Wu Xie wasn't exactly sure what to feel as he watched the far too large camp take shape. It wasn’t the first time he’d done legitimate work as a consultant, or the first time he’d had a bunch of civilians along for the ride, but it was the first time that he was officially responsible for said civilians.
The fact that it was an official archeological excursion that was going deep into the mountains, to spend weeks trying to find the suspected burial ground of a long forgotten minority, was a different kind of mindfuck.
He wasn’t the only one who felt the eerie similarity to the events that had first brought the Iron Triangle together. Pangzi was both quieter and a little more snappy towards the hapless carriers that they’d hired, and towards the Wu people that Wu Xie had brought along to serve as security. He’d wrangled additional funds for them from the University after very graphically describing to them what other tomb raiding teams could do to a bunch of helpless academics if they so much as caught wind of a possible tomb.
It had also given him enough funds to hire Liu Sang for this job. It was a good opportunity for the younger man, a chance to make his name in the official circles. The more his reputation was set both in and outside of the tomb raiding business, the better people would treat him, and Wu Xie didn’t even hesitate to call him when the time came to choose his team.
The money was good, but the reputation he had was even better. Still, it was odd to be the one those wet behind the ears students kept coming to with every little problem, looking at him like he was some kind of hero.
Zhang Qiling had gained an immediate fanclub, with at least half the girls in the group and a good quarter of the boys swooning at him and doing their best to follow like besotted ducklings. Wu Xie tried very hard not to laugh at the way Zhang Qiling chose to spend most of his time in trees and other mostly inaccessible places whenever they stopped for the night.
Liu Sang seemed to be having a lot of fun on this job. He’d spent the whole time they were travelling lording his experience over the students, tossing his head in that cutely arrogant way of his whenever any of them approached him for something. The little fanclub he’d acquired - again consisting mostly of girls, but with a few boys also tossed into the mix - seemed to greatly please him.
A flash of movement outside the camp proper caught his attention and he made his way in that direction. None of the security with them seemed concerned about it, so he figured it was someone from the camp. If it was one of the students, he was definitely going to indulge in spinning the most horrifying story he could think of about what might happen to strays who wandered away from everyone else. Most of it would even be true.
As he reached the edge of the camp and looked out over the grass and wildflowers gently swaying in the breeze, he caught the flash of reddish hair and the glint of sunlight on glasses, and grinned to himself. Not a student, then, or one of the other civilians. Wu Xie didn’t even need the faint sound of a whistle to confirm that it was Liu Sang out there, getting away from the noise of camp while he searched out the best place for them to dig - that exact shade of auburn seemed to be ingrained in his memory and inexorably associated with the younger man.
“Any luck yet?” Wu Xie asked, ambling closer, watching the way the clearly tailored clothes hugged Liu Sang’s body as he crouched down, looking down at the ground and frowning.
“You do realize we just arrived?” Liu Sang asked, tilting his head to look up at him, his glasses reflecting the light.
“Yes, and we’re still setting up camp, but you’re out here with your whistles, so I wondered if you’d had any luck yet.” He took a moment to study the curve of Liu Sang’s cheek as the man tilted his head back further, raising one hand against the light that was shining into his face and catching the highlights in his hair.
“You remember what I said about unnecessary personnel?” Liu Sang asked, the testiness in his voice a long established game between them.
Wu Xie laughed, raising his hands and taking a step back. “Am I really unnecessary personnel?” he asked, making his eyes as big and round and innocent and hurt as possible. “And really, you seem to like your little fanclub here. Should I call them over?”
Liu Sang glared and Wu Xie smiled wider. “Give them something good to watch?”
Liu Sang rolled his eyes at him, the corners of his lips turning down in that forced, unnatural way that meant he was fighting a smile, and then he popped out his ears.
It was always a shock to see Liu Sang just do what other shifters could never do outside of a Red Moon. He just casually popped out his fox ears and tail whenever he needed a boost to his senses and it was so smooth, so damn fast, that it always made Wu Xie’s breath catch.
