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Hands That Hurt, Hands That Heal

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The harsh fluorescent lights washed out Guo Changcheng’s already pale skin as he stared into the bathroom mirror. His medical books were safely tucked into his bag on the floor while he went about washing himself in the small sink. The water dripped off his chin and highlighted the bruise-like dark circles under his eyes. 

He looked down at his torso- at least he was still eating well. The ladies at the shelter made sure that he got enough. He was eternally thankful for their generosity after his roommate had suddenly moved Guo Changcheng’s stuff to the hall and changed the locks. 

He had volunteered at the small shelter for over five years and when they learned what had happened, they immediately offered him a bed until he found something more permanent. That was months ago. 

For about half a second he had considered moving back in with his parents, but he would just be proving them right that he didn’t know how to handle himself on his own. They had been supportive when he told them he was going to medical school, but as soon as he mentioned his desire to open a free clinic their support had turned to patronizing advice. 

“Darling, it takes a lot of money to run a clinic and if you don’t have any money coming in…” his mother’s voice had trailed off meaningfully, but he was determined. 

After several fights he had decided to strike out on his own and prove to his parents that he was a capable adult. Now he was living in a shelter and bathing in the university bathroom. 

“Maybe they were right,” Guo Changcheng said to his reflection. A tear slipped down his cheek to mingle with the rest of the water. 

The bathroom door swung open and Shen Wei, a fellow medical student a few years ahead of him, froze in the doorway. 

“Oh, hello, Xiao Guo.” His eyes flicked over Guo Changcheng’s wet half-naked body then back to his eyes. “Is… everything okay?” 

The genuine concern in the older man’s voice nearly broke him and Guo Changcheng snatched his shirt from the floor to hide the tremor in his hands. 

“I- yes, sorry. The showers weren’t working at the shelter I volunteer at- well I also live there right now while I look for a roommate after the last one kicked me out,” Guo Changcheng babbled, unable to stop the tumble of words. 

Shen Wei listened intently without comment while Guo Changcheng tugged his shirt on and gathered his things. 

“It’s all alright, though!” Guo Changcheng rushed to explain with a wide smile. “The people at the shelter are so kind and I get to help out more when I’m done studying for the night.”

The silence stretched on while he regarded Guo Changcheng. It went on so long that Guo Changcheng’s face began to ache and he resisted the urge to fidget. 

“I saw an ad for someone looking for a roommate when I was at the coffee shop just off campus. I took a picture of the advertisement intending to post it on our own university board. Perhaps they will be a good option?” Shen Wei held out an ancient looking flip phone, but Guo Changcheng was more interested in the brief words in the tiny picture. 

Roommate needed for two bedroom apartment. Must be clean and quiet. All others can piss off. 

Below that was the monthly rent information and Guo Changcheng’s heart leapt- it was within his meager budget and the address was close to campus so he wouldn’t need to take the bus. 

“This is amazing! Thank you so much! I’ll call them after class.” Guo Changcheng typed the number into his own phone and bowed to Shen Wei who rushed to help him stand. “Thank you so much, you have no idea how much I needed this.”

“I’m happy to help a fellow student,” Shen Wei told him with a smile. “Hopefully they will be a good roommate for you.”

Guo Changcheng gathered the last of his things and slipped out of the bathroom with a final wave, turning before he could see the smirk curl Shen Wei’s lips. 

-CS-

The lights were dimmed to set up the atmosphere in the abandoned warehouse that housed the illegal fighting ring. Chu Shuzhi sat in the back office that served as the locker room area, wrapping his hands to prepare for his fight. He could already hear the crowds start to funnel into the building, their voices rising and mixing until the din was near deafening. 

The door opened and in strode two men: Zhao Yunlan, the manager of the fighting ring, and Hei Pao Shi, the official healer and occasional bouncer. Hei Pao Shi was dressed in his usual loose black hoodie and half mask, allowing him to keep his identity a secret and thus protected should the fighting ring be raided. 

Zhao Yunlan immediately burst into excited chatter which, Chu Shuzhi noticed, he did much more often in front of Hei Pao Shi. 

“Lao Chu! Are you ready for your bout tonight?” 

Chu Shuzhi just gave him a withering stare- of course he was ready. Zhao Yunlan held up his hands in mock surrender and laughed boisterously. 

“Don’t glare at me like that. I know you wouldn’t let a tiny injury like that keep you down for long, but our friend here-” he nodded towards Hei Pao Shi- “would like to take a look.”

Without further comment, Chu Shuzhi held out his arm for inspection. Hei Pao Shi poked at the neat row of stitches with precise movements. If any other person besides Hei Pao Shi had asked him to submit to testing like this, he would have left them with worse injuries than his own, a fact that Zhao Yunlan was well aware of as he watched Hei Pao Shi work with a hint of a smile at one corner of his mouth. 

It had been early on in Hei Pao Shi’s time with the fighting club when the man in black had firmly won Chu Shuzhi’s respect. At the time, Chu Shuzhi had been an admittedly loose canon and his anger had often lashed out in every direction, heedless of who it hurt in the process. 

He had gone too far with his competitor one night and the other man was lying unconscious on the mat with blood leaking slowly from a deep gash in his forehead. Chu Shuzhi had stood off to the side with his arms crossed over his chest while Hei Pao Shi worked and Zhao Yunlan harangued him from outside the ring. When Chu Shuzhi had run his mouth about the competitor getting what he deserved for being weak the next seconds had ended in a blur. One moment he had been standing and the next, Hei Pao Shi had flipped him over and effortlessly pinned him to the mat. Chu Shuzhi had flailed- unable to break the hold- until the man leaned close and whispered in his ear. 

“There is always someone out there who is stronger than you are. You would be wise not to mock those weaker than you- you may find yourself in their position one day.” 

It was the first time he had heard Hei Pao Shi speak, but that one interaction had been enough for the healer to instantly earn Chu Shuzhi’s respect. 

Now Chu Shuzhi watched on patiently as Hei Pao Shi examined his wound until he was satisfied. The healer leaned back and nodded silently, making Zhao Yunlan cheer. 

“See! What did I tell you, Hei Lao-ge? Fit as a fiddle.” He looked put out for a moment. “I’m a little hurt that you think I would let one of my fighters get in the ring before they were healed.”

Hei Pao Shi ducked his head, hiding what little was visible of his face under his hood. 

“Apologies, Director Zhao,” Hei Pao Shi murmured in his deep rumble with a respectful bow and Zhao Yunlan shuddered. 

“I have told you a hundred times, Hei Lao-ge, please call me Zhao Yunlan. ‘Director Zhao’ would better be applied to my father and-” Zhao Yunlan made a sour face- “I’d rather not think of him when I’m speaking with you.” 

Hei Pao Shi peeked up and a soft smile lifted the corners of his mouth.

“Zhao Yunlan,” he corrected and Zhao Yunlan positively glowed. 

Beside them Chu Shuzhi rolled his eyes. He’d grown used to Zhao Yunlan’s flirting, but the endless circling of each other was growing tiresome. Just kiss already and put us all out of our misery , he thought viciously. 

He was just about to start wrapping his dominant hand when his phone buzzed. He didn’t intend on answering it, but a pointed look from Hei Pao Shi had him snatching it up in annoyance. Chu Shuzhi barked a greeting to whomever was calling from a number he did not recognize. 

“Oh, h-hello. I was- ah- calling about the, um, ad you put up? The one about needing a roommate?” The voice on the other end of the line was soft and stuttered a bit. 

“Yeah, what about it?” Chu Shuzhi shoved his phone between his ear and his shoulder and began wrapping his hand. He noticed that Hei Pao Shi and Zhao Yunlan hadn’t left and Hei Pao Shi seemed particularly interested in his call, staring intently. 

“I was wondering if you were still looking? It’s really close to the university and it’s right in my budget,” the man on the phone went on. His voice was still timid, but he was gaining confidence as they spoke. Chu Shuzhi could tell that he wouldn’t butt heads with this guy over some invisible line of dominance that always happened with roommates. 

“You’re not a slob are you?” Chu Shuzhi asked sharply and Hei Pao Shi’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “Not gonna throw any wild parties or have sex on my couch with some stranger are you?” Now Hei Pao Shi’s eyes went hard while Zhao Yunlan winced behind him. Chu Shuzhi twisted his mouth. This was his potential roommate; what did Hei Pao Shi care? Zhao Yunlan certainly didn’t have a say in the matter. He’d had Zhao Yunlan as a roommate for exactly one month- these rules were his fault. 

“What?” the man on the phone peeped. “No! Of course not! I don’t have time to date anyway- I’m a medical student.”

“As long as you pay your half of the rent on time and don’t make a mess of the place, you can move in. How’s this weekend?”

“Really? Oh that’s just wonderful. Thank you, this weekend would be perfect.” The man’s joy was infectious and Chu Shuzhi found himself almost smiling. Almost. 

They discussed times and agreed to iron out any other details later. When he hung up the phone Hei Pao Shi was looking inexplicably smug, but the healer turned without comment and strode out. 

“Lao Chu, don’t forget you promised to spar with me tonight after your fight,” Zhao Yunlan punched at an invisible foe a few times showing off his growing skill. “I think I’m almost ready to take the ring myself.”

Chu Shuzhi rolled his eyes. His boss was very good at what he did: the fighters were as safe as they could be and betting was always an orderly affair or the visitors got a first hand demonstration of the Chief’s marksmanship. He just wasn’t so sure how Zhao Yunlan would do in the ring. Though his skills were improving, Chu Shuzhi was certain that his strength lay in strategy and management. 

“Whatever you say, Chief,” Chu Shuzhi replied and Zhao Yunlan did a celebratory fist pump. 

“It’s gotta be right after the show,” Zhao Yunlan added, leaning back to be sure Hei Pao Shi had moved out of earshot. “Gotta make sure the good doctor doesn’t miss the demonstration of my skills.”

With a waggle of his eyebrows that made Chu Shuzhi stifle another eye roll, his boss turned and trotted after Hei Pao Shi like the lovesick puppy he was. He never understood how having a crush on someone made even the most intelligent people into morons. 

His phone buzzed again, this time with a text from the man who answered his ad. With his free finger, Chu Shuzhi opened the message. 

Unknown number: Hello it’s me, you’re new roommate. We never exchanged names. I’m Guo Changcheng, and I’m so excited to move in this weekend. 

Chu Shuzhi blinked down at the chipper message and snorted. What a strange guy. He saved the contact to his phone under “Roommate.”

Me: Chu Shuzhi

Roommate: It's nice to meet you, Chu Shuzhi. 

He didn’t bother responding as they were already calling for him to enter the ring. 

 

After winning his fight with little effort, Chu Shuzhi was forcibly reminded of his deal with Zhao Yunlan in the form of his boss wrapping his hands while Hei Pao Shi stood silently behind, watching. 

His boss and friend- a fact that Chu Shuzhi would take to his grave- stepped into the chain link cage after all the spectators had collected their ill begotten winnings and vacated the building. He danced lightly from foot to foot with a grin crinkling his features. 

“You’ll have to tell me all about the new roommate, Lao Chu,” Zhao Yunlan said as they moved through some simple warm ups. 

“If he lasts more than a month, I’ll be shocked,” he replied, taking a slow swing at Zhao Yunlan’s head that he easily dodged. “Hard to find good roommates.” Chu Shuzhi accentuated the statement by landing a punch to Zhao Yunlan’s stomach that he remembered to pull only at the last moment. Still, Zhao Yunlan took a step back and wrapped a hand around his middle protectively. 

“Chu Shuzhi,” Hei Pao Shi called out in warning, which he acknowledged with a slight dip of his head. 

“I can’t wait to meet the man that you can’t chase away, Lao Chu,” Zhao Yunlan told him through gritted teeth as he straightened. 

“He would have to be something special,” Chu Shuzhi agreed. He knew the reputation he had of being too gruff and hard- “prickly” Zhao Yunlan had called him- and he was not in a hurry to change anyone’s mind. His hard exterior kept people exactly where he liked them: away.

After an hour of training where Zhao Yunlan actually managed to gain the upper hand twice- a new personal best- Chu Shuzhi called an end to the session. Chu Shuzhi had to admit that his boss could shape up to be a decent fighter, but he had a hard time picturing him holding his own in the cage. He grabbed a towel and wiped at his face and absolutely did not start when he turned to find Hei Pao Shi standing right behind him. The man moved like a ghost when he wanted to.  

