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Lost in Each Other's Eyes

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Xichen doesn’t know what it is that makes him stop and stare at the whale shark and the blue whale calf.

Please,” the whale shark is saying, in a tone that hints at long-suffering patience. “You know that you’re too big for me to physically wrangle.”

“So I’m too big for a babysitter, too!” says the blue whale calf, who is almost the same size as the whale shark.

“Not according to your brother,” says the whale shark. “And he’s the one I answer to.”

“But you don’t have to,” argues the calf. “You could go anywhere, be anything. Why bother?”

Even from a distance, Xichen sees the misunderstanding with painful clarity.

The calf means no harm. It’s clear from his tone. He is yet a calf, and doesn’t know the power of the careless word to do harm.

The whale shark knows this too, and the pain is blink-and-you’d-miss-it when it flickers in his eyes, in his voice, as he replies, “That’s my business. I’ve promised my services to your brother, so you are my business.”

The calf’s eyes glint with defiance, and Xichen sees disaster on the horizon.

“Excuse me,” says Xichen, surprising himself.

The whale calf and the whale shark turn to stare at him, and his heartbeat quickens as he realizes that he has acted against his usual personal rule of non-interference.

Non-interference is vague, as personal policies go, and Xichen knows well that it must be balanced out with compassionate interference. It’s too easy for non-interference to slide into disinterest and absconding from responsibility.

Xichen tries to always remember that it is his place to step in when he sees something happening that is unjust. It is not his place to step in when he sees a conflict or misunderstanding taking place that his own biases say ought to be an easy fix.

He has managed to stand by and watch Wangji go through the most excruciatingly lengthy courtship that—in Xichen’s very biased view—could be easily resolved with a conversation. He’s teased Wangji for his obvious crush on the orca, and made pointed comments now and then. But whenever he’s caught himself about to directly address the misunderstanding in question, he’s always held back. It’s his own biases at play, he knows—his urge to protect Wangji, to shield him from a world that seems to find it so difficult to understand him.

And perhaps, he realizes in this awkward moment of exchanging surprised stares with the whale calf and the whale shark, he has been aching so much to do something that it has transformed into action here and now, before a defiant whale calf and his beleaguered caretaker whale shark.

“Yes?” says the whale shark with an air of suspicion, and Xichen realizes that he has been silent too long. The whale shark is no longer staring, but has begun to gently drift between Xichen and the whale calf. It is a defensive, protective move that is also subtly made, and Xichen becomes aware that there is possibly another reason why he was compelled to speak.

The whale shark is beautiful.

Xichen has never given much thought to the beauty of other whales, much less sharks. He knows that other whales talk about such things, often making a great deal of fuss about beauty and mates. He’s simply never felt the inclination, and has long since come to terms with this part of himself.

But looking at the whale shark, his stomach does a strange sort of flip that he’s never experienced before, and he thinks suddenly, he almost does understand.

“I apologize for the interruption,” says Xichen, keeping his tone and his gaze even. Beneath the surface, he scrambles through a dozen possible things to say. I’d never seen a shark nanny before? No, that sounds like an insult. You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen? Coming on too strong. I really want to get to know you? Too strong again, almost creepy. “I simply saw you, and felt compelled to talk to you.”

The words drift in the water between them, and the whale shark stares at Xichen, the suspicious light in his eyes gradually fading into mystification.

“To…me?” he asks at last.

“To you,” says Xichen. “You are…very attractive, if you don’t mind me saying.”

The whale shark stares at Xichen for a long moment before he blurts, “But I’m a shark.”

“Yes,” says Xichen, wondering what the but is supposed to connote. “A beautiful shark.”

“Yao-ge,” says the whale calf, pushing past the whale shark after a long moment of silence. “You have to say something.”

The whale shark makes an inarticulate noise. Xichen feels caught between hope that it’s because the shark is flattered, and terror that he has made the shark uncomfortable.

“His name is Meng Yao,” says the whale calf. “I’m Huaisang.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Huaisang,” says Xichen, keeping his voice even as he gathers the tatters of his dignity. “My name is Xichen. I’m very sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I was acting impulsively. I will not bother you again.”

He turns to leave when Meng Yao says, “Wait.”

Xichen turns back, and knows that the hope is written in his eyes.

“What did you…what do you want from me?”

Now it’s Xichen’s turn to stare.

“He wants to be mates with you,” says the whale calf. “Obviously.”

“No,” says Xichen quickly, mortified.

“No?” repeats Meng Yao, and there is something hurt in his tone.

