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Location 1: Mount Yu Jun, wooded path

23:30

 

The full moon rises yellow-white above the treeline, bright enough to cast shadows on the packed-dirt path.

The device in Xie Lian’s hand crackles with static, loud and abrasive white noise with an unsteady, interrupted rhythm. He holds it out in front of him, raising his voice above the racket to ask, “Is there anyone here with me right now?”

“Gege, if anyone was here with us, I think they would have been scared away by that thing already.”

Xie Lian shoots Hua Cheng a half-hearted glare, hoisting the spirit box a little more insistently, as if that will convince the ghosts to show themselves. “My name is Xie Lian, and this is my friend, San Lang!” he shouts, and Hua Cheng shoots the dark underbrush surrounding them a lazy wave. “If you’re here, you can use this device to communicate with us! Tell us your name! Why are you still stuck here?”

“You probably should have dressed as a bride if you really wanted to lure it out, gege,” Hua Cheng lilts. “Don’t people say this ghost has a thing about wedding dresses?”

“San Lang is so funny,” Xie Lian says flatly.

“Only for you,” Hua Cheng says, and he looks devastatingly serious for half a second, before a smile slides across his face like the flick of a jackknife’s blade.

“Be quiet and listen for the ghosts,” Xie Lian chides him, embarrassed color flooding into his cheeks. Hua Cheng lifts a hand in acquiescence and then tilts his head up to look at the sky, and moonlight pours over his face like rainwater, spilling over his skin. It makes the line of his jaw look sharper, the curve of his cheekbones more elegant. Xie Lian stares unabashedly for several seconds before turning in the opposite direction and adjusting a setting on the spirit box.

“If you don’t say anything now, I’m going to turn this thing off! I’m going to count down! Three, two, one…”

When no ghost speaks through the spirit box to explain its unhealthy fixation on area women and their wedding parties, Xie Lian sighs and flicks a switch. The device goes quiet. In the absence of the ear-piercing static, the forest path suddenly seems achingingly, horribly silent. Worse than it was before, when they’d first hiked up here.

Somewhere out in the forest, a branch snaps and Xie Lian jumps half out of his skin.

“I’m starting to think gege wasted his money on that contraption,” Hua Cheng says, unbothered. “It seems more like spirit repellant than a communication device. Imagine if you were hanging out at home and someone broke into your living room and started blasting the Black Eyed Peas. Would you want to have a conversation about your backstory with them?”

“San Lang can be skeptical all he wants,” Xie Lian says, loftily. “It’s all fun and games until we finally catch a ghost.”

Hua Cheng looks at Xie Lian with a tiny, fond smile and says, “That will be difficult, gege, since ghosts-”

“Aren’t real,” three different voices chorus, in unison.

“We fuckin’ know,” Feng Xin says, cutting the recording on the full-spectrum camera he’s holding and stepping out from behind it. “My God, you are such a broken record.”

Hua Cheng waves an airy hand and shoots Feng Xin a nasty smile. “I like to remain consistent.”

Mu Qing and Shi Qingxuan begin disassembling the camera’s tripod, Shi Qingxuan laughing loudly. “Hua Cheng is nothing if not consistent,” they say, tossing their long hair over their shoulder. “Your skepticism almost feels like fanservice at this point.”

Hua Cheng lifts an eyebrow. “As if my face isn’t enough fanservice in and of itself.”

“We should do an EVP session down near the foot of the path, next,” Xie Lian says, handing Mu Qing the spirit box to pack away in their tech case. “And I have a good feeling about the thermal cams we set up by the river. The villagers say there’s a lot of activity down there.”

“Well, if you’ve got a good feeling,” Mu Qing begins, a little mulishly.

Shi Qingxuan smacks him on the top of the head. “Don’t be rude,” they say. “It’s not even midnight yet. If this is the energy you’re bringing now, I don’t even want to see you at four in the morning.”

“Well, I don’t want to see you at four in the morning either!” Mu Qing says, and he hoists their tech bag over his shoulder and begins to stomp down the mountain path.

As they hike back down to their van, parked along the roadside at the base of the path, Xie Lian falls into step with Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng shoots him a sidelong glance and smiles, minutely adjusting his pace so that Xie Lian can keep up easily with his long stride. Their steps synch up, easy as breathing.

“You didn’t seem very frightened, tonight,” Hua Cheng says. Ahead of them, Mu Qing seems to have set Feng Xin off about something, since Shi Qingxuan is shoving the two of them bodily apart. “Are you changing your mind about the existence of the paranormal?”

“I most certainly am not,” Xie Lian says, and then, because he is feeling a little brave tonight, he adds, “How could I be scared when San Lang is beside me?”

Hua Cheng opens his mouth to say something. Then he blinks and flushes pink and makes a noise that sounds like, “Hmng,” instead.

Xie Lian beams at him.

Several hours later, when the night has begun to deepen into morning, the team gathers the rest of their scattered equipment from the mountainside and reconvenes in the back of their van. Mu Qing plugs their thermal cameras into the monitor of his monster of a computer, loading up the footage and setting it to play at five-times speed.

“Nothing,” Hua Cheng teases in Xie Lian’s ear as they watch multi-colored heat blobs dance across the screen. “A bird. A deer. Nothing, nothing, more nothing…”

And then something steps into frame.

The thing is human-shaped. Unmistakably, undeniably human-shaped. It is colder than the rest of the forest by twenty degrees, its outline icy blue against a sea of oranges and greens. It walks like a human into the center of the shot, pauses like a human with one leg half-forward, and then turns slowly like a human to stare directly into the camera.

“Holy shit,” Feng Xin says, mildly. “That’s a fucking FBA.”

“Oh, my God,” Xie Lian says, much less mildly. “That’s an FBA.”

Hua Cheng blinks at the screen. His face is impassive, but Xie Lian is a scholar of Hua Cheng Expressions, a veritable connoisseur of Hua Cheng’s facial features, and he sees the way Hua Cheng’s left eyebrow ticks up.

“It’s probably a glitch,” Hua Cheng says, as if they’re not currently looking at footage of a real, actual full-bodied apparition. As if they’re not currently staring at a real, actual ghost they caught on camera like a racoon raiding the backyard trash bins.

“You’re hopeless,” Xie Lian tells him, but he’s smiling, he can’t help it.

How could he help it?

Ghosts are real.

And suddenly everyone in the van is screaming and jumping up and down, and Mu Qing is rewinding the footage to watch over and over and over again as if he can’t quite believe what he’s looking at, and Hua Cheng is laughing with his whole body in a way Xie Lian wishes he could button up inside his chest and keep forever.



Location 2: Puji Shrine

01:23

 

We should investigate shrines more often, Xie Lian thinks idly, looking up at the crumbling slope of Puji Shrine’s still-graceful roof. There’s something incredibly calming about the night air here, something sweet and crisp in the wind. Worlds better than a creaky old factory or a moldering, dilapidated prison or the gallows’ hill they’d visited a couple weeks ago.

