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The Leavings of Many Deaths

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Wu Xie tore his eyes away from Chen Moqun and Lin Nansheng. This was—well, he couldn’t say it was an unexpected development, as such, given what he knew of Lin Nansheng’s thoughts, his feelings. He and Xiaoge should…he glanced back at a sound, to see that Lin Nansheng and Chen Moqun were welded together. They were kissing as though they were trying to consume each other, with a passion and desperation that Wu Xie wouldn’t have thought Lin Nansheng, with all his reserve and taut control, was capable of.

Xiaoge tapped his arm, a question. Wu Xie considered for a moment, and nodded. He made his way as quietly as possible out of the courtyard, while Xiaoge swung himself easily up onto the roof, where he had a preferred vantage point to the street. He’d said he would keep watch. Which might be sensible, since Wu Xie wasn’t sure that Chen Moqun and Lin Nansheng would have noticed Wang Meng, a host of customers, or any of their many enemies or friends showing up, at that precise moment.

Pangzi and Lan Xinjie were playing pool. Or at least, when Wu Xie found them Pangzi was lining up a shot, and Lan Xinjie was perched on the edge of the pool table very close to him, swinging her legs, and laughing at something he was saying.

They looked up at him, Pangzi raising his eyebrows at whatever was on his face.

“Lin Nansheng and Chen Moqun are, ah…” He trailed off. Should he be telling Lan Xinjie this?

Lan Xinjie gave him a knowing smile. “Fucking?” she said, sweetly. “Good.”

Pangzi made a choked sound. Lan Xinije’s smile widened.

“On their way to it,” Wu Xie said. “I think.” He studied her. “You knew about this? Were they, ah, together, when you knew them?”

Lan Xinjie smoothed back her hair, thoughtful. “I don’t believe so. I knew Lao Chen wanted him. You have to understand, Xiao Lin was so—so young, so sweet, back then. Untouched, innocent. He practically vibrated when anyone laid a finger on him. I think Lao Chen wouldn’t have been able to resist boasting to me, if he’d…done anything. And I don’t think Xiao Lin would have been very good at hiding it.” She lifted her shoulders. “And then it was the war, and all that followed.”

“Ghosts can f—have sex, then?” Pangzi said.

“I don’t see why not,” Lan Xinjie said. “Lucky Xiao Lin. Chen Moqun was…not always very nice, but he was certainly good in bed.”

“Mmm,” said Pangzi. He took his shot, badly, missing by a mile.

Wu Xie considered the way that Lan Xinjie was angled towards Pangzi, and the curl of her mouth.

“Can ghosts fuck humans?” he said, innocently.

Pangzi made a strangled sound, and glared at him. Lan Xinjie widened her eyes.

“What an interesting question,” she said. “I do wonder.”

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be, Tianzhen?” Pangzi said. “Where’s Xiaoge?”

“Keeping an eye on things,” Wu Xie said. “Don’t worry, I’ll, ah. Leave you to it.”

He grinned at Lan Xinjie, who winked at him.

Wu Xie checked his email, and found he had another excited message from his researcher, with some academic references and a couple of scanned pages. He skimmed them idly, and then paused, reading one of them more carefully. He sat back, looking at the words on the screen, and Lin Nansheng’s name among them. Then he printed the sheet off, folded it up, and put it in an envelope, for later. He didn’t think Lin Nansheng would want to be distracted now.

He should do what he’d claimed he was going to do, and start planning for the things they’d need when—if—the ghosts decided to leave them. All this…romance, if that was the right word, might prove a complication.

He was interrupted by Lin Nansheng slipping through the door. His mouth was very red, and he looked dishevelled. His shirt was rucked up, his tie loose.

“Wu Xie,” he said. He looked awkward, and he might even be blushing. “Ah, I. Might I borrow a room?”

Wu Xie leaned back in the chair, and smiled at him. “Of course. You know where the spare room is? I think the bed’s even made up.”

Lin Nansheng ducked his head. “Thank you. And, ah…Chen Moqun said I should ask for...” He stopped, giving Wu Xie a pleading look.

Wu Xie blinked at him for a moment, and then he got it. He could feel his cheeks heating. “Oh, ah. For those kind of supplies, you can look in the washbag under the bathroom sink. The black one. It’s mine.”

Lin Nansheng bit his lip. “Thanks,” he mumbled, and disappeared again.

Wu Xie ran his hands over his face, and laughed. This was not what he’d expected, when he’d ended up entertaining a sad and restless ghost. At least Chen Moqun’s murderous impulses seemed to be tamed, for now.

Chen Moqun and Lin Nansheng didn’t reappear that night. Lan Xinjie curled up elegantly on the sofa, after joining them for dinner, and Pangzi started in on her cinematic education. Wu Xie left Pangzi to flirt on his own, without his input.

