instantly realized that Mark wasn’t there, the store comfortably silent. He was probably still out at lunch at his favorite cafe, flirting with the barista that made semi-palatable espressos. The thought made Ou Wen grit his teeth and when Hsuan Yu finally spotted him, he took one look at the stormy expression on Ou Wen’s face and silently tilted his head towards the back room. Ou Wen nod this thanks and briskly walked in. At times like these, he was grateful Hsuan Yu had such a high EQ, the complete opposite of Mark.

As he sat down, Ou Wen found himself once again wondering why he couldn’t like Hsuan Yu instead. He was literally the perfect boyfriend, sensitive, sweet, soft – also straight, but hey, that seemed to be Ou Wen’s cup of tea lately – and far closer to Ou Wen’s usual type than Mark was. If he was Boss Fei, he would have snapped up Hsuan Yu a long time ago. Didn’t she know it was trendy to date younger men now? But alas, no. Instead, they were in the middle of some sort of strange mating dance that couldn’t be more obvious and the employees at VooDoo and Love is Science had a shared betting pool on when they will finally get together. Ou Wen placed his money on sometime in October, but he was doubting his choice, considering how slowly they were progressing.

With a soft sigh, Ou Wen broke himself out of his thoughts and got to work. He pulled out his tablet and started to review the data on his next client, the reason he was at VooDoo in the first place. He read a few lines and then groaned, contemplating if it would be worth calling out sick for the rest of the day. Difficult clients were a dime a dozen in this line of work and for some reason, Ou Wen seemed to attract them all.

He could already imagine the how the interaction would go. She’d demand something ridiculous. He’d do his best to comply with a smile faker than her recently done nose. She’d still be unsatisfied and cause a scene. He’d end the day getting yelled at again. Just thinking about it made Ou Wen’s headache worse and he felt the pressure spreading to behind his eyes. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to survive the day with his composure intact.

He skimmed through a few more pages, hoping to find something, anything he could use to make this a bit more bearable. Maybe she had a favorite singer he could request Hsuan Yu play over the salon speakers. Maybe she had an obsession with penguins and he could run over to the closest toy store and buy a plushie to place by her seat. At this point, he was willing to trek out and buy stinky tofu if that was what it took to make the next few hours more manageable.

Then-because fate had the worse sense of humor- Mark chose this time to burst through the door as chipper as could be. He didn’t even bother to greet Ou Wen before he plopped himself down on the couch and started talking about nonsense. The dull ache in Ou Wen’s head became a notable throb. He really should have gone to the temple and burned some incense after the Benson incident. He was sure the gods were purposely mocking him.

“So I found this great shaved ice place. It’s right around the corner actually, but the portions are huge! I mean, I can totally eat a whole thing by myself, but I shouldn’t, you know?”

Ou Wen pointedly ignored him instead of answering, swiping at his tablet with more force than necessary. Anyone else would have taken it as a sign that he was busy and didn’t want to be bothered. Mark took it as a sign to continue.

“The bowl is basically the size of my head. Maybe bigger. And they don’t skimp on the toppings either. I saw them serving some customers when I walked past earlier and it’s piled up this high.” Mark gestured animatedly to show the size, but Ou Wen didn’t so much as spare him a glance, pretending he wasn’t there. He could almost hear the gears in Mark’s head turn as he caught up with the fact that Ou Wen was purposely treating him like air.

There was a long pause, long enough that Ou Wen’s guard relaxed a little. That’s when Mark took the opportunity to shift over, so close he was almost on Ou Wen’s lap. He threw an arm over Ou Wen’s shoulder and almost caused him to drop the tablet.

“Anyway,” Mark continued cheerfully like he couldn’t tell Ou Wen was ignoring him, “I thought about asking Hsuan Yu to go with me but he doesn’t like shaved ice, that weirdo. Then I thought of my boss, but getting dessert with your boss is kind of weird, don’t you think? But then I thought of you! You seem like the type to eat stuff and post it on your IG. So you want try it out with me?”

It took a moment for Ou Wen to react, his senses overloaded by the unexpected feeling of Mark pressed against him. This was the closest they had been since the alley and Ou Wen felt warm, too warm. His skin tingled pleasantly and he had to remind himself to breathe.

So he did. He took a deep breath in and the first thing he smelled was a lingering note of floral perfume among the scent of hair products and the spicy cologne Mark liked to use. Jealousy flared up unbidden and reality crashed back into focus. It was probably from that mediocre barista. He imagined her leaning over the counter to flirt with Mark as he waited for his lunch order and the bad mood Ou Wen had been all day returned with a vengeance.

“I’m. Busy.” Ou Wen said, very deliberately plucking Mark’s hand off his shoulder and dropping it onto the couch. He shifted over to put some space between them. Not getting the hint, Mark leaned over and jostled him with his shoulder and it was everything Ou Wen could do not to push him away.

“I don’t mean right now,” Mark said. “After work, Hsuan Yu said you were going to be here for the rest of the day. When you’re done, we can get dinner at the noodle shop across the street and go to the shaved ice place after.”

“No.”

“No? What do you mean no?” Mark asked. There was a bit of a whine in his voice and while Ou Wen found it annoying on a normal day, right now, it grated at him like sandpaper. “Do you have plans? Who are you going out with? Do I know them?”

Ou Wen’s hands shook. He knew he was overreacting, that Mark was just as nosy bastard – he worse than those little old ladies peering through windows, honestly - but he couldn’t stop his irritation from flaring up. Who was Mark to ask these questions like Ou Wen needed his permission to do things, like it was any of his business who Ou Wen spent his time with? Did Ou Wen ask what Mark did after hours? No. Because as much as he hated thinking about those faceless girls Mark was taking to bed, he knew he had no right to ask. He had no claim over Mark, no right to be jealous. Just as Mark had no claim over him.

Still, it was an exercise of his self-control not to snap at Mark and say something he’s regret later. Deep down he knew that the anger had nothing to do with Mark. It was his own feelings that were getting away from him and making a mess of his life. It had been a really, really bad days so far and all the reservations and insecurities that he usually kept locked up deep inside were floating right below the surface about to spill out.

First it was the client making him doubt his skills as a matchmaker. Next was Boss Fei questioning his capabilities as an employee. Then came his ex, making him distrust his own judgment of people. When Mark finally appeared, Ou Wen was one wrong word away from imploding and it didn’t help that Mark was as bad at reading social cues as he was at reading Arabic. This was to say, he was incapable of either.

Because of this Ou Wen tried to swallow down the mess of emotions threatening to escape and give Mark a warning.

“I’m not in the mood today,” Ou Wen said as evenly as he could. It came out colder than he meant to, but it couldn’t be helped. “Either be quiet or get out.” The words on his tablet were a meaningless blur, but he stared down at them anyway, using them to anchor himself.

“Jeez! What crawled up your ass and died?” Mark huffed. He slowly leaned away, though he didn’t get up like Ou Wen had hoped he would. “If you don’t want to go, you don’t want to go. Maybe I’ll try and ask Joanna instead.”

The anger that shot through Ou Wen when Mark mentioned her was almost visceral. He gripped the tablet so tightly it creaked in protest and his knuckles turned white. It was always Joanna this or Joanna that. Ou Wen had nothing against his boss – in fact he quite admired the way she laughed in the face of society’s expectations – but every time that name left Mark’s mouth it was quietly reverent and a blatant reminder of what Ou Wen could never have.

He knew he had no reason to be jealous. Joanna had absolutely no interest in Mark and she had explicitly told Ou Wen that there was no chance of them ever being together. But jealousy didn’t work that way and Ou Wen wasn’t comforted by her words. Her impossibility was still more than Ou Wen’s possibility and that would never change. At one point she had been interested enough in Mark to sleep with him. Who was to say she wouldn’t become interested again? That thought sent a nasty twist through Ou Wen’s gut.

“You think Joanna likes shaved ice or do you think she’s too classy for that? That restaurant we went to last time was pretty nice. Maybe I should find a nicer shaved ice place? But I really want to try that-”

“Mark, I swear to god,” Ou Wen hissed, cutting in. He finally tore his eyes away from the tablet to glare at Mark and show him how serious he was. “If you don’t shut up, I will make you shut up. I told you I’m not in the mood.”

Mark stared back at him for one beat, two beats, three beats, then had the audacity to roll his eyes.

“Yeah, ok big guy,” Mark said, waving a dismissive hand. “Anyway, I don’t even know if Joanna likes sweet things. You should though, right? Is she more of a chocolate type of girl or does she like a more natural type of sweetness. She seems like the type that would like something weird like chili chocolate. Am I right? No, I’m defin-”

Ou Wen snapped.

Before he even realized what he was doing, he had tossed his tablet on the coffee table and lunged at Mark. In a blink of an eye, Mark was under him, wrists pinned to the cushions, hips bracketed by Ou Wen’s knees. Ou Wen only had a split second to consider the way Mark looked up at him, wide-eyed and breathless, blue hair splayed against the beige leather, before he leaned down and kissed him.  

There was nothing sweet about the way Ou Wen kissed him. He was angry, frustrated, upset – upset about his client, upset about his ex, upset about Mark. But mostly, he was upset at himself and his inability to control his goddamn emotions. Ou Wen was supposed to be the cool, suave one, untouchable and unaffected by others, yet somehow Mark had managed to crawl under his skin and dig in so deep Ou Wen didn’t have the faintest idea how to get him out. And all this because of what? A kiss? Two kisses?

It was time for Ou Wen to pay him back. See if he’d remember Joanna after this.

When Ou Wen said he would make Mark shut up, by god did he mean it. He kissed Mark like he was trying to steal all the words out of Mark’s mouth because if he did, maybe he’d finally have a moment of peace. He was overbearing, forceful, desperate to take back all that was owed to him the last two times Mark pulled him into a kiss. He bit down so hard on Mark’s lower lip he almost tasted blood and when Mark parted his mouth in surprise, Ou Wen took the opportunity to slip his tongue in and swallow Mark’s pained gasp.

It wasn’t long before he realized Mark was kissing back, lips moving in tandem, tongue stroking against Ou Wen’s. He could feel Mark’s pulse, rabbit quick beneath his palms and the fevered heat emanating from Mark’s body, hotter than usual. He was suddenly all too aware of the intimacy of it all, the soft breathy sounds Mark made as they kissed, the way he unintentional arched up – because it had to be unintentional- beneath Ou Wen’s thighs, the growing sense of hunger and need curling low in Ou Wen’s abdomen.

It all became too much.

Abruptly, Ou Wen pulled back. He was teetering on the brink of no return and in a few more seconds he wouldn’t be able to hold himself back. Wouldn’t be able to stop himself from slipping down Mark’s body, claiming pale skin with his teeth, lips, hands. Wouldn’t be able to stop himself from tasting, feeling, acting on this want, this hunger, this temptation for more. He had to stop himself from making a mistake that would have Mark pushing him away in disgust because that might break his heart and even if it didn’t it still wasn’t a shame he was willing to bear.

So he pulled back and ignored the desperate whine that left Mark when they separated, ignored the way Mark leaned up trying to chase after him. Those were just bodily responses, instinctual responses and Ou Wen couldn’t afford to think otherwise. Not if he was planning on getting out of this with the scraps of dignity he had left.

Still it was a close thing as Ou Wen stared down at Mark, his pouty lips swollen, cheeks flushed, eyes half-lidded and hazy, a look Ou Wen was getting uncomfortably familiar with. Mark’s chest heaved as he gasped for air and his fingers kept curling and uncurling though he made no moves to extract himself from Ou Wen’s grip.

