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It’s rare that Song Lan and Xue Yang are alone together.

Sometimes, it’s all three of them, Xiao Xingchen the gentle buffer in an ongoing cold war between the other two. More often, though, they fracture across less explosive lines: Xingchen and Song Lan, out on tentative dates like teenagers as they learn the new people they’ve become since the break-up all those years ago, or Xingchen and Xue Yang, at home in their shared apartment, resting in the vestiges of what had been a comfortable bubble until Song Lan came back and burst it.

But not tonight.

Xingchen and Song Lan have moved into a new phase of their strangely casual reintegration, which Xue Yang calls their “just fuck and make up already” thing. They had a plan. Song Lan’s staying at the apartment all week, even when Xue Yang’s there. A gradual desensitization, to get Song Lan and Xue Yang used to each other, as though Xingchen is moving two cats into a new home. Shared space, but with careful supervision.

But when Xue Yang comes home that night, ten minutes after Xingchen was supposed to get there, Song Lan is there, and Xingchen isn’t.

Song Lan is sitting on their couch and looking at their door expectantly. His face quickly goes to stone, but before he realizes it’s Xue Yang and not Xingchen, there’s a flash of… something, across his features. Anxiety, maybe. Or hope. To Xue Yang, it mostly looks like weakness. His teeth get ready to bite.

“What’s up, shithead,” he says, throwing his keys haphazardly on the side table and kicking off his boots, which were already artfully untied. “Where’s my boyfriend?”

Song Lan doesn’t even wince at the singular possessive. His voice comes out pointedly toneless when he says, “Our boyfriend is at work. Check your phone.”

Xue Yang frowns. His phone is dead, because his phone is always dead. Which is why Xingchen never texts him. Except, apparently, in emergencies.

“What the fuck,” he says.

When Xue Yang doesn’t make a move for his phone, Song Lan sighs through his nose and holds his own phone up, the screen illuminated. Xue Yang grabs it out of his hand. Their fingers brush as he rips it away.

On the screen is a group message between Song Lan, Xingchen, and an unsaved number that Xue Yang recognizes as his own. There’s only four messages.

The first is Xingchen saying, JT Corp fell through, won’t be home until 8. I’m so sorry

The second is Xingchen saying, after five minutes of no response, Please play nice, you two

Then Song Lan says, Alright

And Xingchen replies, Love you both. I’ll be there as soon as I can

Xue Yang lingers on that last message.

Both. Both.

He knows Xingchen loves him, even if they don’t usually… say it that way. He knows how good it feels, knowing that.

Song Lan doesn’t deserve what that feels like.

This wasn’t how tonight was supposed to go. Xue Yang’s not supposed to be confronting things like this, alone in his apartment with Song fucking Lan. They had picked this week specifically because Xingchen’s workload was supposed to be low, he was supposed to be home early all week. He had promised he wouldn’t leave them alone together.

At the time, Xue Yang had said, “I don’t care if you do. I’m not a fucking child.” This meant: thank you, because I cannot fucking deal with him by myself.

Xingchen had smiled and said nothing and kissed him on the side of the head, which meant: you’re welcome, thank you for trying this for me.

Xingchen should not have broken that promise. It’s going to be a fucking disaster.

Scoffing, Xue Yang tosses the phone back at Song Lan, vaguely hoping it will hit him in the face so he can claim it was an accident if Xingchen asks. It doesn’t. Song Lan catches it with one large, strong hand.

“Did you actually read it,” Song Lan says. His voice is deep and warm, and also patronizing. Xue Yang hates him so fucking much.

“Fuck you. Just because not all of us can afford fucking Ivy League grad school or whatever the fuck doesn’t mean I’m illiterate,” Xue Yang says. “Yes, I fucking read it, Zichen.”

“Don’t call me that,” Song Lan says. He rises up from the couch. He’s nearly a full head taller than Xue Yang, a little narrower in the shoulders, but wiry strong. For a guy with a desk job, he’s fucking built.

