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It’s a beautiful wedding. If it were anyone else’s wedding, Xiao Zhan would have been radiantly happy for the couple. He would have had a lovely evening and then gone home tipsy and joyful in that way that he only gets after wedding champagne. But Yibo is his — ex is too strong. They weren’t properly together, they never really dated. His something. His former something. His claim to Yibo is former, very much in the past, and now Yibo is married to someone else. It’s a beautiful wedding. Xiao Zhan goes home tipsy and very sad.

The wedding is a wake up call of sorts. It becomes harder and harder to make excuses to skip out on events where he might run into Yibo, or worse: Yibo and his lovely wife. Xiao Zhan turns down endorsement deals because they are too similar to things he knows Yibo is doing, and he doesn’t want to see the fan conspiracy theories online. He starts picking roles based on how long he’d be away from the city, and then he starts picking roles based on how infrequently he’d have to leave his apartment.

A year passes, and then two. Yibo and his wife smile for the cameras, they give charming interviews together, they go on glamorous beachside holidays. They look happy, and Xiao Zhan is happy for them. Really, honestly, he wants them to be happy. He just doesn’t want to look at it anymore.

The offer from Tencent is perfectly timed. They are spinning up a new lifestyle show, some all-in-one program modelled on a western series. They want Xiao Zhan as the handsome young sidekick to an older actress. They’ll walk the viewers through recipes and handicrafts, and show them how to plant gardens on their windowsills. More importantly, they’ll shoot in a studio in Beijing and Xiao Zhan would rarely have to travel.

His managers urge him to think carefully, but Xiao Zhan knows he is going to take it as soon as he reads the pitch. It sounds quiet, or at least as quiet as things get in his profession. They want him to sing occasionally, they want to shoot closeups of his hands while he cooks. It’s something his parents would watch. It’s exactly what he needs.

It ends up being one of the best things he’s done for himself in years. He sleeps better, he gets more exercise just for the sake of it. The producers don’t care if you can see the sharp jut of his cheekbones from every angle, so he eats better, too. He has a regular schedule, regular enough that he has no compunctions about picking Jianguo up from his parents and bringing her home with him.

It’s a good change. It’s such a good change. He buys himself a lovely home, a proper house in a quiet suburb. He spends more time in the kitchen and with his sketchpad. He sets up an easel in the corner of the lounge where he gets lots of sun. He gets another kitten, a scrappy little thing named Hetao, to keep Jianguo company while he’s out during the day.

Another year passes and the show is a success. Xiao Zhan signs a contract for a further couple of years. His parents stop asking him when he’ll bring someone home for the holidays. His friends stop teasing him about his change of speed and his perpetual singleness. He deleted Yibo’s number years ago, and he pays as little attention as possible to celebrity gossip.

His new life is quiet, but it’s the nice kind of quiet — private and restful. He tells everyone who asks that he’s happy. And he is. It’s not a lie. He is content.

*

For all that he avoids entertainment news, it’s hard to miss when Wang Yibo’s messy, public divorce makes national headlines. Xiao Zhan doesn’t click on any of the articles or watch the news, but he somehow learns all the details through osmosis. He is fervently glad that he hosts a lifestyle program and there’s no chance he’ll be forced to interview either of them.

He can’t help but feel bad for both parties — everything is being aired out so publicly, and it becomes nasty. Xiao Zhan knows Yibo is probably trying not to make things worse for either of them, but he also knows how quickly the narrative can spiral out of control. By the end of the week, Yibo and his wife have less privacy than ever, and their fans are at war.

Xiao Zhan tells himself that he’s feeling professional sympathy, nothing more, as it continues to escalate. Someone breaks into Yibo’s apartment and writes horrible things on the walls in paint. He’s not home, thankfully, but it’s a terrifying breach of his privacy and security. His fans retaliate by dumping paint on his wife (and Xiao Zhan hates that he knows that the papers haven’t been signed yet) as she leaves an appointment.

It’s awful to watch. It’s too much. Whatever he was to Yibo once upon a time, Xiao Zhan decides he can’t just sit by. He makes a comment on the show they shoot that day, and he’s pleased to see that it makes the final cut when it airs a few days later. He knows better than to make trouble for himself. His statement is just vague enough, urging everyone to calm down.

