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reach for me and bridge that dark divide

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“Look,” says Huaisang impatiently. “If you really don’t want to go in, then you don’t have to. Obviously. But I’m going in, because it’s fun and I like it and I want to hang out with my friends and see if there’s anybody who will let me tie them up and hang them from the ceiling.”

Meng Yao presses his lips together into a hard tight line and exhales in annoyance. “I’m not a coward,” he says through gritted teeth. “I’m not scared of it.”

“Literally nobody said you were,” Huaisang declares loudly, spreading his arms in a broad gesture to indicate that there is, indeed, a distinct lack of anyone around them to cast aspersions on Meng Yao’s mettle. “You can come in and try out a thing which I happen to think would be very good for you, or you can not come in. Those are the options, Yaoyao! There’s not a lot of binaries in this world but this is one of them!”

“False,” Meng Yao says acidly. “I could also just stand on the doorstep all night.”

“No, that counts as not going in,” Huaisang says immediately. “You either go in or you don’t go in. I myself am going in. But I don’t know what you want to do, I really don’t have a clue.” He flicks his fan open and waves it airily. “So what are you going to do?”

Meng Yao clenches his jaw at the door of the kink club. A few minutes ago, there had been a couple that had passed by them and gone in. Two men, dressed in mostly normal clothes, except that one of them had been wearing a dog collar with a large, heavy padlock on it. It had lit a flame of alarm and anxiety right around his solar plexus, and he’d dug in his heels and just… needed a moment.

Huaisang is giving him an excessively patient, expectant look.

Meng Yao exhales again and forces a smile onto his face. “I suppose I’ll go in, then.”

Huaisang takes his arm in a businesslike sort of way and leads him inside.

*

It’s rather like being at a very unpleasant party, Meng Yao reflects to himself some time later. The room is quite wide and it’s not at all overcrowded, but he had felt compelled to cram himself into a corner and have something at his back, so he is wallflowering just as hard as he possibly can. Huaisang has, of course, abandoned him and vanished--

He snarls at himself. Huaisang did nothing of the sort. Huaisang had informed Meng Yao of what his plans for the evening were. In accordance with those plans, Huaisang had indeed found someone willing to be tied up and hung from the ceiling. Huaisang is in fact mostly within eyeshot, merrily chatting with said person, who is sitting patiently on a bar stool as Huaisang ties intricate patterns across their body with bundles and bundles of rope--mostly white, with strands of red and black. 

Meng Yao is being unreasonable, which only makes him more annoyed with himself, and more annoyed and upset with the situation in general. He could, if he were so inclined, simply choose to get over himself, put up his smiles and masks, and fake it. He is capable of great charm and charisma.

It’s just that there’s something about this place that sets his teeth on edge and makes the bottom drop out of his stomach. It is a large social event where he has no one to turn to except one friend, who has abandoned him. There are a thousand unspoken rules and customs he does not know, and therefore a thousand opportunities to make a fool of himself in front of people. According to Huaisang, he has a “fucked-up thing about power,” whatever that means. Huaisang had insisted at great length that it could be medicated with a little exposure therapy in a controlled environment.

Meng Yao hardly sees how this is a controlled environment. There is a woman tied to a--a bench, of some sort, and she’s being hit on the ass and thighs with a flogger. Over the clothes, of course, that was one of the rules of the club that they’d been told when they came in. But it still makes a noise when it hits her, and she yelps every time, and she’s crying, and nobody is stopping it or stepping in to comfort her, they’re all just watching, a dozen or so people, and even more of them are milling around paying no attention whatsoever, absorbed in their own conversations or any of the other scenes. Meng Yao knows in his head that the crowd the whole point of it, because the woman presumably wants to be seen, wants to cry in front of all these strangers, presumably she has a safeword that she could use to make it stop but--

Meng Yao keeps imagining himself in her position. He doesn’t have to imagine what it feels like to be hit in front of people. He doesn’t have to imagine how the greater pain comes from realizing that no one is going to help him, even if he cries. He doesn’t have to imagine how the greater ache afterwards is not from the place on his body where he was struck, but the bruising on his heart from the humiliation of bursting into tears and getting nothing but cold impassivity or scorn in reply. He doesn’t have to imagine how cold and empty and horrible it feels to have someone walk right past him as if he’s invisible, and--

He crams himself further into the corner and forces himself to look away, to look down at his shoes, at the scuffed floor.

He is so annoyed with himself. It’s just a game . It’s just a lot of people inventing little games to play with each other. This is actually a controlled environment--there is a poster on the wall by the entryway detailing the rules of the club, and the person who had taken their cover fee had politely asked them to read it over in detail, “even if you’ve been here before, even if you were here just week ago, please. We want everyone to keep them fresh in their minds!” They are rules to keep everyone safe, anyone with a lick of common sense could recognize that, but reading them had not made Meng Yao feel comfortable or secure. They had not made him feel like he was in control, only emphasized the fact that there were people in here who wanted to take control away from him, and he hates hates hates hates hates not being in control. 

He notices he is clenching his jaw and forces it to relax before he cracks another filling. He doesn’t relax his arms, but keeps them tightly crossed, protective.

He is doing this to himself. He is working himself up into a snit over absolutely fucking nothing. He is letting every little thing compound his snit--like how nobody here is even bothering to give him a second glance, nobody is approaching him, even though (and he is exasperated to point this out to himself) he doesn’t even want them to. He is upset by people failing to do the thing he doesn’t want them to do anyway! What nonsense! He is choosing to feel this way, and if he could just get his shit together, he could choose to feel a different way. He is so incredibly exhausted with himself.

“Pardon me?” says a soft voice.

He is simultaneously relieved and horrified to have been noticed. He makes himself look up, because you have to make eye contact when someone addresses you, and his tight-knotted defensiveness falters for a moment in the face of--

A really, really kind and gentle smile. An open face with nothing in it but concern and curiosity. Eyes with the color and warmth of early morning sunshine. A beautiful, beautiful man, possibly the most beautiful man Meng Yao has ever seen. He looks like he belongs on magazine covers without a single touch of airbrushing or makeup, because there is not even one tiny flaw to him that Meng Yao can see. Tall. Shoulders

That kind, kind, kind smile. Painfully kind. 

Meng Yao’s heart beats once in his chest, very hard, as if it is giving a little animal whimper of misery, begging for soft, gentle hands to pick it up and cradle it close and safe. His eyes sting--he blinks hard to make it go away. “Yes?” he says.

“Are you alright?”

He forces a smile onto his face. “I’m fine, thank you.”

The kind smile grows somehow more kind. “Do you need help? Do you want to go outside for a few minutes?”

Meng Yao wrenches his willpower viciously and pins his smile to his face like it’s a dead butterfly. “No,” he says. Going outside would be admitting defeat, and goddammit, Meng Yao’s mother did not raise a fucking quitter. “I’m fine.”

The man nods. “Are you here with someone? I could fetch them if you’d like?”

Meng Yao’s eyes flick over to Huaisang on the other side of the room, who is still working on his… human art installation. “No, that’s alright,” he says. “I couldn’t interrupt him.”

The beautiful man--god, he really is the most handsome man Meng Yao has ever fucking seen--nods again quite readily. He is looking at Meng Yao. He hasn’t looked away. His gaze feels… not sharp, but heavy. Like he is not just looking, but seeing. Meng Yao wants to draw away and turn his back so that the beautiful, beautiful man won’t see any of the parts of Meng Yao that are ugly. He is ashamed, almost, to find himself so ugly and flawed in comparison to this beautiful man. 

“If you like, I can stand here with you and keep you company,” the man says softly. “We don’t have to speak if you’d prefer not to. Or if you want to be left alone, I can stay nearby and make sure no one else approaches you.” His kind smile turns wry. “Or I can go away entirely. Would any of those help?”

Meng Yao doesn’t know what to say. He can’t remember the last time he was actually speechless. He always has words at the ready, hung at his hip like a set of daggers. Armed. Except that smile is so disarming. “Help?” he manages, trying for ‘politely confused’ and achieving ‘pathetic’ at best. The resulting wave of exasperation at how stupid he sounds is enough to get him to straighten his posture and smooth out his expression and ease how tightly his arms are crossed. 

The beautiful man doesn’t stop smiling, doesn’t stop looking at (seeing) Meng Yao, just puts his head a little on one side. “You seemed a little distressed or uncomfortable, so I thought I would offer, at least. If none of those options appeal, I would be more than willing to hear what would.”

Meng Yao calls up a modest, self-deprecating smile. It feels like hauling rocks. It takes a herculean effort. “It’s nothing, truly. Just nerves. I’ve never been here before.”

“Ah, yes, very understandable,” the man says. “So many new people, so much new information. It must be a little overwhelming.”

“A little,” Meng Yao agrees, lowering his eyes demurely. This does nothing but make him painfully aware of how long the beautiful man’s legs are--mouthwateringly long. How is such a person even allowed to exist? 

“Especially if the person you came with is otherwise occupied and can’t introduce you to anyone.” A pause. “Will it make you uncomfortable if I stand here with you?”

