Xie Lian hummed, staring between different kinds of cement. She could see one of the Home Depot employees she’d spoken to last week about different wood for roof beams hovering at the end of the aisle, but she didn’t look up, not wanting to have to explain that despite all their very nice advice her roof was sagging again and that the only thing she could think of to do was install a big cement pillar in the middle of her living room. It wasn’t ideal, certainly, but it was better than counting down the days til the thing crashed in on her wholesale and maybe crushed her to death.
You could move, suggested a voice in the back of her head that sounded a lot like Mu Qing. It was a bad idea to think you could own a home anyway. What are you trying to do, put down roots? Just pack up and go, get out of this town entirely. It doesn’t want you.
She sighed and stepped back from the cement. Maybe this could wait until after she got paid. It had just rained for almost an entire week, surely it’d be a bit before they got too much more. And—
“Do you need help?”
She blinked and looked up, expecting to see the employee from down the aisle, but instead she found herself meeting one dark eye, the other hidden behind an artful tousle of black hair, freeing itself almost as she watched from a loose braid tossed lazily over one broad shoulder.
“Um,” she said, running her eyes over the stranger, looking for an employee nametag but finding only—with increasing embarrassment—a soft red shirt, expensive and low-cut, with an elegant silver necklace dipping into cleavage; a black leather jacket with a little ‘he/him’ pin on one shoulder; strong hands with short nails and perfectly-applied black nail polish. She swallowed, feeling suddenly very small and grubby in her tank top and plaster-stained jeans. “No, I—I’m sorry, do you work here?”
The stranger grinned, and Xie Lian noticed he was wearing a thin layer of red eyeliner under his visible eye. “No,” he said, and then offered no other explanation, just stuck out a hand. “San Lang.”
“Oh,” said Xie Lian, shaking his hand. “Xie Lian? And. Me neither.”
San Lang cocked his head. “If you did you’d probably know the kind of cement you’re looking for,” he said, his voice low and warm, inviting Xie Lian into the joke. “What are you using it for? Decorative? Load-bearing? How quickly do you need it to dry?”
Xie Lian coughed and made herself stop staring quite so openly. “Load-bearing, definitely,” she said, “and. Quickly? Before my roof caves in on me?”
She expected questions, or at least some pushback— why are you trying to prop your roof up with cement seemed like a likely one—but San Lang just raised his eyebrows and nodded, then led her over to a totally different shelf of cements. “You were looking at Portland cement,” he explained. “That’s what I use in my work, but it’s not what you want for construction—it’s malleable but too soft for anything you need to hold any real weight.”
“Your work?” Xie Lian asked, curious. “What do you do?”
To her surprise, San Lang blushed slightly, his high cheekbones dusted pink. “Art,” he said shortly, and then tapped a knuckle against a bag of cement. “Here’s what you’ll want to use for your roof.”
Xie Lian nodded, wishing briefly she needed to buy anything else today so she could ask San Lang for it and trail around the store after him for another few minutes. He was just. Nice to look at, is all, and didn’t judge her for her house falling down around her ears, and maybe it had been a long time since she’d had the attention of someone like that. Stupid, she berated herself, and bent to pick up the bag of cement, then thought better of it and stacked up a few just in case. She perched the pile on one shoulder, steadying it with one hand, and turned, smiling. “Thanks, San Lang.”
For a second San Lang stared at her. His blush hadn’t faded—if anything it looked darker than before—and his eye was wide. “That’s—almost a hundred pounds of cement.”
Xie Lian blinked at him. “Yes? I’m not sure I’ll need this much, but I don’t want to have to come back, and I can always return the extra.”
San Lang’s lips parted, and then the moment passed and he was smiling lazily again. It gently curved his eye, like a pleased cat. “Jiejie is so strong,” he said. “I was going to offer to help you to your car, but it seems that’s unnecessary.”
Xie Lian shrugged—San Lang’s eye widened a fraction again—and tucked her hair behind her ear with her free hand. “I don’t have a car,” she said. “My place is pretty close, only like ten blocks or so, so. I usually walk.”
“You usually walk,” San Lang echoed, voice a little faint. “Ten blocks. With a hundred pounds of cement on one shoulder.”
Xie Lian frowned. “Well, no, I’ve never bought cement before. I tried to fix it with wood, first.”
“I’m sorry I missed that,” San Lang said, which Xie Lian had no idea how to interpret and also no time to try, because then he said, “C’mon, I’ll give you a ride.”
“Oh, no,” Xie Lian said immediately. “I—I couldn’t trouble you, you’ve already—”
San Lang looked amused. Usually when people looked amused at Xie Lian it was a safe assumption that it was at her expense, but on San Lang it looked different, somehow; it didn’t make Xie Lian feel ashamed. “It was no great hardship to walk you five feet to a different kind of cement,” he said. “Allow me the pleasure of your company a little longer.”
Xie Lian blushed to the roots of her hair—god, she probably blushed to her toes. She should insist. No matter how charming or helpful or beautiful, San Lang was a stranger to her; the voice in her head—now Feng Xin—was admonishing, dianxia, this is how you get fucking murdered.
Except—she really didn’t want to insist. She wanted to see what sort of fancy, fashionable car San Lang had, wanted to enjoy the fantasy being offered her—that someone like him finds her interesting, amusing, worthy of his time. Selfish; but then, hadn’t she always been?
“Okay,” she said, and let San Lang lead the way.
He did, in fact, have a fancy car. She didn’t know anything about cars— never had a license, always catching rides from her shitty cousin Qi Rong in high school, and then of course Feng Xin and Mu Qing, the latter much more grudging. It was one of the skills she never really thought she’d need, and then, suddenly, overnight, not having it made her feel like an absolute child. There were a lot of those. Cooking. Balancing a budget. She hefted the cement on her shoulder, rueful. Repairing a roof.
San Lang’s car was sleek, a beautifully clean cherry red. It wasn’t new—it had too much character to be new, all new cars looked the same to Xie Lian—but it was old in an expensive way, not in a poor person way. She shifted the cement on her shoulder again. “Um,” she said. “Are you sure—I’ll only get it dirty—”
San Lang already had the back door open. “Things are meant to be used, jiejie,” he said, and gestured her inside. “Seats can be cleaned.”
By who, Xie Lian thought, and then took a moment to be surprised at herself. The rich kid she’d once been never would have wondered. Mu Qing would be proud—she cut the thought off and dumped her cement into the back seat of San Lang’s car as carefully as it’s possible to dump nearly a hundred pounds of cement, and then crawled in after it.
San Lang laughed, startled, and peered in at her. “Shall I be your chauffeur, then, dianxia?”
It was a coincidence—a tease—she was only supposed to put the cement back here, and now—but the nickname still knocked the breath out of her. “I,” she managed, but San Lang was already closing the door.
“No, no!” he demurred through the open window. “Please, let this humble driver escort you home.” His visible eye twinkled, wicked, and Xie Lian buried her burning face in her hands.
“San Lang, ” she groaned. “I didn’t mean—”
But he just walked around the front of the car to open the driver’s side door. She leaned her cheek against the back of the passenger-side headrest, cool leather against her flushed skin. It was only a coincidence. Her stupid nickname. Given to her when she’d played a prince in a school play years ago, it had just—stuck with her, since, became kind of a Thing when she got famous: taizi dianxia, the crown prince of the ring. Here, from San Lang, it settled something in her, after the initial shock; the nervousness of meeting someone new (someone hot, her brain interjected, thankfully just in her own voice) giving way to a surprising feeling of comfort, of safety.
She rolled her head sideways to watch as San Lang slid into the driver’s seat and put on his seatbelt. He had three silver hoops in the ear closest to her; if she leaned forward she could bite them. She folded her lips over her teeth and tried to remember how to be a person, not—whatever thing she was when she was alone.
San Lang started the car and turned to check behind him before pulling out of the space, and their eyes met. Xie Lian huffed and scratched her cheek, but San Lang didn’t seem to mind that she’d been staring; he just stared right back, though there was nothing interesting about her face, and then smiled. This close, it was dizzying. Xie Lian sat back, feeling winded, and San Lang finished pulling out of the parking lot.
He paused at the exit, glancing at her, and she went, “Oh, sorry! Left,” and then watched his hands on the steering wheel as he turned.
Despite the flashy car, San Lang was a careful driver, keeping his eyes on the road, and they spent most of the drive in a weirdly comfortable silence. She wanted to ask San Lang more about what his art was like, but he’d been so short and she didn’t want to be pushy - he was already doing so much for her. Besides, the drive was short, and then they’d probably never see each other again, so there really wasn’t much point.
“Left again up here,” she said quietly, and San Lang pulled into her driveway. The damage to her roof was even noticeable from the outside, a visible sag to the shingles like the stomach of someone who hadn’t eaten for weeks. It made Xie Lian want to cry a little, that she had to leave this beautiful car with this beautiful person and crawl back into that rotting body, but she hadn’t cried in—years, maybe, not really. She just ached, sometimes, and then told herself to stop.
“Hey, jiejie,” San Lang said, and Xie Lian looked back at him. His hands were shifting over the leather of the steering wheel, fiddling with the seams. “Can I have your phone number?”
Xie Lian gaped at him. "My—really?"
San Lang cocked his head. "You don't have to, of course, but if it's a safety thing.” He gestured past the windshield to her stupid ramshackle house. ”I do already know where you live."
Xie Lian huffed. “Yeah,” she said. “Thanks, by the way, for not, like, kidnapping or killing me or whatever. It would’ve been pretty easy. I don’t really think anyone would’ve noticed.”
San Lang frowned at her. “Your family?”
Xie Lian shook her head. “Haven’t had one for a long time. And my friends, um. Left, so.”
San Lang’s frown deepened. "Idiots," he declared.
She laughed, startled, and he looked sideways at her, the corner of his painted mouth lifting.
Xie Lian tore her eyes away, scrambling for her phone, and flipped it open. "Sorry, I have to. Remember the number."
San Lang blinked at the phone in her hands. "Is that—”
She grimaced. "I break stuff? Kind of a lot. And I don't have a ton of money. Or, like, people. To call. So." She waved the little flip phone at him. "These work for me, because if I break it I can just get another one, they’re pretty cheap—" She froze, realizing. "San Lang!! We shoplifted that cement!!"
San Lang shook his head. "They put it on my tab."
Xie Lian stared at him. "You have a tab. At Home Depot."
San Lang shrugged. "I'm a very loyal customer.”
Xie Lian found herself smiling again and folded her lips into her mouth, opening up a new contact in her phone. “Um,” she said, and handed it to San Lang.
He typed for a long, laborious moment, and handed it back. He’d added his number, but also filled out the “name” section with something new: Hua Cheng. Xie Lian frowned at it for a second.
“My name,” San Lang explained. “My real one, or as close as it gets. But I’d like it if you kept calling me San Lang, jiejie.”
Xie Lian shrugged. “Sure,” she said. She wondered if it was a deadname situation, but then why put it in her phone? “Um. Thank you. I’ll—here.”
She texted him xie lian from home depot just in case he didn’t, like, save it right away, and forgot.
She watched him get the text, his eye going crescent shaped in amusement, and then. Well. It was time to get out of the car! So. She undid her seatbelt.
“Oh,” said Hua Cheng, and he was out his door and opening hers before she’d even finished the motion. “Dianxia,” he said, offering her a hand.
She tried to be disgruntled—thought about saying I can stand up on my own, actually— but found herself taking his hand, instead. It was cool to the touch, his fingers calloused, and she had to stop herself from turning it over in hers to examine his knuckles. Her own, if he returned the favor, were fucked up enough for the both of them. Instead, she stood, leaning into him a little, and then let go.
She could feel his eyes on her until she closed her door between them and leaned back against it. A few minutes later, she heard his car pulling away, and breathed out slow.
Less than an hour later, her phone chimed.
—So what is it you do, jiejie?
Xie Lian almost laughed. So they were doing the smalltalk thing over text, now that they were free of the weird spell of the drive.
xie lian from home depot
—I work demolitions. And construction, sometimes, but I’m better at knocking things down than putting them up.
She hesitated, and then:
xie lian from home depot
—I used to be a boxer.
—were you good?
Xie Lian was never one for false modesty, and anyway, that whole part of her life felt so completely disconnected from anything she was now. Her medal was somewhere, probably, or maybe it had vanished along with Feng Xin.
xie lian from home depot
—Yes. I was very good.
She braced herself for the inevitable follow-up, the why did you stop, but it never came. Instead:
—Explains the arms
Xie Lian’s face heated up, and she tipped over sideways in bed, knees drawn up to her chest. God. What was she doing. She needed to get up, and make the mold for the pillar with the rest of the wood and bricks from her previous attempts, and eat something before work, but instead she flopped over onto her back, phone cradled against her chest. The weight of it was warm, somehow; gently pinning her like a butterfly against her mattress.
San Lang, it turned out, texted a lot, and couldn’t spell, at least when he wasn’t trying so hard. His phone looked new; surely he must have autocorrect, but after the first day of back and forths he apparently started ignoring it, or turned it off. It was a charming little discrepancy with his clothes, his car, and made her itch to know more, find other contrasts and inconsistencies.
“Did u no there's a kind of jellifish that lives forever?” He texted her on a Tuesday evening, and then, the following morning, “unless u kill it i guess. ” And then, an hour later, while Xie Lian was on her lunch break, “cows have four stomachs??”
Xie Lian bit her lip.
xie lian from home depot
—I wasn’t aware San Lang was such an animal lover.
—I watch a lot of documentarys while I sculpt and latly it’s been nature stuff. Don’t care abt animals. Just like too know things
Xie Lian stored that scrap of information about his art away in her heart.
xie lian from home depot
—I think that’s admirable.
—Not caring abt animals??? >:0 =^.^=
Xie Lian rolled her eyes, indescribably fond at the idea that he was typing out emoticons to compensate for her ancient phone not being able to display emojis.
xie lian from home depot
—Wanting to know things
—Its good bc now i have so many fax to text to u
Xie Lian poked herself repeatedly in the cheeks to stop smiling so big and stupid.
xie lian from home depot
—Did San Lang go to college?
She worried for a moment she’d offended, but then:
—Dropt out of hs in senior year. u?
xie lian from home depot
—I was busy
It was another opening he could follow up with—what would she have been busy with except boxing?—but he didn’t take it. She sighed, tucking her phone in the pocket of her cargo pants and shoving the rest of her lunch into her mouth. She stood up, dusted off her knees, and adjusted the hard hat on her head. As she rejoined the other workers at today’s demolition, Quan Yizhen waved at her. She waved back, assuming he was just being friendly, but he turned his waving into beckoning, so she left her jackhammer where it was leaning against the half-fallen wall and joined him.
“Do you—” he started, and then on the other side of the room Pei Ming started up his jackhammer, so he waited, bouncing on the balls of his feet, and then said all in a rush, “doyouknowHuaCheng?”
