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The Leavings of Many Deaths

Chapter Text

Wu Xie rocked back in his chair, taking a last drag of his cigarette, and then rocked forward to stub it out in the cluttered ashtray. He blew out the smoke, watching it swirl in the afternoon sunlight. His lungs caught, tight, something buzzing through them; he sucked in a breath, pushing down the urge to cough.

If he were behaving like a responsible adult, he would stop smoking, and would go and see a doctor about the tightness in his chest, that stupid small cough that he couldn’t get rid of. He reached for the pack of cigarettes. Fuck it, anyway, plenty of things, and even more people, had tried to kill him, and all of them had failed. A cigarette here and there wasn’t going to make that much of a difference.

Xiaoge hated him smoking, even more than Pangzi did. But Xiaoge wasn’t here, so.

There was a crackling sound from the vintage radio that had been sitting in the corner for who knew how many years, or decades.

Wu Xie sat up, staring at it. The crackle intensified, and then a voice spoke, crisp female enunciation:

“The following is ocean shipping’s call to 2-1-3. Repeat 2-1-3. Calling 4-8-9. Repeat 4-8-9. Calling 5-4-8-8. Repeat 5-4-8-8.”

Wu Xie blinked. He pushed his chair back, stood up, and walked over to it. The announcer kept going, a litany of numbers. Static hissed through her voice.

He touched the dial and then jerked back, as a shock went through him. The radio fell silent. He considered it a minute, and then gingerly reached out to touch it again. Nothing happened. He picked it up, turned the dials, examined it. It was a very old radio, kept purely for aesthetic value; he’d never used it. Neither had anyone else, as far as he could recall. It didn’t look in working order. But there was also no dust on it, and it seemed polished, which given their usual loose attitude towards housework, was unusual.

Wu Xie set it back. There must be something going on with the frequencies, or the electricity. And maybe Pangzi had cleaned the radio, and forgotten to mention it. It was just an old radio, nothing special. All the same, he took his cigarettes out to the courtyard, rather than staying inside.

The next time, he was playing pool, leaning over the table in his dressing gown and rehashing, again, the game he and Xiaoge had been playing when everything had gone wrong, remembering what he’d said, with a now familiar hot rush of shame and guilt. There was the same crackle, and the same voice, right across from him. He didn’t jump, but he jerked upright, staring at the radio sitting on the cluttered side table, his heart beating violently. He took a couple of deep breaths, through the creaking somewhere within him, to calm down. He definitely hadn’t brought the radio in here. Wang Meng, maybe? Or Pangzi?

If it was faulty, he could get rid of it, chuck it in one of the boxes in the yard. He set down his pool cue, strode round the table, and the voice cut out abruptly.

Pangzi was somewhere around, he could hear him whistling.

“Pangzi!” he called.

Pangzi wandered in from the courtyard. “What?”

“It’s…” Wu Xie suddenly found himself unable to say that the radio had been talking to him, because he hadn’t slept in maybe a couple of nights, and he might have forgotten to shower too, and there were—inferences that might be drawn from that.

“Nothing,” he said. “Ah, I…thought I heard something.”

Pangzi was looking at him in what had recently become a very familiar way, with concern and exasperation. Wu Xie pulled his dressing gown tighter around him and retied the belt, as though that would make it into clothes.

“Calling 5-2-7-1,” said the radio. “This is ocean shipping’s call to…” It carried on.

“What the fuck?” Pangzi turned to stare at the radio, then at Wu Xie, accusing.

“It’s got nothing to do with me!” Wu Xie said, loudly, over the announcer’s voice. “It’s been coming on and off.”

“Hmm.” Pangzi came round the pool table purposefully.

“Wait!” Wu Xie said. “It gave me a shock when I touched it before”

As if on cue, the voice stopped short. A breeze ran through the room, probably from the courtyard, stirring Wu Xie’s hair.

Pangzi cautiously picked up the radio and examined it. “Let’s have a look at you, hmm, nothing odd here that I can see—anything else strange been happening?”

Wu Xie shoved his hands into his dressing-gown pockets, and leaned back against the table. “It must be an, an electrical malfunction.”

Pangzi gave him an eloquent look. “I see.” He set the radio back. “Have you written down the numbers?”

“No, fuck, I didn’t think about that. It started with the same one. You think it means something?”

Pangzi shrugged. He looked Wu Xie over, frowning. “Probably nothing. Why don’t I take this and stick it at the back of one of the storerooms, Tianzhen, then it can’t bother you.” He tucked the radio under his arm.

Wu Xie crossed his arms. “You don’t have to. It’s fine. Pangzi. I’m fine.”

“Right,” said Pangzi. “Of course you are. I’ll leave this here, then?” He set it back, with exaggerated care. “And if you’re totally fine, you’re coming to the sale with me today, then?”

Wu Xie screwed up his face. “Ah, I…I don’t know if I’m up for it today. I’ve got…” he gestured towards the rest of the house. “Things. To do.”

Pangzi snorted. “Tianzhen. It’s been three weeks, and you’re still….” He waved a hand, taking in everything about Wu Xie’s current pathetic state. “Just fucking call him or whatever, tell him you’re sorry and to come home.”

The sympathy in Pangzi’s tone was horrible; it made Wu Xie want to sink to the floor and curl in on himself. He held himself together and kept his expression as neutral as he could.

“He doesn’t want to come back here right now. And that’s fine. Like I said, I’m busy.”

Pangzi pressed his lips together, but didn’t call him on this.

“Have you at least called your uncle back?”

“He didn’t answer. I’ll try again later.”

Pangzi raised an eyebrow at him, clearly conveying how obvious this lie was.

“I’m going to shower,” Wu Xie said, with as much dignity as he could muster, and walked out.

Nothing else happened until the following night. Wu Xie was drinking tea and looking over one of his early journals. He’d got into bed at eleven or so, a sensible time. And then he’d lain there for what felt like hours, unsleeping, and eventually got up again. Pangzi was still up too, or at least the light was on in his room, so it wasn’t a wholly unreasonable hour to be awake.

There was a sound, almost familiar by now, the sound of radio static; and then a man’s voice, distinct, coming from the kitchen. He went and stood in the doorway. The radio was now in the middle of the kitchen table. In a half-familiar tone, it was saying something very earnest about war.

“Pangzi,” Wu Xie shouted, over his shoulder. He didn’t want to take his eyes off it. “That radio’s doing it again.”

“What?” said Pangzi, coming up behind him. “Ah. What the fuck?”

“That’s…” Wu Xie frowned, listening. “Isn’t that Chairman Mao? One of the, ah, the war speeches?”

“How the fuck would I know? Do I look like I have them memorized?” Pangzi stood beside him in the doorway, his warmth comforting against Wu Xie’s side. “I didn’t move the radio there. Did you?”

“No.” Wu Xie raked a hand through his hair. There hadn’t been anyone else in Wushanju that day, Wang Meng wouldn’t be in till Tuesday. “Fuck.”

“Where did that thing come from, anyway?” Pangzi said. “And what’s with the party broadcast? Someone’s idea of a joke? Or something’s?”

“Ghosts aren’t real.”

Pangzi slung an arm round his shoulders, and patted him. “You’re the one that said ‘ghosts,’ Tianzhen, not me.”

The voice on the radio got louder, as though someone had turned the volume up. Pangzi groaned.

“If you think I’m listening to the greatest hits of Mao all night,” he said to the radio. He marched into the kitchen, pulled open a drawer, and extracted a marble rolling pin.

“Pangzi, do you think—” Pangzi smashed the rolling pin down on the radio, and Wu Xie winced. The voice went out on a final crackle, as the radio bounced onto the floor, its casing cracked.

“Sometimes a little brute force is the answer to all life’s problems,” Pangzi said.

The drawer, which he’d left open, slid shut; not violently, but with a decisive clunk.

“Fuck,” Pangzi said, his eyes widening. Wu Xie screwed up his face. He knew he’d seen it happen, but he didn’t want to have seen it.

A current of chill air swept through the kitchen and around them, and then disappeared. Somewhere in the rooms behind him, there was the tinkle of china breaking. They looked at each other, and turned as one.

It was Wu Xie’s tea-cup, smashed on the floor, in a small pool of—Wu Xie grabbed Pangzi’s sleeve.

“Is that…?” he said.

Pangzi knelt to touch the red liquid, then huffed out a breath. “It’s not blood. It’s—“ he rubbed his fingers together, then tasted it. “Ink?”

Wu Xie stepped over to the table. His journal was open. There was a little pool of red on the table, beside one of the old-fashioned pens he kept for display. And the margins of his journal were inked with very precise red English characters.

“I and nobody else am the greatest traitor,” Wu Xie read out loud, carefully, turning the book as the sentence ran round the edge into another margin.

Pangzi leaned over Wu Xie’s shoulder. “What does it mean?”

“There’s more: ‘This hour I tell things in confidence.’ And, hmm ‘I stop here waiting for you.’ That’s all of it.”

The breeze ran through the room again, and Wu Xie shivered.

“It says…that it – they–that they’re a traitor. They’re – this bit is about telling us secrets.” He showed Pangzi, cautiously. The ink was still wet.

“Telling you,” Pangzi commented. “It’s your journal. And I don’t speak English.”

Wu Xie didn’t contradict him. “And this last bit says ‘I’m waiting for you.’ ‘Stop’”: that means, I don’t know…”

“I know ‘stop,’” Pangzi said.

“No, but I think here it’s more like, ah, staying? I’m staying here?”

“Why the fuck is this in English?” Pangzi straightened and glared round the room. “We don’t have any English artefacts, right?”

Wu Xie shrugged. “I don’t know. It doesn’t make much sense.”

“You have to admit there’s no scientific explanation for this one, Tianzhen.”

Wu Xie ran a hand through his hair again, leaving it standing up, and didn’t answer.

“It doesn’t feel angry,” he said. “Like that feeling of a curse, you know? It’s more…someone’s trying to communicate with us.” He stared at the writing again. “Wanting us to fix something.”

“Exorcism,” Pangzi suggested. “Revenge. Something that has to be put to rest. Is that what you want?” he asked the room.

“It doesn’t feel as if there’s anything here now,” Wu Xie said. His eyelids were suddenly heavy, the adrenaline rush of the last few minutes wearing off.

“Mnn.” Pangzi bumped his shoulder. “You need to get some sleep, Tianzhen. I know you’re not hallucinating, because I saw it too, and I’m pretty sure we’re not both hallucinating. But you look like you’re one more night away from collapse. And if this is a vengeful spirit or whatever, we need your brain working.”

“I—sleeping is difficult right now,” Wu Xie admitted.

“How about we share tonight?” Pangzi said. “I don’t want you on your own with this going on anyway, and that way if anything else happens, we’ll both know.”

Wu Xie sighed, mostly fake: he hadn’t been going to ask, but the offer was a relief. “Fine,” he said. “As long as you don’t hog the quilt.”

Pangzi’s comforting presence worked: despite the events of the night, Wu Xie fell asleep almost instantly.

He dreamed he was running through unfamiliar city streets, stumbling on cobbles, chasing someone with a gun in his hand; shouting for them to stop. Then he caught up, abruptly, and he was staring into the face of a handsome, dishevelled man, wary and desperate. Wu Xie’s heart clenched: he was afraid, not that he was going to die—even as he lowered his gun and the man raised the gun in his own hand, his aim steady—but that he’d lost him, he’d betrayed and been betrayed; he was choked with anguish and humiliation and a tangle of fear and longing.

