Xue Yang knew right away that something was off. He couldn’t’ve said how he knew. It was just the prickling on the back of his neck, the instincts that had kept him alive informing him to be on his guard. Not the way he reacted to ambient resentful energy, but something else that made him think of knives in the back.
If he was on his own he would’ve turned around and walked back out of there. Or else gone through with a naked blade to proclaim fuck with me and bleed.
But he wasn’t on his own, and they were here for a reason, and he really doubted either of his companions was going to listen if he said something. Least not if he just said I have a bad feeling about this place and we should go. Wasn’t like there was a lot of trust going around.
Which, Xiao Xingchen would’ve had to be a truly colossal idiot for that to not be true, but he sort of resented it anyway.
He could still walk away.
Xue Yang knew he wouldn’t. He’d never meant to walk away, not without tearing everything behind him to shreds, and if he was going do that he would’ve done it earlier, back when he’d come back with a basket full of vegetables and found Song Lan sitting beside Xiao Xingchen. Xiao Xingchen with all the blood drained out of his face, turning toward Xue Yang with an expression of absolute horror.
He’d known the game was fucking finished, but he’d only just started to react when Xiao Xingchen said, voice unsteady, “Xue Yang,” and something about the way he said it froze him. Just for a moment, but it was a moment long enough for Xiao Xingchen to say, “don’t do anything rash. Please.”
Well, apparently he was just as much of a sucker as Xiao fucking Xingchen, because he hadn’t done what he should’ve then, and he hadn’t done it any of the other times since, because life was a joke and he was the butt of it. Song Lan tolerated him for Xiao Xingchen’s sake. He tolerated Song Lan for Xiao Xingchen’s sake. A-Qing might not know exactly why things had changed but it’d clearly given her permission to hate him as much as she wanted to. And Xiao Xingchen-
He didn’t know what the fuck to think about Xiao Xingchen.
I don’t trust you, and I don’t forgive you, he’d said. I can’t. Do you understand? and it’d felt - stupid - like having his guts ripped out and dropped on the ground in front of his feet. A horrible roaring in his ears and on the tip of his tongue yeah, let’s talk about forgiveness, Daozhang, let’s talk about who needs forgiveness here-
And then he said but and Xue Yang was fucked.
But I can’t forget the last three years, he’d said.
Xue Yang, he’d asked, leaning forward like he had the first time he’d kissed him, why did you stay?
So yeah. Fucked. But as to where they stood now - he didn’t know. Sometimes Xiao Xingchen treated him like remarkably little had changed, though he never teased and almost never laughed. Smiled, sometimes, and Xue Yang treasured those like some kind of stupid dog fawning around its master’s legs and knowing that didn’t make it stop. When he’d gotten cut up on their last night hunt, Xiao Xingchen had tended the wounds without flinching away.
But other times he was cold and far away as the moon.
Song Lan was easier. At least he was consistent.
“You’re very quiet,” Xiao Xingchen said, and Xue Yang jerked, tense enough that he almost went for Jiangzai, which would’ve been a good way to risk losing a limb.
“You’re quiet,” Xiao Xingchen said. He’d paused in walking, apparently heedless of the people forced to step around him. “That’s unusual for you.”
“Makes you nervous?” Xue Yang said, and it came out a little nastier than he really meant it to but he didn’t like it here and half the time they didn’t seem to like it when he talked, either. Song Lan shot him a sharp and suspicious stare but Xiao Xingchen just made a sort of ‘mmm’ noise and nothing further, still just fucking - standing there.
It was a familiar tactic. Obvious. He’d done it plenty of times back in Yi City (home, murmured a stupid part of Xue Yang’s brain that he ignored), acting like he didn’t know he was being provoked and waiting until he got an actual answer.
At least a-Qing had stayed behind today, so she wasn’t contributing her shitty commentary.
His hackles went up. “I don’t have to tell you everything I’m thinking. Or am I supposed to do that now?”
Song Lan shifted like he wanted to say yes. You don’t want to know what I’m thinking, he would’ve said with bared teeth. But okay, Song-daozhang, since you asked I’ll share. But Xiao Xingchen just waited, still silent.
Yeah. Okay. Fine. “There’s something wrong with this place.”
“What does that mean,” Song Lan said, with entirely predictable skepticism.
“We are here for a night hunt,” Xiao Xingchen said, milder, less of an accusation.
Xue Yang gritted his back teeth. “Not that kind of wrong,” he said. “You think I’m going to get creeped out by some ghost? I’m talking about something else.”
“Again,” Song Lan said, “if you could clarify what that means?”
“If I could be more specific than that I would’ve been,” Xue Yang said. “I just know that there’s something wrong here and I think we should get out of it before something actually happens to ‘clarify’ it.”
Xiao Xingchen frowned. “I’ve never known you to be frightened of anything,” he said, and he didn’t sound amused or anything really other than maybe curious but Xue Yang’s whole body still locked up.
“I’m not,” he snapped. “I just don’t love walking into a bad situation without knowing anything about it.” At least not with his present company. Maybe alone, but that was different than with two people he didn’t trust. Or, one he didn’t trust and one he sort of did, maybe, when he was feeling stupid, which was a lot of the time lately.
“We know that these people need our help,” Xiao Xingchen said.
“If you’re going to drag your feet,” Song Lan said, eyes fixed on him flat and disdainful, “you’re welcome to stay at the inn while we handle it.” In fact, his face suggested, I would rather you did that, Xue Yang. I would rather you died, actually, but I am unfortunately being deprived of the pleasure.
Same to you, Zichen, Xue Yang thought irritably, and flexed his left hand once, knuckles popping loudly. “Whatever,” he said. “But when this goes tits up don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Dead kids. That was what these people needed help with, and that was why a-Qing wasn’t here, because none of them were sure what exactly counted as a kid and while a-Qing insisted that she was sixteen and that definitely wasn’t a kid, Xiao Xingchen got nervous about it, and when Xiao Xingchen got nervous about something he got what he wanted, most times.
All right, kids missing was what they’d heard, but Xue Yang had shifted it in his head to dead, the same way he bumped the number up from four to closer to ten because the only kids that were getting counted were the ones people noticed.
Plenty of gutter brats no one would miss.
He didn’t mention that to Xiao Xingchen or Song Lan. Didn’t really matter how many dead kids it was; they’d be cut up over one.
Anyway, now he was listening to some idiot babbling to Xiao Xingchen about tapping sounds he’d heard at his windows in the middle of the night like something scratching to get in. Oh, and he was sure he’d seen a mark carved into his doorframe. It was surely a curse, and he was sure he knew who’d cast it, that no good, rotten-
“You’re not cursed,” Xue Yang said, sick of listening.
The man stopped talking. Xue Yang drew his knife and brushed his thumb down the blade just shy of where it’d cut. “You’re not cursed,” he repeated. “I’d know.”
Xiao Xingchen frowned slightly in his direction. “Is that true?”
Xue Yang flashed a humorless and pointless grin. “I know some things about curses, Daozhang,” he said dryly. “Pretty personally familiar, even if I usually preferred something more immediate.”
Xiao Xingchen’s mouth pinched and his face turned away, and Xue Yang almost regretted saying it. Almost. Song Lan looked like he was picturing what Xue Yang would look like with a sword through his chest.
So this was getting off to a great start.
“You most likely aren’t cursed,” Xiao Xingchen said, more gently. “The creature we are hunting seems to target only children. Do you have any children, xiansheng?”
“Oh,” the man said, immediately losing interest. “That’s what you’re here about. No, I don’t. You might go talk to Huang Shoushan and his wife. Their daughter vanished three days ago.” He waved in the general direction of another stall.
Xiao Xingchen bowed, as did Song Lan. “Thank you, xiansheng,” Xiao Xingchen said politely. Xue Yang turned away without bowing. Stupid to pretend he had any respect for these people. Stupid of the other two to act like they were worth any respect.
Like all displays of manners it was just a meaningless, pointless pantomime and he wasn’t interested in participating.