A part of him wondered if Mark would actually stop him if he leaned back down and continued where they left off. After all, Ou Wen might be stronger than him, but Mark made no effort to stop him at all, no struggling, no sounds of protest, no expression of disgust. He had simply given in, yielded, let Ou Wen do what he wanted.

Even now as he gazed up at Ou Wen, he made no moves to escape and it had to be a trick of the light, the way Mark’s pupils seem dilated. His tongue darted out to lick his lips and Ou Wen couldn’t help but track its movements, momentarily dazed. What if he leaned in and kissed a line along the edge of Mark jaw? Would Mark try to stop him or would he instead let his head tilt back and moan as Ou Wen marked the delicate skin of his neck. Would he let Ou Wen slide a hand under his shirt, grip the pale skin of his waist, and leave bruises that would last for days? Would he be vocal or was he the silent type, nothing but desperate pants and soft whimpers?

These were incredibly dangerous thoughts.

Knowing would be more dangerous.

Somehow Ou Wen found the strength to push away. Shakily, he climbed to his feet, careful not to touch Mark any more than necessary. He turned and grabbed his tablet off the table and stuffed it into his bag, anything to keep his hands busy and to distract him from the thoughts that were running rampant in his head. As he took a minute to straighten out his clothes and rearrange his hair, he watched Mark slowly sit back up out of the corner of his eyes. Mark’s face was unusually expressionless and it made Ou Wen nervous.

“I told you to shut up, didn’t I?” Ou Wen said, tugging at the sleeves of his blazer so they fall back in place at his wrists. He aimed for casual, but it came out too soft and too hoarse to be considered close. The anger that had been plaguing him all day was gone and it should have been a good thing except the thing that replaced it was deep, dark, and heavy, and it scared Ou Wen with how vast it was.

Mark was silent for a few seconds before he replied with a faint, “You did.”

“Right, well…” Ou Wen paused awkwardly, unsure what to say next. “Now you know.”

Mark made a noncommittal sound, still in some sort of trance, and Ou Wen decided to take it as some sort of confirmation.

“Anyway!” he said, much too loudly, “I have to make a call so I’ll just be…” Without waiting for Mark to say anything, Ou Wen grabbed his bag and walked out of the room as fast as he could without breaking into a run. He breezed passed a concerned looked Hsuan Yu, through the glass doors of the salon, and didn’t stop until he was two blocks away.

Once he reached the intersection, he smacked himself in the head. What was wrong with him? He couldn't believe he lost control like that. He didn’t realize he was so into self-sabotage. He thought the balance between them was delicate before. Now what was he supposed to do? Would Mark even believe him if he said it had been a joke? Some weird form of gay chicken or extreme level of ‘try me and find out’? How was he going to walk into VooDoo again or look Mark in the eyes for that matter? He had been careful to hide his feelings – thought somehow all the women in his life seemed to know- but now, Mark would have to be the dumbest, densest person alive not to suspect that Ou Wen harbored some sort of attraction towards him. He might not suspect that Ou Wen liked, liked him, but he definitely had to realize that Ou Wen was physically interested to him. And what was Ou Wen supposed to do if Mark confronted him? Lie? Tell the truth? Run away again?

None of them seemed like good options. Ou Wen felt vaguely sick. He had too many questions and none of the answers. All he knew was that he would not be going back to VooDoo today, at least not unless someone dragged him kicking and screaming. He dug through his bag for his phone. Let Sheng Ying bitch about having to cover him. He’d deal with it later. For now, he needed to go to the temple, burn some incense, and then go home and stay there for the foreseeable future.  

Chapter Text

Ou Wen agreed to go to KTV because, well…it wasn’t like he had that much of a choice. Joanna had cornered him earlier in the day and simply informed him that there was going to be a company outing later and who said no to Joanna? Certainty not Ou Wen. Besides the fact that she was incredibly intimidating when she wanted to be, she also controlled his paycheck and Ou Wen kind of liked his job. Still, he wasn’t looking forward to it by any means, especially not after finding out that the hairstylists of VooDoo were invited as well.

“Aren’t you avoiding Mark?” Ou Wen asked when he found out. He was avoiding Mark too, but no one knew that.

“Yes, but I’ve decided to be magnanimous and help out Yan Fei,” Joanna said. She gestured for him to come closer and Ou Wen leans in, too afraid not to. “It’s been so long she’s growing cobwebs down there. You know what I mean?” Joanna whispered conspiratorially as she waved her hand in the area of her crotch. Ou Wen grimaced at the unnecessary imagery, but didn’t comment on the oversharing of information. “She just needs a little push so she can fall onto Hsuan Yu’s- uh...fall into Hsaun Yu’s arms and we’re going to help her.”

Ou Wen didn’t say anything, but the way he raised his brows and pursed his lips must have given away his skepticism because Joanna scowled and smacked him in the arm. He yelped and shied away, surprised at how strong she was.

“You’re either with me or you’re against me,” Joanna said, warning clear in her voice. “Just follow my lead and don’t mess up.” She stared him down until finally, he timidly nodded in agreement.

“Good,” she said. “9pm. Don’t be late, I’ll make a LINE group chat and sent the location later.” She started turn away, but then stops and looks at him for a moment, eyes calculating in a way that gave Ou Wen goosebumps. He felt like he should say something, but before he could think of anything, she shook her head and flounced off to invite the other people in the office. Ou Wen watched her leave feeling like he had missed something big that might come back to bite him in the ass later.

It had been a couple of days since the incident and so far, Ou Wen had done a phenomenal job at avoiding VooDoo, and in turn, Mark. A lot of his clients were newer so that meant meetings to discuss the results of the algorithm, self-improvement classes, and a whole lot of paperwork before Ou Wen even had to consider taking them to the salon for a makeover. Mark, who usually messaged him at least once a day about something completely inane, hadn’t contacted him at all. Ou Wend didn’t know if he should be upset or relieved by this. One one hand, the longer Mark didn’t message him, the longer Ou Wen could pretend like nothing happened between them. On the other hand, the silence was giving him mild anxiety because he had no idea what Mark was thinking. Was he upset with Ou Wen? Disgusted by him? Afraid of him? Was he avoiding Ou Wen the way Ou Wen was avoiding him or was he waiting for Ou Wen to make the first movie? Even if Ou Wen bit the bullet and apologized first, what would even happen? They couldn’t return to the way they used to be. At least Ou Wen couldn’t, not when he knew what Mark tasted like, felt like, sounded like. He didn’t know about Mark.

(Also, if he was being honest, he kind of missed the memes and cat videos, especially on slow days.)

But now…now he was going to have to face Mark whether he wanted to or not. Joanna was going to be there which meant Mark will definitely come. Not to mention there was no way Hsuan Yu would show up without him. He didn’t seem like the partying type. So Mark was either going to confront him, ignore him, or pretend like nothing happened. None of these options were appealing to Ou Wen.

He took a moment to consider making up an excuse to get out of the event, but then he thinks about all the ways Joanna could make his life a living hell and begrudgingly comes to terms with the fact that seeing mark for a few hours was the lesser of two evils. Probably. He’d just have to figure out a way to sit as far from Mark as possible. And get really, really drunk really, really fast.

Work went by way too fast though Ou Wen tried to drag it out as much as possible. It seemed like every time he checked his watch another hour had passed. The weight in his stomach grew progressively heavier and when he finally sat down for dinner, he was barely able to take two bites before he put his chopsticks down and gave up.

Joanna sent the location in a group chat as promised and followed up with a vaguely threatening sticker. Sheng Ying replied with a gif of a sloth that made Ou Wen snort. Then Mark sent a gif of a dancing heart and Ou Wen feels his heart skip a beat, Shakily, he locked his phone screen and shoved it into his back pocket. He just had to survive a few hours. He was a grown man. He could do it. Absolutely…yes.

Ou Wen arrived a few minutes late because no one arrived at karaoke on time anyway and he wanted to avoid running into Mark. The place was a typical KTV joint. Full length mirrors lined the halls creating fractal patterns and the lights were dim and placed far apart, giving the whole place the impression of a night club. A high energy EDM song was playing in the background to cover the muffled music coming from the private rooms. A waiter in a black bowtie and ill-fitted red brocade vest led Ou Wen to the room Joanna booked.

When he walked in, he was momentarily relieved to see that Mark wasn’t there yet. Joanna had booked a large VIP room meant to fit 20 people which was more than enough room. The couches spread along three sides of the room and there were a few extra stools in the corner. The low tables in the middle of the room were full of alcohol, empty cups, snacks, and a few sets of Liar’s Dice. Some of his coworkers were lounging on the couches, helping themselves to the drinks. Others had microphones and tambourines in their hands, singing a recent pop song very badly. Joanna was in the far corner in front of the song selector, swiping through the screen with one hand as she held on to Yan Fei with her other hand, trying to get her to pick a song.

“Dai Ou Wen!” Sheng Ying shouted when she saw him. She was closest to the door and halfway through the beer in her hand already. “Take a shot with me or call me your grandma!”

Ou Wen could only cross his harms and shake his head in exasperation. Sheng Ying and alcohol was never a good idea. Combined with a KTV room? Ou Wen didn’t even want to think about where this night was going to end up? Hopefully there would still be a few people sober enough to get her home safely.

“Take a look at your wrinkles. I’ll call you grandma right now,” Ou Wen shot back. Sheng Ying gasped in indignation, clutching her heart, while the people who heard him laughed. Ou Wen himself chucked, feeling the knot in his stomach loosen a little. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

“Hey big guy, move over. You’re blocking the door.”

He spoke too fast.

The moment Ou Wen heard Mark’s voice, he stiffened. He wasn’t sure what his expression was, but if the way Sheng Ying wriggling her brows was any indication, it was a good thing he wasn’t planning on playing poker tonight.

Forcing a smile on his face, Ou Wen stepped to the side and half-turned. “Right. Sorry. Didn’t notice.” His eyes skimmed over Mark and settled on Hsuan Yu behind him.

“Hey, Ou Wen,” Hsuan Yu greeted in his usual mild-mannered way. He spared Ou Wen five seconds of a genuine smile before his attention naturally and very obviously gravitated towards Yan Fei. He drifted over to where she was trying to avoid the microphone in Joanna’s hands without another word. To Ou Wen’s surprise, Mark didn’t follow. Instead, he looked a bit stunned as he stared at Ou Wen, eyes wider than normal, mouth slightly parted. Ou Wen didn’t know what to make of that. Was he shocked because he hadn’t expected Ou Wen to be there? If so, then that was stupidity on his part. Ou Wen clearly replied to the group chat at one point with a thumbs up emoji.

Or maybe he hadn’t been prepared to face Ou Wen so quickly? Ou Wen could sympathize with that.

Whatever it was, the expression was starting to make Ou Wen more uncomfortable than he already was. After a few beats of incredibly awkward silence, Ou Wen couldn’t help himself.

“The last person to look at me like that ended up in my bed,” he said pointedly. And usually that statement would be fine, on brand with his typical sarcasm and wit. He wouldn’t even think twice about it. However, this situation was anything but usual and Ou Wen regretted it the moment the sentence left his mouth. Apparently he had no brain cells where Mark was involved,

Still, it was enough to shake Mark out of his stupor. He grimaced and looked away, the tips of his ears flushing red.

“Sorry,” Mark muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. “I didn’t realize…you just…you look different.”

That caught Ou Wen by surprise and he glanced down at himself. He was dressed more casually than usual, a white graphic t-shirt French tucked into a slim pair of dark wash jeans. He had traded his usual Italian leather dress shoes for a pair of white sneakers and he had ran the iron through his hair a few times before heading out, giving his usually pin straight hair a slight curl at the edges. It was nothing to write home about.