The scene blurred around him, and he was in woodland, the same man in front of him, holding a gun on him again, the barrel cool against his forehead. And then there was the crack of a gunshot, and he was falling. Wu Xie dropped to his knees beside him, frantic, and suddenly it wasn’t a familiar stranger trying to speak to him with his dying breath, it was Panzi, his eyes full of resignation; and then the scene blurred again and it was Xiaoge, looking at him with love and acceptance, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

“No!” Wu Xie tried to shout. It was a dream, it was a dream, he needed to drag himself out of this and open his eyes. But instead he was running up endless flights of stairs, frantic, shouting her name, he was going to be too late, he wasn’t going to make it in time, he hadn’t had any choice but it was his fault—He was abruptly plunged underwater, his lungs and his body screaming in pain and shock. He twisted in the dimness. She was drowning beneath him, he couldn’t lose her this way after everything, after all these years, when they were nearly there; he had to find her. It was A-Ning, no, Su Nan, he could see them, only a little out of reach—he opened his mouth and he couldn’t call to them, bubbles of air streamed past him. He’d failed her, he’d failed them all, he couldn’t hold on—

“Tianzhen! Fuck,wake up. Wu Xie!” Someone was shaking him. He heard himself gasp and then his sense of his surroundings sharpened a little. He wasn’t underwater, he was breathing air, he was…in bed. In his bed. That was Pangzi. He flailed an arm out of the bedclothes and caught Pangzi’s arm, reassuringly solid.

“I’m OK,” he said. His voice came out rough. He coughed, trying to blink his eyes open.

“Like hell you are. You were shouting. You sounded…I’ve been trying to wake you up for a bit.”

Wu Xie brushed his cheek with his hand. It was damp.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. It hadn’t felt like a nightmare, though. That man, in the first part of the dream, Wu Xie was sure he’d never seen him before in his life, and yet he knew him, intimately. And the terror on those stairs, in the water. It had felt real. As real as seeing A-Ning with that snake: a frozen moment where something was happening that could never be taken back, never redeemed.

Pangzi leaned over and switched the bedside light on. Wu Xie caught sight of something over his shoulder, and pushed at him.

“Pangzi, look.”

There was writing on the clear space of wall, next to the door, in red characters.

Pangzi slid out of the bed and went to turn on the overhead light. “I think these are names,” he said. “Chen Moqun. Ah, Lan Xinjie.” He touched the wall, then rubbed his fingers together, making a considering noise. “And this time it is blood.” He turned and checked Wu Xie over, and Wu Xie rolled his eyes at him and pushed the covers back, to demonstrate that he hadn’t supplied the blood.

“That was his name,” Wu Xie said. “Chen Moqun. He was in my dream.” He frowned, thinking about running up stairs, about falling to his knees in the woods. “I think they were both in my dream. And they died. There was another woman, too, drowning—we were both drowning.” He stared at the wall, and its two names.

“Not an ordinary nightmare, then.” Pangzi sighed. “I guess we aren’t getting any more sleep tonight. You write down these names and then everything you remember, I’ll see if I can get this off before it dries.”

The sky outside was still dark: Wu Xie’s phone told him it was 3am. They regrouped at his desk, Pangzi scowling over Wu Xie’s list.

“You think you were in, what, the 1940s?”

“Not like I’m an expert.” Wu Xie cupped his hands round his tea protectively. “1930s, 1940s. It felt like I was…a soldier.”

“On what side, though. You were Chinese, right?”

The screens to the courtyard banged open and then shut, and they both looked at them. Wu Xie raised his eyebrows at Pangzi.

“Definitely,” he said, a little louder.

“And this Chen Moqun guy, you said he was threatening you, or you were chasing him, and then someone shot him? Who do you think he was, in relation to you?” Pangzi’s tone matched his.

Wu Xie looked casually round the room. His skin prickled with tension.

“I think it was complicated,” he said. One of the screens that had closed opened, slowly, moving back to the position it had been in. They both watched it.

“I think…” Wu Xie said, “that I cared about him. I think he had hurt me, and I had hurt him.”

He met Pangzi’s eyes, and Pangzi gave him a tiny nod; he felt it then too, the sense that something was listening.

“Do you think you and he were…?” Pangzi made an obscene gesture. Wu Xie scowled at him. He wasn’t at all sure their listener would like this line of enquiry.

“I don’t know,” he said. He recalled the anguish he’d felt in the dream, and shivered. “Maybe. I was…the other people I was trying to help were women. People I loved.” He tapped the list of names.

The room was still listening; the door shivered slightly, in its frame, but didn’t move. Wu Xie leaned back in his chair.

“If you can write, we could speed this up,” he said to the air. “You could tell us who you are, what you need.”

He hadn’t entirely expected an answer, so he startled when the loose page in front of him flipped over, and characters started appearing on it in black ink, seemingly out of the air. Pangzi hissed in a breath.

“I killed them,” it said. “And more. Help me.”

“Who are you?” Wu Xie said. He waited, holding his breath, and more characters appeared.


Wu Xie frowned. “That’s…your name? Or…what you used to do?”

Nothing happened for what seemed like a long space of time. Then characters appeared again.

“I don’t know.”

Another stroke appeared on the page, and then there was a pause, before the writing started up.

“You also need help.”

Pangzi made a sharp sound and gripped Wu Xie’s shoulder. “Maybe you should leave, ah, any helping to me. To us.”

“Pangzi,” Wu Xie said. “I’m fine,” he told the air. “Let’s worry about you. Can you tell us anything else about yourself?”

Characters started forming fast, agitated and more messy, the ink on the last one smearing. The door banged again, as if to punctuate the writing, and the same cold whisper of wind ran round them.

“It will be too late,” Pangzi read out. “Ominous. Too late for what?”

“He’s gone,” Wu Xie said. He could feel the difference in the atmosphere, the way that the space had gone from something electric and full of currents, to an ordinary room smelling of dust, wood and the stir-fry they’d eaten, earlier.

“He, or it?” Pangzi said.

“He,” Wu Xie said, firmly. He didn’t know what this unknown man—ghost—had looked like, but he still felt the echo of his feelings, pain and loss, a depth of anguish.

“That wasn’t exactly helpful,” Pangzi said.

“We’ve still got the names,” Wu Xie said. “We can use them to find out more. These people didn’t die natural deaths, maybe there were, I don’t know, newspaper reports.” He twirled a pen between his fingers, thinking. “And we know he was Chinese, he lived in somewhere that seemed like a city, I think in the south, and that he spoke English and writes English and Mandarin, so probably educated.” He pulled his journal open, and checked that the writing was still there. “Why English? There’s something…I don’t think people talk like this. Have you got your phone? Run a search for me on the exact phrases?”

“Maybe they talked like that in history.” Pangzi typed in the English carefully and frowned at the results. “Huh. Here, you speak English.”

Wu Xie studied the results. “He’s quoting poetry. The same poem, I think? I don’t know if I’ve read this.” He scrolled down the screen. “We need to find a historian. And maybe an English scholar. Someone at the university should be able to help.”

Pangzi stood up and stretched. “Or we could ask the people we know who were alive in the 1930s.”

“Xiaoge won’t remember.”

Pangzi sighed. “He remembers some things. And don’t forget Hei-ye. And Zhang Rishan, come to that. Does it seem random to you, that a ghost is here, in Wushjanu, talking to the Wu family heir?”

Wu Xie pressed his lips together.

“Tianzhen. If you don’t tell Xiaoge about this right now, I will. We’re being haunted by someone who’s giving you nightmares, and who seems to have a lot of feelings about you. You think Xiaoge doesn’t deserve to know about that?”

Wu Xie lifted his shoulders. “He left.”

Pangzi made a noise of frustration. “Aiya, Tianzhen, stop being so fucking stubborn. At least let him know what’s going on here, and then it’s up to him. And if you want to bet that he’s not here within twenty-four hours, I’ll take you on.”

Wu Xie screwed up his face. “Could you tell him?” He gave Pangzi a pleading look. “Please.”

Pangzi rolled his eyes. “I’ll message him. But you need to get over this. I get it. I know things haven’t been easy. But even a fucking ghost thinks you need its—his—help, Tianzhen.”

“I’m going back to bed while it’s quiet,” Wu Xie said. “Come if you want.”

Pangzi made another exasperated noise, but when Wu Xie got back into bed, he was right behind him.

Wu Xie woke up to rain and general gloom, and a message from Xiaoge, which Pangzi was waving under his nose, saying to be careful and that he’d be back by the following morning.

If he’d had any other dreams during what remained of the night, he didn’t remember them. He got up and wandered through to the kitchen, and then loitered under the balconies of the garden courtyard, watching rain plinking into the pond.

Something snagged at the corner of his gaze, and he turned half-round. The wall to either side of the gate was plaster, smoothed with age into a creamy yellow. And to the right of the gate was the outline of a man’s face, in red, half in profile, staring off into the distance. It looked old, like a propaganda picture: this effect was completed by what appeared to be a uniform hat and jacket, as well as by how handsome the man was.

Wu Xie went over, rain dripping on him, and touched the image. There wasn’t any wet paint. It looked as though it had been there forever.

“This is you then, is it,” he said to it. “At least it’s tasteful. I guess I’d better go get Pangzi.”

Pangzi was in the kitchen, drinking tea and glaring at the smashed radio, now accompanied by the old cassette player that Wu Xie had last seen at the back of a cupboard somewhere.

“This was doing it again, with the numbers,” he said. “I recorded it on my phone, and it plays back as static, listen.” He pressed his phone, and the whine of static filled the room.

“Come and look at the courtyard,” Wu Xie said.

Pangzi surveyed the image, lips pursed. He’d brought out a large umbrella, which he was holding over both of them. “Very patriotic. That’s a Party uniform, right? What with the Chairman, and everything, it’s beginning to seem that our man was one of the glorious heroes of the revolution. Is he trying to convert us?” He raised his voice. “Nothing but good comrades here!”

Wu Xie shivered. He remembered the loss and guilt in his dream. “He said he was a traitor,” he reminded Pangzi. “Traitor to whom? Or to what? Fuck, I need to read that poem.”

“Do you want to take the plaster off the wall?” Pangzi said, gesturing at the picture. “Easy enough.”

Wu Xie rubbed his arms, looking at the image. Despite the heroic pose, he thought that it seemed sad. He also had a strong feeling that if Pangzi chipped it away, it would still be there, etched into the bricks underneath.

“Leave it,” he said. “Might be helpful if we find out more information.” He shivered again. “I’m going to do some research, tell Wang Meng I’m busy. In fact, let’s give him a week off. I don’t think we should have more people in here with this going on.”

“It had better not be more than a week,” Pangzi said, “or the ghost had better lead us to buried treasure, otherwise we can’t pay the bills and we’ll be living on instant noodles again.” He studied Wu Xie. “Are you going to let Xiaoge see you like that?”

Wu Xie rubbed a hand over his bristly chin and made a face, defensive. “I’ll shave now.”

“Mmm. And visit a hairdresser while you’re at it, your hair looks like shit. Xiaoge’s going to blame me for the state you’re in, you know, it’s your duty to sort yourself out.” He gripped Wu Xie’s shoulder, passed him the umbrella, and ran for the house.

Wu Xie’s hair had reached the stage where it was getting in his eyes, in a mildly irritating way. He tucked it behind his ears self-consciously, as he studied the image some more, as though more clues would suddenly emerge.

It was possible Pangzi had a point, on several grounds. Something in Wu Xie cringed at the thought that Xiaoge would see him unshaven, unkempt, hanging round the house in his dressing gown. Though it wasn’t as if it mattered, in the scheme of things.

He’d been playing pool with Xiaoge, and he’d casually jostled him—not even on purpose, he didn’t think—and Xiaoge had noticeably flinched, and then moved away, to leave a clear distance between them. And Wu Xie had…snapped, he supposed. Since they had brought Xiaoge home, he’d been so careful. He’d dreamed of taking Xiaoge in his arms, and of things a lot less innocent than that; he’d been dreaming of these things for a very long time. And it was difficult, seeing Xiaoge in real life, every day, as he’d seen him just before their game of pool, coming out of the bathroom shirtless and with the shadow of his tattoo still showing. But Wu Xie couldn’t burden him, he couldn’t ask for things that Xiaoge had given no indication he wanted.

Except that at that moment, he hadn’t been able to stop himself.

“If you don’t want me to touch you, you need to tell me,” he’d said. The rawness in his tone had been unexpected even to him.

Xiaoge’s eyes had widened slightly, but he hadn’t said anything, he hadn’t told Wu Xie he was wrong. And Wu Xie had felt some mess of tangled emotions threaten to rise up and choke him.