Xiaoge had retreated to his room, where Wu Xie found him. He was typing something on his phone. This was highly unusual. Wu Xie gave him a questioning look.

“Xiazi,” Xiaoge told him. “Asking if we need help.”

“I was going to ask him, yes,” Wu Xie said. “Now that we’ve got the ghosts here, we do need to know how to, ah. Put them to rest, I guess.”

Xiaoge’s phone chimed. He contemplated it. “He has some information. He’s asked for backup in a client meeting. In return.”

“Hmm. Will the meeting be dangerous?”

Xiaoge raised an eyebrow very slightly, which meant that it probably would, and that he could easily handle it.

“If you’re sure you’re OK to go,” Wu Xie said. “The meeting’s not in, I don’t know, Singapore or something, is it?”

“Zhengzhou,” Xiaoge said. “Tomorrow evening.”

Wu Xie nodded, calculating distance and forms of transport. “Do you need to leave right now?”

Xiaoge looked at his phone again. “In the morning.”

“Good,” Wu Xie said. “I’m getting ready for bed. If you want to join me.”

Xiaoge held his gaze, and Wu Xie felt his pulse picking up, the still-new thrill of desire. And, immediately after, the new, and unpleasant, rush of guilt, about the thing he was trying not to think about or say.

Later, in Xiaoge’s arms, he whispered an apology into his skin. Not now, not yet: Xiaoge being away for a short time was another excuse, another way to put this off. When he came, gasping, though, he found that there were tears on his cheek, and he had to clench his throat against more.

“Wu Xie…” Xiaoge said to him, softly, a question and a promise, with worry in his eyes.

Wu Xie shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t, yet.”

Xiaoge rubbed his thumb over the soft skin of Wu Xie’s arm, the scars there. He didn’t need to speak for Wu Xie to know what he was offering. There wasn’t anything or anyone in a tomb, or in the outside world, that Zhang Qiling couldn’t protect him from. Wu Xie’s breath hitched. Xiaoge’s brows drew together, in concern. But he didn’t ask, he didn’t push, he just held Wu Xie close.

In the morning, Xiaoge was gone, Pangzi hadn’t emerged from his room, and none of their spectral guests were in evidence either.

The shop had been more or less closed for days now. Wu Xie was aware it was causing gossip. He called Wang Meng to come in, and went to check on their stock and look at their work emails, which he’d been avoiding. If he replied to some of them and maybe let a few individual customers in, it would ease the speculation about what was going on behind their doors. Providing the customers didn’t see anything they shouldn’t, that was.

While Wang Meng was trying half-heartedly to locate a particular vase that a client wanted, which Wu Xie was sure he’d packed away somewhere a month or so ago, Chen Moqun wandered out into the courtyard, looking around with curiosity.

“Good morning,” Wu Xie said to him, tentatively.

Chen Moqun was still in a suit, but he wasn’t wearing a tie, and his shirt was largely unbuttoned over a white vest. His hair was rumpled. He looked considerably happier and more relaxed. Wu Xie tried not to think of the likely reasons why.

“Give us a week,” Chen Moqun said to him, without preamble. “We’ve discussed it. And at the end of that time, we’ll—” He waved a hand, eloquently.

Wu Xie attempted to remember what day of the week it was, and had to check his phone.

“And nothing elaborate,” Chen Moqun said. “This isn’t a funeral. The only body you have is Xiao Lin’s, and you can leave it where it is. You don’t need to mourn us. Frankly, you have more important things to worry about.” He raised an eyebrow.

Wu Xie pasted a look of unconcern on his face. “We need to check how we should do this. We have a friend who should be able to help. I think a week will be fine. If you’re sure.”

“I’ll use the time wisely,” Chen Moqun said, smirking at him in a meaningful way, and then he sketched a mocking salute and departed.

“Was that one of the ghosts, boss?” Wang Meng said, coming up wide-eyed, clutching the vase in front of him.

“Yes. Stay away from him,” Wu Xie advised. “Though I think he’s found better things to do than terrifying our customers.”

Pangzi emerged from his bedroom a number of hours later, looking wild-eyed. He ate a bowl of leftovers, drank three glasses of water, and then disappeared again. Presumably the answer to whether ghosts could fuck humans was positive. Wu Xie sighed, missing Xiaoge, and did something he’d been putting off for a long time now, and went to see his uncle.

By the time he got back, it was already evening. Uncle Erbai had insisted that he stay for dinner, so that he could face a proper interrogation about the ghosts, and Shanghai, and his decadent lifestyle in general. The only good thing about this was that it was so distractingly irritating that Wu Xie hadn’t even thought about the thing he wasn’t telling his uncle.

He’d sent four messages to Hei Xiazi and Xiaoge during the course of the day, and all he’d got was a thumbs up from Xiazi and “Fine” from Xiaoge. At least this was reassuring, he supposed.

