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Bring On Disaster

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Liu Sang came to awareness slowly, automatically registering the sounds around him. The whir of someone’s bathroom fan, shouts in the street outside, low-level hum of unfamiliar electricity, early morning birdsong. He was in — a hotel room? He was alone. Something was very wrong. His head was throbbing, his mouth tasted off, he was stiff all over, and he couldn’t remember getting into bed. Was he hungover? What had he been doing? Also, he was nearly fully dressed, in everything except his shoes and coat.

Fuck. He sat bolt upright, his heart racing, wincing as the movement sent another pang of pain through his head. He was on a job, he was in a village hotel in the mountains with Zhang Qiling, Wu Xie and Wang Pangzi. Pangzi —hadn’t he been sharing a room with Pangzi? There was another bed across the room, made up and empty. But he definitely remembered Pangzi slinging a bag onto it, muttering under his breath about having to share, as though Liu Sang wasn’t the one dismayed, and maybe disappointed, about the room allocations.

He closed his eyes, thinking back. They’d arrived in the afternoon, dropped off their stuff here, and then they’d driven out to the temple outside the village that had suddenly partially subsided into a hole in the ground. A hole that a couple of the monks had tried to explore, before being pulled out shortly afterwards babbling incoherently about gold and statues, and otherwise unable to recall their own names. After they’d been taken off to a hospital in town, probably the kind of hospital you never left, the locals decided to call in the experts to check it out. And someone knew someone who knew that Wu Erbai was an expert, which is why they were now all here.

Liu Sang had been deeply sceptical about why he’d been asked to come on this job. Wu Erbai had agreed to pay his usual rates without even haggling, and he’d had a free couple of days in his diary, but he’d planned to take them off, have some peace and quiet. He’d been poised to turn Wu Erbai down, when Wu Xie had texted, not very subtly, with a personal invite that happened to mention that Zhang Qiling was coming. Liu Sang would prefer not to have been so transparent, but not to the extent that he was going to say no.

As far as he’d been able to tell, from the carry-on at the airport, and the general air of cheerfulness from Wu Xie and Pangzi, the others were there more as a minibreak with some light tomb exploration than because they thought it was a serious or meaningful expedition.

Then again, he’d seen those two facing near-certain death with exactly the same attitude, so it was hard to tell. And true to form, what looked like a small, inferior low-level tomb had turned out to be a gateway into a tunnel complex full of artefacts, with at least one other layer beneath it, from what Liu Sang could hear.

He remembered Pangzi pricing everything they passed in a low murmur and groaning in a frankly disturbing way at the artefacts, with Wu Xie batting his hands away from them and muttering under his breath. He remembered that he’d been looking for the best place to stop and get everyone to shut up so that he could finalize his map, and that he’d been—shamefully—distracted by the sight of Zhang Qiling ahead, his fingers dancing over the wall and his head cocked as though he was also listening.

He remembered Pangzi stumbling into him, Liu Sang being shoved sideways and his arm flailing out and catching something in an alcove; a glass bottle, it had sounded like as it smashed on the stone ground. An old, faded scent rose from it, something with musk and flowers.

He saw himself turning to snap at Pangzi and flinching at the genuine look of horror on his face, matching that on Wu Xie’s, behind him. And then there had been a rush through his body, a wash of heat, lights strobing in front of his eyes, and then…

Liu Sang opened his eyes and stumbled out of bed, into the bathroom, and then bent over the toilet, retching. His head protested. He sank onto the cold tiles and rubbed his forehead, his stomach still roiling.

One of the things his master had drilled into him, slowly and painfully, was the ability to recall conversations near-perfectly even when distracted, injured, half-asleep, or out of his mind, wiping whatever he’d been feeling himself at the time out of the memory. This was one of the times when he wished he didn’t have this skill, but it was all there, now that he was slightly more awake, ready to play back like a tape recording.

“Fuck, Tianzhen, wasn’t that the perfume gas stuff, Purple whatever, the one that got us in—”

“Did it get you?”

“I’m fine, but I don’t think Jinx is. Jinx, are you with us?”

“Liu Sang, can you hear me? Can you—help me get him away from here, Pangzi, come on—”

“What is it?” That had been Zhang Qiling, close. A hand on his temple, blissfully cool, a surprising sharp indrawn breath. Had he been lying down at this point, or standing up? He couldn’t tell.

“We called it Purple Mist. There’s an annotation in the notebook about it. You remember what happened last time, Pangzi.”

“Etched on my fucking memory in letters of fire. You think it’s as bad if it’s just him?”

“He’s probably going to think it’s worse.” Wu Xie’s voice had been coming from very close by. Liu Sang had a sense memory of a strong arm round him, supporting him, as he shivered with heat. He’d been trying to say something himself, he thought, and it had been coming out slurred and incomprehensible.

“We didn’t have anyone sober there with us, though, Tianzhen. If we knock him out we could at least get him back to the hotel, hell, the car even...”

“Huo Daofu said it took about fifteen minutes after exposure until people start losing their mind permanently. Fuck, I knew we should have visited those monks first and tried to get some more honest answers out of them, this stuff is probably planted all along here.”

“We know how to fix it.” That was Zhang Qiling, with a slight question to his tone.

“The usual.” That was Pangzi. “Should work, it did on us. Not like he’s not going to mind if you do it. Ow, Tianzhen, what the hell!”

“Of course he’s going to mind. He likes Xiaoge. He’ll probably think we did this on purpose to humiliate him anyway, but if it’s Xiaoge it’ll be worse, trust me on this.” A sigh. “I’ll do it, you two clear out, back to the start of the tunnel so that we’ve got some deniability on whether you knew what was going on. I’ll knock when it’s safe to come back.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t do this on purpose, Tianzhen.”

“Don’t fucking joke. It’s not funny. He’s probably going to try to kill me for this and you’d better be there to back me up.”

“Pangzi.” That was Zhang Qiling again, warning. “Don’t be long, Wu Xie. There are other traps in these tunnels.”

“I’ll be as quick as humanely possible. Go, get out of here.”

Liu Sang, in the bathroom, put his head on his knees and took a couple of deep breaths. The rest of the memory was Wu Xie’s voice, low and intent. And his own, begging. And then darkness.

He stood up shakily, splashed his face with cold water, brushed his teeth and swallowed the strongest painkillers he had, all without ever meeting his eyes in the mirror. He undressed and showered in about ten seconds, put on clean clothes, stuffed everything he’d been wearing when he woke up into the bin, and within five minutes, was at reception asking about the next bus out.

At the bench by the solitary bus stop, he sat down and closed his eyes. A few snowflakes were falling, as if the mood he was setting wasn’t pathetic enough already. He’d never walked out on a job before, not like this. He’d be lucky not to be blacklisted by the entire Wu family. Wu Xie might speak up for him, after everything they’d been through in Thunder City, but it wasn’t a certainty. Any more. And he’d been so busy, he’d barely seen these three since that time. Any rapport that they had once had, any friendship, couldn’t necessarily be relied on.

And Zhang Qiling, what had he thought about what had happened? If he thought Wu Xie had been treated with disrespect…He swallowed. Three minutes, and at least he’d be on the bus and getting out of here: he didn’t need to open his eyes or remove his headphones, he’d still hear it approaching even over the early morning bustle of the village’s main street.

“Good morning,” said Wu Xie’s voice, from a couple of feet away.

Liu Sang’s eyes flew open, and he jerked the headphones out. Wu Xie slid onto the bench beside him, and smiled at him.

Liu Sang looked around for the others, clutching the strap of his bag. No-one else he knew was in sight or hearing distance. He scowled at Wu Xie. “How did you know I was here?”

Wu Xie shrugged. “Let’s call it a premonition. I got the bus timetable last night.” He gave Liu Sang one of the soulful looks that seemed to work so well on the others. “I had to get up so early that I haven’t even had any breakfast.”

“You—” It was hard to pick out Wu Xie’s heartrate from the surrounding noise. He didn’t look furious, though. If anything, he looked—kind. Liu Sang wasn’t at all sure this was a good thing.

“The bus is coming.” Wu Xie nodded down the street. “Liu Sang, do you think we could agree that you aren’t going to flee the scene, and maybe go get some food? Or am I going to have to sit on you to get you to stay?”

Liu Sang looked helplessly at the bus. Part of him wanted to brush Wu Xie off, jump on it, and never have to see him or any of the Iron Triangle again. The rest of him was pointing out that unless he moved thousands of miles away and started an entirely different career, this wasn’t going to work out. And he knew exactly how persistent Wu Xie could be.

“Fine,” he said.

“Good.” Wu Xie looked him over. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not that bad, OK? Stop panicking.”

Liu Sang glared at him. “I’m not panicking.”

Wu Xie snorted. “Yes, you are. And I can tell because I’ve been there. Come on, let’s go.”

Liu Sang trailed him across the road to a café, and then poked unenthusiastically at some of the many things that Wu Xie had insisted on ordering. He was hungry, but his stomach was still unhappy. If he ate he’d probably throw up again. The café was quiet and dim, thank fuck. His head was still pounding, though, despite the painkillers.

“You’re looking at me like I’m about to—to put you in a cage and ship you off to the vet,” Wu Xie remarked.

Liu Sang stared out of the window at the street. There wasn’t another bus for four hours. In the café lighting, Wu Xie had visible marks on one side of his neck, bruises, trailing down below his shirt collar. They hadn’t been there before yesterday.

“What do you want, Wu Xie?” he said, hearing how tired he sounded. “An apology?” Shamefully, tears threatened to prick at the back of his eyes, though he wasn’t quite sure why. He set his jaw. Bursting into tears, that was all he needed to make an excruciatingly humiliating situation even worse, if that was even possible.

Wu Xie set down his chopsticks and leaned back.

