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More than one cold day

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The footsteps outside his door weren’t unexpected; he’d been waiting for them. All day he’d been aware of an added intensity to the whispers as he walked by, the quick glances at him and then away, the usual tiny indignities; people brushing carelessly against him, doors closed in his face, his tray jostled in the canteen line. Nothing unexpected, at this point, but today there had been a sharper edge to it.

Wu Xie leaned back on his bed in a casual pose, facing the door. His knife was under the pillow, within easy reach of his right hand. From the sound of the steps and voices in the corridor, there were five or six of them. It was pretty likely that this wasn’t going to end well for him.

The chances that his fellow Warehouse 11 workers would kill him on purpose, in this particular scenario, were fairly low - he hoped - since presumably Director Ding could hardly sweep the after-hours murder of the Wu heir in his room under the carpet. The chances they’d either try to incapacitate him permanently, so that he’d have to leave, or shame him into resigning, were much higher. In the former case it was going to be a lot easier than they thought. In the latter case, much harder.

He hadn’t bothered locking his door, it would simply delay the inevitable. He fixed a smile on his face as the men outside kicked it in and shoved their way into the room, Li Jiale in the lead, stopping at the sight of him. There were six of them, all recognizable, though he wasn’t sure he knew their names. He could have taken a couple of them in a fight, maybe even three, with a knife and some good fortune.

“What a surprise,” he said, widening his smile. “To what do I owe the honour of this visit?”

“We’ve come to show you what we think of pretty boys like you, coming in and acting like you’re better than all of us,” spat the man to the right of Li Jiale, whose name might be Chen something. Others muttered in agreement.

“You think you can get away with anything!” said another. “Just because you’re from the fucking Wu family – ”

“Fucking smirking at us!” someone else added. “We ought to make you beg – ”

“We ought to give him what he’s asking for,” said the first speaker, fists clenched.

“Oh? And what am I asking for?” said Wu Xie. He kept his eyes on Li Jiale, who he thought might be the weak link here. He let his smile turn edged, his voice shade into a drawl. “Are you here to beat me, or fuck me? Or can’t you tell the difference?”

A couple of the men started forward, and Li Jiale put out a hand, halting them.

“You ought to be more careful, Wu Xie,” he said.

“Why? Because in this situation, I’ve got so much to lose? Let’s be clear, comrades.” His heart was pounding, but he hoped it wasn’t showing in his face. He shifted his legs farther apart, very deliberately. “There are six of you and one of me. I’m sure you can take me - however you want. But if you guys think there won’t be repercussions for beating me? You clearly haven’t met Wu Erbai and his men. Try it, and I guarantee that you or your families will.”

“Shut up!” said one of the men, though a couple of others looked uneasy, probably because they had a shred of common sense remaining. He hoped none of them knew enough to realise how far away Wu Erbai was, and how uncertain his safe return might be.

“And if you’ve got…other intentions?” He raised an eyebrow. Li Jiale wasn’t meeting his eyes. He leaned forward, scanning the room.

“My friends, if that’s what you want, I can show you things you’ve never dared to dream of. I’ve been fucking men since before your mother fucked your father. You want to compete with my lover?” He curled his mouth. “I’ll be thinking of what he can do with his cock. And you’ll be thinking of what I can do, every time you fuck your wife, your girlfriend, you’ll be thinking of how good it was, wondering whether she can tell, wondering whether she knows about you – “

“You bastard, I’ll – ” One of the men, thickset and muscled, took a step, and Wu Xie braced himself, ready to bring the knife up; he wasn’t going to give in without a fight.

“Luo!” said Li Jiale. “He’s playing with us.” He glared at Wu Xie. “We’re here to – give you a warning.” He looked around at the others, who didn’t necessarily seem to agree with this statement. Several of them looked as though they would have zero reservations about strangling Wu Xie to death with their bare hands. Wu Xie waited, holding himself still.

“You need to know your place in Warehouse 11,” said Li Jiale. “Respect your seniors. Honour your grade. Do the fucking job right.” This time, when he looked around for agreement, there were murmurs of assent, people nodding.

Wu Xie sat up slowly, clasping his hands in his lap, trying not to reveal that they were shaking. If sincere and contrite was going to work for Li Jiale and these thugs, he could certainly give it a try.

“Leave me alone and I’ll do my best,” he said. “I’m not trying to mess with any of you. You can see I don’t fit in here. I swear to you I won’t be working in Warehouse 11 for more than a few months. At most.” The certainty of this rang in his voice, and he took a moment to appreciate the irony.