“What, you thought I only wore suits?” Ou Wen asked, raising one of his brows at Mark. If anything, Mark blushed an even brighter red and furiously shook his head.

“No-that’s not-I just…” He trailed off into an incomprehensible mumble, then points in the general direction of Hsuan Yu and started backing away. Ou Wen could only watch him flee to Joanna’s side of the room with a sour taste in his mouth, knowing that he had been right to dread coming to KTV. To Joanna’s credit, she plainly ignored Mark when he tried to greet her and pulled Yan Fei between them as a barrier, but that didn’t make him feel any better.

Ou Wen didn’t get long to dwell on it. As soon as Mark was across the room, Sheng Ying grabbed Ou Wen by the arm and dragged him to the couch with surprising strength. Since when were the women in his life so strong?

“You promise me a shot, Dai Ou Wen! Don’t even think about weaseling out!” Though she didn’t explicitly say she was trying to distract him, Ou Wen could see a hint of sympathy in her eyes as she poured them out shots of Hennessey. If it had been any other coworker, Ou Wen might have been embarrassed about such an obvious moment of weakness. However, it was Sheng Ying, and as much as they liked to constantly insult each other, at the end of the day, the camaraderie the shared as unspoken and deep. Being the only two queer people in the office hadn’t exactly been difficult – Boss Fei strove for an inclusive work environment- but there were always things and experiences that would be difficult to explain.

Ou Wen downed the shot without waiting for Sheng Ying, wincing as the alcohol burned the back of this throat.

“You wanna pace yourself that, buddy?” Sheng Ying asked, watching Ou Wen pour out a second shot uneasily. “We’re just beginning and tonight is going to be a long night.”

Ou Wen waved away her concern with a roll of his eyes. “Funny coming from Ms. Lightweight herself. What? Afraid you can’t keep up?”

“Ha!” Sheng Ying exclaimed. She was never able to back down from a challenge. “I’m just afraid no one’s going to help your drunk ass get home tonight. Hope you enjoy sleeping on the streets! Cheers!” She clinked her shot glass against his and they both threw back their drinks.

Ou Wen set his glass down, only to be immediately accosted by his coworkers and forced to sing. They shoved a microphone into his hand, turned on the flashlights on the phones, and started waving them in the air like light sticks when the opening notes of a familiar ballad floated from the speakers. It went without saying that Ou Wen was the best singer out of all of them and Sheng Ying even fake swooned as he crooned through lyrics that hit a too close to home.

When he finished, last note lingering in the air, Ou Wen felt a bit maudlin. Was it really better to have loved and lost rather than not to have loved at all? The songs always say that, but real life application didn’t really support the argument, not from Ou Wen’s perspective anyway. He had never experienced an unrequited love that didn’t suck. Maybe it was a matter of his luck?

He didn’t get to dwell on that thought long. Sheng Ying slapped him heartily on the back, pulling him back before he got too lost, and switched his mic for a beer.

“Maybe you should quite being a matchmaker and try being an idol,” she said.

“Sure,” Ou Wen replied, leaning back into the back with a smirk. “And you can be my bodyguard.” 

Sheng Ying got a dangerous gleam in her eyes. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of all those dangerous female fans for you,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows salaciously. Ou Wen laughed. He was sure she would.

About five songs and half a beer later, Ou Wen felt more relaxed. Most of it was because of Sheng Ying and his other work friends, cracking jokes, singing off tune, dancing awkwardly to songs with signature choreography. Some of it was those two shots finally kicking in, giving the world a pleasant, hazy glow. Not paying attention to the other side of the room also helped.

However, peace was never meant to last.

Midway through a rousing chorus of Look Over Here, Girl!, Joanna paused the song and stepped onto the low table, expertly avoiding the glasses and cups that littered the table. Half the room booed while the other half continued singing without music, progressively getting more off-key.

“Everyone’s here, so listen up!” Joanna shouted, placing her hands on her hips. She glared down at the crowd and everyone quieted, too intimidated to do anything else. Only Yan Fei was brave enough to tug at Joanna’s arm, asking her what she was doing in an embarrassed hissed. Joanna shook her off and produced a pack of playing cards out of thin air. Then she looked over at Ou Wen and gave him a wink. Any apprehension he already felt tripled in a matter of a split second.

“We’re going to play a game I learned about during my many years as a stewardess!” she announced with all the grandeur of a game show host. “It’s called Seven Minutes in Heaven!”

And while Ou Wen had never heard of the game before, it didn’t take a genius to pick up the context clues. On top of the dread he felt, there was a new layer of confusion. Was this…was this…Joanna’s genius plan? For some reason he had been expecting something more subtle. This was a bit more forceful that he expected. Also, wasn’t it a bit chancy to leave things to a deck of cards?

“Here’s how the game goes! We’ll only be using two suits since there are only about twenty of us here. We all draw a card and keep it a secret. The person who draws the king is all powerful! They get to choose two number and those two will be escorted and locked in out ‘heaven’!” Joanna pointed to the ensuite bathroom in the corner of the room. “We’re all adults here so I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you ‘heaven’ means,” she said twirling her hair suggestively.

The room burst in a low roar, everyone giggling and nudging each other. Curious, Ou Wen risked a glance over at the other side of the room. Yan Fei was glaring daggers up at Joanna while Hsuan Yu was behind her blushing slightly. Mark was also observing at Joanna, expression contemplative. The familiar feeling of jealousy twisted in his stomach and Ou Wen forced himself to look away.

“Now, of course we’re not making anyone do anything,” Joanna reassured and some of the people in the room let out a breath of air. “But we’re still locking you in that room. Make a new friend, Take a nap. Braid each other’s hair! I don’t care. This gathering is about team bonding and we are going to bond! In fact, let’s make it an even ten minutes instead of seven. Really get to know each other!”

With a self-satisfied smile, Joanna moved to step of the table, then then stops, remembering something. She spun around and pointed at every single person. “If you back out of the game, five shot penalty. I’m playing for keeps tonight.”

No one even thought to challenge her. Joanna hopped off the table and, to Ou Wen’s surprise, squeezed her next to him instead of returning to her side of the room.

“Gather around everyone. Don’t forget who’s paying for you to have fun tonight.”

When she had been explaining the rules, Ou Wen had been perplexed. How was Joanna going to guarantee that Hsuan Yu and Boss Fei ended up locked in the bathroom together? Just play until fate smiled at them. Ou Wen wasn’t the best at math, but even he could tell the chances were slim.

Then Joanna slid the cards out of the box and Ou Wen understood. With practiced ease, she separated the heart and spade suits and discarded the rest of the deck. She started shuffling, the cards fluttering so fast between her hands they were a blur of red and white. There was no fate involved. Joanna was Lady Luck tonight.

“Draw,” she said, taking the top care and passing the ‘shuffled’ deck to Ou Wen. Ou Wen hesitantly accepted it, not trusting the mischievous glint in her eyes She winked at him again and he really wished she’d stop doing that because it was only making him more and more uneasy about the whole thing.

He drew a card.

King. Of course.

He passed the deck to Sheng Ying, ignoring the smugness radiating from Joanna. He still wasn’t sure how she was going to pull this off and it kind of felt like jumping out of a tree with his eyes closed and trusting that someone will happen to walk but at exactly the right moment. He hoped he didn’t metaphorically break his back.

The cards made their way around the table. Some people were more enthusiastic than others, looking at their cards behind cupped hands and trying to steal peeks at what their neighbors had. Yan Fei took her card begrudgingly – Ou Wen was surprised she was actually going along with Joanna’s harebrained scheme- and glowered so hard across the room it was a wonder Joanna hadn’t burst into flames yet.

“Will the king please reveal themselves?” Joanna said cheerfully as soon as the last card was drawn.

Ou Wen reluctantly flipped his card face up on the table.

“Ou Wen!” Joanna gasped in surprised. It was so fake he had to level with a deadpan expression or risk saying something rude. She gave him a dazzling smile in response and swept a hand at the room. “Our first king of the night. Pick your numbers!”

Ou Wen squinted at her, trying to determine if there was some sort of trick involved. Were there numbers he was supposed to call? Was he supposed to know what those numbers were? They were trying to get Hsuan Yu and Yan Fei together, right? But how was he supposed to know what cards they had? He was neither psychic nor the one rigging the game. He racked his brains for any hints Joanna might have dropped, but nothing came to mind. 

Finally, he gave up and decided to pick random numbers. If he somehow ruined the plan, Joanna could only blame herself.

“Eight of hearts and four of hearts.”

Next to him Sheng Ying froze. On his other side, Joanna cackled. The numbers he picked didn’t seem so random anymore.

“Lucky number eight! Where are you?” Joanna said, standing up and throwing her card on the table. At first no one responded, everyone exchanging glances in anticipation. Then Sheng Ying lowered her card. There was a collective gasp that resounded throughout the room.

Ignoring them, Joanna grinned wickedly and grabbed Sheng Ying, dragging her over Ou Wen’s lap. Ou Wen caught the panicked, wide-eyed look on her face- recognized it because that was how he looked every time he saw Mark- and suddenly remembered the off-hand comment she had made the other day about falling for straight people. All the pieces of the puzzles fell into place.

Joanna.

Well, Ou Wen couldn’t say he blamed Sheng Ying. Joanna was a formidable force of nature, the kind that demanded to be worshipped and deserved nothing less. There was a reason why Mark was so enamored with her and even Ou Wen had to admit that there were worse people to fall for. If Ou Wen was maybe 10% less gay, he probably would have fallen for her, too. Might have been easier than falling for Mark.

The whole situation was weirdly ironic and now it was Ou Wen’s turn to grimace sympathetically at Sheng Ying being pushed into the bathroom.

“Remember to set the timer!” Joanna called out. Almost half the room pulled out their phones as she shut the door behind her.

For a good ten seconds, everyone was lost. Joanna was obviously the ringleader and now that she was occupied, no one was sure what to do. But then someone cracked open a beer, Yan Fei turned the music back on, and the atmosphere settled back into something more normal. Ou Wen ended up downing the rest of his beer before he does anything else. If Mark didn’t force him into an early grave, Joanna definitely would and he wasn’t sure his current salary could cover the funeral expenses.

Speaking of Mark…Ou Wen wondered how he was reacting to this newfound pair. Was he upset that he hadn’t been chosen? He was probably blaming Ou Wen for not picking his card with Joanna’s. He could already imagine Mark sulking, pouting like he was a spoiled child. Maybe it was a good thing they were avoiding each other because otherwise he would definitely be whining to Ou Wen right now and Ou Wen would be taking gulps straight out the Henny bottle to stop himself from strangling Mark.

Unable to help himself, Ou Wen snuck a peek across the room. To his surprise, Mark was remarkably calm. He wasn’t even paying attention to the bathroom door, instead switching between nudging an embarrassed Hsuan Yu into Yan Fei and laughing with one of the junior hairstylists. It was unexpected to say the least and Ou Wen was so thrown off, he forgot he was supposed to be ignoring Mark and ended up staring.

As though he could sense Ou Wen’s gaze, Mark turned his head and ended up locking eyes with Ou Wen. He was mid-laugh, eyes curved into crescent moons, lips pulled over his teeth and it was so breathtaking, so genuine, Ou Wen felt his heart stop. Ou Wen immediately looked away, a blush rising in his cheeks, and his pulse thudding in his ears. One of his coworkers shoved a microphone into his hands, demanding he sang another song, and he took it without protest.