“Ah, Liu Sang. You’re so fucking smart that sometimes I forget how young you are. Do I want you to apologize? For being poisoned? You wouldn’t even have triggered the trap, if Pangzi hadn’t shoved into you.”

Liu Sang looked down at the table. He could feel Wu Xie’s gaze.

“Do you need me to apologize?” Wu Xie said, gently.

“Of course not.” Liu Sang looked up, which was a mistake: Wu Xie’s eyes were dark and he looked genuinely concerned. “I was the one who —”

Wu Xie was frowning a little. “Look. You got hit with an ancient air-borne poison at close range. I forget its technical name, my grandfather called it Purple Mist in his notes. We’ve seen it before. And you know this is the kind of shit that happens every day in this line of work. You needed one of us, one of your team, to help you out. I thought that it might be easiest if it was me, because, ah—anyway, I’m sorry if that was wrong.”

“Help me out? We— ” He couldn’t quite bring himself to say it. He looked round the near-empty café.

“We had sex.” Wu Xie sounded completely unconcerned, he might have been asking Liu Sang to pass the sauce. “Because if you hadn’t, what’s the official term, released your energy or whatever right away, the chances are high that you’d be strapped down in a hospital by now. Are you freaking out because you don’t remember? I can fill you in, it really wasn’t anything especially—” he waved a hand “—you know, kinky. Weird. Other than the poison, I mean.”

“But I was —” Liu Sang couldn’t think of the right words to express the sense he had that he had absolutely not cared whether he hurt Wu Xie or not. “I took advantage.”

Wu Xie laughed out loud, and then put a hand over his mouth, his eyes crinkled. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I know it’s not funny. Aii, Liu Sang, what shall we do with you.” He took a deep breath, his mouth twitching. “OK, I’m not laughing. Let me tell you a story.”

“Maybe I should just go.”

Wu Xie smiled at him, with the innocence that was totally deceptive. “I wouldn’t try it if I were you. Are you sitting comfortably? OK, so this story is about how the first time I had sex with Xiaoge I was high on these mushrooms, I don’t know their name, they’re kind of white and glowing and you find them at tomb entrances in forested areas, late autumn….”

He waved a hand, as if to illustrate. Liu Sang was still stuck on ‘first time.’ It wasn’t that he hadn’t been pretty sure that Zhang Qiling and Wu Xie were involved, from the intensity of their focus on each other, the way their heartbeats responded to each other’s presence, the way they touched each other. But that was different from hearing Wu Xie say it so casually, as if it was something everyone knew.

“I didn’t eat them, even I wasn’t that stupid in my youth, I must have…brushed against them with my gloves off, or something. Anyway, that’s not relevant, what’s relevant is that I was flying like a kite and Xiaoge was totally sober. We were in the middle of—ah, too complicated to explain, but this was back in the mists of time when I barely knew him and I didn’t entirely trust him; all I knew was that he had his own agenda and no-one had any idea what it was. And also, he was incredibly and irritatingly hot. So there I was, throwing myself at him—I mean this literally, you understand—and begging for his cock, in front of all our other team members, most of whom were my uncle’s friends. Pretty sure I started taking off my clothes while begging, too.”

He raised his eyebrows at Liu Sang, who felt himself starting to blush. He had a hazy memory that yesterday, he’d been fighting to get free of his coat, his hands shaking too much to undo any buttons. And of Wu Xie’s hands, blessedly helping him.

He thought he remembered shoving one of Wu Xie’s hands down to his belt, and the sound of relief and desperation he’d made when Wu Xie unbuckled it and unbuttoned him efficiently, and pressed a hand against his cock. He ducked his head and took a gulp of his water, his stomach clenching up again.

Wu Xie took a sip of the horrible energy drink he liked, and continued. “Eventually he must have decided that he was either going to have to fuck me or knock me out. It later emerged he would’ve voted for the latter, except he was outnumbered. Not sure if that was for reasons of my health or because everyone thought it would be more entertaining.”

He smiled. He looked almost wistful.

“And that’s how my first time with Xiaoge was up against a tree in a very sinister forest, twelve feet away from our teammates, without either of us taking off our clothes. Do you know what I remember, Liu Sang? I remember that he had a hand over my mouth to shut me up because I was being so fucking loud that any creature within a mile could have heard me. I remember that I was so hot, and so desperate, and I didn’t care if he hurt me, I wanted it, and meanwhile he seemed to be sort of—grimly resigned.”

He made a face. “It wasn’t my finest hour, when I came to in a tent and realized what had happened. And it’s not like he was going to—” he gestured between them, “—buy me fucking breakfast. He blanked me for the entire rest of the expedition. Wouldn’t speak to me, wouldn’t look at me.”

He tilted his head and watched Liu Sang. “I was younger than you are now, I think. I was upset and angry, for a while. And guilty.” He shrugged. “But things move on, people forget. Some people more definitively than others. And this kind of stuff—it comes with the territory. What happened yesterday, what happened to me with Xiaoge years ago—well. There’s a whole fucking genre of anecdotes about unfortunate sex-related incidents starring the Iron Triangle and associates. Seriously, Liu Sang, we could spend the entire rest of today telling you about them if that will make you feel better. They were smart, those tomb-builders; they knew that fucking with our minds would work just as well as attacking our bodies. And as a case in point, you were about to leave, this morning, and it’d take us five times as long to map the rest of this tomb without you.”

“I get it,” said Liu Sang. “You’re telling me I’m being over-sensitive. I may not be as experienced as you —”

Wu Xie interrupted him with a frustrated noise. “Cut it out,” he said. “I’m telling you whatever you’re feeling is completely reasonable, and if you want to hate me or stop speaking to me then fine, whatever you need, but I—we—really would like you on board for the rest of this job.” He ran his hands through his hair, disarranging it. “Just another day. Think about it. Please.”

Liu Sang bit back whatever he’d been going to say. Wu Xie seemed sincere, which Liu Sang generally mistrusted on principle. Except that Wu Xie had said that Liu Sang was one of the team, and he already knew that if Wu Xie thought you were on his team, he would go to any lengths for you.

A year ago, two years ago, he would have been sure this whole situation was a trap, or set-up, designed to damage or humiliate him. But even if he still felt humiliated, he did know these people. He trusted them, as much as he trusted anyone.

He wasn’t sure what he thought about what Wu Xie had just told him. He looked at the bruising on Wu Xie’s neck. He remembered making it, sort of, in a fragmented and blurry way. He remembered Wu Xie cursing quietly, tense above him. He definitely remembered Wu Xie’s hand on his cock, perfect and exactly what he’d needed so desperately, every stroke making colours and lights bloom above him, fireworks inside and out. He remembered kissing Wu Xie, clumsily, and gasping into his mouth, and Wu Xie kissing him back, far more expertly.

Wu Xie was watching him look. He put a hand to his own neck and pressed at the bruises, his eyes closing a little.

“You don’t seem inexperienced, in whatever, ah, context,” he said. “If that’s what you’re worrying about. And if you’re worrying about these, or about the marks you can’t see—” He smiled at Liu Sang, knowing, and touched a hand to his shoulder, hidden by his shirt, “then don’t. I would’ve done the same no matter who you were, in a choice between that and letting you be driven insane. Like I’m saying, awkward sex while high on tomb-related substances? Really not a big deal. But it wasn’t a hardship that it was you, Liu Sang.”


“Sorry,” said Wu Xie, entirely insincerely. “Pangzi says I’m a disgustingly creepy older man and I should stop making eyes at you.”

Liu Sang tried to gather his scattered wits. Wu Xie was claiming that he was attracted to Liu Sang, and that other people knew about it? Liu Sang studied him, but there was nothing in his face to suggest that this was some kind of bizarre practical joke.

“I don’t understand. You just said that you and…and Zhang Qiling, are —”

“Well, yes, of course. But not exclusively.” Wu Xie looked thoughtful. “Are you upset because it was me, not Xiaoge?”

If Liu Sang had woken up that morning and realized Zhang Qiling had taken pity on him and fucked him in a tomb, he would have walked out of the village himself and frozen to death in the mountains, probably.

Wu Xie was — well, if they weren’t lying about the effects of that drug, Wu Xie had been the best option, by a very long way.

“No.” Liu Sang sat up straighter and consciously relaxed, a fraction. “It’s—I’m OK.”

That wasn’t entirely true, but it was closer to being true than it had been when he’d woken up. Wu Xie wasn’t concerned about what had happened, he wasn’t laughing at him—or, he was, but not cruelly. He’d given him a story that he hadn’t needed to tell, and shared things about himself that Liu Sang could have used against him, seemingly without any anxiety.

“Good,” said Wu Xie. He leaned forward, meeting Liu Sang’s eyes. Liu Sang’s breath caught. He’d witnessed it before, how quickly Wu Xie could shift from harmless to dangerous, the effect of all his magnetism concentrated on someone. But he’d never been the target of it himself.

“I’m sorry this happened,” Wu Xie said, his voice lower, more private. “Partly because I thought you might find it distressing. And partly because I—we—would have liked to talk you into letting us seduce you in a much more pleasant setting.”

Liu Sang bit his lip, and saw Wu Xie’s eyes flick to follow the movement. Wu Xie’s mouth curved up, knowing.

Liu Sang’s mouth was dry. “‘We’?” he said, amazed it didn’t come out as a croak.

Wu Xie’s smile widened. “Xiaoge and myself, of course. Though when I say ‘talk,’ he’s not so good at that. He’s more, ah, a man of action.”

Liu Sang could feel his eyes widening. They were in a public place. Wu Xie’s eyes were dark, and he looked predatory. If Liu Sang concentrated, he could tell that his pulse had picked up a little. He still didn’t look as though he was about to sit back, laugh, and tell Liu Sang he was teasing.