“Lao Chu,” Hei Pao Shi rumbled, “Be good to your new roommate. It is hard to see the suffering of others just by looking at the surface.”

With that cryptic message, he swept away towards the exit leaving Chu Shuzhi blinking after him. 

 

Saturday morning dawned much earlier than Chu Shuzhi had ever wished to see. At the ungodly hour of eight in the morning, a quiet knocking on his front door forced him from his light slumber. Growling, he threw off his blanket without bothering to put anything over his boxers and t-shirt. Stalking to the front door while grumbling about coffee and morning people he pulled it open sharply. 

“What?” Chu Shuzhi demanded in a sleep roughened voice of the slight man standing on his doorstep with hand raised to knock again. 

“C-Chu Shuzhi?” The stranger asked in a thready tone that trembled and eyes that darted over Chu Shuzhi’s face. 

“Yeah, what do you want?” Chu Shuzhi opened the door the rest of the way and crossed his arms over his chest menacingly. His entire frame filled the doorway and the stranger visibly swallowed.   

“I’m Guo C-Changcheng? I’m your new r-roommate?” He said, forming the statements into questions that had Chu Shuzhi’s eyebrow raising. Was he unsure of his own name or of being the new roommate? 

He was smaller than Chu Shuzhi was expecting and much less confident. Weren’t doctors supposed to be confident? This man was wringing his hands together over his stomach and he looked like he was going to be sick. He had a thin frame that bordered on scrawny from which his clothes hung loose as if he’d recently lost weight. A mop of black hair fell in his eyes in desperate need of a trim. A quick glance down at the younger man’s feet revealed a bag and two small boxes sitting on the floor. 

With only a minor eye roll- which Chu Shuzhi counted as a win for his social skills- he pushed the door open the rest of the way and gestured for him to enter. Which Guo Changcheng did not do. The younger man stood frozen on the doorstep, staring at Chu Shuzhi with a mix of anxiety and a healthy dose of confusion. 

“You comin’ or what?” Chu Shuzhi griped and the other man leapt into action, scooping up the stuff at his feet and scrambling inside. 

-GC-

Once Guo Changcheng made it inside with his arms full of all his belongings, Chu Shuzhi gestured down the hallway. 

“Room on the right is yours. Bathroom’s at the end of the hall. My room is on the left- never go inside.” Chu Shuzhi dropped back down onto the couch and propped his feet up on the ottoman. 

Guo Changcheng shuffled from foot to foot trying to keep his grip on his boxes which were growing heavier by the second. Still, he didn’t want to be rude and leave in the middle of a conversation. 

“I have classes all day and when I’m not studying or doing homework, I volunteer at the local shelter,” Guo Changcheng offered and Chu Shuzhi merely blinked at him with his mouth set into a firm line. 

“I work at night, sometimes into the early morning so we probably won’t see much of each other,” Chu Shuzhi replied, stretching his arms on the back of the couch. The action stretched the older man’s black t-shirt to its limits over his well-toned chest- which Guo Changcheng was pointedly not staring at. That was when Guo Changcheng noticed the bruises on the other man’s arms and the dark circles under his eyes. 

“What is it you… do?” Guo Changcheng asked and hated the way his voice shook for fear of the answer. Who had Shen Wei suggested he live with?

“I fight,” Chu Shuzhi said simply, staring unflinchingly into Guo Changcheng’s eyes in a clear challenge which Guo Changcheng had no intention of taking.

“Oh,” Guo Changcheng peeped. “I’ll just, uh, go put my things down,” he told the other man and fled the room. 

The room that would be his home for the foreseeable future was nice, the size was quite comfortable and would suit his needs perfectly. He dropped the boxes to the floor and cautiously sat on the foot of the bed then stared at the opposite wall. 

He could do this. His new roommate seemed established in the apartment so he wouldn’t have to worry about suddenly being kicked out because Chu Shuzhi decided to move to Australia. 

His thoughts slid to the attractive but utterly terrifying man in the living room. The brusque attitude had taken Guo Changcheng by surprise when he jerked open the door so suddenly. Now that his heart had finally slowed from its frantic gallop he replayed their meeting in his mind like poking at a sore tooth.

The first thing Guo Changcheng had noticed was the man’s eyes- the way they flashed with anger, but also held quiet intelligence. He’d noticed when he mentioned volunteering at the shelter the way Chu Shuzhi’s expression had ever so slightly softened in surprise and something else that felt like respect. Of course, he had immediately buried the look in layers of unapproachable signals, but it had been there. 

The man was going to be a mystery- one that Guo Changcheng hoped he could figure out by getting to know him a little. They were going to be roommates, it would be for the best if they could at least get along. 

He stood and wandered the room for a bit. He checked for outlets, opened the closet door, and pulled open the drawer on the lone bedside table. There he discovered a leftover unopened condom which he disposed of pinched delicately between his thumb and index finger. When he pulled back the curtain he was greeted with a beautiful view of Dragon City. Their apartment was on the fifth floor which was two floors higher than the surrounding buildings, allowing him to see clearly to the university a few blocks away. 

Slowly, he unpacked his things, hanging up clothes in the small closet which he barely filled halfway, and setting up his books and computer on the little desk that was shoved in a corner. He set up his charger beside his bed, slipped his journal into the drawer, and placed on top the only bit of entertainment he allowed himself: a romance novel checked out from the public library. This one was part of a series and Guo Changcheng was absolutely enthralled. 

The last thing he took out of the box was a picture frame. He smiled down at it then glanced around the room for a place to hang it up. There was an existing nail in the wall over the desk so he carefully slipped the hardware on the back of the frame over the nail and stepped back to admire the framed artwork. It was the only bit of decoration he’d carried with him- some cheap generic thing he’d found tucked away and forgotten in one of the many closets of his parent’s house. The word ‘home’ beamed back at him in a sunny yellow. 

The word made Guo Changcheng’s heart twist sharply. With a place to study his grades wouldn’t slip and his parents wouldn’t have any reason to demand that he abandon his schooling. His features tightened in a look of determination. This was what he wanted to do with his life and he would do whatever it took to see it happen. He just hoped his parents would be proud of his accomplishments at the end. 

He heard the other bedroom door open and shut on the other side of the hallway. 

Could this be home? He hoped so, at least for a little while. 

 

Over the next week Guo Changcheng caught glimpses of Chu Shuzhi’s kinder side that he liked to keep buried deep inside- or just pretended didn’t exist at all. 

The first time he noticed it was when he fell asleep in the living room while studying. Chu Shuzhi tended to be out until around two or three in the morning for his job so Guo Changcheng rarely saw him come home. This time he stirred when the front door opened and Chu Shuzhi slipped inside, closing the door nearly silently behind him. Guo Changcheng’s eyes were bare slits so the fighter was unaware he’d awoken. In the guise of anonymity Guo Changcheng got to see the way Chu Shuzhi’s face went from annoyed to fond in the span of a second. The next thing he knew, the book was being carefully pulled from under his head and a blanket tossed over him. As soon as the warmth settled on his body, Guo Changcheng was pulled back into slumber‘s embrace, but not before he noticed the gentle smile playing at Chu Shuzhi’s lips. 

After that Guo Changcheng had wanted to thank Chu Shuzhi for his simple kindness without calling it exactly that- the older man would deny it with his dying breath anyway. In Guo Changcheng’s experience, food was a great way to thank someone and he was a halfway decent cook. 

When he was done with studying he laid out two lunch boxes which he filled with various dishes. He had borrowed a set of vegetable cutters from the shelter and used them to cut little flower shapes out of the slices of carrot he had lightly steamed to lay on top of the rice. He was placing the finishing touches on the two boxes when Chu Shuzhi emerged from his bedroom and stopped. He licked his lips and stepped closer, eyeing the boxes. 

“What are these?” He asked cautiously, probing for more information without asking directly if one was intended for him. 

“I’m working at the shelter tonight so I was making some dinner.” Guo Changcheng glanced at him shyly. “I know you are about to go to work as well so… I made some for you too.” 

Luckily, Guo Changcheng was watching him intently or he would have missed the momentary flicker of a smile until he noticed the flower shaped carrots. In hindsight they were probably a little too far outside of his comfort zone which was clear when Chu Shuzhi took the chopsticks sitting on the counter and moved the carrots from one box to the other. 

With a grunted thanks, Chu Shuzhi grabbed the lunch box from the counter and headed for the door. When Guo Changcheng woke up the next morning he smiled at the two empty containers sitting in the drying rack beside the sink. 

Every night after that Guo Changcheng packed a dinner for both of them and every night Chu Shuzhi bowed his head and graced Guo Changcheng with one of his rare- if tiny- smiles. 

 

It was during one of the nights while he was preparing dinner that Guo Changcheng learned something else about his roommate. 

Guo Changcheng was muttering to himself as he tugged on a heavy iron cooking pan that was kept up on a top shelf for unknown reasons. After a few good pulls he had only managed to yank the pot a few inches forward when he felt someone press against his back.

He gave a small yelp of surprise as Chu Shuzhi reached up and easily lifted the iron from the shelf. Guo Changcheng would have marveled at the strength it must have taken to pick up such a heavy object from above his head, but Guo Changcheng’s mind had snapped to the hard heat at his back and the steadying hand on his hip. 

The pan clanged against the stove top, pulling Guo Changcheng out of his hard body hypnosis. 

“Thanks,” he managed in a choked tone.

“No problem,” Chu Shuzhi replied, already turning away. 

Guo Changcheng turned back to the stove and placed a hand over his racing heart. 

Where had that come from? Sure, Guo Changcheng could see that the man was attractive, but he’d not had any thoughts like that towards his roommate before. He bit his lip and shook it off- he could examine the thoughts in detail at a later date. Alone. 

 

They had been living together for a few weeks and found a rhythm with each other, much to Guo Changcheng’s relief. They left the cooking to Guo Changcheng after Chu Shuzhi ended up scorching a pot during an attempt to make ramen, in exchange Chu Shuzhi had offered to take care of their laundry. 

Since Guo Changcheng did not watch television very much, there were no fights over the large TV in the living room. They even found themselves sharing the couch anyway- Chu Shuzhi watching some fighting match and Guo Changcheng curled on the other side with his nose in a textbook. These moments of cohabitation were sometimes destroyed when Chu Shuzhi turned to a documentary on real life murderers and Guo Changcheng had to scurry from the room. 

Their natural routine was ruined one afternoon by an unannounced visitor. Guo Changcheng nearly jumped out of his skin after their front door slammed open and in walked a denim clad man carrying a pack of beer. 

“Lao Chu!” He shouted. “Commiserate with me! Hei Pao Shi will forever be out of my re- oh, hello.” He grinned at Guo Changcheng who stood like a statue, gripping the front of his scrubs over his heart. “You must be the new roommate, Lao Chu has told me nothing about you.” 

The scruffy-faced stranger shifted the beer to his other arm and held out his hand with an easy grin that both eased Guo Changcheng’s nerves and put him on guard. Still, he took it cautiously and nearly lost his balance when the man pulled him in for a side hug. 

“I’m Zhao Yunlan, Chu Shuzhi’s boss- also his ex-roommate, but that’s beside the point.” Zhao Yunlan waved his hand in front of his face, dismissing his own words. 

“Guo Changcheng,” he replied, still trying to get over his shock at the man’s sudden and violent intrusion into the apartment.

“Is our friend around?”

“I’m here,” came a gruff voice from behind them. 

-CS-

Guo Changcheng tried to whirl around, but Zhao Yunlan held him fast, guiding their turn gently. Chu Shuzhi’s face was stony as he stared at his boss. 

“Kindly unhand my roommate.” Chu Shuzhi pointedly grabbed Zhao Yunlan’s wrist and tossed it from Guo Changcheng’s shoulder, offended by the familiar touch. Once freed, Guo Changcheng stepped quickly to Chu Shuzhi’s side just behind his shoulder.  

“Now, why are you here?” Chu Shuzhi asked with not so mild annoyance in his tone. Zhao Yunlan hadn’t dropped by in months and his sudden appearance had Chu Shuzhi on edge. 

“Aw, Lao Chu, don’t be like that! I said before, I came to drink.” To accentuate his point, Zhao Yunlan raised the pack of beer and shook it slightly. 

“It’s two in the afternoon,” Chu Shuzhi deadpanned and Zhao Yunlan pouted half-heartedly. 