“Hey,” he said abruptly, snagging Xiao Xingchen’s arm only to let go fast when he tensed - there it was, the reminder again that they weren’t Chengmei and Daozhang anymore but something else, something nebulous and undefined. The tightness in his guts only cemented his decision. “Meet you back at the inn. I’m going to go poke around.”
“Alone?” Song Lan said skeptically. Xue Yang bared his teeth at him.
“Worried about me? That’s cute.”
“More concerned about what you might do.”
Xiao Xingchen rested a light hand on Song Lan’s arm and said, “what do you intend to do?”
Kill someone and drop their mutilated body in someone’s house, he thought. What else would I be doing, Xiao Xingchen, but he managed to not say it even if he wanted to. “Look for information, what else?” he said. “I don’t want to wander around talking to random farmers. You feel free to do that and I’ll try my own way.”
Song Lan didn’t look pleased. Neither did Xiao Xingchen, and Xue Yang let out a harsh laugh.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “You hear about any sudden deaths and you’ll know it was me and have a perfect excuse to cut my head off, which should at least make you happy, Song-daozhang.” Xiao Xingchen winced, which was more of a relief than Xue Yang wanted it to be.
Song Lan opened his mouth, but Xiao Xingchen said, “all right, Xue Yang. If you think it will be helpful…”
“Xingchen,” Song Lan said, but stopped when Xiao Xingchen shook his head. Xue Yang shot him a nasty and insincere grin.
“See you later, then,” he said, and after a moment grabbed Xiao Xingchen’s arm again and tugged him down far enough to plant a kiss on the corner of his mouth before making his getaway, without looking back to see the reaction.
Probably a bad idea. But he didn’t claim to always make good decisions. Or even mostly.
The fun decisions were more interesting, and often not the same as the good ones. And Xiao Xingchen had been happy enough kissing him before.
And it would probably piss off Song Lan, which didn’t hurt.
But now he had some research to do.
Xue Yang liked research. He liked puzzles. That and the fighting were the two good things about night hunting with Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan; the drawback was the parts that involved the stupid people whining about their problems like they were the most important thing in the world. He didn’t give a shit about them and didn’t see the point in pretending otherwise.
As far as he could tell, most other cultivators didn’t care either; the hunts they took were just a means to fame and glory and people falling all over themselves to tell them how good and righteous they were. The whole thing was nauseating. And boring. And half the time people didn’t know what they were talking about anyway.
Better to just go to the source. There were ghosts everywhere, and they almost always had something to say if you knew how to listen. Not in words, not the way a Gusu Lan cultivator could ask questions with Inquiry, but impressions, sensations, feelings.
He slipped around the back of a house and climbed up onto the roof, tucked himself where he’d escape most notice, and settled in.
Xiao Xingchen wouldn’t like him doing this, but that was just a good reason to not do it in front of Xiao Xingchen. What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. It wasn’t like he was actually hurting anyone.
He set his hands on his knees like he was going to meditate, but rather than focusing inward he stretched outward, seeking. He found a resonance of concentrated death and dismissed it when it became clear it was just a butcher. There were the last shreds of consciousness of a beggar in the alley by this house, not enough for a proper haunting, just enough to tickle. He could make it stronger, if he wanted to. Just for the fuck of it.
He treasured the idea for a moment and then let it go, moving on.
There. At the outer limit of his awareness. Like reeling in a fish, he pulled it to him.
It was weak. Another day and it’d dissipate into nothing. Not even a ghost so much as an echo, even, and it was probably only him as an anchor that let it look like what it’d been, which was a kid. He was shit at ages but maybe four or five. Couldn’t’ve said girl or boy.
“Hey,” he said. It wasn’t like he really needed to talk, but he liked talking. “Looks like you’re having a shit week.”
The ghost didn’t answer. Couldn’t, probably, not weak as it was. That was too bad; would’ve been nice to just ask so what killed you and where do I find it and get some kind of response.
“Me and these two daoshi,” Xue Yang said, “one of them’s all right, the other one - he’s an asshole. We’re here looking for your, uh, shit week. Don’t suppose you could give me any directions.”
Nothing, for a while. He was just about to let it go when he got it.
West. Woods. Smell of dirt, blood. A house but not a house.
Xue Yang blinked, let that settle. “Well, well,” he said after a moment. “That’s very helpful.”
He released the barely-there ghost. He could go back, find Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, tell them what he’d learned. Xiao Xingchen might smile. Might say thank you, Xue Yang, with that tone in his voice a little like he was patting a dog on the head for behaving well.
Or he could just go and deal with whatever this thing was himself. Not that he had anything to fucking prove, oh no.
Fuck it, he thought, jumped off the roof, and headed west. Out of town and toward the woods.
It wasn’t even that hard to find what he was looking for. Well, it probably would’ve been harder if he didn’t know what he was looking for, the rough direction he was looking in, and if it didn’t reek - to his awareness, anyway - like death.
The structure was barely four walls and a thatch roof. (A house but not a house.) It looked like it’d probably been abandoned decades ago and recently restored to something that could be used. He wasn’t that interested in that, though; more in the disturbed earth behind it.
He didn’t have to dig down very far to find what’d been buried here. Sloppy work. On a professional level he was almost embarrassed. Course, without the protection of a coffin or spellwork they’d rot away pretty quick, beyond recognition.
Well, Xue Yang thought, chewing on his lip, he’d been right on both fronts. Dead, not missing, and eight, not four.
But while there might be ghosts here later, this wasn’t a cultivator kind of hunt.
“Where were you,” Song Lan said when Xue Yang made his way back to the inn, dark eyes suspicious.
“Around,” Xue Yang said shortly.
“We didn’t learn much,” Xiao Xingchen said, his voice mild, the way it got when he was trying to cut an argument short. Apparently they were going to pretend Xue Yang hadn’t kissed him. Well, fine. “More information about the children themselves, and when and where they were last seen. There are no patterns that were obvious to us, but perhaps you might notice something we missed?”
The words took shape on Xue Yang’s tongue - I don’t need to notice anything, solved your mystery, it’s nothing but an ordinary murderer. Finds kids when they’re alone, breaks their necks, who knows what he does with them after that. There you go, Daozhang. Now what? Should’ve listened to me about leaving, huh?
Xiao Xingchen was looking at him expectantly. Attentively.
There’d been a time, during the three good years, when they’d gone night hunting - a real one, not one of Xue Yang’s - for a man who said he was being haunted by the risen corpse of his dead wife. Which had turned out to be true, only he hadn’t mentioned that he’d beaten her to death to start with.
The dead wife had been easy enough to deal with. The misery Xiao Xingchen had sunk into for almost a week after less so. Maybe you should’ve just let him die, Xue Yang had said, which Xiao Xingchen hadn’t liked at all.
“Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.”
“Did you find anything?” Song Lan asked. It sounded like an accusation.
“No,” he lied. “Unless you count the biggest dead rat I’ve ever seen.”
Xiao Xingchen’s face did that thing it did now where he wanted to laugh and felt like he shouldn’t. “No,” he said. “I don’t think that counts.”
Song Lan was frowning at him, but what else was new. He probably thought Xue Yang had gone off and killed someone just for the fuck of it. He kind of wished he’d gone off and killed someone just for the fuck of it. Always nice to live up to expectations.
“The most recent disappearance was only two days ago,” Xiao Xingchen said more seriously. “Which makes five.”
So that made nine. Still four nobody was counting, since the freshest corpse had still been older than two days. Killer should’ve stuck with the easier prey no one would miss. Probably gotten too easy, though. Boring.
“Uh huh,” he said. “You said no patterns?”
Xiao Xingchen shook his head. “Different ages, though all between three and eight. So it seems we might’ve brought a-Qing with us after all.”
“Make sure to tell her that, she’ll love it,” Xue Yang said. “Anything about the families?”