 He ended up singing two and was about to start a third one when phone alarms started going off. It was like the air disappeared from the room and everyone snapped their heads toward the bathroom door, buzzing with anticipation.

Joanna came out first, perfectly composed, and flipped her hair over her shoulder. She flashed a smile at the room and people started turning away, disappointed.

Then Sheng Ying stumbled out.

She was dazed, eyes glassy, lipstick smeared on the corner of her mouth. Her hair was messier than usual and here was and obvious red mark on her neck, peeking out from beneath her collar. Excited, hushed whispered started to circulate the room. There was no mistaking the self-satisfied curl of Joanna’s lips as she took her place next to Ou Wen again.

Sheng Yin also tried to return to her seat, but she almost fell flat on her face when Joanna grabbed her by the wrist and tugged her down next to her. Still in shock, Sheng Ying sat down obediently and Ou Wen sympathetically passes her a beer, swallowing down his own surprise.

He guessed Joanna was not as straight as he assumed, or anybody else for that matter. He was definitely going to have to ask Sheng Ying more about that later.

“Who’s going next?” Joanna asked playfully after she made sure Sheng Ying was settled next to her. She gathered up the forgotten cards and made quick work of shuffling them. Ou Wen found himself wondering where she picked up these skills. He made a mental note never to play poker with her. Or blackjack. Or Go Fish for that matter. She’d probably end up taking the clothes off his back.

The rest of the room gathered back around the time, trying to be subtle about the way they were stealing glances at the two women. Joanna ignored them and let Sheng Ying pick the first card, an unexpectedly sweet gesture.

Did Joanna also…no, but…he hadn’t…So confused, Ou Wen accepted the deck and drew a card. How could he have missed the signs that something was going on between them? Had he really been so blinded by his own issues with Mark that overlooked this budding office romance? More importantly, why didn’t Sheng Ying tell him? He thought they were comrades in arms! Ou Wen made up his mind to corner Sheng Ying later that night.

He was just about to start plotting how when Joanna jumped up and threw her card face-up on the table. Looked like the last card got drawn when Ou Wen wasn’t paying attention and Joanna was king. Nothing good could come from this.

“Who’s going to be the lucky bastard this time?” she said, scanning the room. There was devious expression on her face the unnerved Ou Wen. When she turned to him, he knew he was screwed.

Ou Wen tried to stare her down which was a difficult task as he had to look up at her. There was also the fact that the gods couldn’t intimidate her and Ou Wen was only human. He knew what she was about to say before she said it, but that didn't stop him from silently begging her not to.

Joanna stared right back, openly challenging him. “Queen of hearts,” she said slowly, naming the card in Ou Wen’s hand. She lifted a brow and one edge of her mouth raised into a smirk that promised nothing good. Still, Ou Wen foolishly held out hope. As long as it wasn’t Mark. Anyone but Mark. Just not Mark.

Joanna waited a few seconds for dramatic effect and then said, “Jack of spades.”

“That’s me.”

Of course it was Mark.

Ou Wen’s stare turned into a glare as he slowly lowered his own card onto the table. Joanna responded by blowing him a kiss. He could feel everyone in the room looking at him and knew the gossip mill was going to be rich with speculation on Monday.

Why did he let her trick him into this again? Oh right, she gave him his paycheck.

Was it too late for him to quit his job?

No, but it was definitely too late to avoid Mark.

Ou Wen took a deep breath to mentally prepare himself. He wasn’t sure how Mark was going to react and he half expected to down five shots, already feeling the ghost of the burn in the back of his throat. To his surprise, Mark had gotten out of his seat and was walking towards Ou Wen like everything was completely normal.

He strolled passed the couch without sparing Joanna a glance and stopped in front in of the bathroom. “Well?” Mark says impatiently, seeing that Ou Wen hadn’t moved. “I don’t have all night.”

Flabbergasted, Ou Wen hesitantly got up and joined him. Some of their coworkers were hooting in the background and if Ou Wen had been in less of a stupor, he would have checked who they were so he could make their lives a living hell at work. The next thing he knew, they were in the bathroom and Mark was closing the door behind them cutting off the sound from the outside.

The bathroom itself was small, but clean and very well soundproofed, to be expected from a KTV room. The sink was set in a black marble counter and a mirror stretched from the counter all the way to the ceiling. Next to it was the toilet.

Ou Wen went to the furthest wall away from Mark, but that didn’t mean much in such a small space. The first minute passed agonizingly slow in awkward silence and Ou Wen crossed his arms protectively in front of his chest, racking his brains for something to say. Should he bring up the kiss? Should he apologize for what happened at VooDoo and try to play it off as a joke? Should he make a comment about the weather? Anything had to better than this weird tension, right? Ou Wen could barely stand to look at Mark and in a room this small, that didn’t leave many other places to look at.

“So…” Mark broke the silence first and Ou Wen was so deep in his head that he jumped in fright. “Sheng Ying and Joanna, huh?” Mark asked tentatively and Ou Wen could tell it was an olive branch of some sort by the way he seemed unsure, almost shy.

“Yeah,” Ou Wen nodded, feeling a bit relieved. So they weren’t going to talk about the kiss. Fine by him. “I didn’t see that one coming.” The knot that had been in his stomach the past few days loosed slightly. He knew Mark well enough to realize that if he was upset, he wouldn’t hesitate to express it. The fact that he wasn’t yelling at Ou Wen right now meant that he wasn’t mad about what happened on the couch. Where that left them though, Ou Wen wasn’t sure.

“I just…I thought Joanna liked guys,” Mark said. He frowned, rubbing the back of his neck and Ou Wen almost rolled his eyes at how puzzled Mark sounded, how predictable this all was. There was the old Mark he knew. The ignorant one that liked to put his foot in his mouth. The one that was still stuck on Joanna.

“She does,” Ou Wen said, trying to be patient. “Bi people exist. So do pan people. But also sexuality is a scale so maybe she just felt like kissing a girl today.”

Mark tilted his head as he thought about it and Ou Wen was hit with the sudden urge to make a sarcastic comment about thinking too hard. He forgot how easy it was to insult Mark sometimes.

“That seems complicated. You think Joanna’s bi?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Ou Wen said dryly. He should have made the comment. “We don't exactly print out our sexual preferences on the company memos. Why don’t you ask her yourself if you’re so curious?”

In all fairness, Ou Wen was pretty interested in knowing as well. Sure it wasn’t really any of his business, but that didn’t deter him from enjoying the occasional piece of company gossip. Besides, Joanna owed him after all of this, and the whisperings about Boss Fei and hairstylist Number 29 was starting to get old.

“Maybe that’s why she’s not interested in me,” Mark muttered thoughtfully. He rubbed his chin like an old sage and Ou Wen gaped at him incredulously. Where did that conclusion come from? Did he not know what the definition of bisexual was? He knew Mark was dumb when it came to all things not straight, but Ou Wen was still at a loss. What twist of fate made him fall for the most ignorant straight man he had ever had the misfortune of meeting.

Before he could stop himself, Ou Wen took a few steps forward and flicked Mark in the forehead. Mark yelped and batted his hand away.

“What was that for?” he asked, shoving Ou Wen in the shoulder. It was a light push and Ou Wen barely swayed.

“That’s for being an absolute dumbass! If she’s bi, she likes men and women. That has nothing to do with the numerous of reasons she has not to like you.”

“What are you talking about? I’m an absolute catch!” Mark said. He puffed out his chest and glared at Ou Wen, daring him to disagree. “I’m handsome, I’m considerate, I’m loyal, I’m great at protecting people-”

“You can’t fight,” Ou Wen cuts in to point out, remembering the alley. There had been two different alleys, in fact, but both proved his point.

Mark continued over him. “I have a great sense of style. I can cook. I can do hair. I’m a great kisser. I’m really good in bed. And did I mention how handsome I am?”

Ou Wen hummed noncommittally because while yes, Mark was handsome and loyal and pretty considerate most of the time and did dress well and was a phenomenal kisser – he didn’t even think about the bed one, too dangerous –there was no way he was going to let Mark know that he thought any other that. So instead, Ou Wen shrugged and crossed his arms again, letting Mark interpret the silence however he wanted to.

“What, you disagree?” Mark challenged, taking a step into OU Wen’s space?

“Well, let me see. “ Ou Wen raised a hand to tap his bottom lip in mock contemplation. He started counting off his fingers. “You’re whiny. You’re immature. You’re impulsive. You’re needy. You’re ignorant. You’re hotheaded. You don’t listen. You can’t take a hint. Do I need to keep going? I don’t think being ‘handsome’ or a ‘good kisser’ or ‘good in bed’ is enough to make up for all of that,” Ou Wen said, making air quotes around the last few things to emphasize his sarcasm.

“What does that mean?” Mark asked, mimicking the air quotes. “What are you trying to say? I’ve never had any complaints about my performance.

And of course that was what Mark took away from all of this. Not the long list of flaws Ou Wen just pointed out, all valid reasons as to why Joanna had no interest in him. Nope. The thing he focused on was the comment on his virility. God forbid if Ou Wen insulted his sexual prowess. Men. They were all the same whether they were gay, straight, or any shade in between.

“Why would you have? It’s a commonly known fact that women fake orgasms and lie about that stuff all the time,” Ou Wen said dismissively. He was a bit too entertained by the way Mark’s eyes widened, the gears in his head starting to turn. Serves him right. Unable to resist, Ou Wen leaned in a little and theatrically whispered, “Especially if you’re really bad at it.”

Mark opened and closed his mouth a few times, reaching for words he couldn’t find. He looked like a gaping fish, much to Ou Wen’s entertanment. He ended up pointing an accusing finger at Ou Wen and sputtered, “How do you know all of this? Did Joanna say something to you?”

Unimpressed, Ou Wen gestured to himself. “I’m gay. Did you forget, Women share things with me. We like to bond over how useless men are.” He delicately pinched Mark’s pointer finger between his index finger and thumb and moved it out of his face.

“But that’s not-you’re also-it’s not…”

Smug and amused, Ou Wen watched as Mark had a mini-breakdown, probably mentally running through all the women he had ever slept with. Ou Wen knew he was being a little mean, but he couldn’t help it. All was fair in love and war, right? Why not let him suffer a bit? He’d put Mark out of his misery later and reassure him that no one said anything, that he had just been joking, but for now, he reveled in the moment.

Pretending to be sympathetic, Ou Wen placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “It’s ok. I know you’re-”

Ou Wen was abruptly cut off when Mark grabbed his wrist and looked up at him, eyes sharper than usual. There was something calculation about Mark’s expression and any remaining amusement was swiftly replaced by faint sense of alarm.

“But we kissed,” Mark said and Ou Wen froze. This was…this was not going how he expected. He did not think Mark would bring it up, hadn’t even considered the possibility at this point. He thought they had mutual understanding to avoid the subject for as long as possible and maybe even bury it under seven feet of concrete. Mark was either stupid or brave for bringing this up.

“We kissed, so you know that I’m a great kisser.” The confidence Mark said that with shook Ou Wen to his very core and he felt like a deer caught in the headlights, too stunned to run away. He scrambled to find a comeback.

“You act like you’re the best kiss I’ve ever had,” Ou Wen said. He was several beats too late and his eye roll was unconvincing, but it was better than nothing and all he had left. He tried to pull his hand back, but Mark’s hold is too tight and he’s sure Mark could feel the way his pulse picked up.

“Aren’t I?” Mark asked. And normally, Ou Wen would be offended by the absolute display of ego, the narcissism of it all, but nothing about this was normal and he’d be lying if he said Mark wasn’t one of the best kissers he’d ever met.

So he lied.

“Not even top ten.”