There was music coming from inside the house, as he walked through the courtyard, light spilling out from the open shutters. By the time he pushed them open, he’d recognized it as old jazz. Sanshu liked it: there had been some old records and tapes around somewhere.

The table and breakable items had been cleared away, the carpet rolled up, and Lan Xinjie and Chen Moqun were dancing in the space, their movements fluid. Pangzi and Lin Nansheng were sitting and watching them, Pangzi with a bottle of beer in his hand. Lin Nansheng’s sleeves were rolled up, he was leaning forward on his stool, and Wu Xie could see his eyes tracking Chen Moqun.

Chen Moqun looked as dangerous on the dancefloor as he had done when firing sharp objects at them, though in a much more attractive way. He spun Lan Xinjie confidently, and ducked her, and she twisted in his arms gracefully and came round to face him, her feet keeping the rhythm. At some point when Wu Xie was out, or before, those two must have resolved whatever issues remained from their past, then. Or maybe this was their resolution: they certainly looked comfortable together.

Wu Xie made his way over to the others. Lin Nansheng looked up and smiled at him. Pangzi’s feet were tapping to the beat. He reached down and handed Wu Xie another beer, already open. Wu Xie took a drink, and then nudged him, and Pangzi slung an arm round his shoulders and squeezed, without stopping watching.

“Things going well?” Wu Xie said in his ear. Pangzi shot him a grin and a thumbs up, and Wu Xie smiled back.

The track ended, and another fast one started up. Lan Xinjie gestured to Pangzi, and Wu Xie gave him a push towards her; she caught his hands as he protested. Chen Moqun came over and stood in front of Lin Nansheng. He held out a hand, and Lin Nansheng took it.

“You know I don’t dance well,” Lin Nansheng said to him. “I never had time to learn, after…”

“It’s a matter of following my lead,” Chen Moqun said over the music, and pulled him in.

Wu Xie took his stool, and watched them. Xiaoge didn’t dance at all, that he knew of, which was a pity, he’d probably be very good. Pangzi wasn’t bad, though he was mostly letting Lan Xinjie use him as a base to throw herself around. Lin Nansheng started out wooden, but with Chen Moqun steering him, he was gradually relaxing.

After another few tracks, Pangzi came over and fell onto a stool, breathing heavily. Lan Xinjie had cut in, and was dancing with Lin Nansheng.

Chen Moqun came over to them. His eyes were glittering. “How about some of your music?” he said to Pangzi. “You all have music on those telephones.”

Pangzi blinked at him for a moment, and then an expression of glee slowly dawned on his face. “You mean, lose the record player, and get out the speakers. Fuck, I bet you’ve never even heard a proper bassline.” He rubbed his hands together. “Pang-ye will sort you out, my friend, you just wait.”

Wu Xie groaned. “Don’t make the neighbours call the police.”

“The night is young,” Pangzi said, heaving himself up, “and we have a lot of musical education to get through. Don’t let an old fogey like Tianzhen stand in our way.”

At about two am, Pangzi finally gave up, though that was less because he ran out of favourite tracks and more because Lan Xinjie had literally dragged him off to bed. Wu Xie ought to make sure that Pangzi wasn’t going to be hurt by all this. Though to put it bluntly, it wasn’t likely that he was expecting a long-term relationship with a ghost. Wu Xie hoped.

Lin Nansheng and Chen Moqun had stopped dancing as such and were swaying together in the centre of the room, to a slow track with a vocal Wu Xie didn’t recognize. Wu Xie, who had drunk several beers and then taken to the dancefloor himself, with mixed results, went off to get more water before retiring. His T-shirt was stuck to his back with sweat.

He was walking back into the room before he realized that the music had stopped, but that Chen Moqun and Lin Nansheng were still there.

“I wanted you the first time I saw you,” Chen Moqun was saying, low. “In Nanjing.”

Wu Xie froze in the doorway. They hadn’t noticed him, he didn’t think.

“I thought about you too,” Lin Nansheng said. “I was terrified of you. And I wanted to please you so much. For you to tell me that I’d done well.”

“What would you have done for me, if I’d asked?”

“Anything,” Lin Nansheng said, with total sincerity. “I used to, ah—I used to imagine you asking.”

“Oh,” Chen Moqun said. His voice darkened. “I want to know exactly what you imagined.”

Wu Xie coughed, and Lin Nansheng took a quick step back from Chen Moqun.

“Sorry,” Wu Xie said. “Just getting—” He held up his glass of water, like a defence.

“My apologies,” Chen Moqun said, not sounding in any way apologetic.

Wu Xie sidled past them, not meeting anyone’s eyes, and went to bed alone. He lay awake, for a long time.

The next day brought a suspiciously rambling message from Hei Xiazi about “complications” and the news that he and Xiaoge would both be back the following day, and that Wu Xie shouldn’t worry. Wu Xie shouted for Pangzi, and showed him.