Xie Lian blinked. “You know—him?” she asked, in case San Lang was some kind of private name, a secret code just for her. She liked the thought of that.
Quan Yizhen shook his head vigorously, his curls bouncing. “No!” he said. “But Yin-ge said you were with him at Home Depot and you left together!”
Xie Lian stared at him. One of the employees that had helped her a few weeks ago had been called Yin something, she was pretty sure, but that’s about as far as she could follow what was happening here. “Yizhen, if you don’t know Hua Cheng, why is this… notable?”
“He’s famous. Or like. The bad one. Infamous. I thought—” His eyes gleamed. “I thought maybe you fought him.”
Xie Lian deflated, laughing at herself. Of course. She’d only ever seen Quan Yizhen this excited about something the very first time they’d met, when he’d instantly recognized her from the boxing circuit and spent a good hour and a half trying to get her to square up with him in the parking lot of the derelict McDonalds they were knocking down that day. When she’d finally got through to him that she was out of the game and had no interest in fighting him or anyone else they worked with (Pei Ming had seemed worryingly intrigued at the idea, once Quan Yizhen started listing all her wins) he’d lost interest, and mostly been a quiet, steady presence since, though she’d definitely caught him napping in weird locations multiple times when they’d been held up by paperwork delays. She didn’t think it was about her, really, his enthusiasm, just about boxing as a sport. Probably MMA, too. Possibly anything that involved two people hitting each other very hard.
“I didn’t fight him, Yizhen,” she said. “We’re friends.” She was pretty sure they were, anyway. She scratched her cheek, curious. “When you say he’s infamous, like. What for?"
Quan Yizhen mirrored her deflation, shrugging. “Crimes, I guess,” he said. “I think he owns a casino or something? Yin-ge does stuff for him sometimes.”
Xie Lian processed that. “He sculpts,” she offered, so that Quan Yizhen could add that to his list of apparently disconnected Hua Cheng Facts, and then felt obscurely like she’d betrayed some kind of trust. “I think?”
Quan Yizhen nodded, and turned back to his work, so she did the same. Across the room, Pei Ming raised an eyebrow at her, but she shrugged— who knows? —and he didn’t press.
After work she shook the dust out of her hair and walked to the library. Ling Wen was at the front desk, but she didn’t even bother to look up when Xie Lian came in, just tapped the sign that had the library’s hours to let her know they were closing soon. Xie Lian, despite knowing she wouldn’t be here for long, started walking a little faster.
She logged into one of the computers with her library card and then stopped, Bing search window open. She picked up her phone. She could just ask, but how? San Lang had never asked her for anything more than she’d offered, always allowing her weird, short answers about her past, and she was going to dig up his record or whatever on the word of Quan Yizhen?
She closed Bing and wandered off into the stacks instead, and when, home in bed with the single book she’d checked out balanced on her knees, she texted San Lang “did you know snails can sleep for three years at a time?” and he responded, almost instantly, “ !!!! me 2” she knew she’d made the right choice.
It wasn't until they'd wrapped up the current demolition job and taken on a gig across town that she saw San Lang again. She'd thought about asking to see him, but he seemed so busy—with his art, and with crimes, apparently. Besides, she didn't really have time—the new job was far enough that to get there by foot or by bus she had to leave very, very early in the morning, which meant going to sleep quite early at night, and from the timing of most of San Lang's texts he seemed like a night owl.
She took a taxi once a week, as a luxury, peeling exact change from the roll of bills she had stashed in her sock drawer and replenishing them again when she got paid out the following week.
The thing is, she wasn’t actually certain how much money she had. Oh, she knew how much she had in the drawer, but her bank account was a mystery to her—the money from her parents was gone to medical expenses and Qi Rong’s debts, and she assumed most of what she’d gotten from her fights was sunk into buying her this house, but Feng Xin was the one who’d known for sure, because she used to live the kind of life where someone else paid attention to her money, and once that person was gone she sort of. Never figured out how to do it herself. She had a credit card, somewhere, but she was certain it was maxed out and anyone calling to collect had a number disconnected four phones ago.
It was fine. She got paid in cash, mostly under the table, enough to buy food and replacement clothing when her old stuff wore out, and to pay her bills. It's just what she'd sunk into repairs that'd made her short lately, really. Maybe once she managed to fix the roof she could start saving for a car, and lessons to drive it—or maybe San Lang would be willing to teach her to drive. A practical reason for them to spend lots of time together.
The cement was still sitting in the corner, though, untouched.
She got out of the taxi at the demolition site. It’d been a hotel, she was pretty sure, though it was hard to tell now—it had caught on fire sometime last month and burned almost entirely to the ground. This wouldn’t be a long job—they just had to clear the beams and flagstones not reduced to ash, fill the basement levels, and grade it over. The owner didn’t want to rebuild, apparently, though what they were planning on doing with the space Pei Ming didn’t know. Maybe more parking or something for—
She blinked at the building across the street as her taxi pulled away. It was enormous and gaudy and said Paradise Manor in big neon red letters.
I think he owns a casino, Quan Yizhen had said.
Surely not. Right?
She found Pei Ming finishing his paper cup of coffee on the corner, leaning against the pole of the crosswalk sign. As she approached a woman in a short-skirted business suit crossed in front of him, and Xie Lian watched Pei Ming give her a slow, wolfish look. The woman rolled her eyes and kept walking.
“Wow, you didn’t even whistle,” Xie Lian remarked as she reached him. “Is that growth? ”
“Gotta move with the times,” Pei Ming responded, shrugging. He had sunglasses perched on the top of his head, despite the fact that early sun was weak and watery, morning mist still clinging to the streets.
“What times, the 1970s?” Xie Lian asked, leaning next to him.
Pei Ming just held out his coffee, offering her a sip, but she shook her head.
”I was wondering,” she said, casual, “how’d you hear about this job?”
“Had my eye on it as a possibility since I saw about the fire in the newspaper,” he said, “but actually someone reached out to us.”
Xie Lian raised her eyebrows. “Oh yeah? Who?”
“Some guy Yizhen knows,” said Pei Ming. “Yin something. Works for one of those companies called, like, Business Industry Holdings LLC, just a bunch of meaningless bullshit, probably cover for something else. They own the lot. Own a lot of shit around here, actually.”
Xie Lian hummed. “Thanks,” she said.
“No problem,” said Pei Ming. He tossed his empty coffee cup into the trashcan like a basketball player and then waggled his eyebrows at her to see if she was impressed.
She rolled her eyes, and he laughed. “C’mon. Let’s get to work.”
After work Xie Lian crossed the street, staring up at the neon. Up close the place was even bigger than it had seemed from across the street; it was no taller than the high rises around it but something about it loomed, anyway, the black-painted door with its silver script suggesting a sort of portal, a gateway into another world.
Xie Lian took a breath, and stepped through the door.
She was, honestly, not expecting all that much. It was early yet, not much past 8, and she’d always assumed these places got most of their business in the wee hours of the morning. But when her eyes adjusted to the low light, she was surprised to find the place pretty busy. About three quarters of the slot machines were in use, and there was a small crowd around the roulette table. There were four men sitting at the blackjack table. One of them impatiently tapped the table with a knuckle, and the dealer slid him a card.
Xie Lian smiled and turned away, and across the room her eyes met Hua Cheng’s.
He looked—different. His hair was pulled back from his face, twisted up and pinned at the back of his head with silver ornaments shaped like delicate butterflies, and he was wearing a simple black eyepatch over his right eye—she realized he’d probably been wearing it when they met, too, just hidden by his hair. She felt a brief pang for whatever pain he’d suffered, and then was instantly and completely distracted because he was also wearing a sleek, low-cut red dress, his silver necklaces dipping into the shadow between his breasts, and black heels so high they made his legs look like they stretched miles. She swallowed hard, her gaze returning to San Lang’s face, certain that he’d have noticed her completely unsubtle once-over, but he just looked surprised, and—dismayed?
She swallowed again. She should leave—this was his place of work, and he hadn’t invited her—but then he’d crossed the space between them with his miles-long legs (the skirt had a slit in it up to his thigh ) and was smiling down at her, all hints of dismay gone. “Jiejie.”
“Hi,” said Xie Lian, dumbly.
“Hi,” said Hua Cheng, his smile growing. He was wearing silver eyeliner along his lower lash line, and it made him look fey, otherworldly. “I am glad to see you, of course, but this doesn’t seem like your scene.”
“You don’t think I’m an expert gambler?” Xie Lian asked, her own smile drawn out by his, as if it had been inside her all along, just waiting for its magnetic pull.
“I would never underestimate jiejie’s skill,” said Hua Cheng politely.
“My skill isn’t the problem,” Xie Lian said ruefully. “Sadly, San Lang, this one is cursed with terrible luck.”
Hua Cheng reached down and picked up her hand, turning it over to examine a long scratch across her wrist from where she’d caught herself on a stray nail during work. He ran his thumb over it, his skin cool. Xie Lian had to fight not to shiver.
“Perhaps not so terrible anymore,” he said, and then gestured with his other hand at the tables behind him. “Would you like to try?”
Xie Lian flushed. “I—no, thank you,” she said. “I came to see you, actually.”
“Ah,” said Hua Cheng, and let go of her hand. “Jiejie is upset with San Lang for interfering too much.”
Xie Lian shook her head. “No,” she said. “I mean—I figured it out, that you were the one who hired us for this job, but work is work, I’m not going to be angry with you for that. But this kid I work with, he said you owned a casino.” She elected to leave off the crimes for now, though she had a growing suspicion about the cause of the hotel fire, in which no one had been hurt, and which would have had a hefty insurance payout. “I guess I was curious.”
Hua Cheng smiled again, but there was a little bit of that dismay back at the edges of it, at the corner of his eye. He stepped back from her, placing one hand on his hip and gesturing around with the other. “Well?” he asked. “What do you think?”
“People clearly like the place, since it’s already this busy so early in the night,” said Xie Lian, deliberately looking away from the sleek curve of his side, the perfect long fingers of his hand against the red of his dress. “And my old coach is here playing blackjack, and I know he’d walk out of any place that didn’t leave him alone like he likes.”
Hua Cheng blinked. “Your—”
Xie Lian jerked her chin at the blackjack table, where Guoshi was once again impatiently asking for a card. His companions were deep in silent contemplation. The dealer, a tall, pale person with long, straight black hair, handed him a card, slowly, like they were enjoying making him wait.
“Ah,” said Hua Cheng, and raised a hand. Seemingly from nowhere, a man in a waiter uniform materialized at his shoulder. “Get the man who just won a hand of blackjack a drink.”
“He likes whiskey,” Xie Lian said helpfully.
The waiter nodded. Hua Cheng looked at Xie Lian. “And for yourself, dianxia?”
“Oh,” said Xie Lian. “No, I should go—it takes me a few hours to get home from here, so.”
Hua Cheng blinked. “Surely you’re not walking. ”
“Sometimes,” says Xie Lian defensively. When my knees let me, she didn’t say. “But usually I take the bus—it’s not so bad, but there are a couple transfers.”
Hua Cheng shook his head. “I’ll drive you,” he said decisively. “Just let me change. Have a drink while you’re waiting.”
“San Lang,” Xie Lian protested, but Hua Cheng was already striding away.
The waiter was still hovering, as if hooked like a fish until Hua Cheng chose to release him. Or maybe that power had passed to Xie Lian, now. “I’ll have a beer, I guess?” she said, and that seemed to be password enough, because he nodded and walked away as well, crossing to a long bar against one wall. Xie Lian, with nothing else to do, followed, though at a sedate enough pace that he wouldn’t think she was following him, really, just finding a place to linger.
She perched on a bar stool and nursed her beer. Across the room, Guoshi looked around, searching the crowd. She saw the moment he noticed her, his eyebrows going up, and then he raised his glass to her, and she raised her own in silent salute. She felt a little bad that he assumed she’d bought the drink for him, rather than San Lang, but it couldn’t be helped. If she went over there it would be a whole thing, but he wouldn’t approach if she didn’t. He was good like that.
Everyone from her previous life was good like that, leaving her alone. Not pressuring her to be anything more than she was. Her hands tightened around her beer.
More people kept filing into the room, chattering, laughing, drinking. She wished San Lang would come back so they could leave.
When he did reappear he was in black jeans and a loose white button-up, unbuttoned nearly halfway down his chest, his hair in a low ponytail. She hopped up, nearly tipping over her beer, then drained it, thankfully without spilling anything down her chin. She had a pretty high tolerance for alcohol despite not drinking very often, but she briefly considered pretending to be drunk just to excuse the flush in her cheeks, the way San Lang made her clumsy just by his presence.
“You look nice,” she said as Hua Cheng led her out of the casino through a side entrance, digging his keys out of his pocket.
Hua Cheng paused at the side of his car. “Dianxia prefers me this way?”
“You looked good before, too!” Xie Lian rushed to say, because, holy shit. “You always look good, I didn’t mean—that dress was—”
“Jiejie, I’m teasing,” said Hua Cheng, and gestured her into the car.
Xie Lian took shotgun this time like a normal person, flushing at Hua Cheng’s raised eyebrows. “Which, um. Are you more comfortable? Like this?”
Hua Cheng seemed to consider that. “Not more comfortable,” he said. “Just different. In there—dressed like that—I wield a certain kind of power. I play a role. It’s one I’ve played for a long time, and I benefit from it, so it’s not that I mind, exactly, but.” He gestured to himself. “This is just me.”
Xie Lian nodded. “I used to have to dress up for stuff,” she said, as Hua Cheng pulled out of the parking lot, the angle of his head somehow making it clear he was listening as he drove. “Press events, parties. I hated it. I just felt…” she trailed off, thinking about it. It wasn’t the objectification, really; she’d made her money, her reputation, off her body—her strength, the striking contrast between the muscle of her and the delicacy of her features (even more delicate, then, before she’d had her nose broken). She knew not all of it was her fighting prowess, knew people probably bought posters of her for less savory reasons than, say, Quan Yizhen might have. But. “I’m not like you. I never found any power in it at all.”
“Did you always wear dresses?” Hua Cheng asked. “Or were suits just as bad?”
Xie Lian shook her head. “No one ever gave me suits,” she said, embarrassed to admit that she’d never taken control of her wardrobe at all.
San Lang hummed. “A shame,” he said.
Xie Lian looked away from the beautiful slope of his nose to stare out the window. The world slid into dusk as they drove, city lights smearing against the skyline. She wished, fiercely, that she’d had San Lang with her back then, making quiet recommendations for her wardrobe, standing tall and intimidating at her shoulder when the crowds pressed too close. It was like he projected a bubble of almost disdainful calm, and inside it she could finally feel—well. Like herself. Like everything else would just—bounce off.
When they pulled into her driveway she asked, her eyes still on the world outside, “do you want to come in?”
He was silent for a moment. Xie Lian took a breath and looked at him. “I’d like to spend time with you, like, not in a car,” she said, searching his face. “But if you don’t want—”
“Yes,” said Hua Cheng abruptly. Xie Lian couldn’t read his face at all. “If you’re sure.”