“Oh?” Mark cocked his head to the side and leaned forward. It felt like he could see through Ou Wen which couldn’t be true. He was being paranoid.

“You’re lying.”

He wasn’t paranoid.

“You’re right,” Ou Wen said, licking his lips nervously. He tried to play it off. “Probably not even top twenty. In fact it was awful. Kissing you was awful.” If Ou Wen could slam his head into the wall, he would. It seemed he suddenly forgot how to lie.

Mark frowned and furrowed his brows like he was trying to figure something out. “That’s not it,” he said, taking a step forward. It forces Ou Wen to take a stumbling step back, his hand still in Mark’s grip. “You clearly enjoyed it. Why are you lying?”

Ou Wen felt faint. What was Mark trying to do? What did he gain from getting Ou Wen to admit that Mark was a good kisser? There was a little voice in his head that was starting to become suspicious, that was whispering enticing things about possibilities, but Ou Wen quickly squashes it under the heel of his foot. Hope was a fragile, delicate, translucent thing, easier to break than to keep whole and impossible to put together once shattered. It was better that Ou Wen never considered the possibility Mark might be interested in him. His heart ached enough as it was, thinking about the way Mark chased after Joanna, the way his eyes lit up every time he talked about her, the way his voice softened around her name, the way he literally brightened. If Ou Wen latched onto those thin threads of hope only to watch them deteriorate in his hands when Mark inevitably became enamored with another woman? It would crush him.

He had to figure out a way to end this before it got out of hand.

“It was passable” Ou Wen said weakly. He had never been claustrophobic before, but he was beginning to understand what people meant when they said they felt like the walls were closing in on them. “Kissing is kissing. It was fun. You’re good enough. Is that what you want to hear? Does that make you feel better?”

“But not the best?” Mark asked, refusing to let it go. He had crowded Ou Wen against the sink without him noticing and Ou Wen could feel the edge of the counter against the back of his thighs. There was a rising pressure of panic in the back of his throat.

“Why do you even care?” Ou Wen asked a little hysterically. He pressed a hand into Mark’s chest to maintain some distance between them. He could hardly think straight as it was. He didn’t need Mark coming any closer.

“Do I kiss better than Benson, at least?”

The mention of his ex-boyfriend was so unexpected, Ou Wen tells the truth without thinking. “Yes.” Then, in what might be the stupidest thing he had ever done, he said, “But I doubt you fuck better than him.”

Ou Wen immediately regrets it, clamping his mouth shut. He wondered if he could die from mortification. It had been a desperate attempt to scare Mark off in this weird, perverse game of gay chicken they were playing, a reminder that Ou Wen liked men, kissed men, fucked men and Mark was very much a man.

Except…it came out too much like a challenge, like a dare, like he was wanted Mark to prove him wrong.

Ou Wen wasn’t sure what he expected, but it wasn’t the way Marks jaw tensed or the way his expression darkened. There was something dangerous about the quiet intensity in Mark’s eyes as they considered him, not quite a glare, but not quite pleasant either. It triggered a fight or flight response in Ou Wen and adrenaline flooded through his body, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. He was distinctly aware of everything, the way his breaths sounded- harsh and unusually loud in his ears- the heat radiating from Mark so hot it almost burned, the distant sound of singing though it didn’t register as anything more than background noise.

Anticipation simmered beneath the surface and Ou Wen forgot every reason he was fighting against Mark in the first place.

He supposed some things were just inevitable.

Ou Wen didn't know who moved first. The only thing he knew was that one moment they were apart and the next he was kissing Mark like he was starving. He tangled his hands into Mark’s hair, pulled him in as close as they could physically be, and still wanted more. Mark kissed back with equal fervor. He had finally let go of Ou Wen’s wrist, but now his hands seemed to be everywhere, sliding up Ou Wen’s arms, stroking up his back, digging into his waist.

Ou Wen wasn’t sure how to explain it, but this kiss felt different from the others, a little more desperate, a little more hungry, a little more real. If the other kisses were like drowning, this one was like falling knowing no one would catch him at the bottom.

Mark slid his hands under Ou Wen’s shirt and the sudden chill of his rings against Ou Wen’s heated skin causes him to arch into Mark. He let out a low moan and he knew it pleases Mark because he pressed Ou Wen a little harder against the counter and licks at the seam of mouth. Ou Wen didn’t bother playing coy. He let his lips fall apart, let Mark lick into his mouth, let him take what he wanted.

Mark’s hands scratched down Ou Wen’s back, a trick he learned from the alley, and Ou Wen whimpered into Mark’s mouth. Arousal coiled hot and heavy in Ou Wen’s stomach and he parted his legs to let Mark fit better between them. Mark groans in response and in an unexpected display of strength, grabbed Ou Wen by the ass and lifted him onto the counter.

Ou Wen pulled back in surprise, but Mark didn’t miss a beat kissing, down Ou Wen’s jaw and the sensitive skin of his neck. He squeezed Ou Wen’s ass and trailed one hand down his thigh, hooking Ou Wen’s leg around his waist.

It jarred Ou Wen into a moment of clarity, and he frantically patted Mark on the shoulder, a half-hearted attempt to push him away. Was he really halfway to having sex in a KTV bathroom with his supposedly straight, but maybe not so straight unrequited love?

“Wait, wait, wait,” he gasped, trying to focus through a fog of pleasure as Mark worked on a particularly sensitive spot under his jaw. Mark hummed against his skin and slipped his hand back under Ou Wen’s shirt.

“No, wait, Mark,” he hissed, tugging at Mark’s hair.

“What?” Mark snapped, finally letting Ou Wen pull him back. He was still much to close, his breath fanning across Ou Wen’s skin, fingers digging into Ou Wen’s thigh in annoyance. He looked absolutely wild, lips kissed bruised, skin flushed, eyes glinting dangerously.

“I don’t think-”

For fuck sakes.” Mark yanked Ou Wen’s hips forward and grinded against him. Pleasure shot through Ou Wen and he momentarily forgot his words. “You think too fucking much.” Mark did it again and Ou Wen let out an embarrassingly loud moan, his head knocking back against the mirror behind him. It was impossible not to feel Mark’s growing arousal pressed again. Ou Wen decided that for once Mark was right. He did think too much.

Blindly, he surged forward and claimed Mark’s mouth again. Mark gladly accepted, swallowing all the desperate little sounds Ou Wen was making. He dug his heel into the small of Mark’s back, pulling him in closer and urgently tugged at Mark’s shirt, wanting to feel skin.

He never got the chance though because alarms started blaring so loudly, it could be heard through the bathroom door and it startled them so much they broke apart.

Mark growled, a dark, threatening sound that sent a thrill up Ou Wen’s spine and glared at the door of the bathroom through the mirror. They had forgotten about the time limit.

If Ou Wen was being fair, they had forgotten about a lot of things. Like the fact their coworkers were right outside the door waiting for them to come out. Like the fact they were out in public. Like the fact that they probably shouldn’t have sex for a number of very legitimate reasons Ou Wen was having a hard time remembering.

There was a split second where Ou Wen was tempted to say screw everything and pull Mark back in. The door was locked and he didn’t know if he’d ever get a chance like this again. Their relationship had fundamentally changed and he would be a fool to think that there was any way of returning to the way it used to be once they left the room. If it was ruined, might as well ruin it completely, right?

But then he realized it was in incredibly bad idea and reluctantly unhooked his leg from around Mark’s waist. There was no way he would be able to face his coworkers and boss after he had sex with them right outside the door. His skin wasn’t thick enough for that and he was already going to have to deal with the obvious signs of what happened between him and Mark. Not to mention he probably shouldn’t have a quickie with the person he had feelings for.

“We should probably…” Ou Wen untangled his hand from Mark’s hair and brushed through the messy strands, arranging it into something more presentable. He avoided Mark’s burning gaze and instead focused on straightening Mark’s collar.

Slowly Mark withdrew his hands as well and took a step back to let Ou Wen hop off the counter.

“You go first,” Ou Wen said, spinning around to face the mirror. He could see Mark’s reflection staring at him, looking conflicted. Ou Wen started inspecting himself. He patted down the stray hairs and re-tucked his shirt into his jeans. There were very obvious red splotches on his neck and he lifted his chin to examine them.

“Ou Wen…” Mark said hoarsely as he watched Ou Wen lightly touch the one right under his jaw. The way Mark said his name made it feel like he was asking a question, but Ou Wen didn’t know what it was and even if he didn’t, he didn’t know the answer.

“It’s fine. Go. I’ll be out in soon.”

Mark looked like he wanted to say something else, but then he hesitated and clenched his fists. Finally, he nodded stiffly and turned away from Ou Wen.

“Don’t take too long,” he mumbled, opening the door. The sound of chattering voices filled the bathroom and was abruptly cut off again when the door closed behind Mark.

As soon as Mark was gone, all the strength Ou Wen used to keep himself together drained away and he swayed forward. He clutched the edge of the counter and used it to keep himself up.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he muttered, running a tired hand over his face. There were too many thoughts swirling around in his head, too many emotions, too many sensations, all of them centered on Mark. He couldn’t even begin deciphering them, not when he still felt the ghost of the Mark’s hands on his skin, Mark’s hair between his fingers, Mark’s lips against his pulse point. Everything was Mark, Mark, Mark- how he sounded, how he smelled, how he felt- to the point where Ou Wen wasn’t sure where Mark ended and he began anymore.

He was right about the falling, but he was also right about there being no one at the bottom to catch him.

If he could go back, he would do things differently, but there was nothing he could do now, not with a room full of people waiting for him outside. Not with Mark waiting for him to come out.

So Ou Wen closed his eyes and tried to focus. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out…

Chapter Text

When Ou Wen found himself at the bar again, it was mostly to drown himself in his sorrows, though he wasn’t opposed to a distraction or two. It was a weekday night so things were relatively quiet and he was the only one at the counter, staring into his second whiskey. It had been a few days since KTV, a few days since he last saw Mark, and he had spent the time switching between obsessing over what happened in the bathroom and forcing himself not to think about it at all.

After he had calmed himself down enough to return to the KTV room, he had been greeted by hoots and catcalls and a particularly wicked smirk from Joanna. He knew they could see the marks on his neck – there was no way to hide them – but he wasn’t about to let them see how shaken he was. He had waved them off with a scowl and returned to his seat. That’s when he realized the space next to Hsuan Yu was empty.

“He left,” Sheng Ying had murmured to him behind Joanna’s back, catching him subtly searching the room. Joanna was leaning forward, reshuffling the deck for a new round. “He said he forgot he made other plans.”

Ou Wen had nodded, feeling numb. So that was it then. Back to running away and avoiding each other. At least this time Ou Wen wasn’t the one running, though perhaps that was because he hadn’t been given the chance to yet.

The rest of the night had passed in a blur of music and alcohol and smiles so fake it made Ou Wen’s cheeks hurt. He had stayed on principle, to prove that he was fine, that he’d be fine, that his gut wasn’t twisted in an anxious knot wondering what was going through Mark’s mind. Let Hsuan Yu report back to Mark and tell him that Ou Wen was doing just great, that he hadn’t been affected at all. Let Mark be the one on edge this time. It was only fair.

Especially since Ou Wen didn’t know what to think anymore.