He met Li Jiale’s eyes. “And for any of my actions before I became an employee, I offer an unreserved apology.” He thought about adding something about getting down on his knees, but he wasn’t sure it would strike the right note.

Li Jiale made a sceptical noise, but the atmosphere in the room had changed. No-one was about to make the first move, not without him.

“You’re – ” said Li Jiale, “ – pathetic. We wouldn’t demean ourselves with you, right?”

A couple of his cronies still looked as though they would be happy to demean themselves with Wu Xie. Wu Xie carefully noted who they were, while trying to fix a humble and humiliated expression on his face. Considering the alternatives, he would take any level of verbal punishment Li Jiale wanted to dish out; given what he himself had just said about his preferences, caring about any loss of face seemed beside the point.

There were sounds of scorn and agreement. Wu Xie let his head droop slightly. His hands were white-knuckled in his lap.

“Next time,” said Li Jiale, with growing confidence, “We won’t be so lenient with you.”

“But, boss – ”

“He’s not worth it,” said Li Jiale. “You think you can trust him to keep his mouth shut?”

“If we shut it for him,” said one of the men Wu Xie was watching, out of the corner of his eye.

“He pals around with the senior brass,” said another. He spat on the ground in front of Wu Xie.

Wu Xie blinked. This seemed an odd way to describe his encounters with Director Ding, but he wasn’t going to correct them.

“Come on,” said Li Jiale. “Let’s get out of here.”

Some of them could still decide to stay – Wu Xie held his breath, not looking up, until he was sure that they were all tramping out, not bothering to keep quiet, swapping insults he couldn’t quite hear, a couple of them laughing, some grumbles of discontent.

He waited until they were a good few steps down the corridor, and until he was fairly certain some of them hadn’t decided to break ranks and return, and then let himself cough, clearing his throat. He stood up slowly, went to lock the door and then got a glass of water and drank some, carefully, watching his hands tremble on the glass. Adrenaline sang through him, and he shivered with it.

He took out his phone, weighed it in his hand a moment, and then hit Xiaoge’s number. He wanted to hear his voice, to have a brief, ordinary conversation about what was going on with the mission, maybe as a kind of private apology for using Xiaoge, using them, in the way he just had.

The call rang out, and the generic voicemail message started to play. Wu Xie waited until it stopped.

“Xiaoge,” he said. “I guess you might be somewhere you can’t answer your phone. I wanted to – check in, I suppose. I’m in Warehouse 11, which I expect you already know, it’s – I’m a terrible employee, you might have guessed. Always in trouble.” He tried to laugh. “I think I’ve offended every single person here, except maybe one and I don’t know yet if I can trust her.”

Shit, he was rambling, he needed to hang up before this got worse. “I miss you,” he said, abruptly, and then hit the button to end the call before anything more embarrassing came out of his mouth, like asking Xiaoge to show up and save him because Wu Xie couldn’t even deal with a bunch of low-level warehouse employees.

He turned his phone off, quickly, because if Xiaoge called him back now he might ask, and it was OK, he was going to be OK, he’d talked his way out of a tricky situation and it was all good, it was fine.

He slept fitfully, dreaming of running through dank stone tunnels, being chased by something he couldn’t see, Pangzi and Xiaoge always just round the next corner, out of reach. When he woke, one hand was clenched round the knife handle. He was lucky he hadn’t stabbed himself in his sleep. He got himself to the showers, half-awake, and was on his way back to his room, still yawning, when a man he didn’t recognize, holding his wash things, half-bumped into him.

“Sorry,” said Wu Xie, automatically, grimacing: it was too early in the morning for him to start dealing with this pettiness.

“You’re Wu Xie, right?” said the man, half under his breath.

“Mmm.” Wu Xie paused in the corridor and ran his eyes over him, wary, but there was no weapon visible, no threat. He was short and slim, hair clipped short, maybe in his late twenties; Wu Xie thought he’d seen him around a few times in the canteen, though never in his unit.

“Heard about last night.” The man glanced around them; the corridor was empty. “There’s a bathroom at the end of the third floor, no-one checks it. Twelve to two most nights. Maybe see you there.”

“What – ” said Wu Xie, but the man had already moved on, closing the bathroom door behind him.

Wu Xie shook his head to clear it, and then smiled. What had that been, six hours or so? Warehouse 11 clearly had an even faster gossip network than the antiques world, and that was certainly saying something.

Maybe he should have been paying more attention to whether that guy was attractive: unless the whole thing was a set-up, it looked as if he now knew where to go if he wanted his cock sucked, no strings attached. It was tempting. Perhaps he could even make some new allies. Except that given his current luck in Warehouse 11, he’d get himself and them caught, and ruin whatever fragile ecosystem they had going on here.