“Should we break out the spirit box again?” Xie Lian asks Hua Cheng, half-joking.

Hua Cheng makes a face like he’d bitten into half a lemon.

“Okay, okay, we won’t,” Xie Lian says, bumping his shoulder against Hua Cheng’s. Hua Cheng takes the hit and swoons dramatically, spinning in a circle with the back of his hand draped against his forehead.

“Gege is so cruel,” Hua Cheng laments. “Picking on me with your superior strength.”

“Please,” Xie Lian says. “As if San Lang hasn’t lifted me with one arm before.”

“I’m helpless against you,” Hua Cheng tells him, and there’s that look in his eyes again, something serious and quiet and scary.

Xie Lian’s chest does something complicated and painful. He lets out a fluttering, high-pitched laugh and says, “You flatterer,” and then sprints off to check the EMF detector readings as if Feng Xin didn’t just do that seconds ago.

“Okay, I’m going to start recording on the full-spectrum cams,” Feng Xin announces, double and triple-checking the camera angle before flashing Shi Qingxuan a thumbs-up. “Stand by, three, two, one, and-”

Xie Lian leans over Feng Xin’s shoulders to check the monitors. Their set-up looks good, spanning most of the ramshackle building and a good chunk of the property surrounding it. “Briefing?” Xie Lian asks, and the rest of them nod, gathering into a lopsided circle.

Xie Lian smiles and begins his introduction, spelling out the history of the property and the nature of the sightings that have been recorded in the area. Beside him, Hua Cheng casts his gaze languidly around the property, occasionally smiling at Xie Lian or adding in a historical detail Xie Lian had missed. Hua Cheng’s mind for lore is truly unmatched, Xie Lian thinks, watching Hua Cheng explain the significance of the scratches bored into the shrine’s dedication plate. He should be on a trivia game show, probably. Or the editor of an internet fansite.

“Okay, that sounds good,” Feng Xin announces, eyes scanning over the footage they’ve just taken on the camera’s tiny, fold-out screen. “Why don’t you guys go try to get some EVPs? We’ll hold down the fort here and then switch out in an hour or so.”

“Sounds good to me,” Xie Lian says. “San Lang?”

“Anything that’s good for gege is good for me,” Hua Cheng says. He smiles, his eyes curving into half-moons, and God, he really is absurdly, unfairly handsome, all refined lines and caramel-golden eyes and hair so black it’s almost blue.

Looking at Hua Cheng sometimes feels like drowning. 

Something must show on Xie Lian’s face, because Feng Xin makes an audible retching noise. Shi Qingxuan slaps him on the arm, but Xie Lian is already laughing a little hysterically and hurrying away, brandishing a recording device like it’s a deadly weapon. Hua Cheng has to break into a little half-jog to catch up with him.

Xie Lian and Hua Cheng walk around the perimeter of the shrine’s main building and out onto the long, sloping lawn that leads to the scraggly, untamed treeline behind it. Hua Cheng’s posture is very neat and upright, but he somehow always gives the impression of slouching. It’s the easy confidence he exudes like an aura, Xie Lian thinks.

Another entry on Hua Cheng’s endless list of talents, including but not limited to: martial arts, cooking, making a smile look like a snarl, cheering Xie Lian up without even trying, and pottery.

“Should we do the EVP session here?” Hua Cheng asks him, pausing at the edge of the shrine’s property. The trees surrounding the sloping lawn are narrow, barren, naked things. They almost look like knobbly fingers, clawing up towards the sky.

Xie Lian shivers. “Here is fine,” he says, and he switches the recorder on.

“Hello,” Hua Cheng says. “Any ghouls here?”

Xie Lian swallows a snicker and jabs an elbow in Hua Cheng’s direction. Hua Cheng giggles helplessly and lifts his hands in surrender, mouthing, okay, okay.

“I’m Hua Cheng, and this is Xie Lian,” Hua Cheng continues, walking slowly along the edge of the treeline. “Is there anything here that wants to communicate with us? Please make yourself known.”

Next to Xie Lian’s ear, something whispers, I am here.

Xie Lian heaves a tiny, completely dignified scream. Hua Cheng is at his side in a second, reaching out to catch Xie Lian’s forearms gently in his hands.

“What’s wrong?” Hua Cheng asks, hands rubbing gently up and down Xie Lian’s arms. “Are you okay?”

“I,” Xie Lian wheezes. “I… thought I heard something.”

“Did you say something?” Hua Cheng asks the air, his tone a little tighter than usual.

The air replies, Yes, I did. My apologies, your highness, I did not realize-

And then it goes silent.

Xie Lian’s knees give out for a miniscule fraction of a second. Hua Cheng catches him easily, his hands steady and solid on Xie Lian’s elbows.

“It’s okay, gege,” Hua Cheng says. “It’s probably the wind.”

“The wind,” Xie Lian snaps back, his nerves more than a little shot at this point. “Seriously, San Lang?”

Hua Cheng has the good grace to look a little sheepish.

“If there’s anything else you’d like to say, please do so now!” Xie Lian calls to the spirit. “Can you tell us your name? What’s keeping you here?”

Nothing answers, this time. The night remains still and silent, the summer air blowing warm against Xie Lian’s cheek.

“I really hope we got that on the recorder,” Xie Lian says, clutching the device in question between his hands like it’s the Holy Grail. “ Sentences, San Lang, I heard it say whole sentences!”

And then he blinks, realizes he just had half a conversation with a ghost, and almost drops his recorder.

An FBA is one thing. Xie Lian wasn’t anywhere near the camera when that apparition was caught, and even then, it could be explained away by an equipment malfunction. This, though… this was a voice, in his ear, saying… words! Words, in sentences! Intelligent sentences, that made some sort of sense!

“Oh, dear,” Xie Lian whispers, his voice very small. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, a hint of laughter in his gentle voice. “It’s okay. If you’re scared, you can hold my hand.”

“Okay,” Xie Lian says, without thinking about it, and he seizes Hua Cheng’s hand like a lifeline.

Hua Cheng has very nice hands, Xie Lian thinks. Graceful fingers. His palm is cool and dry, and when it slides against Xie Lian’s, the anxiety immediately drains out of Xie Lian like water from a sieve.

“Let’s go back and have Feng Xin review this,” Xie Lian says, waving the recorder around with his free hand while his other presses against Hua Cheng’s.

Hua Cheng blinks. “Oh. Yes. Yeah. Let’s. Do that.”

“Are you okay, San Lang?”

“Yep. Absolutely. I’ve never felt better in my life,” Hua Cheng tells him, and then they set off toward the shrine, hand in hand, the back of Hua Cheng’s neck deepening to the same shade of red as his jacket.



