All the words in Changcheng’s mouth dried up instantly when Chu-ge’s door swung open.
Chu-ge was happy — the deep, rolling sound of his laughter fading into a wide, curved grin directed at someone inside his apartment. His eyes were still gently crinkled when he finally turned and focused his gaze on Changcheng.
“Newbie,” Chu-ge said in a slightly sour tone, his grin shifting in the wrong direction, mouth angling downwards. “What are you doing here?”
“When I heard that Chu-ge was sick, I decided to bring a warming soup to help you recover,” Changcheng said fumblingly, still trying to recover from the way that Chu-ge’s rare and unexpected smile had made his knees feel liquid and slippery.
He thrust forward the container that he’d been clutching to his chest and smiled brightly, hoping that scent of the chicken and mushroom soup from Chu-ge’s favorite restaurant would erase the unhappy line that was developing between his eyebrows.
Chu-ge rubbed his forehead with the heel of his palm. “I took a day off, Xiao-Guo,” he said, impatient. “Not a sick day.”
Changcheng felt his cheeks start to burn. He was putting together the pieces: Chu-ge voluntarily taking time off, which seemed very out of character for him; his laughter and fondness as he’d looked back at whoever was here in the apartment with him; the way he was looking at Changcheng like his visit couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time.
Chu-ge had someone special over, and Changcheng was here ruining everything.
“I’m so sorry, Chu-ge,” Changcheng said, bowing his head a little to escape the ire in Chu-ge’s eyes. “I’ll let you get back to your, ah, companion —”
“Ge!” came a… strangely familiar voice, speaking in a lilting, curious tone. “Is that who I think it is?”
“QUIET!” Chu-ge yelled back, looking more high-strung by the second, like he was caught in a tightening vise between Changcheng and his guest. He turned his dark eyes back to Changcheng, pinning him. He snatched the soup out of Changcheng’s hands, using his other hand to point towards the entrance of the building. “I’ll drink the soup, now get out —”
But the rest of whatever Chu-ge was going to say was cut off by Changcheng’s high-pitched noise of surprise, when Chu-ge seemed to suddenly grew a second, identical head on his right shoulder, and that second head looked at Changcheng with a delighted grin and said, “Oh, ge, you have been holding out on me.”
Nianzhi hustled Changcheng into the apartment, herding him towards the small dining table while introducing himself and ignoring Chu-ge’s increasingly loud protests.
“You must be Shuzi’s new partner,” Nianzhi said, meeting Chu-ge’s pointed glare with an expression that was amused and a bit mischievous. “The one he keeps bringing up in his letters.”
Changcheng blinked at Nianzhi, feeling a fluttering in his chest at the thought of Chu-ge telling someone else about him. Nianzhi gestured for him to sit at the dining table where their dinner was laid out. There was steamed rice in a clay pot, eggplant in garlic sauce, and chicken with wood ear and lily flowers.
“Hmph, ‘partner,’” Chu-ge repeatedly sardonically, eyes rolling skyward and setting the soup container down on the table hard enough to slosh the liquid inside the sealed plastic tub. “I just keep this fool from getting himself killed.”
“Your brother has protected me many, many times!” Changcheng chirped in agreement, slipping his bag off his shoulder so he could hang it on the back of the chair. Although he hadn’t been expecting to meet Chu-ge’s brother — what luck that he’d decided to stop by tonight! — he already knew what an important opportunity this was, and he had no intention of wasting it. Since he knew Chu-ge wasn’t the type to speak of his own achievements, Changcheng would be more than happy to do it for him.
Chu-ge’s family should know what an amazing agent he was. They should be as proud of him as Changcheng was.
“It sounds like Shuzi has been keeping a close eye on you,” Nianzhi said smoothly, a slow smile growing on his face. He looked a Chu-ge, raising an eyebrow. “Since you’re new, of course.”
Changcheng smiled back with a nod, still a bit unsettled at seeing what appeared to be Chu-ge’s features on someone else’s face. At a quick glance, they seemed identical, but the impression faded almost immediately. Nianzhi exuded openness and friendliness, and there was an ease and fluidity in his movements that gave an impression of casual relaxation.
And his eyes were… distinct, from Chu-ge’s. Changcheng couldn’t pinpoint it beyond the feeling he got when those eyes were focused on him.