They were large and triangular, proper fox ears if way bigger than the ones that any actual fox had, the color of the fur on them the exact shade of Liu Sang’s auburn hair. The insides were lined with soft looking white fur, all of that combining in tiny little tufts of darker fur at the tips of his ears. The left one had a bit of cowlick, the tuft arching in a different way than the right. Wu Xie wondered how they felt to the touch, were they soft or stiff? Would they give under his hand or would they bounce back up stubbornly?
And that didn’t even account for the tail - a long, fluffy red flare of it tipped with a bright white shock of fur that made Wu Xie’s eyes follow the swinging movement.
Liu Sang’s ears were both pointed at him, the fluffy menaces close together on the top of his head, probably hearing things that Wu Xie couldn’t even imagine. He was endlessly fascinated by Liu Sang’s ability and his apparent mastery of it. He couldn’t stop thinking about how it must make the younger man see the world, about what kind of secrets he knew about people. He’d known about Wu Xie’s sickness from the get go, could hear lies, heartbeats… Wu Xie couldn’t help but be fascinated, couldn’t help but watch him as he worked - enjoying the competence and professionality Liu Sang portrayed. Hell, he even liked the prickly attitude.
Then one of Liu Sang’s ears swivelled by ninety degrees and, when Wu Xie turned to look in the direction, he saw Zhang Qiling’s dark figure stepping out from between the trees on the other end of the little clearing. He grinned again, waving, and felt the weight of that familiar, intense gaze on him before Zhang Qiling switched his attention back to Liu Sang as he made his quiet way towards them.
Everyone and their sister knew that Liu Sang adored Zhang Qiling, his regard out there for everyone to see. Everyone else would get snark and more or less veiled insults, while Zhang Qiling only got smiles and polite offers every step of the way.
What most people - other than Wu Xie and Pangzi - didn’t know was that Zhang Qiling returned the affection in his particularly quiet way. He would spend more time around Liu Sang than he did with anyone outside of the Iron Triangle - that in itself was shocking. And he liked the ears, too. Wu Xie saw him look at them, tracing the furry shapes, and even smiling when the ears did something cute.
Like right now.
Liu Sang must have read something in Wu Xie’s expression because he frowned, his ears flattening back in a movement that probably was just an instinctual way to protect them from damage, but just managed to look cute.
Then Liu Sang realized that he was still crouching when there were now two people who were going to loom over him and he immediately stood up, dusting the knees of his dark pants.
“There’s a large cavity underneath,” Liu Sang said. “But I need my hearing urns to tell where the best digging spot is.”
“Wait,” Zhang Qiling said, his eyes flickered up as Liu Sang stood. “Don’t move yet.”
“What’s wrong?” Wu Xie asked immediately, reluctantly tearing his attention from Liu Sang’s ears - and his tail, since Liu Sang had finished dusting off his pants and was now dusting off his tail, and Wu Xie desperately wanted to reach out and run his fingers through the red fur.
“One of the students found some old ordnance,” Zhang Qiling said.
“Ordnance? Like, mines? Here?” Liu Sang asked, his ears swivelling around to point at Zhang Qiling, drawing the immediate attention of both the men. While Wu Xie was still looking at the ears, Zhang Qiling glanced back down to Liu Sang and just nodded.
“Probably from the war,” Wu Xie said. “Is Pangzi going to deal with them?”
Zhang Qiling nodded again. “Right now,” he said. “That’s why we should wait here until he’s done. This side of the camp seems to be clear.”
“He’s going to blow them up, isn’t he?” Wu Xie said with a groan. He glanced down from Liu Sang’s fox ears to meet the younger man’s eyes. “I hope you’ve got some really good earplugs with you.”
Liu Sang immediately scowled at him. “Have you ever seen earplugs for those?” he asked, pointing at his fox ears.