“I’m nursing a broken heart and heartache knows no time.”

Chu Shuzhi rolled his eyes and turned to sit on the couch and Guo Changcheng followed close behind. He propped his foot on the ottoman in front of him and leveled Zhao Yunlan with a piercing glare. 

“I’m not helping you get into Hei Pao Shi’s pants.” To this Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth to protest, but Chu Shuzhi cut him off. “Chief, you’ve bedded dozens of people over the years. Hei Pao Shi doesn’t seem the one night stand type.”

Zhao Yunlan threw himself in a mass of limbs into the armchair that flanked their couch with a sigh. 

“He’s not. I wish I knew what it was about him that I find so fascinating,” Zhao Yunlan told the ceiling and Chu Shuzhi rolled his eyes again. His boss could be so dramatic sometimes. All the time, really. 

A knock at the door interrupted Zhao Yunlan’s melancholy. What was with all the freaking company today?

“Oh,” Guo Changcheng said, glancing at his watch and rising from the couch. “My friend agreed to come over and help me study.” 

He pulled open the door and quietly greeted someone on the other side. When Guo Changcheng stepped back, Zhao Yunlan’s jaw slacked before he caught himself and sat up straighter. 

The man that walked into his apartment was wearing a light blue button down shirt under a dark blue sweater vest and khaki pants. Around his biceps were a pair of sleeve garters that strained against the muscle of his arm where he carried a stack of books. The newcomer was smiling politely, but stopped and blinked curiously at Chu Shuzhi then Zhao Yunlan. With his free hand, he adjusted the wire framed circular glasses that sat perched on his nose. 

“I’m sorry, Xiao Guo, I didn’t realize you already had company. I can come back at another time if you’d like.” 

Even as he made the offer, Chu Shuzhi was surprised to see the guest’s eyes slide over to Zhao Yunlan in a subtle appreciative once over. Chu Shuzhi glanced over at his boss who was trying his best not to openly stare- and failing. His boss was clearly intrigued by this friend of Guo Changcheng’s, but the look on the stranger’s face was one of recognition- even longing. Strange

“Oh, no, no, Shen Wei, please.” Guo Changcheng gestured towards their dining table. “I appreciate you coming here to help me; the library gets so full this time of year. This is my roommate, Chu Shuzhi and his boss-”

“Zhao Yunlan,” he cut in over Guo Changcheng’s introduction and Chu Shuzhi’s lip curled. “Nice to meet you.” He held out his hand to shake and Shen Wei took it, looking directly into Zhao Yunlan’s eyes. The moment stretched on and Chu Shuzhi looked past the pair to Guo Changcheng who stood staring, equally baffled. Their eyes met and Chu Shuzhi lifted an eyebrow to which Guo Changcheng only replied with a shrug. 

When Shen Wei held on for a beat longer after Zhao Yunlan had tried to take back his hand, a blush painted his cheeks and he quickly let go. For a moment Zhao Yunlan studied Shen Wei and once again Chu Shuzhi got the feeling that they thought they were the only two in the room. It was nauseating. 

Clearing his throat and breaking whatever spell had fallen over the room, Zhao Yunlan turned to Chu Shuzhi and gestured for the door. 

“Why don’t we leave these two to study? You can come give me some more fighting lessons before your bout tonight,” Zhao Yunlan said with a dash of swagger that wasn’t quite deserved, but the effect on Shen Wei was puzzling. 

“You are fighting?” Shen Wei asked, his tone taking on a chill that made Chu Shuzhi check the instinct to take a step back. 

“I’m still learning, but I want to step into the ring one day.”

The stormy look in Shen Wei’s eyes intensified until Guo Changcheng spoke up from behind him.

“Shen Wei? Is everything okay?”

Immediately the storm clouds vanished from Shen Wei’s eyes and he adjusted his glasses. Chu Shuzhi and Zhao Yunlan exchanged looks. Suddenly, leaving the apartment early seemed like an excellent idea. He pushed to his feet and Guo Changcheng looked at him with surprise. 

“You’re going?” Guo Changcheng asked, taking a step out from behind Shen Wei while Chu Shuzhi grabbed his coat and wallet. “I haven’t made dinner yet.” 

This gave Chu Shuzhi pause. He glanced at the other two in the room who looked at him with a mix of surprise and amusement. 

“I’ll pick something up. You have studying to do, so you should take the night off of cooking as well and order in. There’s a jar with cash under the kitchen sink, take what you need.” He received a bright smile from Guo Changcheng and couldn’t help the soft smile that formed on his own lips in answer to that light.

This sent Zhao Yunlan’s eyebrows shooting up his forehead, but Chu Shuzhi swept past him without a word. 

“It was nice to meet you Shen Wei,” Chu Shuzhi offered then stepped out the door. He heard Zhao Yunlan’s shouted goodbyes followed by the front door shutting. His long legs ate up the short distance and soon he was walking abreast with Chu Shuzhi wearing a sly smirk that made Chu Shuzhi want to punch him. 

“So… your roommate is nice,” Zhao Yunlan started, but Chu Shuzhi just glared him into silence. 

-SW-

After his first visit to Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng’s apartment, Shen Wei made it a point to drop by more often and offered Guo Changcheng his assistance almost daily. He was worried about the way Chu Shuzhi was treating him and Shen Wei’s visits had nothing to do with an opportunity to see more of Zhao Yunlan without wearing a disguise. He fought down a blush at the thought. 

A few times during his visits Zhao Yunlan had also dropped by and judging by Chu Shuzhi’s reaction this was not a normal occurrence. Still, Shen Wei enjoyed the company when Zhao Yunlan offered to walk him out after his study sessions. One evening they had even talked into the small hours of the morning- the pair of them sitting on the hood of Zhao Yunlan’s jeep. It had been nice to speak so casually to Zhao Yunlan whom he’d had a crush on since they first met and get to know him on a more personal level.  

Shaking himself, Shen Wei adjusted his glasses and raised his hand to knock on their apartment door for the first study session of the week. He heard someone call to come in so he pushed the door open and stepped through then stopped dead. 

Chu Shuzhi had Guo Changcheng in a headlock, looking bored while Guo Changcheng smiled brightly and waved at Shen Wei. 

“What exactly is going on here?” Shen Wei asked, letting some of his Hei Pao Shi voice slip through. 

With an eye roll, Chu Shuzhi released Guo Changcheng who turned and smiled brightly at the dour man. 

Shen Wei stood in the doorway waiting for an explanation when Zhao Yunlan came bounding out of the kitchen and threw an arm around Shen Wei’s shoulder. 

“Ah, Shen Wei! I was hoping you would come. Lao Chu here was just giving Guo Changcheng a few pointers in self-defense,” Zhao Yunlan told him while he steered Shen Wei towards the dining table that served as study space. 

Shen Wei sent a cool look towards Chu Shuzhi then moved it towards Zhao Yunlan. 

“Like how he’s teaching you how to fight?” Shen Wei was still upset that Zhao Yunlan was being so reckless, but he wasn’t sure how he would explain his opinion on the matter if he confronted Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei had never seen the blood soaked mats after a match or the broken bodies of the fighters.  

“Aw, Shen Wei, are you worried about me?” Zhao Yunlan asked with a wicked grin as he swayed further into Shen Wei’s space. 

Of course I am, you idiot.

He pushed Zhao Yunlan’s arm off of his shoulder and turned to Guo Changcheng who had joined them at the table. 

“I’m sorry to concern you, Shen Wei! Some of the ladies at the shelter mentioned being hassled by some local gang and Chu Shuzhi offered to show me some self-defense pointers that I could pass along. He’s been a great help.”

Shen Wei raised an eyebrow at this. Chu Shuzhi was voluntarily helping? An interesting development indeed. 

“You still aren’t ready to show them anything,” Chu Shuzhi chimed in from his spot on the couch looking sour. “You’ve yet to break a single hold.”

A flush appeared on Guo Changcheng’s nose and ears and he rubbed the back of his neck with a nervous chuckle. “I’ll get there!” He said with more conviction than showed in his eyes. 

Chu Shuzhi grunted in response, but Shen Wei noted that he did not leave as they began studying- instead he stayed on the couch all night like an imposing guard dog even while Zhao Yunlan talked his ear off. 

Shen Wei hid a smile- Chu Shuzhi was so straight forward even in his affections. 

-GC-

He shouldn’t have been surprised when the call came, but it still drained the blood from Guo Changcheng’s face nonetheless when he saw ‘Mom’ pop up on his phone screen. 

“Okay, yes, I understand…  Goodbye,” Guo Changcheng replied, just managing to keep his voice steady through sheer will.

He ended the call and sat on the couch, barely holding his phone in his limp fingers and tried to stem the desire to put his head between his knees. His breath was coming in increasingly rapid pants and he was beginning to lose his battle with his tears when Chu Shuzhi walked in. 

His roommate paused on his way to the kitchen and turned towards the hyperventilating Guo Changcheng who tried to discreetly wipe his eyes. There was a war in Chu Shuzhi’s eyes which ended with a resigned sigh. He sat down heavily beside Guo Changcheng who trembled with the effort to keep himself together in front of his roommate- the last thing he wanted was to come across as weak in the eyes of the other man. 

They sat silently for several long minutes then Chu Shuzhi’s eyes slid over to study Guo Changcheng without fully turning his head. 

“You gonna tell me or what?” Chu Shuzhi’s voice was gruff but Guo Changcheng could hear the uncertainty behind the gruffness rather than anger. It made Guo Changcheng feel just a little bit better to know that his roommate was willing to step out of his comfort zone just because he was obviously upset. 

“I’m okay, really,” Guo Changcheng tried but Chu Shuzhi just glared at him. 

“Bullshit,” he bit and Guo Changcheng winced. 

Taking a shaky breath Guo Changcheng looked down at the phone that he turned over and over in his hands. 

“Have I ever told you why I moved out of my parent’s house?” Guo Changcheng asked and looked at Chu Shuzhi askance. The other man shook his head and Guo Changcheng swallowed. He wished that he had already told Chu Shuzhi the story and wouldn’t need to disclose the details now. 

“Well… my parents don’t approve of my choice of career,” Guo Changcheng explained. 

“They don’t want you to be a doctor ? Why the hell not?” Chu Shuzhi sounded incensed by his statement, which Guo Changcheng understood- most parents would be ecstatic to see their child in the medical field. 

“They want me to be a doctor, but they don’t want me to open a community practice.” Guo Changcheng sighed and stared into the middle distance. “I have this idea about opening a small clinic where people who couldn’t pay could come and get treatment.” His mouth twisted and he took another deep breath. “But there’s no money in that.” The words came out more bitter than he’d intended. He immediately put his hands up and turned to Chu Shuzhi who was staring at him with his eyebrows half way up his forehead. 

“That’s not to say I want to be unfilial, I am grateful for all they have done for me, but… I just want to help people. Isn’t that what doctors are supposed to do?” Guo Changcheng finished softly. 

“Yeah,” Chu Shuzhi’s voice was rougher than Guo Changcheng had ever heard it and he tilted his head slightly. “Yeah,” he said again, stronger this time. “I get it.” 

Their eyes met and Guo Changcheng noted that Chu Shuzhi’s eyes weren’t quite as black as they looked- more of the kind of brown found in dark honey. The silence reigned for a long moment then Guo Changcheng leaned away and looked back at his hands. 

“Anyway, I left and told them that I was going to make a go of it, but if I couldn’t cut it like they thought I couldn’t that I would quit and find a nice… girl… to settle down with.” 

Chu Shuzhi’s brow furrowed and his ever present frown deepened. 

“Your grades can’t be bad with how much Shen Wei is over here helping you study. So you do well in school and shove it in their faces,” Chu Shuzhi said matter-of-factly. “What’s the issue?”

“They’re getting impatient,” Guo Changcheng grabbed the throw pillow he’d added for just such an occasion and hugged it to his chest. “They want to set me up on some blind dates.” He pulled the pillow tighter, curling himself around its softness and hoping to will away the tight ball of anxiety growing in his stomach. “All I keep thinking is that if I try to maintain a relationship on top of studying, I really will fail.” 

Chu Shuzhi stared at him levelly, but Guo Changcheng just watched the way his hand clenched and relaxed in his lap. 

“I think it’s just a ploy to get you shaken up and it’s obviously working,” he sneered.  