Meng Yao glances up, carefully hiding his bewilderment. “Of course not,” he says politely. What a strange question. The man is free to stand wherever he wants. Part of Meng Yao does wish, a little bit, that he would go away and stop being so perfect right where Meng Yao has to see it and measure himself up to it and find himself wanting. Another, much more significant part of him is stupid and weak for kind attention and wants to turn towards it and nestle his face into it and bask . The rest of him, of course, simply wants to tear open this man’s shirt and lick him. “You needn’t trouble yourself with me.”

“It’s no trouble at all, truly.” That kind, lovely smile still does not abate. “Might it be worth introducing ourselves?”

“Meng Yao,” says Meng Yao.

“Lan Xichen,” answers the beautiful man. His smile broadens until he is almost twinkling. “There, now you’ve doubled how many people you know here.” On anyone else it would be a wry little joke, and Meng Yao might feel slighted about it. On Lan Xichen, it is pure sincerity and sunshine.

“Huge progress,” Meng Yao says, attempting archness and, to his own ear, falling a little flat. “This one humbly thanks Lan Xichen for his assistance.”

“That too is something I was entirely happy to do.” Lan Xichen smiles and moves to lean against the wall with Meng Yao, a little apart from him. “May I ask who accompanied you? I’m only curious as to whether I know them.”

“Nie Huaisang,” says Meng Yao, gesturing. Huaisang has his subject suspended in the air now--they’ve been positioned in such a way and decorated with such colors of rope that he can tell immediately that they are meant to be interpreted as a crane in flight.

“Ah, Huaisang,” says Lan Xichen immediately. “He’s very talented. How do you know him?”

“We’ve been friends since high school.”

“I see. Not your boyfriend, then?” Lan Xichen says, sounding just a little too casual. 

A thrill of feeling--adrenaline, elation, alarm, smugness--slams into Meng Yao’s stomach. This very beautiful, exceptionally kind man who asks odd questions is wondering whether Meng Yao has a boyfriend. Delightful. Delightful! Who wouldn’t be delighted? Right on the heels of that thrill is a wave of relief, because this, he knows. This is familiar. This, he can deal with and navigate. He knows where he is now, and he knows the rules. “Not my boyfriend,” Meng Yao says, feeling a little lightheaded. “I don’t have one.”

But Lan Xichen does not take this as an invitation to hit on him, mysteriously. He only makes polite conversation, as if this is any kind of regular party or social event, as if there’s not people being consensually tortured twenty feet away from them. The smalltalk goes on long enough that Meng Yao has enough time to begin second-guessing himself. Enough time, as well, to remember where they are--and to remember the fact that people come to these things for a reason, to get something, and that Meng Yao has “a fucked up thing about power” which inclines him to feel repulsed and alienated by… a great deal of what he’s seen tonight.

He does not know how he is going to stomach it if Lan Xichen kindly, pleasantly says he’s interested in--in tying Meng Yao up, or duct-taping his mouth shut, or padlocking a collar on him. Better to draw away from this now, while it’s still safe, so that he’ll be able to remember how kind and courteous Lan Xichen is and jerk off about the shape of his mouth and the breadth of his shoulders without feeling ill at the very thought of him.

“Look,” he says, before Lan Xichen can ask him another very polite getting-to-know-you question. “Surely you didn’t come here tonight to spend the whole time standing in the corner like this.” He has to lower his eyes again. “I do feel better now, if--if there was something else you wanted to be doing.”

Lan Xichen doesn’t answer right away; Meng Yao risks glancing up at him. His smile has almost entirely vanished, and now he looks a little concerned. “There is nothing else I want to be doing. I’m enjoying talking to you.”

Meng Yao opens his mouth to protest, but just at that moment, the regular thwack of the flogger and the responding sobbing yelp from the woman being beaten turns into a sharp crack , and the woman shrieks--Meng Yao’s gaze snaps over to her. The flogger has been exchanged for a long wooden switch. The crowd doesn’t particularly respond, doesn’t even murmur, and Meng Yao’s stomach turns.

“I’m in the mood for some frozen yogurt,” Lan Xichen says suddenly. He pushes off the wall and coincidentally steps right into the middle of Meng Yao’s line of sight, blocking off his view of the scene, though of course it doesn’t do anything to block the next crack, the next shriek, the next horrible non-response from the onlookers. “There’s a very good shop just down the block, but I always feel a little self-conscious going in alone. If it’s not too big of a favor to ask, would you mind coming with me?” Meng Yao blinks up at him. Lan Xichen’s gaze is so heavy, so warm--like a weighted blanket draped over his shoulders. Oddly, it’s as soothing as a weighted blanket too. “My treat, of course, as a thank you for the favor. Or I can owe you one, if you’re not fond of frozen yogurt.”

Meng Yao has a split second to wonder suspiciously to himself why a man who is comfortable enough to approach a stranger at a kink club and make effortless small talk with them is too self-conscious to go into a frozen yogurt shop by himself-- 

But then there’s another crack, another shriek, another sickening lack of reaction from the crowd, and he finds himself nodding, dry mouthed. “Alright.”

“Wonderful!” says Lan Xichen, all sunshine. And then, “May I touch your arm?”

Another very odd question. “Yes?” Meng Yao says, bewildered. What in the world does this man want to do to his arm that he feels like he has to ask permission?

Nothing, apparently. Literally nothing, except to very lightly guide Meng Yao out of the corner and towards the exit. The woman at the counter who is taking fees smiles at Lan Xichen and nods cheerfully when he tells her they’re just stepping out for a frozen yogurt break.

The air is cool, compared to the heat of the indoors. The streetlamps are on, but there’s still a touch of light in the sky, just enough to color it a hazy greenish-blueish-purpleish, perfect twilight. Lan Xichen stops them there, just on the sidewalk, and says, “Would you like to text Huaisang to tell him you’ve stepped out for a moment?”

“I don’t think he’ll notice.”

“But if he does, he might worry.”

Meng Yao suppresses a snort. Huaisang? Notice? Please. “It’s fine,” he says. He doesn’t have a lot of practice making polite statements about Huaisang. “I daresay he’ll have been expecting me to leave. He probably thought I’d abscond the second he turned his back.”

Lan Xichen pauses, as if deliberating this. Delicately, he says, “If you don’t have any objections, then, I think I would like to text him. Just so he knows.”

If Lan Xichen were anyone else, Meng Yao would be getting irritated by now. All these strange questions! Who is he to stop Lan Xichen from texting whoever he damn well pleases? Why is it so important for both Huaisang and the woman at the counter and everyone in the goddamn world to know that they’re going halfway down the block? Is it bragging? Lan Xichen seems too polite to show off like that, but you never know. “If you want to text him so much, you’re welcome to,” he says, and watches Lan Xichen dig his phone out of his pocket and type into it. His fingers are so long, his hands are beautiful. “Do you play any instruments?” asks the slutty part of his brain before he can stop himself.

“Xiao, oboe, guqin, and piano,” Lan Xichen answers. He turns the phone’s screen to Meng Yao. “This is what I’m telling him, is that okay?”

The text draft says: Hello Huaisang, this is Lan Xichen! I suppose you have my number now, so please don’t misuse it. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve stepped out for frozen yogurt with your friend Meng Yao, in case you noticed his absence and worried. :) If you need him for anything, just text! We won’t go far.

“It’s fine,” says Meng Yao, privately perplexed. He doesn’t let any of it show on his face. The text doesn’t look like showing off. It just looks like Lan Xichen thinks Huaisang will care where Meng Yao has gone--but why bother showing it to Meng Yao? “He won’t need me for anything, though.”

“Perhaps not.” Lan Xichen says, sending the text and still smiling, smiling, smiling. “Still, I’d hate for him to think you’d gotten into any trouble.”

They don’t really speak again until they’re at one of the little booth tables in the shop, digging into their frozen yogurts. The woman at the register had greeted Lan Xichen by name. He’d asked after her kids. Why in the world is he self-conscious about coming here, when he’s clearly acquainted with the employees?

“I would like to ask a question,” Lan Xichen murmurs, his eyes lowered. “But I’m afraid it might be a little uncomfortable for you, or overly personal. There’s absolutely no requirement for answering it.”

What? Why would someone ask a question if they didn’t expect an answer? Yet another strange behavior--perhaps Lan Xichen is just a very hot weirdo. Meng Yao’s slutty-brain doesn’t want to accept that. No one so hot and so polite could be that weird, because that would be a flaw, and this man has no flaws. It is Meng Yao’s fault, probably, for not understanding anything he does. “Of course, go right ahead.”

“May I ask why you decided to come to the kink club tonight?”

“Huaisang invited me, of course.”

“But you mentioned he expected you to leave?”

Meng Yao shrugs a little, takes a small bite of his frozen yogurt. “Yes.”

“Why is that?” No judgement, just gentle curiosity.

“He’s been inviting me for a while. I always told him it… doesn’t seem like my sort of thing. In terms of personal preferences.”

“But you changed your mind?”

“Well, he insisted.”