He talked Xiao Xingchen - and Song Lan, though he was mostly quiet - through what they’d found, only paying attention with half his brain. Mostly he was thinking about what his best options were moving forward. Xiao Xingchen wouldn’t leave while he thought people here were still in danger. That meant tracking down and killing the murderer, ideally without Xiao Xingchen ever knowing. Maybe if children stopped disappearing he’d let it go? Probably not that easily.
“I’d like more tea,” Song Lan said abruptly, cutting across Xiao Xingchen’s explanation of the last known locations of the victims. “And food. I could use an extra pair of hands for carrying it. Xue Yang?”
Xiao Xingchen turned in his direction with a slight frown, eyebrows drawing together. Xue Yang could’ve laughed at the pathetically transparent excuse.
“Pretty rude to interrupt, Song-daozhang,” Xue Yang said. “You wouldn’t be just trying to get me alone, would you?”
The skin around Song Lan’s stolen eyes tightened. Xiao Xingchen’s expression flickered with very faint anxiety. Xue Yang stretched his arms overhead, rose up on his tiptoes, and dropped back down. “Okay, okay,” he said, before either of them spoke. “Since you asked so nicely.” To Xiao Xingchen he said, “you can finish telling me everything when we get back.”
He stepped out into the hallway, holding the door for Song Lan to follow. “Zichen,” Xiao Xingchen said abruptly.
Xiao Xingchen shook his head. “Never mind.”
“Do the two of you need some privacy for a minute, or something?” Xue Yang said, not quite able to keep the sneer out of his voice. Song Lan glared at him, which was less bothersome than the way the corners of Xiao Xingchen’s mouth turned slightly downward.
“No,” he said. “It can wait.”
Xue Yang was not in the least surprised when Song Lan turned to him after the door closed and said, “outside.”
“Bossy,” Xue Yang said, but he went outside, only moderately concerned that Song Lan might be planning to try to kill him. He didn’t think he would. Probably.
Almost as soon as the door closed Song Lan turned on him. “You lied,” he said.
“Are you talking about something specific or just generally,” Xue Yang said.
“When you told Xingchen you didn’t find anything,” Song Lan said, voice somehow getting harder, “you lied. Why?”
“Sort of interesting,” Xue Yang said, “that you’re asking me about this first and not saying something in front of Xiao Xingchen.”
The corner of Song Lan’s eye twitched. “I’m giving you a chance before I break the word to Xingchen that you’re every bit the snake you always were. You were about to say something and then decided not to. What was it?”
None of your business, Xue Yang almost said, reflexively, or more concisely fuck off, but-
Much as he hated to admit it, Song Lan wasn’t stupid.
He might, in this case, actually be useful. Him and Xiao Xingchen working together even if Xue Yang actively got in the way - wouldn’t take them long to get to the same place Xue Yang already had.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, “if you don’t say a word to Xiao Xingchen about it.”
“Why would I lie to Xingchen on your say so,” Song Lan said.
“Same reason you make most of your stupid decisions,” Xue Yang said. “Because he’ll be happier if you do.”
Song Lan’s expression flickered. Just a hint of give. “I’m not making any promises,” he said after a moment. Xue Yang took a breath through his nose.
Well. Worst that could happen-
Worst that could happen was Song Lan stormed back upstairs and called him out for a liar, and Xiao Xingchen decided that was it, experiment over and turned out he could forget the last three years after all, and then there’d be some hard decisions for Xue Yang to make very quickly.
“It’s not a night hunt,” he said. “What’s going on here.”
Song Lan narrowed Xiao Xingchen’s eyes. “It isn’t? What is it, then?”
Xue Yang pressed the tip of his tongue against his front teeth and after some long moments considering said, “there’s a hut about two li out in the wood with eight child-size graves dug outside it. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t know any ghosts or monsters in the habit of burying the things they kill. Least not like that.”
Song Lan got it. And if he was obviously horrified he didn’t actually seem surprised.
That was one thing about Song Lan. He recognized, better than Xiao Xingchen, that the world was mean and ugly and chewed people up and spat them out. He just seemed to think it was worth helping anyway, which was the stupid part.
“It makes sense,” Song Lan said slowly. “The lack of discernible pattern, the variation in age and location…” His eyes snapped back to Xue Yang, sharpening. “Why should I take your word for it?”
“Don’t, then,” Xue Yang said. “Go ahead. Keep stumbling around looking for something else. More kids will die.”
“Or I could share this hypothesis of yours with Xiao Xingchen.”
Xue Yang kept himself from snarling. Took a breath to imagine Song Lan choking on his own blood and then said, “maybe it’s escaped your notice but he’s not exactly at his best right now, Zichen. You really want to dump that bucket of shit on his head?”
Song Lan looked almost indignant. “Xingchen is fine.”
Xue Yang cast his eyes skywards. “Are you sure he’s the blind one? If you’re not using those eyes maybe you should give them back-”
“If you’re so wise, then by all means,” Song Lan interrupted.
Xue Yang pulled his lower lip between his teeth and then released it. “He’s tired,” he said. “He’s stressed, and trying not to show it.”
“No wonder,” Song Lan said, “having to deal with you.”
“Not just me,” Xue Yang said, voice sharpening. “He’s got you to manage just as much. And if you’re too stupid to see that’s what he’s doing then it’s not my fault.”
Song Lan’s indignation got stronger, but only for a moment. He glanced over his shoulder toward the inn and then took a step closer and said, “it is your fault that he’s struggling with the moral weight of letting you live.”
Xue Yang bared his teeth. “Might be easier to carry if you weren’t making him feel like shit about it.”
Song Lan’s expression tightened. After a moment he took a breath and said, “you want me to lie to Xingchen.”
“Yeah,” Xue Yang said flatly. “That’s what I’m saying.”
“I’m not a liar.”
“Sure,” Xue Yang said. “Not telling him this one thing because it’s going to make him miserable is so much worse than telling him you hate him and want him out of your life forever, right?”
The way Song Lan recoiled was immensely satisfying. The way he looked momentarily like he was going to hurt Xue Yang even more so. He braced for it, relaxed for it, flicked through possible reactions that would cause varying levels of damage.
“Do you have an alternate suggestion, then,” Song Lan said finally, like the words were teeth he needed to pry loose one by one. “Xingchen won’t simply leave while people - children - are in danger.”
Xue Yang made a face. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.” The look Song Lan cast him was absolutely disgusted, and easily ignored. “So I just need to convince him that the problem’s solved and there’s no need to stick around.”
“I’m not leaving while children here are in danger. Regardless of its source.”
“I figured you’d say that.”
“It doesn’t bother you,” Song Lan said. “At all. That children are dying - being killed-”
“Kids die,” Xue Yang said, and his voice suddenly came out far too flat and far too serious. “It happens. The world goes on. Why should it bother me?”
Nobody would’ve cared if he’d died.
And now Song Lan was looking at him much closer than he liked, still with that disgust that made Xue Yang want to rip his eyes out and shove them down his throat, only they were Xiao Xingchen’s eyes actually and didn’t deserve that kind of treatment.
“Anyway,” he said. “I figured if I could just track down whoever’s doing it, kill him, raise him into a fierce corpse, and give that to Xiao Xingchen-”
“What? No,” Song Lan said before he could even finish. Almost shouted, and Xue Yang glared at him.
“Can you keep your voice down?”
Song Lan’s hands curled like he wanted to put them around Xue Yang’s neck. “That’s monstrous.”
Xue Yang locked level eyes on him and said, “nobody’s saying you have to do it, Song-daozhang. You wouldn’t be personally killing anyone. And if you turned him over to a magistrate he’d still probably wind up dead. And I doubt this guy would be getting proper rites laying him to a peaceful rest, if it’s the fierce corpse part bothering you.” Song Lan just stared at him, and Xue Yang huffed. “I don’t need you to do anything, idiot. All you need to do is keep your mouth shut and keep Xiao Xingchen busy while I take care of the rest, all right?”
Song Lan still looked like he was struggling. Limp-cocked fucker. “Look,” Xue Yang said, “last time we dealt with something like this - Xiao Xingchen and me-” and if that was a pointed reminder of who’d actually been here the past three years, so what- “-he was miserable for a week, and that was when things were good. How do you think he’s going to take it now?”