The groan emerged from deep within Guo Changcheng’s soul as he buried his face in the pillow. 

“What can I do?” He asked the fabric. “I can’t make up some imaginary girlfriend- imaginary boyfriend would be more accurate.”

“Boyfriend, huh?” Chu Shuzhi said thoughtfully and Guo Changcheng promptly fell off the couch- he didn’t think his words would be clear while suffocating himself with a pillow. 

“I, uh, what I mean is-” Guo Changcheng sputtered while he tried to find the words to explain- this was not exactly how he’d pictured coming out to his roommate. 

“I’ll do it,” Chu Shuzhi said with a decisive nod, effectively shutting down Guo Changcheng’s brain. 

“Wha…” he replied, showing off his developing medical degree. 

“I’ll be your pretend boyfriend,” Chu Shuzhi told him with a steady look that sent Guo Changcheng’s heart tripping over itself. “Then only the relationship is pretend, not the person.” 

Guo Changcheng pushed himself up into a sitting position on the floor and considered the idea. If his parents asked him details about his partner, he could easily provide them- he knew enough about Chu Shuzhi to make it plausible. 

“O-okay,” Guo Changcheng said before he lost his nerve. He received a simple nod in acknowledgement from his roommate who was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees which showed off the sharp muscles of his arms even through his shirt. 

A blush painted his ears when he thought about pretending to be in a relationship with his admittedly smoking hot roommate. 

His parents already knew his preference for men, but he’d never brought a boy home so they assumed it was just a phase which then led to the threat of blind dates with a parade of women. Showing up to an event on Chu Shuzhi’s arm would surely put that to rest at least. He hoped it would at least. 

“It’s not like you have to introduce me to them any time soon, so you have time to make up the background story,” Chu Shuzhi said, leaning back into the couch. 

“About that…” Guo Changcheng said slowly and winced when Chu Shuzhi pinched the bridge of his nose. 

-CS-

“It’s a fucking ball ,” Chu Shuzhi growled as he took out his frustrations on the punching bag. “Some event where the students have to kiss donor ass while sipping champagne from crystal flutes.”

Zhao Yunlan slid back with each hit no matter how hard the chief tried to brace the other side of the bag. On a nearby bench well out of harm’s way, Hei Pao Shi sat silently watching the exchange, always close by whenever Zhao Yunlan was around. Not that the chief ever noticed that the healer trailed him just as much as he trailed the healer.  

“Sounds like quite the shindig- especially if Guo Changcheng’s friends will be there- oof.” Zhao Yunlan grunted with the punch to the bag. Served him right for referring to his flirting with someone else when Hei Pao Shi was sitting right there. “If you’re dreading it so much then why did you agree to go?” Zhao Yunlan asked between punches. 

“He makes dinner, I figure I owe him,” he replied, landing a particularly hard punch that sent Zhao Yunlan sprawling with a groan. 

In a blink Hei Pao Shi was at his side making sure he suffered no permanent damage. When he looked over his shoulder at Chu Shuzhi with eyes flashing under his hood, Chu Shuzhi’s jaw tightened and he turned away to remove his gloves. 

“Is that the only reason, Lao Chu?” Hei Pao Shi asked pointedly and Chu Shuzhi paused. 

He remembered living with his brother in a shelter very similar to the one Guo Changcheng worked in during his time off from school. He thought of the way Guo Changcheng had looked so small as he explained the situation with his parents. The way he often fell asleep while studying, so desperate to succeed. How adorably flustered he had been when he fell to the floor after inadvertently coming out to him, quickly followed by the innocent flush when Chu Shuzhi had suggested to be his fake boyfriend. 

The now familiar feeling of protectiveness surged in his chest so strongly it nearly choked him. 

“He wants to open a clinic- a free one,” Chu Shuzhi said by way of explanation and turned to look over his shoulder at the other two. “If there had been something like that when I was a kid…” The image of his brother’s kind eyes slipped through his mind followed quickly by a sharp pain in his chest when he recalled the feeling of his twin's lifeless body in his arms. “Maybe I’d still have family. He could go into an area of medicine that makes boatloads of money, but he just wants to help the people who need it most and his parents are standing in the way of that over something so stupid. If going to this stupid ball helps him get a little peace to achieve that goal, then I can put up with it for a night.” 

He walked over and picked up his bag, shouldering it, then turned to fully face the others. 

“Doesn’t mean I have to fucking like it,” he bit out and turned towards the locker room. 

“I think that’s the most words I’ve ever heard him say at once,” Zhao Yunlan said in a stage whisper, but Chu Shuzhi didn’t rise to the bait. Which meant he also missed the small quirk of Hei Pao Shi’s lips. 

 

The ballroom was worse than he expected. The school had rented out the lobby and ballroom of a nearby historical hotel- chandeliers dripping with crystals hung from thick wooden rafters and the tables were all decorated with tall flower arrangements featuring calla lilies that swooped gracefully down the side of the glass vases. The room was packed with men dressed in tuxedos and women in sparkling evening gowns that looked like they cost more than Chu Shuzhi made in a year. There was even an ice sculpture of the school’s crest dominating a buffet set up that nearly groaned under the sheer weight of the indulgence placed upon it. 

His phone chimed as he was grimacing at a tray of strange looking finger food that was stuck under his nose by a passing waiter. Guo Changcheng had been texting him every few minutes for almost an hour. He’d already told his roommate that he was running late, but that did nothing to ease his nerves nor his incessant texting. 

He shot back a message that he’d arrived along with his location in the room and waited. The loaner suit was a good enough fit, but it still made Chu Shuzhi itch. He fiddled with his sleeves then his tie as he watched the crowd for any signs of his fake date. Several of the guests eyed him warily, giving a wide berth as they made their way to the buffet table. Without comment, he snatched a champagne glass from a passing waitress and downed the contents in one go. There was no way he was facing this crowd completely sober. 

The first thing he heard was a familiar voice apologizing to people making his way closer. Chu Shuzhi turned to see Guo Changcheng dressed in an extremely nice suit- one that was clearly custom tailored to his slight frame. It was a deep blue that made his pale skin pop and the little bow tie at his neck fit his personality perfectly. Guo Changcheng hadn’t seen him yet so he took a step forward to flag down the med student. The unobstructed view allowed Chu Shuzhi to catch the exact moment when Guo Changcheng’s face fell as two people stepped out of the crowd to cut him off. 

Sensing a potentially uncomfortable conversation, Chu Shuzhi stepped closer, but just out of sight. He could still hear- a fact which he immediately regretted. 

“Darling, I have found the perfect woman for you. The date is all set for tomorrow afternoon in this lobby. I just know you will love her,” the woman was saying and completely ignoring the way Guo Changcheng shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. 

“Mother, you really don’t have to do that,” Guo Changcheng tried. “My grades have been good and I’m hopeful that I will be able to see my dream become a reality. I have friends who have been helping me.”

“There’s a difference between going to school for something and actually making a career out of it,” the older man chimed in. “We just want to be sure that you are successful.” 

“But I am successful, ba.” Guo Changcheng told him, twisting the bottom of his suit jacket. 

“We are worried is all. Who’s going to take care of you if you’re working yourself to the bone? If you’re going to marry, you need to do so before you try this crazy idea of a free clinic. Who would want to marry a doctor that makes no money?”

Hearing enough, Chu Shuzhi stepped forward and slid a hand around Guo Changcheng’s waist, pulling him closer. 

“I would,” Chu Shuzhi told them with a razor-sharp edge to his tone then turned to Guo Changcheng with a tender smile- one that he often had to hide from his roommate when Guo Changcheng did something that made something inside him shift loose. “I’m sorry I’m late, couldn’t come empty handed.” 

He held up a simple bouquet of red roses and Chu Shuzhi knew it was worth the extra time and amount of anxious text messages when Guo Changcheng’s hands flew to his mouth. 

“They’re beautiful,” Guo Changcheng told him in an awed voice. “Thank you, C-” his eyes flicked to the side, remembering they were putting on a show. “Chu-ge,” he finished shyly and the momentary glance sent Chu Shuzhi’s stomach into somersaults. 

“Who’s this then?” The woman cut in, eyeing Chu Shuzhi critically. 

“I’m sorry, Chu Shuzhi, meet my parents. Chu Shuzhi is my… boyfriend…” Guo Changcheng explained with a short hysterical giggle. 

“Boyfriend?” His father barked and his mother laid a calming hand on his arm, glancing around at the crowd. Appearances, everything came down to appearances. Chu Shuzhi reigned in a sneer.

“Yes, we met at school, he’s studying to be a… pediatrician!” Guo Changcheng’s voice was rising in pitch as his body became tighter and tighter with tension. 

All three people stared at him in disbelief. When he looked at Chu Shuzhi there was apology in his eyes- this was not the backstory they had agreed upon, but Chu Shuzhi would deal with it. He pulled Guo Changcheng’s hand into the crook of his arm and turned to the parents he was starting to hate. 

“What? I love kids,” he told them in a deadpan voice before dipping the scarcest of bows and bidding them goodbye. As they walked away Guo Changcheng turned back to his parents and waved with the roses, calling back to them that he would see them later. 

“You’re parents are something else,” Chu Shuzhi growled as he guided them through the crowd. 

“They’re really not that bad. They just want me to have a safe and comfortable life and that is not the path I’m choosing. It makes them anxious.” 

Even as Guo Changcheng tried to explain it away, Chu Shuzhi clenched his jaw and shook his head. 

“That may be true, but your parents should accept that you need to lead your own life. What you’re doing is important and will really help a lot of people. They should see that.” Chu Shuzhi heard the strains of a string quartet and turned to see that they were at the edge of a makeshift dance floor. Couples swirled in time with the music painting colorful blurs among the warm cream colored decorations. 

On impulse that he would not be able to explain away later, Chu Shuzhi plucked the bouquet from Guo Changcheng’s hand and laid them on a nearby empty table. Without letting go of the hand still tucked tightly against his elbow, Chu Shuzhi brought them into the fray. 

“Chu Shuzhi, what?” Guo Changcheng yelped as a couple danced past them, but he turned his full attention to his partner when Chu Shuzhi pulled him flush against his body and moved their hands into the proper positions. 

It had been a long time since Chu Shuzhi had learned to waltz for the wedding of some distant relative, but the moves weren’t that different from fighting. Thankfully, just as Chu Shuzhi was about to take the first step, the music shifted and the crowd applauded. When the next song started up- this time languid and definitely not something as structured as a waltz- the couples all settled into an intimate slow dance. 

Shifting his grip on Guo Changcheng’s hand, he brought the joined hands between their chests while the other hand slipped around to settle on his lower back. It was intimate and tender- more than he’d allowed himself to be with another person in a very long time. Surprisingly, he couldn’t find it in him to care. He led them in a gentle swaying step without moving out of a one foot radius then pressed his cheek against Guo Changcheng’s.

“Call me Chu-ge,” he whispered into Guo Changcheng’s ear. With their bodies pressed so close together, he did not miss the fine shiver that ran down Guo Changcheng’s body in reaction to his words. Within himself, Chu Shuzhi ignored the rush of satisfaction when Guo Changcheng repeated the familiar name close to his own ear. 

“Chu-ge,” Guo Changcheng whispered, then cleared his throat. “Of course, we need to keep up the ruse.”

Yes, that’s right. Just a ruse, Chu Shuzhi reminded himself fiercely.  

They moved together perfectly- their self-defense practice having helped them learn each other’s rhythms. The feel of Guo Changcheng’s body against his was reminding Chu Shuzhi how long it had been since he’d held a partner in his arms and the way Guo Changcheng was melting into him was leading his mind down less than pure roads. 

From the first day he’d met Guo Changcheng that had been his first impression of the man: pure and naive. He was the most innocent person Chu Shuzhi had ever met and he immediately thought that he would never work as a roommate. Then he worried that he would somehow corrupt the younger man. Now that he knew this man more, Chu Shuzhi understood that Guo Changcheng was not pure-hearted because he didn’t realize how the world worked, he was pure-hearted in spite of the cruel reality of the world. 

He wasn’t sure how experienced Guo Changcheng was in matters of the heart so Chu Shuzhi was sure he would need to lead them in this farce for the sake of Guo Changcheng’s freedom. This expectation accounted for a large part of his shock when Guo Changcheng laid his head on Chu Shuzui’s shoulder and pulled him closer as they swayed. 