He also puts some feelers out, reaching out to friends in the industry. Xuan Lu, the best as always, gets him Yibo’s current number right away.

They haven’t spoken for years. They hadn’t really broken up — it hadn’t been enough of a thing to break up — but it had been kind of awkward at the end, and they’d both just let the friendship fade. Still. Xiao Zhan just wants to know that Yibo is safe.

He tucks himself into his favourite armchair at home that night and opens a beer. It takes him ten minutes to draft the message, and he still ends up being kind of weird and abrupt. He doesn’t know how else to reach out. It’s late and he’s tired. He has to check. Hey, he taps out. It’s Xiao Zhan. Do you have somewhere safe to stay?

The response is immediate. Hey, Xiao-laoshi :) Hope you didn’t get in too much trouble for your comments.

He’d never really thought about Yibo watching his show. He’s not sure how he’s meant to feel about that, so he pushes the idea aside and presses on. He just wants to know that Yibo is not in any immediate danger, that someone’s looking out for him, so he can go to bed.

Yibo is not really in a good place, though. I’m okay, he writes. New hotel every night, fans keep finding the bookings.

He makes a joke about reviewing all the best room service offerings, but it’s just flat and sad. Xiao Zhan looks around his lovely home in his quiet suburb. He thinks about the tall gates and the neighbours that leave him be. He thinks about the spare bedroom.

Don’t be silly, he replies, tapping the words out before he can overthink them. Stay with me.

It’s a sign of how bad things must be that Yibo only pushes back a little. Xiao Zhan sends him a stern Lan Wangji meme, just for old time’s sake, and Yibo folds in his next message. Thank you, Xiao Zhan. Only for a day or so, just until my team works out a better plan. Please send me your address in the morning.

Xiao Zhan takes a swig of his beer. He’s pretty sure the sheets in the spare room are clean. It’s after midnight, but he sends his address back immediately. Don’t be stupid. Come now, less people to follow you.

Yibo had always seemed like such a big presence to Xiao Zhan, even before they were whatever they were (before Xiao Zhan fell in love with a co-worker, he knows exactly what happened). But he looks small, tired and drawn, when he shows up on Xiao Zhan’s doorstep at two in the morning.

It’s awkward. It’s unbearably awkward. Yibo shuffles in with a couple of suitcases and he’s far too grateful, far too thankful for Xiao Zhan’s tired brain. It’s like all the bullshit compliment fights from their summer of filming, but real. It’s too much. He shows Yibo to the spare room and escapes.

The next morning is just as bad. Yibo sleeps late and Xiao Zhan does his best to get on with his day. That plan is entirely derailed when Yibo wanders into the kitchen mid-morning, soft and sleep rumpled and so handsome in the sunlight.

Xiao Zhan is furious for a second. Furious that Yibo looks this good; furious that he’s going to have to live with this memory of Yibo in his kitchen forever; furious that he never got to have this, not for real. And then, looking at the bags under Yibo’s eyes, furious on Yibo’s behalf.

He takes a breath and lets it go. His quiet life has done wonders for his temperament. He offers Yibo some coffee. He sets Yibo up with a spare key and the wifi password. He invites Yibo to avail himself of the kitchen and anything else in the house. They hover around each other, unsure and stilted where they used to be totally in sync. It sucks. But Yibo is safe. It’ll only be for a couple of days.

*

It is not a couple of days, but it becomes slightly less awkward as they muddle along. Yibo is still overly cautious and overly grateful. He tiptoes around like he’s afraid to upset Xiao Zhan by existing too loudly.

Xiao Zhan hates it. He hates it. The Yibo he knew was loud and kind of untidy and unapologetically himself. He lived in the organised chaos of someone who knew exactly where all their things were by virtue of spreading them across the entire room. He doesn’t do that here. This Yibo skirts around the edges of every open space and puts things back exactly where he got them.

It’s awful, but Xiao Zhan is unused to sharing his space with anyone but his cats. He’s brusque and strained when he tries to talk to Yibo about making himself more at home in Xiao Zhan’s house. It doesn’t land — Yibo shrinks back even further, tucking himself into little pockets of space instead of spreading out. Xiao Zhan doesn’t know how else to explain that he just wants Yibo to be himself, and it turns into this simmering thing between them.

