The day Jiang Cheng turns twenty-one, Nie Huaisang messages him.
"I am once again asking," he says, "what the fuck."
"Oh, you're finally up to memes from six months ago, that's nice," Nie Huaisang says. "Happy birthday, by the way! Do you have plans tonight? Don't answer that. I know the answer already and it makes me sad."
"Wow, fuck you," Jiang Cheng says. He's not stung, exactly, but it hits a little close to the mark. So he's been a little antisocial lately; so what? "It's called self-care, you should try it some time."
Nie Huaisang actually laughs at that, a delighted burble of genuine surprise. "Jiang Cheng! When did you get so sassy? Listen, I'm going to tell you about your birthday present, and it's going to sound a little bit weird, but I'm, like, ninety-nine per cent sure you're going to like it."
"I already don't like this," Jiang Cheng says. "Something I can't tell my brother about? What, is my birthday present to be arrested at a drug deal?"
"Who do you think you’re talking to? As if I'd ever get arrested." Nie Huaisang giggles.
Jiang Cheng can feel a flush building in his face. He switches his phone to his other hand so he can wipe his damp palm on his jeans. Nie Huaisang has this effect on him sometimes; something about the way he leaps between topics, like a feather caught in the breeze, only ever landing lightly. He clears his throat and forces himself to un-hunch his shoulders.
"So what is it then?"
"Did I ever tell you my older brother was in the nightclub business?" He never had, actually, but before Jiang Cheng can say anything, Nie Huaisang goes on. "Well, there's actually one particular club - kind of a members-only thing - and it happens to be running tonight, and da-ge says I can bring you as my plus one, but he's finalising the door list so he needs to know now. And you cannot tell Wei Ying. He will be so jealous. He will throw tantrums. It will be awful for everyone. And it'll be pointless! He wouldn't even like it, anyway! But you, Jiang Cheng, I don't know, I know we're not very close friends, but I really feel like this would be up your alley."
Nie Huaisang finally stops for breath. Jiang Cheng absorbs what he can from the torrent of information. He can see why Nie Huaisang was being so cagey about it. Jiang Cheng has vivid memories of Wei Ying, aged six, not being invited to a school friend's sleepover and sulking for days, even though the sleepover was only for the girls in their class. He hasn't improved much in the past fifteen years. But still, Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang are actually friends; he's just the tag-along little brother.
"Why me?" he asks, and immediately flinches a little. He sounds too blunt, almost aggressive. It's not the way he should sound when someone's trying to do something nice for him.
Luckily, Nie Huaisang just laughs again. "It's your birthday! I'm not allowed to do something nice for you on your birthday? So suspicious, Jiang Cheng."
"Sorry," Jiang Cheng mumbles.
"Don't apologise! Look, it's... hmm." Nie Huaisang trails off. Jiang Cheng can picture his face, mouth slightly pursed as he considers, elegant fingers tapping against one of his paper fans. "Here's the thing. It's a bit - niche. Kind of a special interest group, sort of thing. I really do think you'll like it, but I'll stick with you as long as you want, and if you hate it I'll bring you straight back home, okay?" Nie Huaisang's tone turns playful. "Will you try it? For me?"
Jiang Cheng can almost hear Nie Huaisang batting his eyelashes. He groans and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Fine. I'll try it."
"Amazing!" Nie Huaisang whoops, and Jiang Cheng feels his blush intensify. "You won't regret it! I'll text you the details. See you tonight!"
He hangs up before Jiang Cheng can say anything else. Jiang Cheng looks at the clock and realises with a start it's already almost three in the afternoon. He sighs and goes to take a shower.
When he gets out, he has new text messages. He has so many, in fact, that his phone has vibrated its way off the dresser and onto the floor.
The best that can be said is that Jiang Cheng is ready to leave when Nie Huaisang arrives at his apartment.
His hair is combed. He's wearing the shirt and boots Nie Huaisang requested. He's even polished the boots. He's charged his phone. He's working very hard at not pacing back and forth in front of the door.
