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It Isn't Written In the Past As It Usually Is

Chapter Text

Hua Cheng is hated by everyone he’s ever met. 

 

They look at him and see the worst of the world. If he’s lucky, they see him as a broken, pathetic child that was created completely by accident and so will go through life as quickly as he entered it. Otherwise, he’s seen as neither child nor adult nor human but is instead seen as a creature born from a loveless place from unimportant subject matters and who will not so much experience life as he will be experienced; he’s seen as a roadblock. A thing that should be passed by quickly so that he becomes nothing more than a memory. A subject in a discussion that nobody wants to have but that they must because he is sadly, tragically, unavoidably a part of reality just as they are. 

 

In turn, he hates everyone he’s ever met. 

 

Family is to him a piece of the past that was shed long ago because he has no need for people who never wanted him and will continue to pretend like he never happened in the first place. Friends are people who he hasn’t deemed an inconvenience when they’re at arm's length and who owe him money that he doesn’t feel the need to pry away with violence. Acquaintances are common, fleeting, and range from a bartender he spends a night trading small talk with and a lackey who feels that their health is only guaranteed if they kneel forward so far that their forehead scrapes the dirt. All such categories are others, temporary obstacles, books to sift through as much as he likes depending on whether or not their stories pique his interest. It’d be blasphemy to burn every single one that he finds once he’s lost interest, but sometimes the subject matters are so utterly disgusting and wrong and infuriating that he can’t find any satisfaction in setting them back on the shelf once their forms have been revealed to him. But he forgets about his rage once he lets it sit and simmer for a while, and he forgets about what once drove him when the moment in which he stirs the flames and discards of the subject has passed. 

 

Others, and him. There are two parts of humanity, and these are all they are. 

 

Hate is too strong of a word, perhaps. Because in order to experience hate he’d have to care enough about those around them to pay attention to what they are and allow them to infiltrate his thoughts for more than a second. 

 

Apathy, he knows it’s called. They say it’s bad, that it makes people inhumane and allows them to do horrible, terrible, monstrous things to their fellow humans. That to be apathetic is to be so removed from humanity that you cannot see anything beyond your own life. 

 

But they’ve never treated him like a person before. So what does it mean to be so apathetic that you are no longer humane when you were never considered human in the first place? 

 

Hua Cheng isn’t sure why, but he finds security in his thoughts. They make sense, after all. His worldview comes from his experience with the world. And he’s confident in his knowledge of how the world views him in turn. Powerful in the sense that he has the brawn to drag himself up to the surface, the brains to keep his head above the water, and the money to build the boat that means he can lounge on the deck while the waves try and tear him apart from below. 

 

He’s not too sure why he built the boat in the first place if he has nowhere to go and nowhere to return to, but he’d be damned if it isn’t a good one. 

 

This is what he thinks as he sifts through the coat of the man whose eyes have just dimmed after his life was choked out of him. His hands find a cold gun, a sleek leather wallet, a card with the man’s face and name that he can use to infiltrate the tower he stands in front of. He lifts up the body of the man that was once living and moves it away from sight. Then he dusts off his spotless leather jacket and hides his keep from view before slipping into the back door with the help of the I.D. 

 

He needs the money, he tells himself. Well. No, that isn’t true. He’s fine when it comes to money. It’s less about the goods gained and more about the status. What kind of top-rate hired hand would he be if he couldn’t complete an impossible robbery? And maybe, for once in his career, he’ll find himself a challenge.

Chapter Text

Xie Lian is loved by everyone he’s ever known. 

 

They look at him and they see the best of the world. They see the brilliant, loving children that are destined to fix the world of all of its problems and create a sparkling future with their own two bare hands. His wide-eyed gasps in astonishment from learning the secrets of life and the wonders of living warm the hearts of all lucky enough to know such a child. His laughter and announcements of bold, outrageous plans that come from an adoration of the known and curiosity towards the unknown stir the hearts of those who listen. And who isn’t willing to listen to a brilliance such as he? 

 

When this glow grows into a shine, when this child turns into an adult who turns his eyes towards the future with expectancy and hope and an unfaltering stubbornness to find good in the world even if he has to carve it out with his own two bare hands, they see a fulfillment of their faith. What else could he be if not brilliant love in a physical form? 

 

In turn, he loves everyone he’s ever met. 

 

Family is his mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, all of which he knows and treasures dearly just because he can. Friends are Feng Xin and Mu Qing, the two people he’s known since he was a small child and who have stayed by his side with a fierce loyalty that he could never even dream of being apart from and that he knows never to take for granted, as well as the dozens of people he draws in with his magnetic personality, who are prone to flock to his laughter. Acquaintances are people he knows he needs to talk to, to learn from, and to learn about so he can draw them closer and take in every unpredictable and wonderful part of life in a new way. All such categories are in a hierarchy that he wants to tear away and discard because such labels cannot encompass his appreciation and love for every single person that enters his life and manages to teach him something new about the life that he’s preparing to lead. 

 

He’s ready to see the best of life and the worst of life, he thinks, because in order to truly love the best of life he needs to experience the worst first. And he’s ok with this, since experiencing bad is as inevitable as it is temporary. This is just the way of the world and he loves the world too much to hate its natural processes. 

 

But he doesn’t have time to think about the bad of the world when there’s too much good to think about. How could he ever tear his gaze away from the paintings ahead that show winding roads he wants to stretch himself over in order to travel down all of them at once, and bright colors that sing of impossible distances and countless details just waiting to be admired? 

 

Xie Lian finds security in his love. It keeps him full of light steps and laughter, it keeps his eyes wide enough to take in every possible detail he comes across, it opens his ears so he hears everything he needs to hear in order to convince himself to jump into the open arms of the unknown. He loves to love because it makes him feel wonderful and it makes others seem happier. When he hugs his mother and shakes hands with his father after receiving an award he sees the way that their eyes swell with pride and their smiles widen. His best friends brighten and strengthen their resolves when he sings honest praise and addresses their expertise. Every stranger that he’s ever talked to seems to walk away shaking with laughter and shaken from their stupors. How can he not seek such wonderful awards out as frequently as he can if all it takes to receive them are efforts and well-spoken words?

 

He thinks this, as he leaves the building of his new job with a spring in his business-shoe-wearing steps, and feels the breeze pull at his hair as well as the leaves of the trees above. His second day has gone just as well as the first, just as well as the interview that got him the position, and just as well as every other day in front of him will be.

Chapter Text

Xie Lian hears the gunshot and drops the backpack he’d just slung off his shoulder to dig his water bottle out of. 

 

It wasn’t fired here, not near him, he knows, but the noise is too close for him to think it’s anything else. If not in his direct line of vision, not in this neighborhood where it’s too early in the morning for anyone to be out walking as he is now, then… where? In the parking lot of the rundown supermarket with the light post that flickers at night, the one at least a half-block away and hidden behind the treeline that stands behind all of the houses on the opposite end of the street? Down the dirt alleyway that stands between the two houses at the very end of the sidewalk he stands on? Then he hears the screeching of tires against concrete in the direction of the supermarket, slings his half-open backpack over his shoulder, and starts running in the direction of the sound. 

 

The gunshot was so loud that his ears are still ringing by the time he crosses the empty road and goes to swing himself over the short chain link fence of a stranger’s backyard. Inside of his head, Feng Xin is screaming at him to go in the opposite direction of the noise and Mu Qing is screaming at him to pick up the nearest blunt object and hide. He hops the fence and sprints forward a few paces before leaping over the small creek just in front of the treeline.

 

By the time he reaches the supermarket parking lot, whoever drove away in the car is nothing more than the roar of a distant engine. He stops at the end of the treeline where a concrete curb meets faded white lines, and surveys the scene in front of him. There’s nothing but empty parking spaces, bleak black asphalt littered with scattered wrappers, stray shopping carts and barred off spaces where they should’ve been pushed into- then he sees tire tracks a dozen or so meters off in the distance at the entrance to the parking lot, and follows the tracks with his eyes until he sees that they lead to the stretch of asphalt just in front of the supermarket entrance where a figure lays in a heap on the ground. 

 

Before he can give himself time to hesitate, he sprints towards the figure in the distance. He skids to a halt directly in front of the figure and sees that yes, it’s a body, an actual person. It isn’t until he kneels to the figure’s side that he can see their chest rising and falling in inconsistent shudders. They’re- he’s a man, one with dark black hair that’s splayed out on the ground around his head but that looks like it’d fall a bit above his shoulder if he was standing up. He wears a black jacket that’s zipped up to his collarbone, dark jeans that are rolled up to his ankles as if they’re a size too big, black tennis shoes with black laces. Xie Lian hears his strained, wheezing breathing, sees the way that his eyes are squeezed shut and his arms lay limply at his sides and yet twitch every once in a while, smells smoke and blood-

 

And then he sees the rapidly spreading patch of blood on the asphalt below, and he begins to panic. 

 

It’s coming from his shoulder, the blood is coming from the man’s shoulder- no, it’s coming from both his left shoulder and his left arm because there are two holes in his jacket where blood is pooling around the entry wounds and spilling out around him like he’s a cup full of water that overflows when you put in one too many ice cubes. Xie Lian- he- there’s- 

 

“Get- get the f-f- uck - get away from me, ” the bleeding man on the ground rasps out.

 

“Ok,” Xie Lian says automatically, because he’s on the opposite end of the spectrum of thinking clearly. Then he heaves in a shaky breath, slaps his hands on the asphalt below so that he can lean forward to get a closer look at the man’s face, and with a hoarse voice, says. “No. No, I mean, I’m not here to hurt you. I can- I mean, are you ok? You- ok, no, you’re definitely not ok, that’s pretty obvious, but, um, I’m here to help. I’m going to help you, alright?” 

 

His face is burning from what he thinks is a combination of the adrenaline of running here, the adrenaline of coming across such a gruesome, bloody sight, and the sheer embarrassment from stumbling so much over his words. 

 

“No. Leave,” the bleeding man coughs out before shifting his head to the side, away from Xie Lian’s looming face. He hasn’t opened his eyes yet.

 

“I can’t leave you. I’ll call- I’ll call an ambulance, ok? You’ll b-”

 

No. NO ambulance. Do NOT call an ambulance,” the bleeding man shouts out, and his face pales at an alarming rate. “ Don’t call anyone.”

 

“Um, ok! Ok. That’s fine. So then I’ll just- oh, god, this is ridiculous- what should I do then? I think if I add some pressure to your wound it’ll stop you from bleeding out, b-but-”

 

“If you don’t leave now, the people who shot me will come back and shoot you. Go or die.”

 

“No,” Xie Lian says with no hesitance and enough resolve to shock himself. “Doesn’t matter. They come back and they’ll kill you for sure, so I’ll get you away before that happens.” 

 

The bleeding man is silent for a long while. His breathing deepens for a bit, his gasps transforming into more controlled breathes. He begins to breathe through the mouth rather than the nose. Then he turns his head towards Xie Lian and opens his eyes. 

 

One of them- his right eye- is blood red. The pupil and iris are surrounded completely by a sheet of crimson so that not even a hint of the sclera can be seen. His left eye is normal. There’s a gash on the right side of his forehead, and it’s bleeding.

 

“If you don’t leave right now,” he enunciates with such severity that it sends a chill down Xie Lian’s spine, “You will die. Go. Pretend like you never saw anything. Simple as that.”

 

“No. I just- please let me help you. I’m going to pick you up, ok? Just- I’m really, really sorry if I hurt you. I promise I’ll try and be gentle,” Xie Lian says as he sucks in a breath and slips an arm underneath the man’s shoulders. 

 

The man winces, groans a bit, and then bares his teeth at Xie Lian. “Are you fucking dumb ? Get out of here. NOW.”

 

Xie Lian props the man up to a seated position so that he can set the shoulder without the bullet in it up against his own chest, and then slides his second arm underneath the man’s knees. He ignores what the man says and instead leans the man into himself and prepares to lift both of them off of the ground. 

 

“You’re going to DIE if you help me. They’ll kill you. The people who just shot me? Yeah, those guys? They’ll blow your fucking brains out. You okay with dying ?”

 

“No, and I’m also not okay with you dying. So I choose neither,” Xie Lian says after he successfully heaves himself up into a standing position with a huff of breath. “There’s always a third option, and that third option is that neither me nor you die because I help you and we get out of here. And that’s what I’m doing right now.” 

 

At this point, the man’s face is scrunched up in either frustration or searing pain. Probably both. He makes it a point to lean his head away from Xie Lian’s chest, even if it means bumping into his own wounds. “You’re insane,” is all the man can get out before a hiss and a whine escape him as Xie Lian’s movement jostles his injured arm. 

 

“Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry,” Xie Lian whispers as he begins to cross the parking lot back towards the treeline that he came from. “Just hold on, ok? And tell me when you begin to feel faint. How about you try talking?”

 

“Fuck you,” the man spits out through a collection of shuddering breaths.

 

“Good! Like that! Keep insulting me. Go on! What am I?”

 

“You’re a bastard, that’s what you are,” the man wheezes as his head falls back against the arm Xie Lian is using to hold up his shoulders. “And a maniac. You’re dead. You’re going to die.”

 

“Keep it coming, keep it coming,” Xie Lian insists as he crosses over the parking lot curb and into the woods, where he takes extra care to avoid tripping over the forest floor. 

 

“You’re… you’re… hm... who… who are… you…”

 

“Stay with me. Hey, hey, no, come back to me, look me in the eyes. There we go. I’m right here, and I need you to be here with me. Listen to me. Want to know more about me? I’m a graduate student who majored in social work and criminal justice. I just finished my masters and started working for a firm three months ago. I just started renting my first apartment this year, and I've lived in this city all my life.”

 

Xie Lian crosses the small stream with great care and keeps his eyes glued to the eyes of the man in his arms. He’s nodding off and Xie Lian isn’t sure what will happen to him once he does, so he’s doing his best to keep the bleeding man as alert as possible. This is the first time that he’s ever held a conversation with a man who’s just been shot, so he isn’t sure if he’s going about this whole process correctly. 

 

They reach the chainlink fence that Xie Lian had leapt over a few minutes earlier, and Xie Lian sighs. It only reaches as high as his chest, but he knows that it would be a terrible idea to attempt the same jump with an adult man in his arms. Then he turns right and decides to walk alongside the edge of the backyard in the general direction of his apartment. 

 

Somewhere at the back of his mind, he recognizes that the time is somewhere between five AM and six AM and that he has work at seven. The rest of him is too busy focusing on the bleeding man in front of him to take note.

Chapter Text

“Ow, ow ow oW OW, OW, SHIT!”

 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m SO sorry,” Xie Lian gasps as he wipes at the bleeding man’s skin with a quickly bloodying rag. He’s hunched over the man’s form on his couch and is glancing back and forth between the computer sitting on the coffee table behind him and the wounds on the arm in front of him. 

 

“Can’t you- thhssssssss, aaaaha, can’t you- “ the bleeding man strains his neck so that he’s glaring at Xie Lian and bares his teeth. “Can you not scrape against the fucking bullet in my arm?”

 

“Oh my god, am I doing that? I am so so-“

 

“STOP APOLOGIZING,” the bleeding man shouts with a cracked voice as he lets his head fall back against the arm of the couch. 

 

“Ok, ok, calm down! I’ll stop apologizing if you stop stressing yourself out.”

 

“I’m stressing myself out? Am I NOT supposed to be STRESSED-“

 

“Shhhhhhh.” Xie Lian shushes the bleeding man while reaching over with the hand not holding a rag to place it on top of the man’s mouth.”Yelling doesn’t- AHA! Did you just try to bite me?

 

“No,” the bleeding man on the couch lies. 

 

Xie Lian heaves a deep sigh, lifts away the rag, and stands up from his crouch besides the couch. Then he walks a meter away to enter his small, sad, young adult kitchen. It’s about three meters wide and includes a sink, a fridge, a mini, portable dishwasher on top of the kitchen counter, and a collection of cheap wooden cabinets. He turns on the sink and rinses off the rag under the stream of water. 

 

“How’s the bandage holding up?”

 

“Poorly. It wasn’t wrapped right.”

 

“Ah. Darn. I’m s-” he coughs, “Um. But, can you tell if the bleeding has stopped yet?”

 

“Partly. It’s died down a bit.”

 

“Well, that’s good news,” Xie Lian chimes cheerfully as he returns to the living room and kneels beside the couch again. “So, as far as I can tell, the bullet in your forearm passed through the other end while the bullet in your shoulder remains. I can take care of your arm, but I’m not too sure about your shoulder.” He pauses, frowns a bit, and curls a hand around the bleeding man’s wrist tentatively. “You need to keep it propped up on the pillow, remember? Keep it elevated above your heart.”

 

“You have no authority in this situation. Everything you know, you know from Google. I just watched you search everything up in the span of a couple of minutes” the bleeding man states dryly.

 

“And? Google is a very useful resource. I’ve learned a lot about gunshot wounds in a very short amount of time. Just keep them elevated , please .” 

 

Once Xie Lian is certain that the bleeding man has nothing more to say, he picks a roll of bandages off of the table behind him and sets it on the floor to his immediate left. Then he begins to peel off the bandage wrapped around the man’s arm.

 

Since he can’t do much more than clean the surface area of the wound on the man’s shoulder, considering that every website he looked up information on, as well as the man with the bullet in his shoulder, told him that taking a bullet out of an injury would just lead to a risk of bleeding out, he’s spent most of his time making sure that the hole in the man’s forearm doesn’t get any worse. Considering that he has no prior experience with anything medical whatsoever and that the only helpful skill he has in this situation is his ability to look at a (rather gruesome) wound without throwing up, he can only assume it’s sheer luck that’s prevented him from having a corpse on his couch. His luck has always been pretty good, and he’s eternally grateful that it’s prevalent in a situation like this. 

 

He’s peeled the bandage all the way off the man’s arm by now, and Xie Lian can see that the bleeding has slowed down to nothing more than an occasional trickle when the man moves. The man’s skin is completely stained red, so Xie Lian uses the rag to wipe away any dried blood he can see. Despite his best efforts to rotate the man’s arm as gently as possible so that he can check the entry wound, he still hears a hiss and has to stomp down on his instinct to apologize. He’s long since cleaned the area of the wound several times over. As he wraps the wound with bandages again, he makes a valiant effort to not flinch every time the man swears him out. 

 

“Since you insist that I can’t call a hospital-”

 

No hospital.

 

“Yeah, yeah, I know, no hospital. Since you insist on not going to a hospital, I have no clue how else I can help you. If you don’t get surgery done on your shoulder, you’re screwed. What do you plan on doing after this?”

 

“You shouldn’t have helped.”

 

“Well, ok, Mister Optimist. I don’t expect you to cry tears of joy for me, but a thank-you would be appreciated,” Xie Lian huffs out as he rises to his feet and studies the man’s limp form. He’s not gasping for breath as much as he was while Xie Lian was carrying him back, but he’s paled considerably. It’s scary to look at the cloths and paper towels lying in a heap at the couch and see just how much blood the man has lost. So much so that Xie Lian is too afraid to leave the man alone for more than a second in case he decides to die the moment Xie Lian has his back turned. 

 

“I don’t suppose you have any friends that can help you? Any family you can call? A secret, unofficial doctor you’re familiar with?”

 

The man stays silent with his eyes glued to the ceiling. Xie Lian sighs and sets his hands on his hips. When he glances back at his open laptop, he hones in on the time in the top right corner of the screen and says, “Oh, shoot.”

 

He kneels back on the ground and picks his phone up from its spot next to the couch, unlocks the device with a swift input of a code, and then swipes up on the screen to reach a keypad. 

 

The man must have seen his phone screen because he lifts his head up from the couch and asks, “What are you doing?”

 

“I’m calling my-”

 

Xie Lian stops talking when the man on the couch throws himself up to a seated position and latches his right hand onto Xie Lian’s throat. It happened before Xie Lian could think to move out of the way, or become alarmed, or even register what was happening. One moment the man is limp on the couch, forehead scrunched up in a visible effort to not pass out from the pain and the headache that accompanies it, and the next he’s staring at Xie Lian with wide eyes and a slack expression, his nails digging into the back of Xie Lian’s neck and causing his skin to sting. 

 

“You’re not calling anyone,” the man says with a calm coolness that raises the hair at the back of Xie Lian’s neck. 

 

This isn’t usually what he does on a Wednesday morning, Xie Lian realizes with crystal clarity. This is abnormal. Actually, this is SUPER abnormal, if he thinks about it. People don’t normally drag shot people back to their apartments and then get threatened by said shot people. Xie Lian doesn’t do so on a regular basis either, but he’s doing so now, which does say a lot about every decision he’s made in the past hour. 

 

Perhaps it’s because Xie Lian is now immune to anything that may be considered out of the ordinary thanks to this unfamiliar situation. Maybe it’s because Xie Lian doesn’t actually feel like anything bad could happen to him in this point in time and that his naive trust in his own safety gives him a confidence he doesn’t deserve. Whichever option it may be because of, Xie Lian says with a nonchalance and lightness that is diluted only by the physical chokehold he’s being held in, “If I don’t call my workplace and tell them that I’m not coming in, then they’ll send someone to check on me.”

 

“What makes you so sure they’ll send someone?”

 

“I haven’t missed a day of work since I was hired. I’ve told them that there will never be a time where I won’t let them know ahead of time if something’s come up. My boss is familiar with my character and would know that something abnormal is going on if I don’t tell him otherwise.”

 

“Wait for them to call you. Answer them then. Say you’re sick.”

 

“But that wouldn’t reflect well on my character,” Xie Lian says with a slight frown. “And besides. It’s a lie. I don’t want to lie to them”

 

The man on the couch eases his grip and blinks a few times as if he’s taken aback. As if this isn’t normally how people he puts in chokehold respond to his threats. “Then what? You tell them you’re with a stranger who got shot in a parking lot?”

 

“Yes,” Xie Lian says with such genuinity that the man holding his throat screws up his expression. 

 

“No, you don’t.”

 

“Yes, I do. I call my boss and tell him that I’m taking care of a sick person, because that’s the closest thing to true that he needs to know, and you’re going to take your hand off my throat so that I can do just that. And- ah, shoot, you’re bleeding again! I JUST wrapped that,” Xie Lian announces as he scoots towards the man and reaches up towards his bandaged arm. Rather than hold him at an arm’s length or let go of Xie Lian’s throat altogether, the man lets him get closer so that his hand is still wrapped around Xie Lian’s throat but his elbow is bent. Xie Lian sets down his phone and uses both hands to grab the man’s right, uninjured shoulder and push him back down into the couch. He reaches for the pillow that was dropped on the ground when the man got up and sets it back under his shoulder so that it stays elevated. 

 

“Can you let go now?”

 

The man hesitates, then looks taken aback, as if he had forgotten he was holding on in the first place, before letting his hand fall off of Xie Lian’s neck and onto his stomach. 

 

“Thank you,” Xie Lian says with way too much cheerfulness for someone who just requested a stranger to stop threatening him with strangulation. 

 

Xie Lian picks up his phone where he dropped it on the carpet below and quickly types in a number. As he puts the phone to his ear and props himself up onto the coffee table, he hears the creak of the table below him, the buzz of the phones dial, sees the bleeding man stare at him from the couch. Then the buzzing from the phone stops. 

 

“Xie Lian.”

 

“Jun Wu! Good morning, sir.”

 

“Morning to you as well. What is it you need at this hour?”

 

“I was just calling to let you know that I won’t be able to come into work today. A friend of mine is too sick to care for himself and he has no relatives in town, so he needs my help. I apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause.” 

 

“Nonsense. It’s no trouble at all if you need to take a day off this week.”

 

“It may be a couple, actually. He’s in pretty bad shape. Not enough for a hospital,” Xie Lian says and makes it a point to arc his eyebrows in the man’s direction, “But enough so that he can’t do much on his own.”

 

“Ah. We’ll see how this pans out in the future, then. Just make sure to clarify your upcoming schedule changes as much as possible.”

 

“Will do, sir. Have a nice day!”

 

“You as well, Xie Lian.”

 

His boss hangs up on him and Xie Lian turns off his phone with a sigh of relief. 

 

“A friend?”