By this point, it seemed obvious that Mark wasn’t as straight as everyone thought he was. Kissing Ou Wen to make a point about what a great kisser he was…a little questionable, but Ou Wen could understand that to some extent. Mark was nothing if not prideful and a dog with a bone when challenge. But a kiss was a kiss. What they did was not just a kiss. He could still feel the urgency, the heat, the hunger as Mark pressed into him- the lingering sensation of his hands on Ou Wen’s skin, running up his thigh, squeezing his ass, digging into his back. Nor could he forget the frustrated growl that came from the back of Mark’s throat when they were startled apart by the sounds of ten different alarms. His pupils had been blown black, his lips pulled back in a slight snarl, and he had pulled Ou Wen in closer as though he was going to ignore the alarms. Ou Wen had let go first, but he knew he wouldn’t have stopped Mark if he had insisted on continuing. In his weaker moments, Ou Wen wished he did. The memory now haunted Ou Wen’s dreams and he’d woken up hard and aching, Mark’s name on his lips, too many times in the past few days to be healthy.

So no, Mark definitely wasn’t straight, but rather than making this better, it actually made things worse. At least before, there had only been one option, one thing for Ou Wen to worry about. If Mark was straight, then it was never going it happen. Getting over unrequited love was difficult, but the feelings would have inevitably faded. It was painful loving something that didn’t love you back, but it did help knowing that it couldn’t love you back.

But now…now…now Ou Wen was presented with possibilities and with possibilities came hope, higher stakes, and worse heartbreak. What if Ou Wen went to Mark with his honest feelings only to find out that he had been an experiment? What if he was nothing more than another checkmark on Mark’s long list of conquests? He knew Mark was impulsive and a fuckboi when it came to women. Why would it be any different when it came to men?

Or even worse- what if Mark did like Ou Wen back and they got together, but then he decided he couldn’t come out? Ou Wen had known he was gay since he was ten, been out of the closet since he was fifteen, and had gone through enough pain, self-hatred, and guilt to last a lifetime. Dating a closeted person was as much of a rite of passage as crushing on a straight one and Ou Wen knew that it was a distinct kind of heartbreak when the person that was supposed to love you the most in the world was ashamed to be seen with you. Ou Wen had been crushed then, at the young age of 22, but those feelings didn’t even come close to the ones he had for Mark. What would he do if Mark suddenly decided he didn’t want to be with a guy anymore, that is was easier to be straight? Would he be able to survive that?

Ou Wen downed the rest of his whiskey, drowning in self-pity, and signaled to the bartender for another drink. Where was Sheng Ying when he needed her? She would understand Ou Wen’s current dilemma, what with her own issues involving a supposedly straight woman. And even if she wasn’t completely sympathetic, at least Ou Wen could have distracted himself by interrogating her about the whole Joanna situation. But no, apparently she had ‘other things to do’ and Ou Wen was left to wallow on his own in this horrible, dark pit of despair.

When the bartender returned, he set down something that definitely wasn’t whiskey in front of Ou Wen. He took out a lighter and promptly lit the shot on fire, alarming Ou Wen. He looked at the bartender only to have the bartender shrug and nodded his head to the right. Ou Wen turned and found a man walking towards him. He was older, maybe mid-fifties with salt and pepper hair slicked back and deep laugh lines around sleepy looking eyes. Overall he was attractive and fit for his age, well put together in slacks, a button up and shoes so polished they showed his reflection.

He slipped into the seat next to Ou Wen, purposely flashing the expensive watch on his wrist, and said, “You looked a bit lonely.” Ou Wen almost rolled his eyes at such a weak pick-up line, except he was looking for a distraction and it didn’t look like there was going to be a better option. Tilting his head, he tucked his hair behind his ear, and coyly glanced over.

“Are you going to help me fix that?” he asked, a practiced smile on his lips. The man all but leered and slid closer. He gestured at the drink and Ou Wen obediently picked it up, blew out the fire, and poured it down his throat. He immediately regretted it, wincing from both the alcohol and heat burning down his throat. The man seemed pleased by his reaction and tried to order another one, but Ou Wen quickly stopped the bartender before he walked away, asking for his original whisky.

The red flags were so blatant that Ou Wen would have had to been blind not to see them. The man was already too controlling, too overbearing, too demanding and they’ve barely spoken more than ten words to each other. However, Ou Wen was feeling a little dumb and a little self-destructive, so he decided that there was no harm flirting a bit.

For a while it was pretty tame. Ou Wen went through all the motions. Though his heart wasn’t it in, it was nice to stretch out those muscles and to know that he could seduce someone into his bed if he wanted. He spent so much time bickering with Mark he had almost forgotten he could be charming.

Then Ou Wen got to his fourth drink and the man decided it was the right time to start getting handsy. He probably expected Ou Wen to be drunker than he really was. Annoyed more than frightened, Ou Wen surreptitiously sent an SOS text to a friend under the table when the man wasn’t looking and slipped his phone back into his pocket before he could get caught. The man’s hand was too low on Ou Wen’s back to be decent and his other hand was squeezing Ou Wen’s knee. It wouldn’t be long before he started to creep it up Ou Wen’s thigh. He had dealt with enough of these aggressive types before to know the signs. Something about his long hair, gentle demeanor, and great fashion taste made them think he was a pushover and they were always surprised when he pushed back. Because of this, he also knew they were often very bad at taking no for an answer.

It wasn’t like Ou Wen thought he wouldn’t be able to take on the man when it came down to it. He was sure a few punches would be enough to get the message across. However, he was feeling a little blurry around the edges from the alcohol and he didn’t have to energy or motivation to get in a fight. It took a lot of energy to be sad all the time. He would rather wait for his friend to come and extract Ou Wen from the situation, get in a fight if needed. Then Ou Wen would pay him back by offering to buy him food and lamenting about his pathetic love life for the rest of the night. That was the whole purpose of friends, after all.

Besides, the bartender was watching them out of the corner of his eye, ready to step in if necessary. This wasn’t one of Ou Wen’s favorite bars, but he had been here enough that he and the bartenders recognized each other. He wasn’t in any immediate danger.

About ten minutes later, Ou Wen heard the bar door open with the gentle tinkling of bells and he straightened up, ready to be rescued. During that time, the older man had somehow convinced Ou Wen to take another flaming shot and finish his drink. His hand was now resting on Ou Wen’s inner thigh, but Ou Wen was too wobbly to care.

He turned to the man and smiled, smug about what was about to happen, only to have his heart stutter in his chest. An arm snaked around his shoulders and enveloped him in a familiar smoky sweet scent. A hand accessorized with rings he could recognize anywhere pushed the older man away

“Babe, how much did you drink?”

Ou Wen slowly looked over, fervently praying to the gods that he was hallucinating.  He wasn’t. Ou Wen made a half-panicked sound, unsure what to do, but to Mark’s credit, he played the role of a concerned partner perfectly. He shook his head exasperatedly, a glint of anger in his eyes, and tugged Ou Wen to standing position. Ou Wen numbly followed along, his brain still trying to catch up with what was happening. What was Mark doing here? Did he follow Ou Wen? Why would he do that? Where was Ou Wen’s friend?

“I know you’re mad at me, but this is a bit much, isn’t it?” Mark said. He leaned in and pressed a kiss against the corner of Ou Wen’s mouth. It was a short, fleeting thing compared to all the previous kisses, but it was still enough to grind Ou Wen’s world to a halt. This one might have been the worse on yet. It was soft, sweet, achingly affection. It was one of those thoughtless types of kisses, stolen between words, given at breakfast right before someone headed off to work or at an end a long day, too tired to do anything more. It was familiar, it was domestic, and it was so close to everything Ou Wen wanted, but couldn’t have that it made him slightly nauseous.

“Sorry,” Ou Wen said weakly, though he wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for. “I just…”

Mark shook his head and gathered Ou Wen’s stuff which amounted to his briefcase. “You always do this, storming off before I can get a word in. You’re lucky I love you.” And the way he throws it out there, so casual, so sure, like he said it every day, hit Ou Wen in the gut like a well-placed punch.

Of course Mark didn’t mean it. He was just playing a role. But knowing that still didn’t stop the words from echoing painfully in Ou Wen’s head. He blamed the flaming shots for how the room was spinning.

“Come on,” Mark said, pulling at a dazed Ou Wen. “We need to get you in bed.” They started to leave, but got stopped by the older man Ou Wen had completely forgotten about.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he sneered, grabbing Mark’s arm. Mark looked at him coolly and shook his hand off.

“I thought that’d be obvious. I’m taking my boyfriend home.”

“You sure he wants to go home with you? Because he’s been perfectly fine with me buying him drinks all night.”

Mark’s grip around Ou Wen’s shoulder tightened and his expression turned ugly. For a heart-stopping moment Ou Wen thought Mark was going to hit the other man, but then he reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. He let go of Ou Wen to pull out a few bills and threw them on the counter.

“Now I’ve bought all his drinks,” Mark said, his voice dangerously cold, “so I suggest you let me go.”

Not waiting for a reply, he grabbed Ou Wen around the bicep and all but dragged him towards the door. They were almost at the exit when the man shouted, “Keep a tighter leash on your whore of a boyfriend next time.”

Normally, Ou Wen would have turned right around and punched the guy in the face for that type of disrespect. However, he was nowhere close to his usual state of mind and he was more worried about the way Mark tensed, hand around the handle of the door, than insulted. He was afraid Mark was going to storm back in and cause a scene, but after a long pause, he silently pulled Ou Wen out of the bar. Ou Wen wasn’t sure how he felt. Was he relieved that Mark didn’t get into a fight that he probably wouldn’t have been able to win? Or was he disappointed that Mark didn’t defend Ou Wen’s honor like he had done before? What did it mean that Mark came to rescue him, but not stand up for him?

They carried on for a few blocks like this, Mark marching forward with Ou Wen stumbling behind him. Ou Wen could tell he was angry, tension drawn tight over the line of his shoulders and in the set of his jaw. His hand was bruising Ou Wen’s bicep where he still hadn’t let go. Was he mad at Ou Wen? For what? For what happened in the bar? For the bathroom? For having to save Ou Wen?

“Hey,” Ou Wen called out softly, trying to catch Mark’s attention. Mark ignored him. “Hey!” Ou Wen tried again. When Mark still didn’t react, Ou Wen dug his heels in and wretched his arm free. It got Mark to stop, but he didn’t turn around.

“What’s wrong with you?” Ou Wen asked, annoyed. He had been planning to thank Mark for helping him out – even though he still didn't know why Mark showed up in the first place – but he didn’t like whatever attitude this was right now and he wasn’t sober enough to be patient.  

“What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you? Is this what you do? Go to bars and let any old creep hit on you?” Mark spun around, his eyes blazing and stepped into Ou Wen’s space. Ou Wen’s mouth fell open in shock and he gaped at Mark as he stabbed a finger into the middle of Ou Wen’s chest. What was going on?

“Are you that easy? They buy you a few drinks and you go home with them? Is that it?”

The confusion cleared as the words started to register and Ou Wen felt his own temper flare up. Really? Was that what this was about? What right did Lee Mark, playboy extraordinaire, have to criticize Ou Wen?

“So what if I do?” Ou Wen snapped angrily. It was obvious that Mark wasn’t expecting that because he looked taken aback. “What business is it of yours who I go home with? I’m single, aren’t I? Do I say anything about the girls you take home?”

“That’s different!” Mark protested.

“Different? How is that any different? Is it because I’m taking home guys and not girls? I thought we got past this little homophobia problem of yours!”

“This has nothing to do with you taking home men! This is about you’re trash standards!”

“My trash standards?” Ou Wen repeated in disbelief. He had to have fallen into a parallel universe if Mark was lecturing him about standards. It didn’t help that he was right though. Ou Wen must have trash standards since he fell for Mark. “My trash standards?! That’s rich coming from someone who’s seduced by anything with a vagina and two legs!”