“No,” Song Lan said, voice grating. Xue Yang could’ve snarled.
“Fucking shit, Song-daozhang.”
“No,” he repeated. “I am not going to just - leave this to you. I don’t trust anything that you would come up with independently. If we do this then it will be a plan that we make. Together.”
That last word sounded like a struggle. Xue Yang blinked, a little startled
A moment later, more than a little pleased.
“Yeah,” he said after a beat. “Yeah, okay. If you think you can handle that.”
“Can you?” Song Lan said aggressively. Xue Yang grinned at him, stepping a little closer and looking up at him, never mind that he had to crane his neck a little to keep meeting his eyes. Him and Xiao Xingchen; too fucking tall.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said brightly. “I can handle you just fine.”
Xue Yang let the words slant, just a little. He gave Song Lan a little credit for not stepping back, even if he lost it for the way his ears reddened very slightly.
“We’d better go back,” Song Lan said after a moment.
“Before Xingchen gets suspicious?” Xue Yang said, even more brightly, and almost laughed at the absolutely filthy look Song Lan gave him, mostly for the way it was touched with shame.
“Is everything all right?” Xiao Xingchen asked when they returned, worry audible. They did bring tea and food to maintain Song Lan’s incredibly flimsy cover story.
“Course,” Xue Yang said. “Why wouldn’t it be? I mean, other than the dead children.”
“Missing,” Xiao Xingchen said, though Xue Yang suspected it was mostly for form. “And don’t be flippant.”
Song Lan frowned down at his tea like it’d offended him and then said abruptly, “perhaps tomorrow we should divide forces again, but each go our own way this time. We might cover more ground that way.”
Xiao Xingchen frowned slightly. “I suppose,” he said. “I’d thought to venture outwards, to see if there’s a trace of some monster that might be coming from the wood-”
“A good idea,” Song Lan interrupted, before Xue Yang could. “I can manage that.”
“I heard some rumors downstairs just now,” Xue Yang said. “Something about some disturbances on the east side of town. Could be nothing.”
“But worth looking into,” Xiao Xingchen said. “Xue Yang, if you’d-”
“Fuck no,” Xue Yang said. “Do you know what neighborhood that is? You don’t want me dealing with a bunch of rich assholes. All yours, Daozhang.”
Xiao Xingchen’s expression flickered and there was a brief, strange look on his face, but it was gone quickly, replaced by a small wry twist of his mouth. “Point taken,” he said. “Where will you be, then?”
“Working my own angle,” Xue Yang said. Xiao Xingchen looked briefly as though he was going to ask and just decided against it. Xue Yang had a little mercy and said, “back streets and alleyways. My territory.”
Xiao Xingchen nodded slowly, but he seemed a little uncertain. “Is it wise to split up?” he asked. “If something should happen…”
“Doubt anything will during the day,” Xue Yang said. “But if it does...this place isn’t that big. And anything just going after kids is probably going to be shy about taking on a full-grown cultivator in a fight, anyway.”
Xiao Xingchen still looked a little less than sure, but after a long pause he nodded again. “I suppose that’s true,” he said. “Tomorrow we’ll separate, then. And if anyone finds something…”
“We’ll use the heat tokens,” Song Lan said. His eyes briefly fixed on Xue Yang’s and then skipped away like he was worried he’d be caught. Or maybe just like he didn’t want to be reminded of the fact that he was now part of a conspiracy where he was lying to Xiao Xingchen. Even if it was for a good reason, that still probably stuck in his craw.
“Well,” Xiao Xingchen said after a moment, “at least it’s something of a plan. I want to work quickly, before...anyone else gets hurt.”
“I can agree on that,” Song Lan murmured, back to staring at his tea. Xue Yang kept his mouth shut, even if he was tempted to say well you know I don’t give a shit but if it makes you happy.
Better to just not.
The next morning they split up: Song Lan heading off to the woods, Xiao Xingchen toward the eastern side of town, and Xue Yang to go looking for ghosts.
In back streets and alleyways. He hadn’t been lying.
There might not be any traces left of the murdered kids, but there were usually other dead around. He found a quiet place on a roof to settle in and went fishing.
The first two bites he got were useless. Weak spirits too fragile to even give him impressions about what they knew. The third was a little better - a beggarwoman who’d died maybe three years ago and had some muddled things to say about a violent death she’d witnessed, but he couldn’t tell if she’d witnessed it two days ago or two years. Time went weird for the dead. It might even have been her death she was thinking of.
Right on cue, around mid-morning, Song Lan found him. His expression was grim.
“Took you long enough,” Xue Yang said.
“I found the house,” Song Lan said. “The bodies...should be returned to their families, when this is done.”
“Leave an anonymous note on our way out,” Xue Yang said. “Did you learn anything, or just go sight-seeing?”
Song Lan’s expression got darker. “Yes,” he said. “Come down and I’ll tell you.”
Xue Yang unfolded his legs and jumped down, bouncing on his toes. Song Lan gave him a not-quite-withering glance and then sighed.
“Hou Mingzhu,” he said.
“Should that mean something to me?”
“Apparently it means something to people here,” Song Lan said. “I did some...careful asking.”
How careful, Xue Yang wondered, not quite able to escape the mental image of Song Lan going up to someone on the street and saying you wouldn’t happen to think one of your neighbors seems like a child killer, would you?
“He’s the brother of the wife of a local minister,” Song Lan said. “Not well thought of. A wastrel at best, and at worst…”
Song Lan sighed. “It’s only rumor. And I dislike taking anything from rumor.”
“Most night hunts come out of rumors,” Xue Yang said. “Stop hedging.”
“Supposedly,” Song Lan said reluctantly, “there was an...incident where he was found trying to lure off a small boy, and when persuasion failed tried force. The child wasn’t severely hurt, and supposedly - supposedly - money was paid to cover the matter over.”
Well, the look on Song Lan’s face made sense.
“Huh,” Xue Yang said. “No idea why you’d think this was related.”
That look was definitely withering.
“It’s rumor,” Song Lan said. “Not evidence.”
“It’s a name,” Xue Yang said. “And a direction. Don’t suppose you know where this Hou Mingzhu spends his time, do you?”
“I don’t want to jump to conclusions.”
“But you do want this over with, right?” Xue Yang said, and then pulled out the knife and added, “and that girl, the most recent one, she wasn’t with the other bodies. Maybe she’s still kicking somewhere. But probably not for long.”
He was pretty sure not at all. But he didn’t need to share that.
Song Lan’s expression pinched slightly, then settled. “Fine,” he said. “But we’re only going to ask questions.”
“Sure,” Xue Yang said. “Questions. Pointed ones.”
“Control yourself, please,” Song Lan said, but he sounded more beleaguered than actually concerned. Xue Yang wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or if it rankled. “I was told to look for him at a teahouse a little ways from here. Behave.”
“As you command, Song-daozhang,” Xue Yang said. “This humble servant will follow your wise and righteous lead.”
“I don’t know how Xingchen tolerated you for three years before he was aware of who you are,” Song Lan said. It might’ve stung if he hadn’t sounded so snippy about it.
“Ask him,” Xue Yang said. Song Lan shook his head and started walking.
“What were you doing?” he asked, after a few moments of silence.
“Talking to ghosts,” Xue Yang said. “Or, well. Trying.”
Song Lan frowned in his direction. “I wasn’t aware you were capable of Inquiry,” he said, in the dry way that said he knew very well Xue Yang wasn’t.
“There’s other ways to talk to the dead if you’re not squeamish about it,” Xue Yang said. Song Lan’s expression was a strange mix of the unnerved and the curious. “If you want me to teach you sometime-”
“I’m not going to learn demonic cultivation. Does Xingchen know about this?”
“No idea,” Xue Yang said. “He knows what I am, though, so probably. He just doesn’t want to ask.”