 

He looks up at the man on the couch, and sees that he’s being stared at with a blank expression.

 

“Well, I can’t exactly tell him you’re a stranger I picked up out of a parking lot , can I?”

 

“That’s fair.”

 

“This is coming out of my holidays, by the way.”

 

“But, he seemed alright with you skipping work.”

 

“First of all, it’s NOT skipping. Second of all, he’s as stringent with rules as he is kind. So while he may have seemed chill with me missing some days, he’s actually keeping me accountable for my situation. He’s a good boss.”

 

“Sounds like an asshole.”

 

“NO! He’s excellent! You don’t even know him. You can’t say anything about someone you’ve never even met!”

 

“Hm,” the man on the couch hums skeptically. So you’re just going to babysit me until my injuries heal completely? Is that how this works?”

 

“Well. Uh,” Xie Lian says slowly as he scratches the back of his head. “I’m not gonna lie, I haven’t actually thought that far ahead yet. Aside from making sure you don’t die, I don’t have any… plans?”

 

“So you don’t have a place to dump my corpse when I inevitably die from blood loss and slash or an infection?” 

 

Xie Lian whips his head to the side in order to glare at the man on the couch. “Stop saying that! You’re not going to die.”

 

“According to you, maybe. According to the hole in my arm and the chunk of metal in my shoulder? Completely different answer.”

 

Xie Lian sighs as loudly as humanly possible and lets his chin fall to his chest. He drops his phone so that it lands on the carpet below with a soft thud and leans further into the hands that are propped up against his own knees. The wooden table below him creaks and the man on the couch’s uneven, labored breathing accompanies the sound. When he squeezes his eyes shut with a much greater force than one normally would and then opens them again, the man is still staring at him with a blank expression. 

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I know. It just doesn’t do anything for you when you think otherwise. When you say out loud otherwise.”

 

The man on the couch arches both of his eyebrows in an exaggerated, comical way and says, “So you’re one of those types?”

 

“Those types?”

 

“The types that believe that you’ll get positive outcomes if you believe hard enough. The, ‘expectations directly shape my reality’ types. How many yoga podcasts do you listen to on a daily basis?”

 

Xie Lian scoffs and lightly kicks the base of the couch. “There is nothing wrong with positive reinforcement! It’s proven to help you! And the normal amount. Two a day.”

 

It takes both of them by surprise when the man on the couch barks out an undignified nasally laugh in response. Xie Lian’s jaw drops while the man snaps his mouth shut into a strained straight line. When Xie Lian breaks into a splitting grin the man’s face flushes bright red and he makes an effort to strain his neck to stare straight up at the ceiling. 

 

“See? This is the magic of positive reinforcement,” Xie Lian giggles. That giggle grows into a full out bought of laughter when the man on the couch says “Shut the hell up,” and then uses his free hand to drag a blanket over his face. 

 

When the laughter dies down into a few airy breathes and the two have no more banter to trade, Xie Lian sucks in a deep breath and lets his gaze wander to the other end of the room where the door to his apartment stands. It’s silent for a good while.

 

 Then,

 

“I don’t know if I can help you. But I’ll try.”

 

The man on the couch is silent, but Xie Lian can feel his stare. When he turns to look back at the man, his own stern expression softens at the realization that the man on the couch looks… confused. 

 

“Just hold on with me.”

 

“With you,” the man echoes. When Xie Lian nods, the man’s brow creases, and his expression slowly turns into a glare. “Why with ? Why not for?” 

 

Xie Lian blinks, because… that wasn’t what he expected the man to say. Then, he smiles, and gives the man an incredulous look that he’s painfully aware doesn’t appear as one of genuine ridicule. He’s been told by his friends many, many times that he’s terrible at reprimanding people. 

 

“That’d be lonely, wouldn’t it?”

 

The man gives Xie Lian an incredulous look that appears much more genuine than the one Xie Lian had tried to muster. A long stretch of silence takes place before the man finally asks, “How so?”

 

“Holding on with me instead of for me means that I’m there with you throughout the process. And besides. Why would you hang on alone for someone you don’t even know?” 

 

He doesn’t respond for a long while, and just turns his eyes back towards the ceiling while Xie Lian continues to hold his stare. 

 

“I think what you’re saying is dumb,” the man finally says. 

 

Xie Lian chuckles lightly and responds with, “Doesn’t matter how dumb it sounds as long as you actually listen to me.”

 

“And what is it that you want me to listen to?”

 

“What I’m saying is that… Hmm. I guess, what I’m saying is that I’m worried that you’ll feel alone if you hold on by yourself. So, please, listen to me when I tell you that giving up before you’ve even lost is a bad idea.” 

 

The man with a blood red eye and a bullet in his shoulder looks at Xie Lian in silence for a good long while. Xie Lian can feel his face burn the longer he waits for a response, because it’s just now setting in how ridiculous his words are when he comes off as nothing more than a delusional stranger with good intentions. He clears his throat, rises from his seat on the table, and turns to enter his small kitchen. 

 

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

 

Xie Lian turns with a start, meets the man’s gaze, and then, smiles widely. 

 

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

The man stays for five days. 

 

Day one, or the day that Xie Lian found the man in the early morning and carried him back to his tiny, city apartment right before the people around them began to wake up, was rather stressful for Xie Lian. When he wasn’t quadruple-checking his sources for the correct ways to dress a bullet wound, he was keeping his full attention on the state of the man on the couch, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was trying to work on as much job-related activities as possible. He’d stitched up the man’s wounds as best he could after learning how to do so, and then spent the rest of the day fussing over his work. It wasn’t until nine at night that the man reminded him that neither of them had eaten anything, and Xie Lian ended up making a humble banquet consisting of a bag of baby carrots and five slices of cheese for the two to share, because those were the only food items he’d had in his entire apartment. Ah, the life of a young adult. Xie Lian ended up passed out in front of his laptop as he researched infections at around midnight, completely against his will, as he had planned on staying awake the entire time to make sure that the man didn’t die overnight.

 

Day two began a little later than Xie Lian was used to, and it was accompanied by an unusual amount of back pain. He’d woken up at eight in the morning instead of five. His movements throughout the apartment had woken up the man, who was a very, very light sleeper, and he’d been cursed out a few times for his early morning habits. Xie Lian checked and redressed his wounds obsessively to make sure that the man wouldn’t perish the moment he was out of sight, and then left the apartment to go grocery shopping at around noon. He’d come back with a larger haul than usual and a text from Feng Xin asking him about his absence from their shared workplace (‘I’m keeping track of a sick friend, I told Jun Wu that I’d be absent!’ ‘You have other friends?’). Although it had been a bit tough to do so because the man on the couch had shut down any conversations before they even started, Xie Lian spent the afternoon making small talk. His attempts to drive out a laugh like in the first day were tragically unsuccessful, and he was instead made to laugh several times, completely against his will. Xie Lian set up camp on the floor of the living room with a pillow and comforter for the night because he refused to leave the man alone out of a fear that he wouldn’t be able to hear the other if he was in a different room. That made the man angry for some reason, but Xie Lian didn’t want to risk anything. He knew he went to bed at ten, but wasn’t sure how long it took him to actually fall asleep, because he’d been so focused on making sure that the man was still breathing. 

 

Day three started at six in the morning, but Xie Lian didn’t let himself get up until eight out of a fear that the other would wake up because of him. He had spent the time studying the ceiling, going down a mental list of what he needed to do for the day, and what he would need to do when he got back to work. It wasn’t until he had looked over at the couch for the second time that morning that he noticed the man staring directly at him, and Xie Lian had no clue how long that had been going on for. Rather than let it freak him out, he teased the other, sighed at the complete lack of response, and went about his morning routine. Check the stitches, clean the wound, watch the skin for changes, double-check his initial research in case he misunderstood something important, make sure Mu Qing and Feng Xin don’t suspect anything weird is going on- he’d gotten used to his new routine rather quickly. Days went by slowly, but Xie Lian didn’t think that he hated how long they’d gotten. He’d fallen asleep slung over the coffee table watching a movie that he insisted on playing for the both of them so that the man didn’t die from boredom, and had woken up with a blanket from the couch thrown over his back. 

 

Day four started at ten in the morning, when a pillow was thrown at his head and the man on the couch pointed at the vibrating phone that was about to fall off the kitchen counter. Feng Xin and Mu Qing, who were in each other’s company without Xie Lian’s direct supervision, which was already extremely worrying, yelled at him through the speaker and threatened to hunt him down and kidnap him if he didn’t show up at work again soon. Mu Qing made a comment about the friend that was sick not being that important, and that if he wasn’t able to take care of himself then it was his immune system’s fault and therefore totally on him, which made Xie Lian mute his microphone because he couldn’t help but throw a look at the man on the couch and burst into laughter when the other said something along the lines of, “I’d like to see his immune system fight back a couple of bullets.” Xie Lian spent the day double checking, triple checking, then quadruple checking the wounds of the man on the couch throughout the day, because he couldn’t be too sure if he was actually doing everything right or that something worse was hidden just beneath the surface. He also spent the day combatting the silence from the man with nervous chattering of his own, which was what made him obsessively check things in the first place, because the man was unusually silent. He usually made at least some aggressive quips. What if he was feeling sick? Xie Lian ended up falling asleep the instant the sun had set. He woke up curled up in the armchair directly next to the head of the couch, and apologized that he’d slept as close to the other man as he did, because he knew the closevity probably kept the other on edge the entire night. From the exhausted look on the man’s face and the air of hostility that surrounded him for the rest of the day, it seemed like that was indeed the case.

 

Day five was rather short. 

 

Xie Lian had woken up at six in the morning and was in the middle of putting together breakfast when someone began banging on the door.

 

From across the room, he had met the eyes of the man on the couch. 

 

Time seemed to drag on forever, in the instant after the knocking had stopped. The two men just stared at each other. Neither of them moved.

 

Then, the knocking had begun again. 

 

Xie Lian ran to scoop up the collection of bloody towels strewn across the floor in the living room. 

 

“Oh god, oh god oh god-”

 

Xie Lian! We know you’re in there! Open up,” the muffled voice of a man had shouted from behind the door. 

 

“Jesus Christ, Feng Xin, you sound like we’re busting him for cooking meth. It’s ass-o-clock in the morning, calm down,” a second muffled voice had said at a much more contained volume. 

 

“Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god oh my god,” Xie Lian had continued to chant in an increasingly panicked whisper as he jumped from one end of the room to another, grabbing cloths and paper towels and scissors and bandages. By the time the third set of knocking had begun, he’d sprinted into his bedroom and skidded to a stop on his knees beside his bed. 

 

His phone began to ring, and Xie Lian felt like crying. 

 

With all of the evidence shoved under his bed, Xie Lian ran back into the living room, stopped to stare at his vibrating phone, and then looked up at the man on the couch, who was propped up on his right elbow. The man on the couch very helpfully cocked an eyebrow and nodded his head in the direction of the door. Then the knocking started again. 

 

XIE LIAN,” Feng Xin yelled at an even louder volume. 

 

“My neighbors are going to hate me,” Xie Lian whispered with great despair. 

 

Then he pointed at the man on the couch. 

 

“You,” Xie Lian hissed loudly. 

 

“Me,” the man on the couch replied indifferently. 

 

“In my bedroom. Now.” 

 

“Nah. I’m good right here.”

 

Mu Qing was the one to call out his name, this time. Xie Lian really did start crying. 

 

Please,” Xie Lian whispered helplessly. 

 

“Just make sure they don’t come in, if you’re worried about them seeing me,” the man supplied. Xie Lian suddenly wondered if saving him from imminent death was a mistake after all. He kind of wanted to kill the guy right then and there. 

 

“Please, sir, please, we can’t risk it-”

 

XIE LIAN, I’M GOING TO BREAK DOWN YOUR DOOR IN FIVE-”

 

“God fuc-”

 

“FOUR-”

 

Xie Lian rushed up to the couch and prepared himself to scoop up the man in his arms and make a run for it. 

 

“THREE-”

 

“GoD DAMNIT, YOU,”

 

“TWO-”

 

Feng Xin and Mu Qing jumped back when Xie Lian whipped open the door to his apartment and jumped into view. 

 

The three stared back and forth between each other for a while. 

 

“Oh. Hey, Xie Li-”

 

WHAT IN THE WORLD DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING,” Xie Lian whispered with such force that it made Feng Xin and Mu Qing flinch back at least a foot. 

 

“Uh,” Feng Xin blinked, “We were. Checking up on you?” 

 

“By screaming at my door ? At six, in, the, freaking , morning ?”

 

“We were…” Feng Xin began with a glance in Mu Qing’s direction, but then shut his mouth when he looked back at Xie Lian. 

 

“We were concerned, is all,” Mu Qing added diplomatically. 

 

Xie Lian buried his head in his hands and let out a sound that was similar to a mouse’s squeak, if the mouse was in great pain. Mu Qing whipped his head up to glare furiously at Feng Xin, and Feng Xin raised his arms defensively. 

 

“I’m going to have to move. I’m going to get kicked out of my apartment because of you two.” 

 

“Hey, hold on, this is all on Feng Xin here-”

 

“I’m sorry? Who was the one who suggested we come to his apartment directly ?”

 

“But did I suggest you scream like a psychopath in the middle of an apartment complex? Did I do that, Feng Xin?”

 

“Mu Qing, I’m gonna kick your-”

 

“HOW, did you know I was here, Feng Xin, Mu Qing,” Xie Lian interrupted suddenly. The two other men shut their mouths and stared at their usually patient friend, and then shared a concerned look. 

 

“You have your location shared with us, like, permanently, Xie Lian,” Mu Qing responded. 

 

Xie Lian blinked. “Oh. Uh, yeah, I knew that. But, why are you here now?” 

 

“Because you’ve been acting real shady this past week and we know something’s up,” Feng Xin stated confidently. Mu Qing nodded. Xie Lian’s heart dropped into his stomach. 

 

“Shady? Shady- shady how, exactly, and why would you think I’m acting shady? Shady who? Not me, certainly,” Xie Lian began to spout out against his will. He let out a nervous laugh when Feng Xin and Mu Qing narrowed their eyes at him. “WRONG. I am the NORMALEST of normal. See? I’m fine! It’s just- I’ve just been a bit stressed taking care of my friend, is all. He’s getting better quickly, but it’s been a long week, haha!”

 

Feng Xin frowned. “Who is this friend of yours, anyways? What’s his name?”

 

Xie Lian’s heart stopped completely. He froze in place. Then, when Feng Xin’s frown grew deeper and he opened his mouth to speak, Xie Lian spat out, “John Doe.”

 

Feng Xin raised his eyebrows. Mu Qing gave him an exasperated, disbelieving glare. Xie Lian felt like ramming his head into the nearest concrete structure. 

 

“Do we know him? I don’t think I’ve heard of him before,” Feng Xin said after a moment of silence. 

 

Xie Lian and Mu Qing stared at Feng Xin. 

 

Xie Lian cleared his throat. “N-no, I don’t think so? He’s someone I met after highschool, so you guys haven’t had the chance to meet him yet.”

 

Mu Qing let out a very deep sigh, and Feng Xin nodded. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that he’s in such a sorry state.”

 

“Hahahahahahahah, yep me too it’s terrible,” Xie Lian said while nervously fidgeting with his own hands. He stepped towards Feng Xin and put an arm around his shoulder. “Thanks for checking in with me, but I’m fine! Really! Just a temporary absence and then I’ll be back! No biggy, right?” 

 

“Right. How long do you think that’ll be, Xie Lian?”

 

“Well, right now I’m,” Xie Lian began to say, his tension very slowly beginning to drain away, because hey, this may not be as hard as he thought it would be to distract them from the inside of his apartment. Just keep talking like this, and nothing will appear out of the ordinary. 

 

And then he saw Mu Qing pulling open his apartment door. 

 

“WAIT,” Xie Lian shouted so loudly that Feng Xin flinched away from him and Mu Qing swung his head around to stare at Xie Lian. “IT’S MESSY. MY APARTMENT.”

 

“Is it, now?”

 

Mu Qing opened the apartment door entirely, and Xie Lian felt like they might need to call a hospital soon, because he felt his appendix burst. 

 

“Ah, yes. Your laptop is out in the open. Might need to hire cleaners to deal with this mess,” Mu Qing quipped. 

 

Feng Xin chuckled. Xie Lian slipped away from his friend and rushed to his door to see an apartment illuminated by a single overhead light. Inside was a spotless room and an empty couch. 

 

Mu Qing stared at Xie Lian. “Where’s that friend of yours staying?”

 

Xie Lian felt a wave of relief wash over him. “He’s not staying here, Mu Qing. I’ve been going over to his house to take care of him. It’s not like he’s well enough to drive to my place, silly.” 

 

Mu Qing lightly punched his shoulder. “Ah. My bad, then.”

 

“When do you think you’ll be coming back to work, man?” Feng Xin asked as he came up behind Xie Lian and knocked into his arm with an elbow. “He can’t hold you captive forever.” 

 

Xie Lian laughed. “I’ll have to see how he’s feeling. I’m only doing this because he can’t afford an alternative.”

 

When Feng Xin and Mu Qing left, Xie Lian closed the door behind them.

 

“Hey. They’re gone now.”

 

The apartment was silent. 

 

“Thanks for giving me a heart attack, though. You could’ve let me help you move, you know! It probably would’ve hurt way less if you had!” 

 

Silence, again. Xie Lian felt the smile on his face slip away.

 

“Are you okay?” 

 

The silence hung heavy in the air. Xie Lian felt a shiver up his spine. 

 

“Hey. You… you better not be joking. I’ll be really mad. Well, okay, I won’t be mad , I’ll just be kind of scared and disappointed?”

 

When he opened the door to his bedroom, he felt a breeze hit his face. 

 

The window was open, and the curtains were flowing in the wind. 

 

He picked up his phone from the coffee table in the living room and called Feng Xin. 

 

“Hey. Yeah, no, my friend says he can take care of himself from now on. I’ll be coming into work today. I’ll tell Jun Wu myself.”

 

Day five went by fast.

Chapter Text

 

It takes him a long time to forget the man. 

 

He remembers a year later, on the exact day that he heard the gunshot and made the choice to bring him back. Part of him feels like it’s a bit weird to celebrate such a strange happening, especially when the happening was at the expense of another person’s pain and suffering, but… Xie Lian thinks it’s not as bad as forgetting. It’s not like he’s celebrating the person’s suffering. He’s just celebrating the fact that he was able to know the person in the first place; celebrating that he was given the honor of learning about- no, of being apart of such a weird, unusual story. Acknowledging the fact that meeting this person was special. 

 

But he isn’t sure if the official mini-holiday should be celebrated on the day that they met or the day that the man left. 

 

Part of him worries that it wasn’t the man’s choice to leave.

 

But he can’t dwell on thoughts like that. Thoughts like that are the type of thoughts that can send a person spiraling. 

 

So, he chooses not to dwell. And then that choice becomes a habit. And that habit becomes a part of his day to day life. Until eventually, him refusing to dwell on the circumstances of the man leaving becomes him refusing to dwell on the man at all. Then his habit of forgetting becomes a default. 

 

And so, he forgets the man on the couch with the bullet in his shoulder and the hole in his arm. He forgets the man with the red eye. 

 

Life goes on, and he no longer thinks about the man he took care of for five days. What clings to the back of his mind is no longer the sound of the man’s voice and the routine of cleaning a wound to prevent infections; it’s the report he has to finish by Wednesday. It’s the prospect of an upcoming promotion. It’s the list of gifts he needs to buy his coworkers for Christmas. 

 

He’ll remember him, when he hears a gunshot in an action movie that he and Mu Qing have been dragged into watching. But then he’ll lose himself in thought, and he pushes the memory aside in order to be in the present. 

 

He’ll remember him, when he sees strangers dressed in all black with hair that falls just above the shoulders. But then he’ll remember that he needs to grab another jug of milk because he’s just ran out for the week, and he pushes the pang that he feels in his stomach far down enough that he can focus on the task ahead. 

 

He’ll remember the anniversary when he finds one of the two red earrings he’d planned on gifting his mother a little over a year ago in the drawer of a bedside table, but hadn’t been able to find in time to give them to her. So, he’ll laugh, stick it in the ear he’d pierced during a very brief stage of teenage rebellion, and push aside the guilt he feels from not wanting to celebrate the anniversary three months from now. 

 

Life goes on, and he enjoys it. He’s grateful for what he has, and there is rarely a day where he feels as if he’s lacking in anything. Everything's coming together. He’s praised highly for his work ethic, and as a result is making leaps and bounds up his work place’s hierarchy. His family and friends are proud of him. Trying new things is easy for him, and it’s often rewarding. He feels as if he could take on the world, simply because he has it balanced confidently on his shoulders. 

 

He’s happy. 

 

This is the life he was destined to flourish in, and he loves it. 

 

Xie Lian loves life, and life loves him back. 

 

What could possibly change that? 

 

Xie Lian is loved. 

 

Xie Lian is happy.

 

Xie Lian is so, so happy. 

 

Xie Lian is… 

 

 

Xie Lian is… Standing in...  the doorway…? 

 

Xie Lian had tried knocking. But they didn’t answer. 

 

So he’d used the extra key on his keyring to unlock the door, and he’d stepped inside. 

 

Xie Lian had bought them a cake, this time, because when he’d tried to make it himself last year, it had gone poorly. They had tried to be polite about it, but he could tell that they were resisting the urge to vomit after they’d taken a bite. The only thing he’d never gotten any better at no matter how hard he’d tried is cooking. 

 

He’d inherited that from his mother. He’d be ashamed of it more if it wasn’t something that they shared. 

 

Xie Lian had taken the cake into the kitchen. 

 

Xie Lian had taken the cake into the kitchen so that he could put it inside of the refrigerator. But even after some rearranging, he couldn’t manage to fit it inside. The fridge was too full. They’ll eat it soon, anyways, he thought. So he left it on the counter instead. 

 

Xie Lian had called out to his parents. 

 

But they didn’t answer. 

 

He had been annoyed. They didn’t answer his calls earlier that evening, so he didn’t know when they were getting home. His mother and father had always been terrible about answering phone calls. It was something he’d always teased them about. 

 

They’d agreed that morning to meet at their house for dinner at eight. It was eight now. 

 

Xie Lian had taken his phone out of his coat pocket, and had called them again. 

 

He heard ringing down the hall, leading out of the kitchen, leading into their bedroom. 

 

Xie Lian called out to his parents again. He was quieter, this time. 

 

The phone kept ringing. 

 

Xie Lian had followed the ringing. The lights in the hallway were off. Their bedroom door was open, but the lights in the bedroom were off. 

 

It was dark. He couldn’t see. 

 

The phone stopped ringing.

 

Xie Lian had flipped on the light switch. 

 

Xie Lian is standing in the doorway.

 

Xie Lian is standing in the doorway, and...

 

And… 

 

… 

 

Blood.

 

There was blood.

 

There was so, so much blood. 

 

Suicide, says the paper. He’s holding it close to his body and the shadow he casts in the afternoon sun prevents the light from touching it. That was the final verdict. It’s what the forensic evidence said. So they printed it in every newspaper.

 

Who even reads these things anymore? 

 

He puts it back into the newsstand he got it from and keeps walking.

 

It’s taken him a long time, but he’s forgotten about the man. 

 

The two year anniversary comes and goes.

 

Xie Lian doesn’t notice.

Chapter Text

 

Xie Lian hasn't been back to work since his parents died, so he hasn't been back in three months. He hasn't seen his friends in two. He doesn't want to see them. He's made that very clear to them.   

 

What he does instead of working is walking.

 

Xie Lian has always been a very active person.

 

In the past, he was known for being an avid sports fan. It didn’t matter who he was cheering on, just that he was cheering on somebody. Gamedays were something he took very, very seriously.

 

Playing wasn’t any different. He was frequently picked first for sports teams in school, because his enthusiasm matched his abilities. One of his favorite memories from his childhood is when he was the junior coach for his soccer team for a summer, which is when he learned that his favorite part of sports isn’t the watching or the playing, but the organizing. He loved scouting out the best parts of the kids on his team and crafting the group around each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

 

That’s the summer that he met Mu Qing and decided that they would be best friends. 