A flicker of something passes across Lan Xichen’s face. “I never considered Huaisang to be the sort of person to pull someone into a situation they didn’t wish to participate in or witness.”

Meng Yao waves this off. “He’s like a little brother to me, it wasn’t a big deal. He’s allowed.”

Lan Xichen’s expression clears a little--he hadn’t even realized there was a tightness of concern until it had smoothed out. “Ah, I see. I have a little brother myself. They can be troublesome, can’t they?” His smile now is very warm, very fond. 

“Yes, but I bully him far more than he bullies me.”

Lan Xichen laughs. “Well, that’s just your responsibility as his elder brother, isn’t it.”

“Yes,” Meng Yao says, prim. “I’m glad you understand it.”

After a moment, Lan Xichen seems to sober. “But why did he invite you at all, if he knows such things aren’t to your taste?”

Meng Yao stabs his spoon into his frozen yogurt in slow motion, careful and controlled. “Well,” he says, light and conversational. “He is quite insistent that it would be good for me.”

“In what sense?”

Meng Yao calls up a bland smile. “If you asked him, he’d say I have, quote, ‘a fucked-up thing about power’. He thinks I should… I don’t know. Have it spanked out of me or something. I’ve never asked the details of what he expected to happen, of course. Goodness, can you imagine even attempting to guess at what chaos goes on inside his head?”

Lan Xichen’s face has gone serious again. Meng Yao hasn’t the foggiest idea what he said that took away the smile. Perhaps his comment about the spanking was too blithe, perhaps it came across as disrespectful. Meng Yao’s hand, in his lap, tightens into a fist. “Hm,” says Lan Xichen, lowering his eyes again. “I find myself with even more questions than I started with. But I don’t wish for this to feel like an interrogation.”

“It doesn’t,” Meng Yao says quickly. He ducks his head. “Of course you would have questions about my intentions. Perhaps I should apologize. I’m an outsider, and I came in and gawked. It’s terribly rude of me. I should have been more respectful of a space that doesn’t belong to me.”

When he dares to glance up, Lan Xichen is frowning a little bit, studying him.

“I’m happy to answer whatever questions you have,” Meng Yao says, swallowing hard. “It’s the least I can do.”

“I suppose I’m still just wondering… Why did you come? Because Huaisang invited you, yes, because he thought it would be good for you--but in a broader sense, why did you come?”

Meng Yao opens his mouth to say something about how impolite it would be to turn down an invitation, and finds suddenly that he just… can’t lie to that face. It’s a face that asks for honesty. Meng Yao scrapes at the peak of his frozen yogurt with the edge of his plastic spoon, smushes it down.

“I have a hunch,” Lan Xichen says, ever so gently, so gently that it makes Meng Yao’s chest ache. “I can’t put my finger on why, but I have a hunch that you didn’t do it simply because you wanted to appease him or because you wanted him to stop asking.” A pause. “Am I entirely wrong?”

Meng Yao takes a breath. “No,” he says quietly. 

“Have you had experiences with this lifestyle before?”

“No. Not really. Other than the usual bits and pieces.”

“Which ones specifically?” Still absolutely no judgement or mockery. Meng Yao can’t meet his eyes.

“Oh, you know, a boyfriend who liked pinning my wrists down every now and then when we’re having sex, or who wanted me to call him sir to stroke his ego--you know, that sort of thing.”

“Did you enjoy those?”

Meng Yao keeps industriously flattening his frozen yogurt into the cup. He makes his voice light, drags a smile onto his face. “How strange it is to talk about such personal matters.”

“We don’t need to,” Lan Xichen says immediately. “I can change the topic to any number of other subjects, if this one doesn’t interest you.”

“You’re very polite,” Meng Yao comments. “I’ve never felt so accommodated in all my life.” He tries to make it a joke. He fails. He’s failing a great deal tonight.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Lan Xichen says, even more gently. “You deserve accommodation. Is there anything I can do or say or explain to make you more comfortable?”

“It was fine,” Meng Yao says, shying away from that entire idea. Perhaps Lan Xichen finds it odd for him to swerve from one topic to the other like this. “The bits and pieces,  I mean. Holding my wrists down and so forth. It was fine. I didn’t dislike it. I just don’t--” He almost, almost cracks there, almost says something he shouldn’t. He schools himself. “I just don’t see the appeal of anything more elaborate, I suppose.”

They eat their frozen yogurt in silence for a long moment. Meng Yao risks a glance at his face--Lan Xichen looks thoughtful. And irresistibly beautiful, even in the garish fluorescents of the shop. There’s just something about him which--it feels easy. It feels like Meng Yao could say anything to him and get kindness and understanding in reply, and that temptation is dangerous. He knows it’s dangerous. But-- but. He is just a stranger, after all, isn’t he? Meng Yao doesn’t ever have to see him again. He could say things, and if it doesn’t work, then there is no sunk-cost to be sacrificed.

“I wasn’t hinting that I wanted you to stop asking,” he says, staring down into his frozen yogurt. “I’m not… accustomed to being so forthcoming, that’s all. I’m not used to it.”

“I don’t want to continue the topic if it’s upsetting to you.”

“You’re really too polite,” Meng Yao murmurs.

 Lan Xichen huffs a laugh. “You aren’t the first to tell me so.” He pauses. “If I may ask, then… I noticed you were uncomfortable with the flogger, but you seemed upset by the switch.”

“Is there a question in there?” Meng Yao says, managing an approximation of lightness.

“I’m not sure. That was what made me ask whether you had experience--I thought perhaps you’d had a bad one.”

“Not with sex. But my father once kicked me down a flight of stairs,” Meng Yao says neutrally. “Among other things.”

“Ah.”

There is a beat of silence--but even a second of silence is suddenly unbearable. “It wasn’t the implements that upset me. It was that no one was… It’s just a game. I know it’s just a game, I’ve read books and articles, I’m not stupid.” He needs, very badly, for Lan Xichen to know that he’s not stupid.

“No, you’re not, I can tell you’re not,” Lan Xichen says. “But it was that no one was…?”

“Reacting. Helping her. They were just watching and--and letting her cry, or ignoring her and talking amongst themselves. And I know it’s just pretend. I know she wanted it, I know what safewords are, I know she would have had to ask for it, I know that--

A warm hand covering his. “Meng Yao.” 

He stops talking. He’s shaking a little, he notices distantly. Lan Xichen’s hand is so warm. He can’t remember the last time someone touched him in reassurance like that. Huaisang will glom onto him when he wants something, or throw himself at Meng Yao’s chest to wail when he’s upset, but he’s not very good at… the reciprocation part. Meng Yao drops the spoon into the cup and--curls his fingers, just enough to touch Lan Xichen’s hand back, just so that he won’t think he has to pull it away. It’s so warm. It’s so nice. He’s so beautiful, and Meng Yao is so fucked up.

“Talking about this is distressing you.”

“I’m fine, really.”

“I hope you’ll forgive me, but every time you’ve said that so far tonight, I haven’t been able to believe you.”

That--makes Meng Yao feel cracked open. “I’m a little off my game today. I’m usually more convincing.”

Lan Xichen’s hand squeezes his. He adds his second hand, picking up Meng Yao’s and enveloping it completely. Oh, big hands, notes the part of his brain that still very much wants to lick this man. “How can I help?”

Meng Yao swerves away from that thought. He can’t. He can’t face that. “They were watching her cry, watching her humiliating herself, and they barely reacted. It’s just a game. It’s pretend.”

“Even pretend games can cause real hurt, or real fear. That’s what the club rules are for, to help it happen less. But it’s impossible to make any situation like that one hundred percent safe for everyone, just safer.” He’s rubbing Meng Yao’s hand with his thumbs now. It’s so nice. “Why didn’t you walk away, when it started getting uncomfortable for you?”

Meng Yao laughs aloud at that. “Things being a little uncomfortable is hardly a reason to walk away. One has to endure, if one wants to succeed or persevere at anything.”

Lan Xichen hums in acknowledgement. “And what were you trying to succeed at that kept you there, watching a scene that was upsetting to you?”

That’s the question. That is the question, isn’t it. Meng Yao swerves away from it. “I wasn’t that upset.”

“I saw your face,” Lan Xichen says softly. “You went white. You had been starting to relax when we were talking, and then--” He rubs his thumbs over Meng Yao’s knuckles. “You weren’t okay.”

“I would have been fine,” Meng Yao protests in a whisper. “You could have just left. I would have been fine."

“There was no way for me to know that. There was no way to tell whether it was harming you, or merely hurting you. I was not comfortable with taking the gamble between the two. Better to get you out of there and take a breather, and let you decide again when you’re clear-headed whether being in that room is what you want.”

“Better to--” Meng Yao blinks. “What do you mean, better to get me out?” he demands, half-outraged. “You said you wanted frozen yogurt! You asked me here as a favor!”

Lan Xichen blinks back at him, and then the corner of his mouth quirks in a smile, wry and a little impish. “Well, to be fair, I am almost always in a state of wanting frozen yogurt.”