“I mean, not necessarily no,” Xichen backtracks. “I mean…what you want. I would like to be near you. Friendship would be nice. But only if you want to. I don’t want to be a bother.”

“A bother,” says Meng Yao, and sounds absolutely confounded. “You’re worried you would be a bother to me?

“Well,” says Xichen, who can tell that there is some sort of misunderstanding unfolding, but is not entirely sure how to begin to fix it, “Yes?”

“You’re the most gorgeous whale I’ve ever seen in my life, and you’ve been criminally polite, I can’t imagine being bothered by your company!”

“He might be a shark killer,” says Huaisang, with unhelpfulness that Xichen is beginning to believe is simply a personality quirk. “Luring you into complacency.”

“I’m not,” says Xichen.

“Shush, A-Sang,” says Meng Yao without taking his eyes away from Xichen. “What do you want to do, then?”

“Perhaps…would you like to go feeding together sometime?” suggests Xichen. “I don’t know what you eat, but I imagine we could find food together in the same areas?”

“I would love to go feeding with you,” says Meng Yao. “I have to see A-Sang back to his family first, but once I have, we can go together?”

“I’ll wait here until you do,” says Xichen.

“Here?” asks Meng Yao. “You could come with us.”

“Ah,” Xichen considers this. “But I wouldn’t want to be a bother, if your pod doesn’t want me near. And…I worry that you might feel pressured, like you cannot change your mind, if I follow you to your pod.”

“They’re blue whales,” says Meng Yao with amusement. “I feel like you wouldn’t want to get on their bad side.”

“Da-ge doesn’t like people coming from outside out of nowhere,” says Huaisang. “You should wait here.”

“A-Sang,” chastises Meng Yao.

“No, no,” says Xichen. “I have a blue whale friend who feels similarly to Huaisang’s da-ge. I wouldn’t want to make a bad first impression. I’ll wait here.”

Meng Yao is quiet for a long moment.

“Are you really going to wait here?” he asks at last, quietly. “Alone? Not knowing how long it’ll be before I come back?”

“Of course,” says Xichen.

“I…” But Meng Yao seems at a loss for words.

“The sooner we get back to da-ge the sooner you can come back and go on your date,” says Huaisang, and it is at his urging that Meng Yao leaves at last, with several unreadable backward glances at Xichen.

Of course, it turns out that Huaisang’s da-ge’s protectiveness extends to not permitting Meng Yao to go on an unsupervised date with a fin whale, so when Meng Yao returns, he is accompanied by a blue whale.

“Xichen?” says Huaisang’s da-ge, who, as it turns out, is Mingjue-ge.

“Mingjue-ge,” greets Xichen. “I did think that Huaisang’s da-ge sounded similar to you.”

“You two know each other?” asks Meng Yao.

And so many puzzle pieces slot together in Xichen’s mind as he realizes that Mingjue-ge’s assistant is Meng Yao.

“Oh,” he says to Meng Yao. “I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you when we first met, it was remiss of me.”

“Da-ge has…told you about me?” Meng Yao looks at Mingjue-ge, wide-eyed.

“Only compliments,” says Xichen hastily as Mingjue-ge glares.

“Huaisang says you hit on Meng Yao,” he says.

“I was overcome,” says Xichen honestly. “I still am, if I’m being honest.”

Meng Yao makes another inarticulate noise, and Xichen thinks that he is going to treasure every such noise that Meng Yao makes.

“Well,” Mingjue-ge says, heaving a sigh, “Xichen is a good whale, I can promise you he’s not going to try to lure you into a trap.”

“I never said he would,” says Meng Yao.

“Huaisang was right to worry,” retorts Mingjue-ge. “The seas are dangerous and full of terrors.”

Again, Xichen speaks without quite meaning to.

“I’ll protect you, if you’ll let me,” he says.

“I think I will,” says Meng Yao, and there is a new light in his eyes now, like the beginning of a barrier coming down between them, and Xichen’s heart races wildly.

“Ugh,” says Mingjue-ge, as if somewhere far away. “You two are going to be unbearable, I don’t like this.”

Xichen and Meng Yao ignore him, and stare into each other’s eyes.

“Weren’t you planning on going feeding or something?” asks Mingjue-ge at last.

“Oh,” Xichen blinks. “My apologies, I was distracted.”

“Me too,” says Meng Yao quietly. There is something about his voice, something about his bashful gaze, that captivates Xichen all over again.

Unbearable,” huffs Mingjue-ge as he turns and swims away, leaving them to be lost in each other’s eyes.