A weird tension boils, but neither of them seems to know how to fix it. Xiao Zhan knows Yibo doesn’t like being cooped up at home. He can see that he’s antsy and fractious, but he creeps around like he expects Xiao Zhan to kick him out if he is anything less than polite and grateful.

Xiao Zhan is hurt by that. It cuts through the core of him. He understands that he was just a fling for Yibo, that it was just a summer of fun. He gets it, really. He does. But he’d also thought they’d been friends for a while. They’d been close. It hurts that Yibo thinks so poorly of him, that he thinks Xiao Zhan would throw him to the wolves for leaving a cup out.

On the surface, they have all these polite, pleasant conversations. Yibo asks about Xiao Zhan’s day and Xiao Zhan tells carefully neutral stories about work or shared acquaintances. They talk about the laundry and grocery deliveries and feeding the cats. It’s all perfectly reasonable. And underneath, Xiao Zhan just wants to shake Yibo. He wants to yell at him until he goes back to normal, to the Yibo he knows.

He doesn’t want to consider that maybe he just doesn’t know Yibo any more, that maybe he never knew Yibo.

Weeks pass. Weeks of the awful, simmering tension papered over with politeness, until Xiao Zhan comes home late one night, tired and cranky. They’d had a terrible day on set: none of their recipes had worked out the first time, and he’d been thoroughly pecked by a small parrot during a segment on apartment pets. He is exhausted in a way he hasn’t felt in a very long time.

When he walks through the door, the house is immaculate. Everything is neat and tidy. The lights are off. It looks like no one is home. It looks like Yibo isn’t there.

Except for one fucking sneaker. One stupid, chunky, absurdly expensive sneaker. It is sitting with its pair by the door, ever so slightly out of place. It’s enough for Xiao Zhan to stumble over it in the dark.

He manages not to trip, but he stubs his toe on the wall when he catches himself. He drops his bag. His keys go skittering away across the floor. The cats promptly lose their shit, hissing and tearing around the house. Yibo rushes out of his bedroom, eyes wide. The sneaker has been kicked halfway down the hall and it’s immediately obvious what has happened.

Yibo starts apologising, eyes huge and dark and wary as he stammers out regrets.

“Shut up,” Xiao Zhan hisses, stalking towards him. “Shut up.”

Yibo can’t help himself, and that, at least, is familiar. “I’m really sorry, Xiao Zhan,” he pleads.

The full name hits Xiao Zhan in the chest like a knife. He corners Yibo as all the weird frustration of the last few weeks rushes up his throat and spews out of him. “Don’t apologise,” he bites out, looming into Yibo’s space. “Don’t you dare apologise. You think I haven’t tripped over your shoes before? You think I don’t know how messy you are? Who the fuck is this ghost I’m living with?”

Yibo flinches. Xiao Zhan plows on, “Do you really think so little of me? Do you really think I’d throw you out over something like this?”

Yibo looks like he’s going to say something. He pushes off the wall, stepping towards Xiao Zhan and closing the gap between them. They’re so close that Xiao Zhan could count his eyelashes if he weren’t nearly incoherent with rage.

“Do not fucking apologise,” Xiao Zhan grits out as Yibo opens his mouth.

“No, fuck you,” Yibo snaps. “Fuck you, Zhan-ge.”

And, shit, that hurts. That hurts. Yibo hasn’t called him that for years. The wedding might have been the last time.

“Of course I don’t think you’re going to throw me out. You’re too good for that, you asshole,” Yibo goes on. “You’re too fucking kind for your own good, taking in a stray, letting me hide here and ruin your quiet little life—“

His stupid, pretty mouth is pulled up into a sneer as he says, “You’re too fucking good for me, you always were—” and Xiao Zhan sees red. He grabs Yibo by the shoulders and kisses him, a furious, aggrieved collision.

Yibo kisses him back, and that makes Xiao Zhan even madder. It’s so good. It was always so good between them.

“Fuck you,” he growls against Yibo’s lips, and then they don’t speak for a while. It’s just a fierce push and pull, teeth and tongue and fingers digging in too tightly.