And- oh crap- wasn’t this the worst time to realize you had developed a crush on your roommate somewhere along the way? Chu Shuzhi’s heart beat so hard he worried it would burst as he tried to hold back his growing feelings by his fingernails. 

“I don’t think I’ve thanked you enough for doing this,” Guo Changcheng whispered and his breath tickled the side of Chu Shuzhi’s neck. He imagined the feel of Guo Changcheng’s lips connecting with that sensitive skin then swallowed and closed his eyes before responding. 

“You have already thanked me, Xiao Guo,” he replied, only realizing a beat later that the affectionate name had slipped off his tongue when Guo Changcheng raised his head and stared at him with wide eyes. 

“Chu-ge…” Guo Changcheng trailed off into a blinding smile as the song came to an end and the dancers picked up a lively foxtrot around them in swirls of expensive fabrics while the two of them stood frozen in the center staring. It was a picture that Chu Shuzhi would not soon forget. 

“We should get going,” Chu Shuzhi said roughly, clearing his throat and grabbing Guo Changcheng’s hand to drag him off the dance floor. “Have you been here long enough or do you need to show your face for a bit longer?”

“I think I’ve had all I can take,” Guo Changcheng said, leaning heavily into his side for support. 

“You don’t have to tell me twice. I need out of this penguin suit.” Chu Shuzhi emphasized the point by pulling at the collar of his dress shirt. Guo Changcheng chuckled then pulled them to a stop with a startled expression. 

“Wait, my flowers!” Guo Changcheng disappeared for a moment before he returned with the bouquet of roses held carefully against his chest then slipped his hand back into Chu Shuzhi’s. “Okay, ready. Let’s go home.” 

Hearing the word ‘home’ made Chu Shuzhi’s stomach warm as he laced their fingers together. Looking at this gentle, kind man, Chu Shuzhi made a silent promise to always protect him no matter what. 

“Let’s go home,” Chu Shuzhi repeated and turned to lead them through the crowd towards the exit.

As they left, Chu Shuzhi spotted Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan at a table by themselves completely engrossed in conversation- about what Chu Shuzhi had no idea, but they were both oblivious to the world around them. He gave a slight shake of his head and continued to lead Guo Changcheng back to their home. 

The drive was quiet, but not uncomfortably so. Guo Changcheng watched the city lights slide past the window and shared any interesting things he noticed with Chu Shuzhi who hummed in acknowledgement. 

When they finally arrived at their front door Chu Shuzhi felt a rush of nerves like he was stepping into the ring with a particularly strong opponent. He glanced back at Guo Changcheng who was smiling down at his roses and carefully sniffing each bud. When had he become nervous around his roommate? 

Get it together, man, Chu Shuzhi chastised himself and pushed open the door to let Guo Changcheng enter first. Chu Shuzhi turned on a few lights as Guo Changcheng went straight to the kitchen to put the flowers in water. He spent almost twenty minutes fiddling with the arrangement until he was happy with it and Chu Shuzhi found it endearing to watch Guo Changcheng take such care of something he’d received from Chu Shuzhi. 

Flowers arranged and trash cleared away, Guo Changcheng left the flowers on the kitchen counter where they could be admired and turned off the kitchen light. Searching for words, Chu Shuzhi stood in the middle of the living room and watched Guo Changcheng approach. In the end it was Guo Changcheng who spoke first. 

“You really saved me tonight. You make a great boyfriend, Chu-ge- ah I’m sorry- Chu Shuzhi,” Guo Changcheng corrected with a wince. 

“You can call me Chu-ge.”

Silence reigned for a beat then Guo Changcheng ducked his head shyly. 

“Chu-ge. Then you should call me Xiao Guo.”

Chu Shuzhi nodded and took a step closer- he had the wild desire to show Guo Changcheng just how great a boyfriend he would make. They were nearly as close as they were while dancing and Chu Shuzhi wondered if Guo Changcheng could hear his heartbeat or feel the electricity charging the air. Guo Changcheng merely blinked up at him with curiosity. Fisting his hand at his sides to keep himself from reaching out, Chu Shuzhi took one large step backwards. 

“Goodnight, Xiao Guo.” Then he turned and left without another word, but just as he was closing his door he heard Guo Changcheng’s soft reply. 

“Goodnight, Chu-ge.”

-GC-

“Please, Chu-ge,” Guo Changcheng asked, his voice edging towards whining, but unable to stop. “You won’t even know I’m there.”

“Why do you even want to go to a fight anyway?” Chu Shuzhi asked, annoyance creeping into his voice while he packed his gym bag. 

Guo Changcheng wasn’t sure how to tell his roommate that he was keenly interested in Chu Shuzhi after their evening together at the donor’s event for the school. He especially wasn’t sure if his newly discovered feelings would be welcome or not. 

“I think it’s interesting,” Guo Changcheng admitted after a moment of hesitation that had Chu Shuzhi turning to scrutinize his roommate. Then he was striding closer like a panther stalking his prey, eyes going hard and deadly as he approached. 

“Interesting?” Chu Shuzhi’s voice dripped poison and Guo Changcheng swallowed back the urge to flee the room. “You want to see a bunch of idiots bidding on which of us fighters can beat up the other one more effectively? The blood?” Guo Changcheng’s back hit the wall and Chu Shuzhi placed his hands on either side of his shoulders, caging him in. “The sounds of flesh hitting flesh with bruising strength?”

Heat exploded across Guo Changcheng’s face, turning his skin a vibrant crimson at the mental images his words had evoked. His chest was rising and falling like a terrified rabbit, but he couldn’t ease his breathing no matter how hard he tried. For a moment, Guo Changcheng wondered what his roommate might do then the ruthless fighter seeped out of his eyes and Chu Shuzhi looked back at him as his roommate- his friend- once more. 

Chu Shuzhi blinked down at Guo Changcheng like he didn’t remember moving, then shook himself and shifted back to continue packing his bag. The urge to slump to the ground was strong, but Guo Changcheng valiantly held his nerve and his balance. 

“I… want to see where you work,” Guo Changcheng told him at length- the truth was sometimes the easiest explanation. “Please, Chu-ge. I just want to learn more about… well… more about you.” 

Even with his back turned, Guo Changcheng could see Chu Shuzhi clenching his jaw. After a beat, his shoulders slumped and Chu Shuzhi conceded the battle. He turned to pin Guo Changcheng with a look that had him stepping back. 

“Fine, but you do exactly as I say.” His tone brooked no argument and he strode towards the door without looking back to confirm if Guo Changcheng was following. 

Guo Changcheng got all the way to the front door before he remembered their dinners he had packed. A quick dash to the kitchen then he was out the door and following close on Chu Shuzhi’s heels. 

After Chu Shuzhi’s graphic depiction of the fighting, Guo Changcheng found that he was even more nervous than before about going. He glanced up at Chu Shuzhi’s broad shoulders and confident stride and couldn’t fight the smile on his lips. If there was anyone that could keep him safe, it was Chu Shuzhi. 

-CS-

He was going to regret agreeing to this, he just knew it. Tonight was a big fight and the turnout reflected the excitement. People were milling about, placing bets and generally drinking too much. Chu Shuzhi grimaced at an audience member who was throwing up against the outside of the building as they approached the front door. 

He paused and gave Guo Changcheng a hard stare. 

“You stick right next to me. We are going to the locker room where you will stay until the fight.”

After he received Guo Changcheng’s nod of agreement he grabbed the younger man’s wrist and led them into the throng. Some people recognized him and cheered as he shoved his way past, others just did their best to stay out of his way. 

When they reached the locker room doors, Chu Shuzhi found it locked. He tugged sharply on the handle and grunted out a curse. Pointing a finger to the spot on the wall, Chu Shuzhi told Guo Changcheng to wait for him while he went to find Zhao Yunlan and the keys. He had no idea why the door would still be locked so close to the first fight of the night, but Chu Shuzhi could yell at him later- first he needed to get Guo Changcheng out of this crowd. 

A lap of the building turned up nothing and Chu Shuzhi felt nerves gnawing at his stomach after leaving Guo Changcheng alone for so long. He quickly made his way back to the locker room door and immediately felt a spike in his blood pressure. Two guys he recognized as regulars were talking to a clearly distressed Guo Changcheng, caging him in and cutting off his escape. He was gripping his messenger bag to his chest and doing his best to become part of the wall behind him. Chu Shuzhi ground his teeth- defense lessons only helped if the student was willing to use the skills. 

The surge of protectiveness flooded Chu Shuzhi’s chest and he stomped over. He insinuated himself between Guo Changcheng and the regulars. With his blood roaring in his ears he glared at the other men with enough heat to make them share a glance before backing up. 

“Piss off,” Chu Shuzhi growled, ready to start the fighting early if they dared challenge the threat in his eyes. After a tense moment they sucked their teeth then spared a last glance at Guo Changcheng before melting back into the crowd.

He remained in place, Guo Changcheng behind him, glaring at the crowd until he was sure they would not return. The roaring in his ears died away and he finally turned to check on his roommate. As he moved, the sleeve of his jacket pulled and he was surprised to see Guo Changcheng’s hand fisted in the fabric. He looked up to see Guo Changcheng fighting the trembling that shook his entire body. 

Chu Shuzhi ducked his head slightly to catch Guo Changcheng’s distant gaze. When Guo Changcheng’s eyes snapped to his, he raised an eyebrow in question. 

“I… I’m alright,” Guo Changcheng managed, painting on a smile that wouldn’t fool anyone.  

Before he could think to question Guo Changcheng’s response, the sound of voices on the other side of the locker room door floated to his ears and he turned sharply to listen. 

“You are out of your mind,” the first voice said. “You will get yourself killed out there.” Chu Shuzhi was surprised to realize that the voice belonged to the usually unflappable Hei Pao Shi. “What are you trying to prove ?”

“Your lack of faith in me is killing my self-esteem, Hei Lao-ge,” the second voice replied with unusual annoyance. 

Feeling his own annoyance rise, Chu Shuzhi banged his fist on the locker room door. With a snick the lock turned and Zhao Yunlan’s face appeared in the gap. 

“If you’re done having your lover’s quarrel, can I get ready?” Chu Shuzhi asked waspishly, pushing Zhao Yunlan out of the way and dragging Guo Changcheng behind him. 

“Xiao Guo? What the hell are you doing here?” Zhao Yunlan asked with an accusatory glare at Chu Shuzhi that he brushed off with a roll of his eyes. 

“I asked to come,” Guo Changcheng told them, stepping between Zhao Yunlan and Chu Shuzhi still clutching his bag to his chest. The look that Zhao Yunlan and Hei Pao Shi exchanged might have annoyed him if Chu Shuzhi weren’t too busy trying to remember the last time someone stepped in front of him in a gesture of protection. 

“Harangued me more like,” Chu Shuzhi muttered and stepped around Guo Changcheng to start getting ready. He stripped off his shirt and heard something crash behind him then Guo Changcheng’s voice harshly whispering to himself. When he glanced over his shoulder Guo Changcheng was gripping his shin with his face pinched and his eyes screwed shut. 

Hei Pao Shi was already moving to ask if he was okay so Chu Shuzhi continued on with his task while the other fighters made their way to their respective places. He was tying his shorts on when Zhao Yunlan sidled up to him. 

“So why did you really bring Guo Changcheng? This isn’t exactly his scene,” Zhao Yunlan wheedled. “You trying to show off?”

Chu Shuzhi’s scoff was louder than intended, but the others in the locker room didn’t seem to notice. 

“What are you laughing about Lao Chu?” a voice called to his right and he turned to look at the man askance. Ye Huo stood casually leaning against the lockers, smirking behind his mask. He was an up and coming fighter that earned his reputation as one of the best in their underground league- he was also Chu Shuzhi’s opponent in tonight’s match.

“Now, now, fellas, save it for the ring,” Zhao Yunlan cut in with a friendly smile which did nothing to hide the sharp glint of warning in his eyes. 

“Whatever,” Ye Huo told him, pushing off of the lockers. “Hei Pao Shi better stick close tonight, I’m gonna mop the floor with you, old man.” 

Zhao Yunlan’s hand was tight on Chu Shuzhi’s arm as the younger man walked away. “What a prick,” he mumbled and turned back to Chu Shuzhi with a sigh. “Do me a favor and teach the punk a lesson?” 