“Zhang Qiling’s not—” He couldn’t think of a way of saying that Zhang Qiling had shown no response whatsoever to Liu Sang’s hopeless crush on him, without sounding young and pathetic.

“Not interested in you?” Wu Xie raised his eyebrows. “I would know better than you, don’t you think?”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I wouldn’t! Not about this, anyway.” Wu Xie sat back, releasing some of the tension, though he was still watching Liu Sang. “Trust me, he’s thought about it. We both have.” He paused, frowning. “I’m not talking you back into fleeing in horror, am I?”

“No,” said Liu Sang, too quickly, and winced as Wu Xie’s edged smile returned.

“I’m glad to hear it. Now, if you’re staying, and if you’re really not going to eat any of this, we should get going. I promised we’d be back before eight, we’ve a lot to do today.”

He studied Liu Sang another moment, and must have read assent into whatever he saw, because he nodded, pushed back his chair, and went up to the cash desk.

Liu Sang didn’t think he’d ever had a stranger conversation. He watched Wu Xie, chatting effortlessly to the cashier, smiling his charming smile. Wu Xie was a very good-looking man, that was undeniable. He was also smart, brave, ruthless, and extraordinarily reckless; charming and infuriating in equal measure.

Liu Sang had never thought about finding Wu Xie attractive before, partly because he’d been on the verge of dying for most of the time they’d known each other. And the closeness you had with someone in a constant string of life-and-death situations did not, in Liu Sang’s experience, leave much time for lustful thoughts.

And partly, he rarely bothered to think about sex with other people. People frequently wanted to fuck him, because he had a certain kind of look that they found compelling. On occasion he’d been interested enough, cynical enough or curious enough to let them, and it had more often than not been a disappointment. Sometimes boring, sometimes distasteful, sometimes fine, but not all that exciting. On the rare few times when he’d liked, or thought he’d liked, the person he was in bed with, it had generally turned out to be an illusion that the feeling was mutual.

In the light of everything Wu Xie had just said, yesterday’s encounter at least seemed less like a career-ruining embarrassment. The other things he’d said…Liu Sang had been nearly out of his mind yesterday. He’d never felt anything like that purely physical desperation, the spiralling away of his mind into incoherent want. And Wu Xie had known what to do. He’d held onto him, he’d touched him with authority, he’d let Liu Sang have what he needed.

If Wu Xie had wanted anything in return, Liu Sang’s memories, scattered as they were, told him that he hadn’t asked for it, even though Liu Sang wasn’t in any state to have refused him. Because Liu Sang wasn’t in any state to refuse him, Liu Sang thought, as Wu Xie turned away from paying for the food he hadn’t eaten, smiled at him, and jerked his head towards the door.

He needed to stop all of this going round his brain, if he was going to get any work done on the mapping today. He shut it carefully away in a corner of his mind, picked up his bag, and followed Wu Xie out.

It was easy to stare out of the window of their hired car and not speak to anyone, on the way to the tomb site, since that was what Liu Sang did most of the time in any case. He hadn’t looked closely at either Pangzi or Zhang Qiling since they got back to the hotel, so that he wouldn’t see how they might be looking at him. Instead he thought very determinedly about the likely layout of the tomb.

After they’d lowered themselves inside, there was a brief debate about strategy, in which Liu Sang didn’t participate. Wu Erbai had instructed him to supply a detailed layout of the tomb, and that was it. Whatever the others wanted to get into, he was out. He stood off to one side, not touching anything, and breathed carefully, not thinking about the ways his body wanted to react to the damp and stone scent from yesterday, the familiarity of the space.

“Liu Sang?” said Wu Xie.

One of the ways his body wanted to react, without his conscious input, was with arousal. Wu Xie saying his name, even completely normally, did not help.

“What?” he said.

“Can you map from here, if we go explore the rest of the tunnel?”

Liu Sang stiffened at the possibility that they were being tactful. He straightened his back. “I need to be further in. A bit along from where we were yesterday.” He was aiming for bored and casual, and felt that he’d nearly hit the mark.

“Fine,” said Wu Xie. He glanced at the others. “Xiaoge, you lead? Liu Sang, you go last. Tell us when you’re stopping and we can pause and be quiet if you need us to.”

Liu Sang nodded, and waited till the others had gone to follow. He was on alert for any signs of what had happened yesterday, but the tunnel was silent other than water dripping, and the sounds of small animals scurrying higher above them. He kept to the centre of the path, watching under his feet. No broken glass that he could see in the light of his torch, no traces. If he hadn’t spoken to Wu Xie this morning, he might have thought he’d imagined the whole thing.

He snapped back to attention when the ambient noises shifted to a different kind of echo beneath their feet.

“Here,” he said. He swung off his pack and started taking out his whistles and notebook.

“Should we wait?” Wu Xie asked.

“No.” Liu Sang busied himself with his stuff, not looking up. “You can all carry on, it won’t affect what I’m listening for.”

“You’re sure?”

Liu Sang wanted to snap at him, even if it was uncharitable. “Yes. Go on.”

Wu Xie made a noise of assent, and they moved off. Liu Sang sighed, and picked up the first whistle.

He hadn’t lied about being able to hear the structure below even if the others were being distractingly noisy a little ahead, as they reached the end of the tunnel and started looking around for any hidden entrances or exits, pointing out features to each other. They were clearly trying to be quiet, as if Liu Sang couldn’t hear their slightest whisper if he wanted to. His fingers were moving confidently over the paper, his focus more or less in place, when he heard his name.

“How’s Jinx doing?” That was Pangzi, in a murmur.

“Found him at the bus-stop, trying to skip town. Talked him into staying. I hope.”

“Is he alright?” That was Zhang Qiling, low and serious. The thought of him asking about Liu Sang’s wellbeing sent a thrill through him.

“More or less. He’s all claws, still. I’m not sure he believed a word I was saying.”

“The wisdom of youth,” said Pangzi. “Did you bat your eyelashes at him and tell him your intentions in inviting him along this weekend were totally pure, Tianzhen?”

“I was honest with him this morning!” Wu Xie protested, in a loud whisper. “I was completely open about our intentions. That’s the bit he didn’t believe.”

“Losing your touch,” said Pangzi, with what sounded like satisfaction. “Well, as I’ve been saying, had to happen some time, old man. Maybe you should leave him to Xiaoge, he’s still got it.”

“Mmm,” said Wu Xie. “Fine. I’d like to at least watch, though. I wouldn’t say this to him, obviously, but he’s really fucking hot when he — ”

“Tianzhen!” Pangzi hissed. “Stop it! Do you think I want to hear this?”

“You know he can hear us.” That was Zhang Qiling, who sounded almost entertained.

“Obviously, and now you’re both ruining my plan, for fuck’s sake.”

Pangzi groaned. “This is your plan? Knew you’d lost it.”

“We’ll see.” Wu Xie raised his voice a little. “How’s the map coming, Liu Sang?”

Liu Sang cleared his throat, cursing all of them. “It’s fine, I’m, ah, nearly done.”

He was done, in fact, but he was happy to stay where he was for the moment. Preferably in silence: he reached into his bag for the noise-cancelling headphones.

There was a very loud crash of falling stone and a shout, followed by Wu Xie swearing, loudly. Liu Sang shoved his stuff into his bag and ran towards them.

Wu Xie was peering into a large hole in the ground, where a whole section of the tunnel floor seemed to have fallen in, in a way that didn’t look accidental.

“Pangzi!” he shouted. “Xiaoge! You OK down there?”

He glanced round at Liu Sang, who crouched beside him and shone his torch down. He swept it over the space and caught a glimpse of upturned faces, glowing in the pitch-black.

“We’re both here,” Zhang Qiling called up. “Uninjured.”

“It’s not more than ten feet down,” Liu Sang said.

Wu Xie nodded. “Does it look like a trap, to you?”

Liu Sang contemplated how neatly the edges of the floor had collapsed, and the fact that the hole formed a near-perfect rectangle. “Yes.”

“Me too.” Wu Xie leaned over. “I think you should come back up, we don’t know what’s down there.” He was opening his pack as he spoke, pulling out the rope.

Liu Sang held up a hand to quiet him, frowning, he could hear an odd sound below them, something rushing like water. Before he could place it, there was an extremely ominous and much closer cascade of hissing and clicking sounds, and a yelp that sounded like Pangzi.

“Pangzi! Fuck! Hold this.” Wu Xie shoved the rope at Liu Sang, and jumped into the hole.

“Shit,” said Liu Sang, to no-one. Was he supposed to follow? He didn’t even have a serious knife on him, let alone any proper weapons. Did they need him to help them out? The noise in the hole was echoing off the stone, distorted and hard to parse, beams of torchlight flashing erratically. They were fighting something—from the sounds, something insect-like, never good. Maybe more than one thing.

He made the rapid decision that he would be in the way if he tried to descend now into the middle of a fight: he could hear the swish of a sword and Pangzi grunting with effort as he thumped something. He couldn’t even shine his torch down in case he blinded someone. And there wasn’t anything helpful to tie the rope to, either.

After what seemed like an agonizingly long time of staring into the darkness listening to fight noises, there was an extremely loud shrieking hiss, like a kettle boiling—Liu Sang clapped his hands over his ears as pain shot through his head—and then relative silence.

Liu Sang leaned over the edge. “Wu Xie, Pangzi! Are you OK?” It was, hopefully, redundant to ask if Zhang Qiling was alright.

“Still here,” shouted Pangzi. “Mostly, fucking hell.”

“Liu Sang, I’m coming up,” Zhang Qiling called.