Xue Yang stands up straighter, leaning in at him over the side of the couch. “Call you what I want. Zichen.”

“You—” Song Lan abruptly cuts himself off. There’s something dark moving across his features. He looks less like an immovable object now. More an unstoppable force.

As he cuts his sentence short, he raises a hand sharply, like he’s going to hit Xue Yang. Xue Yang doesn’t flinch, just glares at him harder. Song Lan doesn’t hit him, though, he just grabs him by the shirt.

Xue Yang slides his eyes across Song Lan’s face, his high cheekbones and his strong jaw, down the line of his muscular arm to where his fingers are fisted against Xue Yang’s chest like they’d rather be wrapped around his throat.

Then, Xue Yang looks him dead in the eye.

Play nice, Zichen,” he says mockingly.

Song Lan actually growls.

And suddenly, they’re kissing.

Song Lan reels him in by his shirt and grabs his upper arm hard enough to bruise with the other hand. Both of Xue Yang’s hands rise up, too: his left tangles in Song Lan’s neat hair and his right, constrained by the hold Song Lan has on his arm, fumbles at his shoulder.

Kissing is not enough of a word for it: their mouths crash together like a high speed collision. Five-car pile up on the highway, says the newscaster in Xue Yang’s head. No survivors.

Xue Yang can’t even think. Fuck, he hates Song Lan. He’s so hot. His chest, as Xue Yang feels when he lets his right hand flex against it, is obnoxiously chiselled. He could absolutely hold Xue Yang down.

Fuck,” he mumbles against Song Lan’s lips. He wants to fall in closer but they’re kissing over the side of the couch, there’s nowhere to go. “Fuck, come here.”

Song Lan does. He growls a little into his mouth but doesn’t stop kissing him. He just marches them back from the couch, squeezing Xue Yang’s arm and shoving at his chest. He slams him up against the living room wall, right next to the hallway that leads to the apartment’s two bedrooms.

Xue Yang breaks the kiss for just long enough to gasp out, “Fuck,” again, and then he dives back in. Song Lan’s whole body is pressed against the length of him, holding him tight against the wall. He’s immobilized. All he can do is tug at Song Lan’s hair and roll his hips helplessly while Song Lan kisses him like he wants to murder him.

They’re both already hard.

Song Lan moves away from Xue Yang’s mouth to bite viciously at his neck, just behind his ear. Xue Yang tilts his head to let him. He slides his hands down to Xue Yang’s wrists and then presses them viciously against the wall, pinning them. Xue Yang feels the cool, rough edges of the textured plaster against the backs of his hands and imagines the bruises Song Lan will leave.

He moans wordlessly. And very, very loud.

Somehow, that’s what shocks Song Lan into actually looking at him for the first time since their lips met.

“Fuck,” Song Lan says. It’s the first time Xue Yang has ever heard him swear. He kind of likes it. “We can’t, what about—” Oh, please.

Xue Yang doesn’t know what innocent man child Song Lan is thinking of, but there’s no way it’s their shared boyfriend Xiao Xingchen, the one who edged Xue Yang until he cried and then sweetly informed him that actually, he has been talking to Song Lan again, and here’s the arrangement he thinks would work best for all three of them.

That man would be fucking stoked on this.

“He said, play nice,” Xue Yang says. “You’d think you’d take him at his fucking word, given what happened last time you—”

Song Lan slaps him. Hard.

Xue Yang’s head snaps back and hits the wall—not enough to really hurt, just because he wasn’t prepared to take a hit. He gasps a little and rolls his neck, feeling the blood rush into his face and the endorphins start to caress his brain.

“You liked that,” Song Lan says, somewhere between wondering and accusatory.

“What, didn’t he tell you anything about me?”

“He did say—but he hates it when I…” Song Lan says, and Xue Yang rolls his eyes at him.

“Just because I’m fucking him doesn’t mean we have the same taste in fucking, dumbass. He’s the one who hits me, obviously, I know he doesn’t like getting hit.” Xue Yang pauses for a second, and then he smiles sharply. “So, you talk about me a lot? What else did he say I was into?”

