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The Symptoms Metaphysical

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Xue Yang prowls through the city like a starving wolf, hackles up and snarling at anything that crosses him. That’s how he imagines himself, anyway, because it’s a little bit less embarrassing than thinking of himself as a kicked dog who hasn’t had a good meal in-- how long? Longer than he’d like. 

The safehouse (he calls it a safehouse because it’s not squatting if it’s on purpose) is a shitty little hole in the wall, which is the only reason that Xue Yang’s managed to stick around for any time at all. It’s got a vine creeping up the windowsill, pale and peaky and stretching towards light that it won’t get with an alleyway view. 

It’s been raining for days; small mercy that the shitty place doesn’t leak, given that it’s basically made of stiff cardstock. The seal around the window holds firm, even, rattling with the gusts of wind but staying dry. Poor plant. Xue Yang’s never watered it, either. He feels a sort of kinship with it, actually. Two weeds in a shitty apartment. 

He sits cross-legged on the bare mattress and waits for the storm to abate. He pretends that it’s a meditation pose, but honestly it’s just that if he stretches all the way out, he’ll get too used to laying down and won’t be able to sleep later. 

There’s nothing to do but flick through the wanted ads. Most of it is trash. Help wanted: Laborers, yard and roof . Not really his expertise, but not bad. Help wanted: Live-in housekeeper; young, blonde. Xue Yang’s lip lifts in a sneer at that one. Pathetic. 

There’s plenty of work to be had, technically, but the big sects don’t trust Xue Yang like they trust each other, and the contracts that last long enough to trickle down to the slum cultivators like him aren’t the kind that he can do alone. He doesn’t think much of himself, but his life’s worth more than a couple bills and a stiff pat on the back. 

Help wanted for team , he reads, and then continues onto the next page. Cultivator, for paired night hunt. Pay negotiable

Xue Yang wonders what a pair of cultivators could want with a third. Bait, maybe? Find someone shittier than them, let the corpse or ghoul or whatever-the-fuck tear their third person apart and get it while they’re distracted. Or maybe they’re both shitty cultivators, looking to steal credit. Or maybe they’re actually after something big, something really worth doing. 

It sounds stupid. It sounds risky. It sounds a little bit like he’s going to be cut into pieces and strewn into all the trash cans across the city. 

The door slams behind him on his way out, because he’ll need to pick up a pre-paid phone so he can call the stupid wanted ad number. 

 

︾︾︾︾︾

 

They want to meet him at a coffee shop, which he guesses isn’t technically shady but feels weird. The guy on the phone had sounded nice, which only makes Xue Yang think that he’s going to be polite when he cuts Xue Yang up into a bunch of teeny-tiny pieces. 

He kicks the water out of a puddle and watches the city’s reflection refract into a billion facets, each its own little pocket dimension contained in a droplet. Xue Yang imagines all of those cities shattering when the drops come back together. He thinks about the tiny reflection of himself in all of them, and wonders if they’re just as worried as he is. He wonders if one of them is better-fed. 

Xiao Xingcheng, The man had said on the phone. Poetry for a name, probably fake. Who names their kids like that, anyway? And my partner, Song Lan. Normal name. Also fake? Xue Yang can’t decide if it’s too normal or not. He probably should have given a fake name, too, but he doesn’t exist in any database anywhere anyway, so what’s the point? 

A Big Job, apparently, capital letters merited. Xue Yang doesn’t know if that means they’re shitty cultivators or if Xue Yang’s actually gonna die, because Xiao Xingchen had refused to talk about it beyond the absolute most vague possible descriptions. It would really be better to tell you in person, he’d said. Xue Yang had no idea what the guy looked like, but he could imagine blinking-innocent eyes. 

Well, fuck it, then, fine. Here he is, stomping through the cold and wet, getting more water than the weed in his apartment (generously, it’s generous to call the place an apartment), trying to find the out-of-the-way coffee shop that Xiao Xingchen and his partner (and don’t think that Xue Yang doesn’t wonder at that, because he does! Nobody says partner like that if they don’t mean partner, wink nudge ) apparently prefer. 

He’s truly soaked by the time he finds it. The bell on top of the door feels a little mocking, standing as he is in the doorway with his hair plastered to his face. He feels like a half-drowned cat (no, a wolf, yeah, there it is--) and probably looks worse. At least it’s warm inside. Homey, whatever. All lit up orange with incandescent bulbs, like nobody’s told the place they’re bad for the environment or something. 