Xie Lian blinked. “Why wouldn’t I be sure?” She opened her door and hopped out. “You saved me bus fare and a whole lot of time, not to mention you’re the reason I have a job at all right now. Let me make you some tea at least.”
“I recommended your team for the demolition,” Hua Cheng said as Xie Lian led him inside. “But my people have standards, if you weren’t the right choice they wouldn’t have chosen you.”
“Your people, ” teased Xie Lian, trying not to be self-conscious about the frayed welcome mat at her door, her scuffed plastic slides. She looked around—ah, thank god, she still had an extra pair. “San Lang is so rich, so important.”
“Not important,” Hua Cheng denied, stepping out of his boots and into the offered shoes with no apparent shame. “And I was without it for too long to say money doesn’t matter, but it’s not the point.”
“What is the point?” Xie Lian asked, curious.
“Being safe, and being able to keep others safe,” said Hua Cheng, seriously, and then the corner of his mouth turned up. “And feeling good, and being able to make others feel good.”
If Xie Lian were a different person—a more powerful person, a more wanted person—she might turn and match his smirk, ask breathily, you want to make me feel good, jiejie? or maybe gege? , they could workshop it, and if she were a different person—an easier person, a sexier person—San Lang might pull her in by the hand, or the hips, or the back of her neck. But she was Xie Lian, so she busied herself with her kettle and fretted about not having matching cups.
“I would say we should watch a movie or something,” she said as she poured, “but I don’t actually own a television. Or a computer.”
Hua Cheng propped his chin on his fist, looking interested. “What do you do for fun?”
Xie Lian shrugged. “Work out,” she said. “Read, sometimes. Attempt to garden.” She bit her lip. “Text San Lang, lately.”
Hua Cheng’s smile was slow and breathtaking, and Xie Lian had to look away from it before she did anything stupid.
“We can watch something on my phone,” Hua Cheng suggested. He looked at Xie Lian through his eyelashes. “Phones play video, now, I’m not sure if jiejie is aware.”
“Shut up,” said Xie Lian fondly, and Hua Cheng laughed, loud and surprised. There was still a glint of silver under his eye.
They ended up on Xie Lian’s bed—she was dubious about her couch withstanding two people, and anyway that’s where her roof was worst—lying side by side on their stomachs, their cups of tea on the windowsill, San Lang’s phone propped up in front of them. He’d messed around with it for a while, as if second-guessing himself, and ended up putting on an episode of some trivia game show Xie Lian had never seen. It didn’t matter; she’d only really suggested it as a way to get him to stay, to selfishly bask in his presence a little longer.
When Hua Cheng started giving the answers—mumbling, at first, but louder after she cast him a delighted glance—she rolled onto her side, looking at him instead of the screen.
“Are you showing off, San Lang?” she asked.
His cheeks were dusted pink. “That depends,” he said, “are you impressed?”
Xie Lian closed her eyes. “I’m always impressed with you,” she said, and let his call and response with the host lull her into a contented doze.
She wasn’t asleep, exactly, but she must have slipped under enough to dream, because she thought she felt a hand in her hair, gentle; a cool touch trailing down her bicep to her elbow, her forearm, her wrist, before lifting away.
She roused when the bed moved, reaching out a sleep-clumsy hand to grab at whatever part of Hua Cheng she could reach, which turned out to be his shirt. “Stay,” she said, not opening her eyes.
“Dianxia,” he said, quietly, but gave no reason he shouldn’t, so she tugged at him.
“I don’t work in the morning,” she said. “We can—hang out. Whatever. Just.” She took a breath, let it out, just the potential of solitude suddenly crushing. “Please.”
Hua Cheng took her hand, tugging his shirt out of his grasp, and she pressed her lips together, certain he was going to gently let her go and vanish into the night. But he just squeezed her hand. “Alright,” he said. “But. Before you sleep, you should change.”
Xie Lian flushed with relief and embarrassment both, realizing she was still wearing her work clothes, and pushed herself up with her other arm. She blinked owlishly at him. “You too,” she said, gesturing at his jeans. “It can’t be comfortable to sleep in those.”
Hua Cheng licked his lips. “Alright,” he said again, in that same quiet tone. He was still holding her eyes, and her hand.
“Alright,” Xie Lian echoed, faintly, and fled past him to the bathroom.
She came back—changed into a soft t-shirt with not too many holes, and her only pair of pajama pants—to find him already in bed, covers pulled up to his chest, his back to her. She turned off the light and slid in next to him, lying on her back, staring at the ceiling and wondering if she should regret this—if she’d crossed a line, if she was making this weird, if she was taking advantage. She wondered if he shared a bed with other friends, or with siblings, before he lived the way he lived now.
“Do you have brothers?” she asked.
Hua Cheng shifted in the dark. “Jiejie?”
“I just mean, because. Your name. San Lang, not Hua Cheng. Is it a gender thing? Because Hua Cheng is like, floral? I think it’s so nice—they’re both nice—sorry.” She subsided, embarrassed. “You don’t have to tell me.”
San Lang was silent for a moment. “I might have brothers,” he said at last. “I never knew my parents. But. Yeah, I guess it’s sort of a gender thing, and I like—the illusion of family. The implication, even if I’ll never know if it’s real.” A tiny, soft sigh. “And don’t apologize for complimenting my names. I like the way they sound in your voice.”
Xie Lian’s cheeks flashed hot, and she was glad of the dimness of the room. “I like when you call me dianxia,” she admitted. “It’s—I didn’t like it, always, before.”
A breath, in the dark, like San Lang was surprised. “I’m glad,” he said softly. “Dianxia.”
“San Lang,” she said, helpless, and was still smiling when she fell asleep.
The first thing Hua Cheng said to her in the morning was, “jiejie, you need a new roof.”
Xie Lian had been curled up in the warmth he’d left behind, feeling sleepy and indulgent and remarkably pain-free, and then all of a sudden she was small again. She sat up. “I don’t suppose roof reconstruction is one of San Lang’s many skills."
Hua Cheng shook his head. He was out of bed, just in boxers and his soft, open shirt. He hadn't been wearing boxers under the dress at the casino, they would have been visible through the slit—she firmly stopped herself from imagining what he had been wearing, from wondering whether. Whether he'd been wearing anything at all.
“No,” Hua Cheng said, “but I know someone.”
Xie Lian folded her lips into her mouth. “No,” she said in a quiet voice. “I—it’s okay, I can. I have some ideas.”
She couldn’t keep—she’d just met San Lang, and he was already so generous with his time, and she knew if she kept accepting it she’d start relying on him for everything, all the skills she’d never gained, and he’d be overwhelmed by it, and he’d leave. She had to keep this friendship a friendship, and not make him into some kind of caretaker by giving him the impression that she couldn’t, like, live, on her own.
She expected him to scoff— you wanted to build a cement pillar in the middle of your house, what other ideas could you even have?— but he just nodded, taking her at her word. Xie Lian breathed that in, the novelty of it, and it gave her the strength to hop up out of bed. “Breakfast,” she said. “I’ll make us breakfast.”
San Lang got dressed (Xie Lian fought the urge to pout about it) and joined her in the kitchen while she was salting her pancake mix. He hovered behind her, observing without comment as she poured batter into her dented frying pan.
“What are your plans for today?” she asked as she tucked it into the oven and tried to remember if she still had a coffee pot.
“Working,” said Hua Cheng regretfully, then cocked his head. “Would you like to come along? I can give you a proper tour.”
Xie Lian blinked. “That wasn’t all of it, yesterday?”
Hua Cheng chuckled softly. “Not by a long shot.”
“If San Lang doesn’t mind,” said Xie Lian. “But I don’t really have—clothes. I need to do laundry, and anyway nothing I have is nice enough for the kind of company San Lang keeps.”
“Another day, then, perhaps,” said Hua Cheng. He cocked his head. “I could take you shopping first.”
Xie Lian bit her lip, mentally assessing the roll of cash in her drawer. “I don’t know—”
“I would be honored to right the wrongs of your previous stylists,” Hua Cheng continued, insistent.
Xie Lian made a face at him. “Are you my stylist, then?”
“Your stylist, your driver.” Hua Cheng spread his hands. “Anything you like, dianxia.”
Xie Lian flushed and glanced away. “My friend, please, San Lang.”
“Your friend,” Hua Cheng confirmed, voice soft. It drew Xie Lian’s gaze back to him—the long line of him, leaning against her kitchen counter, his luxurious dark angles so incongruous with the familiar worn clutter he was surrounded by. He was staring back at her, his eye warm.
“San Lang,” said Xie Lian, and then her oven caught on fire.
It was a very small fire—she’d forgotten the handle of her frying pan was plastic, and it had melted all over the bottom of the oven, but that could be scrubbed out. Probably. If she remembered to do it. The pancakes, though, were a lost cause—she thought maybe they could be interesting, a sort of smoked treatment to the batter, if they weren’t for sure definitely full of toxins now.
She sighed and scraped them into the trash. “Sorry, San Lang,” she said gloomily, and then brightened. “I have eggs! And rice—but that probably takes too long, if you have to be at work?”
“Eggs would be lovely,” Hua Cheng said firmly, so Xie Lian set about eggs.
They made plans to go shopping the following Monday, which was her next day off. Xie Lian wrote it in her calendar (she had to flip it from February to April in order to do so) and then marked off the days as they passed with little x’s. She felt a little stupid about it, but it’d been so long since she’d had plans, and she’d already decided it was okay if she was a little stupid about San Lang, just privately, just to herself.
On Sunday evening he showed up at the corner of the demolition site, resplendent in all black, and she broke off her conversation with Pei Ming to jog up to him. “Hi,” she said, smiling.
His lips parted for a second before he spoke. “Jiejie,” he said, and then lifted a hand, indicating his own face. “You’ve got—”
“Hm?” she asked, and then flushed, but she was too pleased to see him to really be embarrassed. “Oh—it’s probably ash—” she scrubbed at her cheek. “Did I get it?’
Hua Cheng shook his head, his eyes warm. “May I?”
“Yeah,” said Xie Lian, “that makes sense, you can—see—” she broke off, because Hua Cheng had lifted both hands, cupping her face in his palms, and was running one thumb over her cheek with unspeakable, terrible care. It—no one had touched her like this in—she took a shaky breath and prayed, desperately, that she wouldn’t start to cry.
From behind her, Xie Lian heard Pei Ming’s familiar, obnoxious whistle, helpfully pulling her back from the edge of tears. Without looking around, she flipped him off, and the whistle cut off into laughter.
Hua Cheng’s eye narrowed, and he let go of her face, but he didn’t look at Pei Ming, keeping his gaze on hers. “I was wondering if you’d like a ride.”
Some small, stubborn part of Xie Lian told her she should refuse—told her she was being stupid, told her this connection, this friendship was too good to be true, and she should string it out a little more in case Hua Cheng got tired of her, but she looked at the earnest hope in the set of his mouth and firmly mentally flipped that part of herself off just like she had Pei Ming. “I’d love one, thank you.” She smiled. “San Lang is so kind.”
Hua Cheng turned away, abrupt, a pink tinge to his cheeks, and she laughed. “The infamous Hua Cheng can’t take a compliment?” she teased as she followed him across the street. “In that case he should stop being so wonderful all the time, or I’ll be forced to tell him that I find him very charming, and intelligent, and sweet.” And very, very beautiful, she added in the privacy of her mind, because it felt wrong to leave it off.
Hua Cheng stopped dead at the edge of the parking lot, turning to stare at her, and she stopped, too, surprised. His face was complicated—there was embarrassment, there, but also something else, darker, like he suspected he might be being mocked. “Don’t tease,” he said.
Xie Lian blinked, frowning. “I’m not,” she protested. “Well. I was, a little, but I meant it—you’re—San Lang?”
He was shaking his head, getting into the driver’s seat, and she slid into the passenger side, feeling off-kilter. “I really did mean it,” she said. “But I made you uncomfortable, and I’m sorry.”
Hua Cheng seemed to settle, “Don’t apologize, jiejie.” He smiled, the twinkle back in his dark eye. “This one is glad to have impressed.”
He leaned over and squeezed her knee. Xie Lian swallowed a squeak, and it took her several blocks for her blush to fully cool.
They stopped for takeout on the way—Xie Lian’s suggestion—so of course Hua Cheng had to come inside when they got there, and Xie Lian excused herself to shower before they ate. She wondered if it was obvious she was maneuvering San Lang to stay, wondered if he’d been hoping for this, when he’d offered her the ride.
When she got out of the shower she expected to find San Lang messing around on his phone, maybe watching more of that game show, or making important calls, but he was sitting in the armchair below her living room window, a sketchbook in his lap. He'd been sketching the tree outside, just patches of leaf and light and shadow in a shockingly delicate hand, and he looked up when she came in, hair coiled up in a towel atop her head.
“Jiejie,” he said, voice soft.
She smiled at him. “San Lang. I didn’t know you drew, as well as sculpting.”
“This one dabbles.” He cocked his head. “May I draw you? For practice. I prefer figure-drawing to still life.”
She flushed. “Sure,” she said. “Now? I’d have to—my hair—”
Hua Cheng shook his head. “After we eat?” he suggested, and stood up, leading her to the kitchen.
He’d set the table while she was in the shower, laying out their takeout on actual dishes, and he pulled her chair out for her as they entered. Xie Lian, who had been planning on risking the couch and just eating out of the container with it on her lap, hastily took the towel off her head and combed her fingers through her hair. Sweet, she thought fiercely at Hua Cheng as he sat down across from her. Sweet and cute and thoughtful and nice!!!!
He raised his eyebrows at her. "Jiejie?"
She smiled. “Nothing,” she said, and picked up her chopsticks.
They ate in comfortable silence, whatever strange mood had seized Hua Cheng in the parking lot thoroughly faded now. Outside, the night grew quieter, darker, the world reduced to nothing but what was touched by the warm glow of the kitchen light. It softened all of Hua Cheng’s sharp silver edges to gold, made the beautiful novelty of him into something ordinary in the best possible way. Xie Lian let herself bask in it, let herself imagine it as normal, as everyday; Hua Cheng driving her home from work, setting the table for them; Hua Cheng sitting across from her as her hair dried; Hua Cheng standing and gathering their dishes to take them to the sink, rolling up his fine black sleeves and—
She blinked. “You don’t have to do that,” she protested.
Hua Cheng stripped off his rings—she counted five, dropped in a neat little pile by the side of the sink. “I would like to,” he said, and turned his face enough that Xie Lian could see the curl of his smile. “If jiejie doesn’t mind.”
She shook her head, laughing. “Oh no, a hot goth wants to do my dishes, whatever will I do?”
Hua Cheng had turned back away from her, so she couldn’t see his face, but a little frisson went through his back, a surprised twitch of shoulders, and Xie Lian winced at herself. Stupid. Obvious. “Um!” she said quickly. “Where do you want me?”