 

Xie Lian has always been active, and one of the ways he stayed active when he began his job, despite having little to no free time, was to run. 

 

Running around the city killed many birds with one stone. Not only could he mentally map the layout of the city by moving around it, but he could also meet everyone as he went. He could strike conversations with local vendors and become so familiar with them that they could greet him by his name when he passed. Not to mention that it helped him maintain his stamina while relieving stress. It was freeing. It was energizing. 

 

But Xie Lian doesn’t run anymore. 

 

He doesn’t think he can.

 

So, Xie Lian walks. 

 

When he wakes up, which is either at around four in the morning, or at noon, or at three in the afternoon, if he goes to sleep at all, he goes walking. Staying in his apartment got too quiet for him to bare. Now he walks along the parts of the city that he’s never traveled through, or along the parts of the city that he has traveled through but never traversed through more than once. 

 

He’s tired a lot, now. Sometimes when he goes walking, he’ll exert himself too much and be forced to rest in places he’d never even thought of resting in before, since he’d never needed to rest on runs before. It’s ironic how walking takes more out of him than running ever did. 

 

So he’ll sit and rest on the walls of garden beds and on the stairs leading down into rivers and under trees in parks. And he’ll watch people pass by and insects travel through the air and squirrels run amongst the trees. 

 

They don’t interest him as much as they used to. Before, he would probably make a comment about how grateful he was for being forced to sit and take notice of all the tiny details running around the world he’s apart of. How wonderful it is to be the observer of a much greater, vibrant, incomprehensibly large world that he wishes to appreciate as much as humanly possible, and then appreciate it some more. How sitting and watching is a lesson he’s glad he could take part in. 

 

But now he just wants to rest. 

 

And once he’s done resting, he keeps walking. 

 

So now, walking around the city is a daily ritual. It’s what he does in order to substitute… Everything else that he used to spend time doing. People have stopped recognizing him and calling out to him when he passes their shops and when he passes them on the streets. If they do recognize him and call out to him, they stop making a habit out of it after he does nothing but respond with a smile and a wave. People fade into the background, one slow, steady day at a time, and he lets them.

 

Three months take a long time to pass, and yet he can barely remember any of it. 

 

He’s walking down a street he hasn’t visited in over a year when someone tries to get his attention. 

 

“Hey.”

 

Xie Lian hears it, but he doesn’t look up. It’s not for him.

 

“Hey, you.”

 

He passes a restaurant he once ate at. Was the food good? Who did he go with? 

 

“Hey . Hey.”

 

The sun has just set and the city lights have flickered on. They’re distracting and loud and vibrant, but he doesn’t mind them much. There’s a large crowd sifting around him, and it’s distracting and loud and vibrant, but he doesn’t mind them much. He’ll probably stay out late tonight, like he did the night before. Or was yesterday when he went out walking early in the morning and went home to sleep early in the evening? Was it the day before yesterday that he stayed out late? 

 

In the crowd he’s moving through, someone separates themself from the bustle and steps in front of him. They’re facing him, and they’re standing still. 

 

He nods at them subconsciously, and then moves to get out of their way. 

 

Xie Lian.”

 

Xie Lian almost walks away. That isn’t for him, he thinks. But then he stops walking. 

 

Didn’t they just call his name? 

 

So he turns around, feeling a bit confused, and sees someone staring at him. 

 

Even in the bright lights of the city at night, he can’t see the person’s face very well. It doesn’t help that they have a hood drawn over their head. Their hands are tucked into their jacket’s pockets so that he can’t see the skin of their arms. They’re wearing long pants and boots. Everything they wear is black. They’re almost a head taller than him, but it makes them appear more lanky than it makes them impressive. Xie Lian frowns. He doesn’t know what they could possibly want. 

 

“What?”

 

The person stays silent. Xie Lian can’t see their eyes, but then again, he’s not trying very hard to focus on them. So he squints away the lights glaring the edges of his vision, and hones in on their face. 

 

The first thing he notices is that they’re wearing an eyepatch. 

 

The second thing he notices is that their gaze is a very intent one. 

 

Neither of them say anything. Xie Lian says nothing because he’s waiting for the stranger to answer his inquiry. The stranger doesn’t answer, because they’re staring down Xie Lian with such a ferocity that Xie Lian feels like he should be intimidated. 

 

Xie Lian sighs, and then turns to walk away. 

 

“Xie Lian,” he hears again after a few seconds. He turns back to see that the stranger is following him through the crowd. 

 

“Hmm,” Xie Lian answers. Even though he doesn’t speed up his pace or anything, the stranger does just that to catch up with him. When Xie Lian turns back to look at them, the stranger is staring at him with that same unwavering ferocity. When Xie Lian makes eye contact with the stranger a second time, he looks away to focus on navigating through the crowd. 

 

“We’re going to talk.” 

 

“Oh. Okay,” Xie Lian says, and keeps walking. 

 

“I need you to follow me.”

 

“Nah, I’m good,” Xie Lian responds nonchalantly. 

 

“Why not?” The stranger demands with such authority that it barely sounds like a question.

 

“Because that’s creepy,” Xie Lian replies. 

 

“You don’t recognize me,” the stranger states. Xie Lian doesn’t look back at the stranger, and instead moves to weave between a very loud group of people huddled together in the middle of the sidewalk and a small party with their arms thrown around each other. When he finally does look back, he sees that the stranger hasn’t grown any farther away from him despite having maneuvered through the crowd using a different path. 

 

“No. But, to be fair, I can barely even see you. And I know a lot of people.”

 

“Xie Lian,” the stranger repeats a third time. They speed up briefly to move in front of Xie Lian, and then stop walking. 

 

The two of them have just escaped the last thick concentration of people moving about on the city sidewalks, right where the shops they walk past turn into old houses and tall rectangular apartments. They’re past the neon signs advertising whatever it is they want sold, and are instead illuminated by the street lights towering above their heads. 

 

Xie Lian holds back a sigh, but the exhaustion still leaks into his voice. 

 

“Yeah?”

 

The stranger walks forward. Xie Lian tenses with a surge of alarm. Then, the stranger raises their hands to grip either side of the hood hanging over their head. They move it back. 

 

“...”

 

“... Yeah, sorry, but I still don’t recognize you. Where’d we meet? Can you at least tell me that?”

 

The stranger is a man, one with hair long enough to be pulled up into a ponytail, Xie Lian now knows. The man’s expression hardens. Instead of answering Xie Lian’s question, he raises a hand to his face and lifts off his eyepatch. 

 

Xie Lian’s breath catches in his throat, and he suddenly finds it hard to breath. 

 

He takes a step back. 

 

“You- you’re-”

 

“I need you to come with me,” the man from two years ago says with the same icy tone he’d used back then. He flips his eyepatch over to cover his bloodied eye, and then pulls his hood back over his head. 

 

Xie Lian huffs out something that resembles a laugh, raises both his arms to run his hands through the hair on the back of his head, and grips his own hair so hard that his scalp begins to burn. He laughs out loud. 

 

“Yeah. Yeah, okay, okay, sure. That’s- hoooo boy. Uh, haha! Hah, wow, this is- this is a lot. This is a lot to take in.” 

 

“Xie Lian,” the man with the bullet in his shoulder repeats a fourth time, and it’s this time that Xie Lian snaps. 

 

“How do you even know my name? How do you know my name ?” 

 

“Intuition,” the man on the couch answers.  “And also, your friend shouted it at the top of his lungs.” 

 

“God. Yeah. Yeah, that did happen, didn’t it.” Xie Lian laughs again, and it sounds painful, even to his own ears. “Kind of unfair, considering how I never even learnt yours, but okay! Sure.”

 

“You- well. He made it easy. And you brought me to your apartment. I could have found out either way.” 

 

“Wow. That’s SUPER comforting. Thanks, random stranger I met two years ago.” 

 

The man on the couch with the bullet in his shoulder stares at him, and Xie Lian stares back. They’re away from the hoards of pedestrians now, so it’s just the two of them standing on a sidewalk in a dim area between two street lights. Then the man’s eyes widen. 

 

“You’re…”

 

When the man trails off, Xie Lian gives him a confused look. “I’m what?”

 

The man averts his gaze. “You’re crying.” 

 

Xie Lian blinks, realizes that his vision is blurring, and then touches his face with his right hand. His cheeks feel wet. He feels himself gaping. “Oh.”

 

The two of them are silent, and neither of them want to meet the other’s eyes. 

 

The man’s gaze flickers to Xie Lian’s face when he hears a soft laugh, and the two make eye contact again. 

 

“It’s been a really long two years, stranger.”

 

“Hua Cheng.”

 

Xie Lian gives him another confused look.

 

“My name.”

 

This time, it’s Xie Lian’s eyes that widen. 

 

“Hua Cheng,” he repeats. He repeats it three more times, each time quieter than the last. The name makes him smile, and Xie Lian crosses his arms across his chest as he stares down the man in front of him. “Is that a real name or a temporary name?” 

 

“It’s what I’m known by,” Hua Cheng answers. 

 

“Is it what I should know you by?” 

 

Hua Cheng, whose face is obscured by the dark of the night too much to make out his rather complicated expression, looks off into the distance for some while. When he looks back, he says, “You ask weird questions.”

 

“Well, I think they’re very important questions. It’s why I ask them.” 

 

“I’ll answer your questions if you come with me.”

 

Xie Lian’s smile melts a bit around the edges. “I don’t think I should do that, Hua Cheng.” 

 

Hua Cheng closes his eye, the only one visible, and bows his head. “I know. But it’s important that you do.” 

 

“I don’t think it’s important enough,” Xie Lian says, his voice rising. He waits for the other to reply, but he doesn’t. Xie Lian sighs. “You can’t even give me a reason? No explanation? No defense?” 

 

“I don’t have anything to defend,” Hua Cheng states firmly. 

 

Xie Lian laughs, and it sounds harsh. It sounds angry, even to his own ears. “I think you do. I think that, if you’re trying to convince a stranger to go somewhere with you to a location you won’t disclose, you should tell him why. I think you should defend your reasoning”

 

The man stays silent. In the direction of the busy street that they’ve long since passed, a faint car horn goes off and laughter quickly follows. It echoes in the atmosphere for far too long, and then silence falls like a stifling blanket. Unlike most nights here in this city, there’s no wind. 

 

He’s just watching him. They just study each other. 

 

“I have… information.”

 

Xie Lian furrows his brow. “Why should I care?”

 

It takes a while for the man to respond. “Because it relates to you.” 

 

“Ohmygod-” Xie Lian breathes out before he heaves a melodramatic sigh so loud that the man in front of him tenses. He massages his temples, and in a way that starkly contradicts the passive, neutral tone of voice that he’s been using so far, snaps, “I’m literally going to call the police on you if you don’t say anything that isn’t vague and threatening. Or, alternatively, we get it over with here and now and you just stab me!”

 

With a faint feeling of triumph, Xie Lian watches the man’s eye grow wide. Even then, he keeps going, because he has a lot of pent up frustration, and this is a convenient way to vent it. 

 

“You know, MOST people who get rescued from being shot and left for dead tend to be grateful towards the people who make sure they don’t bleed out in a parking lot! I mean, you did insult me the entire time I was, uh, you know, nursing you back to health, but that wasn’t enough for you, apparently! No! Apparently, you need to like, hide the evidence or whatever, and I’m the evidence! If you wanna kill me, go ahead! Just, go on and get it over with! But I’m not making it any easier for you! I’m not gonna make it easy for you when you need to dump my body in a river! If you’re gonna shoot me, do it here and now! Because I am NOT moving.”

 

The man looks uncomfortable, but that observation just motivates Xie Lian to say more, because screw this guy. 

 

“Two years. Two years! Two years of having absolutely no freaking clue of who you are or what type of stuff you’re tangled up in. I mean, do you owe me? Not really! You could’ve just left things at that! At me not knowing. Of me never seeing you again. But here you are, hunting me down at night to do god-knows-what to me, and you have the goddamned audacity to pretend like you’re gonna do anything but murder me and burn my body in an incinerator or, or whatever.”

 

This Hua Cheng, or whatever the hell his name is, keeps opening and closing his mouth like a fish. It tickles Xie Lian, so much so that it makes him burst into laughter, and Hua Cheng’s expression stiffens. 

 

“I don’t want whatever you have. I don’t need it. Kill me if that’s your plan, but don’t drag it out for longer than you have to. I’m just- god , this is so-” 

 

Xie Lian suddenly feels furious. He feels his face contort into something ugly, and his fingernails dig into his palms so far that they begin to sting. 

 

“FUCK.” 

 

The man’s eye is really, really wide. 

 

Xie Lian takes a few minutes to catch his breath. 

 

Neither of them speak for a long time as Xie Lian’s breathing slowly steadies out. A series of car horns ring in the distance. The wind picks up for the first time that night, and that’s what makes Xie Lian shiver so much that he has to hug his chest to stop. 

 

It takes Xie Lian by surprised when the man clears his throat. 

 

“I didn’t…” 

 

When he doesn’t continue, Xie Lian scoffs and turns around to leave. 

 

“I wasn’t going to do anything. To you,” Xie Lian hears the man call out from behind. 

 

“Kinda hard to believe, buddy,” Xie Lian mocks. He doesn’t look back. 

 

“Your boss. You told me his name.” 

 

At that, Xie Lian freezes. He turns back to look at the man, and then he glares at him. “What does he have to do with this?”

 

The man who claims that he’s called Hua Cheng walks to catch up with him, although he’s very hesitant about doing so, until they’re a meter apart, and then he stops moving. His hands are still tucked in his hoodie pockets, and something about the nonchalance of the act sets Xie Lian on edge even more 

 

“Jun Wu,” the man says.

 

“Get to the point,” Xie Lian snaps at him. He hopes he looks just as angry as he feels, even if his anger is quickly evaporating into dread. 

 

“He’s not the person you think he is.”

 

“Ooooh kay, stranger,” Xie Lian lilts with a hint of a laugh. “Everything that’s happened before this? Sure. I can live with that. But coming after my boss ?”

 

“He’s the one that had me shot,” Hua Cheng states with such a dryness that it takes a bit for the content of the words to sink in entirely. 

 

Xie Lian laughs as he looks away from the man. He keeps laughing when he turns back and sees that Hua Cheng is staring at him without a hint of hesitance or expectancy. His laughter dies away when he evades Hua Cheng’s stare by looking over the man’s shoulder towards the sidewalk leading back into the city. 

 

“You’re… you’re kidding, right?” 

 

“He’s a criminal,” Hua Cheng says flatly. 

 

“He’s- he’s old, he’s-” Xie Lian’s mind has shut down at some point in this conversation, and now he can’t think properly. “He’s- he’s Jun Wu. This isn’t- god, you’re just messing with me, right? This is just a stupid joke . What’s your problem ?”

 

Hua Cheng’s stare hasn’t wavered once, throughout this entire encounter. It does now, for just a second. Long enough for Xie Lian to catch it. 

 

“Sorry.” 

 

At this, Hua Cheng’s gaze snaps back towards him with a hint of surprise. He furrows his brow. “What?” 

 

“You- god. Okay, this is getting messy, isn’t it? No, never mind, it was always this messy. This entire situation is just,” Xie Lian makes wild, completely incomprehensible gestures to emphasize his point. “This is just weird, I guess. But- but, I shouldn’t have said that. That was mean.”

 

Hua Cheng looks comically taken aback. Xie Lian represses a laugh. 

 

“Okay. Okay, so, you’re… you’re saying that my fifty-something-year-old boss is… a criminal? And he’s the one that left you for dead?

 

The man looks like he’s still trying to recover from his initial shock, because he just nods. 

 

“Haha, yeah, okay. Okay! Okay. Cool. Great. Fantastic. I’m loving this situation, so, so much. And let me guess, I’m screwed because I helped you? Is this how this works? My secretly evil white-collar job boss is like. Targeting me because I saved a guy he wanted dead?” 

 

“No.”

 

“Amazing,” Xie Lian cheers. 

 

“Xie Lian…” the man whispers. He surveys the space around them with great care, and then returns to staring intently at Xie Lian. 

 

“Yeah, I get it now. You’re gonna say, ‘We can’t talk here, it’s not safe,’ and then try and convince me to come with you again. Well, I’m coming, so we can skip that scene and cut to the chase.” 

 

Hua Cheng nods, and begins to say, “You’re scared. That’s understandable. But-”

 

Then the man freezes. He blinks. “You. You’re coming?” 

 

“Yeah. Screw it. I don’t have anything else to do. Might as well sleuth out that my boss is in the mafia, or whatever. What else would I do? Nothing. So, let’s go do whatever it is you want to do, Mister Hua Cheng.” 

 

Xie Lian feels a surge of triumph for the second time that night when he sees just how puzzled the man in front of him looks. He bites back a smile, and then turns around to walk in the direction that Hua Cheng is facing. 

 

“Nothing will happen to you,” Hua Cheng says as he walks away. 

 

Xie Lian doesn’t respond. He just keeps going. 

 

I won’t hurt you.”

 

At that, Xie Lian looks over his shoulder. 

 

“Just… say what you want to say, and we’ll be done.” 

 

The man bows his head and shuts his eye. 

 

“Follow me,” Hua Cheng tells him as he walks past Xie Lian to lead him further away from the city in the distance, deeper into the neighborhood on the outskirts. Away from the glow of the street lights. 

 

Xie Lian exhales, deeply, and then starts to follow.

Chapter Text

Xie Lian gets back to his apartment at seven in the morning. The instant the door behind him shuts, he bolts both locks, leans his full weight into the surface, and then lets himself slide onto the floor. He crouches there for a while, with his feet propping him up, his arms hanging by his sides, and his head leaning against the door behind him. He stays like that until he falls completely to the floor with his legs straightened out beneath him. Eventually, he falls over on his side and curls up on the floor. 

 

For however long is long, Xie Lian stares at the lines in the tiles beneath him with his arms pillowing his head. He’s making a great effort to steady his breathing, but it isn’t going very well. Everytime he finds a steady pattern to stick to, his mind wanders, his heart beat picks up, and his breathing speeds up with it. 

 

Something makes a noise. Xie Lian’s heart stops beating altogether. 

 

Before he knows it, he’s up on his feet and pressed up against the wall right next to his bedroom door. He holds a knife in his right hand, and moves against the closed door to listen through to the otherside. Using his left hand, he swiftly turns the doorknob and throws open the door. 

 

He finds an empty room with an open window and a file folder that usually stands up horizontally on his desk toppled onto the floor. 

 

Xie Lian closes the window in his bedroom for the first time in months, locks it, and then lodges a hanger into the spot between the shut window and the top of the frame. Then he does this with every single window in his apartment. 

 

After he completes this task, he returns to his room to collect the folder’s papers that lay scattered on the floor. In the kitchen, he returns the knife to its rightful spot, locates a pad of sticky notes by digging through a drawer, finds his laptop, and tears off a corner of one of the notes to stick it over his device’s camera. Just in case. 

 

When he returns to his bedroom, he plugs his phone into a charger, sets it on his bedside table, kicks off his shoes, and then throws himself onto his bed. He isn’t able to shut his eyes until the sun comes up. 

 

Xie Lian has had a very busy night. 

 

He wakes up at four in the afternoon the next day, and immediately changes out of his clothes from the night before. 

 

Xie Lian hasn’t really allowed all of the information he’s gathered over the course of twelve hours to settle in just yet. All he’s done with it is throw a sheet over it and pretend like the ominous shape underneath isn’t something that he should be worried about. Absolutely nothing beneath the sheet is something he should be concerned with. The mysterious liquid oozing out from the bottom is a trick of the light. Everything is fine. 

 

It isn’t until he leaves his apartment at five in the afternoon to walk that his brain begins to function and his thoughts begin to run. 

 

“Corner of 21st and 17th. Corner of 21st and 17th,” he mumbles. His hands are tucked in his pockets and his mouth is covered by the tight-fitting collar of his coat. He studies the faces and movements of everyone that walks past him, he analyzes the people behind him in every mirror or pane of glass that he travels in front of, and he keeps mumbling the directions until not even he can decipher what he’s saying anymore. 

 

It takes an hour and a half to reach his destination. When he arrives, he slides his phone out of his pocket and checks the time. 

 

“Xie Lian,” someone from behind him says, and Xie Lian almost screams. He whips around with his arms held wide at his sides, and barely recognizes the person standing behind him quickly enough to stop himself from bolting. 

 

JESUS CHRIST ,” Xie Lian hisses loudly. The man with his hair pulled into a ponytail raises his hands up to show that he means no harm, but it’s far too late for that. “Do NOT do that. Do NOT . DO THAT. AGAIN.”

 

“I won’t,” the man promises. 

 

Xie Lian groans, and then puts his face in his hands. Neither of them say anything as Xie Lian takes a good minute or two to regain his composure. 

 

When he raises his head from his hands, he rubs his eyes, looks at the man with a furrowed brow, and stares at him for a while. “Contacts?”

 

Hua Cheng nods. “I don’t walk around with an eyepatch on in broad daylight.”

 

“Oh, so it’s only for special occasions? Like when you’re hunting down people at night? Is it like a technique you use to gain their trust?” 

 

“Yes,” Hua Cheng confirms, his tone completely serious, his nod sincere. 

 

Xie Lian sighs, and pulls the collar of his coat further up his face in an attempt to warm himself. “Great. Cool . Good to know.”

 

“This way,” Hua Cheng tells him before turning away and walking down the rightmost sidewalk of the street corner rendezvous. Xie Lian mumbles a string of words that aren’t quite curses, and then follows after him. 

 

“So,” Xie Lian starts once he reaches the man’s side. “I have a couple of questions.” 

 

“I expected as much.” 

 

“My first is, how long have you known about my connection to... my boss?” 

 

“Took me four months to link you to him. Had to dig pretty deep to get his name.” 

 

“Huh,” Xie Lian says. “But… you remembered what I called him by? You remember the phone call I made?”

 

“Mmm,” Hua Cheng hums in affirmation. 

 

“Dang,” Xie Lian huffs out. “You have a pretty good memory. I wouldn’t have remembered such an irrelevant detail.” 

 

The man stays silent. Xie Lian moves to walk behind him so that the two can pass between a newsstand and a thick cluster of people, and then returns to Hua Cheng’s side. 

 

“Second question. How many… How many people do you know? Like, give me a pretty vague ballpark. Humor me with an estimate.” 

 

“Hmmmm…”

 

Xie Lian waits patiently for a response, and spends most of the wait sneaking glances at the man’s face. 

 

If he didn’t know any better, he’d describe the other’s expression as a laid back sort of boredom. To a stranger, Hua Cheng would look casual, nonthreatening, and, with the cleanliness of his high quality outfit, professional. Without the context he now has, Xie Lian would guess that Hua Cheng is a young intern or gifted student, someone who has their life put together early on. His appearance is polished and his demeanor is controlled. 

 

“About three hundred that I can name,” Hua Cheng finally answers. 

 

Something that resembles a strangled cry for help escapes Xie Lian’s throat. “ Three hundred? Are- are there really that many people in the Underground?” 

 

“There’s that many that are important, yes.” 

 

Xie Lian laughs, and that laugh devolves into something that sounds more like a pained sob. “This is it. I’m never going to sleep again. Everything ever is actually terrible and I’m going to die super young.” 

 

“No, you won’t.” Hua Cheng states. 

 

Xie Lian feels simultaneously comforted by the confidence in the other’s voice and unnerved by the vagueness of the statement. He can’t think of a good response, so he sticks to staying quiet. 

 

“Here,” Hua Cheng says suddenly after a silence that stretches somewhere between five minutes and ten. He nods in the direction of a black sports car parked up against the sidewalk and stops walking. 

 

When Xie Lian doesn’t react with more than an inquisitive, confused look, Hua Cheng reaches forward and opens one of the back car doors. Xie Lian stares at him until the other man lets out a soft sigh and slides into the car first. Then, with a bit of satisfaction, Xie Lian follows after him. 

 

Right as he closes the door behind him, the car backs out of its parking spot with what is, in Xie Lian’s opinion, way too much confidence, and begins speeding down the street in the opposite direction that the two of them had come from. From his seat he sees a third person in the vehicle, a driver dressed in all black with a baseball cap that hides their hair and face from view, but he doesn’t watch them drive for too long before he starts looking out the window to his right.