Empty, too, except for the barista filing her nails behind the counter and the couple at the table in the corner. Two dark heads bent together. One looks up when Xue Yang walks in, and his impression becomes one of bright eyes and bright teeth and an expensive scarf, caught around a slender throat. 

“Xue Yang,” Xiao Xingchen says, and gestures him forward. “You got caught in the storm? You could have waited it out.” 

The coffee shop’s almost an hour from him by train. He’d never have come if he’d had to wait it out. 

“I love being wet,” Xue Yang says, and Xiao Xingchen laughs. Uh-oh, Xue Yang thinks. 

“A-Qing, could you get our new friend a towel?” Xiao Xingchen calls over to the barista, who snaps her gum and says sure, daozhang, whatever before flouncing off. 

Xue Yang drips on the floor. The other man-- Song Lan? It must be-- turns to look at him. Dark eyes, no smile. Nice eyebrows, though. 

“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Xiao Xingchen says, smiling, smiling. The barista hands Xue Yang a towel and he uses it to stop his hair from dipping down the back of his neck first, because scalp-hot water sliding down his spine reminds him of all the head wounds he’s ever had. “Won’t you sit?” 

Xue Yang bundles himself up in the towel and sits with a squelch, bracing his forearms on the table. Song Lan looks at him hard for a long moment before saying, “You’re of age, right? We can’t take a sixteen-year-old on a night hunt.” 

Xue Yang, who is definitely over the age of sixteen, feels obligated nonetheless to point out, “You can legally start night hunting at thirteen.” 

Technically. It’s supposed to be a family thing at that age, but hah, what family? Xue Yang’s been night hunting since he’d turned ten, and he’d been doing a pretty fucking bad job at it, if he does say so himself. 

The look that Song Lan gives him is deeply unimpressed. He looks like he’d actually rather be anywhere but here-- his coat looks like it’d shrink if he got caught in the rain, all that natural fiber. Sucks to suck, Xue Yang thinks, you’re trapped by wool blends. 

Xiao Xingchen just looks worried, though. “Zichen is right,” He says, wrapping his long-fingered hands around his mug. “I should have asked on the phone.” 

“I’m over eighteen,” Xue Yang says, clutching the towel more tightly around his shoulders. “So just tell me about the hunt.” 

Song Lan looks ready to protest further, but he subsides when Xiao Xingchen starts outlining the job. Eventually, he gets up and wanders over to the counter to talk to A-Qing-the-barista. Xue Yang pointedly does not pay attention to him. Whatever, Song Lan hates him and thinks he looks fourteen. It’s not Xue Yang’s fault he’s underfed. 

The job sounds like a fucking nightmare. Sixteen people incapacitated, three people on the way out, one death- the most recent. Nothing tying the victims together, no common thread except that they hadn’t actually been reported missing, only shown up. Xue Yang feels a numb sort of fear in his belly. This is the kind of thing he doesn’t like getting all tied up in, the kind of thing that means he’ll probably end up dead. 

Xiao Xingchen makes a face like he knows, but he doesn’t understand shit. Xue Yang’s already involved because the thing’s targeting people like him-- fuck-ups that no one will miss. The fact that sixteen people have been hurt and this is the first that Xue Yang’s hearing about it-- Christ, what a joke. 

“This isn’t just a night hunt,” Xue Yang feels compelled to point out. 

“You’ll be paid for as long as it takes,” Xiao Xingchen says. “No matter how long.” 

“You already lied on your ad,” Xue Yang pulls the towel closed around the hollow of his throat, like a cape. “How do I know you’re not lying about the pay?” 

“We weren’t expecting it to take so long to find whatever is hurting these people,” Xiao Xingchen says, “And at this point, we need more eyes. We’ll pay in advance, if you need proof.” 

We, we, we. Partner, indeed. 

“I’ll do it,” Xue Yang says, and Xiao Xingchen sits back. 

“Only if you’re certain,” He says. “I’ll wire you the money- feel free to check sometime this evening.” His eyes drift behind Xue Yang’s shoulder just before Song Lan sets a mug down onto the table and takes his seat back. 