He released Chu Shuzhi’s arm and went about stretching and warming up while he teased Chu Shuzhi about Guo Changcheng’s presence. The suffocating weight of someone’s gaze on his back made Chu Shuzhi turn to see Hei Pao Shi staring daggers at Zhao Yunlan from across the room. 

“So Hei Pao Shi finally knows you’re fighting tonight?” Chu Shuzhi guessed as he sat on the bench to wrap his hands. The wince from Zhao Yunlan told him all he needed to know. 

“He was- is- opposed to the idea, but we’ve trained so hard for the last few weeks! I think I can take him.”

“Why did you have to pick Zhu Joy for your first opponent? That little shit has a habit of going too far, and you know it,” Chu Shuzhi scolded. “I thought you wanted to impress Hei Pao Shi, not have him stitch you back together.”

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan trailed off and Chu Shuzhi lifted an eyebrow in silent question. He didn’t really want to know, but he would find no peace until Zhao Yunlan got whatever it was off his chest. “I… think I’ve found someone else? It’s weird. I like them both, we have this strong connection, but I’m having a hard time choosing.”

When Chu Shuzhi slammed his locker shut, Zhao Yunlan jumped. “You’d better figure it out quick or else both Hei Pao Shi and Shen Wei will have lost interest.”

The open mouthed expression on Zhao Yunlan’s face was worth the annoying feelings of playing matchmaker. Without offering further explanation no matter how Zhao Yunlan sputtered after him, Chu Shuzhi made his way over to where his roommate sat waiting for him. 

Guo Changcheng was holding a pack of ice to his shin and having a quiet conversation with Hei Pao Shi when they approached. 

“I feel like we’ve met somewhere before,” Guo Changcheng was saying with a curious tilt of his head. 

“I don’t believe so,” came Hei Pao Shi’s too quick reply and Chu Shuzhi glanced to his side to see if Zhao Yunlan had caught it as well. His boss was watching Hei Pao Shi with narrowed eyes- so yes. 

“Oh, Chu-ge! Are you ready? Is it your turn?” Guo Changcheng asked, rising to his feet. For a moment, Guo Changcheng’s eyes drifted down to Chu Shuzhi’s still bare chest before they snapped back up to his. Chu Shuzhi was starting to adore the way Guo Changcheng flushed at the slightest thing. 

“No. There are three fights tonight, I’m the second. The first just started,” Chu Shuzhi explained. Judging by the cheers of the crowd they were getting a great show from the others. 

“Who’s last?”

“That would be me,” Zhao Yunlan explained, striking a pose worthy of a peacock in mating season. 

The pointed silence from Hei Pao Shi made Zhao Yunlan falter. 

A cheer went up from the crowd and the bell sounded, announcing that the match had come to an end. 

“That’s me. Come on if you’re determined to watch,” he told Guo Changcheng, but paused then stepped closer, the proximity reminding him of their dance a few nights earlier. “You don’t have to go back out there if you don’t want. I won’t think any less of you,” he murmured, but Guo Changcheng resolutely shook his head and straightened his spine. 

“I want to see you fight,” he said seriously.  

“Alright then, you asked for it.” 

Chu Shuzhi couldn’t lay his finger on why Guo Changcheng’s presence felt like a death sentence, but when he climbed into the cage to stand toe to toe with Ye Huo the sharp crash of metal door slamming sounded like a death knell. 

For a beat neither man moved as they sized each other up and waited for the bell. Chu Shuzhi could feel Guo Changcheng’s eyes on his back and he just hoped that Zhao Yunlan was somewhere close by if something went wrong. 

He was so focused on resisting the urge to look back and see if Guo Changcheng was alright, he missed the starting bell. Ye Huo did not and the first punch took Chu Shuzhi off guard. 

Rookie mistake! Head in the game!

Shaking off the ache radiating from his jaw Chu Shuzhi ducked the next swing and landed one of his own to Ye Huo’s ribs. He let the momentum carry him into a spinning kick that almost landed in Ye Huo’s sternum, but he stepped back just in time making the kick barely glance off his chest. Now off balance Chu Shuzhi had to throw himself back to avoid the leg that tried to sweep him off his foot that still remained on the ground. They exchanged punches and blocks in a quick succession neither one giving nor gaining ground. 

When the bell rang to end the first round, Zhao Yunlan was hanging on the corner of the cage while he waved Chu Shuzhi over. He offered Chu Shuzhi some words of wisdom which Chu Shuzhi resolutely ignored while he guzzled water. 

“Watch Guo Changcheng, Chief,” Chu Shuzhi told him, then turned towards the center of the ring once more. He didn’t have time to see if his boss followed his instructions and he couldn’t afford to let his focus slip again. Guo Changcheng wanted to see what it was like to be a fighter for a living and now he would know. 

He cursed under his breath when Ye Huo almost got in another punch while he was trying to focus. He felt the wind of Ye Huo’s fist as it sailed past his cheek then he ducked under Ye Huo’s arm to deliver a solid swing under his chin. Ye Huo’s head snapped back, momentarily stunning the other fighter and setting his mask askew on his face. Without giving him the chance to recover, Chu Shuzhi kicked the side of his knee and drove him to the mat. 

The crowd was practically frothing, chanting Chu Shuzhi’s name and ratting the chain link fence around the cage like they were trying to tear it down. Some of the audience were booing and yelling for Ye Huo to get up, but Chu Shuzhi didn’t pay any attention to either group- he was there to win. 

He fell upon Ye Huo, wrapping his legs around Ye Huo’s chest and over-extending his arm in a hold that had the other man howling in pain. Chu Shuzhi tasted blood in his mouth from a slowly seeping wound on his cheek that was dripping blood onto his upper lip. When he bared his teeth they were stained red like a garish horror movie vampire.

“Just remember that this old man just kicked your ass, kid ,” Chu Shuzhi snarled. Over the din of the crowd, he doubted that Ye Huo could hear him, but it made himself feel better. 

He tugged harder on Ye Huo’s arm, threatening to dislocate the shoulder if he pulled any harder and the younger man tapped frantically on the mat with his other hand. 

The grin on his face was victorious, but he froze when he lifted his head. Just beyond the ring, directly in Chu Shuzhi’s line of sight was Guo Changcheng- eyes as wide as saucers and paler than fine jade. Chu Shuzhi’s mouth tasted like ashes, his stomach slamming to his feet as he recognized the look in Guo Changcheng’s eyes as fear. He could imagine what he looked like: eyes wild, chest heaving, face bleeding with a blood red smile.  

Immediately, Chu Shuzhi released Ye Huo and rose to offer him a hand. After a suspicious look at the proffered limb, he grabbed Chu Shuzhi’s hand and allowed himself to be pulled up. 

The door to the ring opened and Chu Shuzhi moved to leave, not caring about the proper declaration of the winner- he’d had his hand raised in the air enough times that it no longer mattered. 

He pushed his way through the crowd in search of Guo Changcheng. He was standing with Zhao Yunlan who was cheering along with the crowd and Hei Pao Shi who looked like he’d swallowed a lemon. 

“Lao Chu! What a fight!” Zhao Yunlan shouted over the din and shoved at Chu Shuzhi’s shoulder. “I’m up n-” 

“Yes, we know you’re about to do something supremely stupid. Come, you need tending,” Hei Pao Shi said tartly and took Chu Shuzhi by the elbow, guiding him towards the locker room before he could think to object. 

He glanced over his shoulder to see Guo Changcheng following in the wake left through the crowd and something tight in Chu Shuzhi’s chest eased. The fear had subsided, replaced with worry lines between his brows. 

-GC- 

They sat in silence while Hei Pao Shi cleaned and closed the wound on his cheek. Guo Changcheng watched intently while Hei Pao Shi worked just to be sure that this man was well trained in the medical arts. Something about this man in black felt familiar to Guo Changcheng, from his bearing to the way he methodically cleaned and bandaged Chu Shuzhi’s cut. On any other night this mystery would have taken over his thoughts, but after seeing the fight his brain was otherwise occupied. 

Chu Shuzhi had been a force. In all the weeks of living together, Guo Changcheng never had a single glimpse of the powerful and efficient fighter he witnessed tonight. Of course he understood that Chu Shuzhi was good since he hardly ever came home with injuries, but seeing it in person was making it hard for Guo Changcheng to think clearly. 

His mind kept replaying the way Chu Shuzhi’s muscles had bunched and released as he punched and blocked, the fine sheen of sweat all over his well defined torso when he stood from the mat. The look in Chu Shuzhi’s eyes had sent a chill down Guo Changcheng’s spine, but it could do nothing to douse the heat that spread from his toes to his hair. 

He would have to ride home with this man that was lighting fires under his skin without even trying. He glanced up to find the man in question staring at him. Their gazes held for several beats before Zhao Yunlan cleared his throat and they both looked away. 

“You’re really good at that, Hei-ge,” Zhao Yunlan began and Hei Pao Shi huffed a humorless laugh. “I met this guy recently,” he continued and Guo Changcheng noticed the way the man in black’s hand stilled. “I think you would like him- he’s a medical student. He’s smart and funny. So kind and sweet…” Zhao Yunlan trailed off for a moment then snapped back to the conversation. “I’ll ask him to come next time so you can meet him. I’m sure you two would have a lot to talk about.”

Hei Pao Shi just hummed in response and put away his supplies with busy hands. 

“Hei Lao-ge-” Zhao Yunlan started, stepping closer but a young man poked his head in the locker room and cut off anything he was planning to say. 

“Hey chief, you’re up,” the man told him then slipped out as quickly as he’d appeared. 

“Ah, they’re playing my song,” Zhao Yunlan said with a chuckle but Hei Pao Shi was already on his feet and stepping into Zhao Yunlan’s space, blocking his way to the door. 

“I ask you again: please reconsider,” Hei Pao Shi said with a thread of desperation in his voice. “This man you fight is still new to the league- you don’t know what he’s capable of.” 

“The dude has terrible hair that I’m pretty sure is a wig and looks like he could barely hold a pot of water much less win a fight like this. I think I can take him,” Zhao Yunlan told him with a laugh. 

With a twist of his lips, Hei Pao Shi nodded slowly and stepped aside. “Just be careful, please,” he told him so quietly that Guo Changcheng thought he’d heard wrong until Zhao Yunlan turned and placed a hand on his cheek over his hood and smiled. 

“I’m always careful. Come watch me kick this guy’s ass, Hei Lao-ge.” Without waiting, Zhao Yunlan strode from the room and into the cheering crowd. 

After the doors swung shut Hei Pao Shi turned to Chu Shuzhi, hands fisted as his sides. 

“Lao Chu, how well have you prepared him for this fight?”

Chu Shuzhi turned and faced Hei Pao Shi fully. He had put his shirt back on while Zhao Yunlan and Hei Pao Shi spoke and Guo Changcheng tried not to be disappointed. 

“Each match is different so it’s hard to say for sure, but the chief is a decent fighter with good instincts and a solid form. Don’t tell him I said that,” Chu Shuzhi added while Hei Pao Shi nodded thoughtfully. 

“Thank you, Lao Chu.”

He simply nodded his head in thanks then slipped silently from the locker room to follow Zhao Yunlan. 

Once more, they were alone, but Guo Changcheng couldn’t figure out why it felt so much heavier now than it did when they were at home. Chu Shuzhi hadn’t fully looked at him since their locked gaze was broken by Zhao Yunlan’s list of Shen Wei’s many fine qualities. 

“If you are up to it, we should watch this fight. The chief will want feedback, I have no doubt,” Chu Shuzhi told him without turning his way. 

“Yes, I’d like to support Lao Zhao as well while I’m here,” Guo Changcheng told him, stepping closer and fidgeting with the strap of his bag. 

Chu Shuzhi looked at him from the corner of his eye over his shoulder then nodded once before following the other two towards the ring. They settled into a spot near one of the corners, not far from the chain link fence that separated fighters from spectators. Zhao Yunlan was already in the ring, showboating for the crowd and working them into a good lather. Chu Shuzhi explained that many of these people were already familiar with who he was and were eager to see the big boss participate. 

The crowd was so loud that Chu Shuzhi had to get close enough that his lips brushed the shell of Guo Changcheng’s ear as he spoke- a thoroughly distracting fact- as he explained more about the fight. The man that he was scheduled to fight was unknown to Chu Shuzhi which had him worried. 