Wu Xie opened his mouth, then closed it. He wasn’t a shifter, he didn’t have that ability to manifest animal parts - unexplainable even now, with today’s science levels - nor the animal instincts that came with being a shifter. They were usually a little longer lived than normal humans, and more resilient, but nothing extreme, nothing like Zhang Qiling’s abilities. There were quite a few shifters in the Wu family’s employ - shifters usually dealt better with tomb raiding and wilderness than ordinary humans, so his family always made it a point to hire as many as they could. Still, shifters were usually a tightly knit group who weren’t keen on sharing their secrets with outsiders. And one would only know someone was a shifter when they showed their features. Most of what Wu Xie knew about shifters came from the ones working for his uncles, and those were always some kind of large predator anyway.
A not-so-small part of him wanted to offer to cover Liu Sang’s ears for him, if there weren’t fox ear-sized earplugs or earphones, but his rarely-used self-preservation instincts kicked in before he could make what he was quite sure was a giant faux pas. Instead, he just shook his head. “I just didn’t want the noise to hurt your ears,” he said instead.
Something flickered through Liu Sang’s eyes and he turned away, busying himself by pulling a stethoscope out of his backpack.
“I can use the sound of the explosion to get some more details of the cavity under us,” Liu Sang said, not looking at either of them and kneeling down on one knee. He put the stethoscope into his human ears and pressed the end to the ground. His fox ears shifted forward, angling at the ground in a kind of look that was honestly almost too pretty to bear. Wu Xie tore his eyes away from the ears to Zhang Qiling and exchanged a helpless look with his lover, who also looked very charmed by the fluffy menaces.
“Clever,” Zhang Qiling murmured, almost too quietly to be heard if Wu Xie had been standing any further away, and he had to nod in agreement, his still gaze drifting back to focus on Liu Sang as the shifter readied himself for the explosions and what they might tell him about the underground of this area.
The first explosion was enough that it startled Wu Xie, but didn’t seem too loud. He smiled down at Liu Sang, who wasn’t even looking at him, and was about to say that it wasn’t so bad. He never got to say anything, though.
The next explosion ripped through the air, still far away but not really expected. Liu Sang made a small sound of distress but didn’t move beyond shifting the hand holding the stethoscope pressed to the ground.
Another explosion ripped through the air, sounding much closer to them than the two before, and Liu Sang flinched.
Wu Xie thought that that was it, that they were done, when another explosion sounded, closely followed by a fifth and a sixth, each boom sounding closer and closer to them. The ground vibrated like the surface of water under their feet, making Wu Xie stagger. Liu Sang was curled up, hands trying to cover both sets of ears, his fox ones pressed tightly to his head. Wu Xie staggered again and let himself fall to his knees, discarding politeness and reaching for those tightly pressed down ears, trying to cover them with his hands. The explosions weren’t stopping, more and more of them ripping through the air, each one sounding closer and closer. Wu Xie’s own ears were ringing and the ground was shaking like it was an earthquake going on, making everything feel unsteady and almost liquid.
He saw Liu Sang snap out of his curled up position, face pale and eyes were wide. His mouth was open, he was screaming something, but Wu Xie couldn’t hear him over the din of the explosions. In the next moment the already shaky ground suddenly lost all firmness, feeling more like water than anything else. It was a curious moment of clarity that hit him - the vibrations of the explosions had destabilized a weak part of the ground that was no longer capable of holding his weight.
He didn’t manage to even yelp, the ground opening up under him and sucking him in almost violently.
It was the coughing that woke him up, harsh coughs that tore at his throat and shook his entire body, his mouth and nose and lungs trying to expel the choking dust that filled them. The tightness in his chest brought back painful memories, making panic churn sour and burning in his belly. Wu Xie blinked his eyes open, only to squeeze them closed as he coughed again, not having been able to see anything beyond a pale light that seemed almost pearly with how it was filtered through dust and… mist? He cracked one eye open again. It definitely looked like mist, even if there was a decided lack of dampness to it.