Xue Yang stares at it. It’s right in front of him, but he doesn’t want to ask for me? because that’s pathetic and he’s a lot of things but he’s usually not pathetic. It smells good, though. 

“You don’t need to drink it if you don’t want it,” Song Lan says, answering the question for him, and Xue Yang pulls it closer. Whatever, he’s not too good for charity. 

“As long as you pay me,” Xue Yang says. “Or- a cut, whatever.” He doesn’t know how they’re planning on getting paid for this. He hasn’t seen anything about the job on any of the boards he frequents, which means that the sects are either ignoring it completely or don’t know about it. No pay out of this one. 

“We will,” Xiao Xingchen agrees. Xue Yang licks the whipped cream off the top of the drink, hoping it’s not coffee underneath, and Xiao Xingchen watches. He looks a little amused, for whatever reason. Maybe Xue Yang’s gonna be bait after all. “Blank check.” 

“Don’t say that shit where people can hear you,” Xue Yang mutters. “You’re gonna get mugged.” 

“I would love to see someone try and mug him,” Song Lan says. He puts his elbows on the table, knitting his fingers together in front of his mouth. Behind him, Xue Yang can see the patter of rain on the street, not slowing in the least. 

“Wow, romantic,” Xue Yang drawls. It sort of backfires when Song Lan gives him a long, contemplative look with the curl of a smirk tucked into the very corner of his mouth. 

Xiao Xingchen reclaims their attention with a crook of his fingers. “We’ll tell you what we know, and go from there.”

Xue Yang leans back in his chair, warming the backs of his fingers against his mug. When he finally does sip, it’s hot chocolate. 

 

︾︾︾︾︾

 

Interviewing people is shit. Xue Yang doesn’t do this investigative thing for a reason. He’s a kill-things-when-they-appear sort of guy (which is probably why he doesn’t get paid that much, whatever), which means he’s not fucking good at this part, the standing around awkwardly play-acting sympathy to people who have a good reason to be scared. 

If pressed, Xue Yang’d admit that Xiao Xingchen’s good at it. He guesses. Song Lan’s in the same boat as him, though, awkwardly looming in the back of the cramped living room with his dark clothes and dark eyes. The woman they’re interviewing-- one of the people who’d found one of the victims, Xue Yang thinks-- keeps darting little glances at him, like she’s scared. 

Xue Yang’s still a little damp from being caught in the rain and hadn’t really expected to be dragged around working, but-- whatever, it’s fine. He’ll get paid and he’ll buy some eggs to go in his ramen. He’s pretty sure they’re okay if you leave them on the counter. He’s heard that, anyway. 

Point is, Xue Yang tunes back in and the interview’s over. Xiao Xingchen’s looking bleak, hands in the pockets of his coat, and when the particle-board door closes behind them he lets out a big breath that carries an air of helplessness. 

“I don’t even know where to start,” Xiao Xingchen says once they’re out in the air, like the words will echo and bounce dangerously in the hallway if he speaks them inside. 

“It’s impossible to protect people whose common thread is being unfindable,” Song Lan agrees. He’s wearing a long coat that swirls in the dreary wind when he walks. It’s all very dramatic. Xue Yang feels a little underdressed in a threadbare sweater and ratty shoes that let his feet get wet when he walks through puddles. 

They don’t have the same resources as a sect or the police. All they’ve got is legwork and doing their best, which is sort of-- it’s not that it’s not enough. But it’s sort of not enough. They can’t check to see if all of the victims had cell phones.

Xue Yang walks through a puddle, shattering the reflection inside it and soaking his socks straight through, but he’s thinking too hard to be worried. Twenty people, none of them related, none of them sharing a profession, some of them rogue cultivators and some of them not. It feels impossible. 

“Are they from the same area?” Xue Yang asks, and Xiao Xingchen shakes his head. 

“There’s no way to tell-- not all of them had recorded permanent addresses. We think the most they could have in common is the city, because they were all found here, but…” He raises his hands. It’s not quite a shrug, but it’s not not a shrug, either. 

It’s really not enough to narrow it down. The city’s huge. 

“D’you have a map or anything that shows where they were all found?” He asks, and Song Lan’s the one who answers this time. He steps over the puddles instead of stepping through them, keeping his nice leather shoes dry. 