“Why would we worry?” Pangzi said. “It’s Xiaoge. He can handle whatever’s going on. He’s coming back tomorrow, look. He and Hei-ye are probably having fun fucking with whoever these clients are.”

He passed the phone back. “You know our Xiaoge’s not going to like other people being here anyway, Tianzhen. Ghosts or not. Too much going on.” He frowned at Wu Xie. “Are you OK? It’s not like you to be this worried. You two, you’re alright?”

“Fine,” Wu Xie said. “What about you? Lan Xinjie will be, ah, gone, soon, if everything works out.”

Pangzi sighed, sadness creeping into his expression. “I know,” he said. “This is just a bit of fun. For both of us. She wants to see Zi Lu again—her son, you know?—or at least not to have to grieve for him. She misses him. She lost her first husband too, in the war. Sounds as though he was a decent guy. If she’d been alive in our time instead—she’s a good person. Smart, brave. She deserved better chances.”

“She did,” Wu Xie agreed. “Come here.” He hugged Pangzi, hard. “I’m glad you two are having fun, as long as you’re OK. You can fill me in on the ghost sex when no ghosts are listening, right?”

“A gentleman never kisses and tells,” Pangzi said, piously. “Speaking of which, I’m going to go find her. What are you up to?”

“Ah, you know,” Wu Xie said. “Shop things.”

Having said that, he felt obliged to go and poke about in the shop for a while. Then he gave up and wandered round the house. He stopped in front of the portrait of Sanshu. Until last night, he’d forgotten about Sanshu’s old jazz and swing records, about Sanshu humming along to them, while he cleaned his equipment or checked his notes, a small boy watching him earnestly.

If there was one wish he could have before he died, it would be to see his uncle again. Or at least to know, what had happened to him, why he’d never come back for Wu Xie. And maybe—that was something he’d still have time to do? A last mission. Wherever Sanshu was, or had been, it was bound to be both dangerous and interesting. Who knew what might turn up, on the kind of adventure he’d specialized in?

The old house was full of bits and pieces that had belonged to Sanshu, or to Wu Xie in his youth. There could be somewhere to start, among the boxes of stuff that Wu Xie had never got round to clearing out. It wasn’t a substantial hope, but any plan was better than nothing.

Wu Xie rolled up his sleeves, went into the back room that had quietly been sliding into a junk room, and started to search.

Xiaoge and Hei Xiazi arrived back the next morning. All the living and dead people in the building were sitting outside in the sunshine, with the live people eating takeout breakfast. Lin Nansheng was leaning against Chen Moqun’s shoulder. Chen Moqun’s expression, which Lin Nansheng couldn’t see, looked as though it was trying hard not to be fond. Pangzi and Lan Xinjie were sitting with Wu Xie, while Pangzi narrated a long anecdote about one of their tomb adventures, and Wu Xie added detail.

“Xiaoge!” Wu Xie said, standing up, as Xiaoge slipped through the doors.

“And Hei-ye,” Pangzi said, standing too. “To what do we owe the honour? We’re not paying you for anything, are we?”

“Yaba Zhang already paid your dues,” said Hei Xiazi, slinging an arm round Xiaoge’s shoulders. “In full. His glower alone got me a 50% raise from those shitheads.”

Wu Xie grinned at the resigned look on Xiaoge’s face.

Hei Xiazi looked round the rest of the courtyard. “Well, well,” he said. “Introduce me to your friends and relations, Xiao San-ye. We have a lot to discuss.”

Hei Xiazi, it turned out, had been part of a ghost-hunting consortium for much of the 1970s. “And part of the 1920s,” he’d said, smirking and adjusting his glasses. “Never spent much time in Shanghai in that period though, more’s the pity.” He had several possible options for laying ghosts to rest, some more violent than others.

He and Chen Moqun settled into a detailed conversation about the best plan, with the others interjecting. Wu Xie pulled Xiaoge aside.

“Hey,” he said. “How did it go?”

“No danger,” Xiaoge said. He looked Wu Xie over, with a question.

“All fine here,” Wu Xie said. “Pangzi and Lan Xinjie are, ah…And the others seem good. We agreed they wouldn’t stay for more than a week, so just a few more days.” He reached out and brushed his hand down Xiaoge’s arm. “I missed you.”

“Wu Xie,” said Hei Xiazi’s drawl, sardonic. “Come over here. I think we have a plan.”

The suggested ritual was, thankfully, even simpler than Hei Xiazi’s initial one, perhaps because it was entirely voluntary on the part of the ghosts. It needed space and some set-up, a specially designed talisman and a few accessories, and it had to be performed at sunrise. But it looked straightforward enough.

Wu Xie looked round at the others. “This is it, then. Sunrise, four days from today.”