God, that expression on him is… incredibly hot. That expression, and that hint that this painfully sincere and earnest man does have a little touch of cunning and subterfuge under the surface. Meng Yao has known him for less than an hour and he is already prepared to bet real money on the fact that Lan Xichen never uses that cunning except to enact good deeds.

Fuck, Meng Yao is already halfway through developing a raging crush.

He tsks, grumbles, “Too unfair, gege, tricking me like that,” notes the flicker of surprise and dawning delight, notes the way Lan Xichen squeezes his hand. Okay, he’s so he’s more like three-quarters of the way through developing a raging crush. “Don’t expect you can get away with that again,” Meng Yao adds. “I’m just--having an off day.”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen says, beaming at him.

Ugh, he’s too beautiful. Meng Yao picks up his spoon with his free hand and stabs his slowly-melting frozen yogurt. “I don’t know,” he says, very quietly.

Lan Xichen must be learning the patterns of his swerves, because he doesn’t even hesitate, he just says kindly, “You don’t know what you were trying to succeed at by staying, you mean?” which, yes, is exactly what Meng Yao means. He nods, feels small and pathetic and flawed and fucked-up, but his hand is being held so gently in Lan Xichen’s, as if it’s something fragile and precious, and the idea of pulling away feels exactly like contemplating his own death. “You said you’d read books and articles about kink--you have theoretical knowledge. How long have you been reading about it?”

Meng Yao shrugs. “A decade or so, I suppose. Since college, roughly about the same time Huaisang got into it.”

“But no practical applied experience, or very little,” Lan Xichen says thoughtfully. He looks down at Meng Yao’s hand, still stroking the delicate bones with his thumbs. “Most people, when they have no interest in something, do not spend a decade reading about it.”

If he were anyone else, Meng Yao would snap at him. Show his teeth and claws so Lan Xichen would know to tread carefully. “What’s your point?”

“I’m not sure yet. There are a lot of kinds of interest, after all. Sometimes certain things fascinate even if one has no wish to participate in them. Sometimes one seeks only understanding, or to satisfy a curiosity.”

“Surely sometimes there are people who just come to gawk,” Meng Yao says, stabbing his frozen yogurt.

“Mm. We call that voyeurism and it’s a perfectly valid kink when practiced between consenting participants.”

His delivery is so deadpan that Meng Yao is caught in a laugh before he even realizes it’s coming, and then he feels dizzy to think of how honest he’s being, how vulnerable. He ought to be petrified with fear and anxiety, he ought to be defensive and closed off,  he ought to put up walls and smiling masks to protect himself--but he has that weakness for kindness, that weakness that always whispers, No, but this time it’s real, this time it’s genuine, this person actually means it . He finds himself glancing up at Lan Xichen again from under his lashes, and he’s aware that he’s--flirting, a little, maybe. Rather, he’s aware at least that he looks cute and fetching when he does it, and if Lan Xichen happens to agree, then… Meng Yao is hardly going to object. Lan Xichen does seem like he agrees. Meng Yao still can’t look directly at his face for more than a moment or two at a time. 

Meng Yao’s mouth goes dry when he thinks of what he’s about to say. He has to swallow hard, poking at his frozen yogurt with the spoon. “You could keep asking me questions,” he offers softly. “You’re very good at asking questions. I wouldn’t mind, if you… wanted to ask more.”

Lan Xichen squeezes his hand. “You don’t seem like a gawker. I’ve met some people who were.”

“How can you tell?”

“Instinct, mostly.” He turns Meng Yao’s hand over, smooths the fingers open, and pushes his thumbs into the meat of the palm, rubbing out the tension. Meng Yao’s heart stutters as a thrum of arousal runs down his spine and pools in his groin. This improbable man now has the gall to give him a hand massage? In public? With no mercy or consideration for Meng Yao’s poor nerves? “It just seems like there might be something drawing you to it, if you’ve been reading about it for so long, and thinking about it, and refusing to let yourself leave when you finally face it and it’s uncomfortable. A little gravitational pull, of sorts.”

Your dick has a gravitational pull, retorts the slutty part of Meng Yao’s brain. 

“Hm. Maybe,” he manages.

“A common error that newcomers make is to think that they have to like everything, or at least be open to trying it.” He shrugs one shoulder, and there’s an edge of disdain in his voice when he says, “It’s an error that is committed by a number of more established people in the community as well, people who have been around long enough that they ought to know better.” He meets Meng Yao’s eyes seriously. “No matter what anyone tells you, at the end of the day this sort of thing isn’t about the surface aesthetics, or the trappings and gadgets and implements and set scripts. It’s not even really about power exchange.”

Meng Yao feels like he’s trembling again, for a much different reason now. “Oh? Then what is it about?”

“Being known,” Lan Xichen says simply. He’s lowered his eyes again, which makes it a lot easier to stare at his face. “That’s what everyone is after, when it comes down to it. Being known--by others, by oneself. Known well enough to be able to talk about your own hurts and hungers; well enough that you can provide a balm for someone else’s. Everything else is window dressing.”

Meng Yao’s eyes sting hard with tears once again, and this time when he blinks, the sting doesn’t go away. He releases a shaky breath, curls his fingers to catch Lan Xichen’s rubbing thumbs, grips them tight. Lan Xichen glances up at him, wraps his hands around Meng Yao’s again, covering it with warmth and strength. He can’t speak.

“Is that it, maybe?” Lan Xichen asks, barely louder than a breath, as if he’s worried that speaking too loudly might make Meng Yao shatter entirely. Perhaps it would. “Is that what keeps drawing you to it?”

Meng Yao shudders, swallows hard, ducks his head. “Maybe,” he whispers. He sucks in a breath, steadies himself. “It’s unfortunate, isn’t it. To--to want that, and yet be so repulsed by the… window dressing, as you call it.”

“How so?”

It takes another steadying breath before he can answer. “My impression, from my readings, is that most people in the community expect you to be interested in either pain, or power, or both.”

“Ahhh,” Lan Xichen breathes, nodding. “And you have a fraught history with pain, and a--how did you say Huaisang worded it? ‘A fucked-up thing about power?’” Meng Yao nods, stuffs a bite of (now quite drippy) frozen yogurt in his mouth. “Can you tell me more about that?”

“I’m a control freak,” Meng Yao says bluntly--more bluntly than he’s spoken to anyone but Huaisang in… years. “I am an anxious wreck, and a control freak, and if I so much as catch a whiff of someone trying to take away my control, my first instinct is to run for the hills, or lash out.”

“Fight or flight,” Lan Xichen murmurs. “There’s two more, you know. Freeze and fawn--do you get those?”

Meng Yao exhales slowly. “Yes. When control has already been taken away, mostly.”

Lan Xichen nods. “Many people feel drawn to kink because of the opportunities it affords them to approach something that frightens or disturbs them in a way that is safe and secure.”

“A controlled environment, yes, that’s what Huaisang said. That’s why he thought I should… come to the club. He said it would be good for me.”

Lan Xichen tilts his head back and forth in an ‘ehhh… yes and no’ kind of gesture. “Whether it’s good for you very much depends on the execution. I would argue that it was not good for you to be turned loose in a room where you did not feel at ease, with a crowd of people you did not know, and with no options or tools to make yourself feel safe except… well, to put your back to a wall and grit your teeth through it, or to leave and feel as if you had not succeeded.” His tone goes prim. “I hope you won’t mind me criticizing your friend, but I do not consider this one of Huaisang’s finer moments.”

“He didn’t know.”

“He knew you were uncomfortable. He knew you did not feel at ease.”

“He has trouble imagining that anyone could feel uneasy in a crowd,” Meng Yao mutters. “Little butterfly.”

“Yes, that is precisely what I mean. He thought about how he would feel in your place, not about how you felt.”

Meng Yao feels the instinct to swerve from this topic, but there’s nothing to swerve to, and--

“What do you feel when I say that?” Lan Xichen asks, and there’s--there’s something in his voice, a resonance, that makes Meng Yao’s jittering nerves go calm for a moment, like the leaves on a tree falling still in between one gust of wind and the next. “Something happened in your head when I said that. When I asked earlier how I could make you comfortable, too.” 

Meng Yao suddenly feels like an ant under a magnifying glass, like--god, like Lan Xichen hasn’t even been trying to see him all this time, and now he is trying, now he’s both the sun and a lens, and Meng Yao will--he’ll be-- 

“And,” Lan Xichen continues, as gentle as the ocean tides and as irresistible, “when you demurred about never having felt so accommodated.” 

Meng Yao’s breath is coming faster, but he doesn’t want to pull away. It is terrifying, and it is what he wants most in all the world, just to have someone look at him and understand him--fuck, it’s just like Lan Xichen said, that’s what it is, he wants to be known just as much as he is frightened to his core of it, because being known is not safe, and what he needs above all else--setting mere wants aside--is safety.