A second twitch, and this time Hua Cheng turned around, eyebrows raised. Xie Lian wanted to tear out all her hair. “For! Drawing!” She hastened to say. “Like. I can prepare—what do you want me to—”
“Relax, jiejie,” said Hua Cheng. “Probably the bedroom is best. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Xie Lian fled, retrieving her comb and perching on the end of her bed, feeling like a nervous bird settling her feathers. She freed herself of the tangles her fingers had missed, and then started dividing it for braiding. Cool fingers wrapped around her wrist.
“Leave it,” Hua Cheng said quietly. “If you don’t mind.”
Xie Lian licked her lips and nodded, letting her hair fall again, a cool, damp waterfall against her neck.
“Has anyone ever told you you walk very quietly, San Lang?” she asked, looking sideways at him as he prowled around her, considering. His eye crinkled up, his smallest smile, but he said nothing, just pressed back on her shoulder and tugged gently at one of her knees. She shifted in response, letting him arrange her so she was leaning back against the bed, one leg slightly bent, her arms propping her up behind her.
San Lang stepped back. “Perfect,” he said, and Xie Lian swallowed against a terrible, embarrassing sound, watching him settle on the floor, cross-legged, his notebook in his lap.
It was a surprisingly comfortable position to remain in—not too much stress on her knees, her weight balanced on her palms—and after the first few minutes her self-consciousness faded. In the old days, before a match, she used to meditate, and she felt herself slip into those same old rhythms now. The breathing, starting from low in her diaphragm and circling up through her forehead, like she had the whole ocean in her, the slow relentless roll of the waves washing out her cluttered mind and leaving her sand-scoured clean.
“Done,” Hua Cheng said softly, after who knows how long, and Xie Lian collapsed backward with a sigh. She lay there, indulgent, listening to Hua Cheng pack up his pencils. “Jiejie,” he started, hesitant, “should I—”
“Come to bed, San Lang,” said Xie Lian, her brain beautifully quiet.
Something thumped as it hit the floor, and Xie Lian opened one eye to find Hua Cheng hastily gathering his notebook from where it had fallen.
“You can borrow whatever you like,” she offered. “If you don’t want your clothes for tomorrow to get wrinkly. The hamper in the corner is clean.”
She closed her eye so Hua Cheng could change here, if he wanted, and the effort of not listening to whether or not he was slipped her back into the sea-blank mental space again.
She surfaced out of it as the bed dipped under his weight, and met his eye just as he was trying to crawl over her to the side closest to the wall. For a suspended moment he was hovering over her, hands on either side of her head, knees on either side of her body. Xie Lian stared up at him, opening her mouth to apologize for not getting out of the way, but her voice died in her throat at the look in his dark eye. He looked—stunned, hungry, awed. As she stared, his gaze dropped to her lips.
He was going to kiss her. The certainty of it rocked through her, making her heart pound, hard. His gaze was locked on her mouth; his lips parted, giving her a flash of red tongue; he was leaning down—and pressing a kiss to her forehead, soft and chaste, before continuing his motion over her and lying down on his side, his back to her.
Xie Lian raised shaking hands to her face, scrubbing at her cheeks, and tried to remember how to breathe.
“Goodnight, jiejie,” Hua Cheng said, his voice smooth as ever.
“Goodnight,” she managed, her own wobbling like an acrobat on a high-wire.
She woke up slowly, comfortably, to find that San Lang had turned over in the night to face her, and her sleeping body had somehow taken this for permission, because she was curled against his chest, his arm over her body, keeping her close. Their legs were tangled together, his soft smooth skin brushing her untrimmed leg hair. If she moved, just a little, she’d be pressing her face between his breasts.
They were—they were right there, the soft pale hills of them, the valley between. San Lang had a freckle on his left boob, right at the edge of where Xie Lian could see, and she wanted to pull his borrowed t-shirt out a little bit more, to see if there were more, to see the color of the nipples she could see the shape of, pressing through the thin white fabric. She wanted her mouth on them, wanted to make his shirt transparent with her saliva, her tongue, wanted to suck at them until San Lang woke with a gasp and rolled over, pinned her to the mattress and—
She pulled herself hastily away and gave herself a very firm talking to in the bathroom mirror before she returned.
“Oh,” she said, staring at herself in the mirror. “This—wow.”
The suit was dove grey. The sleeves were a little long—they’d had to size up the jacket to accommodate her shoulders—but the trousers fit like a dream, and the shirt was a beautiful, delicate thing, all layered white lace, high-necked and short-sleeved, snug but not tight around her biceps. It even hid the lines of Xie Lian’s terribly plain, practical sports bra, the only bra she owned (she had a binder, too, that Mu Qing had given her the last birthday before—well).
“Yeah?” asked the woman who’d been helping her. She seemed to know Hua Cheng, brightening as soon as they walked in and assuring him that she’d take care of everything before bustling Xie Lian into the cavernous dressing room and handing her option after option of beautiful menswear in various styles and colors.
The first two had both been too bright for her, but this… she really liked this. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d put something on that she really genuinely liked, that wasn’t just comfortable or practical or unlikely to fall apart under the daily stresses of her life.
The woman plucked at the wrist of the jacket. “It’ll need some alteration,” she said thoughtfully, “but it shouldn’t take long—you could come back tomorrow—”
“I—no, I can. I can do it myself,” said Xie Lian. “It’s okay.” Alteration cost more, and she was already fearing looking at the price tag of this thing. Maybe if San Lang kept treating her to dinner once a week, and she didn’t have to take taxis anymore—even saving on bus fare—she shook her head. Besides, she could sew; another gift from Mu Qing, who’d figured she should at least know how to fix her own busted-up gloves.
“Alright,” said the woman, “if you’re sure.” She met Xie Lian’s eyes in the mirror, her pursed lips stretching into a smile. “You want to go show your woman?”
Xie Lian blushed. She should say, he’s not my woman, not even for the gender of it—she figured if this woman knew Hua Cheng well then she’d know what he did and didn’t mind, but for the possessive. She should say, he’s not my anything, only my friend. Instead, she took a breath. “Yes, please.”
The woman’s smile grew. “Fantastic,” she said. “Let’s just—” she lifted the jacket off of Xie Lian and then resettled it so it was just hanging off her shoulders, her arms free. “Tuck your hands into your pockets,” she advised, and then nodded decisively once Xie Lian had.
Hua Cheng was examining a long necklace of black pearls, hanging on a display at the front of the store. “San Lang,” Xie Lian called, and he turned, and he froze.
The wire of the necklace must have been very flimsy, because as Hua Cheng looked at her his fingers caught in it, tugging, and it snapped, sending pearls bouncing and rolling across the shop floor. Xie Lian winced, but it seemed to take a moment for Hua Cheng to notice at all. "I'll pay for that," he said finally, faintly, not taking his eyes off Xie Lian.
"Don't be ridiculous," said the woman. "My fault, shoddy workmanship." She bustled past Xie Lian. "If you mean the suit, though, I'll charge it to the card on file."
"Oh," said Xie Lian, turning to her. "No, I—"
"Jiejie," said Hua Cheng, and Xie Lian looked back at him. "Please. Let me."
She took a breath. God. What had she possibly done to deserve this? What could someone like her possibly do? "Okay," she said, giving in to the hope in his face. "But I'm paying for your gas the next three—no, five—no, ten times you drive me home, and dinner is on me, and there is no way you're doing my dishes again."
Hua Cheng sketched a little bow to her. "Whatever you say, dianxia," he said, and when he straightened, he was smiling wide.
It turned out there are three entire floors of the casino she hadn't seen. Four, if you counted the one where Hua Cheng's office was, but three that were open to the public. The first two were above the main floor, and consisted mainly of long halls with sliding doors that opened onto rooms where tables were set up for poker, mahjongg, chess, and go. They were beautiful spaces, and Xie Lian understood why the casino might open earlier than she’d expected at first—each room was equipped with a row of windows of frosted glass, and as the sun began to set the wooden walls and floors glowed like honey. Each floor had its own bar, as well, and she noticed the waiter from before writing up a list of specials on a board at the end of one of them. She waved, and he waved back, his bland face just a little bit pleased.
The last floor was under the main room. They'd taken an elevator up, but to go down they took the stairs, painted black and silver like the front door. She could hear it as they approached—the unmistakable jumbled roar of many people excited about something, the rise and fall of cheers and sympathetic groans of pain. Hua Cheng pushed open the door, and suddenly she was home.
It was like going back in time, just for a moment; just for a moment, she’d never been set up, never been hurt, never been disgraced. She had to blink against it, the instant, overwhelming feeling of belonging, push past the lump in her throat to actually look at what was around her. There were metal bleachers set up against all four walls, most of them already filled with people, and in the center of the floor was a boxing ring. Inside the ring an enormous hulk of a man was facing off against a much smaller guy with the build of a wrestler; the giant was dressed like he’d just stepped out a leather bar, dark straps criss-crossing his bare chest, his shorts so small they might have technically counted as a speedo.
“That’s Ke Mo,” said Hua Cheng in her ear. “He’s quite a crowd-pleaser.”
Xie Lian looked at the crowd. They did, in fact, look pleased as Ke Mo picked up the man he was fighting with one massive hand and slammed him to the mat, then contemptuously sat on him. They were also, by far, the most visibly queer group of people she’d ever seen in her life. Everywhere there were shaved heads, facial piercings, glitter; gendered clothing mixed and matched in a thousand ways she’d never considered. She wondered if this was a theme night or if it was always like this, if Hua Cheng intentionally catered to—
She glanced up and around, then caught sight of a short figure slipping its way through the crowd toward her. It took her minute to parse who it was, but when they got close enough she blinked, surprised. “Banyue?”
Banyue was dressed in purple overall shorts and an oversized t-shirt for a band Xie Lian had never heard of. She gave Xie Lian a quick, hard hug, and then pulled back. In one hand she was holding a jar; as Xie Lian watched she fished a pickle out of it with her fingers and bit it in half.
“Hey,” Xie Lian said, her brain trying to process basically any of the visual information she was receiving. “What—what are you doing here?” Banyue was—young, right? She tried to do the math, but. Too young to be here, surely?
Banyue ate the other half of her pickle. “I’m eighteen,” she said reproachfully. “I’m allowed. Plus, Ke Mo over there’s my cousin.”
Xie Lian looked at her, then at Ke Mo, then back at her. Standing next to each other, Banyue would probably reach about to his waist. “Right,” she said faintly.
“Jiejie,” said Hua Cheng, over her shoulder. “Who’s this?”
Xie Lian started. “Ah, sorry! San Lang, this is Banyue. Banyue, Hua Cheng, though you—probably—he runs the place.”
“Yes,” Banyue acknowledged, as if Xie Lian had told her the sky was blue. “Hi.”
“Hello,” said Hua Cheng coolly.
“I haven’t seen Banyue in—um. A long time,” Xie Lian started, her brain resisting her math in this, too.
“She was my babysitter,” Banyue explained. “And taught me a couple moves, huh dianxia?”
Xie Lian flushed. “Self defense,” she muttered.
Someone tapped Hua Cheng on the shoulder, and he frowned. “Excuse me a moment.”
Xie Lian nodded to him, then turned back to Banyue, who was looking at her thoughtfully. “You know,” she said. “You could take him.”
Xie Lian blinked. “San—”
Banyue shook her head, jerked her chin at the ring. “My dumb cousin.”
Xie Lian turned to look at Ke Mo, who had accepted another challenger, this one a pink-mohawked person of indeterminate gender with straight-edge X’s on the back of their hands. They were putting up a better fight than the wrestler had, ducking under Ke Mo’s big slow haymakers and getting a few decent body shots in, but they weren’t fast enough to make up for the difference in height and strength, not for long enough to matter. Xie Lian watched the way Ke Mo shifted his feet; he was top-heavy, built too much muscle in his chest and back and not enough in his legs.
She could take him. The knowledge settled over her like a cloak, like the suit jacket she still wore over her shoulders, soft and cool as new silk. She looked back at Banyue. Banyue raised her eyebrows.
The crowd roared. Back in the ring, Ke Mo had his opponent flat on their back, his knee across their chest, and the drag queen playing referee threw her flag up as his opponent tapped out. She raised her voice. “Anyone else!” she called. “Anyone else to step up and challenge our reigning champion, Ke Mo!”
Xie Lian slipped off her suit jacket so it was only hanging off one shoulder, then raised her free arm directly into the air.
Murmurs spread out from her like ripples. Suddenly, San Lang was back; Xie Lian didn’t meet his eyes, worried she’d think better of this, and just handed him her suit jacket, thought for a second, and then stripped off her shirt as well. She was hardly the least-dressed person in this crowd, and she’d hate to get blood on her new white lace.
“Dianxia,” Hua Cheng said, and something in his voice drew her eyes to his face. She smiled at what she found there. Stupid, to think anything in him would stop her, make her doubt herself, when he’d been nothing but solid ground in a shifting world since the moment they met. Now, black-eyed, serious, he raised an eyebrow. “Do you need gloves?”
She shook out her shoulders, shook her head. She’d gone bare-knuckle with Feng Xin pretty regularly, once upon a time, and—she glanced again toward the ring—Ke Mo was no Feng Xin.
Hua Cheng nodded at her, once. Then he raised his chin. “Five thousand on the challenger,” he said, his voice pitched to carry over the noise of the crowd.
Muttering, then laughter. Xie Lian strode forward though it, letting it part around her. She slipped her shoes off at the edge of the ring, then swung herself up into it, and the laughter grew. “Hua Cheng must be in a playful mood,” she heard someone remark, not far off to her left, and someone else responded, “maybe someone lost big upstairs.”
She smiled a little to herself. The ref crossed to her, looking her up and down with apparently no recognition. “Name?”
“Xie Lian,” said Xie Lian. “Rules?”
“No weapons, no biting, no twisting anything that might come off,” the ref recited succinctly.
Xie Lian laughed. “I can do that.”
She could see Hua Cheng accepting bets, head bent to listen and take people’s money, but his eye was on her, always, tracking her as she took her corner.
Ke Mo bounced on his heels, across the ring. To his credit, he didn’t laugh. He looked vaguely like he was trying to remember something. Well. She couldn’t have that; if he ended up recognizing who she was he’d be far less careless, and she’d lose half her advantage.
“Let’s go,” she called to the ref. The ref glanced at Hua Cheng, who inclined his head, and then they were off.
Ke Mo’s other opponents had kept their distance, waited until he’d swung a punch to try and duck inside it. It was a smart move, on the surface, but Ke Mo was better at defense than they gave him credit for, and faster; if you stayed in reach after he swung he could easily grab, or put his knees or elbows into play. So Xie Lian darted in first, fast, feinting a two-knuckled jab directly at his throat. He got an arm up to block her, but missed her foot, sliding sideways, sharp, knocking his feet out from under him.