Another round of coughing forced his eyes shut again, squeezing tears from the corners, and making him notice every single point of pain in his body. His ears and head still hurt from the explosions, his chest and throat hurt from coughing, his back hurt from the cold stone he’d fallen onto and was still laying on, there was a trickle of something wet and sticky on his forehead that made him guess he’d cut it on a falling stone or something, and his shoulder twinged in a way that made him sincerely hope that he hadn’t done anything more than pulled a muscle in the fall. He slowly rolled to one side and forced himself to sit and look around. The mist, if that’s what it was, seemed to be slowly dissipating through the large stone room, the faint light still making it almost glow, the same light that picked up on the dust in the air from where the cave-in had stirred it all up. Remembering the cave-in, Wu Xie looked up automatically, only to see that the hole had collapsed enough that it was completely filled with dirt, not even a crack letting light through.
If no sunlight could get in, where was the light in the room coming from?
He looked around, using the faint, fading light to see what he could. Large stone room. Partially collapsed ceiling, filled in with dirt. Altar. What looked like faint murals on the walls, but he couldn’t tell details without better light. Doorway at the opposite end. Red tail behind the pile of dirt and rocks and stones from the cave in.
“Liu Sang?!” Wu Xie staggered to his feet and headed towards the tail, even as his brain kicked into gear and let him know that this tail was too small to belong to the shifter. It looked about the size of a normal fox, which was exactly what he found once he got over there - a regular red fox laying dazed on the ground, tail poking out into the room, and one hind leg twisted and bleeding. As he knelt down next to it, its ears pricked and pointed in his direction, followed slowly by the fox turning its head to look at him.
“Hi there,” Wu Xie said to the fox, trying to sound as soothing and non-threatening as possible. “You must have got caught in the cave-in, too, I guess. I didn’t see you up there.” Granted, he had been more than a little distracted with the adorableness that was Liu Sang’s ears and tail, and with Zhang Qiling’s arrival. He wondered where the two of them were - they must have managed to escape the ground literally collapsing beneath their feet. Hopefully they were back at the camp by now, organising the rest of the team to come dig him out. The fox was still watching him, its ears twitching a little, and thumped its tail against the ground. The slight movement must have aggravated its leg, because it whimpered a little.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Wu Xie said, reaching out one hand and hovering it just above the fox. “It’s okay. I’ll help you get out. Let me take a look at that leg, okay?”
The fox flattened it’s ears and twitched nervously. Wu Xie hesitated. The animal was so calm with him so close that it was either partially domesticated or too hurt to move freely. He looked down at his hands - still wrapped in the thick gloves he habitually wore when out in the wild after having his fingernails ripped for one reason or another one too many times. He doubted it would be enough to stop fox teeth if the animal panicked.
“Okay, okay, I hope you will forgive me this,” he said, and shrugged off his backpack, recognizing that it was what had probably saved his back from more damage. It still hurt to slide it off, his torso bruised to hell and back. God, he hoped it was just bruised, he didn’t want to deal with cracked ribs, especially not right now. When he had the backpack off, he carefully removed his jacket. “Okay, remember, no biting the nice human who’s trying to help you. And really, next time don’t come so close to humans in the first place. It wasn’t very smart,” he said, extending the jacket towards the fox. The animal growled at him and snapped his teeth, but Wu Xie already had the jacket over its head, so at worst the fox got a maw full of the lining. He quickly tied the sleeves around the squirming and growling fox. He hissed in pain, his whole torso screaming at him as he tried to restrain the thrashing animal. He had no idea why he was even doing it. Probably because he liked Liu Sang’s ears so much that he couldn’t quite leave the fox to its fate, and really, it was their fault anyway. The fox wouldn’t have got caught up in the tomb if it wasn’t for Pangzi blowing up those explosives.
The fox stopped thrashing eventually, sides visibly moving. Poor thing had probably exhausted itself and was still in pain anyway.
Wu Xie opened his backpack one handed, keeping the other firmly pressed to the panting fox. He pulled out the antiseptic spray and looked at the wound on the fox’s leg. It was long and bleeding freely, but when he carefully pressed some sterile cotton to clean up the debris around it, he thought that it wasn’t very deep. The fox whined under his jacket and kicked, but Wu Xie wrapped his hand around the lower part of the leg and shuffled forward to use his knees to trap the other back leg between them and keep the fox as still as possible in the imperfect conditions.