And usually he wasn’t so crass, but he was drunk and he was frustrated and Mark was acting like a dick. He might have pretended to be Ou Wen’s boyfriend to help him out, but he wasn’t actually Ou Wen’s boyfriend, and he never would be so he needed to stop thinking he had any say in Ou Wen’s life. He controlled too much of it already without even knowing.

“That’s not fair!” Mark said.

“How? How is that not fair?” Ou Wen snarled, shoving Mark away. He pushed harder than he meant to, surprising them both, but felt a streak of satisfaction when Mark almost tripped onto the floor. “You pick up your women at the club and I can’t pick up my men at the bar?”

“You can pick up all the men you want at the bar! But you can at least do better than some old creep!”

Ou Wen barked out an incredulous laugh and pressed a hand against his forehead. This conversation was absolutely insane. What were they arguing about? Ou Wen’s tastes? Who Ou Wen was allowed to sleep with? When did that become an open topic? Did Mark think he had a say just because they almost had sex in the bathroom?

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I needed your approval on things like that. What do you want me to do? Should I make a questionnaire for them to fill out before they try and talk to me? Should I send you their picture and information so you can approve of them before I let them fuck me? What’s the standard? Six feet tall? Must make at least three hundred grand a year? Must like children and small animals? Must-”

“At the very least they should be better than me!” Mark shouted, cutting off, his voice echoing in the empty street,

They stare at each other in stunned silence for a few seconds, the implications of that Mark just said sinking in. Something close to hysteria clawed its way up Ou Wen’s throat and he felt like puking. Mark paled, mortification clearly written on his face.

“Wait, That’s not what-that’s-” Mark stammered, reaching out like he was wanted to grab Ou Wen.

“Unbelievable,” Ou Wen muttered, slowly shaking his head and backing away. Why was this happening? This was not what he wanted. He wasn’t even sure what this was. A confession? A confrontation? A misunderstanding?

The thoughts in Ou Wen’s head were a chaotic mess, made messier by the alcohol and Mark’s presences. It was too much and the only thing that was clear was that he needed to get away. The farther away from Mark he was, the better.

“Fucking unbelievable,” Ou Wen said again, before turning on his heels and walking away.

Dai Ou Wen!” he heard Mark yell. Ou Wen ignored him and sped up, almost breaking into a jog.

He was absolutely not disappointed that Mark didn’t chase after him.

Chapter Text

When Ou Wen left work the next day, the last thing he was expecting was to find Mark loitering in the plaza in front of their office building. He had cooled down since the fight and while he was still put off by some of the things Mark said, he realized that he might have overreacted a little, his own frustrations spilling out while he was drunk. He never did thank Mark for helping him out and though he hadn’t been eloquent about it, Mark had still been right. Ou Wen deserved better than a creepy guy at a bar no matter how stupid or self-destructive he was feeling.

He had checked his phone that morning, hungover and dehydrated, and realized that he had opened the wrong text chain while he was fiddling with his phone under the bar. He had sent the SOS message to Mark instead of his friend, the next one on the list. Mark hadn’t even texted back. It was a testament to his character that he rushed to show up, no questions asked, just because he thought Ou Wen needed help. It made Ou Wen feel worse than he already did. He knew he had to apologize at some point, but had been putting off thinking about it.

Looked like he had no choice now.

And there was also the fact that Mark had his briefcase from last night.

Cautiously, Ou Wen walked towards Mark. He looked out of place, perched on the ledge of the fountain with his baggy patterned clothes and silver accessories among the men and women milling around in sleek business wear. He was kicking his feet a little, scuffing the heels of his boots along the concrete floor as his eyes skim the crowd. When he finally spotted Ou Wen, he jumped up and grinned. It was so bright, so cheerful, it caught Ou Wen by surprise. His ears turned hot and he knew they were bright red, but luckily, they were hidden under his hair. Looked like Mark wasn’t angry anymore either.

As he drew closer to Mark, he realized Mark was holding a bouquet of flowers in his hand and a small, sea foam green box tied with a gauzy white ribbon rested next to him on the fountain ledge. Ou Wen got a sinking feeling in his stomach, taking an educated guess on why Mark was there. No wonder Mark looked happy to see him. He needed Ou Wen to get to Joanna again.

It was cruel joke that the bouquet was more Ou Wen’s taste than Joanna’s. It was minimalistic and romantic, a few pale pink baby roses surrounded by a bed of baby breaths, cotton flowers, and gay-green foliage. The whole thing was tied together by beige paper and a thin twine bow, rustic and aesthetically pleasing. Joanna preferred grander, louder things like two dozen fully bloomed blood red roses, expensive chocolate from Switzerland, and diamond tennis bracelets from Italy. Not that she needed any of that, but there were benefits in being a beautiful flight attendant.

“She’s not in the office today, you know,” Ou Wen said, coming to a stop in front of Mark. He fixated on one of the barely open roses instead of looking in Mark’s eyes because he’s afraid if he did, he’d unintentionally give something away. There was a lump in his throat making it hard for him to speak, but he supposed he should feel relieved in some way. If Mark was still stuck on Joanna that meant Ou Wen never stood a chance in the first place, regardless of the things had happened between them.

“Who?” Mark asked. He sounded so genuinely confused Ou Wen almost risked glancing up.

“Joanna,” Ou Wen said. It came out with slightly more force than necessary, but who was going to say anything?

“Oh, I’m not looking for her,” Mark said casually.

Ou Wen didn’t expect that one.

Bewildered, he ripped his eyes away from the flowers and stared at Mark. If Mark wasn’t waiting for Joann, who was he waiting for, then? Sheng Ying? No way. Her lesbian vibes were so strong not even Mark could be blind to them.

 Boss Fei? That was a possibility….but not very probable. Everyone with eyes could see she and Hsuan Yu had some weird sexual tension thing going on and it had gotten worse after KTV. Joanna had managed to lock them in the bathroom together, but nothing had happened. Apparently Yan Fei spent the entire time complaining, or at least that was what she told Joanna, who then told Ou Wen. Joanna’s genius plan had failed on every front which would be hilarious if Ou Wen hadn’t also been collateral damage. Besides, Ou Wen doubted someone as loyal as Mark would do something as underhanded as stealing his best friend’s crush.

So who else could it be?

Ou Wen racked his brains. Was it one of his female coworkers? They were all around Mark’s age and attractive enough. But where would they have gotten the chance to meet? At one of the company functions? At KTV? Maybe? And yet…that didn’t quite sit right with Ou Wen. He would have noticed if Mark had shown interest in one of his coworkers. Every action, every word, every expression hovered in Ou Wen’s periphery whenever they were in each other’s vicinity so Ou Wen would have definitely caught on to Mark flirting with other people at their events.

Then again, it wasn’t like he was with Mark all the time and he had spent the better part of the last few weeks avoiding him. Since their agency was collaborating with VooDoo, it wasn’t impossible to think that one of his coworkers dropped by the hair salon with a client and hit it off with Mark. Still, he should have heard some whisperings about it in the office gossip chain. No one Ou Wen worked with was exactly subtle with secrets like that. Especially if it was so serious Mark was buying flowers for her. He didn’t even buy flowers for Joanna and he had been completely enamored with her. How did Ou Wen miss that fact that Mark was suddenly in love with someone else?

Someone who still wasn’t him?

“Ah, well…” Ou Wen awkwardly cleared his throat and forced a smile onto his face. It felt unconvincing and probably looked it too, if the way Mark knitted his brows together was anything to go by.

Why did he have to care so much, Ou Wen lamented. He wouldn’t have fallen half as hard if Mark had been just a little less attentive, a little less noble, a little less loyal, a little less…Mark.

“I’m sure whoever you’re waiting for will be here soon,” Ou Wen said, gesturing vaguely at the office building. He was already half turning away. He would save his apologizes and thanks for another day. He didn’t want to see Mark giving those flowers to his mysterious beau. He didn’t want to see Mark smiling at her, holding her, kissing her. There was a limit to how much Ou Wne could take and while he had already accepted losing to Joanna, he wasn’t ready to face losing again. In fact, it would probably be better for everyone if he never found out who she was.

“Anyway, I should get going. I got…things…plans…” Ou Wen gave him a quick wave, prepared to run, but before he could take a step, Mark reached out and yanked him back.

“Are you an idiot?” Mark snapped, glaring at Ou Wen. Ou Wen stared back confused, not sure what he did to warrant the insult. Was Mark trying to get Ou Wen to help him chase the new girl. That was a bit cruel.

“Aren’t you…”

“I was waiting for you!” Mark shoved the bouquet into Ou Wen’s chest, the tips of his ears tinged red, and for a moment, Ou Wen was sure he was hearing things. Mark was…giving him flowers? Fuckboi Mark? The Mark that had been in love with Joanna almost as long as Ou Wen had known him? The Mark that was probably not straight, but also probably in denial about it? That Mark?

That didn’t seem right.

“No you weren’t,” Ou Wen responded, pushing the flowers away. This had to be some sort of joke – a truly mean spirited one considering how Ou Wen felt about him.

Mark blinked at him incredulously – once, twice, three times- then pushed the flowers back into Ou Wen’s chest. “What are you talking about?” he asked, voice rising slightly. “Who else would I be waiting for?”

“I don’t know,” Ou Wen said, taking a step away from the roses. “Joanna? The front desk girl? Chloe who sits three desks away from me?”

“I already said I wasn’t waiting for Joanna! And I have no idea who those oth- will you stop it!” Mark almost shouted when Ou Wen tried to sidestep the bouquet again. It surprised Ou Wen enough to make him freeze and Mark took the opportunity to shove them into his arms.

“Why do you have to make everything so difficult?” he seethed, grabbing Ou Wen’s hands and forcing them to wrap around the flowers. “There,” he said, taking a step back with a satisfied nod. “Can’t even do something nice. See if I ever get you flowers again.”

The familiar feeling of hysteria was rising in his throat again and Ou Wen’s fingers instinctively tightened, crinkling the beige paper. Again the implications of Mark’s actions came crashing down around him, only this time, he had no excuses to run away, no way to misunderstand. Mark bought him flowers? Mark bought him flowers. Mark bought him flowers that distinctively matched Ou Wen’s taste.

There was an important question on the tip of Ou Wen’s tongue, but he didn’t want to ask it. He didn’t want to know the answer. Unfortunately, he also knew he didn’t have a choice. They couldn’t keep running around in circles like this forever.

“Why are you giving me flowers?” Ou Wen asked quietly.

“Ah, see, about that…” Mark awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck and turned toward the ground, suddenly finding his shoes very interesting. The red of his ears had spread to his cheeks and Ou Wen had never seen him acting so nervous before. It was simultaneously endearing and frightening.

“The thing is…I’ve been thinking and…” Mark trailed off, letting a heavy silence settle in the air. It was suffocating and made Ou Wen antsy, so Ou Wen did what he did best when he uncomfortable.

“Don’t think too much. You’ll hurt your brain.” Ou Wen immediately winced afterwards. Old habits die hard and it seemed Mark was not in the mood for his wit.

“I swear to god!” Mark said, once again glaring. It was as bit of a default expression at this point. He threw his hands into the pair and puffed up like and angry cat. It would have been cute except Mark was causing a scene and everyone in the vicinity was turning to look at them. “Why is everything a task with you? This was supposed to be romantic. Does this seem romantic to you? No, it doesn’t because you are incapable of acting like a normal person!”

“How are you acting any more normal by giving me flowers?”

“I’m acting normal because I’m trying to confess to you!

Ou Wen’s breath left his body.