Lan Xinjie squeezed Pangzi’s hand, and nodded. Chen Moqun and Lin Nansheng looked at each other, and nodded as well.

“Great,” Hei Xiazi said. “You’re having a celebratory lunch, right? I’ll be back for that. Ah, and I want a word with you before I go, Wu Xie.”

Wu Xie gave him a suspicious look, and Hei Xiazi smiled, blandly.

They went into Wu Xie’s bedroom, for privacy. Hei Xiazi studied the photos on the wall, and Wu Xie sat on the bed, and watched him.

“None of me?” Hei Xiazi said. “I’m hurt.”

“What do you want?” Wu Xie said.

Hei Xiazi turned to face him, folding his arms. “You and Yaba Zhang. Congratulations. About fucking time. But also, I don’t remember ever seeing him this worried. We go a very long way back, you know. Whatever you’ve done, Wu Xie, sort it out.”

Wu Xie tried not to let the pang of guilt he felt show on his face. “I haven’t done anything,” he said, truthfully.

Hei Xiazi snorted. “So it’s something you’ve not done. Consider doing it. It’s embarrassing, seeing my old friend doing the equivalent of doodling your name with hearts around it and then crying about it. Not that he hasn’t been doing that for decades, but now it’s worse.”

Behind Hei Xiazi’s flippant tone, he sounded serious. “Not that this is your business,” Wu Xie said. “But I’m not…trying to hurt him. I wouldn’t, ever. There’s some stuff—we need to sort out the ghosts first.”

Hei Xiazi scanned him. “So you’re not planning on dumping him, or cheating on him.”

“What? No! What the fuck, Xiazi. You know how long I—”

“Of course I fucking do,” Hei Xiazi said. “Because I was there. Don’t forget, Wu Xie, that he wasn’t.”

While Wu Xie was still trying to come up with a good response to that—which was difficult, because Hei Xiazi was right, for once—Hei Xiazi grinned at him and sauntered out.

It took several hours for Wu Xie to get Xiaoge on his own. Pangzi might have been correct about their guests, and about Xiaoge’s reaction to them: he had vanished somewhere the instant Hei Xiazi left, as the others settled in to go through more of Pangzi’s music collection, loudly.

Wu Xie hunted all over the house, and eventually tracked him down in an old tree in the darkest corner of the gardens.

“Xiaoge? Could you come down?” he called up. “Otherwise I’m going to climb up to you, and I might fall.”

Xiaoge dropped a good ten feet out of the tree and landed lightly in front of him, impressive as always.

It had been such a short time ago, that he’d feared that Xiaoge didn’t want to be touched by him, would never want him. It still didn’t feel easy, as such, to lean in and kiss him, a brush of lips, to take his hand.

“Come on,” Wu Xie said, and pulled Xiaoge into the junk room, as it was nearest. He sat down on one of the boxes he’d finished with.

Xiaoge was looking wary. He frowned at the pile of things Wu Xie had been collecting.

“I’m thinking about looking for Sanshu,” Wu Xie explained. “I haven’t been through these things in years, I thought there might be something useful.”

“I could help,” Xiaoge said, watching him.

“Good,” Wu Xie said. “I don’t want to do this alone, I want to do it with you and Pangzi.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Xiaoge, I know I’ve made you worried. I know I’m…fucked-up, in a lot of ways. I kept a lot of secrets for a long time; I don’t always know how to stop. This, with us—it’s new. I think I’m fucking it up already. I don’t want you to wish we’d never started this, for you to think that I don’t—”

“Wu Xie,” said Xiaoge, unexpectedly fierce. He dropped into a crouch, and took Wu Xie’s hand. “Never.”

“I love you,” Wu Xie said, on a rush of feeling. He gripped Xiaoge’s hands. “I’ve loved you for years. I swear to you that I’ll explain everything, as soon as we’ve got through this week. I just need a little time.”

Xiaoge bent his head onto their joined hands, in what Wu Xie thought was acceptance, and agreement. They sat quietly, for a moment, and then Wu Xie stood, pulling Xiaoge with him.

“I’m going back to the others,” he said. “Come and find me later, OK?

“Yes,” Xiaoge said.

Four days had seemed like a reasonable amount of time, when they agreed it. For Wu Xie to work out how he would break his news. And for everyone to say what they needed to say, to each other.

By the final day, the others might have achieved the second item, but Wu Xie had achieved neither. At least in part, this was because the person he most needed to talk to was Lin Nansheng, and he and Chen Moqun were spending a lot of time in the spare room with the door firmly closed. And when they weren’t, Lin Nansheng was often sitting with Lan Xinjie, their heads bent together.

Eventually, Wu Xie gave up on hoping he’d catch Lin Nansheng by chance, and went over to where their three ghosts were sitting out in the yard, looking through a book Pangzi had found for them, with photos of old Shanghai.