Liu Sang stood back, and after a few seconds, Zhang Qiling was hoisting himself over the edge. It was only after he’d pulled himself up that Liu Sang wondered if he should have helped him.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Centipede,” said Zhang Qiling, which was both cryptic and horrifying. He also appeared to have some greenish liquid dripping from him. He brushed his hoodie and made a face when his hand came away covered in it; the kind of human expression that was rare, for him.

“The others…?”

Zhang Qiling studied him briefly. “They’re fine. There’s another tunnel down there. Does your map show where it might go?”

Liu Sang blinked at him. “You were fighting a giant monster centipede, is that right?”

“Mmm.” Zhang Qiling smiled at Liu Sang. From the perspective of how attractive it made him look, even covered in slime, this was devastating; from the perspective of giant centipedes, it was disturbing. “We’ve fought them before,” he added, as though this was meant to be reassuring.

“Have you.”

“Might be more than one down there.” Zhang Qiling peered thoughtfully over the edge, where Wu Xie and Pangzi could be heard talking in low voices.

“I thought we were supposed to be doing a very basic survey and map.” Liu Sang tried to make this assertive, but it came out more plaintive.

Zhang Qiling huffed out an actual laugh and grinned at him, his eyes crinkled in amusement.

Liu Sang found himself half-smiling back, helplessly. “Yes, fine, I know.”

“Map?” said Zhang Qiling, after a moment.

“Oh, sorry, yes.” Liu Sang fumbled his notebook out and frowned at it. “Whatever you’ve found down there, I couldn’t hear it before and I can’t tell where it goes from up here. This corridor we’re in, I think it might have been designed as a decoy entrance to trap people, given—ah, given—anyway, the main hall is below us, and there should be corridors leading to exits to the west and south, see.”

He passed the notebook over and Zhang Qiling considered it, intent. Liu Sang, studying his profile, had a brief flash of his earlier conversation with Wu Xie, and then squashed it down ruthlessly.

“Good.” Zhang Qiling passed it back, his fingers just barely brushing Liu Sang’s. “If this way works, it’ll be quicker. You’re coming?”

Liu Sang looked at the hole in the ground, and contemplated a possible nest of giant man-eating centipedes. He would have asked himself how he’d ended up in this fucking situation, again, except that the answer was literally right there in front of him.

“You could wait at the car.”

Liu Sang glanced back along the dark corridor. “I’ll come. How do we get down?”

Zhang Qiling bent and took a piton out of his pack and did something that looked alarmingly like shoving it into the rock with his bare hands. He gestured and Liu Sang passed him the rope, which he fastened and tossed over the edge.

“OK?” he said.

Liu Sang nodded. If he had resigned himself to this, at least he could look like he knew what he was doing. He lowered himself into the hole smoothly, though the effect was ruined when he collided with Pangzi at the bottom and then staggered into Wu Xie, who caught him. There was one instant where Liu Sang’s treacherous body lit up at that closeness, and then he took a hasty step away, shining his torch around.

There was indeed a very large, very dead body of something with a number of legs, apparently in bits and covered in the green gore, shoved into one corner. Liu Sang quickly moved the torch on.

“I take it we’re progressing from here, then,” said Pangzi. He sighed. “I was relying on you to have a better way, Jinx, look at the size of that fucking tunnel.”

Zhang Qiling seemingly hadn’t bothered with the rope, he’d floated down or something, since he was already peering into a very narrow hole. Presumably the one the giant dead centipede had come out of, which was not reassuring.

“The real entrances are somewhere outside, on the mountain,” Liu Sang said, defensively. “In the snow.”

“Who doesn’t love crawling through a tunnel?” said Wu Xie, clapping Pangzi on the back. “Shortcut!” His face was smudged, and his clothes also looked as though they were spattered with slime, but he otherwise seemed extremely cheerful.

“Me, Tianzhen. Because you’ll regret making me go in there when the husband or wife or kids of that thing come crawling through the other end.”

“It’ll be fine. Xiaoge’ll cope. Ready to go, Xiaoge?”

“Yes.” Zhang Qiling straightened, and looked round at them. “Liu Sang second, then you two.”

“Oh, I see, in order of size?” said Wu Xie. “Come on then, let’s get going.” He looked at Liu Sang. “Are you alright with this? If you want to head back—”

“Your uncle paid me to be here.” Liu Sang shrugged, hoping it looked like genuine unconcern. “I’m in.”

Wu Xie smiled at him. “I’m glad.”

Zhang Qiling was already crawling into the hole, which really did not look wide enough to fit people very much larger than him. His pack was scraping on the top. Liu Sang tightened the straps on his own, sighed, and crawled after him.

Some time later, Liu Sang sank to his knees in the snow, relief rushing through him at being out in the open air, and then found himself laughing. Things to add to his tomb-raiding CV: he’d hacked a giant centipede in two. With a very small knife. Small compared to the centipede, that was. He checked his watch, which, like quite a lot of him, was now covered in centipede blood, or gore, or excretion of some kind. It was barely mid-afternoon.

They’d struggled through the tunnel, with considerable effort, and emerged into the central space, which had a large and elaborate tomb in the middle. Wu Xie practically ran to it, and then started waving his hands excitedly and explaining a lot of history very fast in an undertone. Liu Sang had been too distracted by looking round for more giant insects, and Pangzi was too distracted by the gleam of gold through the dusty objects on the steps up to the tomb. Zhang Qiling had been prowling the perimeter, checking for exits.

Then, after a while and possibly infuriated by Wu Xie’s unstoppable enthusiasm, the rest of the centipedes, which were in the tomb, had started slithering out, along with their friends from under the tomb, and that was it for archaeological findings.

“We could go back in,” Wu Xie suggested. “Xiaoge must have killed them all by now.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” said Pangzi, leaning over and breathing heavily.

The best way out, which had been hidden behind a panel exactly where Liu Sang had heard it, had still been long, winding, uphill, and ended in a climb up some very old and shaky ladders, with a stone covering to shove off at the top. With Xiaoge behind them fending off monsters, Liu Sang didn’t think they could have moved it without Pangzi.

“Not even for the gold?”

“Well,” said Pangzi. “Not today.” He straightened, and patted his backpack. “And it’s not that I’m making off with important historical artefacts, but it’s not my fault if a few small things fell into my bag during the fighting.”

Wu Xie rolled his eyes. He held out a hand to Liu Sang: Liu Sang took it, and was effortlessly pulled up. Wu Xie didn’t let go of his hand immediately, so that they were again standing very close together, Liu Sang still grinning at the absurdity of the last hour or so, and Wu Xie meeting his eyes with amusement and warmth, his hand strong and calloused.

Liu Sang dropped his hand quickly and took a step back. “You’re covered in, ah…”

“So I am,” said Wu Xie, breaking the moment, and looking down at himself with dismay. “So are we all.” He glanced round at the snow-covered landscape. “That’s the temple, right?” He pointed at a barely visible cluster of roofs. “Just as well we got out during daylight.”

There was a sound behind them and they all turned to see Zhang Qiling emerging from the entrance.

“Done,” he said. “There’s more down there, though.”

Wu Xie sighed, regretful. “We’d better close this entrance then. We’ll come back with more weapons and backup though, yes?”

“Absolutely,” said Pangzi. “Assuming those things hibernate and I can bring a flamethrower.” He bent to help Zhang Qiling shove the stone cover back in place, and kicked snow over it.

“Our work’s done for now, then,” said Wu Xie. “Find the car, get back to the hotel, shower, nap, and celebrate?”

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” said Pangzi, slinging an arm round him. “Pretty successful, all things told.”

“Successful?” said Liu Sang, genuinely incredulous.

“Comparatively,” said Wu Xie. “You may need to, ah, adjust your parameters, when you’re working with us.”

Zhang Qiling made a quiet sound, which might have been him laughing again. Liu Sang couldn’t think of the right retort, so he busied himself trying to ineffectually wipe himself down. He jolted when Pangzi slung an arm round him, too, and ruffled his hair. He glowered at him.

“Cheer up, Jinx. The day is young. We’re all alive, we defeated the creepy-crawlies, we know where the treasures are, and a well-stocked bar is calling to us. It’s a win all round.”

Liu Sang glared some more, and Pangzi raised an eyebrow back. Liu Sang looked away first.

“We should go,” said Zhang Qiling. “More snow is coming.”

Sure enough, a grey front of clouds could be seen advancing, across the horizon. Wu Xie nodded, and set off with determination, the others falling into line behind him.

It took them over an hour to get back to the car, and snow was falling thickly by the time they made it. Liu Sang, increasingly tired after the various stresses of the day, had been mostly focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling over. But he had also thought, in bursts, about the conversation with Wu Xie that morning, which now seemed eons ago.

Both Wu Xie and Zhang Qiling had seemed slightly different on today’s expedition. Zhang Qiling had talked to him more than usual, for one. He’d smiled at him.

The chat he’d overheard in the tomb had made it sound as though they all knew what Wu Xie had said to him in the café, as though it was accepted that Wu Xie—that Wu Xie wanted him. He looked at Wu Xie, tramping through the snow in front of him, animatedly discussing some video game Liu Sang had never heard of with Pangzi, and he couldn’t prevent himself from thinking about what it might be like to have sex with Wu Xie while not under the influence of drugs; of his, of their, own free will.

Probably it would be a letdown. And almost certainly, what Wu Xie and Pangzi had implied about Zhang Qiling’s interest couldn’t be true. Any apparent warmth today was simply—sympathy, or pity, or maybe he really fucking enjoyed killing those things. And there was no way on earth that Liu Sang would consider starting anything with Zhang Qiling’s boyfriend, whatever Wu Xie might say; he wasn’t insane.

When he looked up from these thoughts, the temple was looming above him and they were at the hired car. Pangzi fumbled the door open, swearing under his breath, and clambered in to get the ignition started. Liu Sang took off his pack with relief, and immediately started to shiver harder. Wu Xie was looking at him with concern.