He rubbed his head, sighed to himself, and went to put on his uniform and join his shift.

**

“Wu Xie!”

Wu Xie looked down the aisle, to see today’s manager, Xue, gesturing towards him with a clipboard. He set down his load in the right place on the shelf, checked it one last time, and then went.

“Someone’s causing a disturbance at the front gate, says he’s a friend of yours and there’s a family emergency. Go and sort it out, now. And I don’t care if your fucking mother has dropped dead, if you’re not back at work by 8 sharp your pay will be docked by an hour, clear?”

“Yes, boss,” said Wu Xie, automatic, already moving past him, running through increasingly bad possibilities in his head: Uncle Erbai was dead, Xiaoge, Pangzi, one of them was hurt and he’d find that Kanjian or Wang Meng had come to tell him.

He made it almost to the gate without running, just. Pangzi was there, thank God, waving his arms around, gesturing at the guards, and easily audible from several feet away.

“Don’t you even know where your fucking employees are?” he was shouting. “I said it’s an emergency! If anything’s happened to him, I’ll, I’ll – ”

“Pangzi!” Wu Xie called, and Pangzi turned. A look of enormous relief illuminated his face. When Wu Xie got closer, he reached over the barrier and grabbed his arm, squeezing it.

Wu Xie glanced at the security guards, who were unconvincingly trying to appear as though they had no interest in what was going on, and also as if they hadn’t heard today’s hot gossip.

“Could you give us a moment?” he said, and made a shushing gesture to Pangzi until the guards had retreated into their cabin.

“What the fuck is going on, Wu Xie?” Pangzi exploded, one second after the cabin door shut. He gripped Wu Xie’s shoulders and shook them. “I thought they’d killed you, I thought you were fucking dead in this creepy place, I’ve been here since like six am waiting for them to fetch you – ”

“Calm down,” said Wu Xie, “I’m fine, look, I’m fine. I thought something had happened to you – they said a family emergency?”

“Yes, it’s a fucking family emergency! When Xiaoge calls me up – like, actually calls me on the phone in the middle of the night to tell me he thinks you’re in serious trouble – does Xiaoge ever call us, no he fucking does not – so then I try calling you, and your phone’s off, and so I have to get dressed at five in the morning and drive over here, wondering if I’m coming to collect your body – ”

“Shit,” said Wu Xie. He really had forgotten, not even subconsciously, to turn his phone back on, he must be more out of it than he’d realized. “God, I’m sorry, Pangzi. There was a – a thing last night, and I left Xiaoge a stupid voicemail. I didn’t think he’d…”

Pangzi narrowed his eyes at him. “Yeah? What ‘thing’, Tianzhen?”

“It was nothing.” Pangzi snorted. “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Wu Xie amended. “I did handle it, see?” He spread his arms.

“Are you hiding something from me?” said Pangzi. “From us? Hey, take off that shirt, I want to check you for bruises – “

He tugged at the collar of Wu Xie’s uniform shirt and then tried to pull it out of his belt: Wu Xie fended him off, in a brief tussle. With his luck, the guards were probably filming this for mass circulation to his workmates, just to further embellish his new reputation.

“Seriously, Pangzi,” said Wu Xie, taking a pace back and checking his shirt was straight. Pangzi folded his arms and glowered at him. “Thank you. I didn’t mean to worry you and Xiaoge. I’ll – I’ll text him. But I need to get back to work now.”

“You know you’re not fooling anyone,” said Pangzi. “Something happened, and you don’t want to tell me about it. I think you should leave this shithole right now. With me. In fact, I should just take you, Xiaoge will back me up.”

Wu Xie rolled his eyes. “Did you forget the bit where I’m investigating what happened to my uncle, or the bit where we need my salary so that we’re not both sleeping in the van? It’s OK. I can manage Warehouse 11. It’ll probably only be another few weeks. And anyway, you know you couldn’t take me if you tried.”

He reached out and ruffled Pangzi’s hair, guards be damned. “Nice haircut, by the way.”

Pangzi scowled at him, more half-hearted.

“I don’t like this,” he said.

“Yeah, me neither,” Wu Xie said. “But I’m onto something here. I need to see it through.”

Pangzi nodded. “You’ll talk to Xiaoge though, right? Because if I tell him you told me it was all fine and I just fucking waltzed off and left you here – ”

“I’ll get in touch with him as soon as I can. I really am sorry.”