“Didi,” Chu-ge said with an edge in his voice, putting a hand on Changcheng’s shoulder and plopping him into his seat.
“What?” Nianzhi said breezily, setting a bowl and chopsticks in front of Changcheng before taking his own seat. “I think it’s wonderful that you’ve taken him under your wing.”
“Get more tea,” Chu-ge growled. Changcheng truly couldn’t figure out what was going on between them — he didn’t know what it was like to have a sibling, much less what Dixing sibling relationships were like — but he hoped that his presence wasn’t causing undue strain between the brothers.
Nianzhi held his hands up in placating gesture with a light laugh, standing and going off to the kitchen.
“Chu-ge, I’m sorry for interr—”
“It’s fine,” Chu-ge snapped before Changcheng could even finish his apology.
Deciding it would be best to let Chu-ge have a moment, Changcheng busied himself with the food, opening up the soup container. Chu-ge’s dishes were in a dark, wood cabinet next to the dining table so he leaned over and grabbed three small soup bowls, three ceramic spoons, and a large spoon for serving. Changcheng had only ever seen glances of the apartment through the door before and surreptitiously glanced around, a little saddened at how… sparse everything seemed. There were no pictures, no decorations, and all of the dishes were mismatched and chipped. The table they were eating at had also seen better days, full of water rings and scratches on the surface.
Maybe he could find out Chu-ge’s birthday from Nianzhi before he left, so he’d have an excuse to buy him some nice things for his home.
“Guo Changcheng,” Nianzhi said when he emerged from the kitchen. He was carrying a blue porcelain tea set, which matched the color of the shirt he was wearing very closely. Changcheng thought that Nianzhi must have had the same thought he had and bought Chu-ge the tea set. Changcheng felt a warmth to see that Nianzhi was caring for Chu-ge that way. “Please try this special blend from Dixing, a rare tea plant that we adapted to our environment with the help of dark energy.”
Changcheng accepted the proffered cup with both hands, inclining his head. “It would be my honor, Chu Nianzhi, thank you!”
“It’s just tea,” Chu-ge muttered, grabbing his cup from the tray with another eyeroll.
“It’s delicious!” Changcheng gasped, his eyes widening as the brew slid down his throat. It was complex, with hints of toasted rice and a wild kind of herbal flavor that was somehow almost sweet and slightly acidic at the same time.
“I brought plenty, I’ll send you home with a small bag,” Nianzhi said, leaning over and putting a hand on Chu-ge’s shoulder and squeezing. “And it’s my brother’s favorite, so he can teach you how to brew it.”
“Oh,” Changcheng said, tapping his finger nervously on the rim of his cup. He wasn’t graceful at the best of times, and could only imagine how clumsily he would brew tea under Chu-ge’s stern gaze. “I wouldn’t want to presume on Chu-ge’s time…”
“I’ll teach you the proper way,” Chu-ge grumbled, and then downed his cup in one sip.
Changcheng awkwardly gulped more tea as he looked at the long line of Chu-ge’s throat created when he tilted his head back.
“Now eat,” Chu-ge barked after slamming his cup down on the table. He grabbed a piece of eggplant with his chopsticks and dropped it into Changcheng’s bowl pointedly. Changcheng smiled, ducking his head a little, and began to nibble on it.
“You are visiting from Dixing, Chu Nianzhi?” Changcheng asked.
“Aaaah… yes,” Nianzhi said. “Visiting, yes.”
“He sneaks through,” Chu-ge said, deadpan. “I keep telling him that one of these days I’ll report him.”
“To come and visit my one and only brother! And I’m not causing any trouble,” Nianzhi said, throwing his hands up in the air. “Besides, if the Envoy sends me back, he’ll just save me the trouble of going the long way.”
Chu-ge made a low, displeased sound.
“This chicken is so good!” Changcheng said in an effort to distract them, kicking himself for once again finding exactly the wrong topic.
Chu-ge’s irritated expression dissolved, and he blinked at Changcheng, and then quickly looked down. He grabbed another piece from the dish, plopping it into Changcheng’s bowl. “Have more,” he said.
“Thank you, Chu-ge,” Changcheng said, his cheeks warm. The light around Chu-ge’s face seemed brighter, like he was surrounded with a soft halo.
“He may not have any manners, but he’s a very good cook,” Nianzhi said, picking up a few more pieces of food for himself, as well.