“We do, but we can’t guarantee that they hadn’t been moved.” He makes an impatient gesture that Xue Yang tracks with his eyes. “They were found within a five-mile span of one another, but without even a vague time estimate-- could mean anything.” 

“That can’t be a coincidence,” Xue Yang says, more or less to himself. It could be a coincidence, but what else do they have? “Maybe someplace they all went?” 

“Someplace where no one would notice if it were haunted?” Song Lan’s mouth tilts to the side and Xue Yang throws his hands up. He can’t think of anything, either. 

“It could be a possession,” Xiao Xingchen says contemplatively. “Perhaps they all spoke to the same person.” 

Xue Yang rubs the heel of his palm into his forehead. “Did you ask the people who didn’t straight up die?” 

“Yes,” Song Lan says bluntly, “They didn’t have much to say except that it wasn’t fair and they didn’t even get what they were asking for.” 

Xue Yang blinks, rubbing his fingers together. “Like--” 

Song Lan cuts him off with a shake of his head. “We don’t know, either.” 

“Well,” Xue Yang says louder so he can talk over Song Lan, “Sounds like they were trying to make a deal, right?” 

Xiao Xingchen pauses, just the tiniest little stutter-step. “Perhaps,” He agrees, and turns them down another street. 

They end up in a sandwich shop. Xue Yang and Xiao Xingchen tuck together around a crowded little table, knees jostling, while Song Lan goes to order. 

“Tell me more about what you think,” Xiao Xingchen says smoothly, “Regarding the deal.” 

“Seems obvious to me,” Xue Yang says, shrugging. “They didn’t get what they asked for, so they must’ve been asking for something. They all ended up dead or mostly-dead, so it’s gotta be a deal or something-- a trade? Maybe they didn’t know they were making it, but they had to be, I dunno, offering something.” 

“One would think that people would endeavor not to agree to terms that would risk their immortal souls,” Xiao Xingchen muses, but he doesn’t disagree. He’s probably seen some shit, too. 

“I dunno, have you ever read one of those end-user license agreements? Or the terms of service for anything? I could’ve signed my soul away six times since Sunday.” 

“Can a ghost haunt a computer?” Song Lan asks dubiously, dropping a sandwich tray in front of Xue Yang before taking his own seat and crowding them even further. Everyone at the table considers this seriously while Xue Yang tries to shove as much of his sandwich into his mouth as possible. He’s hungry. 

“You know,” Xiao Xingchen says, slow and considering. “If one divorces the physicality from the spirit, it does stand to reason--” 

“It’d be physically present,” Xue Yang points out. “Computer’s physical.” 

Song Lan presses his lips together, going entirely silent. It makes Xue yang want to fuck with him, because he has virtually no sense of self-preservation. Why else would he be here at all? 

“Guai are non-human beings,” Xue Yang cajoles. Song Lan lets out a breath and shakes his head. 

“Like animals, ” He says. Xiao Xingchen watches them like he’s watching a ping-pong match, fingers folded beneath his chin. “Not machines.” 

“A tree’s not an animal.” 

“They’re still alive. ” 

Xue Yang warms to his subject, because the topic of ridiculous cultivation theories is basically his bread and butter and there’s nothing he likes more than to piss someone off in the retelling of them. “The internet has millions of people on it pouring all sorts of energy into it. Resentment, worship, all of it. Why not machines?” 

Song Lan doesn’t have anything to say to that. He gives Xue Yang a hard look and Xue Yang crams the rest of his sandwich into his own mouth, deeply smug in his victory. 

Xiao Xingchen, more than anything, looks contemplative. “It’s really not a bad thought,” He says after a moment. “But that would mean that every single one of those people has shared a computer and made the same sort of bargain with it. That would be quite a happenstance.” 

Xue Yang subsides with a shrug. “Just a thought.” 

“A good thought,” Xiao Xingchen says warmly, and smiles when Xue Yang ducks to consider his sandwich. 

 

︾︾︾︾︾

 

They show up at his hole-in-the-wall the next day. They’re dressed too nice for this part of town, for this hallway, for Xue Yang. It’s kind of hard to look at them, honestly, all the cashmere and leather and shiny silver jewelry. 

“It’s the middle of the day,” Song Lan says judgmentally when Xue Yang opens the door wearing an oversized t-shirt and shorts that ride up his thighs. 