Thank god he doesn't live with Wei Ying any more. That would make this completely intolerable.
Nie Huaisang knocks on the door exactly at eight. Jiang Cheng forces himself to take three deep breaths before he opens the door, in the hopes that Nie Huaisang won't know he was standing around waiting. He suspects, based on the tiny smile at the corner of Nie Huaisang's mouth, his ruse was in vain.
Nie Huaisang is wearing a sharp-cut jacket with gleaming silver buttons over a blousy grey shirt so thin it might as well be transparent. His eyes are lined in what looks like silver glitter, and he's done something to his lips that makes them look wine-stained.
"You look so handsome, Jiang Cheng!" Nie Huaisang chirps. He reaches out as if to straighten Jiang Cheng's collar, but pauses a few inches away from making contact. "May I touch you?"
"Um - sure?" Jiang Cheng feels his face turning redder and redder as Nie Huaisang's fingers finally land on his shirt, fussing gently at the collar and straightening his jacket. "I, uh... is this okay?"
"It's perfect," Nie Huaisang says absently, "I have excellent taste, you're welcome. Let's go. Are you hungry?"
"Not really," Jiang Cheng says. His stomach's tying itself in knots from the pressure of Nie Huaisang's hands alone, nevermind the nerves about going somewhere unfamiliar that Nie Huaisang won't say much about.
"Ah, well, nevermind. I'll have to take you to Five Dogs another time." Nie Huaisang smiles up at him, then launches into a monologue on a new restaurant opening up near the university campus, digressing into a ranking of the top five local cafes (first ranked by aesthetic, then ranked by the quality of coffee; the two lists don't have a lot of overlap), before he circles around to gossiping about the ongoing stand-off between the Wen brothers and - well, almost everyone. The Wen brothers are not popular. It doesn't require much of Jiang Cheng beyond agreement and occasional sarcasm, and it settles his anxiety all the way into the car, through their drive to the club, and right up until they're walking through the door.
Nie Mingjue is leaning against the wall outside the club. It takes Jiang Cheng to recognise him; he's never seen Nie Huaisang's brother with his hair down, nor wearing such an abundance of black leather, and not with eyeliner, either. Between the outfit and the extraordinary height, Nie Mingjue looks entirely out of place, some dark elemental transplanted to the rough brick exterior of the club.
"Da-ge," Nie Huaisang says brightly as he approaches. "Don't make this weird for me!"
"Don't start none, won't be none," Nie Mingjue says, and gestures to the door.
Jiang Cheng's nerves come boiling back as Nie Huaisang leads him through a fairly normal looking sports bar and down a flight of stairs. There's a large poster, stark black and grey, declared Welcome to The Unclean Realm in block letters, and a black curtain obscuring whatever might be beyond there.
"Are you nervous?" Nie Huaisang knocks his elbow gently against Jiang Cheng's. "It's okay! I was nervous the first time I came."
"Who's nervous?" Jiang Cheng scoffs, but he doesn't pull away when Nie Huaisang wraps his fingers around Jiang Cheng's wrist.
Their hands are stamped by a woman in a black lace dress, who winks at Nie Huaisang, and then they pass through the curtain and into a long room. The walls are painted black, splashed with fluorescent colours here and there. The music playing sounds vaguely like something from the 1980s, though Jiang Cheng doesn't recognise it well enough to be sure. There's a bar, with a few people standing around chatting and drinking; there are tables and booths, with more people sitting around chatting and drinking; and there are a few strangely-shaped pieces of furniture. One of them, a large wooden frame shaped like the letter A, has a shirtless man cuffed to it. Another shirtless man is stroking his back.
Jiang Cheng stiffens. "Nie Huaisang," he hisses, "have you brought me to a sex club?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Nie Huaisang says breezily. "You can't have sex in a licenced venue."