He meets Lan Xichen’s eyes and says nothing, just… waits, and doesn’t dare to hope, and thinks of how heartbroken he’ll be if Lan Xichen can’t do it, can’t live up to this thing he’s promising without words, can’t actually see him or know him--and if he can’t manage it, then maybe no one can, and Meng Yao will live forever with that knowledge that there’s no one in all the world who could ever--

Lan Xichen doesn’t let go of his hand, but he leans forward a little, puts his elbows on the table, rubs his thumbs over the bones of Meng Yao’s wrist, fixes that terrifying heavy gaze on him like he’s looking right into Meng Yao’s soul. “What do you feel?”

Meng Yao’s lips part on a sharp exhale.

Lan Xichen doesn’t even blink. His eyes are still so warm, so kind--god, so kind, so painfully, heartwrenchingly kind--and utterly inescapable. Gravity wells, Meng Yao thinks. You start falling slow, with gravity wells, and by the time you notice, it’s too late.

“I don’t know,” Meng Yao whispers. He trembles. Lan Xichen’s hands squeeze his, grounding him, holding him--and his trembling eases.

“Start with physical sensations.” When Meng Yao still doesn’t speak for a moment, Lan Xichen says, “Shall I see if I can prompt it again?” Meng Yao nods, helpless, and Lan Xichen says, “You deserve courtesy and consideration.”

“I’ll cry,” Meng Yao blurts, because he cannot escape from those horrible, beautiful, horrible eyes. He wants to throw himself into Lan Xichen and--

“Thank you,” Lan Xichen says with a small, encouraging smile. Meng Yao feels like the air comes rushing back into the room. “Thank you for telling me. Again: You deserve courtesy and consideration. What do you feel? Physical sensations, not emotions.”

“Sick to my stomach. My throat is tight. My eyes burn. I want to run. I can’t run.”

“Why can’t you run?”

“I don’t want to,” Meng Yao’s mouth says, and he’s--aware, distantly, that “I want to run” and “I don’t want to run” are directly contradictory, but it doesn’t seem to matter, because Lan Xichen just nods as if it makes any kind of sense and keeps up that encouraging smile, and Meng Yao… hopes, and hopes, and hopes. 

“What else? Take a breath, take inventory. Close your eyes if you need to. What is your body telling you?”

Meng Yao closes his eyes--it does make it easier, it makes him feel less like an ant under a magnifying glass, less like he’s about to be destroyed. The eyes are the windows of the soul, as they say, and if Meng Yao’s eyes are closed, then Lan Xichen cannot see him. Part of his brain notes that this doesn’t make any more logical sense than “I want to run, I don’t want to run”. He ignores it. “I’m--tense. I’m cold, a little. I’m…” Oh, his free hand is clenched into a fist, he notices. When had that happened? It aches. He flexes it. “I was digging my nails into my palm.” Lan Xichen makes a little noise of concern and moves Meng Yao’s free hand to overlap the one already being held--even holding both of them together, Lan Xichen’s hands are still big enough to entirely enfold them. He takes a breath, another. “My mouth is dry. My shoes are uncomfortable. The chair is hard.” He casts around, pinging his awareness from one part of his body to another--it’s strange, to do this. Strange to approach each bit of his body as if he’s asking, And you? How are you? Anything to report? instead of merely waiting for body parts to send up big alarms along his nerves if there’s some emergency he ought to notice. “How much else do you want?”

“Mmm, one or two more, maybe.”

“I’m scared.”

“Bad scared? Wanting to stop?”

“No.”

“What else? You deserve courtesy and consideration.”

“I want to push it away. I want to cry.” His voice cracks a little as he says, “Your hands are really warm.”

“You mentioned being cold, yes. I’m sorry I don’t have a jacket to offer you, but I’m glad I can help a little.” Another firm, grounding squeeze of his hands. “Thank you for telling me all of that.”

“Hurts. When you say that. It hurts.”

“Where?”

“My chest, my stomach, my throat. Everywhere.”

Lan Xichen hums. “Well, now I’m a little stuck about what to say,” he says, an amused smile in his voice, and Meng Yao manages to laugh a little--it eases the tension, makes it feel a little less desperate and identity-destroying. “I want to acknowledge you, but if it hurts when I do, then that rather defeats the purpose.”

“What is the purpose?”

“To reward you. And the purpose of rewarding you is to make you feel good. When you-- Wait, no, I expect that will hurt too, if I say it like that.” Lan Xichen chuckles to himself. “Ah, this is challenging me,” he says, but he sounds so admiring, so appreciative, that it makes a burst of warmth kindle in Meng Yao’s stomach. “Let me try wording it a little more objectively. When a person does something well, especially something difficult, that person should feel good about it. There, how was that?”

“Fine.”

“Good. Do you agree with that statement?”

Meng Yao squirms a little. His eyes are still shut, so he’s been able to get his brain mostly back online. “This is a trick question. Any logical and reasonable person would agree with the objective statement. But if I agree with it, then your next question will be to ask whether I agree that it is true for me, and then I will be forced to either accept the rewards or to explain the double standard for why I believe that I don’t deserve rewards even though everyone else does. And you know that, because that’s why you knew you would have to word it objectively in the first place. Checkmate.”

After a beat of silence, Meng Yao cracks one eye open--Lan Xichen is beaming at him. He almost has stars in his eyes. Meng Yao slams his eye closed again and feels his cheeks go pink, which--Lan Xichen sees everything, he undoubtedly sees that too. “I’m trying to think of how to respond,” Lan Xichen says dreamily. “My mouth is full of things I want to say to that, but I worry that they would hurt if I did.”

Meng Yao’s breath catches. He wants to know. He doesn’t want to know, he wants to cover his ears and sing so he doesn’t have to hear it. “Hm.”

“Hm,” says Lan Xichen in answer, as if amused. “A challenge indeed. Well, let me think, then, let me see if I can figure out a way to prompt a good feeling without the hurt.”

“I--” Meng Yao breaks it off.

“You?” Lan Xichen prompts. “Perhaps a hint or a suggestion? Gege welcomes your feedback.”

Meng Yao feels his face flame, another rolling burst of warmth in his chest to--to have that validation that the touch of flirting earlier really wasn’t unwelcome. That it’s reciprocated. “I can’t. It’s too awkward. I just--” He huffs, frustrated with his current capacity for speech, or lack thereof.

“Hmm, what do you feel? You think of offering suggestions for giving you a nice feeling, and you are...”

“Embarrassed. Frightened. Defensive. I don’t need it.”

“Mm, yes, I know, that’s how you’ve managed to get yourself all tangled up in the brambles like this, isn’t it? Because you think you don’t need good feelings.”

“Rude.”

“Gege is very remorseful and will meditate on how best to reform himself,” Lan Xichen says immediately, not sounding sorry at all. “Let’s see, let’s see. You aren’t completely miserable anymore--you look much better than when we were in the club. What’s one thing that feels nice right now in this moment? Or, perhaps not ‘nice’, per se, but whatever the opposite of hurt is.”

Meng Yao freezes. “I. I can’t--”

“Did the frozen yogurt taste good?” Lan Xichen prompts, as if pointing out the first foothold in a cliff he’s asked Meng Yao to scale.

“Yes.”

“Yes, it did, I agree. I’m fond of this shop, though they only have my favorite flavor during the winter. But we haven’t eaten much of what we bought, and now it’s gone dribbly. What about this?” Lan Xichen presses his hands--warm, warm. Big, and strong, and soft and smooth, and his fingers are so long. Meng Yao can’t help but think of what those fingers could do to him, how they’d feel in his mouth, on his cock, inside him-- fuck, they’d reach deep. “Is this nice?”

Meng Yao nods silently.

“Hm,” says Lan Xichen, the smile audible in his voice again. “I think so too. Meng Yao has lovely hands.”

Meng Yao takes a breath, opens his mouth, says, “A-Yao,” quite without thinking, and then has a moment of panic. What the fuck is he saying, what is he doing--

“A-Yao,” says Lan Xichen in a voice as warm and gentle and enveloping as his hands. “A-Yao’s hands are so nice to hold. Gege feels very honored.”

Meng Yao blushes and ducks his head, even with his eyes closed. “And--that. It’s nice.”

“Which that? About your hands?”

“No, about… about you. That--feels good. Like when you said...” Fuck, his mouth is dry. “When you said that this is challenging you. That felt nice.” And what is this , anyway? What are they doing? It is incredibly intimate, incredibly intense, and it all happened so quickly and unexpectedly--and neither of them seem like they’re backing away-- 

“Ahh.”

“You sounded happy.”

“Ah! I see.” A thoughtful pause. A little laugh. “I am attempting to switch gears--‘Thank you for telling me that’ has been my default for a long time, and it always feels a little strange to break a pattern. But--alright, give me a moment, I shall compose a new one especially for A-Yao.” A pensive hum, and a long, long silence, though Lan Xichen keeps rubbing his thumbs over his hands, stroking his wrists, so Meng Yao doesn’t feel as if his attention has strayed. In a rather different voice, Lan Xichen says, “Ah, this truly is a challenge. I still have some bad habits of my own, I see.”

Meng Yao opens his eyes. Lan Xichen is smiling down at their hands, a little rueful. “That’s hard to believe.”