“Chu-ge made all this?” Changcheng said. “Wow, Chu-ge! I had no idea you were so talented!”
And then Chu-ge finally looked at him, and he seemed almost pleased. Changcheng looked at him in wonder, because he was becoming more and more beautiful before Changcheng’s eyes — Changcheng could have sworn his skin was actually twinkling.
He took another sip of tea, licking his lips.
“Are you all right, Guo Changcheng?” Nianzhi asked, tilting his head. “Your face — should I open a window?”
Changcheng reached a hand up, touching his cheek, which felt scalding to the touch. He giggled. “Ooooh, I’m so warm! It must be all of Chu-ge’s incredible food!”
“Xiao-Guo,” Chu-ge said, standing up so suddenly that it made Changcheng a little dizzy. He came to kneel in front of Changcheng, placing a hand on Changcheng’s knee. “What’s happening? Are you all right?”
Changcheng looked down at Chu-ge, and oh, that was nice, the way his long fingers were curling around Changcheng’s knee. And his face, it was sparkling, even his eyelashes, framing the worry in his eyes.
“Chu-ge…” Changcheng whispered, reaching out for Chu-ge’s beautiful, ethereal skin, sighing when he felt the cool, smooth curve of Chu-ge’s cheek. “You are so…”
But then his eyes slid closed and he was falling forward, but he wasn’t scared, because he knew that Chu-ge would catch him.
“Yes, well,” Chu-ge hissed. “We’ll see tomorrow, won’t we?”
“Indeed we will, ge,” Nianzhi laughed, sounding happy with himself. “I think you’ll be in for quite the surprise.”
Changcheng rubbed at his eyes, sighing as he woke up.
“Changcheng,” Chu-ge was there instantly, kneeling at Changcheng’s side. Changcheng was lying on Chu-ge’s tattered black couch, pillows under his feet and head. “Are you okay?”
“Chu-ge? I’m…” Changcheng blinked, taking a beat. “I feel fine, just a little sleepy. What…happened?”
“My idiot brother,” Chu-ge said, with a venomous glance in Nianzhi’s direction. “Your human body did not react well to the Dixing tea.”
“Oh,” Changcheng said, embarrassed. He was always so weak in front of Chu-ge. “I’m sorry, Chu-ge. I ruined your nice dinner.”
Chu-ge made a loud, frustrated noise, looking skyward. “Don’t apologize for my brother’s stupid mistake!”
“He’s right,” Nianzhi agreed. “If anyone ruined dinner, it was me. But, please! Allow me to make it up to you. We can all go out to dinner tomorrow night and drink nice human tea.”
And no matter how embarrassed he was, Changcheng could never turn down an invitation to spend more time with Chu-ge. “That would be very nice, Chu Nianzhi, thank you.”
“Can you walk?” Chu-ge asked, putting a hand on Changcheng’s upper arm. “I’ll take you home.”
Changcheng had a strange feeling that if he couldn’t walk, Chu-ge might carry him. He pushed that thought away quickly, getting himself up to a seated position.
He tried to tell Chu-ge that he didn’t need an escort home, but Chu-ge was firm, leading Changcheng out the door with a hand on his shoulder. Nianzhi waved as they walked down the hallway, telling them to stay safe.
Changcheng walked slowly in the dark streets, a bit wobbly on his feet, but Chu-ge didn’t seem to mind. They walked in silence, but at least it didn’t seem like Chu-ge was angry anymore, so Changcheng just tried to keep his yawns quiet and focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
When they were at his doorstep, he tried to think of the right thing to say, though his thoughts were still slow and thick.
“Thank you for letting me meet your brother, Chu-ge,” is what came out. And he was thankful, even if it had been by accident. To meet Chu-ge’s family was an honor he did not take lightly.
Chu-ge’s mouth tilted strangely. “I always thought you two would get along,” he said. Changcheng didn’t know if it was his tiredness, but the words sounded almost bitter. “Goodnight, Xiao-Guo.”
Changcheng’s mind was swirling as he walked to the restaurant, trying to make a list of all the questions he wanted to
ask. Things had gone so poorly last night, but there was no telling if he’d ever get to talk to Nianzhi again, and he very much hoped to find out more about Chu-ge’s younger years, and about how he’d grown up in Dixing.
But when he found them, standing together in the street in front of the entrance, he wondered if he was still feeling the effects of the tea.