Location 3: Private Residence

03:42

 

In the years since they’ve started ghost hunting, Xie Lian has gotten pretty brave, if he does say so himself.

There was a time, back before he’d met Hua Cheng and the show was just him and Feng Xin stumbling around abandoned buildings with a camcorder, when every little sound would make Xie Lian want to cry. Every shadow flickering in the corner of his eye was a potential threat; every breath of wind against his face was evidence of the paranormal. Whenever they posted new footage online, Xie Lian would read through dozens of comments about what a chicken he was.

Jeez, this guy’s acting is so over the top.

Is he being paid to piss himself or something?

It’s not a ghost, Your Highness, it’s the wind!! It’s always the wind!! Good grief.

A lot has changed since then. He met Hua Cheng, for one thing - bumped into him on the street and immediately felt something massive and seismic shift under his feet. They’d also rehired Mu Qing and brought on Shi Qingxuan, whose effortless aptitude with SNS led to their website gaining hundreds of thousands of views.

Xie Lian still believes, fully, with his whole heart, that ghosts are real. It’s just that they don’t scare him as much anymore.

Ghosts are one thing, though.

Demons are another.

“If there’s anyone here, please say your name,” Xie Lian says, picking his way slowly down the long, narrow hallway that leads from this home’s master bedroom to the bathroom. The house is very dark, the kind of absence of light that feels like a physical weight. Heavy and suffocating. “I hear there’s something living in this house that doesn’t like it when strangers visit. Can you tell me why that is?”

In his head, Xie Lian reviews the home’s case file. This place is essentially a checklist for malicious hauntings 101. Physical touches, cold spots, nightmares, apparitions. Objects that move on their own. Feelings of hatred and violence that seem to come from nowhere, explode from nothing. No one’s lived here for longer than six months in over a decade.

Whatever inhabits this place, the owner of the building had told them, right after shaking Xie Lian’s hand, it’s not human. It doesn’t feel human.

“Hello,” Xie Lian tries again. He’s gripping his recorder tight enough that its edges bite into his fingers. His hand feels extremely sweaty against the plastic. “I’m up here… alone… like an idiot... so now’s your chance! Do you have anything you’d like to say? What’s your name?”

He’s reached the end of the hallway, now. The bathroom door is slightly ajar, and Xie Lian pushes it fully open. There is a floor-length mirror propped against the bathroom wall. Xie Lian is greeted with a glimpse of himself, wide-eyed and pale, decked out with a camera headset and a microphone clipped to his chest, before he turns around to shut the door behind him.

“Are you trapped here?” Xie Lian asks the empty bathroom.

“Are you unhappy that we’re here? Do you want to hurt us?”

“Some people say that whatever’s here isn’t human. Are you a demon?”

There is a flash of movement to his side - Xie Lian catches it out of the corner of his eye. His heart leaps into in his mouth and he turns, slowly, to face the mirror.

His reflection looks back.

So does something else.

The thing standing behind him is dressed in a white hanfu. It lifts its head, and its face is obscured by a carved mask, one half twisted into a knife-sharp smile and the other weeping silent tears. Xie Lian makes a tiny, pitiful sound of shock and fear, and he can’t see the thing’s eyes, but he feels them land on him.

Such a frightened little thing, the thing in the mirror says, and it sounds like he’s speaking the words directly into Xie Lian’s brain. But so noble and kind. Why fly into danger, little bird? What are you trying to prove?

Xie Lian opens his mouth, but his throat can’t seem to conjure more than a dry, voiceless wheeze.

Why don’t you stay here? the demon asks. In the mirror, he steps closer. Xie Lian stands, frozen, as the demon reaches out to drag a pale, clammy hand against Xie Lian’s cheek. He feels the touch, physically, sees the hand out of the corner of his eye, but when he whips around, the room is empty. There’s nothing there.

Laughter echoes in his mind and he pivots back to face the thing in the mirror.

You should stay, it tells him, hands sliding over Xie Lian’s shoulders and gliding along his throat. We could be great together. Stay with me, here.

A finger brushes Xie Lian’s adam’s apple.

Something in him snaps and he screams, “San Lang!” stumbling away from the mirror and clutching at his own neck, squeezing his eyes shut tight. There’s a pounding of feet on the stairs, and then the bathroom door is slamming open, hitting the wall with a crack.

Hua Cheng slaps an electric switch on the wall and plunges the bathroom into the sickly, yellowish light of a fluorescent bulb. He catches Xie Lian just before he falls to his knees, arms closing easily around Xie Lian’s shoulders. Xie Lian lets out a gasp and curls himself against Hua Cheng’s chest, folding his face into the crook of Hua Cheng’s shoulder.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, hands rubbing slow circles on Xie Lian’s back. “I’m here, it’s okay, I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

“San Lang,” Xie Lian sobs, clutching at him. It’s humiliating and a little pathetic, probably, but Xie Lian has a thick face, and, anyway, Hua Cheng has already seen him cry his way through a box of tissues watching The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

They sit like that on the bathroom floor until Xie Lian’s tears have stopped, Hua Cheng’s fingers whispering through Xie Lian’s hair.

“What happened?” Hua Cheng asks him, once his last, hiccuping sob is finished.

“There was something,” Xie Lian tells him. “Something in the mirror. It looked at me, it - it saw me. It saw me.”

Hua Cheng gently smudges tears off Xie Lian’s cheeks with his palm. “What did it look like, gege?”

Xie Lian shakes his head. “I don’t know, it - it was wearing a mask. Like a theater mask, the white ones. And its clothing was traditional. It spoke in my head.”

“Hm,” Hua Cheng says, and there’s a current running under his voice that Xie Lian doesn’t recognize. Something deep and steady and furious. “I see. Well, how about we get out of here? I’m sick of this place, and gege looks like he needs some rest.”

Xie Lian nods, and he really must be out of his mind, because he allows Hua Cheng to sweep him up and into his arms without a word of protest. His head tips sideways against Hua Cheng’s chest, a few final tears tracing down his face.

His chest remains twisted in knots until the door of that house is shut tight and locked behind them.



Location 4: Palace of Yong’an

02:42

 

“Are you sure you want to sleep here, tonight? I’m sure we could still book a motel room if you wanted.”

Xie Lian looks up at Hua Cheng. They’re setting up sleeping bags in one of the few rooms in Yong’an Palace still open to the public. The building complex is very old and very beautiful, grand and low and sprawling. Outside, he can hear Feng Xin and Mu Qing arguing over where they’ve set up the EMF detectors.

“I’m okay,” Xie Lian tells Hua Cheng, softly. It’s true, for the most part. Though he’s been on edge since the… encounter he had during their last investigation, he’s handling it fairly well, he thinks. It’s just a matter of keeping busy, occupying his mind with other things.

He edited the footage for their latest upload five full times before Shi Qingxuan snatched his laptop away bodily and forced him to go to bed.