Song Lan just looks him up and down, an eyebrow raised, considering. “What did he tell you about me?”

The thing is, Xiao Xingchen had told him some things, but Xue Yang does not have the patience to remember shit about Song Lan. He loves Xingchen’s voice and he loves listening to him talk, but when he brings up Song Lan, Xue Yang tunes out so fast his ears nearly fall off his head.

He doesn’t give a shit what Song Lan is into. He can take it, whatever it is.

Song Lan’s hands flex around Xue Yang’s wrists, and Xue Yang pulls against it, just so that he’ll slam them back down again.

“He told me enough,” Xue Yang says. “Are we doing this, or what?”

Song Lan frowns at him. His hands tighten again, and Xue Yang bites his lower lip.

“...Alright. We’re doing this,” he says finally, and then he hauls Xue Yang off the wall and out of the living room, down the hall.

For a second, Xue Yang is dazedly surprised when they end up in his and Xingchen’s room instead of the guest room where Song Lan has been staying. And then he realizes that’s fucking dumb. The guest room doesn’t have supplies.

He likes this, anyway. It’s his home turf. He’s safe here: in control.

Song Lan shuts the door behind them, just on the respectful side of a slam. He’s always careful with the apartment, because he thinks of it as belonging to Xingchen, even though Xue Yang lives here too. It is, Xue Yang thinks, kind of fucked. It’s not like he’s careful with Xue Yang, and Xue Yang belongs to Xingchen more than some cardboard box they happen to live in does.

“Strip,” Song Lan commands, and begins doing so himself. He takes off his clothes clinically, like all they are is a barrier between him and fucking Xue Yang up more effectively.

Xue Yang’s response is delayed a few seconds because when Song Lan slammed the bedroom door shut, he also shoved Xue Yang into the room with enough force that he tripped and landed on the double bed. But it doesn’t take Xue Yang long to recover. And when he does, he’s good at stripping fast. He’s always been brutally efficient when it comes to sex.

“What’s your safeword?” Song Lan says when they’re both naked. He’s already stepping forward to shove Xue Yang back on the bed, not pausing to wait for his answer.

Xue Yang sucks his teeth derisively. “You think you have what it takes to make me safeword? Seriously?”

With his hands pressing Xue Yang’s wrists above him, toward the top of the bed, Song Lan shouldn’t be able to look as patronizing as he does. His dark eyes flick across Xue Yang’s body dubiously. It makes him feel small. Something vicious rises up in Xue Yang, urges him to prove that actually, Song Lan is smaller.

“Fuck you,” he says. “If I couldn’t take it, you’d know.”

Then, to prove his point, he wrenches his wrists out of Song Lan’s grip and drives his knee up, catching Song Lan in the stomach and pushing him back. In the same motion, he shoots a hand up, planning to grab Song Lan’s hair and kiss him viciously until he bleeds from the mouth instead of using that mouth to talk down to him.

Before he can bring their lips together, though, Xue Yang’s wrists are back in Song Lan’s grasp and he’s pressed down flat with Song Lan’s entire fucking weight. He can’t move at all. He can’t move at all.

Bastard,” he spits.

With one smooth, practiced movement, Song Lan grabs the restraint hanging from the left bedpost and loops it around Xue Yang’s left wrist, tugging it tight. Xue Yang tries to thrash out of his grip while he does the other hand, just to spite him, but Song Lan is too strong.

“Do I need to do your legs, too?” he says, sitting back.

Xue Yang glares at him. His arms are pulled tight enough that it’s actually uncomfortable. Song Lan was a little too practiced with the smooth, worn leather of these restraints, like he’s been using them on someone frequently enough that it’s muscle memory, and that’s uncomfortable too. Xue Yang hates him so fucking much. He thinks about Xingchen in his place, with Song Lan over him, and he considers biting off Song Lan’s ear.

Instead, he twists his hips and kicks out with his leg, catching Song Lan right in the knee.