“Yeah, well. Keep your phone charged. And I’d tell you to stay out of more trouble but there’s no point, is there?”

Wu Xie smiled at him, full of affection. “Not really, no.”

**

He did get docked an hour’s pay, but it was worth it. Hefting boxes, he wondered exactly what Xiaoge had said to Pangzi. If he got caught using his phone on shift, he’d be in more trouble, but he turned it on anyway and surreptitiously checked. There were two missed calls from Xiaoge, and four from Pangzi, plus a few expletive-laden messages from him.

He ducked into a quiet corner of the warehouse behind some shelves just before lunch and sent a quick message to Xiaoge:

“I’m sorry for worrying you. I’m fine. Pangzi will tell you.”

His phone pinged less than ten seconds later.

“If you need me to kill anyone, I can come.”

“Not yet necessary,” Wu Xie typed. “And I’ve pissed off several hundred people. Maybe a thousand.”

“Doable.”

Wu Xie grinned. Most people never imagined that Xiaoge had a sense of humour, which was because they had no proper appreciation of very dry wit.

“Take care of yourself,” he typed. “Look after my uncle.”

“Yes,” his phone told him. “And you.”

Wu Xie smiled fondly at the phone, and then slipped it into his pocket.

Xiao Bai was uncharacteristically subdued at lunch, stealing glances at him under her lashes, pushing food around on her plate. Wu Xie sighed. This wasn’t a conversation he had intended to have, but maybe it would be helpful, given how much he needed to keep Bai’s friendship and discourage her obvious romantic interests.

“If there’s anything you want to ask me about, you can do,” he said.

Xiao Bai hunched her shoulders. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just, I heard some rumours about last night.” Her eyes moved over him, visibly checking for injuries. “Are you OK?”

Wu Xie thought about Pangzi trying to tug his shirt up, and smiled.

“I’m fine.”

Xiao Bai looked down at her plate again, picking up some rice and then setting it back. Her cheeks were tinged with pink.

Wu Xie tapped his fingers idly on the table. He felt a pang of guilt, and then annoyance at the guilt. It wasn’t his fault if she had expectations of him that he couldn’t hope to meet.

“Xiao Bai,” he said, gently. “Did this gossip include what I told those guys?”

“Mnn.” She nodded, quickly, and then looked up to meet his eyes, her own wide. “But I know that doesn’t mean you meant it! I would never think – ”

“It’s true. I do – ” he quickly censored the various phrases that first sprang to mind – “like men.”

Xiao Bai blinked at him. “Oh,” she said. She was blushing harder.

Wu Xie blew out a breath. “Not just men.” Exactly how innocent was Bai Haotian, he wondered, not for the first time. “Men and women. Both.” He blinked at a memory of A-Ning, grinning at him, and then shook it off. He shrugged. “It’s not a big deal, Xiao Bai.”

“I know that!” she said. “It’s none of my business, I shouldn’t have asked.”

“You didn’t ask. I told you.”

“So, umm.” She glanced around them, and then back at him, biting her lip. “I heard you said – that you had a, umm, a lover.”

“It’s….complicated,” said Wu Xie. It seemed important not to lie to her, even though it would give him an easy out from her adoration, to claim a long-distance boyfriend and beg for her sympathy and support. Implying, even by omission, that Xiaoge was his boyfriend, though, seemed almost sacrilegious, as well as not exactly true.

Xiao Bai was still waiting for him to expand, her eyes huge.

“I have a good friend, who is sometimes more than a friend,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “He and I have been, ah, together, off and on, since I was much younger. But it’s not – we don’t have expectations of each other.”

“Oh,” she said, frowning. “Is it that guy who…?”

“Pangzi?” Wu Xie laughed. “No, Pangzi is strictly a ladies’ man. Someone very different to him, but a brother to both of us. He’s far away, I don’t know when I’ll next see him.” He was conscious that now he was the one blushing.

“Mmm,” said Xiao Bai. She ate a couple of bites of rice, clearly thinking. Then she brightened up, pointing her chopsticks at Wu Xie. “You consider yourself single, then?”

Wu Xie groaned. “This is not a professional conversation, Xiao Bai. Could we change the topic? I’m not – I don’t want to discuss my love life with you. You’re too young, for one thing.”

Xiao Bai sniffed. “You mean, I come from a far more accepting generation,” she said. “You should be thankful for it.”

“Well, then I’m grateful for your acceptance. But seriously, can we talk about something else? I still need your help with the Spirit Vase.”

“Ah,” she said, in an ominously apologetic tone, and Wu Xie sighed again, already bracing himself for whatever joys Warehouse 11 had coming up next.