The crowd oohed as he toppled; Xie Lian didn’t press the advantage, darting away again, keeping herself light on her feet as he bounced back up. He looked wary. This time she waited for him, patient; when he came at her it was a grab, not a hit, maybe correctly identifying that her greatest advantage was to keep out of his reach, keep mobile. She ducked and twisted under it easily, bringing her hand around in an open-palmed strike to his solar plexus, putting as much strength behind it as she could.
He doubled over, breath wheezing from his lungs, and she snapped a leg up over his shoulder and slammed her heel down against the back of his head. He was already off-balance, his center of gravity too high, and he dropped like a sack of potatoes. She grabbed his wrist as he went, twisting his arm up behind his back, and pinned him to the mat with a knee on his spine.
The room went silent, and Xie Lian went silent with it, focused, concentrating on keeping the pressure on the joint of his shoulder, the small of his back. It was a calculated risk; he was big enough and strong enough that he could break this hold, if he had the breath for it. He might be able to push himself up against her weight, throw her off him, but not without very likely dislocating his shoulder, and—yeah. A sound, in the silence: his other palm, slapping the mat, once, twice, three times.
“Match to Xie Lian,” called the drag queen, her voice startled.
The crowd erupted into shouts—whether they were excited or enraged Xie Lian couldn’t tell and didn’t care. She let Ke Mo up, let him grasp her wrist, grasped him back. “Good fucking fight,” he said, against the rushing in her ears. “Hey, are you—”
But Xie Lian was already stepping past him, her eyes on Hua Cheng and his on her. People were pressing in around him, asking questions, making demands, but he had no attention for any of them, for anything else: just for Xie Lian. Just her, victorious. She ducked out of the ring, her back to the ropes, and used them to launch herself at him wholesale.
He caught her—of course he caught her—big beautiful hands at her waist—and there was that brilliant, sharp-toothed smile, the one that had made her dizzy with longing on the first day they’d met, and she was thrumming with victory and safe in her body for the first time in years, and she cupped Hua Cheng’s perfect jawbone and kissed him on the mouth, hard.
His breath stuttered, and for a moment she thought he wouldn’t kiss back—thought she’d pull back and have to laugh it off, somehow—but then his hands tightened on her back and he was giving as good as he got, slow, thorough presses of his mouth against hers. “Jiejie,” he breathed against her lips, an emotion in his voice that she couldn’t name. “I—”
“This was a fucking setup!” Someone snapped, shocking Xie Lian back to the reality outside of her and San Lang, the crowds they were surrounded by. She slid back down onto her own feet, embarrassment and arousal at war in her stomach.
“She’s a damn plant,” the guy who’d interrupted them continued. “Hua Cheng made Ke Mo throw the match and bet against him as a stunt to show off for her fucking girlfriend—”
Hua Cheng backhanded him across the face. The guy reeled, collapsing into one of his friends, who started to catch him, took one look at Hua Cheng’s face, and let him take his chances with the concrete floor. “Get out,” said Hua Cheng in a tone Xie Lian had never heard, “of my casino.”
The dude stumbled away, his friends and about a third of the crowd going with him. “Are you fucking stupid? ” she heard someone hiss. “Didn’t you hear the ref? That was taizi dianxia— ” and then the door closed between them, cutting them off.
The rest of the crowd gave Hua Cheng and Xie Lian a wide berth, leaving them in a weird, awkward bubble of silence. Hua Cheng turned back to her, his face unreadable, and Xie Lian took a quick step back from him. “I should—I’ll go, so you can. Damage control.” She winced. “Uh. Sorry.”
Hua Cheng stared at her. “Dianxia,” he said, and Xie Lian suddenly had a horrible vision of him trying to explain, to say it wasn’t her, or something, that he just didn’t like anyone to think he had attachments, that it undermined his position here or made him seem weak. It was probably true, was the worst part, she’d probably messed stuff up for him by being so all over him, there were probably people who had it out for him for his, whatever, unspecified crimes, and she’d—she’d maybe even put him in danger, just because she couldn’t keep herself under control.
She forced a smile, avoiding his eye. “I’ll see you soon, San Lang,” she said, and fled.
She’d made it all of the way to the bus stop before realizing she was still just in her sport’s bra and suit pants, and very nearly burst into tears. She spun on her heel, ready to go back and throw herself on San Lang’s mercy and brave the horribly awkward drive home, when she noticed a figure crossing the street, walking swiftly toward her. She blinked at it, and it resolved itself into the waiter from the casino, the one with the bland face.
He was holding her shirt, boots, and jacket; she took them gratefully, shrugging them on. “Thank you.” She wondered if she should ask his name, but it seemed rude that she didn’t already know, so she didn’t.
He shrugged. “Sure,” he said, and then waited with her, silent, until the bus arrived. Xie Lian gave him a little wave through the bus window and then let her head drop into her hands.
She walked to work the next morning, pushing herself, wanting the burn in her muscles, and begged off early just in case Hua Cheng showed up to try and drive her home. Pei Ming gave her a little bit of a weird look—okay, yes, it was maybe the first time she’d ever begged off early in three years of working together but that didn’t mean anything—but let her go without complaint.
She went home and cleaned her oven, and then she bought some pasteboard and some big markers. Roof repair needed! She wrote in big bold letters. Call Xie Lian, and her current phone number.
Okay. So it wasn’t much of a plan. But it was, arguably, better than the cement pillar. She posted her signs at the major local intersections and then walked back home.
She slept terribly, unable to stop herself from longing for another shape in her bed, and woke up to a text from San Lang.
—it’s supposed to rain all next week
She frowned. What—oh. She sighed. Well, she didn’t have to worry about scaring him off by taking too much advantage, anymore; she’d already thoroughly done that.
xie lian from home depot
—I would be grateful if San Lang could send my name to his friends
She bit her lip.
xie lian from home depot
—If that offer still stands
—ofc it does. y wouldnt it?
Xie Lian shoved her hand over her eyes. God. They were just—pretending this wasn’t a thing, then. Okay. She could do that, probably. She typed out:
Xie lian from home depot
—San Lang is very good to me
—and sent it before she could think better of it. Hua Cheng didn’t answer until she was on the bus, nearly an hour later.
—they’ll stop by bfore you go to work 2moro
She leaned her head against the bus window and sighed. Opening her phone again, she laboriously typed: if you want me to pay you back for the suit we can— and then stopped. It was a gift; the last thing she wanted was for him to think that she didn’t like it, or hadn’t wanted—any of it, anything he’d ever done. She was in the process of erasing it, character by character, when she got another text.
—did u kno flamingos can only eat when their heads r upside-down
Xie Lian pressed the heel of her hand against her eye, stupidly, ridiculously grateful, and stupidly, ridiculously sad.
Xie lian from home depot
She was surprised to recognize one of the two people who showed up to fix her roof: the tall, sardonic-looking person who had been dealing blackjack to Guoshi at the casino the first time she’d gone. They nodded at her; their companion, about a head shorter than them with a riot of brown curls and wide green eyes, stuck out a hand. “Shi Qingxuan,” she chirped. She was wearing a sundress, a stark contrast to their workmanly coveralls. “This is He Xuan, though—it seems like you’ve met?”
“At the casino,” said He Xuan shortly, and then offered grudgingly, “Hua Cheng never shuts up about her.”
Shi Qingxuan grinned. “Fascinating,” she said, as Xie Lian belatedly shook her hand. In a move Xie Lian was too befuddled to dodge, she shifted her grip to Xie Lian’s elbow, leading her back toward her own house. “So,” she said. “Explain to me your vision.”
“Uh,” said Xie Lian. “I would like to be. Dry?”
Shi Qingxuan laughed, bright and genuine. “I like you,” she said. “So practical. But if you’ve got us on the job, you’re gonna get a little more bang for your buck.” She squinted at Xie Lian’s house. “Good frame on this,” she said. “Good bones. You could do a lot, here, and I’ve been told that money is no object, so. What do you want?”
Xie Lian stared at her little ramshackle house. It didn’t look so bad, in the sunshine; the stucco was neat, and there were green things growing in the garden plot around the side, even if she wasn’t entirely sure they were the same green things she’d planted. Good bones, she thought to herself, and took a breath. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Can I think about it?”
Shi Qingxuan nodded, her eyes curious. “You’ve got time,” she said. “We’ll have to remove the rotted-out parts of what’s up there first, see what we can preserve of the original.”
“I work in demolitions,” said Xie Lian. “I can help with that part.”
Shi Qingxuan brightened. “Oh, amazing! I love a woman with her own sledgehammer. You got a place to stay?”
Xie Lian blinked at the subject change. “What?”
“Well, we’re going to take your roof off,” said Shi Qingxuan. “Do you have a different place to sleep? Until you get a new one?”
“I just thought I’d,” started Xie Lian, and then stopped. She’d what? Sleep under it anyway? Stay at San Lang’s? Maybe a week ago, but probably not now. “I don’t know.”
“Well, let me know when you find out,” said Shi Qingxuan, “and if you need it, there’s a couch at me and He-xiong’s place you can use.”
Xie Lian’s throat got suddenly tight. “That’s,” she started, and then coughed a little. “That’s very kind of you both.”
Shi Qingxuan shook her head, her nose wrinkling. “It’s kind of me, ” she corrected. “It’s self-serving of He Xuan. They owe Hua Cheng, like, so much money.”
Xie Lian laughed. “Noted.”
Before Xie Lian went to work they’d managed to get somewhat set up; they’d moved most of her furniture out on her lawn and covered her little living room with tarps, and Xie Lian spent a very satisfying half hour clearing rotten wood and her previous attempts at repair before she had to catch the bus.
By the time she got home, all the old damage was completely cleared away, and He Xuan was sitting at her kitchen table, in the middle of her lawn, with Hua Cheng.
Xie Lian stopped halfway up her driveway and took a long breath. She tucked her hair behind her ears and patted the worst of the grime off her pantlegs, and then she finished the walk to the kitchen table.
Hua Cheng watched her approach. She smiled at him. “San Lang.”
His smile echoed hers, small and pleased. “Hi,” he said softly.
He Xuan made a sound halfway between a cough and a snicker.
Hua Chang slapped them on the side of the head. “Rude.”
“Don’t touch me, fucker,” said He Xuan, mildly, and caught Hua Cheng’s hand out of the air when he aimed another slap at them. Xie Lian looked at their hands curiously, trying to tell if they were wearing the same black nail polish or if it was just very similar.
“Sit, dianxia,” said Hua Cheng, shoving out the third chair with his foot, and then tugged his hand out of He Xuan’s grip.
Xie Lian sat. “So,” she said brightly. “How’d you get into architecture, He Xuan?”
He Xuan eyed her sideways. “Identity theft.”
Xie Lian blinked. “Someone stole your…?”
Hua Cheng snorted. “No,” he said. “They stole someone else’s.”
He Xuan nodded. “Dude had great grades, no family. It was easy.”
Xie Lian tried to wrap her head around it. “You stole someone’s identity in order to go to college?”
“No.” He Xuan’s eyes cut to where Shi Qingxuan was, for some reason, attempting to prop up Xie Lian’s extraordinarily sad little rosebush. “But I liked it, so I stayed.”
“And you graduated?” Xie Lian asked, fascinated. “You never got caught?”
“Not by the authorities,” He Xuan said, whatever that meant, and then they stood up, brushing off the knees of their coveralls, and it was clear conversation time was over.
“I have to go,” Hua Cheng said regretfully, before Xie Lian had had a chance to say anything at all. “You’re in good hands here, dianxia, I promise.” He stood up, giving her a little graceful bow, and walked off toward his car.
Xie Lian wanted to run after him, make him stay. Wanted to say, I know I said I liked it when you called me dianxia but ever since we kissed you haven’t called me jiejie once and I miss it. Wanted to say, kiss me again and never stop. Wanted to say, I know you hated it when that man called me your girlfriend but I liked it. I liked it a lot and every time we’re together I wish strangers would make that mistake again. I wish you would make that mistake. I wish we would make that mistake, together.
Instead she stood up. “Qingxuan,” she called, “can I take you up on that offer of a couch?”
“So,” Shi Qingxuan said brightly, later, holding a cup of hot cocoa. Her apartment with He Xuan was small but kept scrupulously neat, and the main feature was an enormous fish tank stretching the entire length of one wall, with dozens of fish of all kinds serenely living their lives, back and forth, end to end.
He Xuan had gotten home and immediately vanished off into their room; Xie Lian had attempted to surreptitiously count doors to figure out if it was also Shi Qingxuan’s room but had gotten confused by the question of whether or not they had a pantry.
“Xie Lian,” said Shi Qingxuan. She’d offered Xie Lian cocoa, too, but Xie Lian had opted for tea.
Xie Lian raised her eyebrows. “That’s me.”
“How d’you know Hua Cheng?”
Xie Lian flushed, scratched at her cheek. “He helped me out,” she said. “In Home Depot.” She cleared her throat, not really wanting to talk about this. "What's the deal with you and He Xuan?"
Shi Qingxuan waved an airy hand. "Oh, they tried to kill my brother."
"They. What? And you hang out with them still?" asked Xie Lian, incredulous. “You live with them?”
"I mean, they failed," said Shi Qingxuan, shrugging. "And he totally deserved it, anyway."
Xie Lian stared at her. "So now the two of you are…?"
Shi Qingxuan gave a chirped, "We're fine!" which didn't answer Xie Lian's question, because as far as she knew "fine" was not an option on the Dating to Not Dating spectrum. "Anyway, nice deflection, but I asked about you and the ghost king."
"Hua Cheng! San Lang, whatever he has you call him." She grinned. "We call him the ghost king because he never texts anyone back."
Xie Lian frowned. "That's not nice. Or true! He always texts me back."
"Hmm mm," said Shi Qingxuan, and took a long drink from her mug.
“Anyway, it’s, we’re friends?” Xie Lian said, sipping from her own.
Shi Qingxuan raised an eyebrow at her. “Is that a question?”
Xie Lian flushed. "No," she said, because it wasn't—one adrenaline-fueled kiss that San Lang had clearly regretted did not make them anything else. "He's my friend. We hang out. He gives me rides from work sometimes, and I make him breakfast." She smiled. "It's mutually beneficial."
"He gives you rides from work," Shi Qingxuan said. "In his car? Like, home, at night?"
"Yes?" said Xie Lian.
"And you make him breakfast. In your house. The next morning."
"Yes," said Xie Lian.
Shi Qingxuan grinned. "Right," she said. "I get you. I follow." She winked. "Hey, good for you."
Xie Lian blinked. "What do you—" It dawned on her. “I—no, it’s not like that. We’re not. He just sleeps over in, in a friend way, sometimes, and I’m pretty sure that’s done with anyway.”
"Really?" asked Shi Qingxuan. “Why?”
Xie Lian frowned at her. “You really don’t know? I assumed He Xuan knew, at least, since they work at the casino.” She considered. “And they seem to be close? With San Lang?”