"What's this then!" Jiang Cheng can feel his voice getting tight and almost shrill, and is completely powerless to stop it. The man cuffed to the frame lets his head fall forward; the man behind him strokes his hair over his shoulder so his back is exposed, then steps back.
"Oh, they're starting early," Nie Huaisang says, as though they're watching a DJ set up and not two men being practically indecent in a public space. "Come on, let's find a place to watch. Hey, it's Mianmian!"
Jiang Cheng rips his eyes away from the two men and the frame and watches Nie Huaisang descend on a woman sitting alone in one of the booths. She has her hair up in space buns, glittery eye makeup, and a glossy black dress that hugs her curves and stops at the tops of her muscular thighs. She stands up to offer Nie Huaisang a hug. Jiang Cheng's mouth goes a little dry.
Nie Huaisang says something to her that Jiang Cheng can't hear, then turns and says, "I think you two know each other."
The woman peers at him and grins. "Oh my god, Jiang Cheng? I had no idea you were in the scene."
"Oh my god," he says faintly. "Luo Qingyang." It feels ridiculous that he didn't recognise her right away, except that he's still distracted by her dress. It looks like it might be made out of rubber. "You, uh... you look great."
"It's his first time," Nie Huaisang says. "Also I kind of sprang it on him."
Luo Qingyang grins. "Well, since you're officially a pervert now, you can call me Mianmian. Come and sit with me!"
Nie Huaisang grips Jiang Cheng's arm and steers him forward; Mianmian sits down and slides across the booth to make room.
"Wait," she says, and turns to Jiang Cheng. "You didn't bring your brother, did you?"
"No, oh my god," Nie Huaisang says. "I swore him to secrecy."
"Thank god," Mianmian says. "Wei Ying would be... a disaster."
"Wei Ying can never know," Jiang Cheng says in tones of rising horror.
Nie Huaisang nudges him until he moves over. He ends up wedged between Mianmian - this close to her, he can tell her dress is PVC, not rubber, and also that her biceps are way more impressive than his - and Nie Huaisang, with a perfect view of the frame. There's a lot of exposed muscular torso, and now the man who's not cuffed to anything is holding something that looks like a bunch of wide strips of leather or suede, braided together at one end to form a handle.
"What's happening?" he asks. He doesn't quite whimper, but it's a near thing.
"The extremely beautiful one holding the flogger is Moon, and the very stoic handsome one strapped to the A-frame is Frost," Nie Huaisang says. "They're going to do some impact play. Don't worry, they won't get too hardcore this early in the night. It'll be very easy on your virgin eyes."
Jiang Cheng glances at Mianmian, who has her chin in her hand and is watching while Moon strokes Frost's back, and then at Nie Huaisang, who has recognised someone else and is leaning out of the booth to chatter at them. He fishes his phone out of his pocket and surreptitiously types "impact play" into Google.
There's a Wikipedia entry about it, of course, and the first lines pop up immediately:
Impact play is a human sexual practice in which one person is struck by another person for the gratification of either or both parties which may or may not be sexual in nature. It is considered a form of BDSM.
Jiang Cheng shoves his phone back in his pocket as if it's burned him and stares determinedly ahead. This is a mistake, because it lets him see when Moon starts to hit Frost with the flogger.
It seems almost gentle at first. The suede strips barely make a sound as they brush over Frost's broad, muscled back. Snow steps in a little closer, moves a little faster. The speed of the strikes increases a little more, then a little more.
"Oh, did Directoire bother to tell you the rules?" Mianmian asks. Jiang Cheng jerks his eyes away from the scene and towards her face. "He should have, but sometimes he forgets."
"The rules are just common sense," Nie Huaisang says airily. "Jiang Cheng is clever, he can pick them up from context."
Mianmian hisses at Nie Huaisang and reaches over to slap at his hands. “That’s how you end up with bad scenes!”
"Please tell me the rules," Jiang Cheng says.