“Alright,” Song Lan says, mildly, catching his ankle with one hand. His face is totally neutral now, as he binds Xue Yang’s legs to the other two corners of the bed. It pisses Xue Yang off that Song Lan isn’t pissed off.

Xue Yang hates Song Lan on a transcendent level, the way other people love their soulmates and their children. He hates him more than he has ever hated anyone who hasn’t personally cut off a part of his body.

He hates him so much he’s hard with it. Fuck.

Xue Yang rolls his hips into the empty air as Song Lan sits to the side and regards him with the most smug expression of complete emotionlessness he has ever seen.

“Fucking touch me,” Xue Yang growls at him.

Song Lan raises an eyebrow again. He lets the air hang still and tense between them until Xue Yang is about ready to wrench his arms out of their sockets just to get at him. He thrashes again, but Song Lan left him with so little mobility that all it does is make the familiar leather of the restraints cut into his wrists.

Xingchen never does it this tight.

“Say ‘coffin’ if you need to pussy out,” Song Lan says, and fuck, Xue Yang is sure as fuck not going to pussy out now that he said that.

“Fuck y—” Xue Yang starts to say, but he only gets halfway through before Song Lan slaps him across the face, even harder than last time.

He’s so surprised that he moans with it as though Song Lan just went for his cock. The bright, hot sting of it drips all the way down to his fingertips. He can feel his breathing speeding up.

Song Lan watches him moan and then flex his fingers above his head with the same clinical dispassion he’d had on his face when he was taking off his clothes and when he was tying Xue Yang up. It’s like Xue Yang is a minor problem to be brushed aside, a rote task to complete. He looks like he’s writing a grocery list in his head.

It makes Xue Yang feel sick to his stomach, a cold, nauseous contrast to the pleasant heat in the shape of Song Lan’s hand on his cheek.

“Fuck you,” he says again, quieter this time but just as bitter. Song Lan lets him get the whole thing out before he slaps him this time, and then he grabs Xue Yang by the throat. He avoids his larynx skillfully and presses down on his carotid with just enough force that Xue Yang’s immediately gasping and light-headed.

“You could have just asked for my cock in your mouth, like an adult,” Song Lan says, like this is a chore.

He shoves Xue Yang’s face roughly away from him and Xue Yang, with a mounting sense of horror, realizes there are tears welling at the corners of his eyes. He feels, strangely, embarrassed. He’s not a child.

Xue Yang has cried during sex before, but only with Xingchen. Only ever with Xingchen. The first time they fucked, Xingchen touched him so slowly that he almost cried from frustration, and then he whispered things in Xue Yang’s ear as he fucked him that were so soft, so sweet, so unbearably kind that Xue Yang really did cry. He’s not going to fucking cry for Song Lan.

Xue Yang tries to take a deep breath and get his shit locked down again, but his arms are drawn up so tightly that even his chest is mostly immobilized. His breath comes in too shallow to really use it to calm the fluttering shame in his throat. So he just grits his teeth and forces it down.

He’s not going to fucking cry for Song Lan.

Breathing gets even harder then, because Song Lan straddles his chest and shoves his whole dick into Xue Yang’s mouth with no preamble and no warning. Tab A, slot B. Xue Yang isn’t expecting it, and it’s big, so he gags hard, coughing around it. The cough catches in his tensed chest and he starts tearing up again.

There’s no room for words in Xue Yang’s brain anymore, because it feels like his whole head is full of cock. All he has are the dual sensations of breathless immobilization and choking fullness. He tries, reflexively and then consciously, to relax his throat so he can breathe while Song Lan fucks rhythmically into his mouth. All that gets him is more involuntary gagging.

One of Song Lan’s hands is splayed out on the bed next to Xue Yang’s head, holding most of his weight that isn’t on Xue Yang’s chest. Xue Yang stares at it, his eyes open because closing them would take energy and he’s spending all of the energy he has on taking Song Lan’s cock without puking or choking into unconsciousness.