“It’s dangerous,” Song Lan said.
“It’s useful.” Xue Yang heard his voice get a little sharper. “You know what else is based on demonic cultivation? Those Spirit Attracting Flags everyone uses. The Compasses of Evil. But those are fine, right?”
“You know there’s a difference.”
“I know people say there is. I also know that the sects were happy to use the power demonic cultivation could give them right up until they got what they wanted out of it, and then it was all oh, no more of that, we’re too righteous for such wicked methods-”
“We don’t disagree on the hypocrisy of the great sects,” Song Lan interrupted. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. To you, if that is the only thing that matters.”
Xue Yang’s lip curled slightly. “I’ve been using demonic cultivation for most of my life, Song-daozhang. Hasn’t killed me yet.”
Song Lan’s lips pressed together. “Has it occurred to you that might explain some things?”
“No,” Xue Yang said. “Sorry, Zichen. It’s not demonic cultivation that made me kill people. I’m just like this.”
Song Lan exhaled harshly, visibly displeased, but to Xue Yang’s very slight relief he dropped the subject.
‘Teahouse’ was a nice way of putting it. ‘Tavern’ felt more appropriate, as far as Xue Yang was concerned. They stepped inside and several people took one look at Fuxue across Song Lan’s back and looked like they were considering making an exit.
Xue Yang didn’t bother to wait for them to be noticed by the staff - they might be, because they looked like money, but they also might not be, because they looked like trouble. He sat down at the nearest empty spot at a table.
“Anyone know where I could find Hou Mingzhu?” he asked cheerfully, and loudly. “Me and my friend have some questions to ask him.”
He saw someone sit up in his peripheral vision and quickly down their cup. He flicked his eyes in Song Lan’s direction; it was clear he’d seen it too.
“Over there,” said one of the men at the table, apparently deciding that whatever this was, he didn’t want in the middle of it. Xue Yang stood up and turned.
Hou Mingzhu wasn’t particularly remarkable looking. Not ugly, maybe a little toward the handsome side, even. Decently dressed but rumpled like he’d slept in his clothes. His eyes met Xue Yang’s.
Xue Yang smiled at him and started walking over. Song Lan caught his arm.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Trust me,” he said, and flashed a grin when Song Lan gave him an impressively dubious frown. He pulled himself free and made his way over to Hou Mingzhu’s table, standing over him and looking down.
“Hey,” he said. “You don’t know me. But we’ve been looking for you all morning. Do you know a - uh-” He fished around in his memory, and found the name from yesterday. “Huang Shoushan? Apparently his daughter’s missing.”
Some of the color drained out of Hou Mingzhu’s face. He glanced toward the door even as he shook his head. “I don’t know anyone by that name.”
Xue Yang glanced at Song Lan. Looked back at Hou Mingzhu and hummed under his breath, letting his eyes slide briefly out of focus and then back in.
If you knew how to look for it, killing had an aftertaste. A way of lingering after it was done.
It clung to Hou Mingzhu like burrs on a donkey.
Xue Yang’s muscles coiled tight, the eager anticipation of closing in on a quarry warming up his stomach. He grinned.
“You sure?” he said. “Take a minute. Think about it.” He paused, and then said, “just curious. The first four. Did you ever get their names?”
Hou Mingzhu got even paler. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Song Lan shifted next to him and said, “I think we should go outside.”
Hou Mingzhu swallowed. Xue Yang’s eyes followed the way his throat moved, hungrily. “I’ll rephrase that,” Xue Yang said. “Let’s go outside and I won’t start talking loudly about what I think you’ve done in front of all your neighbors. Actually, that does sound kind of fun. Even if I’m wrong, that kind of thing sticks.”
He tried to make a run for it. Song Lan was quick, though, catching him before he made it two steps toward the door, and Xue Yang knew well how strong his grip could be. Especially when he was mad.
“Outside,” Song Lan said, voice low and hard. “We need to talk.”
He didn’t quite drag Hou Mingzhu out the back door and into the alley behind, but it was sort of a near thing. Xue Yang kind of wished he had dragged him. It would’ve been even funnier to watch the other patrons pretend not to notice.
“It might not be him,” Song Lan said, though he sounded dubious, and he didn’t let go of Hou Mingzhu’s collar.
“Oh, it’s him,” Xue Yang said. “Might not be blood on his hands anymore, but he stinks like death. Figuratively speaking.” He paused, turned to the cowering Hou Mingzhu, and asked, “but we could just ask. What’ve you been up to, Mingzhu-ge? Wouldn’t happen to know anything about a shack in the woods and the graves behind it?”
His eyes widened and he started shaking. “Nothing,” he said, too quickly. “Nothing, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Xue Yang glanced at Song Lan. “Oh,” he said. “Well, then, you heard it from him. Guess we were mistaken, huh?”
Song Lan gave him a hard look and then turned his gaze back on Hou Mingzhu. “The truth,” he said. Hou Mingzhu’s mouth opened and closed several times. Xue Yang sucked on his teeth and drew Jiangzai.
“You’re too nice, Song-daozhang,” he said.
“Xue Yang,” Song Lan said, a warning in his voice.
“I had to,” Hou Mingzhu said urgently. “I couldn’t help it.”
Song Lan’s face went blank. Xue Yang made a sort of ‘pff’ noise. “You didn’t have to,” he said. “You wanted to. There’s a difference. Trust me, I get that.” He hefted Jiangzai, aware of Song Lan’s eyes on him but mostly focused on Hou Mingzhu himself. Just in his peripheral vision he could see the disgust on SongLan’s face and briefly wondered who it was directed at more.
“The little Huang girl,” Song Lan said abruptly. “Is she still alive?”
Hou Mingzhu wavered. “No,” Xue Yang said. “Dead but not buried, I’m guessing. Hadn’t gotten around to it yet or do you keep them around for a little while after?”
Song Lan blanched. His jaw tightened.
“No,” Hou Mingzhu said. “No, it’s not like that-”
“Oh, shut up,” Xue Yang said, thinking.
This shitstain went to the magistrate, he’d hang almost for sure. Always the chance he’d weasel out of it, but once you started killing people who mattered it got harder to do that, even if being family of someone with money made it easier again.
Either way, though, there’d be talk. Plenty of it, and word would spread fast, and sure as shit Xiao Xingchen would hear and put two and two together before he and Song Lan could come up with any kind of alternate cover story that’d satisfy him.
Which would completely defeat the purpose of all of this.
Jiangzai went through Hou Mingzhu’s body easy. Song Lan jerked back, reaching for Fuxue. As soon as he was clear Xue Yang ripped his sword out and slashed open Hou Mingzhu’s throat, too, just to be thorough. It didn’t quite take his head off, though it came pretty close. He kind of wished he’d just gone the rest of the way.
Song Lan stopped dead and stared at him, mouth a little open. He actually looked sort of surprised, which was adorable.
“Whoops,” Xue Yang drawled, flicking the blood off Jiangzai. “Hand slipped.”
Song Lan stared at him for a long moment, mouth a line. Then looked away with a sigh. “Very clumsy of you,” he said, voice dry as dust. Xue Yang flashed him a sharp, slightly vicious grin.
“Happens to the best of us,” he said. Song Lan was still for a moment longer and then walked slowly over and gazed down at the fresh corpse.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said, but there was very little conviction in his voice.
“I’ll remember you said so,” Xue Yang said. Song Lan shot him a look that was a mixture of frustrated and unhappy, and Xue Yang had to laugh, which just made him look more frustrated. “Sorry,” he said. “Just - the look on your face.”
“I’m glad this is funny to you.”
“It’s not,” Xue Yang said. “You are. There’s a difference. If you want to clear out while I get rid of that, though-”
“Get rid of what?”
Oh, Xue Yang thought. Shit. Song Lan froze as well, panic flashing across his face.
“Xingchen,” he said, almost a gasp. Xue Yang bit his tongue hard enough to bleed, his stomach clenching up and lurching into his throat. Fucked. He was fucked now. Easy for Song Lan to play innocent here and it’d be convincing, doubted Xiao Xingchen would believe anything he said, which, fair, and probably good that he was less of an idiot now than he had been, but-
The silence was deafening.