Nianzhi was wearing Chu-ge’s black clothes, the exact thing that Chu-ge wore to work every day. His face was serious, almost scowling. And Chu-ge was in the jeans that Nianzhi had been wearing yesterday, and a long sleeve blue shirt, and he was holding his posture loose and relaxed, hands in his pockets and hip tilted to the side.
Changcheng rubbed his hand over his face, trying to figure out what was happening, but then they spotted him.
“Xiao-Guo,” Nianzhi said gruffly. “Let’s go in.”
“So glad you could make it!” Chu-ge said in a more lilting tone, in an eerily good impression of Nianzhi.
And Changcheng felt the anger rise in him so quickly that he almost couldn’t breathe, because if they thought they were being original, little did they know how many times he’d had jokes played on him. How many times people thought it would be fun to laugh at him. His hands clenched into fists and he very nearly turned on his heel and stalked away.
But then Chu-ge took two quick strides over, wrapping his arm around Changcheng’s shoulders.
“Guo Changcheng,” he said softly, eyebrows furrowing. “Are you feeling well? Are you still sick from the tea?”
And whatever clothes he was wearing, and whatever strange thing he was doing with his brother tonight — Changcheng saw the naked concern in his eyes, and it dissolved the hot, tight stone in his chest like a gentle caress. He didn’t look like he was laughing at Changcheng.
Changcheng took a breath, filling his chest slowly. Maybe he’d jumped to conclusions. Maybe this was a Dixing custom that he didn’t know about, or maybe there was some other explanation. He would give Chu-ge the chance to explain, later, when he was being himself again and they were alone.
“I’m fine!” Changcheng said, smiling, enjoying the weight of Chu-ge’s arm. “I just got a chill, Chu Nianzhi. Let’s go inside.”
“Good,” Chu-ge said, and then he smiled, easily and brightly, and — oh, maybe Changcheng had been looking at this all wrong, if Chu-ge was going to keep doing this all night long. Chu-ge also didn’t remove his arm as they walked into the restaurant, and Changcheng was more than a little boneless by the time they made it to the table.
They were at the best Vietnamese restaurant in the city, a spot that was very popular for dates, which was why at least half the diners tonight were couples. The lighting was low, supplemented with candles, and Changcheng ran a finger over the petals of the large pink peony in the middle of the table, appreciating its beauty.
“Do you like flowers, Guo Changcheng?” Chu-ge asked, leaning his cheek on his fist as he looked at Changcheng. His gaze was warm.
Changcheng thought of the bouquets that he brought to the graveyard with every visit. How that’s what flowers had become for him — one of the paltry offerings he brought for the people who were no longer with him.
The way that Chu-ge was looking at him, Changcheng thought he might like flowers to become something else.
“I think they are very beautiful,” Changcheng said, and if his voice was a little coy, well, he didn’t see how anyone could blame him.
Nianzhi was glancing between them, and Changcheng had to give him credit — he captured Chu-ge’s stormy expression and narrowed eyes very well, but he couldn’t quite hide the amused glint that was there, which he probably assumed Changcheng wasn’t looking for.
And before long, it was almost as if Nianzhi weren’t there. Changcheng hadn’t intended to ignore him, but being able to talk to Chu-ge this way — to have his questions answered so easily, to see Chu-ge’s laughter and smiles so free — it was intoxicating. In the first fifteen minutes, Changcheng found out: their birthday, and that they were born in the year of the third star, according to Dixing astrology; that Chu-ge had been a handful as a youth, and Nianzhi had been the well-behaved child who’d turned into a slightly troublemaking adult; and that when they’d been children even their own parents had trouble telling them apart.
No wonder they were so confident in their performances tonight, Changcheng realized, though he still didn’t understand their motivation, because most of the stories they were sharing involved them trying to avoid punishments.
“And are you dating anyone, Guo Changcheng?” Chu-ge asked, handing his menu to the server without even looking at the man, his eyes steady on Changcheng.
“Don’t be so nosy with my coworker, didi,” Nianzhi said, shooting a very genuine-looking glare at Chu-ge.
“I don’t mind,” Changcheng said, because secretly he was thrilled that Chu-ge was so curious about him. He barely dared hope, but he was starting to think that perhaps his hopeless feelings might not be quite so hopeless, after all. Changcheng shook his head and ducked his chin. “I am not. That is why sometimes my uncle tries to set me up.”