“Let me know if you want to leave at any point,” Hua Cheng tells him firmly. “We’ll go the second you say the word.”

“San Lang is too good to me,” Xie Lian says. “I really am okay, though.”

Hua Cheng looks at him with an eyebrow raised for another long moment before his skeptical look melts into a smile.

“Okay, then. Are you sleepy?”

“A little,” Xie Lian admits. It seems a shame to sleep in this place instead of exploring it, but the building’s proprietor had warned them to stay in designated public spaces before letting them in for the night, and Mu Qing would blow his top if Xie Lian got caught snooping.

“Let’s go to bed, then,” Hua Cheng says, and he touches Xie Lian’s shoulder very briefly before stepping into his sleeping bag and curling onto his side.

Xie Lian hesitates, and then clambers into his own sleeping bag. They’re only an arm’s length apart, but it suddenly seems like an unbridgeable gulf in this big and empty and quiet room. Outside, the wind howls.

“Sleep well,” Xie Lian tells Hua Cheng, his voice very small.

“You too, gege,” Hua Cheng hums, and it is only a few short minutes before his breathing evens out.

Xie Lian lays awake for a long time. It’s silly, but every time he sleeps next to Hua Cheng during an investigation, his body is hyperaware of Hua Cheng’s presence - of his breathing, of his movements, of the way his ink-dark eyelashes occasionally flutter against the high curve of his elegant cheekbone. Plus, he still feels on edge from the… the thing. From last time. He feels like a child again, feeling around for a monster underneath his bed.

Eventually, though, he drifts off, lulled by the steady rhythm of Hua Cheng’s gentle breathing.

When he blinks his eyes open, he’s standing in the throne room of the palace. It takes him a second to register what’s happening - the thought that he may have sleep-walked here crosses his mind. But the throne room was expressly marked as off-limits during their tour, and there’s glass and a low railing blocking the open entrance. This must be a dream.

A throat clears, and Xie Lian drags his gaze away from the brightly-painted ceiling and the deep crimson of the walls. There’s a figure dressed in a pure-white hanfu sitting on the throne, legs crossed, arms draped lazily at its sides. It lifts its face to look at Xie Lian.

On its face is a white mask.

Xie Lian’s heart plummets into his toes.

“Why?” he demands. “Why did you follow me? What is this?”

“Hmm,” the masked demon says. “Good question. You interest me. You, and your bodyguard. The monster you tamed and keep on a leash.”

“I don’t have a bodyguard,” Xie Lian tells the demon tersely. “You must have the wrong person. So you can quit following me around. I’m really not that interesting at all.”

“I disagree,” the demon says, and Xie Lian gets the sudden and horrible sense that he’s smiling beneath the mask. “I think he would, too. Why else would a demon lord follow around a little boy with a camera crew? You inspire loyalty. I’d like to find out why.”

“Who are you?” Xie Lian asks.

The demon tilts his head. “Would you like to know?”

Xie Lian nods.

The demon lifts his hands and slowly removes the mask from his face. Lets it drop into his lap.

His face is empty. Blank.

Xie Lian screams, and then a voice beside his ear says, “Gege,” and he jerks awake, clutching at his chest.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng’s voice says, beside him. “Gege, gege. Xie Lian. It’s okay. I’m here, I’ve got you. Breathe with me now.”

“I know,” Xie Lian heaves. “I know, I know. I’m okay.” Hua Cheng takes a few deep breaths, slow and steady, and Xie Lian carefully inhales and matches his pace.

Hua Cheng’s hands find Xie Lian’s face; a palm presses against Xie Lian’s forehead. “You’re a little feverish. Was it another nightmare?” Hua Cheng asks. He is so gentle with Xie Lian. Like Xie Lian is something terribly delicate and indescribably precious. Something he treasures. It’s driving Xie Lian insane.

Xie Lian nods in the darkness and reaches out. His fingers find Hua Cheng’s shirt, soft cotton, and curl into the fabric.

“The masked ghost again?”

“Mn.”

“Come here, gege.”

Xie Lian shifts over and slots himself into Hua Cheng’s open arms, shivering. Hua Cheng tucks his chin over the crown of Xie Lian’s and settles them down, zipping his sleeping bag back up around them.

Xie Lian feels Hua Cheng’s lips brush feather-light against his forehead. “You can go back to sleep, now,” Hua Cheng says. “You won’t have another nightmare. I promise.”

Xie Lian’s eyes flutter shut. “I believe you,” he tells Hua Cheng, because he does.

“Good,” Hua Cheng says, and his voice sounds a little strangled. Maybe he needs to cough?

Xie Lian tightens his grip around Hua Cheng’s waist and whispers, “Goodnight, San Lang. My San Lang.”

Hua Cheng goes very still for a long moment and then says, “Goodnight, gege.”

When Xie Lian sleeps again, he does not dream.



Location 5: Hua Cheng’s Manor

21:18

 

Whenever Xie Lian goes over to Hua Cheng’s house for movie night, Hua Cheng insists Xie Lian pick the movie.

Hua Cheng’s DVD collection is massive, so Xie Lian usually ends up grabbing something off the shelf at random and hoping it’s good. His luck is insanely bad, if he’s being honest, so they usually end up watching C-list action flicks with dialogue so awful it’s incredible it made it past the editing stage. It’s still fun, though - they’ll order in and sit on the floor in Hua Cheng’s massive living room, booing at the screen and laughing uproariously whenever a CGI effect is particularly bad or an on-screen kiss particularly nausea-inducing. 

“Why do you even own these?” Xie Lian will ask between peals of laughter, watching in mingled awe and horror as a tornado filled with sharks tears through America.

“Someone has to buy them,” San Lang says, primly, and then he winces theatrically when a particularly fake-looking burst of blood explodes across the screen.

Tonight, though, he’s feeling a little quieter, so he pulls up an old episode of an English-language baking show and settles in to eat. Hua Cheng slurps noodles next to him, occasionally commenting sagely on a contestant's choice of ingredients. Their shoulders bump together, sending sparks along Xie Lian’s spine even through his heavy sweater.

“San Lang knows everything,” Xie Lian comments warmly, when Hua Cheng makes a particularly apt prediction about how a baker’s bread braid is going to turn out. “Be honest, are you a god of knowledge or something? I don’t see how else you could store all that information in your brain.”

“More like a demon, gege,” Hua Cheng says with a laugh. His smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and Xie Lian pauses, hoping he hasn’t hurt Hua Cheng’s feelings.

“You’re so smart. Were you good in school? You must have been,” Xie Lian says, trying to gently prod the subject in a different direction.

“I really wasn’t, I swear. I have terrible penmanship,” Hua Cheng says with a grin, and this one definitely does reach his eyes, makes them spark with something familiar and bright. “Here, did you try this yet? It’s really good.”