“May I speak to Lin Nansheng?” he asked. “Alone?”

“Of course,” Lan Xinjie said warmly. She stood up gracefully, and Chen Moqun and Lin Nansheng both stood too. Chen Moqun gave Wu Xie a narrow-eyed warning look, and then picked up the book and followed her into the house.

Wu Xie took his place. He studied Lin Nansheng, thinking about a hand holding his in the night, about Lin Nansheng not remembering his own name. In the last few days, Lin Nansheng hadn’t been slipping back and forth between periods in his own life, as he had when they’d first met him. Wu Xie hadn’t seen him in any of his uniforms, either, only in what he suspected Lin Nansheng thought were casual suits. He seemed different. More settled, maybe.

Wu Xie took a deep breath. “Are you sure about tomorrow?”

Lin Nansheng took some time to consider that. “Yes,” he said. “It’s been a long time, for all of us. I’m glad to have had this chance, but it isn’t—it can’t be permanent.”

“Do you feel—I mean, you felt responsible. Did this help?”

“You mean, do I feel forgiven?” Lin Nansheng smiled, but without much warmth. “I’ve done a lot of things that were unforgivable. I don’t forgive myself.” He looked down at his hands. “I am more…understood. By the three people who mattered most to me, in my life. I think you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” Wu Xie said. Three people: he wondered what it was that Zhu Yizhen’s note had said, and then dismissed his curiosity. “You know, I also did a lot of unforgivable things. Xiaoge was, ah, trapped somewhere, and I wanted to take revenge on anyone who had any responsibility for it. People died, people were hurt. All of it was due to my choices.”

He stopped himself. Lin Nansheng didn’t need to hear all his confessions.

Lin Nansheng was nodding. “I understand.”

Wu Xie bit his lip. “I went to the hospital. You were right. There’s nothing they can do. I need to ask you something. Will I….” He tried to keep his voice steady. “If I—when I die, I don’t want to be trapped somewhere. I don’t want…anyone else to think I might be.”

Lin Nansheng was watching him with a terrible kind of sympathy. Wu Xie stopped talking, unable to keep going.

“When I died,” Lin Nansheng said. “I was full of regret, and anger. And I—all three of us here—we died by violence. Whatever you did in the past, do you regret it?”

Wu Xie half-laughed. “No,” he said. “I wish it hadn’t been necessary, but I’d do the same again.”

“Then there is your answer.” Lin Nansheng hesitated. “Don’t give up yet, Wu Xie. While you are alive, there is always hope.”

It was a cliché, but spoken with Lin Nansheng’s sincerity, it was also almost believable. Wu Xie made a rueful face. “I can’t imagine being allowed to give up. And I won’t—I have something I need to do. To try to find my uncle, Wu Sanxing. That’s the one thing I do regret. I wondered, if you’ve been here all the way through, do you remember anything about him?”

Lin Nansheng gave this some thought. “I know who you mean. He wasn’t here often, and I wasn’t very aware. I’m sorry. I don’t think I can help.”

“It’s fine,” Wu Xie said. “I didn’t expect you to be able to. Ah, and I have something for you, Lin Nansheng. I wanted to give it to you in private. Here.” He unfolded the printout he’d been carrying, and passed it over.
Lin Nansheng scanned it, puzzled.

“In the footnote,” Wu Xie said. “Here.” He pointed to the line. “This book isn’t available in this country, but there are copies online. The student only sent me one page, sorry. This historian went out to all the districts, and interviewed whoever he could find: it’s a huge book.”

Lin Nansheng hadn’t told them where he’d been based, during his final years. But if he was the same Lin Nansheng that the old people interviewed by this historian had mentioned, then the author reported, matter-of-fact, that the survival rate in the villages he’d been responsible for was twice that of the neighbouring districts. “Rumour said he was forcibly dismissed from his post,” the footnote stated. “I have been unable to trace Lin Nansheng in surviving records, so the accuracy of these accounts cannot be verified.”

Lin Nansheng’s eyes were wet. He touched the characters of his name, bowing his head over the paper.

Wu Xie’s throat was tight. “They remembered you,” he said, quietly. “Because you saved them.”

He put his hand on Lin Nansheng’s back, daringly. It didn’t feel any different than touching a human. Maybe his skin was colder through his shirt, though not unpleasantly so. Lin Nansheng drew in a shuddering breath and seemed to lean a little towards him, and Wu Xie slid his arm round him, in a half-hug. They sat that way, in silence, until Pangzi came out to find them for dinner.

Sunrise was early, on the final day. Wu Xie hadn’t slept, and he didn’t think anyone else had either. There was another complicated array of characters and lines to be drawn in the courtyard—thankfully, it wasn’t raining—with candles set up at carefully measured intervals within it. Their flames were barely visible as the light began to grow.