“You could say that, I guess,” said Shi Qingxuan. “They grew up together, or as together as two kids in and out of the system get. Neither one of ‘em landed with anyone permanently, and then later Hua Cheng helped He-xiong with their whole,” she waved a hand, “you know, mission— ”
“The mission to kill your brother?” Xie Lian clarified.
“Yeah, that one,” Shi Qingxuan confirmed. “Of course I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting He-xiong til college, at a drag show—my makeup skills are way better than they used to be, by the by—but this is again all beside the point. ” She fixed Xie Lian with a severe look. “What happened at the casino that makes you think Hua Cheng doesn’t want to get all cuddly anymore?”
Xie Lian sighed, giving up. “I—kissed him.” She pulled her knees up to her chest. “In front of—many people. While like all of them were watching, because I’d just beat up a dude twice my size and made San Lang a lot of money.”
Shi Qingxuan stared at her. “First of all, you’re my hero,” she said. “What the fuck. You’re so cool. ”
“It’s—I’m not—okay,” said Xie Lian. “Thanks?”
“Second of all,” Shi Qingxuan continued, “I admit I don’t know Hua Cheng that well but from what I do know that sounds like the literal script to his wet dreams. Why is this a problem?”
Xie Lian ran her hands into her hair, shaking it out. “There was this dude, after,” she said. “He said San Lang had set it up, that I was a plant. He—he called me San Lang’s girlfriend, and San Lang got so mad, I’ve never seen him angry like that.” She shrugged, trying to get her equilibrium back. “Ever since, everything’s been. Weird.”
“So wait, you kissed in front of all of these people, and then while everyone was still watching, someone accused Hua Cheng of fixing a match? In his own casino? And you think he got mad because they also incidentally implied that the two of you were dating?” Shi Qingxuan put down her cocoa. “Xie Lian. Honey.”
Xie Lian blinked rapidly. “I mean—I thought. Yes?”
“I once watched Hua Cheng catch a man counting cards in poker and threaten to kill his entire family,” Shi Qingxuan said matter-of-factly. “Now I don’t think he would’ve done it, not unless counting cards was just the most recent in a list of much, much more despicable crimes, but I didn’t have to believe him—the cheater did. And he believed him because Hua Cheng has a reputation—a deserved one—for being a very scary, very angry person.” She leaned across the table, taking Xie Lian’s hands. “The fact that you’d never seen him like that before? That, in itself, makes you special.”
“San Lang is a good person,” Xie Lian objected, frowning at her.
“No argument here,” Shi Qingxuan reassured her. “He’s made something kind of amazing in that place, I’m not denying that. But it’s his place, and he doesn’t like when people question that.” She shook her head. “He wasn’t mad at the kiss, babe. He was mad at the disrespect, and honestly probably the interruption. Not to mention the implication that you couldn’t have won on your own, which is disrespectful to you on top of the disrespect to him.”
“But,” said Xie Lian, trying to wrap her head around it. “You mean—he maybe. Liked it? He might want to do it again?”
“Now, those are not questions for me,” said Shi Qingxuan, “but also, if he didn’t and he doesn’t he’s very stupid.”
"Oh," said Xie Lian. "Thank you."
"Any time." She squeezed Xie Lian’s hands, and then stood up. “Okay? We’re good? Pep talk over?”
“Um. Yes?” said Xie Lian.
“Thank god, I have got to get these falsies off my goddamn eyes. Goodnight, sweet dreams, there’s extra blankets in the kitchen closet.” She vanished off into what was definitely the bathroom.
Xie Lian wandered over to the couch and flopped down onto it, staring at the fish. Huh, she thought. Kitchen closet. Which meant, doors-wise—
She gave up. “Love is a mystery,” she told the fish. They gazed steadily back at her. “Oh, well, it’s easy for you,” she grumbled, and went to sleep.
He Xuan dropped her off at work the next day. She tried to protest—it was way out of their way, she could have just gone with them to her house and then gotten the bus from there—but they insisted. “He’ll kill me if I let you take the bus,” they explained, and then sighed. “You really don’t get it, huh?”
“Get what? ” she asked, but they were already halfway to their car, and Shi Qingxuan (dressed more masc, today, though he still darted back inside to grab his eyeliner while He Xuan performatively rolled their eyes, as if they weren’t wearing more than their own share) spent the whole ride quizzing her about different types of shingles and gables and lacquers. By the time she got out of the car they’d scoped out an honestly pretty cute roof design, presuming Xie Lian had actually understood it, which she was only about halfway sure she had.
“Never figured your type’d be goths,” Pei Ming remarked as she donned her hard hat.
“Fuck off,” said Xie Lian reflexively. “I don’t have a type, He Xuan is just a friend, they’re helping me fix my roof and I’m sleeping on their couch.”
“Hm,” said Pei Ming. “And the one from the other day?”
“He’s—shut up,” said Xie Lian, flushing.
Pei Ming did not shut up, following her as she ducked under the arm of the excavator she’d be running that day. “You know, I’m hurt,” he said.
She gave him a look. “Why?”
He crossed his arms. “You need your roof fixed and you didn’t come to me? C’mon.”
Xie Lian blinked, pulled up short. “Oh,” she said. “I guess I didn’t think—I don’t know. You’d do that for me?”
“I mean not for free, kid,” said Pei Ming, “but for a reasonable friends and family discount, yeah.”
Xie Lian swung herself into the cab of the excavator and told herself she was definitely not emotional about Pei Ming, a gross old man she barely even liked, putting her in the category of friends and/or family.
“Wait,” he called up to her. “Your hot goths are giving you free roof reconstruction?”
“It’s complicated, ” she called back, because it was a better answer than I don’t know and I have more pressing things to ask. “Get out of the way, please.”
Pei Ming grumbled, waving his hand at her for her rudeness, but he got out of the way.
Xie Lian stood on the corner under a low, slate grey sky. The crosswalk sign was counting down; she’d been standing there for half of the countdown already. She thought maybe she’d stand there for another round of traffic, just in case she’d made some kind of plan by then.
“Are you going to the casino?” Quan Yizhen asked, appearing from nowhere, and she yelped. “Wait, is that Hua Cheng’s place? Was I right?” He frowned a little. “Does that mean Yin-ge has been across the street this whole time and hasn’t said hi?”
“Um,” said Xie Lian, unsure how to answer all of these questions at once. “Yes?”
Yizhen’s frown faded a little, but he still looked unusually contemplative. “Okay,” he said. “Can I come?”
Xie Lian sighed. “Fine,” she said. He’d probably just track down whoever Yin-ge was and leave her and Hua Cheng to—talk, or whatever she was going to do when she got there. “Why not.”
“Sweet,” said Quan Yizhen, and then darted across the street with the countdown at three, dragging her by the elbow.
“Yizhen!” she exclaimed, jogging across the street with him. “Warn a person first!”
“Sorry,” said Yizhen, still sort of jogging even though they’d already reached the other sidewalk. “I just haven’t seen Yin-ge in like a month and I think he might be mad at me.”
“I’m sorry?” Xie Lian offered, completely unsure of the situation, here. She pushed open the door to the casino.
“It’s not your fault,” Yizhen said, turning to her. “Unless—have you talked to him?”
“No, I don’t think I’ve even met—”
“Xie Lian,” said a voice, and she looked up to find her waiter friend, smoothly approaching. “Hua Cheng said—”
“Yin-ge!” Quan Yizhen said happily, and threw himself forward. The waiter wriggled out of the way like an eel, bringing up a hand almost faster than Xie Lian could see and planting it directly against Quan Yizhen’s face, effectively holding him at arm’s length.
Xie Lian stared at the tangle of them. “Yin-ge” didn’t look particularly surprised to be set upon by a human limpet—he looked, mostly, like he was desperate to ignore it. “Um,” she said. “You’re Yin-ge?”
“Yin Yu,” said Yin Yu, a little reproachfully. “I introduced myself to you in Home Depot like two months ago.”
“Oh,” said Xie Lian. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m just—I’m bad with faces—” your face, specifically, because it really is quite boring; “—but I really appreciate your help, both then and—since. With the shirt, and the waiting for the bus. And. Now? I guess? You were saying something about San Lang?”
“Yin-ge,” said Yizhen, his face still pressed against Yin Yu’s palm.
Yin Yu ignored him. “Hua Cheng said if you showed up I was supposed to show you to his office,” he said. He gestured with his free hand for her to precede him; she cast a last glance at Quan Yizhen and obeyed.
As soon as she was past him he spun. “You, stay,” he hissed, like Quan Yizhen was a misbehaving dog.
Quan Yizhen sagged, and Yin Yu released his face.
“You’ll be back?” Quan Yizhen asked, hopeful.
Yin Yu sighed. “Yes, Yizhen, I’ll be back.” He turned to Xie Lian and gave her his blandest smile, then led her into a side corridor and from there into the elevator.
“So,” said Xie Lian, searching for something to say that wasn’t what on earth was all that, then? “You work here and at Home Depot?”
Yin Yu looked sideways at her. “Many people have two jobs.”
“Oh, for sure, definitely,” said Xie Lian. “I’m not—I didn’t mean it in a judgey way, just curious.” She fiddled with the hammer-loop on her pants. “So when San Lang tells me he has a tab there…”
Yin Yu huffed, turning his eyes up to watch the numbers for the floors tick by. “He means I pay for what he wants,” he confirmed. “And what you want, now.”
“Okay,” said Xie Lian. “Why?”
Yin Yu gave her a look. “You really don’t know?” he asked, and it was so close to He Xuan’s you really don’t get it? from that morning that it threw Xie Lian off.
“Not—not about me, I mean,” she clarified, because she didn’t get it, really, but maybe she was on her way to. “I mean—you, why do you…” she trailed off, every possible way she could think of to phrase it sounding disrespectful.
“He gave me a place to belong,” said Yin Yu simply. “Not just me. Most people around here, they owe him big for that.” He shrugged. “A few art supplies are a small price to pay.”
Xie Lian stared at him. The elevator dinged, and Yin Yu shot out an arm, holding the door for her. “Your floor.”
“Thanks,” she said, faintly, and stepped out of the elevator.
He’s made something kind of amazing, in that place, Shi Qingxuan had said, last night, and Xie Lian hadn’t really known what she meant. She thought about He Xuan at the blackjack table, dealing cards as slow as they pleased; thought about the crowds around the ring in the basement, the queens with their flags, the younger fighters throwing themselves against the wall that was Ke Mo with a ferocity that had nothing to do with the money they’d potentially win. She thought about Hua Cheng, dressed down in her kitchen, telling her the point of wealth.
She drifted down the hall and knocked on the half-open door at its end. “San Lang.’”
Hua Cheng looked up from his desk, his silver earrings glinting. He was in a suit, today, sleek and a deep red, and he didn’t appear to be wearing a shirt underneath it. Xie Lian was not particularly a religious person, not anymore, but it seemed deeply wrong that there was no one to thank for how astonishingly hot San Lang was every single time she went a day without seeing him. “Dianxia,” he said, and his throat clicked when he swallowed.
“Hi,” said Xie Lian. “May I?”
Hua Cheng gestured her inside. “Please,” he said. “What’s mine is yours.”
“You know,” said Xie Lian, “I’ve been kind of getting that impression.” She slid inside, closing the door behind her, and ignored the chair across the wide expanse of his desk, opting instead to cross to him and lean against it at his side. “I, uh, I thought you were mad at me.”
Hua Cheng stared up at her, his eyebrows drawing together. “You thought I—”
“Or not—at me, really, but at what people might think. About you and me.” Xie Lian took a breath, then blew it out, laughing. “San Lang! I really thought I was going to have a plan for this before I got up here!"
Hua Cheng was frowning up at her. "Jiejie, I don't understand."
"That," Xie Lian said, reaching out and bopping him in the nose, "is because I'm not making any sense." She straightened up, folding her hands together. "I have some questions, please."
Hua Cheng swallowed, but didn't look away from her face. "Okay."
Xie Lian pushed herself back so she was perched on the edge of his desk. "When you call me jiejie. Is it flirting?" Hua Cheng opened his mouth, but she held up a hand. "Before you answer, you should know. I, um. I like it a lot."
Hua Cheng closed his mouth, then opened it again. "Uh," he said. "Yes?"
Xie Lian cocked her head. "And if I'd told you I didn't like it?"
Hua Cheng licked his lips, and Xie Lian let herself stare openly at the motion of it. "I would have said no," he said hoarsely, "but I would have been lying."
Xie Lian pushed her lips together, trying to suppress her smile. "And the other day. You—you liked it. When I kissed you."
"Yes," said Hua Cheng instantly, still holding her gaze, like if he broke it he might fail some kind of test.
Xie Lian bit her lip and looked away first, staring at the paintings adorning his office walls. "And if I said I wanted to do it again—"
Hua Cheng stood up, rising to his full height between her knees, and his mouth was on hers before she could even process the motion. She closed her eyes, struggling to catch her breath, and his hands closed on her hips. She was caught, pinned completely, an unexpected and delicious pressure, as Hua Cheng opened his mouth.
She took a sharp breath at the first sweep of his tongue, and he pulled back, lips shining. "Too—" he started, but she shook her head, sliding her hands into his hair and kissing him again—on the mouth, on the cheek, on the jaw.
“Missed you,” she said, which was stupid, because it had been barely any time at all, but it made Hua Cheng make a small sound and press a kiss to her shoulder, so it was okay.
“San Lang,” she said, carding her hands through his hair. “San Lang. Will you teach me to gamble?”
He pulled back, looking down at her, and she smiled. “I have to make enough to pay you back for my roof.”
She did not make enough to pay him back for her roof, at least not in time. But she was pretty sure he never expected her to, and there was always the money she’d made him from the fight, and when she saw it, finished—somehow exactly matching her very vague specifications, gleaming wood and precise slate shingles, neither pretentious nor boring but giving her humble little home an elegance she’d never been able to see in it before—she spun on her heel and pressed him back against his car and kissed him again, and again, and he seemed to think that was payment enough.
“Hey!” Shi Qingxuan called from where she and He Xuan had just finished moving her furniture back inside. She ran a hand over her forehead. “We’re the ones doing the work, don’t we get some of that?”
Xie Lian turned around and Hua Cheng actually growled, draping himself over her shoulders from behind. Her stomach swooped and she laughed, nervous and elated, her hands coming up to hold his forearms. “Sorry,” she called back. “I’ll pay you back some other way.”
“Lunch,” He Xuan said, materializing next to them. “Crab. All we can eat.”
So: the four of them, squeezed into a booth, Xie Lian watching in awe as He Xuan cracked efficiently through the joint of what must have been their twentieth or thirtieth crab leg, the table between them littered with bits of shell. Shi Qingxuan, sitting next to them, seemed entirely unsurprised at this display of probably record-breaking hunger; she sipped from her straw and leaned back with a grin.
“This is fun,” she said brightly. “I love a double-date, right He-xiong?”
He Xuan made a neutral, dismissive sort of sound; Xie Lian wondered if they were doing this on purpose, if the two of them had a game of it, of making people eternally unsure of their deal, or if one or both of them were unsure of their deal themselves. But she had more pressing problems, because Hua Cheng had instantly stiffened beside her.