Xie Lian holds his plate out to accept the bite of noodle Hua Cheng is offering, but Hua Cheng laughs and lifts his chopsticks up to Xie Lian’s mouth. Heat rising furiously in his cheeks, Xie Lian takes the bite and looks away, chewing rapidly.

“They’re good,” he says, muffling his words behind his hand.

Hua Cheng says, “Would gege like to try anything else? The dumplings are good, too.”

Xie Lian jerks his head around to squint in Hua Cheng’s direction. Hua Cheng smiles cherubically.

“Are you teasing me, San Lang?”

“Certainly not,” Hua Cheng says, pressing a hand flat to his chest. “I would never.”

Xie Lian rolls his eyes. “Sure, you shameless flirt. Let’s pay attention to the episode, they’re starting the judging.”

They watch three more episodes, Xie Lian slowly sliding further horizontal until he’s essentially become one with the couch. Hua Cheng gets a craving for popcorn, and digs through the manor’s massive, walk-in pantry until he finds a box. They take turns tossing kernels into each other’s mouths; Xie Lian has a good arm but can’t catch to save his life, and Hua Cheng is, naturally, a whiz at both.

Finally, in the early hours of the morning, both of them yawn loudly and simultaneously.

“Bedtime?” Hua Cheng asks, and Xie Lian heaves a sigh and nods. He’s been dreading sleep lately, his dreams plagued by the white-masked figure without a face. It’ll be another long night, he thinks, as he gets to his feet and lifts his arms in a stretch.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, still seated on the couch, “sleep with me.”

Xie Lian chokes on air.

“Not like that!” Hua Cheng continues quickly, lifting his hands, and Xie Lian’s chest fills with a confusing mixture of relief and profound disappointment. “Sleep in my room with me. I think it will help with the nightmares. And I want to cuddle.”

Xie Lian gives a laugh that’s an octave too high-pitched, his heart still beating a mile a minute in his chest. “I don’t want to disturb you, San Lang. If I wake up in the middle of the night-”

“You won’t disturb me, I sleep like the dead,” Hua Cheng says confidently. “Please, gege, it would make me feel better.”

“Well… okay, then,” Xie Lian says, and Hua Cheng beams at him.

His smile is so beautiful. It makes his whole face look younger.

Xie Lian is so desperately in love with him.

They brush their teeth side-by-side, climbing into bed with the easy practice of people who have slept beside each other many times. There’s no ghost monitoring equipment here this time, though, just Hua Cheng’s quiet bedroom and his massive bed and his fire-bright eyes as he looks over and bids Xie Lian goodnight.

Xie Lian presses his face into Hua Cheng’s sheets and tries not to make himself irredeemably weird by sniffing them. They smell good, though, clean and warm and masculine.

When Xie Lian finally drifts off, his dreams are summer-light and tinged with gold, soothing and forgettable and simple. He wakes up in the morning tangled in Hua Cheng’s limbs and better-rested than he’s been in weeks. It feels like coming back from the afterlife.

“You should stay here,” Hua Cheng tells him that morning, casually, over breakfast. “Until your dreams stop.”

Xie Lian immediately sets down his coffee. “San Lang, I can’t do that. I don’t want to intrude on your space, you already do so much for me, and living with another person can be so difficult, you’d immediately get sick of me-”

Hua Cheng looks up from his plate, a crease folding between his eyebrows.

“Gege,” he says, and his tone is small and injured, “I wouldn’t get sick of you. Would you get sick of me?”

“No,” Xie Lian blurts, probably a little too fast and loud. Hua Cheng’s expression slides from hurt to smugly pleased, though, so it might have been the right thing to say, anyway. “I just… it seems like too much to ask of you.”

“Nothing you could ask of me would be too much,” Hua Cheng tells him.

Xie Lian pauses and takes a slow bite of steamed bun.

“You sleep fine when you’re with me,” Hua Cheng continues. “So it’ll make you feel better. And I like having you here, because I like spending time with you, and I miss you when you’re gone. It’s only logical, right? Please say yes.”

Xie Lian should not say yes.

He also cannot seem to say no to Hua Cheng.

“Okay,” he acquiesces. “You’re right. It does make sense. I’ll stay here as long as you’ll have me.”

“You’ll be here forever,” Hua Cheng jokes, in a tone of dire warning.

“Forever, then,” Xie Lian says.

Hua Cheng’s whole face lights up. Xie Lian’s chest seizes like he’s just leapt off something very, very tall and cannot see the ground.



Location 6: Heaven’s Bridge

18:50

 

“We’re all set over here!”

Xie Lian flashes a thumbs-up at Feng Xin, who’s sitting in the back of the van with the double doors swung open, checking the camera array on the monitors. Next to him, Shi Qingxuan holds a spool of electric cable around one arm and a hand-held electric fan in the other, pointed directly at their face.

“It’s too hot for ghost hunting,” they say, drooping bodily like a flower wilting in the sun. “It’s too hot for being outside the house, actually. I’m going to sweat off all my makeup, and then if a handsome ghost king comes to whisk me off my feet during the investigation, he’ll be like, ‘Oh, God, who did your brows, they look atrocious,’ and leave. And I won’t even be able to blame him.”

“You still look beautiful,” Xie Lian tells them, because they do. Even melting makeup can’t obscure Shi Qingxuan’s natural glow. They insist it’s the result of their twelve-step skincare routine, but Xie Lian has known them since childhood, and they had an aura of easy loveliness even then.

“You’re trying to butter me up,” Shi Qingxuan tells Xie Lian loftily, but their smile is broad and honest.

“Any ghost king would be lucky to have you.”

“Please, do, go on.”

“Also, I love your shoes today.”

Shi Qingxuan lets out a peal of laughter and tugs Xie Lian into a hug. “You’re such a charmer,” they say, patting Xie Lian’s cheek with a perfectly manicured hand before leaning in and dropping their voice dramatically. “Speaking of which, how are things going with you-know-who? Any progress?”

Xie Lian blinks. “You-know… you mean my dream demon?”

Shi Qingxuan stares at him for a long, open-mouthed moment before sighing with the exhaustion of the long-aggrieved. “No. Goodness. Hua Cheng, you precious, handsome, kindhearted moron. You’ve been staying at his place for two weeks. Have you guys smooched yet? Mu Qing and I have a bet going.”

Xie Lian flushes scarlet. “You… what?”

“Feng Xin refused to join,” Shi Qingxuan tells him, their voice conspiratorial. “Something about ‘not wanting to bet on my best friend’s happiness,’ and ‘their sex life is none of our business.’ Blah blah blah. Boring stick in the mud. Anyway, I’ve got 500 yuan on something happening within the month.”

“Ooh, are we betting on something?”

Xie Lian jumps about half a foot in the air as Hua Cheng leans into his field of vision, holding a full-spectrum camera over one shoulder.