“It’s called a fucking night hunt,” Xue Yang says. He won’t let tall hot people in nice suits talk down to him without paying him first. Except, reflecting, they have actually paid him. Xue Yang had idly checked his bank yesterday and blinked three times at the number of zeros. He doesn’t want to talk about it. 

They stare at each other, Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan obviously waiting to be invited inside and Xue Yang very pointedly not doing that. Not because he doesn’t want them to see the inside of the place with the naked mattress and the sad little plant, because he doesn’t care about that. Whatever. He doesn’t care.  

“Fuck it,” Xue Yang says after a minute and a half of perfect silence. He opens the door wider to let them inside, trying to ignore the way Song Lan’s eyes flicker over every single wall like he’s looking for some proof that a real human lives there. It’s a shoebox of a place; there are basically only five walls to look at. 

“Do you have a table?” Xiao Xingchen asks distractedly. Somehow, he sounds like he doesn’t actually care, which is pretty impressive. 

“No,” Xue Yang says. He can feel his jaw jut out pugnaciously, even though nobody’s actually said anything about anything. 

“On the floor then, Zichen.” 

Song Lan silently unfolds a map with bright red dots scattered across it, revealing another with every fold out. Xue Yang tilts his head, tracing out concentric circles with every dot. He helps Song Lan straighten the map out onto the floor and then sprawls beside it, pressing the pad of his thumb into one of the outermost dots. 

“This is all of them?” 

“That we know of,” Xiao Xingchen says. He gets onto the floor beside Xue Yang, apparently uncaring of the dirt he presses into his trouser’s legs. “There could be others.” 

Xue Yang waves it off. “Might as well work with what you’ve got.” He traces lines from each of the victims; from one to another, from one to the inside, from one out. They’re trying to put together pieces of a puzzle that don’t really fit together-- all corners. All edges. But nothing in the middle. 

… Wait a fucking second. 

“Gimme your phone,” Xue Yang demands, putting his hand up flat. When someone doesn’t immediately give him a phone, he makes an impatient noise and wiggles his fingers emphatically. 

“Patience,” Song Lan says, which rankles Xue Yang to no end, but he puts a tablet flat onto his palm so some things can be forgiven. Xue Yang double-checks the map and pulls up the tablet’s navigation, carefully scrolling up and over and then up some more, until he finds the right streets. 

He zooms in on the center of the image, closer and closer, until the building at the midpoint is clear. 

Public City Library, the sign reads. 

Xue Yang considers it. Library computers are free. Library cards are free. Libraries have roofs and air conditioning and bathrooms and quiet. He plays with the image, scrolling in and out, just thinking. He’s done some of his job hunting in a library, too, though not that one in particular; how many could there possibly be per mile? Per city?

Xiao Xingchen looks over Xue Yang’s shoulder and makes a surprised little noise. “-- Oh!” He says, quiet and startled. “Oh, that’s--” 

“Even if it’s not a haunted computer,” Xue Yang says, spinning the street view of the map around until he starts making himself dizzy. “It could be someone there. You have to agree to stuff to check out books, or whatever.” 

“I think it’s a computer,” Song Lan says unexpectedly. Xue Yang blinks up at him owlishly. He still looks just as forbidding, sharp-jawed and cold with his arms crossed across his chest, but he tilts his head just the slightest bit when he catches Xue Yang looking. “I did some asking around last night about whether or not concentrating enough energy in one direction could create something sentient, and it’s not based on nothing. It makes more sense than an evil librarian.” 

Xue Yang doesn’t even know what to say to that. He agrees, obviously, it had been his dumb idea, but hearing it is actually shocking. Especially when Song Lan looks vaguely approving. What the fuck. 

“So--” Xue Yang looks down at where his bare knees are creasing a crinkle into the corner of the map. He shuffles off of it. “So we go there, we find the computer, and-- what, what do we look for? It wipes the browser history every time.” 

“I don’t suppose you have a library card,” Xiao Xingchen muses. “We could attempt to log into each and see if there’s anything suspicious. Perhaps a pop-up? So long as we read closely, we shouldn’t have too much trouble locating it.” 

“One pop-up on one sentient computer,” Xue Yang muses. “Yeah, sure, not too difficult.” 