Yibo pops half the buttons from Xiao Zhan’s shirt as he rips it open. Xiao Zhan retaliates by grabbing the collar of Yibo’s soft sleep tee and tearing it. He twists his fist into the fabric and uses it as leverage to push Yibo up against the wall, jamming a leg between his thighs.

“You fucking asshole,” Yibo pants again, rolling his hips and bringing them together. His body is a live wire, silk and electricity. Xiao Zhan gives as good as he gets. It’s more fighting than fucking; they push and shove and rut against each other, bouncing off the walls of the hallway and biting out invectives.

Xiao Zhan is going to win this if it kills him. He forces his own seething arousal down and sucks hickeys into Yibo’s neck. He scrapes his teeth over Yibo’s throat and jams a hand between them to cup Yibo through his pants. He still knows how to push all Yibo’s buttons, but it’s a near thing. He strokes Yibo roughly, digging his nails in and tugging Yibo's cock through the soft fabric of his pyjamas. Yibo struggles and ruts against him, coming with a strangled cry like he’s biting down on a moan, like he doesn’t want to give Xiao Zhan the pleasure. Xiao Zhan smirks and nips at Yibo’s earlobe far too hard, teeth sharp and cruel, and follows him over the edge.

Yibo pushes him away while they’re both still fighting to catch their breath. “What the fuck?” he rasps, face red. He has several purpling bruises on his throat.

“Was that ‘too good’ for you?” Xiao Zhan taunts. “Fuck off, Yibo. You’re the one who ended us. You’re the one who got married.”

Really, things were over between them long before the wedding. They hadn’t slept together for years, and Xiao Zhan had been surprised to receive an invitation. They’d still been talking, though, texting every now and then. Yibo had still flirted with him, in the careless way he always had, sending photos from his shoots and crowing about Xiao Zhan’s own editorials. Xiao Zhan hadn’t let himself hope, not really, but Yibo's attention had made him think there was something special between them. And then Yibo married someone else.

Xiao Zhan shoulders past Yibo and stalks away, leaving him gaping in the hallway. He slams the bedroom door and throws himself onto the bed. Fuck, he thinks, oh fuck. Yibo is still technically married. God, what a stupid thing to do.

He lies there for a minute feeling guilty and awful, and then he makes himself take a shower. By the time he climbs into bed, Xiao Zhan is much calmer. He can hear the soft noises of Yibo rustling around in the other room; he is relieved that Yibo hasn’t left, at least. That’s something. He’ll deal with it in the morning. Xiao Zhan flips off the lights and tries to sleep.

All the anger washes out of him as he tosses and turns, listening to Yibo doing the same on the other side of the wall. He’s too keyed up to sleep, replaying the fight and the kiss and the wall sex over and over in his mind. Fuck, they’re a pair of idiots. He doesn’t know if Yibo has anywhere else to go. Xiao Zhan is upset, but not enough to risk Yibo’s safety. Not that, never that. They have to work this out.

He sits up in bed and grabs his phone. It feels cowardly and childish, but he thinks that maybe they need the distance right now. He taps the call button.

“Hello?” Yibo says, and Xiao Zhan can hear the rumble of his voice through the wall.

“Hey,” Xiao Zhan murmurs. “Can we talk?”

It’s hard, at first. They’ve undone their weeks of careful politeness, and all that’s left is the heavy weight of years of unspoken emotion. Still, when they move past the first bitter, halting minutes, they begin to speak more freely than they have in a long time.

“I know it’s been years since we spent any time together,” Xiao Zhan offers, working to keep his voice pleasantly neutral. “And I’m sure you’ve changed a lot. Maybe I just don’t know what you’re like these days. But it can’t be the obnoxiously polite guy I’ve been living with.”

Yibo almost laughs. “Yeah,” he huffs. “Fuck that guy.”

He’s silent for a moment. Xiao Zhan can hear rustling through the phone and the soft thump of the headboard against the wall, like Yibo is settling back against it. “She’s keeping the apartment,” he says once he’s comfortable. “And that’s fine, I don’t want it. It’ll all shake out in the settlement and I don’t actually care. But that was home, y’know?”