Shi Qingxuan laughs loudly, slapping Xie Lian on the shoulder.

“You two finish setting up together,” they say, flashing Xie Lian a wink. “I’m going to reapply my eyeliner and harass Feng Xin.”

“What was that about?” Hua Cheng asks as Shi Qingxuan saunters away.

Xie Lian says, “I don’t know,” his face brilliantly pink and his tone hopeless.

By the time they’re done setting up for the investigation, dusk is settling in around the countryside, the last vestiges of a brilliantly orange sunrise sinking below the horizon. The bridge they’re investigating is enormously long and made of crumbling, stormy gray stone; it would be beautiful, truly, if it didn’t look seconds away from collapsing into the foaming waters of the river it passes over. The ends of the bridge are marked with intricately carved stone dragons, so realistic Xie Lian could almost narrow his eyes and imagine them bursting to life.

“Okay, San Lang, you try and get some readings on this end. EVPs, the usual,” Xie Lian says. “I’ll take a walk down to the other side and see if my recorder picks anything up. Does that sound okay?”

Hua Cheng nods and folds his hands behind his back, strolling off in the direction of the van. Xie Lian waves at Feng Xin and shoots a quick ‘okay’ sign at Mu Qing and Shi Qingxuan, and then he steps onto the bridge and starts to pick his way across, pausing occasionally to check the thermometer and EMF detector.

By the time he makes it to the other side of the bridge, Xie Lian can barely see the van. A fog is starting to settle in around the riverbanks, bleeding up and into the air around him. It meets the deepening gray of the growing darkness, making it difficult to see further than a couple feet ahead. The feeling is marvelously creepy, and Xie Lian hugs his coat around himself nervously.

He steps off the bridge and leans against one of the stone dragons, pulling out the spirit box to do a session. There’s a weird tingling on the back of his neck, a heaviness, like he’s being watched. He shakes off the feeling and switches on the spirit box, flinching a little at the initial burst of static.

“Hello,” he says, over the noise of the device. “Is there anyone here who would like to communicate?”

“Oh, very much so,” the spirit box says, in a voice that settles in Xie Lian’s stomach like ice.

Xie Lian drops the device. The static continues, though, rapid-fire and deafeningly loud.

“I’ve been waiting for so long, Xie Lian,” the masked demon’s voice continues, speaking through the spirit box. “You’ve been avoiding me. A smart trick, sleeping beside a spiritual firewall. You can’t run from me forever, though.”

“Leave me alone!” Xie Lian shouts at the box. “Leave! Me! Alone!”

“How funny,” the masked demon’s voice laughs. “I don’t think I will. Oh, look, Xie Lian. The moon is rising. Shall I come and greet you in person?”

Xie Lian tilts his head, slowly, up to face the sky. Sure enough, a sliver of the moon drifts out from behind the wisp of a cloud, dim in the fog. From this angle, it looks crooked, like a smile.

There is a footstep, out in the mist.

Xie Lian steps backwards. Once, twice. His foot meets the place where the bridge intersects with the road, and his ankle twists. His backside hits the pavement, hard enough to sting. Panic is rising, sharp and bitter, in his throat.

Another footstep. A cracking twig.

And then, out of the fog, a figure in white begins to emerge. He looks just as he did in the mirror, just as he has in all of Xie Lian’s nightmares. The masked demon inclines his head, a mockery of respect, and Xie Lian scoots backwards, still sprawled on the stone floor of the bridge.

“Let’s see if this will get interesting,” the masked demon says. And then he launches himself forward like a bullet from a gun, so fast his movements are a blur, his horrible, sickly-white hands outstretched towards Xie Lian’s throat.

“Get away!” Xie Lian screams.

In the half-heartbeat before the demon’s claws sink into Xie Lian’s skin, the night explodes into silver.

Xie Lian blinks in shock as a swarm of silver birds - no, not birds, butterflies - dive-bombs the masked demon. They’re beautiful, delicate and luminescent, with the beauty and grace of a blade. The demon screeches in something like delight as the butterflies drive him backwards, away from Xie Lian, his feet dragging in the dirt.

A single butterfly lands on Xie Lian’s knee. Its wings beat once, slowly. Xie Lian raises a trembling finger and strokes it, as gently as he can manage.

Behind Xie Lian, footsteps sound on the bridge. Slow and steady and confident, accompanied by a soft ringing sound, like bells.

“You finally show yourself, Xue Yu Tan Hua,” the masked demon calls, his voice echoing loudly in the emptiness of the night. “You’ve really left your stench on this one. He barely smells human anymore.”

“Well, that’s interesting,” a voice says, right behind Xie Lian. “You knew he was under my protection and yet you’ve still been chasing after him like a mongrel for weeks.”

“I’ve always liked a challenge,” the masked demon says.

A figure dressed in scarlet steps around Xie Lian and comes to a stop between him and the demon.

Xie Lian stares up at him. He is taller and broader than usual, his hair long and pulled into a high ponytail instead of short and carefully-parted. His clothing is unfamiliar, the style traditional and high-collared, and when he looks at Xie Lian briefly over his shoulder, one of his eyes is hidden under a black eyepatch. It’s still him, though. Unmistakably, it’s him. Xie Lian would know him anywhere, in any form, even if a thousand years had passed.

“I’m going to tear you to pieces,” Hua Cheng tells the masked demon, his voice sickly-sweet with poison. He reaches into thin air and, with a flash of silver, a wicked-looking scimitar appears in his hand.

And now he is moving, too fast for Xie Lian’s eyes even to track, a blur of red and silver. The masked demon moves, too, and when they collide, it is accompanied by the heavy, wet boom of thunder. A raindrop falls on Xie Lian’s cheek, and then two, and then he’s sitting on his ass on a haunted bridge in a downpour, watching the love of his life sword-fight a ghost like he’s Aragorn and this is Helm’s Deep.

“Okay,” Xie Lian whispers to himself, struggling to his feet as he watches Hua Cheng collide with the masked demon again and again and again. “Okay. You’re okay. Keep breathing. It’s okay.”

He balls his fists, wavering, watching Hua Cheng land a particularly savage slash that sends a crack forking down the demon’s mask. He wants to help, wants desperately to help, but running forward into the fray would probably only put him in Hua Cheng’s way, and he doesn’t know what else to do - can’t run away and leave Hua Cheng behind, can’t stand here and do nothing, can’t, can’t, can’t-

The demon says, its voice cracking high with something like delight, “Your human looks a little surprised, Hua Chengzhu! Don’t tell me you never told him what you are!”

“Shut up,” Hua Cheng growls, his voice low and deadly and oh, okay, Xie Lian files that away to come back to later.

“Humans are such a delicate little things,” the demon continues. “So easily frightened off. Gracious… did you maybe think he would be scared of you? Disgusted? He was so horrified by me, after all. What must he think, knowing the man he’s been sleeping beside is a demon lord? Did you think, perhaps, he might stop loving you?”