Song Lan snaps his hips into Xue Yang’s mouth. All Xue Yang’s muscles are tense and it kind of jars his neck. Saliva is dripping haphazardly out of both corners of his mouth because he can’t swallow at all, Song Lan is too fucking big for that.

He does it again, and Xue Yang makes a helpless, involuntary noise, high up in his throat, like a whimper. At that, Song Lan pulls out, frowning down at him.

Xue Yang gasps and coughs, which pulls at his chest even more. He can’t catch his breath. He can’t think.

“Did you have something to say to me?” Song Lan says. He’s not even out of breath.

Xue Yang tries to get words together, any words. He gasps desperately to try to accumulate enough air to tell Song Lan to fuck off, or at least to spit in his face, but all he can do is take in weird, shallow, heaving breaths, like hitching sobs without the tears. His mind has gone totally blank: he is floating not in that familiar warm space Xingchen always guides him to, but somewhere else, somewhere new and bright and strange.

“No?” Song Lan says after a moment. “Alright.”

Then, without any change to his expression, he hits Xue Yang again. This time it’s a backhand, a casual insult of a strike. It jars some of the gathered heat at the corners of Xue Yang’s eyes loose. A tear traces down his cheek and over the edge of his clenched jaw. Song Lan swipes at his chin with one deft finger. The contact makes Xue Yang’s jaw relax without his permission. His lips part, but no sound comes out.

“You’re crying already,” Song Lan says. He sounds disappointed, like Xue Yang is an unpromising student or a spoiled child. Xue Yang feels another tear roll down his cheek but he’s too paralyzed to stop it. His body has betrayed him. It responds only to Song Lan’s demands now, not his own.

The restraints are cutting into Xue Yang’s wrists again, which he realizes vaguely is because he’s shaking so hard he’s practically vibrating. Song Lan is moving down his body, but not really touching him.

His voice is farther away when he says, “Xingchen told me you were a crier. But I was hoping you would hold up long enough to actually get something done.”

Xingchen told me.

Xingchen told him. That Xue Yang cries.

The really remarkable thing about Xiao Xingchen was never just how good he is, how strong and smart and kind and hot. It’s that Xue Yang fucking trusted him.

Xue Yang doesn’t trust anybody, but he trusted Xingchen.

The tears are falling freely now, tracking hot all across Xue Yang’s face. He’s wet all over with sweat and saliva and tears. He still can barely breathe, and some of the tears are dripping into his nose. It’s a little like drowning.

At the other end of the bed, between Xue Yang’s legs, Song Lan has uncapped a bottle of lube. Xue Yang can see, as though through thick fog, that he’s rubbing it onto his own cock with efficient motions, like it’s a medical procedure. Xue Yang, at some point, went soft, but Song Lan reaches for him with his other hand and jerks him, mercilessly, dry.

It hurts. He still starts to get hard again. He feels, again, that cold edge of embarrassment and shame.

Song Lan says something to him, but he doesn’t hear it. He feels Song Lan’s finger, slick and impersonal, test at the rim of his hole, and then suddenly, without warning or preparation, Song Lan’s impossibly thick cock is pressing into him with one fast, sure thrust.

That hurts more.

Xue Yang hears, as though from far away, a terrible groan from his own mouth. All his muscles are alternately clenching and relaxing around Song Lan. It’s a strange, bright feeling, a sudden and isolated pain like a shooting star. He can vaguely imagine liking it, but now he just registers it dispassionately, from behind his veil of paralyzed shame, as a thing that is happening and that hurts.

It’s all sensation, weirdly muted but overwhelming. The abrupt, dragging slide of Song Lan’s cock inside him, the way his muscles just fall away, relaxed, as he lets Song Lan inside. The abrasions at his wrists, the tightness in his chest. One of his hips, he observes, is tighter than the other. His ankles don’t hurt very much.

He feels cold, but that’s wrong: his body is hot. Warm tears are still gently pooling in his eyes, beading and falling as they’re jarred by each of Song Lan’s thrusts. His face is warm from getting slapped. But he still feels cold.