“Shhh, don’t panic. I just need to disinfect and wrap it so that nothing will get into the wound, okay?” He talked nonsense as he sprayed the wound with the antiseptic, the fox making a constant high whine and struggling in its temporary bonds. It took a bit of effort to apply clean bandages and wrap them around the tense leg. He wrapped a lot more than the wound required, but he wasn’t sure if he would get to rebandage the fox, so he did his best to make the dressing as permanent as possible. He used a lot of tape to keep the bandages closed, some of them sticking to the fur around the cut, which really wasn’t ideal, but he wasn’t a vet and he doubted the fox would let him shave its leg even if Wu Xie had anything to shave it with.
When he finally was done and unwrapped the jacket from the fox’s upper body, they were both exhausted. The fox bit the jacket twice as Wu Xie was removing it from him, somehow always missing Wu Xie’s hands as he did so. It looked frazzled, the fur definitely dusty and pushed into all sorts of odd directions after being wrapped in the jacket. The fox skittered away from him, all the while making high, near barking sounds at him. Wu Xie sat back against a piece of fallen rock, letting his aching torso relax, and thought that all the noise sounded like the fox was reading him a riot act. It wasn’t really moving much, though. Just enough to keep out of his reach. It seemed torn between examining the bandage on its leg and barking at Wu Xie.
Yes, he was definitely being read the riot act.
He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, trying to suppress the urge to cough. His ribs hurt enough already, he didn’t want to aggravate them any more.
But he didn’t succeed. His throat and lungs were filled with too much dust and he succumbed to another round of coughing. Only the more he coughed the worse it became, his body desperately trying to rid itself of the irritants, prioritizing it above even the need to breathe. He tried to stop and breathe but couldn't, his chest seizing again and again, the panic he thought he’d got over months ago rising bitter and burning in his throat, reminding him of the months where every breath was a struggle through pain and despair. Unwilling tears ran down his face, his chest burned and hurt, and he just couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything about the lung ripping coughs until he was dizzy and his vision became blurry, darkness coming first at the edges and then swallowing him completely.
He came to moments or hours later, he had no idea, feeling something nudge his hand.
He opened his eyes to see the fox, crouching close to the ground, ears uncertainly pulled back and maw open wide, clearly trying to get its mouth around his hand.
Wu Xie twitched his fingers and the fox pulled back immediately, its pretty little ears snapping up and forward, its dark eyes watching Wu Xie warily.
“I’m not dead yet,” Wu Xie announced with a voice completely wrecked by the coughing. “You can’t eat me yet,” he added, trying out some shallow breaths. “Besides, I’m too big for you to manage, anyway.”
The fox skittered back on three legs, the bandaged one kept off the floor, and again gave that complaining series of yips and barks at him, its ears flattening back in displeasure.
Wu Xie reached for his backpack again and dug through it in search of water. He found a packet of cured meat and ripped it open without thinking. Then he put it beside him on a piece of fairly clean rock. “Come on, eat something,” he said hoarsely, unscrewing his bottle of water. “You need energy to heal that cut of yours.”
The fox made a small grumble but limped carefully to the rock and sniffed the dry meat suspiciously before it picked it up, fastidious like a cat, and ate it delicately.
Feeling stupid and grateful that Pangzi wasn’t there to see him getting mushy over a damn fox, Wu Xie pulled out a collapsible bowl from his backpack and poured some water into it, putting it near the fox. The fox watched him carefully for a long time before limping towards the water and drinking it, its eyes fixed distrustfully on Wu Xie.
The water helped, making his throat feel less like it was full of sandpaper. After they’d both drunk their fill, he packed his backpack back up. Carefully, afraid of triggering the coughing again, Wu Xie put his jacket on and then hissed his way through pulling on his backpack. He snapped all straps closed, including the ones on his waist and collarbones, so that the backpack stuck tightly to his back and wouldn’t jiggle strangely as he moved.