“I don’t know what you want,” he’d carried on, hearing himself as if from a distance. “You don’t have to be here, if it’s not helping, if we’re stopping you from—”

He hadn’t been able to continue, because he couldn’t give words to everything he feared. Were they, was he, preventing Xiaoge from recovering, from healing, from living whatever life he wanted? Was he trapped here by obligation over the terrible things Wu Xie had done, even if those things meant that he could no longer see Wu Xie as he once had?

He hadn’t been able to look at Xiaoge outright, so he’d looked down at his own hands holding the pool cue. There was a cigarette burn faintly visible on the back of his right hand, self-inflicted, and some scars from acid burns, not self-inflicted. There was a healed cut from a knife. If you knew what you were looking for, you could tell that three of his fingers had been broken, and had healed slightly differently.

“Maybe you should go, Xiaoge,” he’d said, not entirely sure if he meant: leave the room, or simply leave.

And Xiaoge had set down his pool cue with a quiet click, and left. By the time Wu Xie stopped shaking with a whole set of emotions that he couldn’t precisely track, and went to find him, he had gone.

Wu Xie straightened his shoulders. He could deal with this. He could apologize, and he could do better. He could be better, be the friend and support that Xiaoge deserved. And at least Xiaoge was coming back, so he hadn’t fucked everything up irrevocably. Yet.

Nothing else supernatural happened that day. Wu Xie emailed some academics at the local university with vague queries, and ran some searches himself, not with any luck. He went to the hairdresser and then to the library, and borrowed a stack of books about Republican China, to supplement his somewhat impressionistic knowledge from watching a load of dramas. Mid-afternoon, he got a call back from a Prof Li at the university, who specialized in early twentieth-century history, and who said she had a research student who might be able to help him for a small fee.

Wu Xie, checking that Pangzi was out of earshot, promised an hourly rate that Prof Li’s reaction suggested was rather more generous than the usual academic payscale. It netted him the student’s email, though, and he was able to compose a carefully worded if rather vague message to her about the people he was looking for.

And he read the poem the ghost had been quoting, in English and in someone’s rough translation.

“Any good?” Pangzi said, watching him mutter over the English and consult an old student dictionary from his shelves.

Wu Xie looked up at him. “It’s very, ah. Very American. Lots of naked men. Stuff about sex. Not explicit, but explicit for 1855. I think. And this poet definitely liked men, not just in a comradely way. Plus there’s a lot about democracy. And war, politics.” He shrugged. “It’s interesting, as much as I can understand. But I don’t know what the message is that we’re meant to get from it.”

Pangzi looked around him, furtively, and then leaned down. “Maybe the message is that our man wanted to fuck that guy you saw in the dream. That might explain why he’s fixed on you, too.”

Wu Xie made an exasperated noise. “Don’t reduce this to…”

“Sex, love, family, revenge,” said Pangzi. “Nice simple motivations.” He clapped Wu Xie on the shoulder.

Not simple at all, Wu Xie thought. But then, he knew that Pangzi knew that.

Chapter Text

Wu Xie didn’t ask Pangzi to join him that night, and Pangzi looked him over at bedtime, narrowly, and then left him to it. In any case, Wu Xie had intended to sit up very late, reading.

But instead exhaustion overtook him the minute he got into bed, and he fell into sleep like plunging into a crevasse in a tomb, instantly and without warning.

This time, the dream showed him a different set of people. A young man, grinning at him with affection. An older man in uniform, who looked harmless, but was watching him with shrewd eyes from behind a desk. And another older man, on a park bench, in dark glasses, snapping out a newspaper as Wu Xie sat down next to him, crossing his legs precisely. There was a sharpness to all these moments, of grief and nostalgia, though not with the same guilt and heart-clenching fear that he’d felt in the previous dream.

And then the visions grew darker: he was being thrown to the ground, someone shouting and a gun at his head; fuck, it was Chen Moqun, and he was going to go through with it, to kill them both. He was in a dark underground cell full of blood and terror, watching someone suffer, and he was the one giving commands.

He was holding a woman—Lan Xinjie, his brain supplied—who was screaming at him, trying to hit him, tears running down her face, and he had to get her out, they were going to kill her…and then he felt himself fall onto the hard surface of a street, snow under his cheek, all-encompassing pain, and darkness looming up. He tried to reach Zhu Yizhen’s hand, at an impossible distance. At least if it was all over, they were dying together, in the same moment, only she would never know that he…

Wu Xie half-woke up, his throat clogged and tears prickling at his eyes.

“I couldn’t save them,” a voice whispered, and for a moment he couldn’t tell if it was inside his head. “They died to protect me, all except her, and then I lost her too. I betrayed all of them, what they sacrificed, all for nothing.”

The voice wasn’t in his head, he didn’t think. It was the voice he’d had in the dreams. He knew it. He knew him.

“Lin Nansheng,” he said, groggily. He reached out a hand vaguely, towards the bedside light, and a cold hand gripped it. Wu Xie’s eyes flew open, ice going down his spine. The room was pitch black, darker than it should have been naturally. The fingers on his twisted, and held on. He swallowed, his mind racing, and his breath catching.

“Please help me,” the voice said, quieter and full of pain, fading. The grip on Wu Xie’s hand loosened. “Help me find them. Forgive…”

It was gone, and Wu Xie’s hand was empty. He gingerly pulled it back across his chest, rubbing it with his other hand. He could still feel the touch of those chill fingers, like pins and needles. The darkness in the room had ebbed, too, so that he could see the usual outlines of his furniture in the dimness.

Fuck. His mouth was dry. And he knew he’d said a name, right as he woke up—Li, Lan, Lin, something with an “L” sound, and now he couldn’t fucking remember it.

He’d fallen asleep with his phone under his pillow, thankfully, as there was no way he was moving any limbs out of bed right now. He fumbled for it, and hit Pangzi’s number, willing him to wake up and answer.

“Uhhh,” Pangzi said, picking up. “Tianzhen, what the fuck, are you lying on your phone—”

“Pangzi,” Wu Xie said, and almost felt Pangzi coming alert through the connection. “He’s back. Turn all the lights on and get in here. Please.”

“Shit,” said Pangzi. “OK, OK, I’m getting out of bed, I’m on my way, bedroom light on….hall light on….not seeing anything, coming in. There.” The bedroom light snapped on. Wu Xie blinked, dazzled, until he could see Pangzi watching him with anxiety written all over his face.

Pangzi hung up the call, and came to sit on the bed. Wu Xie sat up, and pulled him into a hug, breathing into his shoulder as Pangzi’s arms came round him; the familiar smell of their laundry detergent, and of that soap Pangzi liked, warm and human. His throat was tight again, and his chest felt constricted. He made himself breathe, in and out. Then he sat back.

“I was dreaming again. And when I woke up, he was here—he, ah. Someone took my hand, and spoke to me.”

“Did he hurt you?”

“No, no, nothing like that. I don’t think he even meant to, ah, scare me. He’s so—he was asking for help.” He rubbed his face.

“Maybe we should move out for a bit,” Pangzi said.

“No, we can’t,” Wu Xie said. “We can do this. I knew his name, there, and then when I woke up properly, I’d forgotten it—maybe if I try to get to sleep again.”

Pangzi glared at him. “Tianzhen. You’re telling me a ghost grabbed your hand? You’re not staying in this room. You’re coming with me, to my room, and we’re sleeping with every fucking light on, clear?”

“But we’re not moving out.”

Pangzi heaved a sigh. “If you want. Not like we haven’t faced much worse.” He looked round the room. “If you’re listening though, let me clarify: don’t fucking touch Tianzhen without his permission.”


The lights flickered, and they both tensed. One of Wu Xie’s journals fell off the shelf with a soft thump, and the pages came open, rustling, and then lay flat.

Wu Xie got out of bed and knelt to pick it up. There was the same neat writing in the margin, just three characters.

“It says sorry,” he said, turning to wave the page at Pangzi. “I told you, he’s not going to hurt me.” The lights flickered again, as if in agreement.

“Have it your way,” said Pangzi. “Now hurry up, my bed’s getting cold.”

Despite the bright lights, Wu Xie did eventually sleep fitfully, Pangzi’s arm a reassuring human weight on his chest. He didn’t dream the ghost’s dreams this time. He dreamed of being lost in Gutonjing, and then in the Wang family compound, searching for Li Cu and never finding him. He dreamed of gunshots and smoke and a knife in his hand. And then he woke up, morning light warring with the electric light, and his own list of names running through his head.

Pangzi was still asleep. Wu Xie switched off the lights, and went to the bathroom to splash his face with cold water. There was a wheeze in his chest yet again: he coughed a few times, trying to clear it, with no luck. His shorter hair was still surprising, when he caught it in the mirror. He bent to cup his hands under the tap. And when he looked up again, blinking water out of his eyes, it wasn’t his own face looking back at him.

He recoiled violently, and then caught himself, clutching the edge of the sink. He’d said he wanted to help, and the ghost had said he was sorry. He made himself look into the mirror.

It was definitely the same man whose image was in the courtyard. The first thing Wu Xie noticed was his beauty. The second was how despairing he looked. His eyes were red-rimmed, his expression drawn. He didn’t seem aware that Wu Xie was there, even though he should have been looking at him. Wu Xie cautiously raised a hand and waved at the mirror, feeling self-conscious, and there was no reaction. The man rubbed a hand over his eyes, an oddly childlike gesture, then straightened, his face going from devastated to carefully impassive. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, Wu Xie noted, but a plain grey work jacket. He looked around Wu Xie’s age, maybe a little older, glints of silver in his short hair.

Wu Xie shivered, as the ghost looked at him and through him. And then the ghost’s head turned, sharply, a line creasing his brow, as though he’d been startled, and he was gone. Wu Xie’s own face looked back at him, tired and a little worn, eyes wide.

There was a sound in the distance, of the door to the main entrance opening and closing, and it was Wu Xie’s turn to look towards it, his heart beating faster. He dried his face quickly, and went to check.

Xiaoge was standing in the courtyard, not far from the door, his hood up and his bag and sword still on his back. Wu Xie would have said that his posture suggested that he was poised to run.

He took a deep breath, and went over to him.

“You made it,” he said.

Xiaoge shook his hood down. He looked wary, uncertain of his welcome. Wu Xie’s stomach clenched.

“Xiaoge, I—”

“I’m sorry,” Xiaoge interrupted.

Wu Xie frowned at him, thrown. “No, you’re not the one who should be saying that. Xiaoge, I need to apologize to you.”

Xiaoge shook his head, impatiently. He stepped forward, into Wu Xie’s space, and gripped his shoulder.

Wu Xie lost what he’d been planning to say next. Xiaoge met his eyes.

“Wu Xie. I…” Xiaoge made a sound of frustration. Wu Xie held his breath. He was very aware of the nearness of Xiaoge’s body, and the warmth of his hand.

Xiaoge searched Wu Xie’s face, and then seemed to resolve something. He deliberately tugged Wu Xie closer, leaned in, and kissed him once, fast. Then he pulled away, letting his hands fall.

Wu Xie touched his own mouth, trying to parse what had just happened. “You mean you…you know that I…but, Xiaoge—”

The careful stillness of Xiaoge’s face suggested he was still unsure. Wu Xie couldn’t have that. Very cautiously, as though Xiaoge might still turn and flee, he brushed the tips of his fingers over Xiaoge’s mouth, shivering at the heat of his breath. Xiaoge’s eyes were very dark. Wu Xie moved closer to him.

“The cassette deck’s doing it again, Tianzhen, do you want—aii, what the—”

Xiaoge stepped back. “Pangzi.”

“Xiaoge, you’re here, that’s great! Are you two—”

“Tell me about the ghost,” said Xiaoge.

Wu Xie pulled himself together, grateful that Xiaoge had interrupted whatever Pangzi had been about to say. He reached for his composure with long-practiced ease, even though his mind and body were still thrumming with disbelief and desire.

Pangzi was listing off ghostly incidents. “There’s the picture.” Wu Xie said, when they got that far. He pointed, and Xiaoge turned round to look. “And I did think I knew his name, in my dreams, but then I forgot it, it might come back—”

“He grabbed Tianzhen’s hand in the middle of the night,” Pangzi contributed. Xiaoge swung back round, sharply.