Lan Xichen shakes his head, still smiling. “They’re like weeds, I’ve found. As soon as you think you have cleared them out, you turn around and find more have sprouted behind you while you weren’t looking. I have become very good at discussing others’ feelings and desires, but now I find myself feeling shy of admitting to my own.” Another slow, smiling headshake. “How hypocritical of me to be shy about mine when I have been insisting on unraveling yours. Gege truly will meditate on this as he thinks of how to reform himself.” A pause. “I expect I will be thinking about this a great deal, in fact.” His smile flickers a little. “I do worry that centering my own feelings will have an adverse effect--I wouldn’t want A-Yao to begin answering questions merely for the sake of pleasing me. A very worthy challenge, this one, to present such a dilemma.”

Ah, and now Meng Yao is feeling shy too, and--lightheaded, again. And fully in the throes of a ferocious crush. He wants to lean forward and cup Lan Xichen’s beautiful face in his hands and kiss him. Slowly, carefully, he says, “I could stand it if… if we were both enduring the difficult thing,” and Lan Xichen’s smile broadens again until he is almost twinkling.

“Hm, that makes it a little simpler.” Meng Yao wonders suddenly if Lan Xichen is petting him so compulsively because he can’t bring himself to stop anymore than Meng Yao can bring himself to pull away. “A-Yao is doing very well. It is a difficult thing, but A-Yao is being brave and clever. Gege is very impressed with him. And humbled. And happy to be allowed to hold his hands.” He looks up--and yes, Meng Yao can see a spark of shyness in his expression now. “How’s that?”

He’s lost all his words again, his tongue feels clumsy. He nods a little, breathless, and Lan Xichen seems to relax a little.

“Why--” Meng Yao says, and has to swallow the dryness in his mouth again. “Why do you feel humbled?”

“Because you describe yourself as a control freak, but you are trusting me with this,” Lan Xichen says simply.

Meng Yao wants to run. He doesn’t want to run. He can’t allow himself to have this, and he wants it ferociously. He’s leading himself into heartbreak. If he leans too hard on Lan Xichen’s kindness, then even the slightest crack or wobble in it will send Meng Yao sprawling to the ground, bruised and bloodied. He hates falling. He’d broken two ribs when his father had thrown him down the stairs. He hates falling. 

Meng Yao opens his voice to speak--he doesn’t know what he’ll say. His voice cracks, and Lan Xichen looks embarrassed and says, “Oh dear, you did mention earlier that your mouth was dry, and we’ve been talking so much. You must be thirsty. I’ll go get you a--” He moves his hands a millimeter, as if he’s about to pull away, and Meng Yao’s breath catches and he seizes them in a sudden panic. “Oh--okay, no problem, I’ll stay here. Just--one moment.” He turns away, calls to the cashier, asks her apologetically if he could trouble her for a glass of water, and she nods and goes to fetch it. Meng Yao grits his teeth and forces his fingers to unlock their death grip, forces himself to pull them out of Lan Xichen’s grasp, just in time for the cashier to come back, set a glass of water at the pick-up counter, and turn to help the next customer. 

Lan Xichen looks between Meng Yao, his hands, and the glass sitting ten feet away, as if confronted with another dilemma.

“It’s okay,” Meng Yao says. “It was just--reflex. I’m fine.”

Lan Xichen’s expression melts into another soft expression, his smile little fondly chiding. He lowers his voice and whispers, as if confessing a secret, “I am going to pretend to believe you and be reassured for the three seconds it takes me to get up and get the glass.”

It really does only take three seconds. Meng Yao’s heart mewls pitifully for all three of them, pathetic little thing that it is, and then Lan Xichen is sliding back into the booth, pushing the glass across the table to him, and taking one of his hands again immediately, squeezing it tight as if to make up for those three seconds. “Hm, how do you feel?”

“Cold.” Meng Yao picks up the glass, chugs about half of it before he sets it down. “Hurting. It’s stupid.” 

“May I ask you to never say that word again?” Lan Xichen asks, very very soft and gentle. “At least about yourself? I don’t feel nice when I hear that. It--” He stops, frowns to himself, tilts his head. “Ah. No. I rescind my request, and I apologize for making it in the first place.”

Meng Yao blinks at him. “And what just happened in your head?”

“I was about to say it hurts me to hear that, but I realized... When you say things like that, you are not attempting to hurt those around you--you are attempting to hurt yourself, so any pain or dismay I feel when it happens is just empathy. In other words, it is not my own pain that I am feeling, it is a glimpse of yours. Asking you not to say the word aloud will not stop you from continuing to hurt yourself with it in the privacy of your own mind. It solves nothing, except to make me feel as if I have done something. My glimpse of your pain will vanish, but just because I do not feel it does not mean that it does not still exist. So I sincerely and abjectly apologize. That is not at all what I would want to ask you for, and I am sorry I nearly did.” 

Ridiculous man, Meng Yao’s brain offers distantly, as though through a static haze. How is such a person allowed to exist? Why has he not had a sack thrown over his head and been swiftly given a mercy killing for the crime of being far too good for this world? How has he managed to get to adulthood without being tarnished or scuffed or dented? How is Meng Yao supposed to ever hope to measure up to him? How is he supposed to feel worthy of sitting here and holding this man’s hand? Meng Yao drinks the rest of his water and sets the glass aside. “You’re right, though,” he says, because the idea of accepting an apology for something so trivial is… impossible to even consider. “I shouldn’t say things like that about myself. I’ve had therapists who tried to talk me out of the habit. I’m afraid it hasn’t stuck.”

Lan Xichen squeezes his hand. His eyes are bright--not in the warm, shining way from before, but… almost the way people’s eyes look when they brush up against an emotion that would make tears spring to their eyes if they stepped into it more fully. Soft as a cotton wool, he says, “You have a great deal of hurt, I think.”

“That’s life, isn’t it,” Meng Yao says, dropping his eyes. He takes a breath, moves his other hand over again--Lan Xichen takes it immediately, even more careful and delicate than before. 

“You said…” His gut twists with fear. “Just now, you said that wasn’t what you’d want to ask me for.” His heart begins to race. “What would you want to ask me for? If you were going to ask me for something.”

Lan Xichen tips his head a little to the side, as if hearing a faint noise from a long way off, and slides two fingers to Meng Yao’s pulse point. Meng Yao lets him. Doesn’t pull away. Lets him feel the thundering gallop of his heartbeat. “If I were going to, I would ask only to be allowed to know you,” Lan Xichen says, and cotton wool would be wire-coarse in comparison to his voice now--it’s as soft as mist. Softer.

Zhiji , Meng Yao thinks. He feels like he is about to fly apart. He feels like his lungs are being crushed. He feels like he is filled up with light. He wants to run. He wants to hide his face in shame. He wants to see what will happen if he… 

He swallows. Licks his lips, tries not to tremble too much. “When you say that,” he says, “do you mean…” He glances towards the street, tips his head a little in the direction of the club.

Lan Xichen blinks, the corner of his mouth quirking in a little smile. “If it provided a path towards knowing you, then perhaps. But there are many such paths.”

“What about all the window dressing?” he whispers.

“What about it?” Lan Xichen replies, just as quiet.

“What if I don’t like any of the things you like?”

“There are many paths,” Lan Xichen says again, more firmly. “And besides, you already like the most important thing I like.” He squeezes Meng Yao’s hands. “This. I like this the most. Simple touch. Providing comfort and care. Talking. Exchanging secrets. Acts of trust.” He smiles again and lowers his eyes, his ears a little pink. “And A-Yao just has very pretty hands.”

“There must be something else.” Lan Xichen shrugs in reply. “Don’t dissemble.”

“There are other things I have liked, but there is nothing else that I couldn’t live without. To use an analogy, I enjoy tree nuts, but I could easily eliminate them from my home and diet if someone close to me were allergic. Their health and comfort takes precedence over my enjoyment.” His fingertips tap Meng Yao’s pulse point again. “Hm. How do you feel?”

“I don’t quite believe you,” Meng Yao confesses quietly. “I want to. But I can’t.”

“Would you like to tell me what you’re allergic to, figuratively speaking, and I’ll tell you whether I can live without it? Specifics are by nature easier to grasp than broad abstracts.”

Meng Yao hesitates for only a heartbeat. “We’re talking about sex, aren’t we?” he says bluntly. “We’re talking about--about having sex.”

Lan Xichen’s ears go a little pinker, which is a confounding thing to witness considering that Meng Yao met this man in a kink club . “If you’re not allergic to that, then… ah… it is something I have enjoyed in the past.” He meets Meng Yao’s eyes again and says, sounding a little shy again, “A-Yao is distractingly lovely. Gege has been distracted this entire time.”

A surge of pleasure at that, and Meng Yao is so off balance from everything tonight that he doesn’t have a hope of getting a mask up in time to hide it. He entirely fails at fighting off a smile, so he ducks his head to hide it (it does not hide anything, he knows, it is still painfully obvious), and continues failing at making any progress in the fight against his face for--an embarrassingly long few moments.