“This is awkward,” Xue Yang said, because he needed to say something. The moment it was out, though, he felt like an idiot. The vicious look Song Lan gave him didn’t help. He tensed, ready to move, to - to something.
“I smell blood,” Xiao Xingchen said, and his voice was calm but in a way that made all of Xue Yang’s muscles lock up. “Whose?”
Xue Yang said nothing, biting down on the don’t suppose you’d believe we just happened to trip over a fierce corpse.
There was only one easy exit, and Xiao Xingchen was standing in front of it. He was just out of Shuanghua’s immediate striking range, but well within Fuxue’s.
“Will one of you,” Xiao Xingchen said, beginning to sound angry, “please give me an explanation?”
“The good news is that there’s not going to be any more dead kids,” Xue Yang said, because Song Lan still looked stricken and like he couldn’t figure out how to string words together. “Which should be the most important thing here, shouldn’t it?”
“Xue Yang,” Xiao Xingchen said, voice like a coffin lid sliding home, “what did you do?”
His hackles came up, hot vicious anger clawing at the back of his throat and he wanted to snarl solved your fucking problem is what, what’s the difference between me doing it and some town official anyway.
“Xingchen,” Song Lan said, his voice strained, “it wasn’t a ghost or a monster that killed those children. He had to be stopped.”
Xue Yang almost bit his tongue his mouth snapped shut so fast. There were so many easy lies he could’ve told. A number of them that would’ve not only preserved Xiao Xingchen’s safe ignorance but also would’ve thrown Xue Yang under the cart. He could’ve pretended that he’d found Xue Yang standing over a dead body. Could’ve even just said he didn’t know what’d happened, that he’d only just arrived. Easy. He barely even had to think to come up with those. Give him another minute and he could probably think of others.
“So you killed him,” Xiao Xingchen said. The words still directed at Xue Yang and he could see the betrayal, the disappointment. His stomach knotted and he was halfway to a laugh, to mocking stupid Daozhang for believing-
“If he hadn’t,” Song Lan said, “I would have.”
Both his and Xiao Xingchen’s heads swiveled toward him. Lie, Xue Yang thought. Must be a lie. Not Song Zichen-daozhang, but why would he say it if it wasn’t true? Maybe it was true. Maybe Song Lan did have a little bloodthirst in him after all. And not just confined to wanting Xue Yang’s head separated from his body.
“Zichen,” Xiao Xingchen said softly.
“He had to be stopped,” Song Lan said again. “You and I both know that authority and justice do not always coexist. And if it did, he would have been sentenced to die regardless. You should not consider me blameless.”
Xue Yang couldn’t have felt more stunned if Song Lan had cracked Fuxue into his temple. That probably would’ve stunned him less. That sounded a lot like he was being defended. Like Song Lan was defending him.
“You knew about this,” Xiao Xingchen said after a moment. “And kept it from me. Both of you.”
“Yeah,” Xue Yang said, after a long stretch of silence. “Pretty much.”
“Ah,” Xiao Xingchen said. “Thank you for clarifying.”
And he turned on his heel in a swirl of his beautiful white robes and walked away, back ramrod straight, only the brief reaching out of his right hand to find a wall betraying any unsteadiness.
Xue Yang stared after him, briefly, miserably, and embarrassingly bereft.
Then looked at Song Lan, who had his head bowed forward and his nose pinched between thumb and forefinger.
“Don’t worry,” Xue Yang said. “He’ll forgive you,” and it was not bitter. Xiao Xingchen’s reservoirs of forgiveness for Song-fucking-Zichen were probably limitless. But he could feel the ice creaking underfoot. Might be better to start moving for shore now rather than waiting to see if it’d hold.
Song Lan gave him an odd look. Xue Yang grimaced at him. “What?”
“We should go back,” Song Lan said. “He’ll walk to clear his head and then...he’ll want to talk.”
“Great,” Xue Yang said. “You go. I’ll handle that.” He gestured at the corpse. Already mapping his way out of town. He’d left a few things at the inn he would’ve liked to have, but nothing vital that he couldn’t live without.
Easy. And he knew how to vanish.
Song Lan’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll join you, if you don’t mind.”
“And if I do mind?”
“Too bad.” Song Lan trained his gaze on Xue Yang. “You do not get to bolt now.”
Ah, shit. Had he been that obvious? You got too used to living with two blind people and lost the ability to mask your face the way you should. He grinned. “What’s the matter, Zichen, worried you can’t handle Xiao Xingchen on your own?”
Song Lan’s jaw tightened. “More concerned how he will feel when he finds out you’ve gone.” He took a step in Xue Yang’s direction. “Do you know how afraid he is of that? How much it preoccupies him?”
No? Xue Yang thought, but his jaw felt sort of glued shut.
“You didn’t hear how insistent he was,” Song Lan said, not quite a snarl. “Those first days. How he nearly begged me to forgive him because he couldn’t let you go.”
The air felt locked in Xue Yang’s chest and he could feel his shoulders drawing up like the hackles on a stray dog. He was exposed, raw even though it wasn’t him being described.
“I watched you for treachery,” Song Lan said. “For malice. And what I saw was that - despite all that you are, despite all that he knows of you - you make him happy. You make him laugh. He’s easier when you’re there.”
Oh, he’d been wrong. That was worse. He opened his mouth but Song Lan just spoke over him, not loud but with vehemence.
“I am not going to let you ruin that for him. Not because of a lie we - both agreed to tell. Do you understand?”
What came out of Xue Yang’s mouth was, “you’re hot when you’re mad, Song-daozhang.”
Song Lan’s eyes rolled upwards. “Don’t,” he said.
“I’m just saying-”
“Don’t,” he repeated. “Let’s just - get this over with.”
Xue Yang could feel a grin spreading across his face. “That’s not very gentlemanly of you,” he said. “If you’re going to be like that then you should at least buy me something nice first.”
Song Lan’s ears turned slightly pink. He glared. “Don’t you take anything seriously?”
“I take this very seriously,” Xue Yang said. He gave Song Lan a deliberately slow once-over. If he was honest, he was pretty good to look at. Nothing on Xiao Xingchen, but still. He could imagine.
“Yes,” Song Lan said, extraordinarily dry. “So I see.”
“I’m just saying,” Xue Yang said. “If you wanted to hold me down and put your hands around my neck and fuck me until I scream, I wouldn’t not be into it. Bet Xingchen-daozhang would be, too.”
Song Lan’s ears got pinker and his breathing hitched, just a little.
“Keep dreaming,” he said flatly, “and get on with it.”
Xue Yang couldn’t help but beam at him. Song Lan didn’t smile, but he didn’t actually look like he wanted to murder him, either. Which was sort of a nice change of pace.
Xiao Xingchen wasn’t there when they got back, which left him and Song Lan just hanging around not talking. Kind of thought you’d sell me down the river, Xue Yang thought about saying, but maybe Song Lan just hadn’t thought of it and he didn’t really want to give him the idea.
Time passed and Xue Yang got antsier and antsier, pacing back and forth across the room while Song Lan just sat there sipping tea.
“Sit down,” Song Lan said.
“No,” Xue Yang said.
“Is this helping?”
“Better than the alternative.”
Song Lan exhaled loudly through his nose. “Calm down,” he said. “It might be a while yet.” He sounded calm, but Xue Yang could see the slight tells of worry. If he wanted to, he could dig into that. Open wounds there and make Song Lan bleed.
He kept his mouth shut, walking over and flinging himself down to the floor. He also didn’t say not like you have anything to worry about, not really. Walking away from you the first time left all the cracks that I crawled into later.
Song Lan was looking at him with a curious lack of antipathy. It made him unaccountably nervous. Song Lan hating him was comfortable and familiar. He wasn’t sure he was prepared for that to change.
“What?” he said snappishly.