“Are you OK, Liu Sang? You look frozen. Hang on.”

He tugged open the car trunk, rummaged around and tossed something to Zhang Qiling, who caught it in a reflex action. Before Liu Sang could process what was happening, Zhang Qiling was in front of him, face intent, wrapping a thick fleece blanket round his shoulders.

“I don’t need…” he started to say, and then shut up when Zhang Qiling frowned.

“Better,” said Wu Xie, with a trace of amusement in his voice. “Into the car with you, come on, Pangzi’s getting the heating on.”

Liu Sang climbed awkwardly into the car, clutching the blanket and feeling partly foolish, and partly something else entirely. He didn’t think Zhang Qiling had ever touched him quite like that, before.

Wu Xie slid into the backseat, stripping off his gloves and blowing on his hands.

“Come on, come on,” he said.

“This fucking piece of shit,” said Pangzi. He stabbed at some buttons, and the radio came on very loudly, along with a rush of warm air.

“Good,” said Wu Xie. “I’m so cold I was about to ask Liu Sang if we could huddle together under his blanket.”

Liu Sang looked at him sharply: Wu Xie wasn’t looking at him, but he could see the tilt to his mouth.

Pangzi muttered something, which Liu Sang didn’t try to distinguish from the radio, and revved the engine aggressively.

Back at the hotel, dusk already setting in and snow falling in the streets, Liu Sang’s anxiety about things in general, and specifically about having to share a bathroom with Pangzi, spiked. But with unexpected tact, Pangzi announced that he’d left his suitcase in the others’ room and that they had the better bathroom, and Liu Sang was left in peace.

Someone had taken away the set of clothes he’d thrown out, which he wasn’t sure whether to regret or not. He was too filthy, and still too cold, to think about it: he was going to have to throw out these clothes too, probably. He shed them and got in a very hot shower, and stayed there for a long time. He’d got bruised and scraped today, fighting and squeezing through that tunnel, and so it wasn’t easy to say which might be yesterday’s bruises. He thought about Zhang Qiling standing close to him, about stumbling into Wu Xie, and his body flared again, with interest.

If he wanted to, if he deliberately set out to, he might be able to remember more about what had happened yesterday, about what it had felt like when Wu Xie touched him. His heart started beating faster, at the thought. But as he was debating this, he heard the door to the room open and Pangzi coming in, whistling.

He hastily finished washing. His clothes were in the room. He wrapped a towel round as much of himself as possible and left the bathroom.

Pangzi was dressed, thankfully, and sitting on his bed drying his hair with a towel.

“Left them to it,” he said, jerking his head towards the door.

Liu Sang blinked, and didn’t ask. “I need to, ah—” he said, gesturing at his clothes.

Pangzi stood up and stretched, groaning. “I was heading to the bar anyway. I’ll order food for us, yes?”

Liu Sang nodded, and waited until he’d left the room before locking the door. He took his time dressing: just as well they were done with the exploration, because he only had a relatively smart shirt and jeans left, as he’d been planning to wear them on the trip back.

Slow as he’d been, though, he wasn’t last to the table. Pangzi was already eating when he got there, from a large selection of dishes on the table, and he pushed a bowl over to Liu Sang without any ceremony and carried on.

Liu Sang was starving, he realized. He mustn’t have eaten a full meal since—some time yesterday. After he’d inhaled his first bowl of food and slowed down, he thought to wonder where the others were, in time to see them both weaving through the other tables.

Wu Xie’s hair was damp and curling slightly. In jeans and a soft-looking sweater, in the rosy glow of the café’s lighting, he looked good. Extremely good, most people with eyes would say. Liu Sang clearly wasn’t the only person who thought so: there was a table of women sitting two tables away from them, all of whom were watching him and whispering to each other. Other people’s eyes were on Zhang Qiling too, though his face was hidden in one of his hoodies.

Wu Xie sat down and smiled blindingly at Liu Sang. “Fuck, I’m hungry,” he said. “I see you didn’t wait for us.”

“I wonder what gave you such an appetite.” Pangzi gave Wu Xie a meaningful look, and Wu Xie raised an eyebrow at him.

“We had an, ah, active day,” he said.

Pangzi snorted. Liu Sang risked a glance at Zhang Qiling, who had pushed his hood back as he sat down, and was methodically filling his bowl. He looked expressionless, but Liu Sang thought he knew him well enough to tell when he was enjoying the conversation. Was Pangzi implying that he and Wu Xie had been….? Liu Sang felt himself flushing, and focused back on his food.

He wasn’t sure what he’d expected from sharing a meal with the three of them. It was easier than expected. Liu Sang was persuaded into telling them about a job he’d taken in Europe a few months back, with an obsessive group of retired hedge-fund managers, fancying themselves archaeologists, who’d been convinced they could find a bunker full of looted Nazi treasures. Against the odds, he’d found them several bunkers, but sadly all without any sign of the treasures they’d been picturing. They hadn’t taken it well. Wu Xie, who had studied in Europe, it turned out, had contributed some additional stories about the expeditions he’d helped with as a student. Pangzi had reminded him of more stories to add, and even Zhang Qiling had added comments now and then.

Wu Xie was a good conversationalist and a good listener. Liu Sang envied the intimacy he had with the others, the way they knew his stories by heart, the ease with which they interacted. He’d never seen the famous Iron Triangle in quite this way. He’d never seen Wu Xie in quite this way either, in a way that meant noticing how his hands moved as he spoke, the crinkles round his eyes as he laughed, the length of his legs stretched out under the table.

After the plates were cleared and the bar was left to drinkers, Pangzi vanished for a short while and came back with his arms full of bottles of beer; Wu Xie jumping up to help him set them down safely.

“What’s all this for?” said Wu Xie to Pangzi.

Pangzi passed one to each of them. Liu Sang wouldn’t generally drink much more than he already had, but he took a beer anyway.

“Well,” said Pangzi. “I heard you promised to fill Liu Sang in on certain exploits of ours, and I need to be way more drunk if we’re moving on to those stories.”

“Oh, those stories. I already told him the most embarrassing one about me.”

“Wu Xie,” said Zhang Qiling, with an undertone of something Liu Sang couldn’t identify.

“It’s fine, Xiaoge. I represented us both in, ah, a positive light. More or less.” Wu Xie smiled at Zhang Qiling, and Liu Sang looked away, because it seemed like a very private expression.

“One down, then,” said Pangzi. “Of the ones starring you two, that is. Settle in, Liu Sang. This could take a while.”

“Then there was the time with the sex molluscs.”

“The what?” Liu Sang looked around the table suspiciously, but the others didn’t look as though Wu Xie was saying anything at all surprising. After the content of some of the stories they’d already told, probably he shouldn’t have been surprised himself.

“I was starving,” said Pangzi. “What was I supposed to eat, grave dirt? It was seafood or a slow death from hunger.”

“Mmm,” said Wu Xie. “Slight exaggeration, since we’d only been stuck there a day or so. Actually they were pretty tasty, though, I admit I ate a few myself, which is how we both ended up—”

“Wait, wait. Were these like, those things in the South Sea King’s tomb? You ate them?”

“No, shit, not like that! Well, not exactly. I mean, they were clearly designed to cause trouble, but they weren’t trying to eat us. We thought they were just regular clam-type things. You know, perfectly edible. I know oysters are meant to be an aphrodisiac, but we never thought that….”

“I really don’t need to hear any more,” Liu Sang said, not for the first time in the conversation.

“I wasn’t going to go into detail,” said Wu Xie, defensively. “I’m using it as an instance of a situation where we weren’t going to die if we didn’t fuck. We were just high in a way where we really felt enthusiastic about…”

“Like the man said, he doesn’t want to hear,” said Pangzi. “And we can all happily carry on without reliving those particular memories, mmm?”

“They did nearly die,” said Zhang Qiling, to Liu Sang. “Of hypothermia. They were both naked and passed out when I found them.”

“Too much information!” said Pangzi.

“As I recall, you woke us up, and then stood there and smirked without even helping us to find our clothes.” Wu Xie elbowed Zhang Qiling. “You laughed at us for weeks.”

“Months,” said Pangzi. “Years. You’re laughing now, make it decades.”

Zhang Qiling wasn’t laughing, exactly, but he was definitely smiling.

“Hmm,” said Wu Xie. He was smiling too, his dangerous smile. “Why don’t we tell Liu Sang next about the time when I was the one who found you two—”

Pangzi grabbed for him. “We don’t talk about that, ever! Unbreakable rule! Xiaoge, help!”

“Would you believe that two grown men who needed to either get off or die, would rather die fighting about who got to be on top than get on with it?”

Liu Sang stared at him. He didn’t appear to be joking. “What, ah, happened?”

“I showed up.” Wu Xie spread his hands. “It was like I was the last plate of dumplings at New Year. I was jumped so fast that I never even had the chance to catch my breath.”

“You couldn’t catch your breath because you were laughing so much,” said Pangzi.

“Until you stopped,” said Zhang Qiling.

“Ah—mmm,” said Wu Xie. He took a gulp of beer. The corner of his mouth was twitching.

Liu Sang looked at them, at the way that Zhang Qiling was increasingly angled towards Wu Xie, at Pangzi’s elbow brushing Wu Xie’s arm. “So…all of you three…?”

“Fuck, no,” said Pangzi. “These two, yes. Me and Tianzhen, no. Me and Xiaoge, emphatically no, no offence, Xiaoge, there’s got to be one person in the world who doesn’t swoon at your abs. I prefer women. It’s not my fault I’ve ended up in all these, ah, male-dominated situations.”

“It’s not like there were never any women there.” Wu Xie turned his beer bottle in his hands. “With A-Ning….” He trailed off. Pangzi patted him on the back, and Wu Xie gave him a grateful smile.