Xie Lian says, before he can help it, “San Lang? What?”

Hua Cheng freezes, and the masked demon laughs, high and delighted.

And then Hua Cheng is stumbling backwards, knees buckling, a dark stain spreading across his chest. The masked demon shakes out his hand, and blood scatters onto the earth, shockingly dark.

“No,” Xie Lian gasps. “San Lang. No, no, no-”

Hua Cheng sinks to one knee, catching himself on his scimitar. “I’m fine,” he chokes. “Run, gege-”

“Run, gege,” the masked ghost mocks. “A pathetic excuse for a demon lord. Don’t worry, Xue Yu Tan Hua. I’ll put you out of your misery.”

He advances on Hua Cheng, the crack spreading lower on his mask.

Xie Lian shoots forward, the heavy spirit box clutched tightly in both hands, and cracks it over the demon’s head with all of his strength.

The masked demon staggers. Stumbles. It is enough of an opening.

Hua Cheng shoots to his feet, spinning his scimitar in his hand, and stabs it through the masked demon’s chest.

The demon looks down at the silver sword in his chest and makes a low, gurgling sound that might be a laugh. And then he starts to shudder and fade. His form dissipates, gradually disappearing into the mist. His broken mask falls off his face and tumbles into the dirt.

Hua Cheng steps on it with his heel and it shatters into pieces. And then he collapses into a heap, the silver glow around him fading and the unfamiliar facade disappearing, until he’s lying in the dirt, motionless and blood-soaked, looking like the boy that Xie Lian fell in love with.



Location 7: Xie Lian’s Apartment

00:12

 

By the time Hua Cheng stirs, Xie Lian has paced the length of his apartment three times, made and forgotten about two cups of tea, worried the stitching loose on the hem of his sweater, and cried.

He’s sitting on the floor next to his shitty couch, staring furiously at the wall in an attempt to keep from bursting into sobs again, when Hua Cheng softly says, “Gege?”

Xie Lian’s up instantly, smudging tears off his cheek with the back of his hand. Hua Cheng struggles into a seated position, his hand landing on his abdomen with a wince. The wound is long-gone - Xie Lian had pulled up Hua Cheng’s shirt to treat it and been met only with smooth skin - but the memory of it must still be painful.

“Are you okay?” Hua Cheng asks him.

Xie Lian takes a deep, shuddering breath.

“How,” he says, “can you ask me that?”

“Oh,” Hua Cheng says, his voice punched-out and very, very small. “You’re right. I’m sorry-”

“Don’t say sorry, either!” Xie Lian snaps. “Honestly, San Lang, do you have any idea how much you just scared me? How terrified I was?”

“I know,” Hua Cheng says, and he looks smaller than himself, his shoulders folding inward, his gaze trained on the ground. “I… I’m sorry I scared you. I never wanted you to see me like that, I know it can be-”

“I am not scared of you and - and your magical sword!” Xie Lian shouts. “San Lang, I was scared… I thought that… you collapsed, and I thought that you had died saving my life.”

Hua Cheng’s eyes blow wide.

“Oh,” he says. “Oh.”

Xie Lian’s hands are shaking. He gets to his feet, looking down at the scuffed floor, trying to figure out how to put words to the horrible, monumental cavern inside his chest that had opened up when he saw Hua Cheng fall to the earth. When he’d had to carry him across the bridge and bundle him into the van, cradling his head in his lap, desperately checking and rechecking Hua Cheng’s pale and dirt-smudged wrist for a pulse while the others asked him what had happened.

“I’m so mad at you,” he finally settles for. “How could I have lived if you had died?”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng begins, reaching out and taking Xie Lian’s hand. “Thank you for worrying about me. I’m fairly resilient, though. It’ll take worse things than that bastard to kill me.”

“Worse things,” Xie Lian echoes faintly. “Are there worse things? Worse than him?”

Hua Cheng pauses, looking down at their tangled fingers. “I don’t want to scare you,” he says.

“Hua Cheng,” Xie Lian continues, and he feels odd, disconnected from himself, separate from his body. “All those times we went places to investigate and… and you kept saying ghosts aren’t real, and that there was nothing there… were you laughing at me? Making fun of me?”

“No,” Hua Cheng says, and there is real panic on his face now, more even than there had been when the masked demon had stuck his hand inside his chest. “Gege, I’m sorry, the first time you asked me I just… freaked out, and that was the first thing that came out of my mouth. I didn’t want to… I didn’t know how to tell you the truth. I promise, though, there really was nothing, in a lot of the places we visited. Spirits are shy, they hide from humans, and especially from… me...” His voice trails off, his mouth pressing into a thin, anxious line.

“You could have told me,” Xie Lian says, his voice very small. “All this time… Why didn’t you tell me? Am I… Did I do something to break your trust?”

“No, no, I trust you, I swear-”

“Then… you thought I wouldn’t believe you?”

“I knew you would believe me!” Hua Cheng bursts out. “That’s what I was scared of!”

Did you maybe think he would be scared of you? Disgusted? He was so horrified by me, after all. What must he think, knowing the man he’s been sleeping beside is a demon?

Did you think, perhaps, he might stop loving you?

Xie Lian drops Hua Cheng’s hand and steps away, slowly. “If you… if you seriously think that I would stop loving you over something like this - over something you are, something you can’t help - then you really don’t know me at all.”

A single tear spills out of Hua Cheng’s right eye and traces a line down his cheek. He looks shell-shocked, stunned, like Xie Lian punched him in the solar plexus.

“I’m going to sleep,” Xie Lian whispers. “You… should stay here tonight. Get some rest. I think I need some time… to myself. You can see yourself out in the morning.”

“Oh,” Hua Cheng says. “Yes. Of course. Goodnight.”

Xie Lian half-sprints to his bedroom and shuts the door behind him, sinking down onto the floor with his back against the door. The tears come before he can help himself, racking through his chest. He presses a fist over his mouth to muffle the sound and falls asleep like that, curled into a ball on the floor, his t-shirt still stained with Hua Cheng’s blood.



Location 8: the Imperial City

14:00

 

The investigation is going horribly.

Xie Lian has been listless and distracted ever since they arrived on-site, breaking everything he puts his hands on and getting lost in the winding streets of the old city twice. They had to send Mu Qing to fetch him the second time. Shi Qingxuan is forced to ask him the same question three times in a row before he realizes he’s being spoken to.

He’s ruining everything. He keeps ruining everything. He just… he doesn’t know how to act like everything’s fine.

Hua Cheng is avoiding him - every time he turns around a corner, there’s a flash of crimson disappearing around another bend.

I asked for space, he reminds himself. He’s being respectful. It’s not that he never wants to see you again because he almost died and you had a big embarrassing meltdown and then confessed to him in the least romantic way imaginable.