“Oh,” says Lan Xichen, breathless and dreamy. “How do you feel?”

Gege ,” Meng Yao scolds.

“Please?”

Meng Yao flicks the briefest glance up at him--too beautiful to tolerate. So beautiful Meng Yao wants to drown him in a rain puddle as a public service so that no one else has to look at him. So beautiful that Meng Yao wants to put him in a box and bury him under a tree in his backyard like a secret treasure so no one else gets to look at him. “Nice,” he mumbles, still mostly losing the war against his smile, but at least gaining a few yards of ground in the trench battles. “It’s nice.” What is this ridiculous man doing to him? Perhaps ridiculousness is contagious.

“Hurts?”

Meng Yao shakes his head, glancing at him again from under his eyelashes, this time a little more intentionally coquettish. Lan Xichen is beaming, beaming, beaming, all sunlight and starlight and moonlight and--and just all the light, every kind of light. Meng Yao… swerves. “Being ignored,” he says, a little sharper than he means to. “I’m allergic to--that. That’s what set me off in the club. She was being ignored. And everyone was ignoring me. They could probably see I was upset, I wasn’t being subtle. They were probably trying to help me save face by pretending they didn’t notice. I don’t want… that. Even for pretend, I don’t want that.”

Lan Xichen presses his hand again in that way that immediately makes Meng Yao feel grounded, anchored, steadied. When Meng Yao glances at him again, the blinding every-kind-of-light expression has been replaced with seriousness again, though flickers of it remain along the edges of his mouth. “Ignoring A-Yao would take more willpower than I possess. Even in play, even if I wanted to, even if A-Yao asked me to try, I would be pathetically incapable of doing that successfully.” Meng Yao exhales slowly, feels a knot in the bottom of his stomach loosen a little. “Hm,” says Lan Xichen, pensive. “You seem like you might be getting a little tired. Should we stop? We could… continue this another day, if you liked.”

Meng Yao shakes his head. “I’m fine.”

“See, that time I believed you.” Lan Xichen pauses, laughs a little, and amends, “I believed you about eighty percent,” and Meng Yao laughs a little too. 

“Eighty percent is about how much I meant it,” he says wryly.

Lan Xichen smiles and squeezes his hands. “A little tired, but good to keep going?” Meng Yao nods. “Hmm. We could make a guessing game of it, if you like, so you would only have to tell me whether or not I’m right. Or shrug, or make a face, or kick me in the shins.” This last is offered with that same little impish twinkle from earlier, and Meng Yao cannot stand this man, he cannot stand him , he morally and ethically cannot allow Lan Xichen’s Everything to continue without any kind of retaliation--so he slips his foot out of his shoe under the table and runs his toes up the shin Lan Xichen had offered for kicking. 

Gratifyingly, Lan Xichen jumps about a mile and squeaks.

Meng Yao takes his foot back with a smug glow of vindication. “A-Yao will let gege guess if wants to,” he says primly. 

Lan Xichen stares at him for a minute, wide eyed, as if he’s forgotten how to speak. “Ah,” he says. “Yes.” He clears his throat. He shifts a little in his seat, in a way that so obviously telegraphs ‘my dick was doing just fine until just a moment ago when I started getting a bit of a chub, and now there is a somewhat uncomfortable Positioning Situation happening with the angles and arrangement of everything. Side note: whoever invented zippers deserves to be shot’ that Meng Yao has to suppress a squirm of his own from sheer glee. 

Lan Xichen notices, of course, because he notices everything, and he gives Meng Yao a look that is… vastly amused, and vastly fond, and deeply suffering, layered over with an utterly ineffective attempt at sternness. 

To show what he thinks of that, Meng Yao withdraws one of his hands and takes a bite of nearly-unfrozen yogurt, mostly for the excuse to put the spoon in his mouth and suck it while making his eyes very wide and innocent.

Lan Xichen’s eyes are laughing. He is losing his own war at keeping the smile off his face, and even the ineffective attempt at sternness has been abandoned. His gaze keeps dropping to Meng Yao’s mouth. 

Ah, Meng Yao likes him. A raging tempest of a crush, yes, that is old news at this point, but… Meng Yao likes him. He doesn’t like many people. Some days he barely likes Huaisang, but Huaisang is family, so that’s a different matter. But Meng Yao likes Lan Xichen--he likes sitting here in a frozen yogurt shop with him, he likes flirting with him, he likes talking to him, holding his hands, being near him, being looked at by him. He’s also probably going to have sex with Lan Xichen at some point--and how interesting that will be, to have sex with someone he likes. He’s not sure he’s ever done that before.

“Gege was about to guess what kink things A-Yao is allergic to,” he says sweetly, setting down his spoon and slipping his hand back into the little pocket of warmth Lan Xichen is making for him.

“Gege is going to need a moment to remember where he is, first,” Lan Xichen replies, a little droll.

“Hm,” Meng Yao says, squashing another wave of smug glee. “Well, take your time.”

Lan Xichen removes one hand to have a bite of his own… yogurt, yes, it is just yogurt at this point, isn’t it. He does not try any of the nonsense that Meng Yao threw at him, only takes a polite and mannerly little spoonful, but Meng Yao still has trouble looking away from his mouth, the flash of his tongue. He pushes the cup aside, puts his hand back over Meng Yao’s--it’s just so big , and his fingers are so long, and Meng Yao’s mouth (which has been dry all night) is watering suddenly at the mental image of what his cock might be like, and whether its proportions are anything like those of his hands. 

“Alright,” Lan Xichen says, a little more soberly. “If the guesses begin to upset you, just… don’t try to hide that from me, please. I want to know.” Meng Yao nods, feeling a little thrill of adrenaline, and curls his fingers to hold onto him, just in case. (In case of what? Meng Yao doesn’t know. In case.) 

Lan Xichen looks down at their hands, hums in thought for a moment. He opens his mouth to speak and hesitates for the barest moment before he says delicately, “I don’t think A-Yao would get anything beneficial out of scenes that involved an element of humiliation or degradation in any form. I imagine he is strongly allergic to that.”

No matter how delicately said, that strikes Meng Yao like a thrown dart. He makes a sharp little exhale in reply, which seems to be enough of a response, because Lan Xichen just nods in a ‘yes, that’s as I expected’ way and continues.

“A-Yao does not like being ignored, but he also seems to be somewhat reserved and private as a person, so I do not think that he would appreciate an audience either.” 

That one stings less--in fact, it’s something of a balm of relief to the previous one. He nods. 

“A-Yao has a, quote, fucked-up thing about power,” Lan Xichen shoots him a little half-smile, which Meng Yao acknowledges with a solemn nod. “A-Yao describes himself as a control freak. He is likely strongly allergic to the idea of total power exchange, at least at this point in time.” When Meng Yao quirks an eyebrow, Lan Xichen shrugs one shoulder. “Today is all that is relevant. Sometimes tastes and needs change.”

“By that metric, isn’t there the possibility that I might one day enjoy being humiliated?” Meng Yao asks crisply.

“Anything is possible,” Lan Xichen allows. “But there is a difference between a meal that is merely enjoyable versus one that is enjoyable as well as healthful and nutritious. I am… dubious as to whether there will ever come a time when that particular meal will provide healthful nourishment for A-Yao, but I will admit that that guess is based almost entirely on instinct and observations made during… stressful, nonstandard circumstances.”

He is so intelligent, is the thing. He is so kind and gentle, and his hands are enormous, and he is so gorgeous that Meng Yao wants to smear him on a piece of toast and eat him, but he is just… so incredibly intelligent, and so insightful. Already Meng Yao can picture situations where he might do something unheard-of like ask Lan Xichen for his advice. It is truly wild to contemplate such a thing--it feels like pure, self-indulgent fantasy to imagine that there could be anyone in the world with whom such a thing would be a viable option. 

“But you’re right,” he says. “I don’t think I will ever like that.”

“Then we need never speak of it again,” Lan Xichen answers briskly. “Shall I go on?” When Meng Yao nods, he says, “A-Yao will not find it healthful or nourishing, I think, to be in a scene where he is being intentionally set up to fail.” Meng Yao’s breath hisses through his teeth, and Lan Xichen immediately presses his hands--fuck, he’s developing an almost Pavlovian reaction to that. It hasn’t even been an hour and that’s already becoming an instant cue to settle him. “This includes predicament bondage or any other context that involves testing his abilities or endurance to the point of exhaustion. I suspect that if A-Yao were put in such a situation, he would simply choose not to fail, even if he were supposed to, and endure to the point of physically injuring himself. It would not be responsible for someone to even present him with that choice.” 

Another balm of cool, soothing relief. Meng Yao squeezes Lan Xichen’s hands and just… breathes.

Once more very quiet and gentle, Lan Xichen says, “A-Yao will not appreciate cruelty in any form. He will not get nourishment from a dom who is cold and aloof and dismissive, nor from a sub who fights him and talks back, or mocks him, or is too proud to show reactions.”

They both sit with this for a long, silent moment as Lan Xichen quietly strokes his hands. 