“I know,” Pangzi said. He heaved a sigh. “To be fair, it’s lucky you didn’t invite Xiao Bai on this one, it is a consideration.”

“Yes,” Wu Xie agreed. “Though if I’d sent her a personal message inviting her along with us for the weekend, it might also have—raised expectations.” He looked up and caught Liu Sang’s eye. Liu Sang had been blushing for quite a lot of the stories they’d been telling, but he felt his cheeks heating further.

“She’s also busy this weekend,” Wu Xie added. “Something to do with Warehouse 11. Hard for her to get the time off for expeditions with us, now that she’s virtually running the place.” He sounded proud.

Pangzi tipped back his beer bottle. “Another round?”

Wu Xie stretched his hands above his head, yawning. His sweater rode up, exposing a narrow line of skin. Liu Sang tracked it, noting how the sweater pulled tight across Wu Xie’s chest, and then looked up to find Wu Xie raising his eyebrows at him. He swallowed, heat flaring in his stomach.

Wu Xie’s hands came down, one of them resting on Zhang Qiling’s shoulder.

“It’s been a long day,” he said, his eyes still on Liu Sang. “I think I’ll head to bed early. Xiaoge?”

To Liu Sang’s surprise, Zhang Qiling lifted Wu Xie’s hand from his shoulder, and pressed his mouth to its knuckles. It looked almost like an old-fashioned courtly gesture, but Liu Sang heard the effects in Wu Xie’s intake of breath, his pulse picking up.

“Hey! Not in front of the children, you two,” said Pangzi.

“Liu Sang’s not a child,” said Wu Xie. “Is he, Xiaoge?”

Zhang Qiling relinquished his hand. “No.”

“What do you think?” Wu Xie said to him.

Zhang Qiling made a noise of assent.

Pangzi was looking between them, frowning. “Tianzhen. Right now?”

“Liu Sang,” said Wu Xie, ignoring him. “Would you like to join us?”

Liu Sang stared at him. It took a moment for the words to sink in, and then his heart started thumping in his chest. He looked to Zhang Qiling, who met his eyes and nodded at him, his dark eyes steady.

He’d admired everything about Zhang Qiling for so long. He’d fantasized about him for years. And a lot of what Wu Xie had done today, and this evening, seemed like his version of flirtation. Liu Sang couldn’t say that he hadn’t responded to it. It would be insane to say no to this chance, yet there were also hundreds of scenarios in which it could end in more embarrassment, and awkwardness, and misunderstandings. He could end up metaphorically, as well as probably literally, naked and vulnerable, in ways that he never, ever allowed himself to be. This wasn’t the kind of risk he would ever take.

All three of them were looking at him. He fought for self-control.

“I, ah. I was going to finalize my expedition report tonight and email it, since I’m going on to another job.”

He trailed off. Wu Xie waited for a moment, and then shrugged and stood up. Zhang Qiling stood up too, in a smooth movement.

“Well, if you change your mind, Liu Sang, you know where we are. I imagine we’ll be awake for…a while.”

Wu Xie looked at Zhang Qiling, and something passed between them, as evident as if they’d kissed. Wu Xie smiled at him, his private smile again, and Zhang Qiling caught his hand and pulled him towards the door to the stairs. Wu Xie looked back over his shoulder, at Pangzi, not at Liu Sang. Liu Sang couldn’t read what he was conveying.

“We need something stronger,” Pangzi announced as soon as they were out of sight, standing up. He set a heavy hand on Liu Sang’s shoulder. “Don’t run away.”

Despite this, Liu Sang would have fled for his room, probably to pace the floor and wonder what the fuck had just happened, and whether he’d just made the worst or the best decision of his life. Except that he was sharing a room with Pangzi, so this seemed unlikely to help with avoiding him.

Pangzi set down a couple of shot glasses in front of them, filled with an amber-coloured liquid.

“I don’t want—” Liu Sang started.

Pangzi frowned at him. He shut up and downed the shot, whiskey burning the back of his throat. He coughed, eyes watering, and took a drink of beer to wash it down. The whiskey was warm, in his stomach, sending a slight rush to his head.

Pangzi snorted, knocked back his own shot effortlessly, and then narrowed his eyes at Liu Sang.

“What’s going on with you, Jinx?”


“Your reason. Your excuse. Your—” he waved his bottle at Liu Sang “—problem. Because we’ve all seen the way you look at Xiaoge.” He set down the beer and jabbed a finger towards Liu Sang. “So if you’re implying that the issue is Tianzhen —”

“What issue? I—”

“Because,” said Pangzi, ignoring him, “there you sit, cool as a cucumber, turning down a night with two-thirds of the fucking Iron Triangle, when you should be grateful for all eternity that Tianzhen and Xiaoge would even look twice at you—”

“I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“Oh, don’t you? Let me put it this way, Jinx, I hope you have a reason, because you were looking pretty interested to me, and I have a problem with people who fuck around with Tianzhen and Xiaoge. You may be one of us now and all that, but that doesn’t give you a fucking free pass.”

“I’m not—I don’t even know what’s going on here.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Pangzi scowled at him. “You’re not some blushing virgin, Jinx. Wait, are you?”

“No, of course not!”

“And don’t try to tell me you’re straight.”

“No, I’m—this is none of your business.”

“Of course it’s my business. These are my partners. If they want to invite someone else into their bed, you think they’d do that without asking me?”

“But why,” Liu Sang burst out, frustrated.

Pangzi sat back, the scowl turning into a frown. “Wait, you mean it, that you don’t get it?”

“Pangzi.” Liu Sang took a deep breath. “I literally just said I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t fucking get it, OK? Why me, all of a sudden?”

“Ah. Liu Sang, Liu Sang.” Pangzi clucked at him, and Liu Sang huffed in frustration. “OK, listen up, I’ll lay it out for you in small words. First, you’re very fucking pretty. Not as pretty as Xiaoge, admittedly, but I think we can agree that’s a high bar. Second, you’re smart, brave and stupid with it, and you throw yourself into fights even if you haven’t a hope of beating the other guy. Third, you’re gifted, mysterious, never fucking relax properly and tend to disappear off to do your own thing. If Tianzhen and Xiaoge have a type, which I’m going to say they do, then you, my friend, are it.”

He took a long drink of beer. “Also, this—” he waved a hand between them, “is bringing back memories for me, since you ask. Of all the many past nights I’ve spent with Tianzhen weeping on my shoulder, ‘oh, why me, Pangzi, why would Xiaoge ever be interested, I don’t believe it, does he really like me.’ So from my vast experience, as well as Tianzhen mooning over you for months, I can tell you that they think you’re hot, they like you, and they want to fuck you. Though I’m not sure what more you needed to make that clear, a fucking engraved invitation?”

Liu Sang ran a hand through his hair. “And if I go and finish my report…”

“Then it’s your loss. They won’t hold any grudges, and they won’t ask you again. But it won’t affect any of their other dealings with you.” Pangzi’s gaze was sharp. “And I won’t hold a grudge either, I suppose. I’ll put your idiocy down to, I don’t know, youth, panic, and the lingering trauma of yesterday. We’ll all go home, and it will be like none of this ever happened.”

Liu Sang believed him, despite his bluster a moment earlier. He bit his lip. “And if I don’t go and finish my report?”

Pangzi nodded. “Then you go and join them, and you see how it goes. If you think any of us plan these things past the next few days, you haven’t been in this business long enough. I’ll tell you this, though, Liu Sang, when I said you were one of us, I meant that I wouldn’t let them fuck around with you, either. None of us are nice people, so don’t expect flowers and candy. But we treat each other with respect.”

“Why are you trying to talk me into this? You don’t even like me, most of the time.”

Pangzi snorted. “Because you’re an idiot, and so are they, and apparently it’s Pangzi’s job to get everyone laid and keep them happy. And I don’t mind you. Frankly, Tianzhen’s made worse decisions.”

“Was that supposed to be reassuring?”

“Not especially.” Pangzi gestured towards Liu Sang’s beer. “Another?”

“No. I’m going to, ah—I’m going to go.”

“Mmm. See you in our room. Or not.”

Liu Sang did go to their room, where he stood in the bathroom for several long moments and looked at himself in the harsh light of the mirror. He resisted the idea of trying to make himself more attractive, since he had, in any case, no idea what Wu Xie and Zhang Qiling would find attractive. He brushed his teeth, though. And, after hesitating over it, he put a condom in his back pocket. Then he added another one, dithered for a second, and took it out again. Just thinking about this was making him prickle with heat and embarrassment all over, how was he supposed to actually do it?

He shut the door of the room with a click behind him, and walked, silently on bare feet, down the corridor to the room he knew belonged to the others. His heart was beating so fast he felt as though normal people should be able to hear it.

He stood outside the door, automatically starting to listen, and then stopped himself; he wasn’t here to eavesdrop. He had to either go in, or decide against it. He stared at the wood of the door, willing himself to have the nerve to knock, then jerked round at the sound of a familiar set of footsteps down the corridor, accompanied by some tuneless humming.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Pangzi rolled his eyes as he caught up with him. He leaned over, banged on the door and then opened it. “Delivery service. And don’t fucking break him, I’m not picking up the pieces.”

He shoved Liu Sang forward, so that he stumbled into the room, off-balance. The door slammed behind him decisively.

Wu Xie was naked. He was leaning back on one of the beds, braced, with Zhang Qiling, still nearly fully dressed, kneeling between his legs. As the door opened Wu Xie had clearly shifted back and thrown a sheet over his lap, but it was pretty self-evident what they’d been doing. Liu Sang stopped breathing, his gaze darting from Wu Xie’s chest, to the sheet covering his hips, to Zhang Qiling’s mouth.