She glanced sideways at him. There was something in his face that reminded her of how he'd gotten when she'd complimented him—a resistance, but even more a self-deprecation, a self-reproach. It made him somehow seem smaller.
"Me, too," said Xie Lian firmly, and watched his shoulders straighten, his chin lift. She tucked two fingers in the stupid, too-small pocket of his skintight jeans, and felt fiercely proud of his tiny answering smile.
All San Lang ever did was kiss her.
This was not, Xie Lian always hastened to add to herself and the many scolding voices in her head, a complaint. If anything, it was an expression of awe: all San Lang ever did was kiss her, and she got—well, she got like this.
He had a cool hand on her jaw, the other tracing the back of his knuckles over her bicep, up to her shoulder and down to her elbow, again and again. They were in the front seat of his car, San Lang leaning across the gearshift to press their mouths together hot and so, so slow. It wasn't a great place to kiss—they were in a parking lot, anyone could see, and the angle should have been awkward, the enforced distance probably straining Hua Cheng’s long, graceful neck, and he was wearing black lipstick today, which was going to absolutely be smeared all over Xie Lian’s face, and—she didn’t care, not about any of it. She was reduced to something bodily, but not her body, maybe, or at least not her body as she’d ever known it—not pained and scarred and inconvenient or even strong and controlled but something shivering and new and untouched, tensed and, and delicate even though she’d never been more aware of all of her muscles.
Hua Cheng’s tongue swept over her own and she trembled, managing not to make noise but not quite managing to control the little twists of her hips, grinding down against the seat below her. She was wet—she’d been wet since the moment he turned to her and fixed her with a lopsided smile, shining black lips over white teeth—but she was so wet now, as those teeth scraped against her lower lip, as Hua Cheng sucked at her tongue.
She wanted—she wanted San Lang’s hand to move from her arm to her chest, under her shirt, under her binder, wanted—wanted to move her own hands from where they were skittering restless against the thighs of her own jeans and slip them up under Hua Cheng’s shirt to cup his breasts. It would be easier for her—he never wore a bra—even though it was also completely, thoroughly impossible. She took a breath through her nose and licked into Hua Cheng’s mouth, quick and daring, and Hua Cheng made a choked off little sound that made Xie Lian feel more powerful than she’d ever felt in her life.
Did—did he get wet, too, from this? If she undid his belt and dipped her fingers below his waistband would she be able to tell? Would she feel his clit pulsing against her palm, like hers was, insistent, against the zipper of her jeans?
She broke the kiss. “San Lang,” she panted. “I—I want—we—” Her voice dried up in her throat.
The hand on her jaw gentled, tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, and Hua Cheng leaned away. His eye was always dark but now it seemed endless, the pitch-black of a moonless night. His lipstick was smeared, grey shadows marking his cheeks and chin. He sighed, light. “Alright, jiejie. Let’s get you home.” He returned his hands to the wheel, and Xie Lian wanted to scream.
“Actually,” she managed, too abrupt, “can we go to yours?”
Hua Cheng’s hands froze on the wheel. “I—are you sure?”
“Yes,” said Xie Lian fervently.
Hua Cheng’s house wasn’t far, but the drive had never taken longer. She’d never been inside, just peered at it when Hua Cheng pointed it out as they drove by. It was smaller than she'd imagined—somehow she'd thought of him inhabiting some kind of rockstar mansion—but right now she had very little time to notice anything about it except the wall she'd shoved Hua Cheng against the moment they were through the door.
"San Lang," she breathed against his mouth. "Will you—I want," she guided his hands to her waist, lower. "Please .
Hua Cheng breathed in sharp through his nose. He curled his palm around the curve of her ass, groaning as she pressed forward, and then suddenly he was pulling himself away, stumbling into the center of the room, breathing hard.
"San—San Lang?" Xie Lian asked, faltering. "Do you not want—"
Hua Cheng let out an awful bark of laughter. "I want, " he said. "You have no idea how much I want, but I can't—I'm not—I don't get to have this."
Xie Lian stared at him. "What? What are you talking about? Why wouldn't you—"
"I knew who you were," Hua Cheng admitted. His gaze was fixed on the floor, and Xie Lian realized with a jolt how rare it was for them to be hanging out and his eye not to be on her. Either directly or sidelong, he was always looking, and it felt like without it she would wither and die.
She made herself pay attention to his words and not just the horrible uncomfortable cant of his perfect shoulders. "What?"
"When we met, in Home Depot, I knew you. Recognized you. I used to watch you on TV."
She blinked. "Oh," she said. "Okay? I don't understand, San Lang, what's wrong?"
Slowly he raised his chin, looking at her, disbelieving. "What's—I lied to you, jiejie. I'm not—this—I don't deserve this, I don't deserve you, I'm just some creep who followed you home—”
"You drove me home," Xie Lian corrected, "because you're a kind, beautiful person—"
Hua Cheng's shoulders got even more horribly scrunched up to his ears. "I'm not, I wouldn't have—if it wasn't you—”
"That doesn't matter," Xie Lian said, "because it was me." A horrible thought struck her. “Unless—unless you’re disappointed, and you got into this because you thought I’d be living some celebrity life and now you see what it actually is—”
“No!” Hua Cheng broke in, vehement. “God, no, it’s—I didn’t want anything but to talk to you a little, you were so—and then, you were you, and I couldn’t. Stop.”
Xie Lian stepped up into his space, careful, in case he flinched away. "I don't want this because you would hypothetically drive home a stranger who was buying cement. I want this because you drove me home, and asked for my number, and you listen when I talk, and text me about the documentaries you're watching, and help me fix my roof, and kiss me like I've never been kissed in my life. Which, like, I hadn't. Before. So."
"Dianxia,” San Lang said, his eye flickering over her face. His throat bobbed.
Xie Lian laughed. “I sort of knew,” she said. “The nickname—at first I just thought you thought I was entitled—”
Hua Cheng stiffened in entirely a different way. "Never," he said, offended, like this wouldn't have been a totally reasonable thing to think after Xie Lian helped herself to the back seat of his car, to his friends, to his money, to his endless kindness and respect. “But. I don’t call you that because of your career.”
Xie Lian cocked her head. “No?”
Hua Cheng licked his lips. “You were in a play, in high school,” he said. “I was there.”
Xie Lian winced. “Oh. Oh, god, San Lang, that’s so embarrassing, it was a disaster!”
It had been—not because of her, or any of the other actors, but because of faulty set design. Half of the arch the theatre techs had set up over the proscenium had fallen during the first act, slowly tipping over into the audience; Xie Lian had been the first to see it go and had managed to leap down and hold it up for long enough for everyone to scramble out of the way.
“I was in the front row,” said Hua Cheng. “You saved my life.”
Xie Lian blushed. “It was only two-by-fours and particle board, I don’t think anyone would have died.” She curled a strand of Hua Cheng’s hair around her finger. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“When?” Hua Cheng asked. “Then? I was star-struck. You were older, and so butch and so cool, I was just some stupid little girl who didn’t even figure out these were crush feelings, not until I watched you take the world by storm, and by then half the country was head over heels for you. And then—after we became friends, I. I thought you’d be angry.”
“Why?” Xie Lian asked. “Because you already knew me when we met?” She shook her head. “We sort of talked about it, my former life, and I just, y’know.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I assumed you knew, or you’d figured it out. Is that arrogant, to think everyone knows who I am?”
“No,” said Hua Cheng. “No. And I—I didn’t know you, not really. I only wanted to.”
“And I want you to know me,” said Xie Lian. She tugged on the strand of hair between her fingers. “So please don’t apologize for that.”
Hua Cheng swallowed. “But—”
“San Lang,” she said. “I’m famous, or I—I was famous. People are going to recognize me sometimes.” She took a breath. "If anything it, it means more, that you saw me in my heyday and you still like me like this.”
Hua Cheng shook his head. “You’re you, always,” he said. “You deserve, now, to be as loved as you were then.”
“San Lang,” said Xie Lian, aching, despairing, “how can you say things like that and then claim you don’t deserve to be here with me?”
Hua Cheng opened his mouth and then closed it again, the set of his jaw stubborn.
"You’re here because I want you here. You, San Lang. Hua Cheng. No one else in the world. You're here.” She cupped his face, thumbed at the corner of his mouth. “Please be here.”
She leaned up and kissed him, soft and slow, and he made a little broken noise into her mouth. She tugged him down and kissed his eyelid, then his eyebrow, then back to his mouth. His teeth caught her lip, biting down, and she moaned, pressing closer, and this time when he closed his hands around her ass he didn't let go.
"Bedroom?" she suggested, and he groaned against her throat.
She got another few glimpses of the house as they stumbled through the hall into his bedroom. He had luxurious, eclectic taste, resulting in a harmonious kind of maximalism, entirely different from but somehow still of a piece with the decor of his casino.
And then they were in his bedroom. Her, and San Lang, in his bedroom, and she was so right to have brought him here rather than letting him take her back to her place, because in her place she was small and sad and they'd curled up to sleep and not touch there before, an easy pattern, and here. Hua Cheng raked his eye over her, his lips kiss-bitten, almost all of his black lipstick entirely gone.
Here she was the person who made fearsome, infamous, gorgeous, incredible Hua Cheng look at her like that.
"Shirt off," she demanded, and he huffed, maybe surprise, maybe a laugh, and complied, tugging his shirt over his head in one smooth movement. She stepped close, slid her hands up to cup his breasts, thumbing over his nipples, and his whole body twitched. "Jiejie, god—"
"You're so unbelievably, stupidly hot," Xie Lian breathed, leaning up to bite at his jaw. "Your stupid perfect body in its stupid perfect clothes and all I ever wanted was to see you like this."
He groaned against her lips, kissed her, hard, all spit-slick lips and desperate tongue. "I couldn't believe it when you called me hot, that night in your kitchen," he said, running his hands down her sides, "do you have any idea how gorgeous you are, when I saw you in that suit I could have died on the spot—"
"And when I took half of it off?" Xie Lian teased. "Did you mourn?"
Mourn? said the look in Hua Cheng's eye, and then, "Mourn? " he demanded. "As if anyone in that room could have felt any emotion watching you in that fight other than staggering, unbridled lust, jiejie."
Xie Lian privately thought that had been a San-Lang-exclusive emotion, but she didn't mind—especially not when it was written all over his face, now. She tugged her t-shirt off over her head and put her hands at the bottom of her binder. "Well let's do it again, then, when you have more time to appreciate it."
She lifted the binder up and off her shoulders, and he sucked in a breath. "Oh," he said, small and wondering. "God."
She flushed, leaning back against his bed in unconscious imitation of the pose he'd put her in to draw her, and he stepped forward, bending his head to kiss the flat expanse between her small breasts. He mouthed his way to one of her nipples, open-mouthed and worshipful, and she gasped when he took it and rolled it gently between his teeth. His hands skimmed down her sides and over her abs, feather-light, and then he brushed his knuckles over the zipper of her jeans and she nearly swallowed her tongue.
"San Lang," she groaned. "San Lang."
"Dianxia," he murmured, and sucked at her nipple, once, hard. "Tell me what you want."
"You," said Xie Lian, "anything, everything, I don't—"
Hua Cheng broke off to breathe, harsh, against her stomach, and then said, a note of pleading entering his voice, "specifics, please, jiejie—"
Xie Lian carded her hands through his hair and forced herself to think, to speak. She closed her eyes, her face burning. "Your hands," she managed. "Your fingers, San Lang—so beautiful—"
Hua Cheng pulled back, a little, and straightened up. Both his hands came up to cup her breasts, and she looked down at them, her small tits entirely hidden from view, her nipples hard, so hard against his palms, his black nails against her skin. She couldn’t breathe for how perfect they looked, how perfect she looked, being touched by San Lang, and then Hua Cheng was kissing her and she couldn’t breathe for other reasons entirely.
He pressed her down and back against his sheets, his hands shifting to tug and twist at her nipples, and she writhed, moaning against his mouth. This was good—being kissed, being held, being teased, it was so good, but it wasn’t what she ached for, what she needed. Specifics, he’d asked, and she broke away from his mouth to blurt, “Fuck me.”
Hua Cheng made a sound like he’d been punched. She worried he’d pull away, ask if she was sure, give her stupid anxious brain time to intervene, so she wrapped a hand around the back of his neck and bit at his mouth. “San Lang,” she panted, “put your big, beautiful fingers in me, now. ”
He fumbled with the button on her jeans, shoving them and her underwear down her hips, and she kicked them the rest of the way off, still kissing him, sucking at his tongue and pressing her hip up, up into his palm as he cupped her. He groaned. “Jiejie, you’re so wet—”
“I get wet the minute you kiss me,” Xie Lian admitted, truthfully. There was no space between them for her embarrassment to live, not when Hua Cheng was looking at her, wild-eyed, stroking the pad of his finger over her folds. “I want this, every time, I want—”
He pressed his finger inside and she threw her head back and groaned. It was perfect, the stretch of it, so much longer and broader than her own short, slender hands. “Yes,” she breathed as he started working it in and out of her, fast, pressing desperate kisses to her jaw, her throat, the tender skin beneath her ear. “Yes, yes, yes—"
He slipped a second finger in alongside the first, his thumb coming up to catch on her clit, and she was bucking up against him, riding his hand in earnest, her body a wild, uncontrolled thing, responding to the delicious stroke of his fingers in and out of her, the little circles he was rubbing against her clit, almost perfect but not quite, like he was overwhelmed, too. “So good,” she reassured him, and it came out a long moan, “so good for me, San Lang, so—
Her orgasm cut her off into shocked silence, her brain whiting out, and when she came back to herself, a twitching, boneless thing, San Lang was lying next to her, on his side, one hand smoothing gently over her hip. While she stared at him, still breathing hard, he raised his other hand to his mouth, flicking out his tongue to run it over his fingers, cleaning himself of her come.
It was filthy and possessive and exhibitionist and perfect, and it also gave her an idea.
"San Lang," she said, sitting up, "can I eat you out?"
Hua Cheng froze, and then flopped onto his back to throw an arm over his face. “Fuck,” he said, not even really to her, just to the world and his own armpit. “Fuck. ”
Xie Lian ran her hands down his chest, his stomach, luxuriating in the softness of his skin. “Is that a yes, or…?”
Hua Cheng’s throat bobbed. “Just—give me a second, please,” he begged. “You’re making some seriously long-standing dreams come true, here.”
“Hmm,” said Xie Lian, pleased at that idea, and leaned down to bite at the sharp line of his hip. “Not dreams. Premonitions.” She tugged his jeans down his legs, revealing tight black boyshorts, ran a knuckle against them and took a breath, suddenly dizzy at the wetness she found there. “Destiny, maybe,” she said absently, and leaned down to press the flat of her tongue against the fabric.
“Fuck,” breathed Hua Cheng for a third time, reverent. “God.”