With a slight smile, Lan Xichen says, “And I don’t think A-Yao has the slightest prurient interest in brats.”

The tension breaks, and Meng Yao snorts. “And where in the world did you get that from?”

“Well, you’re not dating Huaisang,” Lan Xichen says innocently, and Meng Yao has to laugh. After another long moment, Lan Xichen says, “No pain.”

Meng Yao shrugs. “A little incidental pain is tolerable.”

“No pain,” Lan Xichen says more firmly.

“There are certain kinds which--”

“No pain.”

“There are lots of little pains that never hurt seriously hurt anyone. A bite on the neck, for example. Or,” Meng Yao adds, because he is pretty confident about laying money on this bet, “riding a really big cock.” He has his mask ready for this one, and therefore keeps his own composure as Lan Xichen’s stutters. Meng Yao watches his ears go pink again and thinks, Oh yes . He offers a bland smile and generously pretends not to notice as Lan Xichen attempts to regain his footing. “No pain, no gain, as they say,” he says mildly.

Lan Xichen recovers himself and his dignity enough to say, more insistently, “No. No pain.” He adds, with that horrible, criminal sincerity, “A-Yao has had enough pain already.”

Ah, that one hurts. Meng Yao doesn’t disguise his little flinch, and Lan Xichen… presses his hands again. (Fucker. He knows. He absolutely knows.) 

“Gege is not playing fair,” Meng Yao mutters.

“Gege is not playing at all,” Lan Xichen says, absolutely serious. “No pain, no threats of pain, no incidental pain, no--”

“But I own nipple clamps,” Meng Yao says with a little pout. 

He does not in fact own nipple clamps, but that can be remedied with as soon as he gets home to a computer, so he is not lying, just chronologically challenged. And moreover, he’d gotten to try them once, a long time ago with a fling that lasted less than a month, and they’d been… yes. They had been yes.

In any case, it’s worth the reaction, because as soon as he says “nipple clamps”, Lan Xichen closes his eyes slowly with an agonized expression and stays like that for a full ten seconds. When he opens them again, he looks up at the ceiling instead of at Meng Yao.

“Hm. A very worthy challenge,” Meng Yao says with a sage nod.

Lan Xichen clears his throat. “Yes. Quite.” He gives Meng Yao a reproachful look and says, “No pain.”

“What if my leg gets a cramp?”

Lan Xichen raises his eyes to the ceiling again, as if beseeching, but there’s amusement and fondness and a hint of a smile again. “Then we stop whatever we’re doing and I massage it out and gently suggest you include more potassium in your diet.”

Meng Yao tsks. “Well, is that all?”

“For your allergies?” Lan Xichen considers. “I’m sure there are likely others, but for now I believe that is the extent of my ability to guess confidently. Are there any others you’d like to add?”

“I think your guesses covered most of them.” Bitterly, he adds, “Not much left after that, is there? You see my problem.”

“There’s plenty left. There are many paths.” Lan Xichen glances at their frozen yogurt cups, glances at Meng Yao--studies him for a moment. “Would you like to try something?” Meng Yao has enough time to feel a sudden thrill of arousal and adrenaline before Lan Xichen raises one hand and says quickly, “Not an inappropriate thing. Just...” A handsome half-smile. “A worthy challenge.”

“Explain first,” Meng Yao says, because no matter how ferocious his crush, he’s not stupid enough to throw himself into Lan Xichen’s arms and declare that he can do whatever he wants with Meng Yao’s body.

“Of course.” Lan Xichen slides out of the booth, tugging Meng Yao with him--it’s inefficient for them to hold both hands, but Lan Xichen laces their fingers together and squeezes, and that’s nearly as good. Meng Yao follows him, watching Lan Xichen as he disposes of their frozen yogurt cups and bids goodbye to the woman behind the counter and leads him out the door. It’s now fully dark outside, but they’re still lit by the bright cheerful light of the shop and the streetlamps. “This is not a test,” Lan Xichen says, that resonance coming into his voice again. He sounds like a feudal lord, like he expects to be… believed, at least, if not obeyed. “Because it is not a test, there is nothing for A-Yao to fail. It is a challenge only because it will be, I think, a little challenging. Because it is not a test, there is also no way to succeed.”

Meng Yao frowns. “What’s the point of it, then?”

“Knowing you,” Lan Xichen says, his stupid handsome eyes all limpid and sincere--no resonance here, just his normal voice. Meng Yao feels himself go pink and has to look away. “We can do this little challenge and whatever happens, we will both know A-Yao a little better afterwards, and I will be happy. Or we can not do the challenge, and that too will be a path toward knowing A-Yao, and I will still be happy.”

“Gege,” Meng Yao scolds under his breath. This man is too much for anyone to be expected to deal with. “What is it?”

Lan Xichen nods down the street toward the facade of the kink club. “We walk in that direction.”

Meng Yao looks at him suspiciously. “And?”

“And you tell me what you feel.” Lan Xichen’s gaze is suddenly heavy again. He’s… tall. He’s taller than Meng Yao by at least half a foot. “A-Yao has trouble being open. Gege wants to see how open A-Yao can be, if he’s challenged to do it.”

Meng Yao badly wants to swerve away from this. “Gege,” he says plaintively, allowing a pout that he is fairly sure will work wonders on Lan Xichen. “Gege should know he is asking for a lot!”

“Yes,” Lan Xichen says, low and resonant. Meng Yao feels breathless suddenly. “Yes, gege does know.”

Meng Yao represses the urge to plaster himself against Lan Xichen’s front and tip his face up and bat his eyes and dimple at him until he relents from this foolish, uncomfortable idea. “Hnrhggn,” he says, to register his protest. Lan Xichen squeezes his hand. Meng Yao huffs and jerks his head towards the club. “Are we going to go in, too?”

“That depends on what A-Yao says about how he feels. We might go in. Or we might stand by the doorway for a little while. Or walk up and down the street and pass by it a few times. Or A-Yao can decline today’s challenge. There is a spectrum of possibilities, it is not merely a matter of going in or not.”

Of course Meng Yao has to laugh out loud about that. When Lan Xichen gives him a smiling, quizzical look, Meng Yao catches his breath and, still laughing, says, “Just earlier this evening, Huaisang told me it was a binary. Huaisang said waiting on the doorstep counts as not going in.”

Lan Xichen’s eyebrow twitches right before he smiles extraordinarily politely, so polite that it can’t be anything but a camouflage for sass, and Meng Yao is delighted. He is flattened by delight. He might be a little in love, and then Lan Xichen says, devastatingly polite, “I’m sure Huaisang has put a great deal of thought into his perspective.”

Meng Yao laughs so hard he staggers and has to brace himself on Lan Xichen’s arm, burying his face against Lan Xichen’s sleeve to muffle his cackling.

“The way I see it,” Lan Xichen continues placidly while Meng Yao gets himself under control, “is that sitting on the curb in front of the club is measurably different than sitting in a frozen yogurt shop half a block down from the club, which itself is measurably different than deciding not to even leave your house.” He must have been raising his hand to pet Meng Yao’s hair, because when Meng Yao pulls back just at the right moment, Lan Xichen’s fingertips fall on his cheek instead. “Ah, sorry--” Lan Xichen says, but before he can do more than flinch his hand back like he’s touched a hot stove, Meng Yao catches it and presses it against his face again. Lan Xichen’s eyes darken, slow and hot, and his thumb brushes over Meng Yao’s cheekbone just as it had done over his knuckles when they’d been holding hands in the shop. 

Another thrill of arousal simmers up and shimmers along Meng Yao’s nerves. “A-Yao will take gege’s challenge,” he murmurs, giving Lan Xichen a coy little look up through his lashes, since he seems to like that so much--the hand holding Meng Yao’s tightens; the one on his face twitches and slides closer to cup his cheek more fully. “But A-Yao wants to know what his reward will be.”

“What--” Lan Xichen’s voice cracks and he has to clear his throat, which makes Meng Yao feel warm and smug all over, even more so when Lan Xichen says, a little raspy, “What would you want?” 

Meng Yao bites his lip, flicks his eyes deliberately down to Lan Xichen’s mouth. Feels warmer and smugger when Lan Xichen’s breath catches and his gaze grows more intent. “Actually,” Meng Yao says, feeling a little breathless and exhilarated himself. “I’ve done so  much already, I think I deserve a reward right--”

Lan Xichen kisses him. With tongue. Meng Yao’s whole body lights up with delighted shock, as if every part of him had fired off those big alarms along his nerves to say This is definitely an emergency, this beautiful man’s tongue is in your mouth, pay attention!

By the time he has enough brainpower to pay attention to anything else, he’s somehow managed to back Lan Xichen up against the bricks of the building, standing on tiptoes with both hands twisted in the front of his shirt to pull him about--Lan Xichen has one arm around his waist, one hand still cradling his jaw, and when Meng Yao opens his eyes, he’s met with the lovely sight of a rosy-pink flush right across Lan Xichen’s face. It makes Meng Yao grin helplessly against his mouth and think, idly, about how pretty he’d look on his knees.