“Okay,” he said to the fox, strangely grateful for having any company. He hated being alone, especially in the tombs. Things never turned out well when he was alone. “Time to figure out where we are and how to get out of here.”
He pulled his flashlight from a zipped up pocket of his jacket and carefully walked towards the nearest wall that had visible murals and tried to read them. The first thing he noticed were animals. All sorts of animals painted on the mural without any kind of logic. There were bears and lions, deer and wolves, even elephants and a crocodile. It made absolutely no sense. Especially that the animal portrayals were very realistic and completely different from anything he would have expected from a tomb.
The animals were also arranged oddly, standing side by side beside something that looked like an altar, prey animals seemingly unbothered by the predators beside them, their heads all turned towards the altar.
Confused and fascinated, he looked at another wall. There were more animals there, but instead of taking up the whole mural they only took half of it, again staring at the altar in the middle. There was something on the altar, or rather used to be, but parts of the wall were crumbled completely, forever destroying whatever used to be painted there. On the other side, beneath water damage, he could see many humans arranged on the floor, kneeling in front of the altar, their heads bowed but their clothes rich and no bonds on them. Not slaves and not prisoners then.
He was about to move to the third wall when he heard the fox growl.
He turned around and saw the small fox - Wu Xie realized that it didn’t really look fully adult yet, too lanky on its legs - was staring at the last wall with its ears pointed and body tense. Wu Xie directed his flashlight at the dark corner, long conditioned to trusting any direction in which fox ears were pointing.
“What did you hear?” he wondered out loud, and stepped a little closer to the fox.
It wasn’t a wall that the fox was staring at. It was a collapsed corridor, the rubble there fairly fresh. It must have collapsed when they’d fallen in. There were three more exits from this chamber, but Wu Xie was loath to move away from here. It would be easier for Xiaoge and Pangzi to find him if he stayed put.
He listened carefully and after a moment realized he could hear faint sounds of rock shifting. Sounds of digging!
“Xiaoge?” he called, stepping closer to the collapsed exit. “Liu Sang?” He was getting closer to the rock, intending to help dig from his end, but was stopped by the fox. It barked first, but Wu Xie didn’t pay attention. Then it screamed. The sound was shockingly loud and eerie, and Wu Xie stopped to stare at the tiny slip of an immature fox being capable of making a sound like this.
“What is it? Those are my friends. They will dig us out in no time and you will be able to go free again,” Wu Xie reassured it, panning his flashlight over the fox. It was crouched low to the ground, its hackles up and ears flat to its head. It looked… terrified was the best description he could come up with.
The sounds of digging were getting louder, clearly the others were about to break through!
“Xiaoge!” he yelled as loudly as his lungs allowed and had to jump away when one of the rocks tumbled loose and nearly crushed his toes as it fell. It left an arm sized hole in the pile of debris and Wu Xie made a little exclamation of joy. He was just going to lean down to shout through the hole when he saw something unexpected.
Instead of tools, or maybe a hand, what tried forcing itself through the hole was… a paw. It was huge, way too big to fit through, but one long, black claw managed to snag just the very edge of the hole and pull. Wu Xie watched as the rock all but crumbled into dust under the pressure the single claw exerted. A claw that was longer than his whole hand. The hole got bigger, and on the next attempt two claws pushed through, a hint of black, iridescent scales on the other side of that quickly growing hole making it clear that whatever it was that was digging its way to him wasn’t Liu Sang or Xiaoge.
As he stared, the paw pulled more rocks inward and then there was a flash of an eye - larger than his hand and glowing an inhuman, flickering red.
The eye stared at him and then shifted, and in that brief movement Wu Xie saw through the ever widening hole an endless shift of black, scaly body and teeth. Huge, huge teeth in a partially open, red maw that looked like it could eat him in two bites.
Wu Xie didn’t think. He turned around, scooped up the still screaming fox, and ran for it.