Xiao Zhan makes a small sound to show he's listening. Yibo goes on, “I had a place before that, but I sold it. And before that was some other place the company picked, and then the dorms, I guess.”

He pauses again and Xiao Zhan can picture the shrug, the careful mask of nonchalance. “Where do I go now? I don’t know where I’d even be welcome, between the fans and the press. Who wants all that for a neighbour?”

“That sucks, Yibo,” Xiao Zhan says, and he means it. Home has always been easy for him. He’d learned how to build that for himself when he went to university. But Yibo has been doing this since he was just a kid. How do you learn how to make yourself a home when you left your own so young?

Xiao Zhan doesn’t have the answer. It’s okay. Yibo doesn’t seem to expect one.

Once they start talking, they don’t stop. They work their way backwards, starting with the scary, public weeks where Yibo felt hunted. “Thanks for reaching out,” Yibo murmurs. “Everything else aside, it was good to hear from you.”

“Sure,” Xiao Zhan hums. He tells Yibo how nice it is not to be living out of a suitcase any more, and how much he likes his new lifestyle and his MC job. “I watch it when I can’t sleep,” Yibo admits quietly. “It’s nice to have on in the background.”

They talk through the dissolution of Yibo’s marriage, and Xiao Zhan finds that he is envious and curious and mortified all at once. “I don’t even know how you met,” he says.

“Oh, it was like a fairytale,” Yibo says, deadpan. “You know how it goes. On a moonlit night, our management teams introduced us.”

Xiao Zhan can’t help himself. “What did you like about her?”

Yibo laughs at himself, harsh and low. “She’s fun. Like a rollercoaster. Scary fun.”

It had never been the most romantic match. Xiao Zhan can hear the self-deprecating shrug through the phone. “She’s smart and funny. She can talk to anyone. We looked good together. And I could pick her up and toss her around, you know...” Xiao Zhan cuts in with an awkward chuckle. He knows. He wrinkles his nose. He doesn’t want to think about that, about Yibo and his wife.

“Did you love her?” Xiao Zhan asks, because it’s dark and quiet and he has to know.

“Yeah,” Yibo whispers, and Xiao Zhan can hear the sadness in his voice, so he lets it drop.

They keep talking, though, past the wedding and on to safer topics. Events they’d attended together, awards they’d won, promotions for The Untamed. They gloss over the end of the casual thing between them, skipping through until they’re reminiscing about the summer they spent on set.

It’s good to speak about it: the long, sweaty days, the silly games they played, the wonderful cast. Xiao Zhan can so easily picture the way they were back then, flicking their sleeves at each other, white hanfu glowing in the dappled forest light. Happy.

They talk around it for as long as they can, but it happens in the end. They talk about them, their fling. They’d been inseparable from the start, drawn together like magnets. Yibo laughs, warm and genuine, as he tells the story of their first fumbling kiss. “I was so nervous. I thought you’d turn me down for sure.”

Xiao Zhan was there, he doesn’t need the recap, but it feels good to laugh about it together. They hadn’t talked enough when they were in the midst of it, not about their relationship. It’s nice to talk about how well they used to fit each other, as co-stars and lovers. As friends.

Yibo sounds dreamy and fond, giggling about their near misses. “Shit, do you remember my birthday? We were just kissing, but…” he trails off on a laugh.

Of course Xiao Zhan remembers. One of the camera operators had nearly walked in on them making out in a corner of the Cloud Recesses set. Xiao Zhan probably remembers every moment they shared. He suddenly wishes he could see Yibo’s face. They’d had so many little adventures — skinny dipping and stealing kisses and fucking instead of running lines. One long, heady summer.

It’s nearly 3.00am and his phone is chirping battery warnings at him. If pressed, Xiao Zhan will claim it’s the late hour making him honest. He tells Yibo the truth, maybe for the first time. “I loved you,” he says, phone tucked between his ear and the pillow. “I think I still do, a bit.”

Yibo is quiet. Xiao Zhan waits him out, blinking sleepily and wiggling his toes under the sheets. He feels surprisingly at peace with his confession. He’s not expecting anything. He just wanted to say it. He wanted Yibo to know.