Pangzi was red-eyed. Lan Xinjie hugged him, and whispered something in his ear, and he smiled at her, wiping his eyes, and said something back. She kissed Wu Xie on the cheek, her lips cool, and gave Xiaoge a small bow. Then she stepped into the circle.

Chen Moqun looked at the three of them, at the way Wu Xie and Xiaoge were flanking Pangzi.

“I suppose I should thank you,” he said. “I was getting rather bored with terrorizing idiots. I might have run out of ideas eventually.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Wu Xie, smiling at him. “But you’re welcome.”

Chen Moqun nodded at all of them, and stepped into the circle too.

Lin Nansheng was gripping the home-made talisman, carefully inked with the unidentifiable characters Hei Xiazi had taught them. It had to be burned precisely at sunrise. He passed it to Wu Xie.

“Two minutes,” said Xiaoge, who was keeping time for them.

Wu Xie stepped forward and hugged Lin Nansheng, and after a moment, Lin Nansheng’s arms came round him, tentatively.

“Thank you,” he said in Wu Xie’s ear. “And good luck.”

Wu Xie wasn’t sure he could speak. He stepped back, wiping his eyes.

“One minute,” Xiaoge said. “Wu Xie?”

“I’m fine,” Wu Xie said. He went round to stand in the right place, getting out his lighter.

Lin Nansheng and the others were holding hands, very close together. Wu Xie met Lin Nansheng’s eyes. He nodded.

“Now,” Xiaoge said, and Wu Xie lit the talisman, holding it up, as the first rays of light began to hit the courtyard.

There was no dramatic flash or earth-shaking noise. But the figures in the centre of the circle were suddenly blurred, as though colour was leaching out of them. They flickered, fading: Wu Xie could see the light through them, and then, after only a few seconds, the circle was empty. There was a rush of air, and all the candles blew out. Wu Xie shook the last burning ashes from the talisman from his hand, before they touched his skin, and they floated to the ground.

Pangzi sat down heavily on the steps, his shoulders shaking. Wu Xie skirted round the circle to sit at his side and put an arm round him, Xiaoge on his other side.

“I’m OK,” Pangzi said, croakily. “Fuck. I’m happy for her. I know it was the right thing. I’m going to miss them, though. You know? Even Chen Moqun.”

“Me too,” said Wu Xie. “It’s been…good.” He stared at the empty circle. “We did it though, Pangzi, Xiaoge. We found Lin Nansheng’s people for him, and we brought them together.”

“Right,” said Pangzi, still a little wobbly, but with determination. “We fucking did it. We could give Hei-ye and that Liu Sang a run for their money, ah? Maybe we should add it to our business.”

Wu Xie glanced at Xiaoge, who met his eyes with a wordless negative. Wu Xie felt himself smiling, and then yawning, uncontrollably.

“We still have to host this memorial,” he said. “I need about three coffees, and then we can get rid of this and start setting it up?”

“Aiya,” said Pangzi, groaning and sounding much more like himself. “So much to do. You invited everyone, Tianzhen, you set things up. Some of us need a nap.”

Wu Xie’s smile widened, and he pushed himself up, letting himself fall into the familiar rhythm of their bickering.

Everyone came, in the end. Hei Xiazi was there, Xiao Hua; Nainai on Uncle Erbai’s arm; Liu Sang, who was unexpected and looked as though he felt manifestly out of place; and assorted friends and retainers. Wu Xie had fretted over what would be appropriate, for a funeral with no bodies. Other than the one illicitly buried in his house, which he wasn’t supposed to talk about. In the end they’d settled for filling the courtyard with white flowers and setting up chairs and a lectern, so that Wu Xie could give a very short speech. Three new memorial tablets were in the Wu family shrine, their lettering fresh.

That was more private, though. Wu Xie took his grandmother there as the others gathered and chatted in the courtyard, hovered for a moment, and then left her alone, to make her own goodbyes. When she came out, she pinched his cheek, shaking her head at him, and let him escort her back to a chair in the front row.

It seemed dreamlike, doing this. Wu Xie was tired and exalted, jittery with caffeine, and aware that his self-imposed deadline was about to hit. Luckily he’d had the foresight to write down some notes, for his speech, because half-way through a sentence he would lose track of what he’d been saying about Lan Xinjie’s life, about the more positive parts of Chen Moqun’s career. About Lin Nansheng, standing up for his principles.

Wang Meng was filming this, in case Zhu Yizhen wanted to see it. Hopefully she didn’t, given how badly Wu Xie was stumbling over his words. But finally he’d finished, and there was general approval and interest in the faces before him, so perhaps it had been less bad than he feared.

“Lunch,” Pangzi said loudly. “Kindly provided by the generosity of the Wu family. If you’ll follow me a short distance, honoured guests, the taxis will take you to the restaurant.”