Xiao Xingchen huffs a laugh and puts his elbows on his knees, loosely lacing his fingers together. “You’re right, actually,” He says, “If it is sentient, which it must be, it would know to avoid us.” 

“Or,” Song Lan says, “It would try to make a deal with us specifically, because cultivators make particularly good meals for spirits.” 

“The spiritual power,” Xiao Xingchen agrees. Xue Yang wrinkles his nose. 

“How the fuck are you planning on liberating, suppressing, or eliminating a computer? D’you think it’s, like-- stuck in there? Like a fierce corpse? Or d’you suppose you can, what, offer it restitution?” 

“I imagine we could simply remove the entire computer if it became an issue,” Xiao Xingchen says thoughtfully. 

“Xingchen,” Song Lan says. His tone shades weary, which is hilarious. “You can’t simply steal a computer from a public library.” 

“We’ll tell them it’s haunted first,” Xiao Xingchen explains earnestly. Xue Yang realizes with a flash that this is why Xiao Xingchen, who seems relatively bright in a lot of ways, needs a constant babysitter in the form of one Song Lan. 

“We should break in after hours,” Xue Yang says idly. “That way nobody can disagree if you have to smash a computer.” 

Song Lan, who looks like someone who would be pointedly against breaking-and-entering and other forms of not-so-petty-crimes, shrugs. “Makes sense,” He says. Xue Yang looks at him hard and Song Lan puts his hands up like Xue Yang’s started shouting at him. “The last thing I need is a librarian looking over my shoulder while we try to feel for resentful energy in a public library.” 

“I’m gonna be feeling resentful,” Xue Yang says, but he can’t deny that the point is fair. “You gonna come pick me up, daozhangs?” 

“This is not a movie date,” Song Lan says, rolling his eyes. “You’d rather us pick you up than meet there?” 

“The place is a million miles from me,” Xue Yang says, by which he means an hour. “I’d be late to our crime.” 

“Of course we can pick you up,” Xiao Xingchen says, waving the thought off. “Tonight?” 

Xue Yang grunts. He guesses that it’s too much to ask to sleep four uninterrupted hours during what is still technically a night hunt, even though virtually none of it has been at night. “Sure, whatever. The faster we’re done, the fewer people will die.” 

“So we can hope,” Xiao Xingchen agrees cheerfully. Xue Yang stares at him and Song Lan tears his eyes away from the pathetic little plant to say, “Yeah, he’s like that.” 

That’s that, apparently. They bundle up their map and leave with the promise to be back later and leave the way they came, gently closing the door behind themselves. Xue Yang stays on the floor, all naked thighs and knees and ankles, and thinks a little bit about Song Lan’s eyes and Xiao Xingchen’s smile. 

 

︾︾︾︾︾

 

This time, Xue Yang feels a little like a prowling wolf and he’s pretty sure he’s actually earning it, even though all they’re doing is breaking into a public library that doesn’t even have an alarm on the door. 

“Why are you so good at opening sliding doors?” Xue Yang demands, watching Xiao Xingchen shimmy a thin-bladed knife into the crack between the doors and slide up until they all hear something inside offer a faint metallic click. 

“Misspent youth,” Song Lan answers for him drily, helping Xiao Xingchen pry open the glass doors with the tips of his fingers. “Inside, you can hold it open.” 

The library is eerily dark and very cold. Xue Yang’s no professional (except-- technically, yes, but no), but he knows a vibe and the vibe is spooky. He holds the door until they’re all standing around awkwardly in the lobby and then wanders deeper inside, feeling like something is going to jump out at him from behind a stack of books at any second. 

“Is the power on?” Song Lan asks, glancing towards the children’s section. In the dull red light of the exit sign, Xue Yang can just barely pick out the faintest outline of an outdated wooden train table. 

“Why the fuck would the power be off,” Xue Yang mutters, tromping over to the bank of computers he’s just spotted. None of them are obviously glowing red or looking particularly suspicious, which sort of leaves him stumped. 

Song Lan crosses his arms, standing alongside him. “Do we turn these on one-by-one?” He asks dubiously. Xue Yang grimaces. Night hunting isn’t supposed to be boring. It’s supposed to be fun and full of no-strings-attached blood. 

“Can’t you sense it?” Xiao Xingchen asks, voice idly curious. Xue Yang pivots to look at him and Xiao Xingchen cracks a faint smile. “Kidding. We have to turn them on one-by-one.” 