Mianmian huffs and abandons her attempts to chastise Nie Huaisang. "It's pretty simple. Don't touch anyone without asking. Don't talk to people while they're in the middle of a scene." She gestures to the flogging in progress. "In general, try to give scenes a wide berth - no one wants to hit someone on accident, and you don't want to step on someone's fancy expensive toys. Don't take any photos without asking. And don't take your pants off."
"And if my brother asks you to do something," Nie Huaisang adds, "just do it."
"Mmhmm." Mianmian smirks. "Butcher likes it when people do as they're told."
Jiang Cheng looks back at the scene unfolding in front of him. Moon has switched to a different flogger, with thinner strands, and he's hitting Frost harder now, a rhythmic thwack thwack thwack filling the air. Far from flinching or crying out in pain, Frost seems to have relaxed, head hanging even further forward, like he's getting the world's weirdest deep tissue massage.
Moon delivers one particularly hard blow and closes the distance between them, one of his hands sliding up Frost's spine to cup the back of his head. Frost tilts his head back. The angle isn't ideal, but Jiang Cheng can see a little of Frost's face; eyes closed, lips faintly parted, cheeks just barely flushed. He looks, Jiang Cheng thinks, pretty happy to be there.
Nie Huaisang leans in to Jiang Cheng's side, so close Jaing Cheng can feel his breath on his ear, carefully not touching. "Do you like what you see?"
Jiang Cheng tries to say something, but his mouth is very dry. He's not sure what he'd say, anyway, so he just - jerks his chin. It could be a nod.
"Do you want to try it?" Nie Huaisang asks. His voice is very low, almost sweet, curling around Jiang Cheng like incense smoke.
"I--" Jiang Cheng clears his throat, swallows twice. "I don't know."
"That's fine," Nie Huaisang says, still low and warm. "You don't have to know right now. When they're done, let's take a look at what else is going on, hmm?"
Snow has abandoned the flogger and is using his fingernails to scratch long, red lines up and down Frost's back. Jiang Cheng can't quite look away. "Uh-huh," he says, and Nie Huaisang makes a soft, amused noise beside him.
Moon begins to flog Snow again, harder now. Jiang Cheng feels faintly hypnotised. Moon's arm flexes and curves in the same pattern, over and over; between the swish and thump of the floggers, Frost is starting to pant, occasional ragged noises rising from his throat. Moon's blows slow, but get harder - finally, after a series of savage strikes that criss-cross Frost's back, Frost arches and cries out. Moon lowers the flogger at once and presses himself against Frost's back, petting his hair. Moon reaches up and unhooks the cuffs from the frame.
The tension seems to dissipate, and people start moving around again. More have arrived while the scene was in progress; most of them cluster around the bar. Jiang Cheng checks his phone and blinks when he realises it's only been fifteen minutes since they arrived.
"See?" Nie Huaisang says bracingly, in a more normal tone. "Nothing to be scared of. Let's go see if the Doctor is in."
"What's with all the names?" Jiang Cheng grumbles, but when Nie Huaisang gets up he follows.
"No one wants their extracurriculars to get attached to their day job," Mianmian says, sliding out of the booth to follow them. "And it makes it easier to remember who's who, when you're on FetLife or whatever."
Jiang Cheng makes a mental note to look that up later. He's keenly aware of his ignorance in a way he doesn't like, but beneath that, he's thrumming with the knowledge that Nie Huaisang thought he would like this. Nie Huaisang wanted him here - more than that, Nie Huaisang wanted him here without Wei Ying. Luo Qingyang was happy to see him, even. It's a lot to process, even before he gets to the partially clothed people doing things that range from strange to vicious to each other around the room.
Nie Huaisang leads him to the back of the club, a corner which is far more brightly lit than most of the club thanks to a couple of fluorescent floor lamps pointed at what looks like a massage table wrapped in clingfilm. There's a woman with an impossibly tiny waist already there, setting out green pump bottles of Isocol and an open box of latex gloves.