“He didn’t hurt me. Oh, and I saw him in the bathroom mirror right before you arrived, he—”

“You what?” said Pangzi. “Now that’s just creepy, you…”

“Wait,” Xiaoge said. He strode off into the house, dropping his pack and sword inside the door as he went. Wu Xie and Pangzi stared after him.

“Is he going to...?” said Pangzi.

“I have no idea.”

“And what was going on here, huh, Tianzhen? You and Xiaoge, you’re finally…?”

“Shhh,” Wu Xie said, though he wasn’t sure if he didn’t want Xiaoge to hear, or the ghost to hear. His lips were still tingling. “I don’t know. You didn’t have to interrupt us.”

“How was I to know?”

Wu Xie shrugged.

“Should we follow him, do you think?” Pangzi asked, wisely changing the subject.

“He said to wait.” Wu Xie wandered over to one of the pillars, and leaned on it, folding his arms.

Pangzi snorted. He came and leaned on the other side. “I hope he doesn’t smash our cassette player, I still use that.”

Xiaoge came out of the house a few minutes later, carrying Wu Xie’s knife in one hand and something small in the other. Wu Xie glanced at Pangzi and they both went to meet him. Xiaoge folded himself gracefully onto the top step, and unrolled an old scroll of paper, with red characters on it. He set a small weight on it, to keep it flat. Wu Xie leaned over to scan it. It didn’t seem familiar.

“It’s a talisman,” Xiaoge said. “For calling restless ghosts to take on form, and reveal their names.”

“Was that here? I didn’t know we had something like this.”

Xiaoge’s eyes flicked up to meet Wu Xie’s. Wu Xie’s breath caught again.

“It belongs to your grandmother. Your uncle spoke of it.” Xiaoge hesitated. “It will need a drop of your blood.”

“Why his blood?” Pangzi said. “What’s wrong with mine?”

“Family,” said Xiaoge, cryptically, and with a finality that Wu Xie knew meant that he wouldn’t be drawn.

“Fine,” he said. “Pass me the knife.”

“Woah,” Pangzi said. “Hold on, hold on. Xiaoge just got here. We’re going to leap straight into summoning ghosts and bleeding, without even offering him breakfast?” He frowned at Xiaoge. “Have you been travelling all night?”

“I’m fine,” Xiaoge said.

“No, he’s right,” Wu Xie said. “We don’t have to do this immediately. Let’s at least eat something. And maybe we should get dressed, this ghost seems very, ah, formal. We need to do things properly.”

“Mmm,” Pangzi said. “I am dressed. I’ll go get some food ready.”

Pangzi was wearing his favourite Hello Kitty T-shirt and some kind of sarong thing he’d picked up on one of their southern adventures. Wu Xie met Xiaoge’s eyes, and Xiaoge not-quite smiled at him.

“What? I’m not fucking dressing up for a ghost, he can take it or leave it.” Pangzi thumped his chest. “This is twenty-first century style, it’ll be educational.”

Wu Xie grinned at him. “Fine. I’ll hunt out a jacket, and Xiaoge looks smart already.”

“See you at breakfast,” Pangzi said. His eyes slid between the two of them. “No rush.”

Wu Xie stood up as Pangzi headed off, the tension returning; should he say something, about what had happened?

“I’ll go and, ah, put some clothes on,” he said, and then felt himself blushing.

Xiaoge was carefully rolling up the scroll. He nodded.

Wu Xie was pulling on his jeans, and determinedly thinking about whether he had a clean shirt, rather than about anything else, when there was a light knock on his bedroom door. Pangzi didn’t generally bother to knock.

“Come in,” he said, hastily pulling his jeans up and looking round for a T-shirt. Xiaoge had seen him naked multiple times in the past, it shouldn’t be a big deal. And yet it very much felt as if it was.

Xiaoge came in, closing the door behind him. Wu Xie straightened, self-consciously, trying not to cross his arms over his chest like a nervous maiden. Xiaoge was looking at him. No, wait. Xiaoge was looking at him, and there was heat in his gaze, as it moved over Wu Xie’s body.

Wu Xie wet his lips, and saw Xiaoge watch that too.

This was so much what he had longed for, to have Xiaoge see him like this, that Wu Xie couldn’t help mistrusting the spark of hope that it lit. He ought to apologize and explain, and discuss whatever seemed to be going on between them, in an adult manner. He ought to be cautious, because Xiaoge was still recovering from a whole decade of unfathomable horror, that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell them about. And because if this all went wrong, he had no idea how he would manage to survive it.

Instead, he stepped closer, watching Xiaoge keenly for any signs of doubt or discomfort, and set his hands lightly on his waist.

“Anything,” he said, meeting Xiaoge’s eyes and willing him to see how true this was. “Whatever you want.”

The corner of Xiaoge’s mouth twisted, maybe unhappily, but Wu Xie didn’t have time to consider that because then Xiaoge kissed him, and Wu Xie clutched at him like a drowning man and kissed him back.

Xiaoge was tentative enough to begin with that Wu Xie wondered, not for the first time, if he’d forgotten this, or never done it before. But not at all surprisingly, he was quick to learn. He matched Wu Xie’s intensity and took over, till Wu Xie had to break off to gasp. There were tears prickling in his eyes, he thought he might be shaking a little, and he wanted to laugh out loud in disbelief.

“Xiaoge,” he said, his voice coming out hoarse. “Are you sure?”

“I think so,” said Xiaoge, and leaned in to kiss him again. The words were uncertain, but his mouth and the hands on Wu Xie’s back were confident. He slid one hand down to the edge of Wu Xie’s jeans, and a little under, and Wu Xie arched into him.

“Have you, ah, done this before?” Wu Xie managed to break off to ask. He needed to get Xiaoge to give him a more definite yes in words, but it was hard to make himself stop kissing him.

Xiaoge shrugged. Then his hands abruptly stopped moving, and he looked up, over Wu Xie’s shoulder.

The hair on Wu Xie’s arms prickled. “Oh,” he said. “Shit. I nearly forgot. Is he here, can you tell?”

“Yes,” Xiaoge said. “But I can’t see him.”

A current of icy air slid round Wu Xie, and he shivered. “Yes, that’s him.” He glanced around, scowling. “This is rude, you know. This is private.”

The air current intensified into a gust, and the door blew open.

Wu Xie met Xiaoge’s eyes, and smiled, ruefully. Somehow, a disapproving or impatient ghost made this whole situation seem much more real.

“We need to deal with this,” he said. He reluctantly let go of Xiaoge, and stepped back.

“I will get ready,” Xiaoge said. His voice sounded steady, normal, but his lips were redder and his hair was a little messed up, where Wu Xie had run a hand into it. It sent a thrill through Wu Xie, settling in the pit of his stomach.

“So will I. See you out there?”

Xiaoge gave him a brief nod and slid out of the room, and Wu Xie turned to his wardrobe. “I don’t think you disapprove,” he said to the listening air. “I think perhaps you understand.” He pulled a shirt over his head, without unbuttoning it, and wrestled into it. “Maybe you were even right to interrupt, I don’t know.” He sighed. “I have the impression your love life was complicated too, right?”

There was no answer.

Xiaoge had cleared a table, and laid the scroll out on it, with four stools. Wu Xie bent over to study it. He could hear Pangzi or Xiaoge, or rather Pangzi, talking in the kitchen.

He looked up as they came through. Pangzi raised an eyebrow at him meaningfully, and he tried to look as innocent as he could.

“I can’t decipher most of this,” he said.

Xiaoge, if he knew anything else about the scroll, didn’t say. He sat down, and picked up Wu Xie’s knife, looking it over. Then he passed it to Wu Xie.

“One drop,” he said, as Wu Xie opened a cut on his hand. He sounded pained. Wu Xie briefly considered his scars—some of which Xiaoge could have seen earlier, if he’d been paying attention, and some of which he hadn’t yet seen—and the way he’d casually sliced his hand open without asking any questions, and winced internally.

He let a few drops of blood fall onto the talisman, where Xiaoge was indicating.

“Did it work?” Pangzi said, craning to see.

Wu Xie looked up at Xiaoge, and then made an involuntary sound. There was a man standing behind Xiaoge, his eyes on Wu Xie, the same man he’d seen before. He was wearing an immaculate pinstriped suit, with tie and waistcoat and pressed white shirt; his hair was short and neat. He looked both real and unreal. There was a kind of shimmer in the air around him, a slight blurring of his edges.

Wu Xie knew his name, suddenly. “Lin Nansheng,” he said. He heard Pangzi make a small noise of disbelief, beside him, and he felt Xiaoge shift, ready to act.

The man looked hesitant. Wu Xie saw his throat move as he swallowed.

“Yes,” he said. His voice was familiar. “I…forgot. But that was my name, once.”

Wu Xie gestured at the empty stool. “You’ve been waiting to speak to us? Please, sit down. I’m, ah. My name is Wu Xie. This is Wang Pangzi, and—Zhang Qiling. We call him Xiaoge.”

“Pleased to meet you.” The ghost—Lin Nansheng—sounded far more formal, more measured, than the desperate plea Wu Xie had heard in the night. He sat down on the stool, very straight, smoothing his trousers. His hands curled and relaxed, on his thighs. His eyes were dark and intelligent, studying Wu Xie with intensity.

Pangzi blew out a noisy breath, beside him. “He looks like you, Tianzhen.” Lin Nansheng turned to look at him, and Pangzi coughed. “I mean, you look like him. Sorry. No offence. We don’t usually make conversation with ghosts.”

“You’re a Wu,” Xiaoge said. It wasn’t a question.

Lin Nansheng ducked his head, and then looked back up at them.

“Yes,” he said. “Of sorts.”

“But your name—” said Wu Xie.

“So that’s why you’re here?” Pangzi said at the same time, gesturing round the house.

Lin Nansheng glanced around the room too. The nagging sense of recognition about the way he was acting, the tension that underlay his posture, hit Wu Xie; this was someone used to handling questioning. Or to being interrogated, and not giving himself away. Wu Xie had learned this skill too, in the last decade: he could recognize that particular form of control when he saw it.

“You don’t have to answer our questions,” he said, leaning forward. “And if you’re here unwillingly, you don’t have to stay. We can, ah, undo this…” He tapped the talisman.

“Thank you,” Lin Nansheng said. “I am grateful for your concern. But I did wish—that is, there are things I need to tell you.”

Wu Xie nodded, gesturing for him to continue, and sat back. Lin Nansheng took a deep breath.

“In answer to your question,” he said to Pangzi, “I am here because this is where I died. I was…” The shimmer around him intensified, and then he was dressed differently, in the grey top Wu Xie had seen in the mirror, and some loose cotton trousers. His face was different, too, older and sharper, the cheeks more hollow.

He put a hand to his chest, and Wu Xie watched disbelievingly as red bloomed around it.

“You were killed,” Xiaoge said, quietly.

“Murdered,” Pangzi added.

“No.” Lin Nansheng took his hand away and looked at it. Bright blood stained his palm, his fingers. Then he shook his hand, and it was clean, and so were his clothes. “Or at least, not in the way you think. But I did die here. My body is…ah, under those stones.” He turned and pointed towards the courtyard, where the picture was still on the wall.

“Fuck,” said Pangzi. He bumped Wu Xie’s shoulder. “Did either of you two know about this?”

Xiaoge shook his head. “No,” Wu Xie said, grimly.

Lin Nansheng’s mouth curled a little, in something that wasn’t quite a smile. “No,” he echoed. “Few living people know.” He rubbed at the rough fabric of his trousers. “Let me start from the beginning. You asked if I was part of the family that own this house. I am not, in any official sense. But a long time ago, my mother was a young girl living in a mountain village, in the south. The mountains were full of caves, and sometimes the younger villagers went exploring in them, following rumours of treasure. Not all of them came back, and those that did had wild stories of things they’d seen, which none of the other villagers believed.”

Lin Nansheng looked round their little circle. He was a good storyteller, Wu Xie thought.

“And then one day, a group of outsiders came to the village. Men from a faraway town, on an expedition, with strange accents and foreign clothing. My mother had only rarely seen strangers. She was very beautiful, my mother, and she was intelligent; the strangers enjoyed her tales, and her food, and they told her amazing stories of monsters and thieves and the tombs of a great prince, that they’d come to search for.”