The man that stepped into the ring was shorter than Zhao Yunlan, but much stockier. What struck Guo Changcheng was not his build, but his hair- vividly purple and oddly perched on his head in a way that screamed wig. He moved around Zhao Yunlan with a cocky swagger that made Guo Changcheng feel uneasy. The man’s eyes did not look like those of a sane man and a trickle of fear for Zhao Yunlan slipped down his spine. 

Guo Changcheng glanced down to see Chu Shuzhi’s hands in tight fists at his sides and his entire body tight as a bow string. He was ready to jump in and save his friend if the situation called for it and Guo Changcheng smiled. Chu Shuzhi may put on a tough front, but he was fiercely loyal to his friends and that warmed Guo Changcheng to the core.  

He was still looking at Chu Shuzhi when the opening bell rang and the two men threw themselves at each other. The chief had impressive moves, Guo Changcheng thought, several times managing to take the other man to the mat, but his opponent was slippery and managed to break the hold every time. There were punches that made Guo Changcheng wince and a knee to Zhao Yunlan’s gut that made Guo Changcheng think that would be the end. If there wasn’t already, one or both of these men were going to walk away with broken bones. 

By the third round both men were starting to tire and Zhao Yunlan kept his distance while the other man struck out over and over again. Guo Changcheng could see Zhao Yunlan forming a plan until he set his jaw and charged at the other man. His opponent swung and connected solidly with Zhao Yunlan’s nose, snapping his head back and causing a river of blood to stream from his nose, but now he was close. Before he could realize the mistake, Zhao Yunlan had wrapped his arms around his waist and tackled him to the mat. He fought Zhao Yunlan’s hold, but the position pressed his face to the floor, pulling his neck in a painful angle. After only a few seconds the purple haired man tapped the mat and a bell rang out signaling the end of the fight. 

Guo Changcheng breathed a sigh of relief and loosened his hand which had ended up twisted in the back of Chu Shuzhi’s shirt during the fight. He turned to smile at Chu Shuzhi while Zhao Yunlan did a victory lap around the cage and caught a blur of motion out of the corner of his eye. Too quick to call out a warning, the purple haired loser jumped to his feet and clubbed Zhao Yunlan on the back of the head. 

The audience howled as Zhao Yunlan crumpled to the mat. There were not many rules in an illegal fighting ring, Chu Shuzhi explained, but to attack from behind especially after losing a fight was the most disgraceful thing a fighter could do. 

The door to the cage flew open and Hei Pao Shi stepped between Zhao Yunlan and his opponent. Every inch of the man in black radiated anger as he faced off with the attacker. Chu Shuzhi began to push his way through the onlookers and Guo Changcheng followed close behind. 

He couldn’t make out what the purple haired man said but Guo Changcheng could hear the snide tone and clearly saw Hei Pao Shi’s hand clench at his side. There was a blur of motion in the ring and the crowd roared in response. When Guo Changcheng looked up from where he’d been focused on following Chu Shuzhi’s back he saw Hei Pao Shi deliver a series of bone rattling punches. The fighter didn’t have enough time to block before Hei Pao Shi had connected his fist with his vital organs with unerring accuracy. The last punch had the fighter crumpling to the ground and Guo Changcheng could only stare wide eyed at the healer that stood over him with his chest heaving. 

Guo Changcheng felt a hand wrap around his wrist then he was being dragged through the crowd once more. Chu Shuzhi did not stop until they arrived at the door of the ring which he yanked open. 

Chu Shuzhi looked over his shoulder at Guo Changcheng then jerked his head towards the fallen opponent. Confused by his priorities, Guo Changcheng looked up to find Hei Pao Shi already checking on Zhao Yunlan with flying hands that held a slight tremor.

Nodding to Chu Shuzhi, Guo Changcheng knelt beside the man. He was surprised to see how young a face was hidden behind the terrible hair. That explained the bluster at least- a cocky young man with something to prove. Besides several bruises and what would surely be a raging headache when he woke the man was fine. He said as much to Chu Shuzhi who pursed his lips in a mix of disappointment and disinterest. 

Chu Shuzhi crossed his arms over his chest and glared out at the crowd. 

“Get out, show’s over,” he growled. “Now!” he snarled when no one moved. They scattered as one, clearly certain that Chu Shuzhi would have no problem coming out of the cage to kick any ass that remained. Guo Changcheng had to hide a smile in his shoulder. 

Looking more closely at the unconscious man, Guo Changcheng found it interesting that each bruise was targeted perfectly to incapacitate without causing permanent damage. Judging by the already deep purple marks, this man had been lucky that Hei Pao Shi was able to keep his temper in check- the man could obviously dish out serious damage. 

A groan from the other side of the ring grabbed Guo Changcheng’s attention. Zhao Yunlan was regaining consciousness and Hei Pao Shi was kneeling closer, cupping the back of his head with gentle fingers to check the wound. 

“Hei Lao-ge,” he said with a dreamy slur to his words. “Did you see? I told you I could fight.”

Hei Pao Shi let out a sound that could only be described as a growl. “Yes, you idiot, I saw you fight. You were foolish to turn your back.”

“You were worried about me,” Zhao Yunlan said in awe and Hei Pao Shi carefully smoothed the hair from his forehead. 

When Zhao Yunlan turned his head- slowly and with obvious pain- he saw the spread of angry red on Hei Pao Shi’s hand then glanced over to the man lying prone at Guo Changcheng’s feet. 

“Did you…?” Zhao Yunlan asked, turning his head sharply to look into Hei Pao Shi’s face and immediately regretted the movement. “Ow.” 

“You might have a concussion- lay still,” Hei Pao Shi told him and simply ignored the question. 

Something about his voice had changed Guo Changcheng noticed- no longer as deep and rough as before and strangely familiar. 

“You do care,” Zhao Yunlan said quietly and his eyes began to flutter closed. 

“Hey! Stay awake, Yunlan,” Hei Pao Shi told him with desperation, patting his cheek and leaning closer. 

His eyes eased open and smiled up at Hei Pao Shi who smiled back. Guo Changcheng’s chest tightened watching the display between these two men who obviously cared about each other. Hearing Zhao Yunlan sigh made Guo Changcheng sigh in response- which made Chu Shuzhi raise an eyebrow. 

“Ah, all I’ve wanted since the day I met you was to see you smile.” Zhao Yunlan’s brows drew together. “And now I can’t help but think that I’ve seen it somewhere before.” 

With surprising quickness for an injured man, Zhao Yunlan’s hand flew up and snatched the mask from Hei Pao Shi’s face before he could pull away. 

Unable to disguise his shock, Guo Changcheng gasped a deep lungful of air when he recognized the face below the mask. 

“S-Shen Wei?” Guo Changcheng blurted out, but neither man heard- too busy with each other. 

“I had hoped it was you, but I thought I was crazy,” Zhao Yunlan told him while he pushed himself onto his elbows and ignored Hei Pao Shi- Shen Wei’s - protests. “There was no way I could feel so strongly about two people.”

“You… care for me?” Shen Wei asked with so much hope that Guo Changcheng laid a hand over his own heart as he watched the scene unfold. 

Zhao Yunlan pushed himself until he was sitting up with Shen Wei’s knees on either side of his legs. Neither man noticed the intimate position the movement put them in and Guo Changcheng fought down a blush. 

“Ah Shen Wei, Shen Wei. I would ask you to marry me if I thought you would have someone like me-” Zhao Yunlan couldn’t finish the thought because Shen Wei had surged forward to press their mouths together. Guo Changcheng lost the battle with his blush and he felt the flush seep from his chest to his hairline as the two set free months of secret pining. 

A hand snatched the back of his shirt and suddenly Guo Changcheng was being dragged backwards towards the door. 

“They’ll be fine,” Chu Shuzhi grunted, apparently unfazed by the revelation of Shen Wei’s alter ego or his love for Zhao Yunlan- though Guo Changcheng noticed that the tips of Chu Shuzhi’s ears had gone red. 

Not letting go of Guo Changcheng’s shirt, Chu Shuzhi crab-walked him awkwardly towards the exit until they were once more in the cool night air. 

The ride home was quiet as Chu Shuzhi drove in stony silence that made Guo Changcheng fidget. He wasn’t entirely sure what he’d done wrong, but he would hold his tongue until they got home.

-CS-

Chu Shuzhi’s grip on the steering wheel made the leather creak in distress under the onslaught. His relief upon seeing Zhao Yunlan and Hei Pao Shi finally figure themselves out was largely overshadowed by his whirling thoughts about the man beside him. For weeks something had been building inside of him, between them, and Chu Shuzhi wasn’t sure if he should welcome it or fear it. 

He was not one to be granted the good and sweet things in life- he didn’t deserve them anyway. His brother was the sweet one and look where that got him. The last thing that someone as pure as Guo Changcheng needed was to get more deeply involved in Chu Shuzhi’s messed up life. Anyone who he let close got hurt- he couldn’t let what happened to his brother happen again.

Chu Shuzhi clenched his jaw and pressed his foot down on the accelerator. From the corner of his eye he saw Guo Changcheng look at him, but he did not comment. 

By the time the apartment door shut behind them, Chu Shuzhi’s emotions were thrashing like an angry sea. He could no longer recall the exact reason he’d begun his downward spiral, but he was drenched in anger and self-loathing until he worried that he would never come up for air again. There was a high-pitched ringing in his ears and it took him a moment to realize that Guo Changcheng was talking. 

“-n’t believe that Shen Wei is Hei Pao Shi. I mean I just met him as Hei Pao Shi, but you’ve spoken about him before and he sounded like the exact opposite of Shen Wei.” He was pacing the living room still holding his bag and babbling to himself more than trying to hold a conversation. Chu Shuzhi just followed his repetitive movements with his eyes, unable- and unwilling- to get a word in. 

“I am happy for them, though. Zhao Yunlan looked so soft when he smiled up at Shen Wei-” he paused his pacing to consider- “but that could have been the head injury. I wonder if he will remember any of this tomorrow. If he had a concussion, you know that might-” 

Chu Shuzhi dumped his own bag to the floor with a thud and Guo Changcheng jerked. He wasn’t sure why he was still standing in the living room with his roommate when all he wanted to do was grab a bottle of liquor from the cabinet and slink into his bedroom. The drinking would quiet the sharp tongued voices whispering poison into his ear. 

“Sorry, you must be tired, Chu-ge,” Guo Changcheng said with an apologetic smile. 

The smile made something twist in his chest so Chu Shuzhi moved past him towards the kitchen. His hand was on the liquor cabinet door when Guo Changcheng spoke again. 

“You were really good tonight.” The compliment felt like a knife wound in his side and he turned his head slightly to regard Guo Changcheng over his shoulder. 

He was wringing the strap of his messenger bag tightly in his hands as he regarded Chu Shuzhi over the kitchen counter where they’d shared so many meals. It occurred to Chu Shuzhi that Guo Changcheng likely did not have much experience with fighting to judge his fighting skills fairly, but it still made warmth kindle in his heart. 

“It was amazing to see you do more than just the defensive stuff you’ve shown me,” Guo Changcheng went on, looking down at the abused bag strap and deliberately putting his hands at his sides. 

Chu Shuzhi turned back to the liquor cabinet and was surprised to find that the swirling black emotions from earlier had ebbed to a manageable level. Blinking, he dropped his hand from the door and stepped back out of the kitchen. 

He was about to thank Guo Changcheng, but his next words made him freeze on the spot. 

“I can’t wait till the next one,” Guo Changcheng said like they had just come from afternoon tea rather than an illegal fighting ring where his mere presence could jeopardize his future in medicine. 

“The next fight?” Chu Shuzhi asked in astonishment, icy fear running down his spine at the thought of Guo Changcheng in that place again- with those ruthless people. “You won’t be coming to any more fights.”

“What? Why?” Guo Changcheng asked, face pale and eyebrows raised. Chu Shuzhi reached for the first excuse that jumped to mind- and the truth of the words rang in his mind like a clear bell. 

“Do you know how distracting it was to have you in the audience? You saw first hand the kind of people who go to these things. I would have won my fight in a single round if I wasn’t so focused on you,” Chu Shuzhi growled, stepping closer and bringing them inches apart when Guo Changcheng did not step back. Chu Shuzhi lifted the side of his shirt, revealing a rainbow of colors along his side and chest. 

“This is what you get in a place like that if you let your defenses drop for even a second.”