 

 The sun has just set, and the dark tinted windows of the vehicle dilute the lights from outside enough that he can stare at them for a long while without getting a headache. He doesn’t look away from the window until Hua Cheng speaks. 

 

“We’re heading downtown, which is where you’ll find out everything you need to know.” 

 

Maybe it’s due to the presence of the man he knows is a subordinate of Hua Cheng, but Xie Lian bites back the snarky remark he had planned to give and settles on a simple, “Okay.” 

 

“You’ll wear this,” Hua Cheng says, and then, from underneath the car seat, pulls out a… ski mask?

 

“...I’ll what now?”

 

“Nobody can see your face.”

 

Xie Lian takes the mask from Hua Cheng’s hands, and realizes that it is a ski mask, but that it also has a plastic mask covering its front. 

 

The mask resembles some type of monster with large, circular, empty eyes, and a wide grin with serrated teeth. The mask is completely smooth, save for the teeth and the outer rims of the eyes that pop out in thick ridges. He traces the object with his fingers and can’t find any seams in the design. It’s entire surface is painted the exact shade of black as the fabric of the ski-mask-like head cover, except for the ivory white of the teeth and the darker shade of black that fills the centers of the eyes. 

 

Xie Lian looks up from the mask to pin Hua Cheng down with an unimpressed stare. 

 

Hua Cheng just stares back with a calm expression, and… this is the first time it really hits Xie Lian just how much patience the man has shown him in these past few days. It’s enough of a startle that Xie Lian drops the look of irritation completely, and what replaces it must be much more complicated, because the man next to him suddenly looks concerned . Xie Lian goes back to focusing on the mask in his hands, and does his best to ignore the unrelenting stare the other has yet to relinquish. He relaxes a bit when Hua Cheng’s gaze falls elsewhere. 

 

He reminisces about the blood soaked, vulgar individual who tried to bite him when Xie Lian was dressing his injury, and attempts to compare him to the man sitting with a straight spine and an air of relaxed control in the car seat next to him; about the insults and curses and ridicules thrown his way when he’d only been trying to help, and attempts to compare them to the calm, steady manner that the man uses to answer all of Xie Lian’s senseless, petty questions. 

 

Xie Lian feels a bit funny. 

 

“So there’ll be others where we’re going?” 

 

Hua Cheng looks back at him without moving his head, and then nods. “Nobody to be concerned about, but enough to put your privacy at risk if you’re seen with me.” 

 

“Uh,” Xie Lian begins, a realization suddenly striking him, “But, just now, when we-”

 

“This area is safe, as was the area we went last night. You’re fine for now.” 

 

“For now,” Xie Lian mimics. 

 

“For now,” Hua Cheng repeats. 

 

“Great. Fantastic. Love the way you phrased that,” Xie Lian sings in a cheery tone. “Hooray. And what would you say is the probability of me being mugged? Like, seventy percent? Eighty?”

 

“Nobody will bother you while you’re with me,” Hua Cheng states. Then his brow furrows, and he turns his head to look straight at Xie Lian. “You have your wallet on you?” 

 

“I-I mean, yeah? Of course I do. Why?”

 

“Give it to me,” Hua Cheng says, and reaches out with his palm facing upwards. 

 

“Okay,” Xie Lian says immediately, because it’s instinctual for him to comply to any request given to him without a second thought. He reaches into one of his front jean pockets to dig out his wallet, but then he freezes, straightens up in his seat, and turns to glare at the man beside him. “Wait, what? No. I’m not giving you my wallet.”

 

“You have to.”

 

“No! Who in their right mind would-”

 

It’s because they’re stalled at a red light that the driver is able to turn around in his seat and point a gun at Xie Lian’s head. 

 

He doesn’t really register it at first, because this is the first time he’s ever been held at gunpoint in a car, but when his forehead brushes against something cold, he turns to see what it is, and suddenly he’s staring down the barrel of a gun. It takes him a bit to register what exactly he’s looking at. Then his heart drops into his stomach and his lungs stop working. 

 

A split second after he realizes what’s happening, Hua Cheng lunges forward and twists the arm holding the gun so that the weapon is pressed against the owner’s forehead. 

 

Not him.

 

The driver’s baseball cap is knocked off to reveal a man with long, braided hair and very, very wide eyes. His features are soft.

 

Never him.”

 

When the light turns green, Hua Cheng lets go of the driver’s arm. He lets go of the gun as well, and once the driver turns back around, the weapon is hidden away somewhere Xie Lian can’t see. They move forward with the flow of traffic. 

 

Nobody says anything. 

 

Xie Lian exhales. 

 

At the next red light, the driver rescues his hat from the spot that it fell to and tucks his braided hair back into it. 

 

Hua Cheng clears his throat. 

 

“He shouldn’t have done that.” 

 

Xie Lian stays silent. 

 

Hua Cheng clears his throat a second time. 

 

“The area that we’re visiting. It’s known for its pickpocketers. It’s… better if I hold onto it. Your wallet, I mean. Especially if you have any kind of identification on you.” 

 

Xie Lian hands him his wallet. Hua Cheng stares at him for a while, but Xie Lian doesn’t look away from the head of the carseat in front of him. The man slides Xie Lian’s wallet into the inside of his coat, right above his heart. 

 

A couple of minutes later, Xie Lian holds his phone out in front of Hua Cheng. His hand hovers above Xie Lian’s own for a few seconds before he takes the offered device and stores it in the area that he hid the wallet in. 

 

Hua Cheng’s head whips towards Xie Lian when he hears a whistle. 

 

“Wow.”

 

Xie Lian runs both his hands through his hair, and then lets out a laugh.

 

“You know, I’ve never had a gun pulled on me before.”

 

Hua Cheng breathes out heavily through his nose, and Xie Lian is close to classifying it as a laugh. It sounds the closest to a laugh that the man can muster. Excluding that one, real, actual laugh he managed to pry out of him two years ago. Xie Lian shoots the other a smile. 

 

“It won’t happen again.”

 

“I mean, I’m fine with it as long as I don’t, y’know, die ? That’s the only situation in which I would actually have a problem with being held at gunpoint. So, we’re cool, unless you murder me.” 

 

This time, the driver coughs out a laugh. Both Xie Lian and Hua Cheng jump at the sound, but by the time they look in his direction, he’s already muffled himself. Xie Lian beams. 

 

“I’m serious! There’s no hard feelings! I get why you did what you did. It’s like a protocol, right? You pull out a gun whenever someone gets too pesky, and it shuts them right up. I was being pretty belligerent. But you definitely deserve it,” he ends as he turns back to address Hua Cheng with a raised brow. 

 

Hua Cheng coughs, hides his mouth behind the back of his hand, and then nods without making eye contact. 

 

Xie Lian bursts into laughter, and, for the first time in a long time, it... isn’t hollow. By the time he’s tamed his laughter enough to open his eyes, he sees the driver sneak a look in his direction, and Xie Lian spies a smile on the other’s face. The driver turns his head away before Xie Lian can be certain that it wasn’t a trick of the light, or lack thereof. 

 

He turns to his left, and is taken by surprise when he sees just how wide Hua Cheng’s eyes are. There’s a strange expression on the other man’s face. Xie Lian’s smile falters. The second it does, Hua Cheng wipes the look clean off and looks out the window closest to him. 

 

Xie Lian huffs out a breath, and then pins the smile back on his face. 

 

“So, I don’t hate you or anything,” he continues to say to the driver. “I know that it’s nothing personal. If anything, I blame your boss for the lack of communication. This is an error due to the higherup.”

 

In the car mirror, he can see the driver… raise his eyebrows? He sees Hua Cheng looking in the direction of the mirror as well. Are the two making eye contact? 

 

“...You’re not a subordinate of his?”

 

Although the driver doesn’t answer him, Hua Cheng does. “Not exactly,” the man says. “He’s more of a... “

 

After a long stretch of silence, Xie Lian takes it upon himself to fill in the blank. “A friend?”

 

Hua Cheng immediately crosses his arms, leans against the car door to turn his body towards Xie Lian, and, with an incredulous look scrawled on his face, goes, “Hmmmm.”

 

Xie Lian sighs, and gives Hua Cheng a very deliberately crafted look of pity. “You really don’t have any friends, do you?”

 

The driver bursts into laughter, and this time, he makes no effort to hide it. Hua Cheng whips his head towards the front of the car with a glare. “Shut it, you.” 

 

“I’m not your subordinate, remember?” 

 

Xie Lian practically barks . “Ohhh, dang ! You just got backtalked !”

 

Hua Cheng’s face scrunches up with more displeasure than Xie Lian’s seen from him ever. He almost looks frustrated. It makes Xie Lian laugh even harder. 

 

“I think that two against one is unfair,” Hua Cheng jests, his arms crossed against his chest. The man feigns a wounded look, and Xie Lian leans over to elbow him in the shoulder. He regrets doing so instantly because of how much Hua Cheng tenses at the action. So he shrinks back into his side of the car and opens his mouth to counteract the discomfort.

 

“Well, if you’re really that upset about it, you can take it out on all of the very valuable possessions of mine you’re currently holding captive. You have a considerable amount on you right now. Actually, you have all of them on you right now. You currently hold a lot of power over me.” 

 

Hua Cheng cocks an eyebrow. “Excluding your laptop.”

 

“I sold my laptop. I don’t own it anymore.”

 

Hua Cheng stares at him for a long time, his expression unwavering, his face blank. 

 

“GOD, okay, yes, I do still have my laptop. You have everything EXCEPT for my laptop. Geez .”

 

“You’re a terrible liar,” Hua Cheng says flatly.

 

“Mmmmmm,” Xie Lian hums angrily as he slouches up against his car seat and crosses a leg over the other. 

 

His pout doesn’t last for too long, because after a couple of seconds, he perks up and straightens in his seat, his gaze landing on the driver ahead. 

 

“I’m Xie Lian, by the way,” he tells the driver. “In case you didn’t already know.” 

 

The driver looks back over his shoulder, and nods when he focuses back on the road. “Yes,” the driver responds. 

 

“Yes as in you already knew?”

 

“Uhhhhhhh,” the driver stalls. He looks up at the mirror with wide eyes, and Xie Lian turns to Hua Cheng in time to see him give the other man a small, curt nod. “I… Already knew that, yes.”

 

“So he told you my name but not that you shouldn’t try and threaten me?” 

 

“UHHHHHHH,” the driver stalls again, and it makes Xie Lian chuckle. “He- he didn’t mention who you were, I’ve just- I’ve just heard your name a couple of times and-”

 

The driver’s eyes go wide in the rearview mirror, and he stops talking. Xie Lian blinks, frowns, and turns to look at Hua Cheng, who looks rather relaxed and nonchalant. Xie Lian’s frown deepens, and he slumps against the back of his seat again. 

 

“We’ll be there in less than a minute,” Hua Cheng suddenly says. “Put on the mask now.”

 

Xie Lian nods, shoots Hua Cheng one last wary look, and then stretches out the fabric of the mask until he has enough room to fit his head inside. When the mask covers the entirety of his face and he can see out of the thin screen covering the eyes, he tucks the fabric of the mask, which falls to his shoulders, completely into his jacket. 

 

The car stops moving, and Xie Lian sees the driver trade his baseball cap for a mask of his own. 

 

“Xie Lian,” Hua Cheng says. Xie Lian looks his way, and feels some of the nervous energy that’s been seeping into him from the time Hua Cheng announced their near arrival seep away. Xie Lian bobs his head slightly, the movement made unfamiliar with the extra weight. 

 

“Just stay to my right the entire time. Don’t do anything that he doesn’t do,” Hua Cheng warns as he points in the direction of the driver, “And you’ll be fine.” 

 

“Got it,” Xie Lian says. His voice sounds muffled and yet far too close for comfort in the space of the mask. He rubs his thumbs against his pointer fingers and feels the fabric of the gloves he wears. 

 

As softly as he can, he sighs. He sure hopes he doesn’t have to mess up his favorite jacket just because Hua Cheng told him to come wearing all black. 

 

But, he shouldn’t hold his hopes too high. If today is anything like yesterday, then Xie Lian is absolutely unprepared for what is to come. 

 

All three men in the vehicle open their car doors and step out into the brisk night air.

Chapter Text

“I’m going back to work.”

 

He turns to look at him, and then he stares. 

 

“If this is because you feel obligated to-”

 

“No. No, it’s not that,” he answers honestly. “I just think that… I think that I can’t… I can’t stay away for too long.”

 

He inhales deeply, swallows, and then continues. 

 

“I can’t keep avoiding them.”

 

“Can’t keep avoiding who?”

 

He doesn’t answer at first. 

 

“My- my friends. My coworkers. Everyone.”

 

The other is still staring at him. He hasn’t been able to meet his eyes until now. 

 

“I can’t just replace…” 

 

The other man waits patiently. 

 

“I can’t replace my old life with something new.”

 

Neither of them say anything for quite some time. 

 

Then, he speaks. 

 

“Be careful.” 

 

“I will.”

 

“Knowing what you know now is a risk in itself. Being that close to-”

 

“I’m aware.”

 

His stare burns into the other, but he doesn’t look away, no matter how much it stings. 

 

“Don’t do anything without my permission.” 

 

“I know, I know! I won’t do anything stupid.”

 

He pauses.  

 

He’s taken by surprise when the other reaches out to grab his wrist.

 

“Promise.”

 

He squeezes his wrist, but not nearly enough to hurt. It makes the other smile, because this time, he’s the one not making eye contact. 

 

“I promise.” 

 

He shuts the door of his apartment behind him, and the other, after some stalling, leaves.

Chapter Text

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t like sounds. 

 

What sounds, one might ask? All of them, would be his response. Every single sound in the world grates against his skin, digs into his eardrums, rubs against his temples, crawls up the length of his scalp, bites into his arms with their dumb, tiny, ineffective teeth and then refuses to let go, makes his stomach curl up into a ball and squeeze into itself until he feels like vomiting-

 

So, Hua Cheng just doesn’t like sounds in general. He wouldn’t go as far as to say that he’d prefer to stop hearing things altogether, because hearing is useful, and it’s a sense he uses to detect movements and presences that are trying to hide themselves. His hearing is extremely keen, actually. Probably to make up for the fact that he covers one of his eyes more often than not, and when he isn’t covering up one half of his vision, he’s forced to look through a permanent cloudy splotch of darkness. 

 

Hua Cheng likes to look at things. He likes to observe things. 

 

Some of the things he likes to observe are the cars moving through downtown at night, the bustle of people in the square outside his mansion’s window in the Underground City, and the sunsets over the river. Maybe he’s just envious of the things he can never see one hundred percent of, simply because of his half-shitty vision. 

 

Observations made with sight are complicated and detailed. In order to see things, you have to really look at them. What you see depends on how you look at it and what you want to look at. If you don’t want to look at something, you simply close your eyes. Everything you see becomes nothing once you decide that the things in front of you are things you don’t want to observe. 

 

But when you listen to sounds, you cannot do so selectively. If you hear one thing you hear them all. And you can still hear things when you plug your ears, no matter how hard you try to close them and ignore the noises coming from the world around you. No matter how much you dig your fingers into the space of your ears to block the noise, no matter how much you wrap blankets around your head and barricade your face with your arms, you can still hear them screaming at each other, at you, at the world that they hate. You don’t have any power over how much you hear them calling you disgusting and useless and a mistake that should’ve never happened, you simply have to listen. 

 

Because sounds aren’t just the audio. They’re the vibrations that accompany the audio, and you can never eliminate the vibrations completely. Not unless you eliminate the sound’s source. And that, more often than not, is difficult. 

 

Except for right now. 

 

Right now, eliminating the source of the sound that he’s being forced to listen to would be easy. 

 

The stupid man is sleeping. Hua Cheng can tell from the way that his breathing is steady and controlled, like a machine running on autopilot, its decisions made simple and effective because its task is to keep everything running and nothing more. Humans breathe differently when they need room to talk and move, like their lungs are apprehensive towards what is to come and are preparing for the moment when something needs to happen. The stupid man’s breathing is deep, and it is slow, and it is steady. There’s no hiccups of preparation to walk or talk, there’s just an unbreaking state of relaxed, unassuming, trusting, rest.

 

He’s a deep sleeper. 

 

It infuriates Hua Cheng to no end. 

 

The stupid man usually sleeps on the floor on the other end of the room, just in sight, but not in reach. 

 

That first night, when Hua Cheng had asked him why he’d chosen that spot, he’d claimed that he was worried Hua Cheng would get worse overnight, and it was his paranoia that prevented him from sleeping in another room. Hua Cheng didn’t believe his words for a second. So he was confused as all hell when the man… never woke up when Hua Cheng sat up on the couch, when he stood up and walked around the room, when he entered the other rooms of the apartment, when he’d stood over the man and glared at him with as much hostile intent as he could muster. The stupid man always slept too deeply to ever catch him doing things he probably didn’t want Hua Cheng to be doing. So… why would he sleep in the same room as him? Did he really mean what he said? But that was stupid. It didn’t make any sense. Was he expecting Hua Cheng to wake him up if anything went wrong? Was he… relying on him? 

 

The stupid man usually sleeps on the floor on the other end of the room, just in sight, and he doesn’t seem afraid of what Hua Cheng has the power to do to him. 

 

But tonight, he’s not sleeping on the floor on the other end of the room. He’s sleeping in the armchair next to one end of the couch. He’s sleeping less than a meter away from Hua Cheng. 

 

The stupid man is curled up so that his entire body fits inside the armchair. His head is propped up on one of the armrests, his legs are pulled tightly to his chest, and his arms are tucked around his head in a protective encirclement. But it’s ironic for Hua Cheng to describe the position of his arms as “protective,” because the man’s position is nothing but vulnerable. His head and neck are extremely exposed, his body is in no position for him to react effectively to any dangers, and his sleep is obviously way too deep for him to detect any threats. Unless his uncomfortable sleeping position has prevented him from falling into as deep of a sleep as he usually does? 

 

With this question in mind, Hua Cheng reaches out and touches the stupid man’s wrist with two fingers. 

 

He waits. He watches for a reaction. 

 

He gets none. The stupid man keeps on sleeping. 

 

Hua Cheng feels a surge of rage. He retracts his hand, and then sits up do that he can glare properly at the man. Careful to not lean any weight on his injured arm, he leans forward again and wraps his hand around the stupid man’s wrist. After a bit of waiting, waiting for the man’s breathing or posture or something to change, he squeezes. 

 

Do something. Do something to react. Do something that makes sense. 

 

Wake up and feel threatened. Feel afraid. Look at him with fear and disgust and discomfort. God, even looking at him with pity would be enough. Isn’t that how you should be looking at him? If you have such a strong desire to act like a hero, shouldn’t you be looking at him with something that resembles pity? 

 

The stupid man just keeps on sleeping. 

 

Hua Cheng reaches up and closes a hand around the stupid man’s throat. 

 

It would be easy. He’s done it before. He can do it again. 

 

Hua Cheng squeezes with just enough pressure to feel a pulse beneath the palm of his hand. The man’s breathing isn’t constricted enough to cause harm, yet, but it’s enough of a hold that he should be able to notice. That he should have the urge to wake up and react, if the idiotic man has any sense of self preservation in him. 

 

The man doesn’t wake up. 

 

Breaking a person’s neck is like breaking a branch. Thick branches that require you apply enough pressure in the right area for a long enough time, that you wait, and wait, and wait, until you begin to hear a subtle creak from the structure, and then you wait some more, until finally the structure in your hold snaps. 

 

It’s a terrible way to die. Very painful in the moment, very terror-filled as you know what’s to come, and sometimes you aren’t given the mercy of dying the second the break happens. Sometimes, you have to wait for your heart and brain to finally shut down as you suffocate in your own skin; you have to wait for a death that can’t come fast enough.

 

He could do it right now with one hand, if he wanted to. 

 

He could kill. 

 

He could kill the stupid man. 

 

But he fails the moment he puts a name to a body. He fails the moment he puts a person to a face. So he lets go of the stupid man’s throat. 

 

Hua Cheng watches the man sleeping soundly in the armchair. 

 

God, fucking, damnit. 

 

He hates this. Hua Cheng hates this man. 

 

Why should he get to sleep so soundly next to Hua Cheng when Hua Cheng can’t possibly do the same? Why should he have so much trust in a stranger when Hua Cheng’s the most dangerous, terrible, powerful stranger there is? Why the hell should he trust so openly and plainly while the world so obviously isn’t built to run on such idealistic, childish, bullshit? 

 

Hua Cheng has had enough of this man’s restful, unbroken sleep. Nobody should feel comfortable enough around him to just nod off an arm’s reach away from him. 

 

So Hua Cheng reaches out a hand and sets it on the sleeping man’s face, so that he can pry open the man’s eye-

 

But then he stops. 

 

… the man’s face is warm. 

 

He realizes in that moment just how stupid and childish he’s acting. The actions of another person don’t concern him. That lesson was one he learned long ago. How other individuals act and how they treat life isn’t his business, nor does it do him any good to dwell on the things that other people think. Unless he can use them, unless they put him at some sort of advantage, other people’s thoughts aren’t his own. 

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t think he wants to use the thoughts of this man to his advantage. He doesn’t… he doesn’t want to use the man, period. No matter how easy it would be. 

 

For some reason, he lightly brushes the area beneath the man’s closed eye with his thumb. 

 

Hua Cheng snatches back his hand and slams back into the couch when the man’s breathing hitches. His shoulder screams with so much pain that he almost makes a noise, but he represses the urge, squeezes his eyes shut, and lays completely still as he listens to the movements of the other. 

 

The man’s breathing tells Hua Cheng that he doesn’t wake. 

 

After he counts out five minutes, Hua Cheng turns back to look at the man in the armchair. 

 

His eyes stay closed, his position in the chair doesn’t change, and his breathing remains steady. 

 

Hua Cheng’s face burns just as uncomfortably as his arm does. 

 

Rather than dwell on why in the everloving hell he just did the thing he did, Hua Cheng focuses on the sound of the man’s breathing. To track when he wakes up, and when Hua Cheng should open his eyes to indicate that he woke up long before the other in order to feed into the illusion that he never sleeps. Which isn’t really an illusion if it’s true. But the stupid man doesn’t need to know whether or not it’s true, he just needs to wonder whether or not that’s true. Although, the stupid man doesn’t seem to care too much about who wakes up before the other, considering there was one morning where the man woke up earlier than usual and just… stared at the ceiling until he finally noticed that Hua Cheng was staring at him, like he didn’t want to show that he was awake until he knew for sure that Hua Cheng was. 

 

Thinking thoughts makes Hua Cheng even angrier, so he stops thinking altogether. All he does is listen.

 

He listens to the inhales and the exhales that follow. After a while, he begins to count them. At one point he matches his own breathing to the other’s, but he doesn’t notice that he’s doing so for quite some time. 

 

He just listens. 

 

And then… 

 

And then he’s… waking up? 

 

Hua Cheng blinks away the exhaustion welding his eyes shut, and keeps doing so until he drives away the blurriness at the edge of his vision. A window at one end of the room, one that was dark when he last closed his eyes, now shines with the light of the morning. 

 

 

Did he actually fall asleep? 

 

What the fuck? 

 

Hua Cheng’s still fuming from the realization by the time the stupid, stupid man wakes up, and the mood sticks with him for the rest of the day. 

Chapter Text

He tries, for a long while, to forget the stupid man. 

 

Life moves along. It’ll always move along, whether or not he’s alive to see it. Hua Cheng clings to that piece of information like a child would their favorite toy, simply because it’s the one thing he can trust as truth. No matter how much he hurts, no matter how much he has been hurt, no matter how much he wants to hurt, the world will continue running in its indifferent, apathetic cycle, and it is up to him whether or not he wants to suffocate under the weight of the scales or climb up to a spot where he can manipulate the balance however he sees fit. 

 

Hua Cheng can live according to his own demand, or he can choose to lie in the dirt and be trampled by the wheels keeping the world on its track. He always chooses the former, simply because he knows how much it will infuriate those convinced that the ones born in the dirt are destined to die from the pressure applied from above. 