“I’m just-it’s just…” Mark deflated and gestured helplessly at Ou Wen, his voice getting softer. “I like you, ok? I like you a lot and I think I might have liked you for a while now, but I didn’t know how to tell you. You’re just so…you know…I don’t really confess a lot so I thought…I thought I’d do something nice. Get you some flowers. Show you I’m serious.”

There was a reason why Ou Wen didn’t let himself have any hope. People can’t miss sunlight if they’ve only known darkness. They can’t crave sugar if they’ve only even eaten bitter things. He should have felt elated that his feelings ever being reciprocated, but all he felt was a crushing sense of fear. There were too many variable, too many ‘what ifs’, too many ways things could go wrong. Even if he took Mark at his word now, who knew what would happen later? Maybe Mark would get bored. Maybe he’d decide men weren’t for him. The thing about happiness was the once it got taken away, it was impossible to return to a neutral point. He could only end up on the opposite end of the spectrum. Wasn’t it safer then, not have reached for it at all?

“I think you’re confused,” Ou Wen said. He tried to sound dismissive, indifferent, like it didn’t hurt him to turn Mark away. But it was better to do this now, than wait for heartbreak in the long run. “You’re straight.”

Mark’s face went blank and his hands slowly fell back to his side. “You still think that I’m straight after everything that’s happened between us,” he said. It wasn’t a question so much as a statement of fact.

“Maybe not,” Ou Wen admitted, “but I do know that I’m the first guy you’ve ever kissed. Maybe you’re confused. Maybe you’re curious. Maybe it’s because I’m the first gay guy you’ve ever been close with. Maybe you actually aren't straight. Whatever it is, I’m not going to be your experiment to use and throw away later.”

Ou Wen felt sick after saying all that. He knew Mark would never intentionally treat him like an experiment, but he had also witnessed Mark jumping from lover to lover like he was changing socks. Rejecting Mark now was the smart thing to do, but his heart was doing somersaults in his chest, begging him to give them a chance. It shattered Ou Wen a little to see the way Mark paled, the way hurt flashed across his face.

Taking a deep breath to steel himself, Ou Wen extended his arm and offered the bouquet back to Mark. Mark looked at the flowers instead of taking them back. He seemed to be in a daze and he was silent for so long, Ou Wen started to get concerned.

“Hey, are you-”

“How are you so fucking dense?” Ou Wen was taken aback when Mark pushed the flowers aside and snapped his head up to scowl at Ou Wen. “Who are you to tell me whether I like you or not? Do you know how many people I’ve ever confessed to? Two. There’s only been two people I’ve ever liked enough to confess to before I met you. Yeah, I sleep around a lot, but I’ve never lied to anyone about my feelings. I’ve never cheated on my partners. Not to mention, if I wanted to experiment, do you really think I couldn’t just pick up someone at a bar?”

Ou Wen should have known Mark would be stubborn about it, should have known he wouldn’t give up without a fight. It was a dangerous thing because the longer Mark held out, the more Ou Wen wanted to believe his words and give in. Even now Ou Wen felt himself swayed by the conviction in Mark’s eyes.

“Fine,” Ou Wen said. “You like me now. Then what? Can you handle being with a guy? It’s not like being with a girl. People stare. People talk. What happens when you get tired of that? What happens when your parents disapprove? What happens when you decide it’s easier to be straight? What happens when you decide you want to have a normal life with a wife and kids?”

All the worries and concerns that had been crowding around Ou Wen’s heart inadvertently found their way out. All the things that had been holding him back were finally laid bare. The back of Ou Wen’s eyes burned with unshed tears and he blinked hard to hold them back. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to be with Mark. He did. He wanted it almost too much. He also knew he would never feel secure with all these doubts hanging over his head.

“Where will that leave me?”

The last question drained Ou Wen. He hated being so vulnerable, so unsure, so weak. He never planned on having this conversation, never wanted to reveal his insecurities, but now that Mark forced it out of him, there was no going back. Maybe now at least Mark would realize the weight of his confession and back down.

But when did Mark ever back down?

“You’re so dumb,” he said with a sigh. Ou Wen only had a split second to process the statement before Mark as in his space, one hand cupping his cheek, the other around his waist, pulling him in. He stroked Ou Wen’s cheekbone, achingly tender, and leaned forward to place a gently kiss on Ou Wen’s lips. Then he pulled back a few inches, waited, and did it again like he was asking permission.

Ou Wen knew he lost even before the second kiss. He didn’t know if he lost to himself or if he lost to mark, but did it really matter in the end? He let the bouquet drop to the ground and grabbed onto the front of Mark’s shirt.

The way Mark kissed him was painfully soft. It was unhurried and careful like Ou Wen was something delicate to be taken care of. Even when Ou Wen kissed back, desperate and frantic, Mark held his ground and drew it out until the sense of urgency left Ou Wen. It was different from all the kisses before and it left Ou Wen with a deep ache in his soul. If he could trust any kiss, he wished he could trust this one because it felt like a promise, an assurance, an answer to all of Ou Wen’s doubts. It tasted like hope and sounded like I love you and Ou Wen had never wanted to believe in something so badly before.

When they parted, Ou Wen was breathless and confused. The expression on Mark’s face was so fond it sent warmth flooding through Ou Wen’s body and he twisted the fabric of Mark’s shirt just a bit tighter between his fingers.

“Look. There are a thousand reasons I’d break up with you,” Mark said, wrapping his hands around Ou Wen’s. “You’re high maintenance, you’re prideful, you’re too sarcastic, you’re a know it all, you care too much about your appearance, you always like to be right, you’re frustrating to talk to on a good day and impossible on a bad one.”

Ou Wen raised his brows and frowned, the feeling of affection fading slightly. He was about to be offended when he caught sight of the teasing curl on Mark’s lips.

“I can’t promise you that we’ll be together forever. There are a million reasons for me to break up with you and no one knows what the future holds. However, I can promise you that it will never be because I suddenly decide to be straight again. If I ever end it with you, I’ll be because I don’t like you anymore. Nothing else.

“As for other people? It’s like you don’t know me at all, Dai Ou Wen. Have I ever cared about what other people think? I have blue hair half the time, gray the other half. Do you really think I give a fuck? That’s your job. Not mine.”

It was hard to explain the feelings that were threatening to overwhelm Ou Wen. There was relief, there was hope, there was a tentative sense of happiness. But still the fear lingered, dug too deep to claw out, and as much as Ou Wen wanted to let go, to close his eyes and plunge into the deep end, it stayed in the back of his mind, an impossible shadow to escape.

“You say that now…” Ou Wen said.

Mark tilted his head, considering Ou Wen, and then tugged Ou Wen’s hands loose from his shirt. He took a step back and squatted down to pick up the fallen flowers. They were a tad crushed and some of the baby breaths had snapped off, but overall they weren’t too bent out of shape.

“Do you know why I picked pink?” Mark asked, standing up. He lightly touched the petals of one of the roses. Ou Wen shook his head and Mark smiled. It was a small thing, but honest in its fondness.

“You were wearing pink the first time we met, remember?”

It took a second – there was too much going on in Ou Wen’s mind- but then he did remember and he couldn’t help but smile, too. He had to pay a ridiculous amount of money to get that coffee stained blazer cleaned.

“You almost cost me my job.”

“I thought you were attractive, remember? I just didn’t realize it was because I was attracted to you.”

Mark offered the flowers to Ou Wen again and this time Ou Wen accepted them without protest, clutching them tightly. He hadn’t expected Mark to be romantic on top of everything else. He had no defense against that and his heart was beating so hard in his chest he was afraid it was going to give out.

“You always think too much. You’re so worried about what’s going to happen in the future, but nothing is guaranteed. You don’t go into a relationship knowing it’ll last forever. We might break up next week or we might die in bed next to each other at the ripe old age 90. Some things are left to fate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it a try,” Mark said.

“You…you almost sound smart,” Ou Wen said helplessly. He wasn’t sure what to do anymore. On one hand, he was still afraid- he was too used to that feeling to let it go. On the other hand, he had to admit that Mark was right. He always had such high expectations. Maybe that was why his previous relationships never worked out. Maybe it was time to loosen up a little and see where things went.

“Surprised you, didn’t I?” Mark said smugly. “I can smart when I want to be.” He looked so proud Ou Wen had to resist the instinct to whack him on the arm. “So what do you say? Give us a chance?”

Ou Wen looked down at the baby roses in his arms, small and delicate, waiting for the right time to open. He still had his doubts. Dating someone who had thought he was straight up until a few weeks ago would be challenging for a number of reasons. Not to mention Mark and he were like water and oil, most of their exchanges more argument than actual conversation. But…he couldn’t deny that Mark had never given him a real reason to doubt him. Sure, his track record wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t like Ou Wen hadn’t had his fair share of experiences - he was just more subtle about it. He really shouldn’t hold things that Mark hadn’t done yet- might not even do- against him. And he was starting to genuinely believe that Mark liked him. The fact that he remembered what Ou Wen was wearing the first time they met was startlingly sweet and Ou Wen might have swooned if anyone else had done the same thing.

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.

“One date,” Ou Wen said, the last of his resolve crumbling. “We’ll go on one date and we’ll see what happens after that.”

He never expected Mark to suddenly jump in the air and let out a ridiculously loud cheer. Embarrassed, Ou Wen grabbed Mark by the shoulder and tried to shush him. They were still in public after all and people were staring.

“Just you wait, Dai Ou Wen,” Mark announced, grinning so wide it looked like it hurt. He wrapped his arms around Ou Wen’s waist. “You’re never going to get rid of me now.”

This time Ou Wen was expecting it when Mark leaned in to kiss him. He could feel Mark’s smile against his lips and he felt something inside him settle. Mark was right. There was no way to tell what the future would bring. Maybe later on Mark’s feelings would change. But maybe later on Ou Wen would be the one with a change of heart. It was fruitless to worry about it now. And while he wasn’t completely confident in this decision, he did know this was the lightest he had felt in a while. Who would have thought Mark was the wise one out of the two of them?

“Oh! I almost forgot!” Mark said, pulling away. He released Ou Wen and turned to the fountain ledge, picking up the forgotten green box. “I got you some macarons!”

Ou Wen hesitantly accepted the box, a bit thrown by the random change in topic. “Why…?” he asked.

“I passed by a shop earlier and they had really cool flavors. Also, the colors remind me of your suits!”

And that was the most adorable thing Ou Wen had heard in a while. It was so cute he almost didn’t have the heart to tell Mark he didn’t like macarons.

Almost.

“You couldn’t have told me earlier?” Mark huffed, trying to snatch the box back. “Give it here. I’ll eat them.”

“No way!” Ou Wen said, holding the box out of the way. He would have smacked Mark’s arms except he was holding the bouquet in the other hand. “These were a gift. You can’t take back gifts.”

“What’s the point of keeping them if you’re not going to eat them?”

“I’ll eat them. Just for you. Alright?”

Mark stopped trying to steal the box and crossed his arms. He was pouting, but Ou Wen could tell he was pleased underneath.

“Fine,” he said begrudgingly, “but only because I like you.”

Hearing those words - believing those words - made Ou Wen feel a bit giddy. He smiled at Mark, heart warm, and Mark’s expression softened.

“Come on,” Mark said, reaching out to take the flowers. He laced their free hand together and tugged at Ou Wen to follow him. “I have so many ideas for a first date, you have no idea. Starting with that shaved ice place I told you about!”

Hearing this, Ou Wen rolled his eyes. He was going to have to do something about Mark’s sweet tooth. But that was for later. For now, he squeezed Mark’s hand affectionately and fell into step with him.

“Who said I was free today?”