Mianmian slips past Jiang Cheng to greet her, and Nie Huaisang talks into his ear again, distracting him from whatever might say. "This is Wen Qing," he says. "We call her the Doctor because - well, you'll see why." He giggles. "She's mean."
"Directoire," Wen Qing says, "if you're using me to scare a newbie--"
"I'm not!" Nie Huaisang protests. "This is Jiang Cheng, he just saw his first ever impact scene. I thought you might help him get an idea of what he likes."
Jiang Cheng raises a hand in a flimsy sort of greeting. Wen Qing looks him over. She's delicate, almost fey under the heavy makeup.
"I might have something," she says after a moment. "Have you ever used a violet wand?"
Jiang Cheng knows, logically, exactly how he got here. There was a definite series of steps starting with a text message from Nie Huaisang and leading up to him taking off his shirt and lying down, bare torso exposed under glaring lights, while a terrifying woman who wants to electrocute him.
"Relax, would you?" Wen Qing has a box with an array of strangely shaped pieces of glass open in front of her. She lifts them in turn, examining each and putting them back. "This is barely a scene."
"Maybe being nervous is fun for him," Nie Huaisang says from somewhere above and to the left. "You don't know."
"I said I'd be gentle, and I keep my word." Wen Qing comes closer, hovering over him. Her face might as well be carved from stone, glossy dark hair pulled back into a bun. "I'm going to touch you now."
Jiang Cheng inhales sharply before her fingers even brush his skin. She trails her fingertips down his sternum, too firm to tickle but too light to feel like much of anything.
"Are you sensitive?" Wen Qing murmurs. She doesn't seem to expect an answer, which is good. Jiang Cheng's mouth is dry and his throat seems to have closed itself at some point. "That's good. That'll be fun for a lot of people you might want to play with some time." Her hands are cold against his skin. She sets her palm against his chest and strokes firmly down to his abdomen. "Remember, you can stop me whenever you want."
"Yep," Jiang Cheng croaks. "I'm good."
Wen Qing doesn't speak in reply. Her other hand comes up to rest on his shoulder while she strokes his chest. Jiang Cheng had a distant worry that he might get too interested in the proceedings, but something about Wen Qing's touch is distinctly non-sensual. She's not teasing; she's just... touching. He’s not sure he knew there was a difference until now.
Wen Qing's touches expand from the centre of his chest out to his shoulders and down his ribs and waist, a steady, soothing kind of massage. When she takes her hands away, Jiang Cheng is almost - almost - not nervous anymore. All that work is undone when she picks up the violet want and slots a glass tube with a wide, mushroom-shaped head into it. She turns it on and Jiang Cheng feels himself tense again. His ears are immediately attuned to the buzzing electricity, just outside his field of vision.
"We're starting slow," Wen Qing says. Her voice is low and soothing, almost hypnotic. "Try to relax."
Jiang Cheng finds himself holding his breath as the violet wand comes closer, purple light pulsing faintly, and then lowers until it brushes against his chest. He jumps, more at the cold of the glass than anything else, and then... he frowns.
"It... kind of tingles?"
"I told you we were starting slow," Wen Qing says.
"Huh." Jiang Cheng relaxes as Wen Qing slides the flat circle of glass down his flank. It itches a little, but it's very faint, barely even enough to tingle. It certainly doesn't hurt. He wasn't quite sure what to expect when someone applied electricity to his skin, but this wasn't it.
Wen Qing drags the wand over the flat planes of his stomach. "Ready for a little more?"
"Yeah." Jiang Cheng looks up at her, raises his eyebrow in a playful bring-it-on kind of way. Wen Qing raises one of her eyebrows back and twists a dial on the body of the wand.
The tingle increases to a tickle, pressed to the sensitive skin of his ribs. A laugh gets out before he can choke it back and he presses a hand to his mouth, mortified.
"Don't do that." Wen Qing takes his wrist, soft but entirely unyielding, and guides his hand back to his side. "You're allowed to laugh." She moves the wand up to his chest, traces the line of his clavicle. "Does it feel good?"