 

His dream, if he can even call it a dream, because he isn’t disillusioned enough to assume that it’ll satisfy him once he reaches it, is to climb up the sides of the wagon they call the world and to carve himself a spot at the top. Whether the ones already there take the jump themselves or by his hands is up to them, but the ones never sitting in reach, just in view, are the ones he wants to uproot and discard in the place that he rose from. Because whether it be by their negligence, by their knowing cruelty, or by their ignorance, it is their choice to let the worst stay the worst and the best cement themselves in their spots when they have all the opportunities in the world to throw down ropes to those who need them to escape certain doom.

 

So, the moment he was wise enough to form ambitions, Hua Cheng chose to climb. 

 

And he’s made himself a spot at the top of the bottom. Higher than most, even if the general public doesn’t know that he is. He’s feared by the best of the worst and the worst of the best. Those at the top fear him because he’s made it clear to them what he’s capable of, and they’re paranoid about what he has the power to do to them if he simply wishes hard enough. They don’t know it yet, but their fear is justified. 

 

Hua Cheng climbed, and climbed, and continues to climb. He’s long since passed the point of survival, the point of living, and the point of excessive luxury. But he still hasn’t had enough. If the journey kills him, so be it. At least he’ll have torn as many people as possible down with him. That legacy is enough for him. 

 

So, he doesn’t feel any remorse when he does fall. 

 

Hua Cheng remembers being dragged down to his knees, having his arms yanked behind his back and then having his wrists bound by rope. The hole they’d shot in his arm burned. He’d been sedated and beaten and left to bleed. Then they’d thrown him in a car trunk, dumped him on asphalt, and shot him in the shoulder. 

 

It was a message. 

 

He was shot in the shoulder instead of in the head or the chest or the stomach. His dumping ground was a public spot in the middle of town. Morning was just around the corner. 

 

He could have survived the incident. If there was someone to help him. If he had someone to call. 

 

If he despised death more than he despised the prospect of trusting someone. 

 

They knew that he wouldn’t allow anyone to watch him die. 

 

His climb was long, turbulent, stubborn, and, in the eyes of someone more poetic, glorious. 

 

His fall was quick. Humiliating. It resembled someone discarding garbage more than it did the downfall of a mighty someone. And he knew that his absence would be regarded with nothing more than an apprehensive silence, a period of hesitation, and then a relieved continuation. Everyone in the world, those who once knew his name and those who didn’t, would forget about him. He would die in a parking lot, drowned in his own blood, simply because he hadn’t bothered finding something to bandage the wound. Simply because there was nobody to stop the bleeding. 

 

There was no point in mourning his fall when his life was nothing to begin with, he had thought as he waited for death.

 

And then… 

 

And then-

 

Someone caught him. 

 

“Just hold on with me.”

 

Someone saw him. They saw him slip, they saw him fall, and they reached out to grab his wrist right as he was about to plummet past them. Someone caught him before he could hit the ground and used all of their strength to haul him back up onto the safety of a ledge. 

 

Hua Cheng tries to forget the man. 

 

He ignores the first anniversary of their meeting. He ignores it so much that he doesn’t even call it an anniversary, because that would suggest he cares enough to track how long it’s been since he met the man, which he doesn’t. 

 

The coral earring braided in his hair is a reminder of how much he was humiliated right before those five days of captivity. How much he wants to destroy the people who degraded him. 

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t see the man’s face, doesn’t hear the man’s laughter at the back of his mind when he finds a dying man in an alleyway with a look that tells Hua Cheng he’s been broken by the world.

 

He doesn’t repeat the words he was given a year and three months ago when he carries the dying man somewhere safe. 

 

It wasn’t out of kindness that he chose to save the dying man’s life, and it wasn’t out of pity. If it was truly out of pity, Hua Cheng would have put the dying man out of his misery the instant he found him bleeding out in the rain, bent over the body of his dead friend. He saved the man because he knew that he could shape the empty look in his eyes into something sharp and useful, could use the information that someone with a police officer’s uniform had access to. 

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t give the broken man a place to live and food to eat because he’s generous or hospitable or whatever, he allows the man to live in his mansion simply because Hua Cheng doesn’t want to see all of his hard work in pulling the man away from the brink of death turn into nothing the instant the man leaves and tries to end his own life.

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t give the man a job when he’s finally capable of taking care of himself and is able to say more than a few words at a time because he pities the man. In fact, Hua Cheng tells the man that he owes him, but that his due will come out of something much more important than manual labor and vague memories of a man with a white mask. He simply accepts the man’s offer to stick by his side as an assistant because it does him no harm to embrace unpaid labor when he’s offered it; and besides, people tend to be loyal to those who save their lives. 

 

The man who says he’s called Yin Yu, and whose real name is Yin Yu, according to the research Hua Cheng did to back up the claim, ends up being an adequate assistant. Yin Yu’s experience as a police officer makes him helpful to have around when things get violent, which happens more often than not when your main (and only) job is to quite literally beat information out of anybody stupid enough to slip into your reach. His stubborn moral system can get on Hua Cheng’s nerves sometimes, and he does have a tendency to mope by staring dramatically out of windows when he thinks Hua Cheng isn’t looking, but aside from those two critical character flaws being terrible, there are no downsides to having Yin Yu around. 

 

There are no downsides, until he realizes that Yin Yu is a constant reminder of a person he’s supposed to have forgotten. 

 

So, the whole “saving a person’s life” thing backfired pretty damn quickly on Hua Cheng. 

 

But it doesn’t matter who Yin Yu reminds him of, because Hua Cheng is above subconscious thoughts that refuse to die. He’s faced worse than what he’s being forced to face now, and all he has to do is to kick his mind into submission until it complies entirely with his desires and ambitions, just like he usually does. 

 

So, Hua Cheng forces himself to forget the man, and moves on with his life without ever having to think about the five, irrelevant, unimportant days that stand as nothing more than a stain on his professional career.

 

 

….

 

…..

 

……

……………

 

……………………………………………..

 

Hua Cheng tries so hard to forget the man. 

 

But he can’t. He can’t

 

Hua Cheng thinks about those five days more than he thinks about the event that preceded them, despite the fact that he keeps trying to stuff the memory of being beaten and dumped in a trunk into the “spite pile” along with every other memory that drives him to wake up in the morning. It infuriates him that his thoughts are drawn back towards the time he spent laying on a couch with an idiot hanging over him more than it is towards the realization that someone predicted his movements and counteracted them by degrading him and leaving him for dead, because this isn’t how it usually goes. Usually, Hua Cheng uses the feeling of helplessness and lack of power to build himself back up even stronger. Memories that hurt and memories that sting are the most powerful to him, because they remind him of what he needs to do to get better. 

 

But the memories of those five days, the ones that refuse to leave him no matter how much he says that he’ll forget them, no matter how much he dismisses them the instant he realizes they’ve wandered back into his thoughts, no matter how much he wants them to stop infiltrating his mind like a parasite he can’t remove… those don’t hurt or sting. They… calm him. They make him feel warm. 

 

The memories comfort him.  

 

But that isn’t what memories are supposed to be like. Why are these the ones that he wants to trace back over again and again until the actions and words are engraved into his brain like a carving on a tree? What about them makes it so that he catches himself obsessively repeating the same scenarios over and over again, even when he tries his hardest to dismiss them? 

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t know why those five days are the most clear he’s ever had in his entire life. He doesn’t know why he can relive them like they’re happening right in front of him. 

 

For the first time in his life, Hua Cheng is scared by his own memories, because he doesn’t know why this specific memory refuses to comply with his consciousness. If he can’t use the memory as a sharp, painful reminder of why he keeps moving forward, if he can’t use the memory as a valuable piece of information that he can tuck away and later use to maneuver a person in the way that he wants them to move, if he can’t- if he can’t use it as a reminder of just how much of a disgusting person he can be when he wants to be-

 

Then what’s the use of those five days? 

 

Why do they keep coming back to him? 

 

It takes a long time, but Hua Cheng eventually accepts that he’ll never be able to forget those five days.

 

It takes even longer for Hua Cheng to accept just why he can’t forget those five days. 

 

The man made him…

 

That man, the one who saved his life just because he could, who didn’t flinch or turn away no matter how harshly he was treated…

 

He made- 

 

He made Hua Cheng feel… 

 

...not terrible. 

 

And the fact that he did makes Hua Cheng lose his mind

 

Well, it did almost make Hua Cheng lose his mind. Seven hundred and fifty nine days after those first five, Hua Cheng manages to talk himself out of jumping off a bridge because he’s realized that he may in fact feel things that are not anger and spite and hate and apathy. That’s what he’s doing right now, actually. Crouching on a ledge overlooking the steep drop of a bridge over a long, shallow river. He did think about it. He’s been thinking about it for the past half hour. 

 

The man who he thought was stupid made him… feel okay. 

 

The man made him not-miserable simply through his persistence to try, and had managed, somehow, impossibly, to make Hua Cheng comfortable by showing blatant trust towards him, the likes of which Hua Cheng has never seen before. 

 

This string of thoughts makes Hua Cheng realize that he, is in fact, the stupid man here. 

 

The most powerful, intimidating, influential, dangerous figure of authority in all of the Underground is currently contemplating jumping off a bridge because he’s wrestling his consciousness into letting go of the suppressing hold that it has on his... feelings . In other words, Hua Cheng is contemplating jumping off a bridge because he thinks that he...

 

……..

 

… he thinks he…. 

 

 

… he might...

 

…………

 

… helikesaperson. 

 

Mister Hua Chengzhu buries his face in his hands. 

 

He isn’t actually thinking about jumping off the bridge. Death is an escape, and Hua Cheng isn’t a coward. Plus, if he wanted to kill himself, he’d choose a much more effective method. A fall like this wouldn’t kill him anymore than it would be a slight inconvenience. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an excellent spot to brood. 

 

Two. Years.

 

It’s taken him over two years to acknowledge the fact that he’s been shoving all of his subconscious thoughts and feelings into a box just so he can fool himself into maintaining his internalized and externalized reputation. How in the world could the great Hua Cheng be anything aside from terrible and heartless? What could ever prompt him to experience a complete change in character so much so that he’s found himself perched on a concrete slab hanging off of a bridge as he digs into his brain and attempts to obsessively analyze and reanalyze every aspect of himself? 

 

Hua Cheng pulls his jacket’s hood over his head and pulls the strings so that the fabric covers his face entirely. 

 

Someone who smiles like he has everything in the world, apparently. 

 

Someone who can look at Hua Cheng and smile like he has everything he’s ever wanted right at his fingertips. 

 

Dear god , he’s pathetic. 

 

For someone who’s prided himself for so long in his ability to weaponize the most human parts of himself, that being his emotions (feel the terrible memories to fuel your ambitions), and who does so by dissecting every thought he’s ever had until it can no longer be anything but scientific and apathetic, it sure has taken Hua Cheng quite a while to acknowledge the fact that he’s changed. 

 

Maybe it’s because he has changed that he’s been unable to recognize such changes. His apathy has escaped him, and his mind, which has relied on apathy for so long to make sense of the world around him, has rejected any changes that would render his entire security system useless. 

 

After all, Hua Cheng has never had anything to hang on to aside from the things that are absolutely necessary to succeeding in his climb. And the fact that he suddenly wants to hang onto something… it’s foreign in all senses of the word. 

 

Ah. Goddamnit. He’s even doing it now. He’s dissecting the new thoughts that are resulting from acknowledging his feelings and is trying to put them into words so that he can categorize them correctly and implement them into his thought process as fast as possible. 

 

...

 

He’s not ready for this.  

 

He’s not ready for such a huge change. 

 

It’s taken so long for him to acknowledge that any change was happening in the first place. How can he just accept it as his new reality?

 

But he should be strong enough to do so. He’s Hua Cheng, for crying out loud. He should be able to grind all of these new bits and pieces and transform them into something that will guarantee his survival. He should be able to look at it for what it is and accept it immediately, because he’s only delaying the inevitable if he waits. What he should be doing right now is taking what he’s learned and slotting it into place in his mind so that he can move along with his life, in order to finally leave this oblong, unusual block in a place that makes sense instead of on the floor in front of him. He should be able to accept this, put it where it belongs, and move on. 

 

So… so why…?

 

God. Hua Cheng just doesn’t think that he can

 

Hua Cheng just can’t accept it and move on, because he doesn’t know who the person moving on is anymore. 

 

He needs time. He needs time to accept this. He needs time to adjust. 

 

Just… just a bit more time.  

 

Hua Cheng rises from his spot on the bridge, feels the cold wind tug and pull at his body from the precarious spot he stands on, and then, after staring down at the river below for a long while, begins to climb back up to the road above. 

 

No matter how much it frustrates him, Hua Cheng needs time. Because his world no longer depends on him and him alone. 

 

And the fact that his world has become dependent on someone else chills him to his very core. 

 

Xie Lian. 

 

Hua Cheng wonders what Xie Lian is doing right now. 

 

Hua Cheng hopes Xie Lian is happy. 

 

Part of him- 

 

Well, no, that isn’t right. There are no individual, small parts of Hua Cheng that believe in one thing while others believe in another. Hua Cheng is an all-or-nothing type of person. 

 

So… all of Hua Cheng wonders if Xie Lian had noticed when the second anniversary had passed. And then he wonders if Xie Lian considers them anniversaries like he does. 

 

Probably not. 

 

Hua Cheng sighs. And then he hates the fact that he sighs at things now, because ugh . Expressing human emotions. Gross

 

He starts sighing unironically seven hundred and ninety two days after their first meeting, and the change in character makes him exhausted, which is the emotion that he now feels instead of frustration on matters relating to Xie Lian’s influence over his personality. 

 

Sighing ironically? Perfectly acceptable. Sighing unironically is completely different from sighing ironically, otherwise known as sighing in “disappointment” when the individual that owes him money hasn’t paid up by the day they agreed upon, because oh no, that means that Hua Cheng has to act on his threats now, however could you disappoint him so? 

 

But the unironic sighs aren’t premeditated. They aren’t malicious, or exaggerated, or playful in that sort of way that scares the living hell out of anyone he interacts with. These unironic sighs just… happen? 

 

One moment he’s thinking thoughts, and the next he’s… making noises? In reaction to these thoughts? Unintentionally? And they happen when he least expects them. 

 

Yin Yu once gave him a bewildered look when Hua Cheng zoned out for a good half minute and then caught himself mid-dramatic-sigh. Apparently Yin Yu didn’t think it was possible for Hua Cheng to show signs of anything resembling emotions. To be fair, Hua Cheng didn’t think so either until like a month ago, so he doesn’t blame the man for reacting with such shock/ borderline fear. 

 

It’s the small things that catch him by surprise. The little things he didn’t think were possible to change about himself, but that he’s finding are doing just that on their own. 

 

These small things don’t even bother Hua Cheng anymore. He doesn’t hate the small things that change. They’re not as startling and unwelcome as they used to be. 

 

Somewhere along the line, Hua Cheng began to feel comfortable with the things that were deciding to change. He felt safer. 

 

One could almost call it feeling happier. However happy you can feel when the person who caused you to be such a way has left you with too many things you’ve found yourself treasuring. 

 

Well, not treasuring, exactly, because that’s too strong of a word… 

 

… Nah. Nevermind. He’s not even kidding himself anymore. He does find himself - ‘treasuring’ them, he supposes. Even if the flowery imagery makes him want to gag. 

 

Hua Cheng is happier now because of what was left behind by someone good. 

 

But Hua Cheng doesn’t want to see Xie Lian again. Not now. Not anytime soon. 

 

Xie Lian has his entire life ahead of him. Hua Cheng doesn’t need to become apart of it and complicate it with his shady livelihood and terrible character. Maybe, just maybe, if the circumstances align in the distant future and Hua Cheng somehow stumbles into Xie Lian’s life again in a way that guarantees he won’t come to harm… maybe if he runs into him on the street and Xie Lian happens to recognize him… 

 

Okay, so maybe he does want to see Xie Lian again. But he isn’t willing to disrupt Xie Lian’s life just because of his selfish desires. He isn’t sure if his own life will ever mellow out enough to ensure that them meeting again won’t harm the other’s stability, but… maybe, one day, it will. 

 

Hua Cheng has no intention of ever intervening in Xie Lian’s life. He doesn’t even attempt to do research into who he is, or what he’s doing right now. Hua Cheng doesn’t deserve to know more than Xie Lian deserves privacy. 

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t look for Xie Lian, and he tells himself that he never will. 

 

So, he doesn’t. 

 

He doesn’t-

 

Until he hears the whispers. 

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t- he said he never would, said he couldn’t-

 

Until he hears the whispers, and hears a surname he recognizes. 

 

At first, Hua Cheng ignores them. 

 

It’s a coincidence. It doesn’t involve him . It can’t involve him. 

 

But then his curiosity gets the better of him, and he digs. 

 

And he learns. 

 

When Hua Cheng learns what’s happened, he’s the most furious he’s ever been in his life. 

 

He begins to dig for as much information as possible. Who was involved, who led the investigation into the deaths, what judge gave the final verdict; what rumors were spread about the deaths, about the victims’ prominence, about their son’s potential-

 

Hua Cheng learns about the rumors circulating as to who was behind the deaths, who made it look like a suicide, who slipped the judge enough money to close the case early. 

 

He realizes that he has to look for Xie Lian, because if he doesn’t, Xie Lian will die. 

 

As he weaves through the crowd, his eyes glued to the figure in the distance, his movements deliberate and quick, Hua Cheng feels that anger surge, and surge, and surge, and rise to heights that even he considers dangerous, but he doesn’t care. He just keeps watching the back of the figure ahead. 

 

When Hua Cheng reaches the figure, when he sees the way he doesn’t even react to his calls, when he sees how lifeless his movements are… Hua Cheng feels-

 

He feels-

 

He feels scared

 

His heart is beating faster than it usually does, no matter how much he regulates his breathing and how much he tells himself to calm down. 

 

Hua Cheng calls out his name. 

 

“Xie Lian.”

 

The figure ahead turns around to face him, and Hua Cheng feels his heart stop beating completely. 

 

… This isn’t…

 

That isn’t what Xie Lian should look like. 

 

“What?”

 

Hua Cheng freezes completely. 

 

He sounds so tired .

 

He sounds like he’s given up

 

Hua Cheng feels like the breath has been sucked out of his lungs, like the entire world has grinded to a halt, like the people around him have stopped in place as he stares at the face in front of him. He can’t hear anything. 

 

What he finds is that his memories of Xie Lian are accurate. He’s somehow managed to remember the man’s face in its entirety. 

 

But what he remembers is a man with a smile that made Hua Cheng feel safe, that made him feel secure, simply because his smile was one of an individual with confidence that he had everything; that he had nothing to desire and nothing to lose. 

 

There’s no hint of that on the face of the man standing in front of him. 

 

This-

 

Xie Lian stares at him with a blank expression, and then turns around to keep walking.

 

The crowd begins to move again, and Hua Cheng can hear its presence so clearly that the sounds flood his senses like a river breaking through a dam. 

 

“Xie Lian,” Hua Cheng calls after him.

 

He hates how weak his voice sounds.

 

This isn’t- 

 

“Hmm,” Xie Lian hums in response. He doesn’t seem to care that he’s being followed, that someone he- that someone he doesn’t recognize- that a stranger - knows his name. Xie Lian just keeps walking. 

 

“We need to talk,” Hua Cheng calls after him. 

 

Xie Lian turns back again, and he just- he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care- Xie Lian doesn’t care. He’s compliant, he’s ignoring the world around him, he isn’t observing, he isn’t offering a- a stranger any time to explain themself or to tell him why they know his name, why they want to talk, why- Xie Lian is- he’s-

 

He’s apathetic. 

 

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. 

 

Why him? 

 

Why did it have to be him? 

 

Why did he have to be the one to hurt? 

 

Hua Cheng’s anger disintegrated the moment he saw Xie Lian’s face. What replaced it was much worse. 

 

Hua Cheng feels so, so, completely and utterly-

 

He’s disappointed. He’s- he’s frustrated, he’s confused and startled and- and- and he’s-

 

Hua Cheng is…

 

Oh, god. 

 

This is new. 

 

Hua Cheng is sad. 

 

The moment it sets in… the moment he puts what he’s feeling into words…

 

Hua Cheng wants to laugh. 

 

Leave it to Xie Lian to make him feel something so foreign. Something so new. 

 

It’s been eight hundred days since the two last saw each other, and Xie Lian still has just as much control over Hua Cheng as he did back then, when Hua Cheng was on the brink of death. 

 

No… that isn’t true. 

 

This time, Xie Lian has more. 

 

Because back then, Xie Lian had the power to kill him when he was at his most vulnerable, but Hua Cheng would’ve resisted. He’d been apprehensive; he’d been expecting it, and he’d have been prepared to fight. 

 

Now, Hua Cheng would let him. 

 

“Just hold on with me.”

 

At some point in time, whenever that may be, Hua Cheng had stopped listening to what Xie Lian had said to him on that first day, because he stopped holding on with Xie Lian.

 

Hua Cheng had begun to hold on for him. 

 

The day Xie Lian caught him and stopped him from plummeting to the ground was the day that he’d earned the power to push Hua Cheng right back down. 

 

But it isn’t until today that Hua Cheng is able to accept this fact. 

 

And as he accepts this- because he accepts this-

 

“He’s the one that had me shot.”

 

Because it’s technically true. If twisting the truth in just the right way to get Xie Lian’s attention is what he needs to do to help him, to keep him safe, then- 

 

“Nothing will happen to you.”

 

He’ll die before Xie Lian gets so much as a scratch on him. He’ll take any bullet, any threat, any gamble-

 

I won’t hurt you.”

 

He can only hope that Xie Lian will believe him. Because he’s meant it more than he’s ever meant anything in his life, and he’s the man who promised to the world that he’d climb and hasn’t stopped yet. 

 

It doesn’t feel like a victory or an assurance when Xie Lian agrees to leave with him. If anything, it hurts more than rejection, because Xie Lian doesn’t seem to care what risk he’s putting himself in by accepting. 

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t want to take his eyes off of Xie Lian, but he does just that so he can lead Xie Lian down a path that leads further into the quiet of the neighborhoods, further away from the suffocating noise of the city. 

 

If it was possible for him to at this moment, Hua Cheng would be amused. 

 

Because it’s almost like they’ve switched places. 

 

Hua Cheng, for the first time in his life, for the first time in his entire existence, says something that resembles a prayer. 

 

Let me be enough to catch you as you fall. 

 

It isn’t until he sees Xie Lian laugh like he used to, his face faintly illuminated by the light of the setting sun that’s managed to leak in through the tinted car windows, that Hua Cheng thinks that maybe… just maybe…

 

Maybe he can be enough. 

 

Maybe, if he keeps his arms outstretched and musters all of his strength, if he exerts all of his status and all of his resources, if he utilizes the height of the platform that he’s spent so long climbing up to…

 

Hua Cheng dares to hope that he will be enough. 

 

Hua Cheng dares to hope that he can catch what he treasures just as it once caught him. 

 

For the second time in his life, Hua Cheng prays to the only being he’s ever revered enough to even consider a god. 

 

Hold on with me, Xie Lian. 

Chapter Text

“Am I allowed to ask what the point of this is?”

 

“You’re allowed to, yes, but there’s no guarantee that you want to know the answer.” 

 

“Well, alright then, mister vague and melodramatic,” Xie Lian says from his spot on the ground. He burrows his face a bit deeper into the collar of his jacket, and stares off into the distance. 

 

Hua Cheng has to take a minute to make sure that his expression remains as unemotive as possible, partly because he doesn’t want to upset Xie Lian any further than he already has since he knows that the man is genuinely trying to insult him, but mostly because he doesn’t want Xie Lian to see how much the comment did amuse him. Hua Cheng has an “unamused and mysterious” vibe going on, and he doesn’t intend to ruin it anytime soon, even in front of someone that has, as far as he’s concerned, changed his life completely. 