“Liu Sang,” said Wu Xie, looking surprised, confused, and then something else, that might have been pleased. “Ah, Pangzi didn’t literally throw you in here without you agreeing, did he?”

Liu Sang made himself gulp in air. He was hot all over, and not just because of the warmth of the room. He crossed his arms in front of himself, defensively. “No.”

“Good. Very good.” Wu Xie leaned forward and wrapped a hand in Zhang Qiling’s hair, and Zhang Qiling rose up on his knees and kissed him, fiercely. Liu Sang heard himself gasp.

In the years he’d followed Zhang Qiling’s career and idolized him, he’d never imagined anything like this, that he would be allowed to see him kissing someone, open-mouthed and wanting. They broke off, in synchrony, and both turned to look at Liu Sang, who had to stop himself from backing up against the door. His mouth was dry, and his heart was still racing. He wanted to run away, and he wanted to go over to the bed and—and let them do whatever they wanted to him.

“Lock the door, Xiaoge?” said Wu Xie, and Zhang Qiling nodded and stood up, moving behind Liu Sang. This was distracting, but not as distracting as Wu Xie standing up himself, letting the sheet slide away, and coming to stand within touching distance of Liu Sang.

He was clearly letting Liu Sang have the advantage, letting himself be looked at, and so Liu Sang did look. Wu Xie’s body was a little softer and less muscled than Liu Sang’s own, but Liu Sang knew that he was deceptively strong. His gaze snagged on Wu Xie’s cock, mostly hard, and he allowed himself to imagine what it might feel like in his hand, his mouth, inside him. Heat prickled through him.

He looked back up and met Wu Xie’s eyes, letting those thoughts show, and saw Wu Xie’s eyes half-close, his mouth open a little. Zhang Qiling came to stand behind Wu Xie. Wu Xie leaned back against him, with assurance, and Zhang Qiling ran a hand over his chest, down to his hip, possessively, bending over to kiss his neck. Wu Xie shivered.

“Liu Sang,” he said. “Tell us what you want.”

Everything, Liu Sang thought, or anything they were prepared to give him. He was already feeling as turned on as he ever remembered being in a sexual encounter, and no-one had even touched him yet. But he still felt edgy and at a disadvantage—he wanted to know—

“Yesterday,” he said, before he could second-guess himself. “What did—tell me what happened.”

Wu Xie blinked, momentarily thrown, and then his expression shifted, becoming more predatory. “Ah,” he said. “Would you like me to tell you, or to show you?”

Liu Sang lifted his chin. “You can show me.”

“Good.” Wu Xie turned his head and kissed Zhang Qiling, brief and hard, and then detached himself and came very close to Liu Sang, looking up at him, his eyes dark.

“You were very hot,” he said. “Pun intended. I helped you to take your clothes off.” He started unbuttoning Liu Sang’s shirt, grazing his skin. Liu Sang swayed towards him. He glanced over Wu Xie’s shoulder, where Zhang Qiling was now sitting on the bed, watching them intently.

Wu Xie finished with the buttons, and smoothed his hands over Liu Sang’s chest. “Pay attention.” He flicked a thumb over one of Liu Sang’s nipples, and Liu Sang gasped. Wu Xie pushed the shirt off his shoulders, and he struggled out of it.

“Mmm,” said Wu Xie. “Fuck, you are hot. You kissed me.”

He met Liu Sang’s eyes with a challenge, and Liu Sang let himself close the distance and meet his mouth. For a moment it was awkward, and then Wu Xie curled a hand round his neck and tilted his mouth. And then apparently Liu Sang’s body remembered something it had learned without his mind’s involvement, because they were kissing smoothly, mouths opening against each other, and as though Wu Xie could knew everything that would make Liu Sang shake, deep and hot and perfect.

Liu Sang pressed himself helplessly against Wu Xie, his cock hardening, and clutched a hand in his hair, feeling a new pang of lust at the thought that Wu Xie was completely naked, and now obviously hard, against him.

Wu Xie broke off, breathing heavily. “Oh,” he said. “You, ah—you were—you bit me—”

Liu Sang could still see the marks he’d noticed this morning. He kissed the side of Wu Xie’s neck, and then bit at it, amazed to hear Wu Xie make a soft sound and feel him shudder beneath his mouth, as though he were anything like as turned on as Liu Sang was.

“And I—” said Wu Xie, “ah, time was of the essence, so I was trying to—” his hand slid to the front of Liu Sang’s jeans, cupping him, and Liu Sang heard himself make a noise into Wu Xie’s skin.

“To get my hands on you,” Wu Xie finished. He urged Liu Sang up and kissed him again, with teeth, sliding his hands between them and undoing Liu Sang’s jeans with efficiency, pushing a hand inside.

Liu Sang’s legs felt weak with desire, as Wu Xie caressed him, pleasure building fast within him. He was acutely aware, on top of Wu Xie’s hands and mouth taking him apart, that Zhang Qiling was very close by, watching them. Watching him. He felt another surge of lust and also panic: god, he was practically on the verge of coming and Wu Xie had barely touched him properly yet, what would he, what would they, think…

Wu Xie stopped groping him, which was a relief and also a disaster, and pulled away, running his hands down Liu Sang’s arms, and up to loop round his neck.

“There were good reasons to do this as fast as possible, then,” he said. “Is that what you want now?” He glanced over at Zhang Qiling, and then gave Liu Sang a meaningful look.

Liu Sang tried to focus. “I want—” he said. “I want to know if you were turned on, yesterday.” He moved so that he could press his leg in between Wu Xie’s, and Wu Xie’s eyelids fluttered.

“Almost as much as I am now,” said Wu Xie, low. He looked over at Zhang Qiling again. “I couldn’t help it. And we had to carry you out of the fucking tomb, get you back, make sure you’d be OK, before I could do anything about it.”

He leaned in, bit Liu Sang’s ear, and spoke into it, quietly. “Xiaoge and I had to fuck in the restaurant bathroom. We nearly got caught.” He kissed the sensitive place beneath Liu Sang’s ear, as though he knew it was there, and Liu Sang shuddered, clutching at his back.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Wu Xie, pulling back slightly, and speaking slightly louder, “today and yesterday, about how much I wanted to get my mouth on you. About what it would be like to fuck you, when you knew it was me. And about what it would be like to watch you with Xiaoge.” His eyes were very dark, his mouth red. “About whether we could get you into that state ourselves. No drugs required.”

Liu Sang’s hips pressed forward, involuntarily, and Wu Xie half-smiled.

“Let us take care of you, Liu Sang? You can tell us to stop, if we’re doing anything you don’t like.” He trailed one hand down the side of Liu Sang’s face and over his lips, almost tender, and at odds with his far from innocent expression.

“Why don’t you take off the rest of your clothes?” he suggested, “and get on the bed.”

Normally, if there was a normal in Liu Sang’s infrequent sexual encounters, he would have acutely resisted any attempt to order him around or tell him what to do. Now, what he was mostly feeling was—something like relief. He could let whatever was going to happen, happen, without having to be in charge of it. He was still off-balance, but Wu Xie’s obvious interest was also reassuring.

He nodded. Wu Xie gave him one of his full-wattage smiles, blinding, and then released him. Liu Sang started struggling out of his jeans and underwear. Distractingly, Wu Xie was pulling up Zhang Qiling from the bed and into another fierce kiss. He tugged Zhang Qiling’s shirt free and over his head, and then sank to his knees and started undoing his belt, looking up at him.

Liu Sang sat on the edge of the bed, curling his knees up, and watched them. He was pretty sure some of this was for his benefit, but he still couldn’t quite believe he was allowed to see it. Zhang Qiling’s tattoo was already standing out, he was breathing fast, and when Wu Xie pulled down his trousers, and underwear, and helped him out of them, he was very hard. Wu Xie kissed the tip of his cock, almost reverently, and Liu Sang looked away, feeling like he was intruding.

“Liu Sang,” said Zhang Qiling. His voice was deeper than usual, and with a catch in it, as Wu Xie mouthed at him. Liu Sang’s eyes snapped to his. “You can look.”

He closed his eyes, dropping a hand to Wu Xie’s head and thrusting his hips forward, almost brutally. He was almost frighteningly beautiful like that, his mouth open, his face tense with pleasure, all the lines of his body sharp.

Liu Sang swallowed again, biting his lip. Wu Xie’s eyes were closed too. There was a thin shine of sweat on his skin, and Liu Sang could see that he had one hand between his legs, stroking himself.

“Wait,” Zhang Qiling said, and Wu Xie pulled off, panting for breath.

“Sorry,” he said. “I was forgetting.”

“No, you weren’t,” Zhang Qiling said, with exasperation and affection in his tone.

“No, I wasn’t,” Wu Xie agreed. He stood up, and they turned their combined gaze on Liu Sang.

“Lie down,” said Zhang Qiling, to him. It was unmistakably a command.

Liu Sang took a shaky breath, and lay down. He felt awkward, unsure where he should put his hands, or whether he should be trying to pose. His cock didn’t seem to care, though. Having two men assess him while he lay there, naked and turned on, was seemingly a kink he hadn’t known he had.

Or maybe it was only these two particular men. Wu Xie sat on the bed beside him, and ran a hand over his side, lightly. His heartbeat was fast, and Liu Sang could hear that he was trying to control his breathing. Outwardly, however, he looked relatively calm.

“You’re very beautiful like this.” He let his hand move lower, in between Liu Sang’s legs, and up to brush against his inner thighs, like a trail of fire across Liu Sang’s skin. He couldn’t stop himself from spreading his legs wider, shifting to try to get Wu Xie to touch him properly.