Pangzi shifted in his seat, and Wu Xie knew he was thinking about Banai, and about Yuncai.

“She was only sixteen,” Lin Nansheng continued. “So when one of the strange men, a leader of the party, started to pay more attention to her, she was flattered. She fell in love with him. She thought he would take her with him, on his adventures. But when the men had found and stolen the treasures they were looking for, they fled in the night, with no warning. And all they left behind them was the child that my mother was expecting.” He looked up at Wu Xie. “The man was your great-grandfather.”

Wu Xie nodded. It didn’t come as a shock. Watching Lin Nansheng as he talked, he could see a faint resemblance, to the oldest of their family photos. He stifled the impulse to start apologizing.

“Great-great-uncle, ha,” Pangzi muttered. Wu Xie elbowed him.

“It was a different time.” Lin Nansheng’s gaze fell on Xiaoge, thoughtfully. “She left the village, hoping that she could somehow get to Changsha and find her lover, even though she realized, from what he had and hadn’t said, that he had another family. But on the way, she accepted a lift from a merchant, a dealer in tea and other goods, from a little town near Nanjing. He was a kind man, and lonely, and after three days of travelling in company together, he asked her to stay. He offered to marry her and bring up her child as his own. So he became my father.”

He stopped, gazing into the distance at nothing, and then looked round them again. “My mother did not tell me this until long after he died.” His mouth twisted. “I had no desire to seek out the man who had left her. I had no intention of doing so. I made sure she had enough to live on, even if I—even during the war. But then after the war, after we—” He paused, and swallowed. “After we won. I had to leave the army. We were—I was—assigned to…to a district in the countryside. In the early years all was well, and then.” His hands had clenched in his lap, Wu Xie saw. He wasn’t meeting their eyes.

There was a long pause. Lin Nansheng’s expression was…haunted, Wu Xie thought, though that seemed a terrible cliché for a literal ghost.

“People were starving,” he said, abruptly, looking down at his hands. “We—I—knew the harvest would fail, and we followed the directives anyway. We obeyed orders. They would all have died, everyone under my care. Many already had. I couldn’t—I couldn’t sit at those dinners, laughing with my peers, when I knew what was happening in the villages. I spoke to everyone I could. I even wrote to the Chairman.” His mouth curled again. “I caused a lot of trouble. I couldn’t believe that they would know and do nothing. And then, eventually, I was made to believe it.”

He uncurled his hands, deliberately, and then looked up at them. There were shadows on his face, suddenly, one eye swollen shut, livid bruises and cuts. Wu Xie blinked and they were gone. “It is enough to say that I came here because I was fleeing arrest. I had nothing left to live for. Taking my own life was the only honourable option that remained. But first I wanted to see if my father was living, and to ask if his family could protect my mother: she had no-one, and they knew where she lived, I did not want her to suffer for my errors…”

Wu Xie saw that Lin Nansheng’s eyes were wet. He ached to comfort him, this man whose grief he had felt, could still feel. But there wasn’t anything he could say, to this; to wrongs this old and this vivid.

“I failed,” Lin Nansheng said. “But how I died—that is not all my own story.” He met Wu Xie’s eyes. “Your grandmother knows. She was there.”

“Nainai?” Wu Xie said, startled. “You know her?”

Lin Nansheng’s expression softened. “Yes. Those who know I’m here have been able to see me, sometimes. Your grandmother is the only one left.” He looked at Xiaoge again, his brows drawing together. “I have seen you, many years ago.”

“Ah, Xiaoge has a complicated situation,” Pangzi said. “In relation to…history.”

“How can we help?” Wu Xie said. He looked round at Pangzi and Xiaoge, checking, and saw their agreement. “The three of us have…resources. Tell us what you need.”

Lin Nansheng bowed his head, in acceptance. There was a flicker, and he was back in the suit he’d been wearing before, years shaved from his face.

“I told you their names,” he said. “I need you to help me find them.” He smiled, without humour. “I will try to be brief here too. It was 1936. I had graduated from Nanjing Normal, and joined the army, to train in special services: I was fired with passion, to fight the invaders and save my country. And one day, a man visited us from Shanghai. His name was—”

“Chen Moqun,” Wu Xie said.

Lin Nansheng nodded. “Chen Moqun. And he is where it all began.”

Chapter Text

When Lin Nansheng fell silent, Wu Xie stood up, stretching. His legs were stiff from sitting. Pangzi had got up at one point and brought them tea, hesitating and then pouring a cup for Lin Nansheng. Lin Nansheng hadn’t touched it. Presumably ghosts didn’t eat and drink? Wu Xie wasn’t quite sure on this, or on a number of other points. Lin Nansheng was turning the cup in his hands now, though, looking into it.

Wu Xie would have liked to rest a reassuring hand on his shoulder, or to give him a hug, if that wasn’t disrespectful. Lin Nansheng had taken his hand, in the night, and was evidently able to interact with objects too, so it should be theoretically possible to touch him. But he was so contained, like this, so controlled. He made Xiaoge’s posture look relaxed.

Wu Xie ruffled Pangzi’s hair, instead, and leaned on his shoulder as he stretched. He’d interrupted a couple of times, to take some rough notes. He picked up his notebook and reread them. “I’ll send these to the student who’s helping us. If Chen Moqun and Lan Xinjie are, ah, restless, as you suspect from the…from how they died, then we might be able to track them down. I don’t know much about what to do with ghosts when we find them, though. Xiaoge?”

Xiaoge considered this for a moment. “Hei Xiazi. There was a tomb…”

“Can you locate him and ask if he’ll help?”

Xiaoge nodded.

“Don’t offer him money without checking his rates,” Pangzi said. “Remember what happened last time. I’ve got friends in Shanghai, I’ll see if they’ve heard any rumours, put the word out.”

Wu Xie contemplated logistics. He coughed a few times, rubbing his chest idly. “I’ll talk to Nainai, this evening, if I can. We also need—if we’re trying to give them a proper memorial, then we need grave tablets and everything.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Pangzi said. “We have to find them first.”

“Thank you,” said Lin Nansheng, quietly. “You have no reason to help me.”

“You’re family,” Wu Xie said, meeting his eyes. “Of course we’ll do what we can.”

“Besides, I don’t know if you know this, but we’re the Iron Triangle,” Pangzi said, slapping his chest. “Crazy adventures are our specialty. A bit of ghostbusting? For the three of us, that’s a walk in the park.”

“I understand,” said Lin Nansheng. His tone was grave, but Wu Xie thought there might be an undercurrent of humour in it. Then he met Wu Xie’s eyes again, and the lines on his face tightened, any lightness disappearing.

“I also need to speak to you, privately,” he said, to Wu Xie.

Xiaoge shifted in his seat, not quite a protest.

“Fine,” Wu Xie said.

“We’ll go make some calls,” Pangzi said. “Come on, Xiaoge, let Tianzhen and his great-great-uncle have the room.”

Xiaoge gave a Wu Xie a look that said that he’d better call for him if anything dubious happened, or else, and then followed him.

Lin Nansheng stood up and went over to the open screens to the courtyard, looking out. It was raining again. He glanced round at Wu Xie, and his clothes shifted once more. It was an odd effect, like a sort of ripple over him, and then it seemed as though he’d always been the way he looked, at that moment. This time he was in a crisp khaki uniform with bars at the shoulders, very obviously a Deputy Chief. His gaze was commanding, from someone used to giving orders.

Except that Wu Xie was pretty certain this was a nationalist uniform, so given what Lin Nansheng had told them about his years as the Mailman, this outfit and all it stood for was a lie, and the man underneath it was desperate and ruthless.

Wu Xie went and stood with him, consciously stopping himself from pulling his spine up to match Lin Nansheng’s military posture. Lin Nansheng now appeared to have his gaze fixed on the spot across the courtyard where he’d said he was buried, which was not a happy thought. It might’ve been helpful if members of Wu Xie’s family had told him there was a corpse in his backyard: he could have used a warning, in this instance.

“You must have wondered why I am here, right now,” Lin Nansheng said.

Wu Xie shrugged. “A little. Things, ah, tend to happen around us.”

Lin Nansheng didn’t smile. “It has been some years since I was last—active. In this house. This time…there are energies here that I think called to me. Part of it may be connected to your friend. Zhang Qiling.”

Wu Xie wasn’t sure if Lin Nansheng had emphasized “friend” in a meaningful way, or not. It made a kind of unhappy sense, though, that Xiaoge’s presence, his return from behind the Bronze Gate, might speak to any ghosts in the vicinity.

Lin Nansheng turned to meet his eyes, and raised his chin. “And partly it is because you are the last of the direct family line, and you are dying.”

Still thinking about Xiaoge and ghosts, Wu Xie heard what Lin Nansheng said, without comprehending it. He had to play the sentence back in his head.

“What?” he said.

“I can hear…” A muscle in Lin Nansheng’s face twitched. “Your lungs. Something is wrong. And to me, now, you are…” He paused, considering. “I can’t explain. There is a border on the edges of death, and you are closer to it, Wu Xie. I would not be here, if you were not.”

He sounded wholly earnest. Wu Xie swallowed. Lin Nansheng, according to his life story, must have learned to be an extremely accomplished liar. And yet he had clearly hated having to lie. On the one hand, he was a restless ghost, and there were a lot of warnings about trusting those. On the other hand, sincerity rang in his every word.

The catch in his breath, the irritating pain in his chest, the way that he coughed every time he breathed deeply. Wu Xie had known it wasn’t right, and he’d assumed it was his smoking; he hadn’t wanted to be lectured by doctors about it. Maybe it was due to his habit: it would be a fine ending after all his years of lucky escapes, to die of lung cancer, in a hospital bed.

With a flash of pure terror, he thought about Pangzi and Xiaoge, hearing this, knowing this.

“Why are you telling me this?” he said, sharply.

Lin Nansheng closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them. “Because there might still be time. I know the world has changed.” He spread his hands. “I didn’t struggle to speak to you in order to predict your death. I wanted to warn you to take action, before time runs out. Not to leave things unsettled. As I did.”

Wu Xie rubbed a hand over his mouth, remembering holding Xiaoge close, Xiaoge’s mouth on his. It seemed like days ago. With things still so uncertain and unpredictable between them, there was absolutely no way that he was letting Xiaoge hear anything that Lin Nansheng had just said. There was even less chance that he was going to tell Pangzi. Not when Lin Nansheng might be mistaken, or when modern medicine would easily be able to fix what, if anything, was wrong.

“Then consider me warned,” he said. “And—I swear I’ll go to the hospital, and so on, but I need you not to say anything to anyone else. Please. If you’re right, this is my private business.”

Lin Nansheng’s mouth twisted. “I understand.”

Wu Xie nodded his thanks. Then he frowned at Lin Nansheng. The slight blur at his edges, that signalled he wasn’t quite human, seemed to be more pronounced. Another larger ripple ran over his body, in a deeply disconcerting way, distorting it for a moment and then fading. Wu Xie blinked, and then he could see the shape of the courtyard through Lin Nansheng.

“Uh,” he said. “Lin Nansheng….are you...”

Lin Nansheng was looking across the courtyard again. “I am not usually this present,” he said. “The talisman you used, it will keep me here. If you call my name, I will come. For now, though.” He turned and half-smiled at Wu Xie, and as he did, he faded completely, and vanished.

Goosebumps rose on Wu Xie’s arms, and he rubbed them. Getting used to living with a ghost would take some work. Though, of course, he’d already been living with a ghost, he just hadn’t known it.

Pangzi and Xiaoge appeared to accept his explanation that Lin Nansheng had been sharing some private family memories at face value, though Xiaoge’s eyes lingered on him. Pangzi was already cycling through loud phone conversations with various people he knew in Shanghai, and Xiaoge was messaging with Hei Xiazi, wherever he was.