 

But he did kind of already blow it two years ago when he laughed out loud at a joke. Some combination of extreme pain, a general acceptance of death, and a sprinkle of confidence that he was already dead and the entire encounter was a post-mortem hallucination that his brain was conjuring seconds before his sentience was wiped away from the face of the planet, all made him a little less in control of his behavior than usual. He still gets embarrassed whenever he traces back over that particular memory. 

 

“So I’m just gonna have to sit on a curb in freezing cold weather until you decide to tell me whether or not we’re gonna rob a bank or something? Because I’d like to know fairly quickly if I need to go back home and grab my serial killer mask,” Xie Lian remarks as he leans forward so that he’s leaning heavily into the legs he has planted on the ground. His hands are tucked into his pockets, and he sinks so far into the collar of his jacket that his entire face is covered. 

 

Hua Cheng only lets himself smile and huff out a breath when he knows Xie Lian can’t see him, but he wipes it off his face the instant Xie Lian looks up at him. 

 

Xie Lian squints at him suspiciously.

 

“Did you just laugh at me?”

 

“I would’ve warned you beforehand if you needed to bring the mask,” Hua Cheng says instead of a proper response, and mentally kicks himself for making any sound at all. 

 

Xie Lian doesn’t buy his attempt at a distaction, so he furrows his brow. Hua Cheng ignores how seeing the pout on Xie Lian’s face makes his chest feel tight, because he needs to be one hundred percent focused on the task ahead-

 

 and because his ears have just picked up on the sound that he’s been looking for. 

 

Hua Cheng surveys the space around them with great care. Xie Lian stands up from the ground once he realizes what Hua Cheng is doing, and begins to look around apprehensively. 

 

On the empty street corner that the two stand on, dusk has just fallen and night has just risen. All is silent on this side of town, the inbetween where the Underground trickles in when they have to and the Above avoid when they can. It’s a not quite happy, not quite sad, medium. 

 

“Let’s go,” Hua Cheng says to Xie Lian the instant he locates the direction of the sound and starts walking in its general direction. Xie Lian follows without a word, his pace almost matching Hua Cheng’s so that he’s only a foot or so behind him. 

 

“Uh... is that...?” Xie Lian begins to say after a minute or so of walking. The noise has grown louder the more they’ve walked, and it seems like they’re close enough for Xie Lian to notice the sound Hua Cheng has been following.

 

Hua Cheng looks back and sees that Xie Lian is looking in the distance, an intent kind of concentration written across his face. He looks away before the tight feeling in his chest renders him useless. 

 

“Is that rave music?”

 

“Mhm,” Hua Cheng hums in affirmation. 

 

“Oh, god,” Xie Lian says, a hint of exhaustion and anxiety tinting his voice. “We’re not going to a club, are we? Please tell me we aren’t going to a club.” 

 

The two round a street corner and see a large, empty field with wild grass and scattered gravel pathways spread out over a couple hundred meter wide space. In the distance, so far away that they look tiny, a pair of bouncers stand in front of a large warehouse and are situated on either side of a doorway that Hua Cheng knows is the club’s entrance. 

 

Muffled music bleeds out of the building in front of them. Xie Lian lets out a faint strangled sound, and Hua Cheng looks back over his shoulder in time to see that the other has just yanked his jacket’s collar up over his face with both hands. 

 

A large, aged warehouse sits thirty meters in the distance. The layout of the landscape is designed so that the warehouse stands apart from all of the other buildings in the city, which means that the instant Xie Lian and Hua Cheng leave the safety of the rundown, abandoned city square they’ve been traveling through for the past five minutes and walk onto the large gravel pathway that leads out to the structure in the distance, they’re seen by the two people standing at the entrance. 

 

Aside from the two individuals dressed in all black standing on either side of the warehouse entrance, there’s three others gathered in front of the building. Although he couldn’t understand them before they were in view, now he can hear that they’re saying clearly. 

 

“-isn’t what he told us! What happened to ‘special guests’?” A woman, according to the pitch of her voice, shouts. 

 

The two other people that Hua Cheng can see- or, that he can faintly make out in the dark, because the entrance to the warehouse has no light to illuminate it- must be her companions, because they hum and mumble some agreements. 

 

“Your names aren’t on here,” one of the bouncers says calmly. His voice is flat and deep, and he stands to the right side of the entrance. 

 

Bullshit! Check again!”

 

“Ma’am,” the second bouncer says, her voice a bit deeper than the woman she’s trying to calm down. “We’ve checked three times. They aren’t there.” 

 

“AUGH,” one of the angry woman’s companions groans. “Let’s go, Ann! This is pointless!”

 

“We’ll LEAVE if they CHECK. AGAIN,” the first woman shouts, and then stomps forward to jab a finger at the male bouncer’s chest. 

 

Just as the male bouncer lets out a sigh, trades a look with the female bouncer, and then raises a silver tablet he holds in his left hand to his face, the door between the two bouncers opens. Hua Cheng and Xie Lian have just reached the area of the gravel pathway directly behind the group of three when a third individual wearing the same uniform as the two bouncers slips out the door and runs to the male bouncer’s side. 

 

The male bouncer leans towards the individual who’s just ran to his side as they whisper something in his ear, and as he listens to what the third bouncer has to say, his expression changes. 

 

“My apologies, miss,” the male bouncer says, his voice revealing a bit of nervousness. “I didn’t realize- I had no idea that you were-” he pauses to clear his throat. “My friend here can lead you to where you need to go.”  

 

The three women, Hua Cheng now knows, thanks to the fact that he’s now close enough to see them properly, laugh. One woman grabs her friend’s arm as she lets out a loud sigh of relief, and the one who’s been yelling at the male bouncer crosses her arms as she raises her chin. 

 

“About time! God, who organizes these things?”

 

“Shut it, Ann! We got in already,” the third woman, who hasn’t spoken until now, reprimands. She’s hugging the arm of her friend and shivering, which may be due to the fact that she’s wearing nothing but a crop top and a skirt in spite of the weather. She’s the only one of her friends who didn’t plan ahead and bring a coat, and she’s paying for it now. Hua Cheng would be sympathetic if he cared at all, which he doesn’t-

 

But he does care, he quickly reminds himself. He sneaks a glance at Xie Lian, who’s standing to his right. Therefore, he is very sympathetic towards the woman and her sorry state. He’s so sympathetic, in fact, that he would offer the woman his coat if he didn’t think it would just creep her out. And if he wasn’t carrying so many weapons on him. 

 

The three women rush inside as the third bouncer slips back through the door, which leaves Hua Cheng and Xie Lian to face the two other bouncers alone. 

 

“Sorry about the holdup, gentlemen,” the female bouncer says to them as the door falls shut with a dull, heavy thunk. “Names?”

 

“Geng Tai,” Hua Cheng answers. “And a plus one.” 

 

“Well, sorry to say, sir,” the male bouncer says with a sigh as he looks up from the tablet in his hands, “but we don’t do plus ones here. You can go on ahead, but your companion can’t.” 

 

“Hmm,” Hua Cheng hums, and then takes out a very thick stack of bills from his jacket pocket. 

 

The two bouncers arch their eyebrows, and then look at each other. When the two look back at Hua Cheng with an amused smile, the female bouncer lets out a laugh. “Sorry, sir, but we don’t take bribes-”

 

She stops talking when Hua Cheng uses his free hand to dig out a second stack and sticks both out in front of the two bouncers. 

 

Once again, the bouncers look at each other. Then, almost in synch, they reach out to take the papers they’re being offered. Once they’ve each pocketed the money, the female bouncer moves to pry open the door, and the male bouncer clears his throat. 

 

“Enjoy your night, gentlemen,” he says cheerfully. Hua Cheng looks back at Xie Lian, nods his head towards the door, and then steps past the woman to slip inside. 

 

The instant he walks through the door, Hua Cheng is assaulted by blinding lights, humid fog, the warmth of hundreds of people, and deafening music blaring from the speakers above.

 

Xie Lian may be annoyed going to a night club, but Hua Cheng is fucking miserable

 

The warehouse’s roof stretches far, far above and the walls of the building can’t be seen from the entrance that he stands at, but because the wide space of the building is filled to the brim with people and spotlights, it feels as if he’s stepped into an area much smaller than what it should be. He can still see fine in the dark, but the swinging of the spotlights over head and the flashing of colored lasers being projected from random corners of the room makes it impossible for his eyes to adjust properly. 

 

The second most disorienting thing in the room is the sheer amount of people moving, jostling, and running about as they dance and mingle and act terrible, because they make his senses go haywire. As he weaves further into the room, even though he’s trying his best to stick close to the walls, dozens of people shift around him, all of them moving way too quickly while being way too close to him. Hua Cheng has to physically restrain himself from pulling out a knife every time someone grazes his shoulder, and it’s only because he’s had experience in these exact environments that he hasn’t stabbed anyone this time around. Doing that would prevent him from doing what he came here for, and, more importantly, might make Xie Lian feel uncomfortable. 

 

The most disorienting thing in the room is the sounds. The yelling of people next to him as they try their hardest to hold conversations over the music, the vibrations coming from the large speakers scattered throughout the building as they blast music at full volume, the goddamned music. 

 

Hua Cheng focuses on the only two things that are preventing him from giving into his deepest, strongest impulse, which is to locate the main stereo system, throw whatever asshole is in charge of DJ-ing to the ground, and set the entire setup on fire while he revels in the sound of nothing but panicked screams; he focuses on the mission ahead and the only person who matters enough to go through with the mission in the first place.

 

He feels a surge of fury when someone sets a hand on his left shoulder, but it disappears the moment he turns to see who it is. 

 

“Can I please get an explanation as to why we’re here?” Xie Lian shouts at Hua Cheng as he dodges an elbow that just came out of the sea of people next to them. He maneuvers himself so that his back is flat against the wall they’re walking against in order to avoid standing so close to the danger-zone, and then draws closer to Hua Cheng. 

 

“I’m here to find someone,” Hua Cheng explains- or, more accurately, yells. 

 

What ?” Xie Lian yells back. 

 

Hua Cheng lets out a sigh, one that he knows Xie Lian definitely can’t hear. Then he reaches into the inside of his jacket, pulls out a small, square plastic bag, and dumps two small objects into his hand. He raises his left hand to his left ear and reaches out towards Xie Lian with his right. 

 

XIe Lian looks confused, but he sticks out his hand to let Hua Cheng drop the second small object into it. He brings the object close enough to his face to see it in the dark, and then looks even more confused, so he raises his head to squint at Hua Cheng. Even after Hua Cheng makes a show out of tapping his left ear, Xie Lian doesn’t seem to get the hint, so Hua Cheng lets out another sigh, moves close enough to the other so that he’s standing less than a foot away, and then leans down to speak to him. 

 

“Put it in your ear,” Hua Cheng says. Xie Lian blinks, looks down at the object in his hand, and then leans back so he can properly glare at Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng takes a deep, deep breath, and closes his eyes as he steadies his breathing and pushes away the brief frustration he feels. He opens them in time to see Xie Lian raising his right hand up to his right ear. Once he sees Xie Lian insert the object into his ear, Hua Cheng reaches up to his own left ear and presses a small button on the device situated there. 

 

“These are so that we don’t have to yell,” Hua Cheng explains as he leans away from Xie Lian, and he feels a flash of amusement when he sees Xie Lian’s mouth fall open and his eyes widen. 

 

Xie Lian says something, but Hua Cheng can’t hear what it is through the yelling of the crowd. The other man looks confused again, reaches up to touch his right ear, and then straightens up as he meets Hua Cheng’s eyes and says, “So they’re communication devices?”

 

Instead of respond with words, Hua Cheng nods, and then turns around to continue walking. He hears Xie Lian say, “So, why are we here?” 

 

“I’m here to find someone,” Hua Cheng repeats. 

 

“Who? Actually, nevermind, I won’t know them anyways- Why did I have to come?” 

 

“Because he has answers to questions you may have.” 

 

There’s a pause from the other side of the line, and Hua Cheng is left alone with the terrible music again. He looks back over his shoulder and sees that Xie Lian is staring at the ground, but he has to turn around to avoid running into someone in front of him before he has the chance to catch Xie Lian’s eye. 

 

“You mean about Jun Wu?”

 

“No.” 

 

Another pause. Hua Cheng feels a pang of guilt. 

 

“About my parents, then.” 

 

When he looks back, Xie Lian still hasn’t looked back up from the ground. No answer is as good as a positive one, so Hua Cheng doesn’t feel the need to say anything else. 

 

“You think it’s not a risk for me to show up… here?” Xie Lian says suddenly. “This cannot be a legal establishment. Won’t there be someone who’ll recognize me, considering- well. Everything?”

 

“You’re a young man who’s just experienced an unimaginable tragedy. If anybody does recognize you, they’ll think you’re grieving.” 

 

“By hanging out in an obnoxious night club?”

 

“By getting wasted and high.” 

 

“Oh god,” Xie Lian says, a hint of panic in his voice. “What if someone from work recognizes me?” 

 

“What if you recognize someone from work?” Hua Cheng counters, and then has to physically restrain himself from turning back to see the look on Xie Lian’s face when he hears a pained, dramatic sigh in response. 

 

“Okay, but, hear me out, I’ve only been back for a week, and I’m pretty sure a lot of rumors will start flying about my work ethic if I’m spotted at a place like this, and I really really need to stick close to Jun Wu if we’re working towards gathering more proof of his shady business practices.” 

 

“Embezzling funds to a black market superpower is just ‘shady business practices’ to you?”

 

“Wh-what am I supposed to call it? That’s what it is! It’s not like he runs the market, or- or, chooses who gets shot in parking lots and left for dead .”

 

Hua Cheng can practically feel Xie Lian’s accusing stare burn into the back of his neck, but he chooses to ignore it. “No, he just gives them the money for guns, which are then used to shoot people in parking lots and leave them for dead.” 

 

A sigh. “God, I really shouldn’t be defending a millionaire, but… Jun Wu isn’t the one pulling the strings here. He’s just caught up in it all like the rest of us. I mean, what we’re doing isn’t exactly legal. But we have our reasons for doing what we do, because we have goals, and motivations that may or may not be selfish. Like our own safety, and… and the safety of other people.” 

 

Before he can stop himself, Hua Cheng looks back at Xie Lian. Xie Lian is staring at him. 

 

A stranger stumbles out of the sea of people, and Hua Cheng has to step out of the way in order to avoid running into them. He keeps walking once he checks to make sure that Xie Lian is still behind him. 

 

“I mean, what does he have to gain from mingling with such shady, dangerous people? He’s a successful business owner, and has been since he was a young adult.”

 

“You don’t think his success is directly linked to his connections with the market? 

 

“The earliest transaction we’ve dug up so far comes from a year ago. We don’t know if he’s been connected from the very beginning.” 

 

“You sure like defending him.” 

 

“I just- I don’t…”

 

Hua Cheng hears some sounds that aren’t quite words, as if Xie Lian is searching for explanations that haven’t come to him yet. Then he hears a frustrated noise. 

 

“I guess I should assume the worst. I should be mad . But it’s hard for me.”

 

Hua Cheng already knows this. He doesn’t think he’d be in this terribly loud and suffocating club right now if that wasn’t the case. He doesn’t think he’d be alive right now if that wasn’t the type of person Xie Lian is. 

 

“It’s stupid, I know. I guess thinking like that makes me an idiot.” 

 

“No, it doesn’t. It makes you a good person.” 

 

Xie Lian inhales sharply, and Hua Cheng suddenly feels like someone has just lit his head on fire. He steadies his breathing the instant he feels his pulse pick up, focuses on dodging a drunk person, and scans the area around him, because that door has got to be close, right? They’ve been walking for a good couple of minutes. They should’ve reached it by now. 

 

“I- wow. Wow. Um, thank you? That’s- Oh -holy-cow-that’s-my COWORKER ,” Xie Lian suddenly hisses, and Hua Cheng flinches at the sudden loud noise in his ear. 

 

He whips around to see Xie Lian sprinting up to him, and barely has enough time to mentally prepare himself before Xie Lian grabs ahold of his right arm. Xie Lian moves himself in between Hua Cheng and the wall so that both he and Hua Cheng are facing in the same direction, and then points at a spot in the sea of people beside them with his right hand hovering over Hua Cheng’s shoulder. 

 

Over there, the man with the ponytail wearing the green dress shirt,” Xie Lian whispers into his earpiece and also into the ear Hua Cheng doesn’t have an earpiece in, which gives Hua Cheng a bit of whiplash, and boy oh boy the proximity isn’t helping him think. But Hua Cheng does his best to scour through the mess of people in the general direction that Xie Lian is pointing in, and manages to pinpoint the person matching his description when a beam of light sweeps over the crowd. 

 

“The one dancing with the woman wearing a purple dress?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, that’s the one,” Xie Lian mumbles at a normal volume, though a great deal of distress is still detectable in the tone of his voice. 

 

“I thought your work place was full of serious professionals?” Hua Cheng says, and then makes a point to look back over his shoulder and dramatically arch his eyebrows. He has to control his expression when he sees just how worried Xie Lian looks, because wow , the guy has seen some wild, wild shit in this past month, but his reputation is what he’s freaking out about? Xie Lian definitely didn’t look this worried when he had a stranger pull a gun on him in a car, or when he had a knife pulled on him in an alleyway, or when he saw Hua Cheng break someone’s arm- 

 

“They are- most of them, I mean. To be quite honest, I’m not that surprised that he of all people is here, considering how he acts at work… but he’s not the one I’m worried about. If he’s here, then that means his friend is here, because he goes everywhere with his friend. And if I’m spotted by his friend, then there’s no way I won’t get called out.” 

 

“Well, the first thing you can do to avoid getting spotted by them is to stop hiding behind me like I’m a tree, because that’ll definitely make you stick out,” Hua Cheng says nonchalantly as he pivots himself so that his back is to the crowd, and so he’s facing Xie Lian. “The second thing you can do is to calm down, because there’s a very, very slim chance that either of them are in the state of mind to recognize you.” 

 

Xie Lian huffs out a sigh, crosses his arms, looks up at Hua Cheng, and- oh god, oh fuck, oh fuck, it should be impossible what that helpless and yet determined expression is doing to Hua Cheng’s heart, this is unfair, why is this allowed, this is not the time or place for this kind of stupidly strong feeling, Hua Cheng needs to focus on things that are not human emotions, why, is, this, happening, now, of, all, times-

 

“The third thing you can do is wear this,” Hua Cheng says as he unzips the top part of his jacket and reaches for the article of clothing wrapped around his neck, because fuck it, he’s running on autodrive now. 

 

Xie Lian opens his hands out in front of him to receive Hua Cheng’s offering, and when he realizes what he’s being given, he looks a bit baffled. He studies the scarf he’s just been handed for a dozen or so seconds, and then he looks back up at Hua Cheng with- oh no, ah, shit, that’s a smile, that’s a very reserved, impossibly warm smile, he’s not even sure his autodrive can help him function at this point-

 

“It’s old. How long have you had this thing?” Xie Lian asks, and his grin turns a bit teasing. It isn’t until now that Hua Cheng realizes just how strange it is to have a conversation with someone he’s standing so close to and yet can only hear thanks to the device in his ear, because he’s prepared to listen to the person in front of him instead of the voice that almost seems to be inside of his head. He’s making this observation not because he’s too scatterbrained to think of anything aside from objective observations in fear that he’ll go completely haywire if he allows himself to think of anything else, but because it’s vital information.

 

“Not too long,” Hua Cheng lies. 

 

“But it’s so worn down! How’d it get this way, then? Is this the scarf you use to strangle your enemies?” 

 

“No,” Hua Cheng states flatly, opens his mouth to say more, and then closes it as he stops to think. “Hmm. Well, actually-” 

 

Xie Lian’s expression slackens, and his eyes go wide, so Hua Cheng doesn’t have the heart to go on. “Kidding. I just wear it.”

 

He can’t stop himself from huffing out a breath through his nose when Xie Lian lightly kicks his shin in retaliation, and the noise makes Xie Lian grin triumphantly. Then, Xie Lian wraps the scarf around his neck, pulls it up to cover his mouth, and stuffs the ends of the scarf into the collar of his jacket. 

 

“This isn’t too shady looking?” 

 

“Hmm,” Hua Cheng responds, and then unzips his jacket further, reaches inside, and pulls out a baseball cap. He hears some feedback in the earpiece when he sets it on Xie Lian’s head, and then hears even more when Xie Lian shifts it around until it fits correctly. “There.”

 

“You sure this isn’t even shadier than before?” 

 

Hua Cheng moves out of Xie Lian’s way so that he can see the crowd of people, and then tells him, “No, because now you look like half the people here.” 

 

It takes him a second, but Xie Lian must’ve finally spotted the fifty other people in the room- or, the part of the room that they can see- who are also wearing baseball caps, because he says, “Oh. Huh. Wow. This… this party is just full of shady people, then. That’s the norm here.” 

 

“You fit right in,” Hua Cheng chimes, and then, thanks to an obnoxiously bright, red laser that flickers on and off rapidly in beat with the music, finally sees the outline of a door on a wall in the distance. He turns in its direction and starts to walk again. 

 

“Next time, I should go full hair-and-makeup like you did. Then I definitely won’t get recognized.”

 

“Maybe, when you become as well known as I am.”

 

When, he says! The great Hua Cheng says when!” 

 

“God knows you can’t stay out of trouble.”

 

“Hey, now! I think I stay out of trouble just fine.”

 

“Do you, though?” 

 

“Just because I stay out of it doesn’t mean it won’t look for me,” Xie Lian practically grumbles.

 

“Hmm,” Hua Cheng hums, and then stops walking. He senses that Xie Lian barely avoids running into him. He pauses a few meters away from the second corner of the warehouse he’s come across since entering, which means that they’ve reached the back wall of the building, and then braces himself as he cuts through the crowd of people to his right. After a minute of weaving in between people and trying to avoid getting his feet stomped on, he breaks away from the crowd and makes his way towards a large structure pushed up against the wall. 

 

They’ve reached the middle of the wall of the warehouse opposite from the entrance. It would’ve been faster for them to have walked straight through the sea of people instead of travel against the walls, but the very concept disgusted Hua Cheng too much for him to attempt doing so. 

 

“Do you drink?” He turns to ask Xie Lian just as the other peels away from the crowd and reaches Hua Cheng’s side. 

 

“Absolutely not,” Xie Lian responds. 

 

“Great. What drink do you want?” 

 

“Wh- uh. Did… What part of ‘absolutely not’ wasn’t clear?” 

 

“They have a rather wide variety of beverages to choose from,” Hua Cheng continues. “Ranging from ‘I want to get wasted’ to ‘I want to wake up in a hospital.’ What mood are you in for right now?” 

 

“Do- do they have water, maybe?” 

 

“Yes,” Hua Cheng responds honestly. 

 

Xie Lian sighs. “Do they have water that isn’t laced with a substance that will probably kill me?” 

 

“No,” Hua Cheng responds honestly. 

 

“Why do I even need to buy a drink?”

 

“Because you need a reason to hang out at the bar while I go and deal with something.” 

 

“God- okay, fine. Get me… ‘Hibiscus Or-’ nope, nevermind, I am NOT saying that word. Get the- Hmm. Hhhhhhhh. Good god, does everything on the menu have a terrible name?” 

 

“Yes,” Hua Cheng responds honestly. Xie Lian groans. 

 

“Get me the first one you see that isn’t blatantly sexist, please,” Xie Lian finally asks. 

 

“So, is vaguely sexist fine? Because if not, then I’m gonna have a tough time finding-” 

 

Just go,” Xie Lian hisses at him as he shoves Hua Cheng forward, and Hua Cheng finds it very difficult to maintain a straight face. 

 

A few minutes later, Hua Cheng is standing in the first quiet, fully lit room that he’s seen all night. 

 

“Am I allowed to ask why you sound out of breath?” 

 

“No,” Hua Cheng says as he digs out the keychain he needs from the pocket of the unconscious man on the ground. 

 

“Great. Glad things are going swell on your end.” 

 

“How’s your drink taste?”

 

“Well, it certainly smells like I’d die from alcohol poisoning if I so much as let a drop of it touch my tongue.” 