One thing that Guo Changcheng was terrible at was hiding his emotions and Chu Shuzhi was treated to a parade of emotions across the younger man’s face now. He saw shock mixed with concern, frustration, and confusion then his face settled on stubborn determination. Chu Shuzhi wondered where he’d learned that from. 

“I am not incompetent or defenseless, Chu-ge,” Guo Changcheng growled, showing a surprising amount of spine. 

“Oh yeah? Prove it.” Before he could react, Chu Shuzhi grabbed Guo Changcheng by the shoulder and threw him to the ground of their living room, knocking the wind from him. 

A spark of irritation lit Guo Changcheng’s eyes and he tried to sweep Chu Shuzhi’s feet out from under him. Seeing the move well in advance, Chu Shuzhi stepped out of the way then pushed Guo Changcheng’s shoulder back down when he tried to rise from the carpet. With a grunt, Guo Changcheng rolled his shoulder exactly like Chu Shuzhi had taught him, sending Chu Shuzhi’s balance off until he had to catch himself on either side of Guo Changcheng’s head. He lowered his body carefully until he was pinning Guo Changcheng to the ground, but not crushing him with his full weight. 

This close, Chu Shuzhi could count Guo Changcheng’s eyelashes if he so wished and his warm rapid breath was brushing against his own mouth. Deliberately but gently, Chu Shuzhi set his forearm against Guo Changcheng’s collar bones, just below the base of his throat and glared into the younger man’s eyes. 

“You’re dead,” he murmured and the fear he saw in Guo Changcheng’s eyes made him sick. He could deal with a lot of nasty things in his life, but Guo Changcheng being afraid of him like so many others was not something he could bear. “Don’t.” The word slipped out before he could catch it, but he didn’t move or try to take it back. 

“Don’t what?” Guo Changcheng asked with a tremble in his voice. 

“Don’t… be afraid of me,” Chu Shuzhi told him in a small voice with more honesty than he meant to reveal. 

“I’m not afraid of you; I’m just shocked that I won,” Guo Changcheng whispered, tapping something against Chu Shuzhi’s ribs.

When Chu Shuzhi looked down his body, he saw that Guo Changcheng had his taser pressed against his side, exactly where Chu Shuzhi had told him to aim to incapacitate an attacker. He looked back into Guo Changcheng’s eyes with awe and pride. 

“Maybe I’m a little afraid of how easily I resorted to using a weapon,” Guo Changcheng told him thoughtfully, then he laid his other hand on Chu Shuzhi’s cheek lightly, the touch tentative. “I know you would never hurt me. You’ve done nothing but protect me and I would never think you capable of doing otherwise,” Guo Changcheng told him seriously. 

Chu Shuzhi stared openly at the man below him for a solid minute while heat spread from his chest down to his fingers. A desire, fierce and absolute rose to Chu Shuzhi’s throat and he leaned into Guo Changcheng’s hand while he dared to wonder if his desires were returned. 

As if he could read the turmoil in Chu Shuzhi’s eyes, Guo Changcheng smiled his sunny smile and nodded once. He searched Guo Changcheng’s eyes for something, some sign that he was lying or Chu Shuzhi was misunderstanding, but in the months they had lived together Chu Shuzhi had never known Guo Changcheng to lie or mislead anyone. 

“Chu-ge,” he said fondly and something long held back within Chu Shuzhi burst through and he closed the distance between their mouths with a sound like a sob. 

Below him, Guo Changcheng’s body went rigid for only a moment before he was wrapping his arms around Chu Shuzhi’s neck and kissing him back. 

The heat rose between them, a slow simmer unlike anything that Chu Shuzhi had experienced before. This was not the frenzied touch of someone’s body with the intention to simply scratch an itch, it was gentle exploration that felt a little bit like worship and a lot like healing. 

They remained on the living room floor while they slid their fingers under clothing, seeking the warm soft skin below. Chu Shuzhi’s muscles were still warm from the earlier fight and Guo Changcheng’s slender fingers lightly kneaded the muscles they found until Chu Shuzhi let out an embarrassing moan. 

He shucked his shirt off to give Guo Changcheng more access to those sore muscles and when he looked back down there was laughter in the younger man’s eyes for a moment- until he noticed the bruises. The laughter was replaced with a hiss of concern and he ran those deft fingers over the purpling bruises over his chest and ribs. The touch should have hurt, but the feather-light caress was like a balm to both his injuries and his heart. 

Without much effort, Chu Shuzhi could read the concern for his well being in Guo Changcheng’s eyes and a desire to ask why he fought though he was too afraid to ask out loud. They would talk later- had to talk or else they would be starting off this new relationship with important things left unsaid. Though Chu Shuzhi was not one for talking, for Guo Changcheng he would find it within himself. 

He lowered himself to place a kiss to Guo Changcheng’s bottom lip, then the top, then traced his tongue over both when Guo Changcheng sighed. They kissed like that until Chu Shuzhi’s knees demanded a softer surface. 

“Stay with me?” Chu Shuzhi asked between languid sips of Guo Changcheng’s lips. “We don’t have to do anything if you don’t want,” he rushed to add.

Guo Changcheng’s pupils were wide when he pulled back to look into Chu Shuzhi’s eyes. He gazed- because there was no other way to describe the fondness in his eyes- at every feature of Chu Shuzhi’s face before speaking very deliberately. 

“I do want,” Guo Changcheng told him with a voice deeper than Chu Shuzhi had ever heard from the man. “I want you, Chu-ge.” 

He punctuated the statement by wrapping his legs around Chu Shuzhi’s waist, making his meaning perfectly clear. Without needing to be told a second time, Chu Shuzhi slipped his arm under Guo Changcheng’s shoulders and leveraged himself to standing while holding Guo Changcheng tightly to his chest.   

He walked them to his room while Guo Changcheng buried his face in his neck, sending little zings of pleasure down his spine with every breath. Gently as he could, Chu Shuzhi laid Guo Changcheng back onto his mattress.

Spread across his bed, limbs loose and breath hitching, Guo Changcheng was a sight that Chu Shuzhi wanted to take his time to cherish properly. He lowered himself onto Guo Changcheng’s body, propping himself up on one elbow as he looked down. With utmost care, he ran his knuckles- still bruised and slightly torn from the fight- over the rise of one of Guo Changcheng’s cheekbones where a flush turned his skin a beautiful shade of pink. 

Because he could and because he could think of nothing else, Chu Shuzhi laid his lips against Guo Changcheng’s and savored the sigh that escaped from the younger man. They kissed until Chu Shuzhi was drunk on his lips and the taste of his tongue as it slid against his own. His whole world narrowed until it was nothing but the feel of the man below him and the sounds they made together. 

Without hurry, clothes were discarded to a pile upon the floor as each learned the dips and curves of the other. Tongues tasted the hollows of skin while teeth nipped at sensitive flesh until they were both riding on waves of exquisite pleasure. Their pace remained slow despite their growing excitement, savoring each slide of flesh on flesh, each touch that walked the line between pleasure and pain. When they finally, finally, moved faster they rocked together, bodies singing together and building towards climax while holding each other’s steady gaze. Chu Shuzhi slid his fingers between Guo Changcheng’s on the bed and gripped tight as they reached their peak together. 

 

A short while later they laid together, bare to the cooling air of the room. Chu Shuzhi’s fingers ran a slow path up and down Guo Changcheng’s side, savoring the little sighs of pleasure the simple touch elicited from his partner. Guo Changcheng absently toyed with a silver chain that hung from Chu Shuzhi’s neck while his eyes remained distant. Much had happened in just a few hours time so Chu Shuzhi gave him the space to process in silence. 

“Does this mean that you’re no longer my fake boyfriend?” Guo Changcheng asked suddenly, trying and failing to make his question light. His brow twitched in a light frown and his eyes remained glued on the necklace tangled around his fingers. 

Chu Shuzhi dipped his head to claim his mouth in a searing kiss then leaned back with a smile so wide his eyes crinkled at the corners. 

“You couldn’t get rid of me if you tried,” Chu Shuzhi said seriously, pleased when the tightness around Guo Changcheng’s eyes eased. 

“You should do that more often,” Guo Changcheng told him, tracing a finger along his jaw to the corner of his mouth. Chu Shuzhi turned to catch the finger between his teeth for a playful nip before kissing away the sting. 

“Do what?”

“Smile,” he said with a smile of his own that made Chu Shuzhi’s heart trip in his chest. “Your smile is so beautiful.” He looked at Chu Shuzhi thoughtfully for a moment then his smile slipped into a smirk that made Chu Shuzhi want to take him all over again. “On second thought, I like the idea of keeping this side of you to myself.”   

“You deserve all of this side- you’re the one who brought it out, after all,” Chu Shuzhi admitted with a lift of his shoulder. When Guo Changcheng blinked at him in a way that would make Shen Wei proud, Chu Shuzhi dropped a kiss to his forehead. “Before you I was angry all the time- at the world which turns a blind eye to those in need. Now, I see the world through your eyes and I know that there is also goodness, kindness, and compassion.” 

There were tears slipping silently down Guo Changcheng’s cheeks and Chu Shuzhi wiped them away with the pad of his thumb. 

“You burn so brightly and I will kick the ass of anyone that tries to dim that light of yours. You are amazing, Guo Changcheng.”

He leaned in to kiss Guo Changcheng again, but was stopped by a hand on his chest. Guo Changcheng was looking at him seriously with his brows drawn tight. 

“You say that you didn’t see compassion and kindness before you met me? What about you? You helped Zhao-ge learn how to fight just so he could impress the man he liked. You can say all you want that you did it because he wore you down, but I know you: if you didn’t want to do it, you wouldn’t have.” 

He spoke with passion and determination that rocked Chu Shuzhi back on his heels. He’d never considered himself compassionate except maybe to his brother, but hadn’t Zhao Yunlan and Hei Pao Shi become like family to him after his brother died and he found himself in a poorly run fighting ring? It was Zhao Yunlan that had pulled him out of there and made sure he was well cared for and Chu Shuzhi had paid that back in every way he could. 

“I am not some paragon of goodness, Chu-ge. Some days it’s a struggle, but I know that kindness is something I can give even when I have nothing else to offer. We are all a mix of light and dark and that’s what makes us all unique. I wouldn’t have you be anyone other than who you are.”

He laid a hand on Chu Shuzhi’s chest. Tears thickened his throat until he was unable to form words but swallowed against the burn. 

“I don’t deserve you,” Chu Shuzhi managed and Guo Changcheng smiled softly. 

“You deserve everything you could ever want out of life and more,” he assured him. 

“I want you. Just you,” Chu Shuzhi replied, laying his hand over Guo Changcheng’s on his chest. 

“You have me.” He leaned forward and sealed the promise with a kiss that tasted of tears. 

 

Epilogue

-GC-

Later, after Chu Shuzhi’s bruises had long healed, new ones formed and healed again, after Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei had decided to move in together, they finally moved all of Guo Changcheng’s things into what was once Chu Shuzhi’s room. They converted the second bedroom into an office for Guo Changcheng to continue his studies with more space- a handy thing for when Shen Wei came over to help, always accompanied by his loud boyfriend. They also kept the extra bed for guests- like Zhao Yunlan when he landed himself in the dog house. 

The second meeting of Guo Changcheng’s parents went as smoothly as it could, but with every visit home they warmed to the stoic man who obviously adored their son. They even began to see Guo Changcheng’s career path as a positive one- Chu Shuzhi had spoken seriously with them about the need for affordable medical care and how much of an asset to the community Guo Changcheng would be. Guo Changcheng wasn’t sure if it was his argument or the fierce expression on his face that convinced his parents, but he wasn’t going to complain either way. 

Guo Changcheng stood in their new office, looking for any other adjustments to be made when something caught his eye. He lifted the single piece of art from his wall and smiled. He picked up a hammer and nail from their small tool box and moved to the living room. He tapped the nail gently into the drywall and slipped the picture onto it then stepped back to admire his work. 

“Home?”

“Home is what you make of it. This is my home now. Here… with you.”

Chu Shuzhi stepped up behind him and wrapped his arms around Guo Changcheng’s waist then kissed the spot behind his ear that always made him squirm. 

“Home is with you,” Chu Shuzhi agreed, nuzzling the spot again. “I love you,” he whispered and gripped Guo Changcheng’s waist tighter when he melted against him. 

“I love you, too,” Guo Changcheng sighed.