Wu Xie fetched his laptop and started composing a new email to his student helper. His fingers slowed, over Zhu Yizhen’s name. Lin Nansheng had ended his story, firmly, with the triumph of his party and Zhu Yizhen’s happy return; with what should have been the climax of their very tortuous romance. Presumably, she wasn’t among the restless ghosts they had to seek, though neither did she seem to be on the list of the other dead mourned by Lin Nansheng. A list that, as he noted it down, had seemed to Wu Xie to encompass everyone that Lin Nansheng had ever felt close to. His chest burned again, and he looked up from the screen to watch Pangzi, pacing and gesturing, barely letting whoever he was speaking to get a word in edgeways.

If Lin Nansheng hadn’t lost her, though, then what had happened, after the ending? Had their reunion failed to live up to their expectations? Had the long years of waiting and hoping been too much, for one or both of them? Had they tried to make it work between them, and found that they were strangers?

Wu Xie became aware that he’d been staring at his screen without seeing it, fingers silent on the keys, for some time. He looked up again, and Xiaoge was watching him from across the room, an expression on his face that Wu Xie couldn’t quite read.

Wu Xie typed an abrupt concluding sentence and hit send on the message, and then closed his screen. Take action, Lin Nansheng’s voice said in his head. He met Xiaoge’s gaze, and jerked his head in the direction of his room.

Xiaoge nodded very slightly, and when Wu Xie stood up, he was right behind him.

Wu Xie closed the door of his room behind them, wavered a moment, and then went to sit on the bed. Xiaoge didn’t join him. He leaned against the door, surveying the room.

“It’s OK,” Wu Xie said. His heart was beating fast with nervousness, but he tried for a convincing smile. “I think he’s gone for now. He said to call his name if we wanted to speak to him.”

Xiaoge relaxed, minutely.

“Do you remember that time?” Wu Xie asked. “The war? And after?” It wasn’t where he’d been planning to start.

Xiaoge was silent for a long time, not refusing to answer, but thinking about it. Wu Xie let himself wait.

“No,” Xiaoge said, eventually. “Some of it I was told, later.” His eyebrows drew together. “Hei Xiazi remembers.”

“Mmm.” It might be good that Xiaoge didn’t remember, given the kind of things they’d heard from someone who’d lived through it. “That wasn’t an easy story,” he said, instead. “I want…I want us to be able to help him.”

“Yes,” Xiaoge said.

Wu Xie glanced at the photos on his wall, that he’d put up after Xiaoge’s return: a reminder that he was back, now, and a set of memories of their younger selves.

“While you were away,” he said. It was easier to say this if he didn’t look at Xiaoge, so he picked at a loose thread in his bedcover. His stomach felt twisted into knots. “You know this already, but. A lot of people died because of my choices. Some of them I killed. Some of them I…had killed, I suppose. I know—I knew—it needed to be done. Even if you never—even if it hadn’t been for you, someone had to do it, and I was the only one who could.” He risked a quick look at Xiaoge, who was watching him, his gaze dark and steady.

“I believed in what I was doing,” Wu Xie said. “But sometimes, I can’t believe I did it.”

Xiaoge crossed the room, and sat beside him. “Wu Xie,” he said, and Wu Xie lifted his eyes at the emotion in his tone.

“I’m not the same person,” Wu Xie confessed, in a rush. “I know you know that too, I know you’ve talked to Pangzi, and looked at my journals. I didn’t write it all down, though, all the things I did. All the things I thought of doing.” He bit his lip, and met Xiaoge’s eyes. “All the times I thought about you.”

Xiaoge held his eyes. “I am not the same either,” he said, each word measured. “I want.” He paused, for what felt like a very long space of time. “Wu Xie. I want to try. You asked…if I have done this before, I don’t remember. I don’t know. I might….” His brows twisted in frustration.

“It’s OK,” Wu Xie said. He could feel a little of his tension draining out of him. “I came after you to apologize, you know, after I said that stuff to you. But you’d already gone, so I thought…it doesn’t matter. I don’t know what I’m doing either, Xiaoge. I mean, not that I haven’t, ah, been involved with people, obviously. But it’s different, when it’s you.”

Xiaoge tilted his head slightly, in what seemed like agreement.

“We can be very slow?” Wu Xie said. “Can I…?” He raised a hand towards Xiaoge’s face.

Xiaoge nodded, and Wu Xie gently traced his cheek with a finger, brushing the smooth skin under his unlined eyes. Xiaoge blinked, and he felt the softness of his eyelashes. He lightly outlined Xiaoge’s eyebrows, and Xiaoge closed his eyes, and let him touch: the line of his nose, his sharp cheekbones, his lips, surprisingly soft. Xiaoge’s breath caught a little, as Wu Xie touched him, and something fierce, possessive, and tentatively joyful broke open in Wu Xie, making his hand tremble.

“Xiaoge,” he said, resting his hand on Xiaoge’s cheek. He took Xiaoge’s other hand, and lifted it to his lips, and then pressed his own cheek against it. Xiaoge’s eyes fluttered open, and his fingers curled. He tugged his hand away, though only to mirror Wu Xie’s actions, feather-light touches to the crow’s feet at the edge of Wu Xie’s eyes, to the fine lines at the corner of his mouth.

When Xiaoge’s finger paused on his lips, Wu Xie swallowed. Xiaoge leaned in to kiss him, a brush of his mouth against his, and he sighed into it. He followed Xiaoge’s mouth and they kissed again, opening to each other. Wu Xie touched his tongue to Xiaoge’s and felt it like a shock through him, yet at the same time the urgency of earlier that day had faded.

There was a ghost in the house and a corpse in his yard, there were calls to make and plans to build, there was the catch in his breath which had nothing to do with the way Xiaoge made him feel. But here, now, Xiaoge was warm and alive and allowing Wu Xie to hold him in his arms, and everything needed to halt to allow this to happen.

He pulled Xiaoge down to the bed, or Xiaoge pulled him, and they lay entwined, kissing each other. All his fears, all the frustrations of the past weeks and months: it was as though he was letting Xiaoge hear them all, and soothe them. And Xiaoge, when Wu Xie broke off briefly to stroke his hair back and look at him, seemed wondering. Wu Xie kissed him again, with no intent further than kissing, as though the years were wiped away and he was fourteen again, and Xiaoge was the first person he’d ever done this with.

After a long time, Wu Xie pulled away. He shifted to rest his head on Xiaoge’s shoulder, and Xiaoge moved to let him. Wu Xie blinked up at his ceiling. Desire curled within him, but he didn’t need to act on it; this was pleasurable in itself, to allow himself to feel this.

“This is good,” he said, with a very slight question.

“Yes,” Xiaoge agreed, and Wu Xie felt himself smile.

“We have to get up, though. And—do things.”


Wu Xie lifted himself up on his elbow, and surveyed Xiaoge, who looked—not precisely relaxed, but as relaxed as Wu Xie had seen him.

Unromantically, Wu Xie’s stomach growled. It must be late afternoon, and he hadn’t eaten since that morning. Xiaoge raised a questioning eyebrow at him.

“Sorry,” Wu Xie said. “We really do have to get up. Food, phone calls, emails, visiting Nainai. We left Pangzi to do everything, it’s not fair.”

Xiaoge huffed out a small breath, maybe a laugh or a sigh, and sat up, gracefully. Wu Xie sat up less gracefully, tugging at his rumpled shirt, and trying in vain to straighten his hair.

“Oh, did you get anywhere with Hei Xiazi?” he asked.

“He was taught a ritual, long ago,” Xiaoge said. “He will share it. And he knows an expert we can hire.”

“As long as it’s someone cheaper than him,” Wu Xie said, standing up and stretching. Xiaoge was still sitting on the bed, and the urge to see if he would let Wu Xie push him back down and carry on kissing him was hard to resist. But as he debated this, Xiaoge stood up, looking much more unruffled than Wu Xie.

“Will you be staying here for a while?” Wu Xie said. Xiaoge had his own room, and Wu Xie and Pangzi had tried to give him as much privacy as possible. There was no way Wu Xie could have made this sound like a casual question, though, not when they were standing beside his bed, the covers rumpled where they’d been lying on them.

Xiaoge made a sound of assent.

“Then…I’ll see you later?” Wu Xie said. “Nainai doesn’t like late evening visitors, I ought to go now, eat something on the way.”

“Later,” Xiaoge said, and Wu Xie breathed through a giddy rush of longing and anticipation, and left, while he still could.

His grandmother had moved to a luxurious flat in a complex full of other wealthy, elderly people, with a doctor and all the services she could want on call. As far as Wu Xie could tell, she was at the heart of wide variety of plots and intrigues among the residents and was involved, in some degree, with at least five different men. Her room was always full of flowers and offerings from her suitors.

Today was no exception. Wu Xie, after eating a hasty and unsatisfactory bowl of noodles at the place a few doors down from Hangzhou’s top bakery, had bought a very expensive cake as an offering. He couldn’t help noticing, however, that there was another bakery box from the same place set to one side. Nainai placed his cake, unopened, beside it.

“Xiao Xie,” she said, gesturing him into an armchair, and pouring some fragrant tea. “What brings my grandson here today, hmm? I hope all is well between you and my second son?”

Nainai never mentioned Sanshu, any more, and neither did Wu Xie. One day soon, he would need to follow up the few leads he had, and find his uncle. Especially if what Lin Nansheng had said was true, he thought, and then very quickly dismissed the thought.

“It’s all fine,” he said. There was no point pretending this was a purely social call, because his grandmother had always been able to see straight through him. “That’s not why I’m here. Something happened.”

His grandmother sipped her tea, her eyes shrewd.

“Do you know someone called Lin Nansheng?” Wu Xie said

There was a fraction of a second where his grandmother looked surprised and then thoughtful, and then her face smoothed out. She raised both eyebrows at him. “Xiao Lin? Yes. A very respectful young man, very thoughtful to his elders. He used to read novels to me, a long time ago. He has a lovely voice.”

“Lin Nansheng, the ghost,” Wu Xie added. He suspected that his grandmother was enjoying herself.

A ghost,” she said. “Wushanju’s foundations are old. Many people have died there.”

Wu Xie set that aside to deal with later. “Lin Nansheng has…that is, he’s been talking to me. Us. Asking for our help.”

His grandmother nodded, gesturing for him to carry on, as though this was all perfectly reasonable.

Wu Xie contemplated talking politely round what he wanting to ask, and then abandoned the idea. “He told me you know how he died.”

“Ah.” Nainai set down her cup, and for a moment she looked every moment of her years, as though weighed down by them. And then she visibly pulled herself together.

“What did Xiao Lin tell you, about the manner of his death?”

“Almost nothing.” Wu Xie leaned forward in his chair. “Except that he died and was buried in Wushanju.” He tried to keep the judgment out of his voice: it wasn’t as though he himself had ever performed funeral rites adequately, for those he’d left behind in the jungle, and the desert, and on the cold stone of someone else’s tomb. “I think he was shot, is that right?”

“Yes. He was shot.” Nainai picked up her tea again, watching him. “Did you want some cake?”

“No, thank you. Nainai…will you tell me? Please?”

He watched her thinking about it. Then she drew a deep breath, and let it out.

“Someone ought to know, I suppose, and all the others are dead. And if Xiao Lin turned to you—such a kind man, he spent hours with me, that time I was sick some years ago—then we must help him. So. It was, oh, around 1959, 1960. Your father would have been ten or so. Xiao Lin—Lin Nansheng—came to our door, in quite a desperate state, poor man. The whole family knew who he was, of course, but no-one would acknowledge it. He was given a bed to sleep in, and quietly discouraged from making any claim.”

Wu Xie remembered Lin Nansheng’s face in the bathroom mirror, hollow and fighting back tears, and forcibly stopped himself from saying anything. This was not his grandmother’s fault.

“He had only been here a day or so, the family was still debating what to do about him. It was a bad time, because things had reached a head with some local gangsters, in a dispute over some, ah, antiquities.” She sighed. “We later found out the Wangs were behind them. We should have guessed. That day, your grandfather was called away on business, to the other side of the city. And a band of them came to Wushanju, and broke down the doors. We had men there, of course, but not enough. My sons would have made good hostages, you see, while they were too young to fight back.”

Wu Xie’s fists clenched. He had never heard any of this.