 

“Glad things are going swell on your end, too,” Hua Cheng fires back as he crosses to the other end of the hallway he’s in, and he hears a faint laugh. He reaches up to touch the small button on the top of his earpiece, and then presses the ear not wearing the device against the door. 

 

Even with the faint, steady beat of the music seeping in through the cracks of the door he’d entered the room through buzzing around him, he should be able to hear anything happening on the other end just enough to know if someone is inside. 

 

And he does just that. A group of people are laughing together, and he hears the sound of small plastic objects hitting a table. When the laughter dies down, the faint hum of a conversation takes its place. He abandons the door and returns to the side of the hallway he’d entered through with the knowledge that whoever’s in there isn’t the person he’s looking for. 

 

“No luck?” He hears right after he turns the device back on. 

 

“Not yet. But he’s here.” 

 

“Anything I should know about the guy before I meet him?” 

 

“He’s a terrible person.” 

 

“Great. My hopes have been raised even-”

 

Hua Cheng waits for Xie Lian to finish, but then… he doesn’t. 

 

He stops just in front of the door leading to the inside of the warehouse. 

 

Did… the earpiece shut off? But he didn’t hear a sound indicating that it did, so neither he nor Xie Lian were the ones to do so. A third party with the power to block the signal?

 

“Xie Lian.” 

 

No response. 

 

Hua Cheng listens as closely as he can, and realizes that he can still hear breathing. 

 

He yanks open the door and slips back into the open warehouse. 

 

Back towards the bar, to the left of the door he just exited. He pushes through the crowd directly this time, and doesn’t care much for how many people he runs into on the way. His hands goes to plug the ear without the earpiece in it, and then he continues to listen. 

 

“Xie Lian,” he tries again, but he doesn’t dare to hope for a response. 

 

But, this time-

 

“Hands up,” Hua Cheng hears through the earpiece, and he immediately knows it isn’t Xie Lian’s voice, and that Xie Lian isn’t at the bar anymore. The voice on the other end is distant and muffled, but it echoes in whatever room Xie Lian is in and isn’t blocked out by the music blasting in the main room of the warehouse. They’re in a second location. 

 

“Do what they say,” Hua Cheng says. “Breathe loud twice if you’re still near the bar, three times if you’re not.” 

 

It almost feels like time grinds to a terribly slow pace as Hua Cheng waits for the sound of Xie Lian’s breathing, but he hears what he needs to. They’re near, and Hua Cheng just needs to get there as fast as he can. 

 

“Sir, I don’t have any money on me-” 

 

Shut it, ” the voice barks, and Hua Cheng’s heart begins to race. He’s almost out of the crowd. He should be almost out of the crowd, but he keeps pushing and there’s just more and more people, more and more shoulders ramming into his own, more and more voices digging into his hearing even as he tries his best to plug his ears shut- 

 

“Take off your hat, slowly, and then drop it to the ground.” 

 

Not yet, he’s not out yet- god fucking damnit, how can there be so many? Why isn’t he going fast enough? 

 

“Now- now take it off. Take off your scarf.” 

 

The person on the other end of the radio stumbles, and Hua Cheng clings onto that fact as quickly as possible. They’re hesitant. They’re scared. Whoever this is isn’t experienced, which means they won’t take things as far as quickly. He just needs to get out of this- 

 

Slower. Now- drop it.” 

 

Hua Cheng finally breaks through the endless sea of people, and he rushes out into the clearing where the bar stands. 

 

On Xie Lian’s side, he hears a sharp intake of breath. But it doesn’t belong to Xie Lian. 

 

“You,” the voice says, and it’s almost too quiet for Hua Cheng to hear. Despite the volume, he can still pick up on the way it shakes, the way it trembles, the way it’s full of- 

 

You,” the voice shouts, and it echoes in the room that Xie Lian must be in. It’s full of rage. It’s full of hate. It’s full of fury. 

 

Hua Cheng is scouring the walls in the area, but- how could he have missed a door close to the bar the first time around? How could someone move Xie Lian there so quickly, so smoothly, so covertly? 

 

I’ll fucking kill you,” the voice screams. 

 

Hua Cheng feels his heart stop. 

 

Hua Cheng hears, through the earpiece, a clear, steady, single- 

 

Click. 

 

The sound of someone cocking a gun. 

 

God. 

 

I’ll kill you for what you did to me ,” the voice shrieks. 

 

God, please , don’t let this happen. 

 

Not to him. Anybody but him.  

 

He shouldn’t have left him alone . He shouldn’t have brought him here. He shouldn’t have- he shouldn’t- 

 

Hua Cheng sees the door. 

 

“Why?”

 

There, it’s hidden behind one of the tall speakers, it’s some meters behind the counter of the bar, it’s frame is barely visible. 

 

On the other end, there’s another sharp intake of breath. 

 

“What- what the fuck do you mean, why? You- you fucking monster-” 

 

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are.” 

 

Silence. 

 

Hua Cheng sprints towards the speaker that the door is hidden behind. 

 

“You- lies. LIES. You’re screwing with me, you disgusting bastard!” 

 

“I’m not lying. I know I can’t prove it, but I’ve never met you before.” 

 

It’s a tight fit for him, but he squeezes into the spot between the speaker and the door and pushes back against the object until he has enough room. 

 

“That’s- bullshit. That’s bullshit, and we both know it. You can’t get out of this, I swear to fucking god. You’re dying, here and now-” 

 

“What’s my name?” 

 

Hua Cheng pries open the door and slips inside. 

 

There’s nothing. 

 

The room he’s just entered is completely empty. 

 

“Wh-what? What’s- augh, stop! Stop it ! Just- just shut the hell up!”

 

“Tell me my name.” 

 

“NO!”

 

Please .”

 

“You-”

 

The person stumbles on their words, and what comes out instead is a choked sob. 

 

You’re Qi Rong!” They scream at the top of their lungs. 

 

Click. 

 

The person freezes. 

 

“Hands up.” 

 

They comply, and raise their hands up next to their head. 

 

Hua Cheng keeps the barrel of the gun pressed against the back of the person’s neck as he snatches the wrist of the hand holding their weapon. They let him take it with little resistance, and Hua Cheng stuffs it inside his jacket. 

 

“Hands behind your back.” 

 

They comply, and Hua Cheng holds both their wrists with one hand as he slips his own weapon back into its place and trades it out for a rope. It isn’t until he’s bound their wrists together completely that he allows himself to breathe. 

 

“Qi Rong?” Xie Lian asks. Hua Cheng doesn’t look away from the person in front of him for even a second. 

 

“You said my name was Qi Rong.” 

 

The person in front of Hua Cheng shakes, but doesn’t answer. They’re staring at the ground. 

 

“Hua Cheng,” Xie Lian says, and the person in Hua Cheng’s hold stiffens. It’s then that Hua Cheng allows himself to look up. 

 

He’s not hurt. 

 

He doesn’t look scared. 

 

Hua Cheng’s heart begins to beat again. 

 

“Do you know someone named Qi Rong?” 

 

Hua Cheng nods, and then kicks the person in front of him in the back of the knee so that they fall to the ground. He lets go of their wrists and then bends down to yank off the hood of their jacket, which covers their head. It’s then that he notices they’re wearing a ski mask to cover their face, and he pulls that off as well. 

 

Xie Lian gasps. 

 

Hua Cheng looks at him, and then looks back at the…

 

 

… At the kid

 

The person Hua Cheng is standing over is a child . A boy with short, auburn hair, a tear stained face, and an expression of pure, unrestrained rage. 

 

Xie Lian crosses the room so that he’s standing in front of the boy, and then kneels down in front of him. 

 

“You’re-”

 

“Who are you,” the boy spits out in a hoarse voice. Hua Cheng reaches down and yanks on the collar of his jacket, just enough to make him choke a little, but he stops the instant Xie Lian gives him a look that suggests he’s extremely displeased with what Hua Cheng thinks is a suitable punishment.. 

 

“I’m-”

 

“Don’t,” Hua Cheng warns. Xie Lian looks up at him with a twisted expression. He seems frustrated. 

 

“But-”

 

Don’t.” 

 

Xie Lian sighs, and then looks back at the boy. He stares for a while. His expression grows sadder the longer he does. The boy stares back at him, his rage unfaltering. 

 

“Hua Cheng,” Xie Lian calls. He doesn’t look away from the boy, but Hua Cheng looks at him intently. 

 

“We came here to meet Qi Rong?” 

 

Hua Cheng remains silent. No answer is as good as a positive. 

 

Xie Lian closes his eyes. 

 

“Did you know?” 

 

When he opens his eyes again, he stares at Hua Cheng with a helplessness that is much different from the one he’d shown earlier that night, the one that had made Hua Cheng’s chest feel tight. This kind of helplessness makes Hua Cheng’s chest feel tight for a much worse reason. 

 

“About?” Hua Cheng asks, because he doesn’t quite understand what Xie Lian means. 

 

“About my relationship with Qi Rong?” 

 

Hua Cheng’s eyes widen. Xie Lian looks just as surprised as Hua Cheng feels when he sees the way that Hua Cheng reacts. 

 

“Wait- you didn’t?

 

“How do you know him?” Hua Cheng demands, and his voice sounds harsh, even to his own ears. Xie Lian rakes his hands through his hair and scrunches up his face in frustration. 

 

What

 

How the hell does Xie Lian know Qi Rong, of all people? When, and why, and how does Xie Lian know who Qi Rong is? 

 

“He’s…”

 

Xie Lian hesitates to answer, and Hua Cheng’s mind begins to race. 

 

Qi Rong is a presence that Hua Cheng has ignored for as long as the man has been relevant. And that hasn’t been for long, since Qi Rong has only been relevant for about three years. 

 

The things that Hua Cheng know about Qi Rong’s character are: that Qi Rong is young, that he has considerable influence over a large number of local drug trades thanks to the investments that he’s put into the industry, that Qi Rong has never shown his face to anyone, and that he has a reputation for taking credit for a large variety of crimes, the severity of which ranges from murder, torture, arson, armed robbery, and tax evasion. 

 

In other words, Qi Rong is two things: elusive, and shitty. 

 

Hua Cheng may not have the cleanest reputation, but at least he doesn’t claim that every other illegal thing that gets the Underground’s attention is his doing. Qi Rong, on the other hand, views crime like a game he’ll win if he racks up enough evil-points, and that the reward for being a terrible human being is that he’ll get a pat on the back and a fancy title. Thanks to the man’s arrogance, obvious desire for attention, as well as the fact that his lackeys have gotten in the way of Hua Cheng on several occasions for no reason other than that they’re the most arrogant and idiotic group of pleabs Hua Cheng has ever had the displeasure of interacting with, Hua Cheng’s only opinion on Qi Rong is that he dislikes the man. 

 

So. 

 

Why would Xie Lian know someone like him? 

 

He begins to, in a way that is borderline obsessive, run through every piece of information he’s ever gathered about Qi Rong. 

 

Hua Cheng didn’t pay much mind to Qi Rong before he learned about Qi Rong’s possible connection to Xie Lian’s parents. Like all the information that Hua Cheng has hoarded throughout his career, because hoarding information is his career, his ears caught whispers that shouldn’t have traveled as far as they did, and he found out that Qi Rong had thrown a temper tantrum that led to a handful of injuries and some destroyed property a day after the murder of Xie Lian’s parents had been announced publicly. That in itself wouldn’t have been enough to tip Hua Cheng off, because Qi Rong’s notorious temper tantrums are about as common as an unidentified arm popping up in the Underground black market, but then he learned that Qi Rong had sent out some of his lackeys to investigate the event. 

 

After Hua Cheng learned that the investigation was successful, and that the individuals who did the original investigation were killed off by Qi Rong for safe measure, he began to dig as deep as he could for Qi Rong’s connection to the situation. 

 

What he uncovered was that Qi Rong had, at one point, siphoned funds from the company that Xie Lian’s father had run about a year before the murder, and that Qi Rong had continued to sap covert amounts of money from the company every month after that first transfer. What this told Hua Cheng was that Xie Lian’s father had unconsciously been a major source of income for Qi Rong, and that the main reason Qi Rong was upset by the murder was that this income was lost. 

 

But- 

 

Could that be wrong? Could Hua Cheng be mistaken? 

 

Xie Lian knows Qi Rong. The boy knows Xie Lian, and has accused him of- no. The boy recognizes Xie Lian, and has accused him of doing something to him that deserves death. 

 

Has Xie Lian met Qi Rong? Was the transfer of money a conscious thing, and was Qi Rong actually familiar with Xie Lian’s family? And- was Qi Rong taking advantage of this relationship not just monetarily but by somehow taking Xie Lian’s appearance so as to subvert any violent consequences that may come from his own actions? But why would Qi Rong do that when his entire character is based on his obsession with taking credit for disgusting deeds? And Qi Rong’s appearance is unknown, he’s never been caught on film or photo and nobody has ever seen him in person, so why would he- why would he think to take Xie Lian’s appearance, and then never use the disguise to his advantage as openly as he’s flaunted every other aspect of his brand- and- and-

 

Hua Cheng stares at Xie Lian as Xie Lian huffs out a breath of air and scratches his forehead, guilt written all over his face. 

 

Xie Lian opens his mouth to finish what he’s saying, but Hua Cheng cuts him off. 

 

“He’s your brother.” 

 

Xie Lian’s eyes go wide, and he looks at Hua Cheng with surprise. 

 

Then, he smiles one of those smiles where his grin is wide but his eyes are empty. He still looks guilty, but he also looks tired. 

 

“Cousin, actually.” 

 

The boy in front of him gasps. 

Chapter Text

God, this place is annoying. 

 

“-and I haven’t heard from him since. In all honesty… I thought he’d been arrested . According to my parents, he’d been detained for a short period of time and required bail, but I didn’t think that they had ended up paying it. If… if I had known he was still out there… if I’d known that he was… doing all this, then I…”

 

This is the fifth secret door in a row that hasn’t led to anything important, and Hua Cheng is starting to grow impatient. Why does a warehouse in the middle of nowhere need so many side rooms? Who designed this place and how can Hua Cheng make their life miserable?

 

“I wouldn’t have let him do such terrible things. I wouldn’t have let him go so far.” 

 

Door number six better hold something worth his time, or Hua Cheng’s gonna give up on his little expedition and just commit arson. He wonders how long it will take Qi Rong to show his face if Hua Cheng sets the building on fire. If it does come to that, which he kind of hopes it does, he’s gonna start with the speakers, just like he’d daydreamed of doing earlier. 

 

“So. I’m sorry. For whatever he did to you. I’m sorry that I couldn’t stop him.”

 

Oh , man. Or, he can just keep searching for the right door so that he can personally light Qi Rong’s head on fire once he finds the guy. He feels a strong impulse to do that, suddenly. 

 

“...”

 

“Why are you apologizing for him?”

 

The boy’s voice is so gravelly, low, and childlike that it makes him sound vulnerable. His voice is clogged up, full with too much at once for him to speak as if it isn’t all there, sitting in his chest like muck stuck at the bottom of a pond. 

 

Hua Cheng has the same question in mind, but he thinks he knows Xie Lian well enough to figure out the answer on his own. The man can be hard to figure out when you don’t know him, but Hua Cheng has learned that he’s rather simple when you take the time to understand. 

 

“I’m not.”

 

Is that-?

 

“I’m apologizing for myself.”

 

Finally. 

 

Hua Cheng kicks down the door and revels in the sound of the shoddy lock snapping under his foot and the high pitched shriek that comes from the person on the other side. 

 

“Oh. Sounds like he found him.”

 

Damn right he did. 

 

“What the FUCK,” Qi Rong screams as he falls sideways out of his chair and scrambles back on the floor like a panicked crab. The other three people in the vicinity stand up just as Hua Cheng makes his first step into the room, and as he takes in his new environment, he raises his eyebrows in…

 

Well. 

 

This isn’t what he expected. 

 

“You,” one of the women he’d seen earlier that night standing at the entrance of the warehouse says, a drop of vehemence in her voice. 

 

“Me,” Hua Cheng agrees, and then takes out a gun. 

 

“WHAT THE FUCK,” Qi Rong screeches as he moves his arms to cover his head, as if that’ll offer him any protection if Hua Cheng decides to fire. All three women in the room raise their arms up in surrender, which means that two of them have to drop the large plastic bags that they hold onto the ground below. 

 

Hua Cheng is not easily taken by surprise. In fact, he can count the amount of times that he’s been taken by surprise on one hand. All such instances are linked directly to Hua Cheng coming way closer to teetering off the divide between life and death than he needs to be and are the instances that have driven Hua Cheng to gather as much information about the world around him as physically and mentally possible in order to counteract future instances that may cause him to come close to dying again, because that would suck. 

 

Except for Xie Lian. Xie Lian is the one surprise that’s an outlier. But, Xie Lian is always an outlier, so Hua Cheng doesn’t really categorize him as having ‘taken Hua Cheng by surprise’. He doesn’t deserve to be associated with things so below him, like bastards with underhanded schemes and backstabbing liars. Xie Lian is the sun in the sky raised impossibly high above the scum of the dirt. 

 

But generally, Hua Cheng feels the same about all types of surprises. He avoids them as much as possible through his obsessive gathering of information, because obtaining a wealth of knowledge is the best way to prepare himself for dealing with all unknown variables. One could say that he avoids death by gossiping. That’s the most mellow way of describing his livelihood, but Hua Cheng thinks it’s pretty accurate. 

 

So when he sees the plastic bags full of a red so dark it looks black, and then when he sees the way the slabs of meat inside float up to peek through the liquid the instant the bags hit the floor, Hua Cheng isn’t surprised. He’s just… intrigued.

 

“Huh,” Hua Cheng says, his expression crafted to show a very specific image of “not what I expected to walk into, and you kind of have a right to be embarrassed by my interference,” which he shoots in Qi Rong’s direction, who is glaring at Hua Cheng with as much rage as he is fear. Then Hua Cheng begins to pace around the room, his gaze jumping from detail to detail as he openly oggles the mess strewn about. 

 

He walks about casually, as if he isn’t being observed by four extremely hostile onlookers, stopping in front of objects that interest him and bowing his head down to observe them with as much care as he likes. The hand holding his gun falls limply at his side while his other is stuffed in a coat pocket, his posture mimicking someone casually taking a stroll through a garden more than a criminal barging into a heathen enjoying a bloody hobby. 

 

Not a lot is going on in the space he’s just stepped into. The walls and floor and ceiling are barebones cement, the only point of interest being the horizontal rafters four meters or so above. There’s no furniture in the room except for a single metal folding chair, a long folding table, and a short cart with wheels that all stand in the center of the floor on top of a large plastic drop cloth. 

 

Despite the fact that there’s nothing to observe that he couldn’t already see from the entrance of the room, Hua Cheng takes his sweet, sweet time in circling around the set up and tracing over every last detail with his eyes- or, his one functioning eye, but the illusion of him having two works to his advantage in situations like these. He feels all four pairs of eyes burn into him, but he doesn’t bother looking up at them for even a second. 

 

After a while, he kneels to the ground in front of one of the fallen bags, the one in front of the woman closest to the entrance of the room. 

 

None of the bags had split open when they were dropped to the ground, but he can tell that there’s enough blood in it to flood a good fifth of the cement below if their seals had broken. The substance inside bobs around a bit when Hua Cheng pokes it with the barrel of his gun. It makes a gross squelching sound in response, and Hua Cheng instantly regrets messing with it. But the action was necessary for the image, so he keeps his expression as cold and amused as possible when he raises his head to give Qi Rong a small smile. 

 

“Of all the rumors going around about you, I thought this one was the most extreme,” Hua Cheng says, an artificial note of wonder injected in his tone. “Turns out it’s true .” 

 

“What the fuck do you- who the fuck ARE YOU, you fucki-”

 

Hua Cheng raises his gun and points it at Qi Rong, which makes him shut his mouth fairly quickly.

 

The woman Hua Cheng is kneeling in front of, the one who dropped the bloody bag he’s inspecting, tenses, but she’s composed enough to keep her breathing steady. He doesn’t spare her a glance, but he diverts more of his attention towards her than he does to the man he’s looking in the eye. If anyone’s going to cause him trouble, it’s going to be one or all of the three women. They’ll make a move the instant they see an opening, and Hua Cheng doesn’t intend to let that happen. 

 

“Qi Rong,” Hua Cheng says nonchalantly. His hold on his gun is looser than it should be, and his posture is atrocious, but they all know he won’t miss a shot made only three meters away from its target. Qi Rong’s throat bobs a bit as he swallows, and one of the arms he’d raised to cover his head begins to shake. But the man meets Hua Cheng’s eyes unabashingly, and he bares his teeth in an aggressive snarl. 

 

“You’ve got the right guy. But you already knew that. The fuck do you want?” 

 

On the other side of his radio, he hears Xie Lian draw in a deep, steady breath. 

 

“It’s him. I recognize his voice.” 

 

There’s no denying it, then. 

 

They’ve got the right guy. 

 

Hua Cheng has learned that Qi Rong is Xie Lian’s cousin by blood. That Qi Rong was practically raised by Xie Lian’s parents after his mother died when he was too young to remember her. He knows now that Qi Rong was a spoiled brat the moment he moved in with Xie Lian’s family, and that he remained a spoiled brat when he was kicked out of their house at the age of eighteen. Hua Cheng has learned that Qi Rong is apathetic and reckless and is just as much of an idiot as he is loud, all of which earned him a place in jail for increasingly severe petty crimes over the course of his teenage years, all of which cost Xie Lian’s family a significant amount of money to let slide.  

 

But he also knows that Qi Rong managed to hide information from a market that feeds off of such like rats do from a restaurant’s dumpster. That Qi Rong had somehow managed to hide all of this information from any and all prying ears and eyes for three years, give or take.

 

Qi Rong managed to take Hua Cheng by surprise, and Hua Cheng hates him for it. 

 

“Answers.” 

 

Qi Rong blinks in surprise, and his arms lower in the slightest. Then, he furrows his brow and glares with as much brute hostility as someone in his (rather pathetic) position can muster. 

 

“For what? I don’t owe you or anybody shit, if that’s what you’re getting at!”

“They’re not for me,” Hua Cheng says simply. 

 

Hua Cheng looks up at the woman he’s kneeling closest to. She looks down at him with a blank expression, one devoid of hostility and fear altogether, and he feels something that may be respect towards the complete control she has over her reactions, if it was possible for Hua Cheng to respect other individuals that share his profession. He nods his head towards the door behind him, and she takes a single step back in response. When he turns to face Qi Rong, his back to her completely, he hears her heels tap against the cement floor as she makes her way towards the entrance of the room. Soon after, he hears her two companions follow. The door behind him shuts with a distinct, metallic click, and Hua Cheng rises to his feet. 

 

Qi Rong tenses and he draws his arms closer to himself. Hua Cheng sees a flicker of panic in his eyes. It feels good to see someone so annoying act so helpless. 

 

“Now that we’re alone,” Hua Cheng announces to Xie Lian, knowing full well that he’s probably been holding back his reactions for the sake of Hua Cheng’s concentration. “We can get started.” 

 

“If you intend to kill me, just get it the fuck over with already,” Qi Rong growls. It’s meant to come off as menacing, but his tone reminds Hua Cheng of a cat backed in a corner more than anything else. Then when Hua Cheng takes a step forward, Qi Rong hisses, which only solidifies the image in Hua Cheng’s mind. 

 

“Nah,” Hua Cheng says. 

 

Qi Rong’s glare melts into a confused frown for a split second, and then switches back to something more hostile. “The fuck do you mean, ‘nah’ ?”

 

“I mean ‘nah’ , as in, ‘nah , I’m not going to kill you'.” 

 

“What the fuck,” Qi Rong says, and it sounds more like a statement than a question this time around. His arms drop to his sides, and he maneuvers himself so that he’s kneeling on the ground rather than sprawled across it. “You- okay. So you’re not here to shoot me?” 

 

“Tragically.” 

 

Qi Rong’s face scrunches up in an ugly sort of frustration. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” 

 

“Your aunt and uncle were murdered.” 

 

Qi Rong’s expression drops completely from his face, and the blood rushes out of it in an instant. His eyes are wide and his mouth falls open. 

 

When he speaks again, his voice sounds raspy. 