“Nothing,” Song Lan said. Xue Yang squinted at him.
“I don’t owe you my every thought,” Song Lan said, his voice turning dry again. “In fact, I don’t owe you any of them. I imagine you have any number of thoughts you don’t share.”
“You wouldn’t like it if I did,” Xue Yang said with his best grin. Song Lan, to his frustration, just blinked slowly, apparently unaffected. He huffed and looked over toward the door, tapping his fingers against his leg.
“Are you incapable of sitting still?” Song Lan asked him after a few moments.
“Probably, yeah. Are you sure we shouldn’t-”
He caught the rhythm of familiar footsteps approaching the door just before it opened. Xiao Xingchen stepped inside.
“Daozhang,” Xue Yang said, at the same time as Song Lan said, “Xingchen.”
His face was hard to read, which was not helping put Xue Yang at ease. He caught himself looking for escape routes again, thinking about all the different ways this could go bad and how he’d react, what he’d be able to do in the blink of time before he wound up skewered or cut open.
Xiao Xingchen walked over to the bed and sat down on it, folding his legs and setting his hands on his knees.
“When did you decide to lie to me,” he said, after several moments of silence. Xue Yang saw Song Lan wince. He started to get up and Xiao Xingchen’s voice cracked like a whip: “stay there.”
He sank back down. “I went off on my own when we got here first,” Xue Yang said after a moment, hating how small his voice came out. “Put together that it wasn’t anything unusual going on here, just the ordinary kind of shit, and decided you didn’t need to know.”
“So almost immediately, then,” Xiao Xingchen said. “And you, Zichen?”
“I could see that he was lying. When he told me why I...agreed to keep the truth from you. Xingchen, I’m-”
He held up a hand. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t want to hear you apologize, not yet. Not until I-” He took a slow, steadying breath. “And why did you feel it was necessary - justifiable - to keep this from me?”
Fuck, Xue Yang thought miserably.
“Does it matter?” he said. “You’re going to be pissed regardless, obviously, so-”
“I want an explanation.”
Whatever. Okay. “This shit fucks you up,” Xue Yang said, flattening out his voice. “I figured you didn’t need to deal with it.”
“Ah,” Xiao Xingchen said. “So it was because you think I’m weak.”
“And foolish as well, that I wouldn’t figure it out on my own? That I wouldn’t notice anything amiss?”
Xue Yang’s throat closed. His chest and face both burned with a rancid mix of shame and humiliation and anger because he was right, he knew he was right, if he’d just done a better job of keeping this from him, not involved Song Lan and kept it to himself-
“Fine,” he said. “Sure. That’s what it is. I think you’re weak and stupid. Is that what you want?”
Xiao Xingchen flinched back and Xue Yang opened his mouth to dig the knife in harder only to stop when Song Lan said, “Xue Yang.”
It cut him off mostly because it didn’t sound like the way Song Lan usually said his name. Xue Yang looked toward him, furious, but Song Lan’s eyes were on Xiao Xingchen. Or, well, Xiao Xingchen’s eyes were on Xiao Xingchen.
“Xue Yang pointed it out to me,” Song Lan said after a moment of silence. “But he was right. You’re exhausted, Xingchen. You’re unhappy. And I...haven’t helped with that, have I? You have borne a great deal recently, and alone.” Xiao Xingchen started to shake his head.
“Zichen,” he said. “You don’t,” but Song Lan went on.
“I - we thought to spare you.”
Xiao Xingchen was quiet for a few moments. “By deceiving me.”
“We should have trusted you.”
We, he kept saying. We. Who the fuck was we, anyway? We was (or had been) him and Xiao Xingchen; we was Zichen and Xingchen. He and Song Lan were - equal and opposing forces. Held together by one thing.
“Yes,” Xiao Xingchen said, and his voice suddenly sounded terribly raw, “you should have.”
Finally, his spine bent, and he lowered his face into his hands.
Song Lan made a strangled sound of distress and lurched forward only to stop himself; Xue Yang didn’t bother to stop himself and just closed the distance, reaching out to grab Xiao Xingchen’s wrists. “Hey,” he said. “Daozhang-”
Xiao Xingchen flinched when he touched him and Xue Yang jerked away, feeling as though his fingertips had been burned. He didn’t back off, though, and Xiao Xingchen took a deep, unsteady breath, lowering his hands and raising his head.
“Zichen, after everything you said warning me against trusting him,” he said. “And you, Xue Yang, how am I ever supposed to believe anything you say-”
Xue Yang’s body tensed. “You already didn’t,” he said, flat and accusing.
“I wanted to!”
That felt like being gutted. A hot knife sliding in under his navel and slicing up. If he looked down there’d be slippery ropes of intestine trying to escape.
“Xingchen,” Song Lan said behind him.
“I am not fragile,” Xiao Xingchen said. “I am not broken-”
“I don’t think-”
“Am I tired? Yes! Of course I’m tired! Worrying about what the two of you are going to do to each other. Trying to anticipate what could go wrong. Hoping that nothing will go wrong because I need this to work, because I couldn’t do what I should have-”
His guts slithered out of the gash and dropped on the floor. Yeah, he knew that should have and was already thinking get over this fast and get moving or you’re dead but his body wasn’t moving the way it should. He was acutely aware of Song Lan and Song Lan’s sword at his exposed back.
“And here,” Xiao Xingchen said, “I was so relieved that maybe the two of you were making some kind of peace. I didn’t consider the possibility that it was because you were both lying to me.”
Xue Yang choked on a ragged laugh and said, “well, I mean. Still an improvement, isn’t it?”
Song Lan made a sort of hissing noise Xue Yang guessed was meant to tell him to shut up. Xiao Xingchen’s face turned toward him and for a moment he thought the hitching noises he started making were sobs and could’ve pulled out his remaining insides himself because this was not the fun kind of making Xiao Xingchen cry, actually, and he wasn’t enjoying it at all.
Then he realized that he was laughing. Okay, a little hysterically, but he was still laughing. “Xingchen?” Song Lan said, sounding uncertain and not a little worried, and Xiao Xingchen laughed harder, bending almost double with it, and all right, now Xue Yang wasn’t so sure this was a good thing.
“Daozhang,” he said. “Hey, come on,” but Xiao Xingchen didn’t answer, just kept - fucking laughing, shoulders shaking, and he knew what he’d probably do with this if he were Chengmei but rules were different for fucking - Xue Yang so-
No, you know what.
He climbed onto the bed. “What’re you doing,” Song Lan said, and Xue Yang said, “shut up,” reaching over and giving Xiao Xingchen’s robes a tug. “C’mere.”
Xiao Xingchen’s laughter hitched and he shook his head but he let Xue Yang maneuver him until he had his head in his lap and the laughing was starting to sound a little more like crying again. Looked like it, too, blood starting to stain through the bandages.
Xue Yang glanced at Song Lan and found him with a weird expression on his face, sort of like he’d been sucker-punched but wasn’t sure yet how much he hated it.
Before Xue Yang could either say something or figure out what that meant, though, he just came over and knelt down and brushed his fingers against the back of one of Xiao Xingchen’s hands.
“I’m sorry, Xingchen,” Song Lan said. And then glanced, pointedly, at Xue Yang.
He grimaced. “Guess there were probably better ways of handling that,” he said, absently rubbing Xiao Xingchen’s head, tracing the line of his jaw with his thumb. Song Lan’s pointed look turned unimpressed and a little annoyed. He blew out the remaining air in his lungs and then said, “yeah, okay. I see your point.”
Xiao Xingchen didn’t say anything right away, but he didn’t try to pull away, either. Stayed there with his head on Xue Yang’s lap like he hadn’t since he’d left to get groceries and come back to Song Lan and his real name in Xiao Xingchen’s mouth. And Song Lan was glaring at him but not so much like he was imagining what Xue Yang would look like dead.
“Okay,” Xue Yang said after a moment. “So, hypothetically speaking, what if I told you now this was all part of an elaborate plot to get Song-daozhang on my side - ow, hey!”