Song Lan is fucking him methodically. Xue Yang sees him, tall and lithe, eyes dark, above him, but he doesn’t really process that visual information. His eyes keep getting caught off to the left of Song Lan’s shoulder, where he can see the edge of the bureau that he shares with Xingchen. There’s a library book on top of it that Xue Yang said he would return for Xingchen three days ago, with no intention of actually doing so. A wave of shame curls through his stomach again. Oh, Xingchen.

He hears things too: the slap of Song Lan’s hips in an even, driving rhythm against Xue Yang’s ass, the shallow gulps of air and tiny, rough sobs coming from his own mouth.

The latch of the front door. Keys jingling. The door shutting again.

A-Yang? Zichen? A pause. Are you both still alive?

Xue Yang hears these things, but he does not construct them into an acknowledgement of the fact that Xingchen is home, because he’s too busy being completely overwhelmed by getting fucked by Song Lan.

He does not process that Xingchen is home until a cool, soft hand touches his ankle, and a familiar voice says, Oh. right next to him.

Xue Yang opens his mouth but no words come out. They race through his mind too fast to catch, like frightened birds. Two contradictory things are true: Xingchen is here, and Xue Yang is afraid.

He scrunches his eyes shut, trying to stop the tears, and turns his head away. The only thing he can push out of his mouth is a tiny, quiet moan.

Is he alright? the same voice says.

The thrusts inside him stutter almost imperceptibly as another voice answers. He has an out. He hasn’t used it.

Well, he does like it rough.

Do you want to….?

I…. the soft, cool hand strokes over his ankle again. He said that he wanted to try….

They say some other things. Xue Yang can’t focus. He’s trying not to cry in front of Xingchen. For some reason, it feels really imperative now that he not cry in front of Xingchen.

He has his eyes screwed shut still, but he hears more things after that. Soft, whispering noises as clothes fall to the floor. Low murmuring. A wet noise, like kissing, or like too much lube.

A gentle moan—a familiar one. Xingchen. Song Lan’s cock, inside Xue Yang, stops moving. Xue Yang involuntarily sobs a little, but he still doesn’t open his eyes.

He tries to call Xingchen’s name, but the syllables won’t come. He just moans again, pathetically, like he’s mirroring the sound Xingchen made. He feels—too much. Desperate. Afraid.

Song Lan hasn’t pulled out, and he doesn’t start moving again. He does shift a little, which sends an unpleasant jolt through Xue Yang’s spine. Then, suddenly, Xue Yang cries out. He’s being stretched, impossibly, further.

Song Lan is already uncomfortably big. But now there’s a finger pressing into Xue Yang right beside him, forcing past Xue Yang’s tense rim and into his shivering insides.

Xingchen.

Xingchen, Xue Yang shouts inside his head, as though he will suddenly be able to call for him aloud even though his voice stopped working miles back.

He has an out, Song Lan had said, but he doesn’t, there is no out, he’s trapped and it’s so much. The finger inside him starts moving, thrusting gentler than Song Lan’s cock had been, but it’s still a deep, painful stretch that no part of Xue Yang can abide.

There’s no way to stop this. There is no out.

Xingchen adds another finger, and then another, coated in so much slick, tugging at his rim delicately, skillfully, just the way he likes it when he hasn’t just been systematically destroyed. There’s the ghost of a scream lurking in his throat, but nowhere for it to go. He’s completely silent.

What out? Xue Yang thinks. And then a single thought rises up from the rushing torrent of mindless fear, past the animal inside him that knows what’s coming and just wants to hide until it passes: safeword.

Song Lan gave him one. He remembers that that happened. He does not remember what it was.

He doesn’t even remember how to talk.

Xingchen’s fingers draw out of him. Song Lan still isn’t moving, patiently still as Xingchen manipulates Xue Yang’s body. There’s a thicker, blunter pressure then: the head of Xingchen’s cock, nudging against the shaft of Song Lan’s where it’s holding Xue Yang open.