 

“You can’t know about them. You- you can’t-”

 

“And I didn’t.” 

 

Qi Rong is trembling, and he grabs for his own left forearm in an attempt to still himself. “You’re the one, then? You’re the one that-”

 

Suddenly, Qi Rong’s face contorts in fury. 

 

You’re the one that killed them!” 

 

Hua Cheng feels his stomach drop in disappointment. He sighs.

 

“No. And it seems like you don’t know who did.” 

 

Qi Rong isn’t listening anymore. He lunges for the cart a meter away from him and sends it careening in Hua Cheng’s direction. 

 

“YOU KILLED THEM! YOU’RE THE BASTARD WHO- YOU’RE-” Qi Rong screams, and then cuts himself off as he screeches with pure, unrestrained, vehement rage. Hua Cheng ducks out of the way of the cart without much movement, and follows its track with his eye as it lands on the other side of the room with a loud metallic clatter. The items once sitting on it, which appeared to be a collection of knives and scissors and other butchering materials, all go flying in different directions in an inelegant cacophony of metal scratching against cement. It isn’t fun to listen to. 

 

Hua Cheng hears Qi Rong running, and then turns around to see that Qi Rong is charging at him. 

 

“I’LL KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU-” 

 

Hua Cheng doesn’t let him finish what he has to say as he dives out of Qi Rong’s way, and then reaches out to grab Qi Rong by the collar of his shirt. Qi Rong stumbles forward due to the sudden force, lets out a strangled cough as he straightens and makes to swing a fist at the arm holding him back, and then topples to the ground when Hua Cheng swings both his legs out from under him with a single kick. 

 

Qi Rong gasps for breath when he slams onto his stomach on the cement floor below. 

 

“Don’t hurt him too much,” Xie Lian chimes in. Hua Cheng hums an affirmative. But, apparently Xie Lian isn’t done with his request yet, because he follows up with, “We need him to talk during questioning. Do what you need to, but steer clear of hurting his throat.” 

 

Hua Cheng lets himself smile, but only because he knows there’s nobody around to see it. 

 

Qi Rong makes an attempt to scramble up to his feet, but Hua Cheng plants his right foot on the man’s back and forces him back down on his stomach with a sharp stomp. In response, he gets a garbled scream and a string of increasingly creative profanity. 

 

“You’re good to come over. I’ve got him.” 

 

“Oh, really? I thought he’d gotten the upperhand,” Xie Lian teases. Hua Cheng lets himself smile again, and he bets he looks like a goof, but he doesn’t care. 

 

Qi Rong screams again as he presses back up against Hua Cheng’s foot. “GET THE FUCK OFF ME!”

 

“No,” Hua Cheng responds. Then, he lifts his foot off of Qi Rong’s back. The man seems to take this as an invitation to escape, because he instantly moves to scramble out of Hua Cheng’s way, but he doesn’t manage to get too far before Hua Cheng sits on him. 

 

“WHAT THE FUCK!!” Qi Rong screams, and his voice sounds so high pitched it’s almost comical. 

 

“Dear god, he’s loud,” Xie Lian mumbles. Hua Cheng hums in agreement, and then crosses one leg over the other. Qi Rong squirms beneath him, so he knocks the back of Qi Rong’s head with his fist. The action earns Hua Cheng another ear piercing screech. 

 

Xie Lian sighs on the other end. “We’re leaving now. But- are you sure we should leave him alone?” 

 

“He won’t go anywhere,” Hua Cheng assures Xie Lian. He gets a wary, apprehensive hum in response, but Xie Lian doesn’t argue. “Worry about the kid after we’ve dealt with all this.” 

 

“Alright,” Xie Lian answers, and then the line goes silent. 

 

Hua Cheng feels bored, suddenly. He knows it’d be impractical for Xie Lian to keep talking to him while walking through the crowded club, and he knows it’ll only take Xie Lian and Yin Yu a couple of minutes to find him, but that rationale doesn’t stop him from feeling things. He’s been doing that a lot lately, and it’s weird. Feelings are very, very weird. He huffs out a sigh, as if the action will relieve him of some of the tension he feels bubbling god-knows-where for god-knows what reason. Qi Rong tries to grab at one of Hua Cheng’s arms, so he pins both of the gremlin’s wrists against the floor with one hand, and feels his face scrunch up in displeasure as his ears are assaulted with even more noise. 

 

Why is it that he can spend his entire life alone and not desire another’s company in the slightest, but the second that he has to spend a minute away from the person he’s known for less than three years, one that he’s only spent about three months actually talking to and interacting with- why is it that his entire attitude, the one that revels in being alone because being alone is the only thing he’s found security in for so long, can crumble the second he meets one good person? 

 

Okay. So, he definitely knows why. He’s way past the point of pretending his emotions don’t exist. He’s come to terms with exactly what drives him to act the way he does, specifically the new, unpredictable feelings that have sprung themselves at him without warning. But that doesn’t mean he can’t want them to not exist. That doesn’t mean he can’t complain about them, even if the only person that can hear his complaints is himself.

 

Xie Lian isn’t talking to him and he has to sit on top of a person who won’t stop calling him many words that are derogatory towards women, and Hua Cheng, the most powerful person in the Underground, the leader and founder of the Ghost City, one of the only criminals in the world who’s powerful enough to not wear a mask when he’s dealing with other people simply because he has nothing to lose and has a reputation of never wearing the same face twice, is now pouting.

 

Hua Cheng can’t tell if the changes he’s experiencing are for the better or for the worse. 

 

He lets himself smile again. Part of him hates how wide and genuine it is, but a bigger part of him doesn’t care. They’re definitely for the better, he decides. It might be selfish of him to hold no desire to return to the past when everything he never knew he needed is now apart of his life, especially because Xie Lian would be so, so much happier if returning to the past was possible, but… it’s true. 

 

Hua Cheng realizes in that moment that all of the annoying little changes he’s experiencing are changes that he can’t hate, simply because they’re happening as a result of someone so important. 

 

The room’s door opens and Hua Cheng wipes off any expression on his face altogether. 

 

“Hey,” Xie Lian greets as he walks into the room, following the figure adorned in all black who opened the door before him, and something about him seems to glow when he meets Hua Cheng’s eye. Then he registers the situation that he’s just walked into. Hua Cheng watches as Xie Lian jumps from one theatrical emotion to the next in the span of a few seconds once he realizes that Hua Cheng is sitting on top of Qi Rong’s squirming, cursing figure in the middle of a room littered with large bags full of blood and various mystery meats. At one point, Hua Cheng thinks he spies the seven stages of grief. 

 

“This is a situation,” Xie Lian states. He sounds very tired. Hua Cheng nods in agreement. 

 

“And then I’ll gut whoever I can lay my hands on, I swear to GOD. I’ll blow your fucking head up, put your skull on a silver platter, and chuck your maggot-filled body into a volcano if you don’t get the FUCK . OFF OF. ME. RIGHT NOW -”

 

Hua Cheng unwinds a short strip of fabric off of his wrist and pulls it out of his sleeve. Then he waits a few seconds for an opening, and as soon as Qi Rong’s mouth falls open in preparation for another unimpressive telling off, Hua Cheng gags him with the cloth. 

 

“YaEOARUUGH, AAAAHCK,” Qi Rong protests. His hands shoot up to yank away the fabric that Hua Cheng is tying a knot into at the back of the menace’s head, but that doesn’t help him anymore than swinging his feet back and forth in an attempt to kick Hua Cheng in the side does. Hua Cheng reaches into his sleeves to retrieve a second strip of fabric, and then binds Qi Rong’s wrists together behind his back. 

 

“MMMMM!!!!” Qi Rong complains. 

 

“Couldn’t you have done this before we arrived?” Xie Lian whispers. Hua Cheng probably wasn’t meant to hear him say so, but the combination of his good hearing and the fact that neither of them remembered to turn off their earpieces both allow Hua Cheng to pick out the words from the screaming. 

 

“Forgot to,” Hua Cheng answers. Xie Lian’s eyes widen, and then he reaches up to turn off the earpiece. Hua Cheng doesn’t dare let the amusement he feels in that moment show on his face, but it’s quite a battle this time around, thanks to some combination of a giddiness that comes out of nowhere and the fact that he feels some instant gratification from having gone from not being able to see Xie Lian to being able to see Xie Lian in the span of a couple of seconds. 

 

“RRAAUCK- aau?” Qi Rong begins to screech, and then suddenly verges off into a much less aggressive sound. Hua Cheng turns to see Qi Rong craning his neck up to stare at Xie Lian, and does so in time to see the guy’s eyes widen and his neck strain as his breathing hitches. For the first time in what Hua Cheng has to believe is Qi Rong’s entire existence, he doesn’t make a sound. 

 

Xie Lian kneels to the ground in front of Qi Rong, his face wiped clean of any emotion or reaction. It doesn’t suit him. 

 

Then, Xie Lian smiles something that suits him even less than that blank expression. Hua Cheng recognizes it from every glance he’s stolen of himself in the reflection of an object when he’s in the middle of a meeting, or in the middle of an interrogation, or simply when he’s alone and needs to distract himself from the lull of nothing and does so by perfecting a farce he doesn’t care much for aside from the fact that it’s given him a reputation he can wield like a knife. 

 

Xie Lian is wearing a mask to cover something up, and Hua Cheng suddenly wishes that he’d never brought Xie Lian anywhere near this damned warehouse or anyone inside of it. 

 

“Hi, Qi Rong,” Xie Lian says. Qi Rong seems to be clinging onto every word he says with a rapt attention that Hua Cheng doesn’t think he could get out of the fiend no matter how much he digs. The blood is drained from his face, and Hua Cheng can feel him shaking. “It’s been a while.” 

 

Qi Rong can’t say anything, so he just makes a rather saddening and pathetic sound instead. It doesn’t seem intentional, and Hua Cheng doesn’t know if Qi Rong realized he’d made any sound at all. 

 

“Mom and Dad are dead and you have answers,” Xie Lian cuts to. Qi Rong makes another sound that comes from the back of his throat, and it reminds Hua Cheng vividly of a kicked dog. Qi Rong’s taught form wilts a little, but he doesn’t look away from Xie Lian with those wide eyes of his. 

 

“But you don’t know who did it, do you?” 

 

Qi Rong lets his head fall to the ground, lets his chin hit the concrete and his body melt into the surface below him in a single motion of utter defeat. He screws his eyes shut with much more force than one needs to close them, as if he can block out the world around him if he tries hard enough. Maybe he’s naive enough to actually believe it. 

 

Xie Lian sighs at the reaction. 

 

Nobody moves, for a while. Qi Rong stays silent for the first time since Hua Cheng stepped into the room, Xie Lian looks down at his cousin with an unreadable expression, and Yin Yu makes a valiant attempt to melt into the corner of the room and out of everyone’s awareness as much as physically possible. 

 

Then, Xie Lian reaches out his right hand to set it atop Qi Rong’s head. Qi Rong’s eyes fly open, but he doesn’t move out of the way or make a sound. The two just stare at each other, and Hua Cheng feels like he’s watching in on a wordless conversation that he shouldn’t be apart of, so he looks away. 

 

Family is complicated, Hua Cheng decides in that moment. He’s glad he doesn’t have to worry about it. 

 

Xie Lian punctuates the end of the contact with a quick ruffle of Qi Rong’s hair, and then pulls his hand away. Qi Rong looks taken aback, and blinks away a bit of hair that falls in front of his eyes. 

 

It’s in that moment, looking back and forth between the person he cares most for and the person he’d kind of hoped he’d be able to get away with killing today after he’d squeezed out as much information as possible before his use ran out, looking back and forth between Xie Lian’s slowly crumbling mask and Qi Rong’s open, vulnerable pain, that Hua Cheng realizes how remarkably similar the two individuals look. 

 

Hua Cheng suddenly feels like he’s just picked a small boulder off of the ground and swallowed it whole. 

 

It was really difficult to tell when Qi Rong was scowling and screaming and spitting and charging at him, but Qi Rong looks… almost exactly like Xie Lian. He looks like someone 3-D printed a mask of Xie Lian’s face and pasted it over a stranger’s, and it feels that way simply because the concept of anyone else looking like Xie Lian- of someone Hua Cheng feels so comfortable with hating on principle looking so much like someone he cares so desperately for, makes Hua Cheng want to overthrow the entire Chinese government and ban computers altogether just so nobody can ever actually do that. 

 

What the fuck?

 

This is terrible. This is awful. 

 

This is especially awful when Hua Cheng realizes that he’s come to this conclusion while sitting atop the Xie Lian lookalike who he’s just thrown to the floor and bound and gagged. Hua Cheng realizes that he’s currently staring at someone who looks like Xie Lian so much that a child with a gun managed to get Xie Lian confused for a criminal in the middle of a dark and loud nightclub, and who is currently looking up at the real deal with dirt from the floor smeared over his face and who has a strip of fabric threaded through his mouth like so many other people that Hua Cheng has seen in remarkably similar situations and then never saw alive again and Hua Cheng unties the knot at the back of Qi Rong’s head and shoots up to his feet before all of the cells in his brain commit apoptosis all at once. 

 

“Raaah,” Qi Rong groans as the gag is suddenly torn away and he’s gifted the freedom to move. He sits up rather quickly, as if he’s afraid that Hua Cheng will change his mind, and then rolls his shoulders as his face scrunches up in displeasure. He bares his teeth at Hua Cheng, which kind of helps him look less like Xie Lian and so puts Hua Cheng’s rattling brain at ease, before he goes back to staring down his cousin. “What the actual fuck are you doing here?” 

 

“I could be asking you the same thing,” Xie Lian counters with a small frown. He crosses his arms and then props them against the knee not touching the ground. “In fact, I think I should be. When the heck did you become a criminal in the Underground?” 

 

Qi Rong groans again, but this one is much, much louder. “Fuck. You’re the reason he’s here, right? Xie Lian, who is this tool?” 

 

“Hua Cheng,” Xie Lian answers simply. Qi Rong’s mouth seems to run exponentially faster than his mind, because his expression grows nastier as his features scrunch up further and he opens it to say something in response. Then Qi Rong’s expression twists into confusion, the words he’d looked so prepared to say a second ago disappearing after he makes a single sound. He blinks a few times, his mouth still open in preparation to provide a response. Then the name hits home, and the blood drains from Qi Rong’s face entirely. 

 

Qi Rong swings his head around to stare at Hua Cheng, who is standing with crossed arms and a very particular expression of boredom that he’s chosen specifically for situations like these, and his eyes go wide. His jaw drops, so it doesn’t seem like he’s planning to say anything anymore. Hua Cheng cocks an eyebrow. Qi Rong makes a scratchy, high pitched wheeze. 

 

“FUCK,” Qi Rong exclaims. He looks back and forth between Xie Lian and Hua Cheng, like he’s watching a tennis match that he’s sitting way too close to and so has to give himself a crick in the neck in order to keep up with. When his gaze lands on Xie Lian and he begins to stare, a panicked, wordless question written across his face, Xie Lian just nods solemnly. When he whips his head around to stare at Hua Cheng, a kind of fear-infused rage scrawled into his features, Hua Cheng winks at him with his bad eye. Qi Rong goes back to staring at Xie Lian, and this time he looks like he’s verging on having a panic attack. “ FUCK ??”

 

“He helped me track you down.” 

 

Qi Rong makes another high pitched wheeze, and Hua Cheng begins to suspect that one of his airways might’ve been caved in when Hua Cheng threw him to the ground. 

 

Xie Lian reaches out to grab one of Qi Rong’s shoulders and shakes him a little bit. “Don’t think into it too much. All that effort might put you out of commission, and we need that memory of yours to make sense of what’s happening.” 

 

Hua Cheng almost, almost, allows himself to smile again, because Xie Lian is too focused on Qi Rong to notice and Qi Rong is too busy astral projecting, but then he realizes that Yin Yu, who is still standing as silently as possible in the corner of the room closest to the door, would definitely catch him in the act. He feels a spark of frustration at his lapse in security, and lets the feeling sink in to counteract the joy he feels because he’ll be damned if he ever lets anyone know it’s possible for him to experience emotions. 

 

“Hey. Hey, Xie Lian? You do know that the guy you’re using as an escort is like, the second most powerful person in all of crime? Like. Like- all of crime, ever?”

 

“Yeah,” Xie Lian answers honestly. Hua Cheng has to physically restrain himself from smiling, again. Which is extremely unfair.

 

“Oh my fucking god, you’re supposed to be the smart one,” Qi Rong whispers loudly. 

 

“You think I’m smart?” Xie Lian asks with a wide, genuine, bashful smile, as he completely misses the entire point of what Qi Rong has just said. Qi Rong sounds like he’s just swallowed back a scream, a sob, or both. Hua Cheng realizes that he is far, far past the point of return. This is it. This is his entire life now. This singular human being has become the innumerable, infinite number of molecules and forces of nature that make up the entire known and unknown expanse of reality, and Hua Cheng is totally fine with stumbling across such a heavy realization when he least expects it. 

 

“Not anymore,” Qi Rong says with a scratchy, tired voice. He looks ten years older, suddenly. It’s a very stark contrast from his demeanor leading up to this point. 

 

“Ah,” Xie Lian sighs, and he sounds a bit disappointed, but it’s very obviously artificial. He moves his hands so that they’re stacked atop his knee, and then he sets his chin on top of them. “Well, I think we should get to the point, now. We have a lot to talk about, Qi Rong.” 

 

The light atmosphere in the room seems to evaporate into something a lot less pleasant in the span of a few seconds. And Qi Rong straightens his posture as a cold, serious expression slides into place. His severity makes him look younger, somehow. Hua Cheng is, again, greatly unsettled by just how much he resembles Xie Lian. 

 

“I don’t…” Qi Rong squeezes his eyes shut, and his brow creases more and more the longer he holds them shut. He swallows, and then exhales deeply through his nose. “I don’t know who killed your mother and father.” 

 

“But you know other things,” Xie Lian pushes. He rests his forehead against the back of his hands so that his face is hidden from view for a second, and then lifts it again to stare down Qi Rong. “You found out something.

 

“Yeah,” Qi Rong admits, and he opens his eyes. He looks a bit sheepish when he meets Xie Lian’s eyes. It’d amuse him how much the current Qi Rong contradicts the image that the guy has obsessively worked towards crafting, if Hua Cheng didn’t feel so many terrible things at once due to knowing just what this is doing to Xie Lian. 

 

What ?” 

 

Qi Rong stares at Xie Lian, and Hua Cheng watches as something seeps into the man’s expression until he no longer looks hesitant, or wary, or frustrated. Just… 

 

Qi Rong looks tired, and he looks sad. 

 

Xie Lian’s sharp, demanding edges melt away as he watches his cousin. 

 

Then, Qi Rong knocks his head up towards Hua Cheng, his gaze not settling on Hua Cheng for more than a split second. “You think I’m gonna say shit like that around this fucker?” 

 

“It’s okay, though. We can trust him,” Xie Lian says, and opens his mouth to say more, but Qi Rong cuts him off with a loud, sudden, bark of laughter. Then he laughs, and laughs, and laughs, and keeps laughing so loudly that it pours out into the room like water from a busted pipe flooding a basement, all wrong and unwelcome and unsettling, but it just keeps coming and coming and coming without any sign of stopping. He goes on for a long, loud minute, and he ends up laughing so loudly that he starts gasping for breaths, his figure bent over close to the floor, as if he’d be wrapping his arms around his stomach if the weren’t bound behind his back.

 

“We can- what? ” Qi Rong manages to gasp out when his laughter allows him to. Then he giggles some more. “Xie Lian. Xie Lian! My god, cousin- trust him?

 

Qi Rong roars again, his laugh this time louder and harsher and scratchier, as if he’s forcing it out through a worn throat. “How are you not dead yet, Xie Lian?”

 

Xie Lian doesn’t say anything. He just watches Qi Rong, and waits. It isn’t until Qi Rong is done laughing, when his chortling has turned into a quiet chuckle, that he’s able to catch Qi Rong’s eye and silence him with a slow, steadily growing smile. 

 

“I’ve had help, Qi Rong” Xie Lian says. Qi Rong’s amusement slips away. 

 

Hua Cheng is staring at Xie Lian when the other looks up at him, and finds himself savoring the few beats of silence that Xie Lian lets fall between them as they stare at each other before he feels the need to ask Hua Cheng his question. 

 

“We’ll take him with us, then?” 

 

“What?” Qi Rong asks. 



“Yup,” Hua Cheng answers. Xie Lian nods. Qi Rong looks panicked. 

 

“Wait- hold the fucking pho-”

 

“And- the boy,” Xie Lian exclaims, his eyes growing wide. “We need to-” he turns quickly towards the door, searching for someone, and then he looks confused. “Wait. Where’s-”

 

“He went to collect the kid a while ago,” Hua Cheng answers, right before Xie Lian can let slip a name. He never interrupts Xie Lian otherwise, so Xie Lian understands Hua cheng’s intention almost instantly, and his eyes widen a bit before he offers Hua Cheng an apologetic look.

 

“Oh. Huh,” Xie Lian says, his expression twisting into one of confusion and guilt. “I didn’t notice.”

 

“Yeah. That’s his thing.”

 

“Oh,” Xie Lian says, and now he looks embarrassed. “That’d make sense, wouldn’t it.” 

 

“HEY, FUCKASS,” Qi Rong yells as loudly as possible, and Xie Lian flinches. “There’s NO WAY in hell I’m going with you lot.”

 

“Too bad,” Hua Cheng says, and then moves to pin Qi Rong down to the ground again. He doesn’t give Qi Rong any time to react, and is met with undignified squawks of protest as he digs a knee into the man’s back and works on retying his gag. 

 

“I’M NOT TELLING YOU SHIT! I’LL JUMP OFF A BUILDING BEFORE I GET DRAGGED BACK TO YOUR STUPID-ASS MANSION, YOU INBRED BASTA- RRRAAUCK,” Qi Rong screams at the top of his lungs before Hua Cheng finishes tying a knot in the strip of fabric, and then yanks back the tail ends of the strand in as uncomfortable of a manner as possible. When Qi Rong lunges forwards, like he thinks that’ll help him in a situation like this, Hua Cheng uses the distribution of weight to his advantage and hooks an arm through the arms bound behind Qi Rong’s back to flip him up onto his right shoulder and up into the air. 

 

Qi Rong screeches some more. Hua Cheng positions Qi Rong’s body so that his back is turned to Hua Cheng’s, his head is dangling towards the floor, and his legs are tucked neatly atop Hua Cheng’s right shoulder and held steady by his right arm. Then he turns to face Xie Lian, who has long since stood up from the floor and is now observing this situation with a complicated expression. 

 

“And now we wait,” Hua Cheng announces. Xie Lian nods. Qi Rong squirms. 

 

“What are…” Xie Lian begins to ask, but he trails off. Hua Cheng watches him as his eyes jump from one spot in the room to the next, traces over the large plastic bags filled with dark liquids and mysterious objects floating at the top, takes in the sigh of an overturned cart and the various types of butchering equipment strewn across the floor. 

 

“Do I even want to know?” He finishes. The next thing he says is practically a whisper. “Should I know?” 

 

Qi Rong froze the instant Xie Lian started to ask his question, and lays as still as possible against Hua Cheng as he finishes. Hua Cheng tightens the hold he has on the legs thrown over his shoulder, and he makes sure that it’s enough to hurt. 

 

“No,” Hua Cheng answers. Xie Lian sighs, and begins to massage his temples. 

 

Yin Yu kills the conversation as soon as he opens the door and slips through, and Hua Cheng internally thanks him for it. 

 

“Let’s go,” Hua Cheng says, and Xie Lian lets his arms fall to his sides as he turns towards the door to seek out Yin Yu’s form. When he finds Yin Yu, he looks back at Hua Cheng one last time, and the two stare. Xie Lian is looking for some kind of reassurance, some kind of support that he probably doesn’t even know how to ask for. Maybe he doesn’t even realize he’s looking for it. So, Hua Cheng does what he can. He nods, turns straight ahead, and calls for Yin Yu’s attention. 

 

“Bag,” Hua Cheng says, and then pats Qi Rong’s legs with his free hand. Qi Rong doesn’t take it well.