“But they didn’t know Xiao Lin was there, and that he had a gun. He was a soldier and a sniper, you know, during the war. He shot several of them before they even realized what was happening.” Her eyes looked beyond Wu Xie, into the past. “Everything happened so fast. Your father was with me, your uncles – I was holding my youngest in my arms, he was crying, and one of their men was trying to drag him, us, away, or to kill us, I never knew which. And then Xiao Lin—he was in front of us. He killed that man, and he was shot at point-blank range. I think it hit his lung. It was…very loud. That was the turning point. Our men regrouped, and the others fled. And Xiao Lin—I could see it was too late. There was nothing we could do.”

She met Wu Xie’s eyes. “I believe he saved your father’s life. Maybe all our lives. Your grandfather arrived soon after, but not soon enough.”

“And you buried him in the courtyard,” Wu Xie said. This time he couldn’t keep the reproach from his tone.

His grandmother’s expression remained impassive. “Those were…difficult times. The Wu family and the Jiumen’s relationship with those in power was not without problems. And Lin Nansheng was a wanted man, whom we had been harbouring. At the end of that day, there were five dead men in our courtyard.” She picked up her tea again. “The other bodies were thrown in the river, that night. But Lin Nansheng was, after all, family.”

Wu Xie’s throat was dry. He took a gulp of his own tea.

“This is what you wanted to know?” his grandmother asked.

“Yes. Thank you. I—we—we want to help him, ah, to rest. He respects you, Nainai. Do you think it’s the right thing?”

His grandmother sighed. “Xiao Xie, you always want to save people. Lin Nansheng was an unhappy soul. If you’re asking for my permission to find peace for him, you have it. Now.” She smiled at him, and her eyes lit up. “Tell me your plan, I’m sure you need my advice. And then we will eat cake and I can catch you up on the ridiculous things that Lao Wang has been saying to me.”

Wu Xie drove home full of cake and some rather scathing opinions on the implausibility of locating two restless ghosts in modern Shanghai. He hoped the others were getting somewhere: his promise to Lin Nansheng did seem very flimsy, now he’d been forced to submit it to his grandmother for inspection.

He walked into the main courtyard, and then paused. Although his grandmother’s story hadn’t been precise, it was easy to fill in the details. Men bursting in, his grandmother frantically trying to gather her sons to her; Lin Nansheng hearing the noise, wondering for a moment, and then seizing his gun and resolving to help.

Wu Xie had seen men shot in the chest. It wasn’t a good way to die. Lin Nansheng, alone in a hostile family, in a strange city; dying in pain and knowing that his death would be a relief to them. It sounded as if it might have been a relief to him, too. Wu Xie’s throat tightened, and he felt that ache in his chest, again. What had he himself done, to deserve Pangzi by his side, to know that Xiaoge would always come for him? He’d spent a lot of his younger days defiant and resentful about being the heir to the Wu family, about the weight of expectations and responsibility he’d inherited. Yet he’d always known he had them at his back. They would have hunted through the shifting sands and sent teams to Tamutuo or Changbai or Gutongjing just to find his body, and he would do the same for them, if it came to it.

And he’d do it for his great-great-uncle too. He’d do it because his fucking family had left him Lin Nansheng as another unspoken duty, and he’d do it for Lin Nansheng himself, because he’d whispered to Wu Xie in the night, and read romances to his grandmother, and because he’d been brave and kind and intelligent, and he’d tried so hard to do the right thing.

He went into the house, calling for Pangzi, and when he found him, he pulled him into a hug. Pangzi held him, and patted his back.

“Rough story, huh?” he said. “Want to talk about it?”

Wu Xie shook his head, into Pangzi’s shoulder. He squeezed him again, then let go and stood back. “Any news?”

“It’s all been happening here. I’ve got some solid leads in Shanghai, and Hei Xiazi’s expert in ghost-tracking or whatever is meeting us at the hotel tomorrow. Liu Sang, he’s called. Looks about twelve and charges a fortune, but Hei-ye vouched for him.”

Pangzi sounded deeply sceptical. Wu Xie frowned: the name rang a faint bell.

“Arrogant fucker too,” Pangzi added. “And we need to keep an eye on him. Told me he was booked up for nine months solid, no interest in building up his credit with the Wu family. And then five minutes after I hung up, he was calling me asking if it was true that Zhang Qiling was coming along, and if so he suddenly had a two-day space in his diary from tomorrow.” He scowled. “He’d better be respectful round Xiaoge, or… Ah, and your email pinged, university address.”

“Where is Xiaoge?” Wu Xie said, looking around.

Pangzi looked round too. “In his room? Don’t think he went out.” He studied Wu Xie, raising an eyebrow at whatever Wu Xie’s face was doing. “You two are OK?”

“Yes,” Wu Xie said. “At least I hope so.”

“Good,” Pangzi said. “Check your email. I’m getting some stuff together, then going out for food. Wu Nainai feed you?”

“Cake,” said Wu Xie. “Don’t get me much.”

Pangzi nodded, and headed off into the house, whistling.

Wu Xie hesitated over whether he should go and find Xiaoge, and then got his laptop first.

His student research assistant, Shi Qing, had sent him an email that at first glance was very long and very excitable, with a number of attached files. Wu Xie skimmed it quickly, then stopped, re-reading: “Found a news item on Lin Nansheng and Zhu Yizhen’s marriage!! Did you know she’s still alive? My search picked up a piece from two years back, so I called the home she lives in, and they said she’s still there!!”

Wu Xie clicked on the attachment mentioned. It was a grainy PDF from an old newspaper, which, when he zoomed in, showed a blurred photo that was still barely recognizable as Lin Nansheng, in Communist army uniform, gazing down at a woman in matching uniform, and smiling at her. Wu Xie hadn’t seen Lin Nansheng smile, as yet. There was a short note of congratulations, saying that Lin Nansheng and Zhu Yizhen had been brave undercover CCP agents in Shanghai, who had daringly escaped together and miraculously survived. Due to his war injuries, the note continued, Lin Nansheng would be leaving the army to support the Party as a cadre, along with his new wife.

The next news item was the recent one. A group of very old women were posed outside, arms gracefully raised. “Residents of Sunrise Senior Care Centre show the benefits of keeping healthy through dance,” the headline read, and under it was a list of names, left to right. Third from the left was Zhu Yizhen. Wu Xie zoomed in as far as he could and peered at the photo, but it wasn’t clear enough for any recognition.

He sat back. Lin Nansheng hadn’t mentioned his marriage. His second marriage, that was. Did he even know his wife—his ex-wife?—was alive?

It felt…wrong that Wu Xie was looking at this, as though he was prying into Lin Nansheng’s private life. He clicked through the rest of the attachments, all of which were very short mentions of a Chen Moqun doing various station-chief things in the early 1930s, no pictures. Shi Qing said she was going to follow up by going through some history books, checking the footnotes: good. He sent her a note of thanks and congratulations, thought about printing off the news articles to show to Lin Nansheng, and then decided against it. For now, at least.

Instead, he went and tapped on Xiaoge’s door. He could hear voices—Lin Nansheng? He waited a moment and then opened the door. It was Lin Nansheng, who was sitting at the large desk Xiaoge rarely used, in rolled up shirtsleeves and a tie, frowning over something. Xiaoge’s laptop, which Wu Erbai had given to him for work purposes and which he also almost never used, was open on the desk, and he was leaning over it.

They both turned to Wu Xie as he came in.

“You had some old maps here,” Lin Nansheng said, sounding apologetic. “Zhang Qiling asked me to mark the places I remembered on them, so that we could compare them to the city now. He said we could use, ah…” He gestured at the laptop screen.

“Baidu?” Wu Xie said. “Good idea.” They were doing this in Xiaoge’s room, in his private space. Maybe Lin Nansheng had asked to talk to Xiaoge about something, without Pangzi or Wu Xie hearing? He felt a frisson of fear, and then dismissed it. He didn’t believe Lin Nansheng would break his word.

Wu Xie smiled at them, and was reassured when Xiaoge gave him one of his rare half-smiles in return. “Call if you want help,” he said. “I’m going to help Pangzi pack. Then we need to go over the information Hei Xiazi sent you, check we know how it works.”

Xiaoge nodded, and turned his attention back to the screen, with a tiny frown of concentration. Wu Xie watched him for a moment, and then left them to it.

For a short road trip to a very large city full of shops and hotels, their expedition seemed to require a lot of stuff and planning. Hei Xiazi had specified some particular type of incense, so after searching the entire house, Wu Xie had to go out and search the entirety of Hangzhou for it. The talisman used to give ghosts form had to come with them too, and its age and rarity meant that it needed proper and careful packing, in a special box that they had to make, because its previous silk wrapper was inadequate. Then they needed to cancel appointments and reschedule things and sharpen all their best knives, plus checking that Lin Nansheng wasn’t going to terrify Wang Meng, if he came in to sort out stuff in their absence.

The picture on the wall was going to have to stay. Wang Meng would just have to think they’d decided to experiment with Communist propaganda artwork.

Amid all the bustle, Wu Xie didn’t have time to worry about, or anticipate, what might happen with Xiaoge, later. By the time he zipped up his travel bag and set his alarm for six, his eyes were closing. Xiaoge was now out under the balcony in the dark courtyard with Lin Nansheng, a chess game between them, barely visible in the lights from the house, that they didn’t seem to be touching.

Xiaoge was far closer in age to Lin Nansheng than anyone else they knew, other than Xiazi. Though this was another depressing thought, it perhaps explained why the two of them appeared to be getting along. To go out and announce loudly that he was going to bed seemed a little awkward. Xiaoge would come if he wanted, and it should be entirely up to him.

Pangzi came up behind him. “The veterans are bonding, hmm? We should leave them to it.”

“Yes,” Wu Xie said, closing the shutter. “See you in the morning.”

He wasn’t anticipating sleep. He assumed he’d lie awake all night, waiting, and with the events and conversations of the day running through his mind. But he hadn’t slept properly in several nights, and when he closed his eyes, tiredness swept over him, irresistible, and he fell into it.

He didn’t dream, or wake up, until his phone alarm went off, extremely loudly, right beside him. Wu Xie groaned and fumbled for it, stabbing at it randomly and then reluctantly cracking his eyes open to hit the right button. He dropped it on the side table, turned over, and froze. Xiaoge was in his bed, awake and watching him. Or watching over him. There was careful distance between them, and Xiaoge was dressed, in a T-shirt and loose pants. A corner of Wu Xie’s quilt, which he’d thrown off in the night, was pulled over him.

Wu Xie tried to wake up properly, at least enough to smile at Xiaoge. “Hello,” he said, groggily.

Something in Xiaoge’s face softened.

“You could’ve woken me when you came in,” Wu Xie said, yawning, and covering his mouth. “I wouldn’t have minded.”

“You needed sleep.”

“Mmm.” Wu Xie fumbled an arm out from under the covers, to pet at Xiaoge’s side. When Xiaoge leaned a little into it, he slid his hand under Xiaoge’s shirt, and stroked the dip above his hip, not entirely innocently. “Lin Nansheng?”

“Gone for now.”

The reason why Wu Xie’s alarm had gone off surfaced, and he sighed. Any minute now, Pangzi was going to come in and fling himself on them, full of the exuberance of an adventure. Now he was concentrating, he could smell breakfast cooking; Pangzi always believed on setting out on a full stomach.

“Shanghai,” he said. “Bit of a change from our usual.” He smiled at Xiaoge, curling his fingers against his warm skin. “We can eat out, in between ghost-hunting, Pangzi will know places. Stay in a hotel, not a tent.” He had a brief vision of a hotel room, a king-size bed, crisp white sheets, Xiaoge pushing him down onto it.

Maybe it showed on his face, because Xiaoge’s gaze went intent, and heated. He moved across the space between them, and pressed a kiss to Wu Xie’s mouth.

“Mmm, I should brush my teeth,” Wu Xie said, not with much conviction, reaching to pull Xiaoge closer. Only then Pangzi did shout “Breakfast!” right outside the door, accompanying this with a volley of knocks. Xiaoge slid out of bed and upright in one smooth movement, already at the door. Wu Xie huffed, rolled over on his back, and steeled himself to deal with all the terrible morning people in his household.