“Zhan-ge,” Yibo demands, voice low and urgent. “Ask me again.”

Ask him? “What—“ Xiao Zhan begins, but Yibo cuts him off. “Think back. This conversation. Ask me again.”

Xiao Zhan racks his brain. He runs back through their conversation and tries to remember the last question he’d asked. Oh.

“Did you love her?” Xiao Zhan whispers.

“Not as much as you,” Yibo says. “I never loved her like I loved you.”

Xiao Zhan sucks in a breath, and then they’re quiet again. But it’s not awkward anymore; it’s a good kind of quiet. It’s a living, breathing thing between them. Absurdly, Xiao Zhan feels like he could plant a seed here, that he could push a tiny kernel into the fertile ground of this quiet moment and let it grow.

“Hey,” he says, willing Yibo to hear the smile in his voice. “Can we talk?”

Yibo laughs, bright and full. “Yeah, Zhan-ge. That’d be good.”

“My place? Tomorrow morning?”

Yibo laughs again. “Sure, I’ll be there.”

*

Xiao Zhan sleeps late, feeling hollowed out and lazy, like something has been carved out of his chest. He still manages to get up before Yibo, who doesn’t emerge until he smells coffee. They move around each other hesitantly, but it’s soft and sleepy instead of fraught. Xiao Zhan fusses with coffee and bowls of fruit until he feels he has his thoughts in order. Yibo slides onto a stool at the counter and jumps straight in.

“So,” Yibo says. “You loved me, huh?” His eyes are wide and innocent over the rim of his mug. It’s a move Xiao Zhan has seen his character pull in more than one drama. It is irritatingly effective.

“I always thought I was pretty obvious,” Xiao Zhan shrugs. He places a bowl of sliced fruit in front of Yibo. “But yes, Yibo. I did.”

“And now?” Yibo asks.

And that’s the question, isn’t it? They haven’t spoken for years and the last few weeks have been a mess. Xiao Zhan wants to say yes, of course. He thinks some part of him will always love Yibo. But they have a lot of ground to cover. He wants to learn all of Yibo’s secrets again, his little quirks.

“I think we should start slow.” Xiao Zhan steals a slice of pear from Yibo’s bowl. “Let’s get to know each other again. The real us, not the weirdly polite versions.”

“Yeah,” Yibo grins, leaning over to stick his big paw into Xiao Zhan’s fruit. “I’d like that.”

When Xiao Zhan leaves for a meeting that afternoon, Yibo has already left three shirts and a sock strewn across the lounge room.

Weeks pass, and the house is messier and noisier, but fuck, it’s so much better. There’s a simmering tension between them again, but it’s so very different this time. They don’t kiss, no matter how much they both want to. Yibo is still married, at least legally, and Xiao Zhan won’t do that to the three of them again. Yibo, for all his performative sulking, agrees.

The feeling crackles, intensifying with each sweeping look and flirty comment and the little peeks of skin that Xiao Zhan just knows Yibo is showing on purpose. It builds and builds, until Xiao Zhan has to jerk off before he leaves bed each day, just to face the idea of this friendly, flirty Yibo in his home.

It’s alright, it’s okay. They may have lost touch for a while, but Xiao Zhan has never backed down from any challenge Yibo has set him. He starts working out where Yibo can see him, racking up more squats than he’s done for years. He makes sure to brush against Yibo when they pass in the kitchen or the hall. He wears Yibo’s favourite cologne, the one Xiao Zhan stopped wearing after the wedding, and laughs when Yibo’s showers get longer and longer.

The tension escalates to a point where it feels almost unbearably good, to a point where even the smallest gestures seem hopelessly flirtatious. It escalates until Yibo goes out one morning, scurrying from the gate to his car, then back again a few hours later.

He comes home with signed divorce papers. He hands the folder to Xiao Zhan and waits, eyes dancing, until Xiao Zhan reads enough to know. It’s done. It’s over. Yibo is no longer a married man. He grins at Xiao Zhan, open and delighted. Xiao Zhan grins back. They have so much catching up to do. They ought to get started. He lets his smile slide into a smirk, and Yibo tosses the papers aside as Xiao Zhan stalks across the room and sweeps him up.