Xie Lian closed her eyes, concentrating. It was heady, the smell of him, the taste, even through the silk. She tugged the fabric sideways and pressed a sucking kiss to his slit, and his hips lifted, involuntary, grinding against her face.
She pulled back. “Sorry,” he babbled, reaching for her, but she shook her head and just pulled off his underwear—she thought she heard some stitches pop but didn’t care enough to look—and bent back down again. She’d never done this before—she’d never done any of this before, but it hadn’t mattered with Hua Cheng’s fingers in her, she’d just had to feel. This—this was important; this was her chance to return the favor, make Hua Cheng feel as good as he deserved, make him understand.
She used one hand to pin him down by the thigh and leaned forward, parting his folds with her tongue. Hua Cheng pressed up against her grip, but she kept him steady, flicking her tongue experimentally deeper, then running it upward. He gave a ragged, choked-off gasp when she found his clit, and little bitten-off moans when she kissed it, once, gently, again, relishing the obvious twitch of it against her mouth.
“Jiejie,” Hua Cheng panted. “Dianxia—”
Xie Lian lifted her head. “You like this?” she asked, expecting him to curse at her, or at least to glare, impatient. But Hua Cheng didn’t glare at her; he’d never glared at her in his life. It hit her: she could stop right now, pull herself away, fix her hair, wash her face; could announce she wanted to just chill, maybe watch a movie, and Hua Cheng would take it without complaint. He’d pull his underwear and jeans back up his hips and sit next to her, sopping wet, hips still twitching while he got himself under control, and never once complain. She could bite at his jaw, every once in a while, tease her fingers over his crotch til he soaked through the denim, keep him secretly, silently desperate for hours, and he would just let her.
The certainty of it made her laugh, disbelieving, against the inside of his thigh. It came out wicked, a word which til tonight Xie Lian would never in a thousand years have imagined applying to herself. She liked the way it tasted. “You like this?” she asked, again, and bit at Hua Cheng’s perfect, unblemished skin.
Hua Cheng groaned. “Please,” he breathed, and Xie Lian lowered her head and licked back into him, slow, thorough, and awed.
Afterward, absolutely spent, naked as the day she was born, Xie Lian curled into Hua Cheng’s side and laid her head on his boob with a happy little sigh, and Hua Cheng said, abrupt, “I have never been—liked.”
Xie Lian blinked at the ceiling. “Huh?”
Hua Cheng curled an arm over her shoulder, traced little patterns down her stomach, making her shiver, like it was easier to talk if he distracted her from what he was saying. “I never really had. Friends, growing up, never really wanted friends, never really knew anyone who I cared enough about to, like, try, with. Until you.” He took a breath. “Even—even back then, even just watching your matches, your interviews, there was something about you, I felt. If I could be the kind of person you liked, or found helpful, or even just tolerated, I’d—I’d be worth something.”
“San Lang,” said Xie Lian, sitting up.
Hua Cheng raised a hand to her lips, not actually stopping her from talking, just a silent request. Xie Lian acquiesced, reluctantly, though she pressed a gentle kiss to the pads of his fingers just because. She’d been aware, sometime during, of shoving her hands into his hair, of her fingers catching on the strap of his eyepatch, pulling it askew. He’d fixed it, since, settled it snug against the socket again, but she found herself wishing he hadn’t, wishing to see his whole face for this.
“I thought,” Hua Cheng continued, and she reached up—slowly, telegraphing the motion, so he could stop her if he wanted—to carefully untie it. His voice wobbled, but he didn’t move. “I thought that’s what this was, at first, that I’d found a way to be of use, and that gave me joy enough, but—” he closed his undamaged eye as she lifted the eyepatch away from the other, his long throat bobbing. “You like me,” he said, quietly. “You don’t just want me, or, or appreciate what I can—you really—you haven’t been teasing—”
“No,” she said, fierce, overwhelmed at the perfect crags of his face, at the idea that he didn’t know. “San Lang! I like you so much. I like you more than anyone I’ve ever met, I liked you instantly and now that I know you I like you even more.” She ran the tips of her fingers over his mangled brow, the scars carved into his cheekbone, avoiding the socket itself in case it hurt. “It makes me so, so happy, to know you, to know you want to know me.” She swallowed. “I didn’t—I wasn’t sure happy was a thing I could be, anymore. And then suddenly there you were. And suddenly I just was.”
Hua Cheng took a great, ragged breath. “Jiejie,” he said, and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her hard against his chest. “Xie Lian.”
She hugged him back, hard. “I love you, San Lang,” she murmured against his temple, and held him as he cried.
“Shi Qingxuan likes you,” Xie Lian said, as San Lang drove her home.
He rolled his eye. “Shi Qingxuan likes everyone, and is the worst judge of character I’ve ever met,” he countered. “He Xuan lied to him for six years about literally everything in their life, tried to kill his brother, and then Shi Qingxuan moved in with them.”
Xie Lian hmphed, determined not to be put off. “Well, He Xuan definitely likes you.”
Hua Cheng glanced at her, disbelieving. “Jiejie, He Xuan hates me. They just do shit for me because we’ve known each other since we were like, six, and they owe me a ton of money.”
Xie Lian narrowed her eyes at him. “They hate you so much they organize a birthday party for you every year?”
“They do that to mock me,” Hua Cheng insisted. “How do you even know about that—”
“Shi Qingxuan, obviously,” said Xie Lian. “She told me so I could get in on the next one.”
“See, that right there is evidence she doesn’t like me either,” grumbled Hua Cheng, but there was a curl at the corner of his lips.
“What about Yin Yu?” Xie Lian asked. “Yin Yu likes you, or at least deeply respects you, and not really in a scared way.”
“You didn’t even know who Yin Yu was for months,” Hua Cheng protested, “even though you’d met him upward of five times.”
“Me not knowing who someone is has no bearing on whether or not they matter to you,” said Xie Lian tartly, and ignored Hua Cheng’s skeptical noise. “Anyway, he’ll like you after today, because we’re about to make Quan Yizhen very happy, and despite what Yin Yu insists, I think—”
She stopped. Hua Cheng had pulled into her driveway, but there was already a car parked in front of her house. A familiar car; and two familiar figures standing at her door.
“Dianxia,” said Hua Cheng. “There are men in your yard.”
“Yeah,” said Xie Lian. “It’s—it’s okay. They used to be my friends.”
She got out of the car. Feng Xin, halfway through the motion of what looked like an attempt to kick her door in, froze. Mu Qing turned.
She raised a hand. “Hi, guys.”
“Di—” Feng Xin started, and then, awkwardly, “Xie Lian.”
Mu Qing said nothing at all, just tucked his hands into his pockets.
Xie Lian stared at them and tried not to feel like a time-traveller. “What, uh, what’s up?” she asked.
Feng Xin gaped at her. “What’s up?” he asked, disbelieving. “That’s all you have to say after you vanished off the face of the fucking earth—”
“Me?” Xie Lian asked, feeling like someone’d swept her legs and she’d fumbled the recovery. “You guys left—”
“I quit being your manager, I didn’t fake my own fucking death,” said Feng Xin. “I thought we were—friends, at least, I thought—”
Xie Lian stared at him. “You never called,” she said blankly. “You left, and then you never called, what was I supposed to think?”
“Your number’s disconnected!” Feng Xin snapped.
“You—you know where I live,” Xie Lian tried again, which was really stating the obvious, considering. “You helped me buy this place. You could have—”
“You disconnected your number,” Mu Qing said, which is the same thing Feng Xin had said, except it wasn’t, really, and his tone was resentful, not frustrated. “We assumed you didn’t want to be found.”
Xie Lian—hadn’t, really, but, she’d also never really consciously vanished, just. Broken her phone and not bothered to fix it or keep the number attached. “Okay,” she said. “Okay. But. You’re here now,” she said. “Why?”
Mu Qing looked away. Feng Xin, too, was staring at the dirt between his feet. “Saw your signs,” he said, and scuffed a toe through the gravel. “Your roof.”
Xie Lian blinked. “You’re here to fix my roof? Do you even know how to do that?”
“Better than you do,” Mu Qing snapped.
Xie Lian raised her eyebrows at him. “Are you sure? Because I’ve been working demolitions for like three years now and I’ve become pretty familiar with how this stuff fits together.” She elected not to mention that that didn’t mean she’d actually been able to do it. "You're too late, anyway, it's finished. I just haven't had a chance to take the signs down."
Feng Xin glanced at the roof, then back at her. "Oh," he said.
"Yeah," said Xie Lian, unable to stop herself from being a little mocking. "Oh."
Feng Xin looked at Mu Qing, who looked back, sighed, and then turned to Xie Lian. "Feng Xin says he's sorry."
Feng Xin went red. "I do n—I mean—what about you, you piece of shit—"
Mu Qing scowled. “I’m not the one who had actual responsibilities to her— ”
“Guys,” said Xie Lian.
They turned to look at her in unison.
She cocked her head. “I’m on the way to a fight,” she said. “You want to come watch?”
They stared at her. “You’re fighting someone?” Feng Xin asked, a little faintly.
“You’re back in the game?” Mu Qing asked, an undercurrent of excitement to his disbelief that sweetened something old and bitter in her chest.
She laughed. “Sort of,” she said, and gestured them toward Hua Cheng’s car. “Give me two seconds to change and I’ll be right with you.”
Unsurprisingly, they hadn’t moved by the time she got back outside, but they went willingly enough when she ushered them toward the car herself. They piled hesitantly into the back while she swung herself back into shotgun. “Feng Xin, Mu Qing, this is Hua Cheng.” She leaned over to kiss his cheek. “San La—”
Hua Cheng caught her chin between his fingers and guided her mouth to his, instead, kissing her thoroughly, and she hummed into it, pleased. From the back seat she heard Feng Xin start, “what the fu— ” before Mu Qing presumably elbowed him, probably hard.
“Mmh,” she murmured as Hua Cheng finally pulled back. “San Lang. These are my friends.”
“Hm,” said Hua Cheng, giving them an unimpressed look in the rearview mirror. “I see.”
Xie Lian leaned over and pinched his thigh, a silent play nice, and Hua Cheng sighed. “Nice to meet you.
A flurry of mutters. “You, uh, you too,” Feng Xin said at last, grudging, and Hua Cheng turned his eye to the road.
“So,” said Xie Lian conversationally. “How have you been? What’re your lives like these days?”
A short pause. “Uh,” said Feng Xin. “Well. You remember Jian Lan?”
Xie Lian blinked, then searched her memory, “Um,” she said, starting to feel a little panicked. Her friends resurfaced out of nowhere and she couldn’t even remember the first person they mentioned—
“You’d be forgiven for not, dianxia,” Mu Qing said drily, as if reading her mind, “considering Feng Xin dated her for about two months more than five years ago.”
“Oh,” said Xie Lian, and then, “Oh! I do remember that there was, a girl. A girlfriend. Who existed.” She mostly remembered Mu Qing insisting on leaving the room every time Feng Xin brought up the fact that she existed, but that didn’t seem prudent to mention. “Are you guys, uh. Reunited, then?”
Mu Qing snorted. “Not exactly,” he said snidely.
“You want to just give her the update on my life, asshole?” Feng Xin snapped.
“I could, considering it’s totally taken over my life, too,” Mu Qing shot back.
“Because you fucking invited yourself in, if you remember, I never asked— ”
“Guys,” said Xie Lian. “It’s rude to have shouting matches in other people’s cars.”
They subsided into embarrassed and resentful silences, respectively. “Well?” Feng Xin hissed, after a minute. “Go on, then.”
Mu Qing sighed, and Xie Lian could hear the eyeroll. She smiled to herself, and then Mu Qing said, “Turns out Feng Xin knocked her up, and she didn’t want to deal with the kid anymore, so he’s Feng Xin’s problem now.”
Xie Lian turned around to stare at them. “You’re a dad? ” she asked, disbelieving. Feng Xin’s face was bright red. “Feng Xin! Congratulations, that’s amazing.” She glanced at Mu Qing, who didn’t meet her eyes. “And…?”
Feng Xin’s embarrassed silence deepened, but Mu Qing didn’t step up to fill this one, his lips a perfectly straight, bloodless line, and finally Feng Xin said, “Mu Qing has been—helping me.” He cleared his throat. “He moved in a month ago.”
Hua Chang snorted, and Xie Lian slid a hand onto his leg again, placating. Feng Xin looked like he wanted to say something, his eyes on the motion, but seemed to realize the kind of questions that’d open him up to, and subsided. Xie Lian smiled widely at him. “I’m pleased for you both,” she said, sincerely, and waited for Mu Qing to meet her eyes before giving him a nod.
To her surprise, he turned almost as red as Feng Xin, and mumbled, “Thank you, dianxia.”
Xie Lian turned back around, to let them hold hands about it or whatever. She didn’t take her own hand off San Lang’s leg as thanks for putting up with their uninvited guests, and when they stopped at a red light he picked it up and pressed a kiss to her palm.
By the time they pulled into the parking lot Yin Yu and Quan Yizhen were already there, and Xie Lian spotted He Xuan’s car pulling in behind them. Even Ling Wen had shown up, standing with Pei Ming a few yards from Yin Yu and Quan Yizhen.
Quan Yizhen had an elbow perched on one of Yin Yu’s shoulders, and Yin Yu’s arms were crossed. “I keep telling you,” he was saying as Xie Lian got out of the car. “This wasn’t my idea, stop thanking me—”
“He’s right, it was my idea,” Xie Lian called, and Yizhen looked up, his face confused. “But your Yin-ge did tell me what day it was, so he deserves some credit.”
“Please don’t,” Yin Yu muttered. Xie Lian smiled at him, unrepentant.
Yizhen looked between them, then to the others, clambering out of Hua Cheng’s car. “Xie Lian? What’s—”
Xie Lian took off her jacket, handing it to Hua Cheng, and rolled her shoulders. “Happy birthday, Yizhen,” she said, and shifted her stance, raising her hands.
He stared at her. “Wait—Really?”
She grinned. “Really.” Her friends closed around her, San Lang at her back, forming a makeshift ring. “Well? Square up!”
He matched her stance with impressive ease, the biggest grin she’d ever seen slowly spreading across his face. “Someone film this,” he said, “please, Yin-ge—”
Yin Yu already had his phone out. Hua Cheng grabbed his wrist, raising his eyebrows at Xie Lian.
“It’s fine, San Lang,” she said. “I don’t mind.”
He held her eyes for a moment, then nodded, and she nodded back. He let Yin Yu go.
Shi Qingxuan laughed. “I can see the video caption now: Comeback of the century! Taizi dianxia beats the shit out of some kid in a McDonald’s parking lot—”
“I’m not so sure,” said Quan Yizhen, but it didn’t come out cocky, just honest. “I’ve got some moves of my own.” With no further warning, he threw himself forward, practiced and powerful.
“Bring ‘em on,” murmured Xie Lian, and met him halfway. Above them, the sky broke open, and the rain began to fall.