“So tense,” said Wu Xie, as though he wasn’t the one tightening the tension in Liu Sang’s body, with every teasing touch. “Relax, Liu Sang. We’ve got this.” He smiled that smile again at Liu Sang, the one with danger and promise in it. And then he shifted onto the bed, leaned over, and took Liu Sang’s cock in his mouth.

Liu Sang heard himself groan, as his body arched up, all his nerves firing with pleasure. Wu Xie wasn’t going slow or teasing now, he was taking Liu Sang deep, doing things with his tongue that made him grip his fists in the sheets and shudder, helpless to stop the sounds he was making.

His eyes had closed, but they flew open when he felt a hand tilting the side of his face, in time to see Zhang Qiling leaning in to kiss him. It was different to kissing Wu Xie: more impatient, more determined, less promise and anticipation, and more confirmation that Zhang Qiling was also aiming to drive Liu Sang out of his mind. He held on to whatever part of Zhang Qiling he could reach, and tried to focus enough to kiss him back.

Liu Sang didn’t know how long this went on, except that he was about to come, the glorious rush of it approaching, when Wu Xie pulled off. He made a choked noise into Zhang Qiling’s mouth, a plea. He was so hard, and so close to coming, that it hurt.

Zhang Qiling let him go, sitting half-up and reaching off to the side.

“What — ” said Liu Sang, barely able to form the word, before it registered what Zhang Qiling might be getting.

“Liu Sang,” said Wu Xie, his voice hoarse. “Fuck, I don’t think I can wait much longer, you’re so—try not to come yet, OK?”

Zhang Qiling bent over Liu Sang and kissed him again. “I want to fuck you,” he said.

“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” Wu Xie asked.

Liu Sang couldn’t believe they were expecting him to answer questions coherently. “Yes,” he managed. “Yes, please.” He remembered something. “My jeans, uh—there’s a—”

“Ah,” said Wu Xie. “Do you prefer? We’re, ah, clean. Xiaoge can’t catch or spread anything.”

“Your choice,” said Zhang Qiling. He bent down and bit Liu Sang’s chest, not very gently, then licked over the bite. “Wu Xie?”

“I’ll get it.”

“No, don’t.” Liu Sang grasped at him, to stop him from moving. “It’s OK, it’s good. Just—come on, do it.”

“Impatient,” Wu Xie said. “OK, how—mmm.” He exchanged a look with Xiaoge, and nodded, though Liu Sang had no idea what he was agreeing to.

“Turn over,” said Wu Xie.

Liu Sang scrambled to do so, though it was difficult to get his limbs to work properly. He let them arrange him, since they seemed to have a plan; and a feverish few moments later, he was trying to fit as much of Wu Xie’s cock into his mouth as he could, with Wu Xie swearing above him and holding him steady; while Zhang Qiling slid one and then two fingers inside him, cool and wet.

It had been a while since Liu Sang had done this. He enjoyed it, but he was wary of letting someone else have control, of giving himself away. Or, he’d thought he enjoyed it. What Zhang Qiling was doing to him was redefining enjoyment: he didn’t have a measure for what his body was doing.

There was no chance he had any of Wu Xie’s skills, even if he’d been able to concentrate on trying to be skilful. When Zhang Qiling pushed inside him, large and steady and inexorable, he stopped moving, pain changing to swelling pleasure, his untouched cock twitching with it. Wu Xie fisted a hand in his hair and moved him, and that was much better: he could set the pace, and all Liu Sang had to do was follow it. As Zhang Qiling moved faster, every stroke forcing muffled sounds out of Liu Sang’s mouth, Wu Xie mirrored him, and Liu Sang let it happen.

He felt at once oddly detached from what they were doing—this was him, in a hotel room, being fucked by Wu Xie and Zhang Qiling, together—and far more present than he usually was during sex. His body was responding in ways that were outside his control, everything being reduced to this: to the broken noises that Wu Xie was making above him; to the rush of Zhang Qiling fucking him.

Wu Xie’s hand tightened in his hair, and his sounds grew louder. Liu Sang let himself move as directed, until Wu Xie jerked almost brutally into his mouth and stayed there, pulsing. Liu Sang swallowed and swallowed around him, and tried to breathe. Zhang Qiling had paused, hard within him, he tried to shift back, to get him to start moving again. If he couldn’t come soon, he was going to beg, or cry, or do something that would embarrass him forever.

Wu Xie stroked his hair, as Liu Sang panted into his thigh. “Thank you,” he said. “Xiaoge?”

Zhang Qiling made a sound, and then he was pulling Liu Sang’s hips up and holding him still, fucking into him with a far more ruthless pace, and moving one hand to wrap around Liu Sang’s cock.

Liu Sang cried out, drowning in it, and felt himself convulsing, squeezing his eyes shut and coming so hard it was almost agonizing, sparks floating across his vision. He was still shaking with aftershocks as Zhang Qiling thrust into him a few more times, erratic, and then mad a sharp noise and stilled, as he came himself.

Liu Sang let Zhang Qiling manhandle him down onto the bed on his side, hissing as Zhang Qiling pulled out. Wu Xie was there, kissing him again, softly, resting against him.

“Fuck, I wish I was young enough to do this all over again,” said Wu Xie, after a while. Liu Sang, who had been drifting, blinked his eyes open, and saw him in close-up, his eyes warm. He reached an arm over Liu Sang’s side, and patted whatever bit of Zhang Qiling was there. “I bet you two could manage it, but you’ve wrecked me.”

This seemed untrue, since unlike Liu Sang, he was still capable of talking.

Liu Sang turned over on his back, and then Zhang Qiling was very close, since the bed was really not that large. Zhang Qiling smiled at him, a small but real, pleased, smile.

Liu Sang lay between them, for a few quiet moments, and wondered how things had got to this point. His ass was sore. He was covered in sweat, and come. His nerves were still singing with remembered pleasure. He wanted to do it all again too, ideally more than once. And maybe he’d even be less anxious, if this happened more than once. But he definitely wasn’t, in any way, in charge.

“Should I, ah, go?” he said, very much hoping the answer was no. Pangzi was in their room, for one thing.

“Should you what?” Wu Xie sounded outraged. “What kind of people do you think we are? You think we’re going to fuck you and throw you out in the corridor naked and clutching your clothes, or something?”

“Stay,” Zhang Qiling said.

“Yes,” said Wu Xie. “You can shower, if you like.” He yawned, and draped himself half over Liu Sang. “I’ll get up in a minute.”

Liu Sang put a tentative hand on his back. He turned to check that this was OK with Zhang Qiling, and caught him smiling again, at Wu Xie.

It was stupid to ask, but Liu Sang couldn’t help himself. “And in the morning?”

“Oh, fuck.” Wu Xie groaned. “We’ve got that flight, maybe we can change it.” He heaved himself up to look Liu Sang in the eye, his hair everywhere. “I still want to fuck you. And I want to see your face when I ride you, too.”

Even in the state he was in, Liu Sang’s body tried to respond to that with renewed lust, and his lips parted.

“I, ah. I have to—” He had another job he was going straight on to, barely stopping to change his equipment and repack his bags, he realized with dismay. And it involved listening in on a whole set of dubious business deals in Singapore, it was scheduled to take at least a week.

Wu Xie sighed, noisily, and brushed Liu Sang’s hair off his forehead.

“Cancel and come back to Wushanju. Xiaoge may not be around for long.”

Liu Sang felt his eyebrows raise in surprise. They wanted to do this again, past tomorrow?

Wu Xie must have misinterpreted the surprise. “Fine, OK, if you have to do this job then you have to do it.” He yawned again. “We could check our diaries perhaps, see when you’re next back in town.” Something crossed his face. “That is, uh, Xiaoge might be away by then, you might prefer not—”

“Oh.” Liu Sang looked to Zhang Qiling for directions, but he was being expressionless. He wouldn’t want Wu Xie to think—fuck, even if the man he’d idolized hadn’t been there, Wu Xie had still given him the most expert blowjob of his life to date, no competition, and if he was really offering….

“I don’t mind,” he said. Absurdly, after what they’d just done, he was blushing again. “If, ah, you don’t, ouxiang.” He looked back at Zhang Qiling.

“I’d worry more about Pangzi than Xiaoge,” Wu Xie said.

“Wu Xie does what he wants,” Zhang Qiling said, dry, reaching over to stroke Wu Xie’s hair out of his face with clear affection. He met Liu Sang’s eyes. “He always has.”

That certainly sounded like permission.

“That’s settled, then.” Wu Xie stretched. “You know, it’s not that late, we could sleep on the flight.”

Liu Sang blinked at him. He’d been awake since dawn or before, and it was unclear if his state of drugged unconsciousness last night counted as sleep. Then he’d crawled through tombs, fought monsters, hiked through the snow, and been fucked by two-thirds of the fucking Iron Triangle. Not to mention all the extremely disturbing conversations. It had been one of the longest, most trying, and definitely the most unexpected, days of his life.

Wu Xie’s eyes had narrowed with mischief. “We won’t all fit in the shower, but how about you and Xiaoge take it first? You could wash his back.”

Liu Sang’s exhausted body attempted to light up, like a flickering bulb, and almost managed it.

Zhang Qiling’s tattoo had started to fade. Liu Sang hadn’t even properly touched it. He wanted to.

“Yes,” said Zhang Qiling, one corner of his mouth turning up. “If you want, Liu Sang.”

“Not really an offer you say no to, is it?” Wu Xie was laughing at him, and Liu Sang didn’t care. “I’ll stay here. If there’s anything interesting going on, shout and I’ll come and watch.”

Liu Sang tried to frown at him. “You didn’t—plan this whole thing, did you?”

Wu Xie widened his eyes, his mouth curling into a smile. “No, of course not!” He set a hand on Liu Sang’s chest, possessively. “Sometimes, Liu Sang, the universe is simply on our side.”