Xue Yang opens his mouth, but all that comes out is a broken cry. He thinks he might have said, “Stop.” His voice is so wrecked, so torn open into quiet, that even he can barely hear it. It might not have been a word at all.

Then Xingchen pushes inside him next to Song Lan, and Xue Yang feels like someone has raised up a sword and gutted him. He feels like he has been torn in half, body and soul.

Xingchen, Xingchen, he sobs, but only inside: he still can’t do anything with his voice but moan brokenly, barely even breathing. It hurts. It’s too much. He feels like nothing. He feels like no one.

Xingchen starts to move, and Song Lan too—neither of them very fast, but enough that the pit of Xue Yang’s stomach roils tectonically with the invasive pain of it.

He thinks he might already be dead.

He’s dimly aware of a body above his, leaning forward over him. There’s a hand on one of his ankles again, but it’s broader and the grip is firmer. In contrast, the body leaning over him is thin and graceful.

It feels like home.

Xingchen.

Xue Yang can’t… he can’t…

Sweetheart, Xingchen murmurs, gently, sweetly.

No.

He arches away from Xingchen’s voice, throws his head back. Fresh tears pour from his eyes in a wet, gasping sob, and with all his strength, he just barely manages to knock the knuckles of his right hand back against the bedpost he’s tethered to. Two taps: one, two.

Instantly, the body above him stops moving.

Zichen. And then, Zichen, wait, stop.

Song Lan stops moving also.

Xue Yang hears, Why didn’t you stop? Zichen, what out did he have, what did you mean when you said that?

A safeword.

Oh, no.

Xue Yang is empty, suddenly. He’s the only one on the bed. He doesn’t know when that happened. There’s no one between his legs anymore.

Instead, there’s hands on him: cool, gentle hands. He remembers this, this process is familiar, he has the map in his body and his mind. The hands undo the restraint at his right hand. Then his left. Left ankle, right ankle. Like circling a clock, inevitable, grounding.

The cool hands reach out to brush his loose hair away from his face, but he curls away from them like he’s hiding a wound. He doesn’t remember how to want to be touched.

Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry, a voice says.

That was directed to him. He thinks.

Xue Yang can breathe again, with his arms loose. He lets his lungs expand, feels their full extent, the borders of his body restored. After he breathes for a moment, he feels the bed beside him dip, and then a set of arms wrap around him, cradling him from behind. A hand slips neatly into his.

Is this okay, A-Yang? the voice says.

Xue Yang squeezes the hand in his once, and the arms tighten around him.

Xingchen smells familiar. Safe. Dimly, Xue Yang realizes he’s shaking hard, but Xingchen is steady around him, holding him tightly. Xingchen breathes in a careful pattern, and slowly, Xue Yang lets his own breaths match it. He counts: four in, six out.

Xingchen kisses the back of his neck lightly. Xue Yang opens his eyes, still breathing slow as Xingchen strokes his thumb across their joined fingers. The bed dips again, in front of him this time, and then Song Lan is sitting next to them. He sits still, quiet. Like the muffled silence of a winter morning just after heavy snowfall, it’s both alien and comforting.

Song Lan is looking down at him. His eyes, always so dark and cold, look cracked open now, as vulnerable as Xue Yang feels.

Hesitantly, he reaches out and slips his strong fingers into Xue Yang’s other hand. Xue Yang squeezes them. Lightly. Just once.

Zichen, Xingchen’s familiar voice murmurs. Come here.

The bed shifts again. When Song Lan moves, he doesn’t lose his stillness. He settles silently, facing Xue Yang, and then there are two sets of arms around him, two chests pressed against his, rising and falling in a steadily counted pattern of breath.

They stay like that for a long time. Xue Yang buries his face in Song Lan’s neck, and Xingchen draws them both even closer, and they breathe together. Eventually, Xue Yang stops shaking.

“Do you want to drink some water, sweetheart?” Xingchen murmurs beside his ear.