“He what?” Chu-ge said sharply, his voice sounding more like himself.
“It’s been awhile since the last one,” Changcheng said. “It did not… go well.”
Chu-ge stuck his chin out and waved a hand dismissively. “Their loss, then. Guo Changcheng is clearly a worthy match.”
“Ch—” Changcheng stopped himself from saying Chu-ge’s name just in time, but it was a near thing, the shock rolling through him.
His heart beat and loud and ponderously in his chest, and a fine shiver spiderwebbed out underneath his skin. He watched Chu-ge with a level of fixation that was probably inappropriate and obvious, but he couldn’t see a single sign of artifice, no indication of another layer of meaning beneath the words.
In fact, he said them so casually that it was as if the sentiment were obvious. That Changcheng was obviously a worthy, desirable match.
Changcheng reached for his glass of iced tea just for something to do, something to bring him back down to Earth because he was spinning, but he fumbled and ended up spilling it all over himself. He gasped at the cold, clumsily brushing the pieces of ice off his lap.
“Xiao-Guo!” Nianzhi exclaimed, standing up and coming over to him.
Nianzhi grabbed the napkins off the table, dabbing them all along the front of Changcheng’s shirt roughly. Then Chu-ge was looking away to call a server over, and Nianzhi stopped dabbing, catching Changcheng’s eye.
Nianzhi raised a single eyebrow in a clear question.
Changcheng hoped very much that he was interpreting correctly, and gave a slight nod in answer.
And for just a second Nianzhi grinned, wide and triumphant, washing away any lingering doubts Changcheng had that he was just imagining that they’d switched places. Nianzhi gave a quick wink before cleanly wiping all expression away and assuming a scowl once more.
“Watch what you’re doing,” Nianzhi said with a bite before getting up and returning to his seat.
“Here,” Chu-ge said, his tone solicitous. He slid the glass across the table. “I had the server bring you another.”
“Thank you,” Changcheng said, bobbing his head and taking the glasswith both hands, raising it briefly in Chu-ge’s direction. Chu-ge surprised Changcheng by picking up his own glass. They clinked them together in a toast, both their smiles getting just a touch larger when the glasses made contact. Then Changcheng raised his glass to Nianzhi, and Chu-ge almost startled, like he’d forgotten that his brother was there for a second.
The steaming bowls of noodle soup arrived and Changcheng inhaled deeply, relishing the delicious aroma before taking his first bite. He suppressed a giggle as he watched the twins — Nianzhi tried shoving a large helping of noodles into his mouth, but seemed to struggle when it came time to chew them, and Chu-ge was trying to eat only a few noodles at a time, visibly restraining himself.
“And how do you like working at the SID, Guo Changcheng?” Chu-ge asked, arranging a noodle in his ceramic spoon, but Changcheng could feel his attention.
“Well,” Changcheng said, playing with one of his bean sprouts, letting his tone drop down a level. “To be honest with you, Chu Nianzhi…”
Chu-ge raised his gaze, the noodle left hanging halfway out of the spoon.
“In the beginning, it was… very hard.” Changcheng found himself admitting as he looked into Chu-ge’s attentive eyes. “Every morning, I was sick to my stomach waiting for Chief Zhao to fire me. At night, I could barely sleep.”
Chu-ge’s easy demeanor began to evaporate, a frown brewing like a storm.
Changcheng brought a hand to his chest, fiddling with the collar of his shirt. “The team mostly tolerated me, but all I did was get in your brother’s way, Chu Nianzhi. I even wrote a resignation letter, thinking that I would save Chief Zhao the trouble. I was so useless, you see… I didn’t want him to feel bad for letting me go. ”
“Then why have you stayed,” Chu-ge said in an awful, flat voice, the night’s pretense clearly forgotten for the moment.
Changcheng ducked his head, smiling a little, because he was taking a gamble — he was drawing it out a bit, now that these two had their fun — but he felt it might work out.
He caught Chu-ge’s eye when he raised his head again.
“I stayed because of Chu-ge,” Changcheng confessed softly, letting the smile into his voice. “You see, one night, I was so frustrated with myself — Chu-ge had protected me again, and what was I good for other than putting him in more danger?”
Changcheng shrugged, now grinning fully. “But then I realized that was exactly it! It didn’t matter if I was good or useful, Chu-ge would always protect me anyway. He showed me what a true protector is.”