During their team meeting before the official set-up begins, Xie Lian sits in the back of the van, legs dangling out the door, Feng Xin perched beside him and the other three standing in a circle around them. Xie Lian keeps his gaze studiously on the ground, barely flinching at all when Hua Cheng adds something to the conversation. It’s all very mature and dignified of him. He’s handling this incredibly well.

“We still need to set up our static cams in the town square,” Mu Qing is saying, double-checking a clipboard with the plan for their array carefully organized into a grid system. “Would anyone be willing to do that while I check sound?”

“Xie Lian and Hua Cheng can do it!” Shi Qingxuan immediately chirps.

Xie Lian’s head flies up.

They shoot him a wink.

“Go take a walk, boys,” they say, bundling a box of camera equipment into Xie Lian’s arms and a spool of cable into Hua Cheng’s. “Enjoy the afternoon. Sight the sees, or whatever.”

“See the sights?”

Shi Qingxuan points at Feng Xin. “Yes, that, exactly. See you in awhile, hopefully several hours!”

And then they plant their palms on the flat of Hua Cheng and Xie Lian’s backs and shove with all of their not-inconsiderable strength.

Okay , Xie Lian thinks, this is fine .

They walk in silence beside each other, Xie Lian hugging the box of equipment to his chest and trying valiantly not to look in Hua Cheng’s direction. It doesn’t work, of course. Hua Cheng has heavy bags under his eyes; Xie Lian wonders with a horrible, aching pang if maybe he never got any sleep last night. Xie Lian’s couch is awfully uncomfortable. He got it from a neighbor’s garage sale years ago, in exchange for a lunch box with Sailor Moon on the front and agreeing to help repaint their front door. Xie Lian should’ve let Hua Cheng have his bed.

The silence between them is heavy and unfamiliar. Xie Lian has never not known how to act around Hua Cheng. It feels like walking into his home and finding all the furniture rearranged.

They reach their destination and get to work setting up the cameras, and, okay, things are a little easier like this. Xie Lian can look at the camera in his hands and pretend to fiddle with a button rather than stealing glances at Hua Cheng’s face, and then really fiddle with a button when he manages to accidentally break something.

Finally, though, his self-control runs out. Xie Lian sets the camera down and says, “San Lang.”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng replies, and his voice is so full of something that Xie Lian accidentally looks up and over at him. He’s staring at Xie Lian, his eyes huge and hopeful and lovely, the roll of cable completely forgotten on the ground.

“You,” Xie Lian begins, and then he forgets how to talk and has to start again.

“Can you show me again?” he eventually manages to say.

Hua Cheng blinks. “What do you mean?”

“The butterflies,” Xie Lian says. “I. If it’s not too much trouble. Could you show me again?”

Hua Cheng hesitates, and then holds his hands out in front of himself, palms up, and opens them. A flurry of silver bursts from his palms, a hundred delicate butterflies coasting up and into the sky, spinning around Xie Lian in a dizzying and breathtaking dance. Xie Lian lets out a breathless laugh, holding a hand out for one of them to land on as the others rise and fall with the breeze.

“They’re beautiful,” he whispers.

“How can they be?” Hua Cheng asks him. “It’s demon magic, Xie Lian. Doesn't that... are you really okay with that?”

Xie Lian’s hand drops away from the butterfly and he whips around to face Hua Cheng. “Stop talking that way,” he says. “How can you say that? San Lang is San Lang, and if it’s San Lang, then magic is beautiful.”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, very seriously. “You’re going to get my hopes up.”

“Good,” Xie Lian says, fiercely, and storms off, leaving Hua Cheng staring, open-mouthed, behind him.



Location 9: Xie Lian’s Apartment

19:35

 

The knock that sounds at his door that night is not entirely unexpected. Xie Lian hadn’t allowed himself to get his hopes up, though, so he’s forced to answer the door in the ugliest sweater and flannel pajama pants he owns. The sweater he found abandoned in the laundry room at his university. The pajama pants he most certainly fished out of the trash.

When he swings the door open, he immediately craves death. Hua Cheng has dressed up, his suit deeply crimson, his black dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar and exposing the graceful line of his throat. He’s holding flowers in one hand and a bag of takeout in the other, his hair carefully styled, a smudge of red eyeliner visible at the corners of his eyes.

“I love you,” Hua Cheng tells him, as soon as the door is fully opened and their eyes have met. “Gege, please, forgive me. I’m in love with you.”

Xie Lian is crying, which is a real shame, because now he’s not only wearing the worst outfit he owns but is also in tears while being confessed to by the love of his life.

“I love you, too,” he says. “But if you ever protect me at the expense of your own safety again, I’m going to kick your ass, demon magic or no demon magic.”

Hua Cheng makes a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob. And then they’re somehow inside Xie Lian’s apartment, the door swinging shut behind them, and the flowers and takeout are on the ground and Xie Lian is in Hua Cheng’s arms, kissing him like it’s the end of the world.

Hua Cheng kisses like lightning. His hands are everywhere, solid and firm, on the small of Xie Lian’s back and the curve of his cheek and the nape of his neck. He kisses Xie Lian’s mouth open and then kisses his neck, and Xie Lian lets out a startled little sigh and then extracts himself, curving his fingers in the fabric of Hua Cheng’s expensive suitcoat and guiding them both toward the bedroom.

“Any other secret magical powers I should know about?” Xie Lian asks him, as Hua Cheng’s lips travel across his forehead and his jawline and his ear. “Laser vision or teleportation or anything like that?”

Hua Cheng laughs against Xie Lian’s skin, hands sliding up Xie Lian’s hips and under the fabric of his stupid, ugly sweater, which is now his favorite thing that he owns.

“I’ll show you everything,” Hua Cheng promises, kissing Xie Lian’s lips again. “Anything you want, gege.”

“Okay, then,” Xie Lian says, giggling and squirming a little when Hua Cheng’s hands press down. “Later.”

“Later,” Hua Cheng says, his eyes dark and burning and beautiful, as he slips out of his suitcoat and lifts Xie Lian into his arms.



Location 10: Ling Wen Textile Factory

23:09

 

“Why,” Mu Qing begins, “did we not consider that they might actually be worse once they got together?”

Beside him, Feng Xin nods, one of his eyes twitching erratically. “For once, I actually think you’re right.”

Shi Qingxuan waves an airy hand. “You two just have no eye for romance,” they lilt, inspecting their cuticles lazily. “Don’t be such killjoys.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re 500 yuan richer now,” Mu Qing mutters.

Across the room, Hua Cheng and Xie Lian stand hand-in-hand. “Which wing do you think we should investigate first?” Xie Lian asks, and Hua Cheng smiles down at him, every inch of him a planet in orbit around its star.

“I’ll go anywhere gege wants to go,” Hua Cheng announces, and Xie Lian beams.