“Fuck,” Xue Yang says wearily, and moves to do the first one. 

It takes nearly half an hour just to get all the computers turned on, because they realize belatedly there’s another computer lab and a few computers in random scattered areas throughout the library, including the children’s room and a creepy little side area helpfully labeled Teen Room, which has two beanbag chairs, three computers, and nothing else at all. 

“It’s in here,” Xue Yang says immediately. Song Lan raises his eyebrows. 

“What makes you so sure?” 

Xue Yang looks around. “This place feels fucking creepy.” 

Song Lan rolls his eyes, but doesn’t argue. It does feel fucking creepy. 

The first and second computers come on without a stutter, but the last offers the barest flicker before the log-in screen comes up. 

“Maybe not, then,” Xue Yang says, and turns to leave. He’s not too fussed. 

“Hang on,” Song Lan says. He has a sort of flat tone all the time, but he sounds especially flat when he leans in over Xue Yang’s shoulder. “Does that say ‘If you need assistance logging in, sacrifice your life.’?” 

Xue Yang, who’s been sort of focused on the heat of Song Lan all along his spine, blinks and squints. “-- Hey, what the fuck.” 

Song Lan barks a laugh and shifts away, presumably to find Xiao Xingchen so they can figure out how to un-haunt a computer. 

 

︾︾︾︾︾

 

“Attention library customers,” Xue Yang reads, chin propped on his knuckles. “By clicking the OK button below and logging into the system, you: agree to save your files, blah blah blah, acknowledge loss of data, agree to the leaching of your life force… how many of these are there?” He hits decline and the screen resets again, somehow with the aura of mild petulance. 

The thing is, it’s not like it’s dangerous. It’s boring, which is worse, because it’ll only start being dangerous if he stops paying attention, which he’s going to because he’s bored. 

“I’m trying to suppress it,” Xiao Xingchen says. Xue Yang glances over at him and finds him spinning around idly on one of the rolling desk chairs, hands laced atop his knees. He shrugs at Xue Yang’s unimpressed expression. “Zichen’s trying to suppress it.” 

Song Lan actually is doing something, but what he seems to be doing is mostly swearing at the screen and trying to figure out how to write a string of code entirely by referencing his phone. Xue Yang stifles a yawn into his hand. 

“This thing killed someone,” He says, skimming through another terms-of-service agreement, blinking, and then reading it more closely when he realizes that it’s phrased in the negative- I don’t agree to have you siphon my life from my willing flesh, buried deep in the thirteenth paragraph. “Twenty people, and nothing has even tried to stab me.” He hits ‘no’ and the screen flickers before coming up with another. 

They’ve been at it for hours-- at first, Xue Yang’d had to struggle to convince the ghost back up onto the screen, searching out new websites with various ToS agreements and tricky little password boxes. By the hour mark, they’ve all given up on subtlety. The ghost isn’t even letting him browse, instead just trying to trap him with wordplay and his increasing boredom. 

“I’m going to stab you,” Song Lan says, “If you don’t shut up.” 

Xue Yang makes an annoyed noise. “How much longer?” He asks, scrolling slowly through a carefully-worded password reset email. This one is asking him to agree to sacrifice eighty years of his life in exchange for picking a new password. 

“Every time you talk, I add fifteen minutes,” Song Lan replies, and Xiao Xingchen laughs faintly. 

 

︾︾︾︾︾

 

The code doesn’t work. They end up stealing the computer, which means that Xue Yang’s just wasted four fucking hours of his life for no reason. 

“I want double,” He says while they leave, Xiao Xingchen holding the monitor and Song Lan carrying the tower. “I want to be paid extra for emotional distress.” 

“People died,” Song Lan says, “Have some respect.” 

“Fuck off,” Xue Yang bares his teeth, even though it’s dark and no one can see it. He can feel it, which means it counts. Hackles up, etcetera. 

“We’re your ride home,” Xiao Xingchen reminds him, voice shaking with barely-concealed laughter. It’s all great for him, who’s basically had to loiter and dole out snacks. He even looks cool. 

“Shotgun,” Xue Yang says, and Song Lan says, “Absolutely not,” and that’s that. 