Changcheng watched the way a slow dissolution overtook Chu-ge’s features — his scowl melting into a softer, confused look, almost bordering on astonished.
“He made me realize that I didn’t have to do anything to deserve his protection.” Changcheng said, keeping his eyes steady on Chu-ge. “And that is what made me want to be worthy of it. And to work every day with the hope that one day, I could do the same for him.”
Chu-ge’s gaze was stark and piercing in a way that was completely new — brimming an inquisition that wasn’t harsh or aggressive, but rather seemed desperate to understand. It sent silken shivers along the back of Changcheng’s neck, almost made him feel as if Chu-ge were seeing him for the first time.
Changcheng’s cheeks flushed deeply under the naked scrutiny, having laid bare a bit more than he’d intended, but he didn’t regret it. Changcheng had wanted to find a way for Nianzhi to hear about how incredible his brother was, and Chu-ge had given him the perfect opening.
“Oooooooh,” Nianzhi groaned, breaking their locked gazes as he doubled over in his chair. “Xiao-Guo! I certainly don’t deserve your generous words, but you will have to excuse me because I don’t feel well!”
“You —” Chu-ge hissed at his brother, reaching out for him, but Nianzhi heaved himself out of his chair and Chu-ge’s reach.
“Are you well…?” Changcheng started to ask at the same time, half-rising from his chair.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” Nianzhi said quickly, interrupting them both. He gave a sloppy half bow before hurrying off in the direction of the bathroom.
The silence after he left was awkward, and they both looked down at their food, moving it around more than eating it. Thankfully they didn’t have to wait long, and Chu-ge rose from his seat when he spotted Nianzhi across the room. As soon as Chu-ge reached him, they began a very heated discussion — Chu-ge’s hand slashed the air, and Nianzhi just grinned back at him, reaching out and squeezing his shoulder. He pointed down at his stomach with an expression that was full of disingenuous regret, and before Changcheng knew what was happening, Nianzhi was leaving the restaurant with one last wink thrown over his shoulder at Changcheng before he was out of sight.
Chu-ge arrived back at the table looked harried. “My didi is sick, so we should —”
But just then a server arrived, carrying a tray with two drinks, and another with two desserts. One of the desserts was the bowl of osmanthus and wolfberry jelly that Changcheng had been looking at on the menu earlier, and the other was a decadent slice of cheesecake drizzled with a crimson syrup and decorated with edible flower petals around the rim of the plate.
“Ooooh,” Changcheng said, clapping his hands together at the sight. Both he and his auntie loved sweets, and he was definitely going to take pictures of these to show her later.
“We didn’t order these,” Chu-ge said, jaw twitching.
The server inclined her head. “The gentlemen who just left paid for the meal and added these to the order, saying that he wanted to ‘apologize for ruining dinner.’”
“Of course he did,” Chu-ge said, and for some reason in that moment his tension broke, and he barked out a laugh. The corner of his mouth lifted and he shook his head, pulling out his chair and sitting down. The smile lingered on his lips, exuding a fond exasperation as the server placed the drinks and dishes. Changcheng was glad to see that although the brothers seemed to enjoy butting heads, there was obviously an unshakeable bond there that no silly argument would truly break.
“We may as well enjoy them, then,” Chu-ge said, some of the easy warmth he’d had earlier returning. He slid the plate with the cheesecake towards Changcheng, and then raised both eyebrows expectantly.
“Oh,” Changchang said, covering his mouth with his hand briefly at the way Chu-ge was doting on him. (He’d also been hoping to have the jelly, but there was no way he would break the spell of the moment by saying that.) A traitorous voice in his head said that whatever kindness Changcheng was imagining was just because of the part Chu-ge was trying to act, but Changcheng stubbornly pushed that voice away and snapped a quick shot with his camera before portioning a small bite onto his fork.
“Mm-mm,” he hummed, eyes sliding closed as he tasted the rich creaminess that was perfectly complemented with tart raspberry-lemon sauce.
Chu-ge’s eyes were glinting with some unreadable emotion when Changcheng finished.
“Now please try this one, Guo Changcheng,” Chu-ge said, pushing the bowl with the jelly forward, not taking his eyes off Changcheng.