Xue Yang squeezes his hand once.

“Okay. Can you rest here with Zichen while I go to the other room? You’re doing so well.”

His heart clenches down on the compliment.

Yes, Xue Yang thinks, so he squeezes Xingchen’s hand one time again.

“Okay, I won’t be gone long. Zichen’s still here, and he’s got you.” A pause. “Zichen, he’ll probably be nonverbal for a while yet. It’s one for yes, two for no.”

And then Xingchen is gone, and it’s just the two of them, alone together.

There’s a soft, concerned expression on Song Lan’s face. It looks like anxiety, maybe hope. Definitely not weakness. When Xingchen leaves, he gathers Xue Yang more tightly into his strong arms. Xue Yang lets him, curling into his chest, his head tucked under Song Lan’s chin. He doesn’t want to deal with hating Song Lan anymore. He’s tired.

After a moment, Song Lan murmurs into Xue Yang’s hair, “A-Yang.”

Xue Yang sighs in response. It feels good.

“This wasn’t your fault. I was guessing at what you would want, and I guessed wrong,” Song Lan says. “You have nothing to be ashamed about, A-Yang. You did good.”

They fall silent again. Song Lan is still holding one of Xue Yang’s hands and he has the other wrapped around his back, tangled in his hair. His fingertips scratch gently, rhythmically at Xue Yang’s scalp. It feels nice, so he presses into it like a housecat, and then he lets his head fall back to rest on Song Lan’s collarbone.

Suddenly, the words that have been lost to him for so long rise up, floating out of the depths that Song Lan and Xingchen just brought him out of together.

“Did…” Xue Yang whispers. It comes out rough. “Did Xingchen really tell you that I… cry?”

“No,” says Song Lan just as quietly. “I was guessing about that too. I’m sorry.”

Xue Yang hums and squeezes his hand once. It’s alright, then. His eyelids are very heavy. He lets them fall closed, and he lets Song Lan hold him.

Xingchen comes back into the room a few moments later, a glass of water in his hand. Xue Yang turns his face toward him, away from where it was pressed into Song Lan’s neck, and he smiles. Xingchen smiles back.

“There you are, sweetheart,” he says. “I’m glad you’re back.”

Xue Yang loves his voice. Xue Yang loves him.

Xingchen sits back down, and together, he and Song Lan guide Xue Yang back to something close to upright. He leans back against Song Lan’s chest like he’s furniture. Xingchen kisses Xue Yang lightly and then puts the glass of water in his hand, wrapping an arm around them both.

Xue Yang drinks deeply, spilling half the glass down his chest like a hooligan. Xingchen and Song Lan have some kind of intense eye contact thing happening over his head but he doesn’t worry about it.

When he finishes the water, he hands the glass back to Xingchen and the flops back onto the bed. His head lands in Song Lan’s lap.

“Well, fuck,” he says. “That went well.”

Xingchen laughs. It’s real quiet. It feels gentle, like when he kisses Xue Yang awake in the morning. “Next time, we’ll follow a plan.”

Song Lan doesn’t laugh. He still looks a little awkward about it, even though he apologized and then held Xue Yang until he could talk again.

Instead of laughing, Song Lan reaches down and traces a soft finger across the edge of Xue Yang’s hairline. Gently, like he’s being careful with something he doesn’t want to break.

“What do you need right now?” he asks after a moment.

“Fuck,” Xue Yang says again. “What do I need? I need to go the fuck to bed, you fuckers wore me out.”

“Okay,” says Xingchen. He looks down at Xue Yang, still resting his head on Song Lan’s thigh. “Do you want Zichen to go to the other room, or….?”

Xue Yang looks up at Song Lan. Song Lan is looking back at him. His gaze is cold, but not harsh. Cold like a compress against sunburn, like fresh water rinsing off sweat and tears.

Xue Yang doesn’t break eye contact with Song Lan when he replies to Xingchen.

“Nah,” Xue Yang says. “He can stay.”