 

︾︾︾︾︾

 

They call him on their next night hunt, and their next one, and their next one, until it’s an easy routine and he stops asking to be paid because they just start giving him a cut. They help him move into a nicer apartment, and then an apartment after that, and then after an incident with a particularly vicious demon had left him without the use of his hand for a while, their house. 

It isn’t weird. It’s, you know, two guys with their live-in feral cat, and the plant that lives on the kitchen windowsill. It turns out, when you give plants water and light, they flower. It’s a pretty nice plant, all told. 

“It’s a banshee,” Xue Yang says, and Xiao Xingchen smothers a laugh behind his hand. 

“Banshees aren’t real,” Song Lan says, sounding disgruntled, and Xue Yang shoots him a look and shifts to kick him in the thigh, which is only possible because they’re all huddled up together on the long sofa. “Don’t touch me.” He sounds half-assed about it, though, which he should, because he’s been stroking his hand up and down Xue Yang’s side for almost an hour. 

-- It isn’t weird. 

“It’s probably another demon,” Xiao Xingchen says, curling his hand around Xue Yang’s hip. Xue Yang shifts to cushion his face on his wrist, stretching out a little more comfortably. It brings his toes into contact with Song Lan’s knee through his sweatpants. 

“We’ll find out tomorrow,” Song Lan says. “I can tell you it won’t be a banshee.” 

 

︾︾︾︾︾

 

It is neither a banshee nor a demon. Xue Yang isn’t totally sure what it is, because he’s very busy bleeding while Xiao Xingchen frantically tries to fumble his pants off to keep him from bleeding out. It’s really not that bad; it’s the kind of wound that bleeds a lot but isn’t too dangerous. 

It’s actually kind of sexy. Xiao Xingchen’s leaving handprints all up Xue Yang’s body, stamping him with blood. 

“You only think that because of the blood loss,” Xiao Xingchen says, voice trembling down to something less panicky but not quite as smooth as standard. 

“I always think you’re sexy,” Xue Yang tells him seriously, probably also because of the blood loss. Xiao Xingchen gives him a startled look. 

“Really?” He asks, and Song Lan shears the corpse in half and leaves it bleeding sludgily on the floor. It’s extremely powerful in terms of punctuation. 

“I thought we were ignoring it,” Song Lan says. Xue Yang flaps a hand at him as if to say ‘yeah, exactly’. 

“Not on purpose,” Xiao Xingchen says, and leans in to kiss Xue Yang, as if he hadn’t been the one complaining about the blood loss and the near-death and so on. 

“I’m not wearing pants,” Xue Yang says, dazed, and Song Lan crouches behind him and palms him through his underwear. 

“Convenient,” He says, and Xue Yang kisses the laugh out of Xiao Xingchen’s mouth before it has the chance to meet the air. “If you die, I’ll kill you.” 

“If I die, I’ll haunt you,” Xue Yang mutters, tipping his head back to rest on Song Lan’s shoulder while Xiao Xingchen bites kisses down the column of his neck. 

It’s so fucking good. It’s barely anything at all, and it’s still so fucking good. Probably the blood loss, Xue Yang thinks dizzily, lifting his hips into Song Lan’s hand. “Fuck-- ah, please--” He whines, twisting even though it hurts his leg. Song Lan’s hand creeps into his underwear and Xiao Xingchen leans in to kiss him again, again, again. 

Xue Yang whimpers and Xiao Xingchen licks it out of his mouth, cupping his jaw with bloody fingertips. 

“Fuck,” Song Lan says, and God, fuck, he sounds reverent, almost, fuck-- 

Blood loss. It’s blood loss when Xue Yang comes jolting into Song Lan’s hand and blood loss when Song Lan feeds it back to Xue Yang, letting him lick it off his fingers in broad strokes. It’s disgusting because he probably has corpse blood on his hands and amazing because fuck --

Xiao Xingchen kisses the bow of Xue Yang’s lips delicately, flicks his tongue kittenish against Xue Yang’s bottom lip, and says, “I’m going to take you to pieces.” 

“Hrgh,” Xue Yang says, because his brain is made of mush and he’s probably dying. He rolls his head against Song Lan’s shoulder. “Cool. Can I have shotgun this time?” 

“No,” Song Lan says, but he does carry Xue Yang to the car, so in the end-- not too bad.