Song Lan withdrew the hand that had swatted the back of his head and said, “it wouldn’t kill you to stop talking, I don’t think.”
“You don’t know that,” Xue Yang said, but glancing down at Xiao Xingchen he decided that maybe this once Song Lan might have a good idea.
Xiao Xingchen calmed down slowly, but he did calm down. Clearly drained, and still unhappy, but he wasn’t...going to pieces, at least. So that was an improvement.
He pushed himself upright and away from Xue Yang, and Xue Yang had a very hard time not just pulling him right back down. He’d missed touching him. He’d missed being touched.
“Are you all right?” Song Lan asked quietly.
“No,” Xiao Xingchen said wearily. “But as I said. I’m not broken and I won’t break.” He heaved a sigh. “You must know that I would have...I was already realizing.”
Xue Yang hummed. “I told you we should have gone with my fierce corpse idea,” he said. Xiao Xingchen didn’t laugh, Song Lan glared at him, and he sort of regretted saying it.
“The little girl,” Xiao Xingchen said after another couple long moments of silence. “Huang Yue. I don’t suppose…”
Song Lan paused before he said, “no. I’m sorry. We’ll...have to find her body and give her proper rest, along with the others.”
Xiao Xingchen’s shoulders drooped. Xue Yang bit his tongue and then said, “I’ll take care of it.”
Both of them turned toward him, Song Lan’s expression doubtful and Xiao Xingchen’s...something else. Xue Yang shrugged. “I’m good with ghosts,” he said. “And dead bodies don’t bother me. I know the rites and I know how to settle a spirit just as well as how to raise one. You don’t have to look so surprised, Song-daozhang, fucking around with the dead has to go both ways if you don’t want to screw yourself over.”
“All right,” Xiao Xingchen said after a moment. And then, “thank you,” which sort of caught him off guard, but he’d take it. Wasn’t like he was doing it for them.
“I’ll be fine,” Xiao Xingchen said after a moment, though his voice was still heavy. “I’m not...it doesn’t hit me the same way as it used to. The horror of it.” He let out a soft, humorless laugh. “Is that bad? That I should no longer feel so much pain confronted by the darkness of the world?”
“No,” Song Lan said. “I don’t think so. You aren’t resigned. Or ignoring it. Only - able to bear it better, perhaps.”
“I suppose.” Xiao Xingchen sighed. “I think I need to rest. Meditate. If you would both excuse me.”
Xue Yang pushed himself to his feet. “I’m going for a walk.”
Song Lan’s eyes narrowed and he started to stand as well, but Xue Yang cast his eyes upward and said, “I’ll be right back, Zichen. ‘Sides, thought you might appreciate the time to talk about - whatever. Daoshi stuff.” He made a vague gesture. Song Lan’s expression relaxed, turning contemplative, and Xue Yang turned away from it.
“I’ll bring you back a pet rat,” he said. “I’m serious, I swear the ones here are the size of fucking cats.”
“Don’t,” Song Lan said.
“Spoilsport,” Xue Yang said, and let himself out.
He did go for a walk. A long one, staying out even as it started to get dark. He ended up going out to the woods, finding his way to the hut with its row of graves.
“If anyone’s still here,” he said after a moment, “the fucker’s dead. Doesn’t make you more alive, but if I were you I’d want to know.”
Four of these bodies would probably never get a proper grave or memorial tablet. He chewed on his lip for a moment.
It didn’t take that long to build up a makeshift sort of shrine. Light a couple sticks of incense, leave a couple pieces of candy. He sort of wished he’d brought something from Hou Mingzhu’s corpse. If it was his body under the dirt he’d want that.
Couldn’t have everything.
Xue Yang brushed his robes off and walked away.
When he got back Song Lan appeared to have gone to sleep, but Xiao Xingchen was still awake and sitting up with his back against the bed. He seemed calmer, steadier, though Xue Yang could still see the weight on him.
He probably should’ve known Xiao Xingchen was sturdier than he’d given him credit for. In retrospect he felt a little stupid about it.
“Xue Yang,” Xiao Xingchen said, and he still felt that funny little lurch of mingled glee and dread sometimes when Xiao Xingchen said his name. “Sit with me?” He patted the floor next to him, and after a brief glance in Song Lan’s direction Xue Yang went over and sat.
For a while neither of them said anything. It was all Xue Yang could do not to fidget.
“I know,” Xiao Xingchen said slowly, “that you...meant well.”
Ah, shit. He’d been hoping they were done talking about this.
“And I know that you know I’m not - pleased.” Xiao Xingchen seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “That you lied to me. Or that…” He paused, and then said, “you killed a man. A human being, who was not attacking you.”
Xue Yang took a breath through his nose and tried to ignore the way his stomach clenched. “Yeah,” he said after a moment.
“You must know I can’t take that lightly. Especially...not from you.”
Xue Yang let out a huff that wasn’t really laughter. “Worried I’m going to slip back into old habits, Daozhang?”
“Bloodshed begets bloodshed.”
“What’re you going to do, then?” Xue Yang asked, and he could hear a dangerous edge starting to slide into his voice but couldn’t keep it out. “Put me on a leash?”
Xiao Xingchen looked away. “No,” he said. “No. That’s not...how I want it to be.” He paused, and then added, “Zichen told me that he doesn’t believe it was driven by impulse or anger. I don’t know if that’s better or worse.”
The idea of Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan discussing him while he wasn’t here made Xue Yang’s skin crawl. He didn’t know what to say to that, either, so he didn’t say anything.
“He also said,” Xiao Xingchen said, “that you said that you...understood. Wanting to...kill.”
“Yeah,” Xue Yang said after a moment. “I do. But like I said to him, wanting to isn’t the same thing as having to.” He shrugged one shoulder. “It’s just about what you want more.”
“Hm,” Xiao Xingchen said. He seemed pensive. Xue Yang waited for him to ask - what do you want more, then - but he didn’t.
“Don’t lie to me,” Xiao Xingchen said after another long silence. “Not to protect me, not ‘for my own good’ - just don’t.”
People always say that, Xue Yang thought, but mostly they just mean they don’t want to know about it. If I told you the whole truth-
Well. He wouldn’t. Obviously. When you had something this good you didn’t just throw it away.
“Okay, Daozhang,” Xue Yang said. “I won’t.”
Xiao Xingchen’s sigh sounded overpoweringly relieved. “Thank you,” he said. Xue Yang gave him a grin he couldn’t appreciate.
“That’s all I get? Just a thank you? No kiss?”
Xiao Xingchen ducked his head and smiled. Faint, and he was still sort of pale and drawn-looking, but it was a smile. “Maybe later.”
“You promise?” Xue Yang said lightly. Xiao Xingchen coughed and made a sort of ‘mm’ noise, head turning toward Song Lan and then quickly away. Xue Yang swayed a little toward him and, lowering his voice but pitching it to carry, added, “it’s okay, I’ve decided you can kiss him too if you want to.”
Xiao Xingchen made a sound like he’d just tried to swallow his own tongue. Song Lan started coughing violently, so clearly he wasn’t as asleep as he was pretending to be. Xue Yang bit his own tongue so he didn’t start cackling as loud as he wanted to.
“You can thank me later, Song-daozhang,” he said brightly. “I can come up with some ideas for how you could show your gratitude-”
“Shut up,” Song Lan said, but if Xue Yang wasn’t completely sure he thought there might be a little bit of amusement in there somewhere. Xiao Xingchen started giggling, which was the best thing Xue Yang’d heard all day.
Based on the look on Song Lan’s face, he was thinking the same thing. Fuck, Xue Yang hoped that wasn’t the look on his face. It’d better not be. Pathetic daoshi and their pathetic soft hearts.
Xue Yang, resignedly, revised his mental tally of people other than me who’re worth more than the flesh they’re made out of slightly upward, from two to two and a half, and adjusted Song Lan’s status from necessary evil to potential asset.
With opportunity for growth.
Xue Yang would give him a chance.