"Yeah," Jiang Cheng says, and immediately feels himself flush. At this rate, Wen Qing will think that's the only word he knows. "Kind of tickles."
Wen Qing hums, drawing spirals across his shoulders and down his chest. She turns it up a little higher, and kind of tickles turns into definitely tickles, leaves Jiang Cheng gasping around a bitten-off giggle as purple sparks skitter over his waist.
He realises now why Nie Huaisang referred to what Frost and Moon were doing as playing. This is, much to his surprise, fun.
Wen Qing turns the intensity up and down, drawing patterns out in electricity over Jiang Cheng's arms, his throat, his chest, his waist. She turns him over to lay on his stomach and dials the intensity up higher, tracing the musculature of his back and drawing lines of crackling sensation up his spine. When she uses the violet wand to stroke Jiang Cheng's hair, he can't stifle his laughter any more, has to fold his arms under him and press his face into his wrists, giggling mindlessly.
"Good boy," Wen Qing says, and the subtle warmth in her tone sends some kind of thrill down his spine unrelated to the electricity also running down it. Jiang Cheng arches a little. The plastic wrap on the table sticks to him as he moves, crinkling as he shivers and laughs under Wen Qing's ministrations.
Wen Qing switches the wide glass tip out for a much thinner one and starts over. The thinner piece is more intense, less like a tickle and more like fingernails scratching against his skin. Jiang Cheng drops his head forward and settles with a groan into his arms. Something about the sensation makes his muscles tense where the glass touches and then unlock, a deeper relaxation than he's ever managed without an amount of alcohol most health professionals call inadvisable.
Wen Qing switches from random patterns to more focused attention, drawing something that feels like letters on his shoulder. "Can you tell what I'm writing?" she asks. Her tone is still warm, a little teasing, and in that moment Jiang Cheng wants nothing more than to know exactly what it is she's drawing onto his left shoulder, just above the bone.
He closes his eyes and concentrates, letting his awareness of the room around them fade out. Wen Qing lifts the wand away and for a moment something like anxiety pools in his gut, but a moment later she sets the tip back down and starts the pattern over again, and he settles. She writes in large block letters, like she's labelling something.
"Trap?" he asks, forcing the word around the uncertainty in his throat.
"Wait for the whole word," Wen Qing says. It's a rebuke, but a gentle one, softened further by her free hand coming to the back of his neck and petting lightly at the stubble there, where his undercut makes everything feel slightly shivery.
Jiang Cheng waits, his world narrowed to Wen Qing's hand on his neck and the word being drawn with the tip of the violet wand.
"Trapezius," he guesses next, and waits, heart in his mouth, not even sure what he's waiting for--
"Well done!" Wen Qing laughs and her fingernails slide up over his skull, scratching the longer hair on top of his head, and he melts all at once.
Wen Qing writes latissimus dorsi in cursive down his lower back, levator scapulae in tiny letters on the back of his neck, turns him on his side and scrawls oblique over his waist, flips him onto his back and writes pectoralis major on his chest in what feels like it might be calligraphy. Every time he gets it right she tells him he's done well, that he's a good boy, that he's clever, and Jiang Cheng melts further and further under her hands. When she finally lifts the probe away and turns the wand off, he's almost puddled on the table.
"It really is like a deep tissue massage," he says, dizzy. Wen Qing makes a soft amused sound and her strong hands find his shoulders, guiding him to sit up.
"Drink some water," she says.
A plastic cup is suddenly in front of him, cradled in elegant hands with glossy silver fingernails - Nie Huaisang's hands, Jiang Cheng realises distantly. He cups his own hands around them and together they bring the water up to his face where he can drink, swallowing clumsily and spilling drops down his chin, onto his collarbone.
"How do you feel?" Wen Qing asks, brisk and almost clinical. Jiang Cheng can see why they call her the Doctor.