“Oh, I —” Changcheng shook his head, because even though everything happening right now was the real live culmination of more than a few of his persistent daydreams, he couldn’t possibly be so selfish. “You should have one, Chu Nianzhi! I can’t eat them both by myself.”
“I will,” Chu-ge said, smiling a little lazily. “But you first.”
“Oo-kay,” Changcheng relented, unable to stop the way his voice went liquid, because he was slowly unraveling under the strength of Chu-ge’s gaze pinning him.
It took a mighty amount of concentration to get the slippery confection onto the spoon, but when he bit down on the light, refreshing sweetness he made another low sound in his chest. The texture was so nice that he sighed when he finished.
Chu-ge was running the pad of his thumb over his bottom lip, his eyes molten and dark.
“Let me walk you home, Guo Changcheng,” he said in a low rumble, and all Changcheng could do was nod wordlessly as Chu-ge raised a hand to summon the server for takeaway boxes.
Changcheng felt every nerve ending alive as they made their way through the streets, could almost imagine that he felt Chu-ge’s heat where their shoulders were brushing.
Chu-ge was staying frustratingly silent beside him, just looking at Changcheng every now and then with an intensity that was both thrilling and terrifying. Changcheng’s emotions were devolving into a confused riot — was this really happening? Was this Chu-ge, or Chu-ge pretending to be his brother, or some other convoluted possibility that Changcheng hadn’t even considered? Maybe he was still hallucinating from that tea and none of this was even real.
He was so jittery and focused on trying to surreptitiously glance at Chu-ge that he didn’t even see the drop in the curb, and felt himself swinging wildly before a pair of strong arms came around him, pulling him upright.
“Changcheng,” Chu-ge’s warm breath was a white cloud of vapor in the air between them, dissipating just before reaching Changcheng’s lips. “Be careful.”
“I—I’m—sorry,” Changcheng gasped, his hands reflexively squeezing Chu-ge’s upper arms. Heat pooled low in his belly as he gripped the hard, unyielding muscles.
Chu-ge stepped back, but stayed close to Changcheng’s side, keeping a hand under his elbow. Changcheng was grateful, because his knees and ankles and joints in general were having trouble interpreting the signals from his jumbled mind right now.
Over the course of a few blocks, Chu-ge’s pace slowed, until he pulled them to a stop underneath a streetlight a block away from Changcheng’s home.
Changcheng looked at him, but he had no words any longer. He couldn’t call him by his brother’s name now, even if he was still in the wrong clothes and this night hadn’t ended yet. He wanted to give Chu-ge a chance to explain on his own, but he couldn’t pretend anymore, not when he felt… this way. Not when every part of him was crying out to get closer to Chu-ge and it was taking all of his willpower to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Chu-ge dropped his hand, breaking their contact, and looked down at the sidewalk.
Changcheng took a tiny step forward, nervously raveling and unraveling his fingers as he stood. “Yes?” He said quietly, feeling like he might break something fragile if he spoke any louder.
“Do you think… could you ever…” And then Chu-ge looked up, and it jolted Changcheng in the chest. Gone was the warmth, the curiosity, the anger from earlier. He looked so pained that it felt like a physical blow, and Changcheng couldn’t take it.
“Chu-ge,” Changcheng whispered vehemently, reaching out and grabbing one of Chu-ge’s hands, gripping it tightly. “Please, whatever it is, it’s all right.”
Chu-ge’s body reacted as if he’d been hit with the shock baton, but he didn’t pull his hand away.
“You knew?” Chu-ge said in dismay.
“Of course,” Changcheng said, huffing a small laugh and angling his body to give Chu-ge a playful shoulder bump. “Nianzhi may look similar, but I will always recognize you, no matter whose clothes you put on.”
Chu-ge’s eyes widened in pure disbelief. “Changcheng,” he breathed, sounding awestruck. He stepped between the last of the distance dividing them, sliding his arm around Changcheng’s lower back, pulling Changcheng in.
“But,” Changcheng said, relaxing happily into Chu-ge’s hold. He reached up, playing with one of the buttons on the front of Chu-ge’s coat. “I would like to go out with you, Chu-ge.”
“Just me?” Chu-ge said in an amused tone.
“Yes,” Changcheng said, and even with the way they were standing, it still felt bold to finish with, “a real date.”
“Good, because next time I want to bring you flowers,” Chu-ge said, his voice gentle and affectionate, pulling Changcheng in the rest of the way and kissing him.