Wu Xie looked for Xiaoge, who would be staying here while he and Pangzi entertained their guests, and perhaps making his own goodbyes. Xiaoge had liked Lin Nansheng, Wu Xie knew: they’d had certain things in common. He was standing to the side, his arms folded, watching Wu Xie in turn. His face was serious, and for once, unreadable.

Pangzi came up to take Wu Xie by the arm and lead him off, and the moment broke.

Lunch was noisy and full of gossip. Pangzi took Liu Sang under his wing and introduced himself to everyone, with Liu Sang making a face that suggested this was a form of torture. Wu Xie caught up with Xiao Hua, whose eyes were shrewd, and who tactfully didn’t ask him why he had needed an urgent hospital appointment. Then he was pulled off to talk to his grandmother, who was sharing all her news with Erjing, and expected to engage fully with all the family gossip.

It should have been a good occasion, but Wu Xie was starting to get a headache, and he couldn’t eat. He pushed food around and kept a smile on his face and the conversation going, trying not to look at his watch.

Eventually, it was over. The relief he felt when he and Pangzi were getting out of a taxi, on their own, hit him like a wave, and when Xiaoge opened the doors to them, he went into his arms, feeling Xiaoge’s surprise and then concern.

“It was a bit much,” he said to Xiaoge. Pangzi’s hand settled on his back. Wu Xie sighed. He couldn’t relax. He could say something now, but—

“Wait for me?” he said. “I’m going to...” He gestured.

Xiaoge let go of him, and Pangzi made a noise of assent. Wu Xie left them to fill each other in on their afternoons, and let himself into the family shrine. He’d been terrified of this place, when he was small. And also fascinated: he’d kept trying to sneak in. One time Sanshu had caught him, swung him over his shoulder in mock-fury and carried him off, shrieking and laughing.

He smiled a little at the memory. He lit fresh incense for the new tablets, bowed his head and poured them some wine. The he knelt on the floor, bowing. He’d thought he might say something, but in the end there was no need. Lin Nansheng knew.

“I have to go somewhere,” he said to the tablets. “If I can come back, I will. If not, you always have a place here, now.” And perhaps he would have a place with them: they knew that too.

He stood up, slowly, bowed his head a final time, and stepped out.

Xiaoge was waiting for him, leaning against the wall on one side of the doorway, while Pangzi sat on the step. Wu Xie gripped Xiaoge’s shoulder. He breathed in, and out.

“Xiaoge, Pangzi,” he said. “I’m sick.”


One year later

“Tianzhen, get a move on!” Pangzi called. “Your stuff’s not even packed in the van, and we want to get there before dark.”

“I need a minute!” Wu Xie said. Xiaoge materialized beside him and relieved him of one of the very large bags he was struggling with. Wu Xie smiled at him. He set down the other bags briefly, so that he could tug Xiaoge in and kiss him, feeling Xiaoge’s immediate and glad response.

“Thank you,” he said. “I can carry these bags though, you know. I’m strong as an ox now! I’ll be, I don’t know, ploughing fields, digging the garden for you, chopping wood, ah, engaging in other very strenuous physical activities....”

Xiaoge’s mouth turned up. Wu Xie gazed at him.

“Stop it, you two,” Pangzi said, passing them and slapping Wu Xie on the back of the head. “You can be as besotted as you like once we get through the city traffic. Get those bags in the van and then come and help me with the kitchen boxes.”

“He packed literally the entire kitchen while we weren’t looking,” Wu Xie confided to Xiaoge, who raised an eyebrow slightly, and took another of Wu Xie’s bags.

“Can you manage for a moment?” Wu Xie asked him. “There’s something quick I need to do.”

“Go,” Xiaoge said, making a slight face, as there was a crash from the kitchen and the sound of Pangzi swearing.

The tablets were waiting for him. There was a new one with them, now, for his uncle.

Wu Xie had come to perform the ceremonies for all of them when they’d got back from Thunder City, and regularly since then. This was simply to say goodbye.

“I’m going,” he said to the quiet room. “I’ll—we’ll—come back. We’re moving house but we’ll keep a base here. I’m not leaving. We’re…going somewhere more peaceful, after the last year. A village, in the mountains. I’m going to build us a house there. Pangzi wants a restaurant, he says. I’ll tell you how that goes, on my next visit.” He hesitated. “In case I didn’t say this before, you were right, Lin Nansheng. There was still hope. It wasn’t easy, and we lost people, but the three of us are still here. Thank you. If it hadn’t been for you, I don’t know if Xiaoge and I would ever have made it to here. If you hadn’t told me I was ill—if you hadn’t made me tell the others—then it might have been too late. I owe you. I won’t forget.”

He reached out and traced the letters on the stone.

“Wu Xie,” Xiaoge said from somewhere just outside. “Pangzi is…”

“I’m coming,” Wu Xie said. He turned towards the sunny doorway. “Wait for me.”