"Floaty," he says, and lets go of the cup. Nie Huaisang takes it away and comes back with Jiang Cheng's jacket.
"I'll look after him," he says, and puts the jacket around Jiang Cheng's shoulders. "Come and sit with me, A-Cheng, and tell me all about playing with our dear Doctor."
Wen Qing helps him stand and presses a hand to his cheek. Her fingers are very cold against Jiang Cheng's skin, or maybe he's just overheating, flushed and dizzy with sensation. "You were wonderful," she says, and those words in that tone leave him all but levitating.
Nie Huaisang guides him to a seat near a small space heater and gives him another cup of water, as well as a handful of sour gummy worms. Jiang Cheng looks and realises the room is studded with candy dishes, the rainbow of sugar incongruous against all the black and leather, and that starts him giggling again, stifling the sound with the heel of his hand.
"You don't need to cover your mouth," Nie Huaisang says. "I like listening to you laugh."
If Jiang Cheng was any less relaxed, Nie Huaisang saying that kind of thing would have him blushing to the roots of his hair, leaping around like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but instead he just hums and leans in, seeking out Nie Huaisang's body heat.
They're sitting not quite opposite the bar, tucked out of the way. A group of five women are sitting on high bar stools around a high round table. Jiang Cheng's gaze drifts down to the shirtless man lying on the floor underneath them, looking as dazed and blissed out as Jiang Cheng feels as the women carefully set their shoes down on his torso, stiletto heels digging into his skin. He watches for a minute, and then Nie Huaisang nudges his hand, and he realises he still has the sour worms.
"How did you know I like these?" he asks, and puts one in his mouth.
"Whenever we go to Sammy's Kitchen, the only dish you and your brother agree on is the hot and sour soup," Nie Huaisang says. "Wei Ying likes spicy things, and you're a sourpuss, so..."
Jiang Cheng flinches back a little, pulling away from Nie Huaisang's side.
"Oh, I didn't mean that!" Nie Huaisang abruptly comes fully into Jiang Cheng's field of vision, dropping to his knees on the sticky club floor. His hands flutter near Jiang Cheng’s arms, but don’t land there. A tiny crease forms between his meticulously groomed eyebrows. "You're not - I was joking. You're lovely."
Jiang Cheng does blush this time, and eats another sour worm in lieu of having to say anything. The wrinkle between Nie Huaisang's brows smooths out.
"May I touch you?" he asks, voice gentle, and Jiang Cheng can't help but nod. Nie Huaisang's hands are wonderfully warm, even through the fabric of the jacket draped around him.
"You're probably feeling a little, um, sensitive right now," Nie Huaisang says. His right thumb is moving back and forth in a slow crescent on Jiang Cheng's left bicep. "I was careless, and I know better, and I won't do it again. I'm sorry, Jiang Cheng."
His right hand keeps drawing that distracting crescent, but his left hand slides higher, until his fingers rest against Jiang Cheng's clavicle where it's exposed by his jacket.
"Uh," Jiang Cheng says. "I forgive you."
"Good." Nie Huaisang smiles at him, sharp and brilliant. Whatever he's painted onto his lips has a very faint mica shimmer to it, sparkling to life whenever the club lights pulse.
He moves back to his chair, draping an arm that feels almost proprietary around Jiang Cheng's shoulders. His fingers find Jiang Cheng's throat again, drawing feather-light circles over the pulse point there. Jiang Cheng lets himself be soothed. He tilts his head until his cheek rests against Nie Huaisang's shoulder and thinks about Wen Qing's strong hands, about the feeling of electricity blooming over his skin, about what it might be like to reduce someone to a trembling, laughing puddle under the force of his hands, about the urge to hear Wen Qing call him good boy. About what it might mean that Nie Huaisang, of all people, apologised to Jiang Cheng on his knees.
"When's the next one of these?" he mumbles into Nie Huaisang's shoulder.
"I'll bring you along," Nie Huaisang says, and curls his fingers tight in Jiang Cheng's hair.