They were meeting this Liu Sang at the hotel in just over three hours, if he could manage to get up and get ready. And then, it would be time to see whether Lin Nansheng was right about the likely afterlives of his former boss and mentor—or quite possibly his lover, Wu Xie knew how to read between the lines of a story—and his former wife. And if so, how amenable they, or rather their ghosts, might be to relocating themselves to Hangzhou.

It was going to be an interesting few days, and unprecedented even in Wu Xie’s experience. He sent up a brief prayer for success to whatever other supernatural entities might be listening, and levered himself up.

Chapter Text

The van pulled into the hotel carpark with a screech of tires, as Pangzi swore at the satnav. Wu Xie looked over his shoulder to grin at Xiaoge, in the back. Driving through Beijing or Shanghai with Pangzi at the wheel was always a special experience.

They were half an hour later than they’d expected to arrive, which was pretty good. Wu Xie got out, stretched, and headed round to the hotel entrance to convince the staff into letting them leave the van there, and to find their expert.

It was a mid-range hotel, designed not to stand out in any way and reputedly highly discreet, which was why Pangzi’s shady acquaintances had suggested it. There were a couple of people in the very beige lobby with their coffees. Wu Xie glanced over them, and noted the young man with massive black headphones, an espresso cup in front of him and a scowl on his face. What was his name? Liu Sang, was that right?

He waved, and the man caught it, looked up, and scowled harder. Wu Xie fixed his most charming smile on his face and headed over.

“Hello. You must be Liu Sang? I’m Wu Xie.” He held out his hand.

Liu Sang ignored it. He slid the earphones off, and a look of pain flashed across his face, so quickly that Wu Xie wasn’t sure he’d seen it.

“You’re late,” he said, tight.

Wu Xie spread his hands in apology. “Rush hour traffic, you know how it is. Sorry to keep you waiting.” Liu Sang did seem very young. And very prickly, though maybe that was a function of his youth. He would have been attractive, too, if he didn’t look so hostile.

“If you want to finish your coffee, I’m checking us in,” Wu Xie added.

Liu Sang gave him a curt nod. “I need my own room,” he said.

“Of course! Pangzi will have booked you one,” Wu Xie said, with much more confidence than he felt.

Pangzi had booked two rooms, both with two single beds, but by making pleading eyes at the receptionist, Wu Xie was able to find another double room, which he provisionally assigned to Xiaoge. The rooms wouldn’t be ready for them until later, which was fine; they had things to do.

“All sorted,” he said to Liu Sang. “We can have the rooms from three or so, but we’re expecting to be out all day. Is that OK with you?”

Liu Sang stood up, revealing himself to be taller and skinnier than he’d looked, sitting down.

“You’re paying me for forty-eight hours, as per agreement,” he said.

“Then that’s fine,” said Wu Xie. Liu Sang seemed like hard work, though so were many of the best people; they’d win him over if they needed to. “Come on, the others are round the back.”

Pangzi and Xiaoge were leaning against the side of the van, with Pangzi gesturing at the skyline and telling Xiaoge something about it.

“Hey,” Wu Xie called. “Found him. Shall we get ready to go?” He turned to Liu Sang, to introduce him, and found that he’d stopped dead, a strange expression on his face. His eyes were fixed on something.

Wu Xie followed the direction of his gaze, and saw Xiaoge, looking over at them.

“Zhang Qiling,” said Liu Sang, quietly, and with a kind of reverence.

“Ah…yes,” said Wu Xie. Pangzi’s comments about why Liu Sang had accepted the job had slipped his mind, in the chaos. Now they forcibly came back to him.

Liu Sang stepped forward. “Ouxiang,” he said, with a quick dip of his head. “It’s an honour to meet you.”

Xiaoge blinked, and looked at Wu Xie for help. Wu Xie was biting back a smile; Liu Sang’s seriousness was endearing. And why shouldn’t he be Xiaoge’s fan—it seemed reasonable enough, Xiaoge had fans all across the tomb-raiding world, and probably beyond.

Pangzi slung an arm around Xiaoge’s shoulders, and glared at Liu Sang.

“What’s this about?” he said.

“I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time,” Liu Sang said to Xiaoge, ignoring him.

Xiaoge, to Wu Xie’s experienced eyes, was starting to look as though he wanted to flee. Pangzi’s gaze had narrowed.

“And now you have,” Wu Xie said, brightly. “I’m sure we’ll all enjoy working with you, Liu Sang.” The advance fee they’d sent him had been nonrefundable. He gave Pangzi a meaningful look, to remind him of this. Pangzi made a face back, which said that he knew.

Xiaoge gave Liu Sang a very brief nod, tugged his hood up, and went to the back of the van, pulling the back doors open and jumping in.

“Ah, sorry…” said Wu Xie. “Anyway, this is Pangzi, and I guess Xiaoge’s gone to change.” He gave Liu Sang’s suit a doubtful look. “We’ve got work uniforms for today, we brought you one.”

Liu Sang was gazing after Xiaoge. He blinked, and refocused on Wu Xie. His mouth tightened. “Fine,” he said.

Xiaoge, when they joined him, was sitting down and shirtless, sorting through the uniforms they’d brought and frowning. Liu Sang made a kind of choked noise. Wu Xie would have considered being offended on Xiaoge’s behalf, but he’d known Xiaoge for decades and he was still having trouble not letting his gaze wander over his chest, so it seemed hypocritical.

Xiaoge tossed him a uniform and Wu Xie crowded in, starting to change without self-consciousness. The van was small, but not smaller than most of their field tents, and there was no-one else in the carpark.

When he turned round from pulling the shirt over his head, Liu Sang was hovering in the doorway with a bundle of clothing, looking awkward. Wu Xie met Pangzi’s eyes, and Pangzi raised an eyebrow. Wu Xie lifted a shoulder.

The three of them were pretty much ready. “Why don’t we clear out, give Liu Sang some space?” Wu Xie said, bending to lace his boots.

“I don’t need space.” Liu Sang pulled himself up into the van, eyes flickering to Xiaoge again, knelt to undo his shoes, and then pulled off his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt.

Wu Xie bit back a sound of surprise at the sight of his tattoo, which was very obviously not a Wang or Zhang tattoo, since the van was chilly. It looked suspiciously like a half-complete version of Xiaoge’s. Liu Sang really was a fan, it seemed. He tried to catch Xiaoge’s eye, to see if he found it amusing, but Xiaoge had pulled his hoodie on over the ugly work shirts they’d brought, seemingly so that he could hide in it.

It was amusing, though less so if it was making Liu Sang or Xiaoge uncomfortable. Wu Xie jerked his head at Pangzi, and Pangzi nodded and slid himself out the back, Xiaoge and then Wu Xie following, careful not to jostle Liu Sang.

“Are we sure he’s not a crazy stalker?” Pangzi muttered to Wu Xie. “He’s going to jinx this whole thing with that attitude.”

“I’m an admirer,” Liu Sang said, coldly. He appeared at the van doors, fixing his stare on Pangzi. “And you hired me for my exceptional hearing, so I advise you to remember that.”

Pangzi glowered back, his hackles visibly rising.

“It’s fine,” Xiaoge said, unexpectedly. “Let’s go.”

Pangzi made a snorting noise. “Fine, fine, you’d better be worth the money, little Jinx, is all I’m saying…”

“I am,” Liu Sang said.

Wu Xie was starting to feel that he hadn’t had enough caffeine to cope with this, and that he needed a cigarette. “Right,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “You’ve read the notes we sent through, Liu Sang? First building we need still survives. We’re going in as—” he patted the badge on his chest “—pest control operatives. We need to get out on the roof, we think. And then you can do your, ah, thing, and if the ghost is there, we can set up this, ah, ritual.”

As he said it, it all sounded ridiculous, in the cool daylight of a city street. They’d talked about waiting until after dark, but their destination was on a busy street full of shoppers and tourists, open all hours. People breaking in would be noticeable, the alarms would have to be disabled, and so on. If needs be they’d get into the building and stay there, until night fell.

Xiaoge was already walking off. Wu Xie shouldered his backpack, which hopefully looked more or less convincing as an accessory, and followed him.

The building where Lan Xinjie had died was now a designer shop on the first floor, and highly exclusive offices above it. Wu Xie buzzed for entry to the offices, feigned confusion at the intercom, and got them up to reception. The two young women behind the desk blinked at them all in astonishment, their perfect makeup creasing. They looked nearly identical, though one of them had short hair and the other glossy curls. No nametags, unfortunately.

“Wait here,” Wu Xie said in a murmur to Liu Sang, and Xiaoge. Presumably the two of them weren’t actively trying to look like disaffected junior staff, yet they were still highly convincing in that role. Wu Xie smiled widely at the receptionists.

“Pest control?” he said. “From Rentokil Initial?” He gestured to the very fake logo on his fake shirt. “We’re here to deal with your rat problem.”

Pangzi had pulled a clipboard with a stack of papers out of his pack, and was muttering over it.

“Rat problem?” the one with the curly hair said, her eyes widening.

“You didn’t know?” Wu Xie said, looking at Pangzi with feigned surprise. Pangzi shook his head, tutting, and flicked over a page on the clipboard. Wu Xie turned a sympathetic gaze on the woman. He leaned on the desk, confidential. “Sorry, we assumed you’d been informed. There’ve been a number of reports of scratching, droppings, some rat sightings…well. These old buildings, you know how it is.”

“No-one said anything about rats!” she said, shuddering.

“Are they on our floor?” her colleague asked, looking around suspiciously, as though expecting to see a rat skittering across the carpet.

Wu Xie made an apologetic face. “Well…”

“All through the building, according to these reports,” said Pangzi, without looking up. “Infested. In the walls, the space in between the floors.” He clicked his tongue. “Just as well we’re here. In a few days….” He shook his head again.

“Don’t worry, young ladies,” said Wu Xie. “We’re the experts. We should be able to get rid of them within 24 hours. We’re the best team in the city, you can rest assured you’re in good hands.”

“No-one told us pest control was coming,” said the slightly less gullible looking woman, the one with short hair, clicking on her keyboard and frowning at something on her screen.

“Seems like there’s a lot they didn’t tell you,” Pangzi muttered, audibly.

“We’re used to being discreet,” Wu Xie said. “We won’t get in anyone’s way. Of course, if you want to check with your boss, you should do. Mr Wang, is that right? He called the company himself.”

“He’s in a meeting till noon,” curly hair said. “Do you think we should?” She looked at her friend for help.

Wu Xie looked at his watch, pursing his lips. “We can go on to our next job. I can’t guarantee we’d be back today, though. When do we next have a free slot?”

Pangzi pulled out his phone and tapped at it. “Hmmm. Not till next Tuesday, if we miss this one.”

Wu Xie scratched his head. “Busy times,” he said, apologetic. “Well, it’s your choice, ladies. We’ve all got ID.” He extracted a badge from his pocket, and slid it over the counter. It had been a rush job, but Pangzi had got pretty efficient about fake ID over the years.

The woman nearest him gave it a cursory glance.

“Or I can give you the number of our company headquarters?” Wu Xie offered. The call would go straight to Wang Meng, who had hopefully paid attention to his instructions.

The women exchanged glances. “As long you’re not on the conference floor,” short hair said.

“We’ll be up on the top floor. Those offices shouldn’t be too busy, right? We were told they weren’t in regular use.”

Both women visibly relaxed. “Xue Holdings, yes, they moved out a few weeks ago. The next clients are moving in at the weekend.” An expression of alarm crossed curly hair’s face. “You won’t damage the paintwork, will you? It’s only just been redone.”

“Not at all,” said Wu Xie. “It’s all done with chemicals now, you know. No damage, nothing visible. But it’s preferable if people stay out of our way till we’ve finished fumigating, in case of, ah, hazards.”

The women looked at each other again. “OK,” the one with the short hair said. “You’ll have to sign in.”

“No problem.” Wu Xie scrawled an indecipherable signature, and passed the sheet she’d given him to Pangzi, who handed it round. Xiaoge still had his hood up.

“Hood down,” Wu Xie said to him. “One of our apprentices,” he said to the women. “We have them learn on the job.”

“Oh,” said curly hair, smiling at Xiaoge, who ignored both her and Wu Xie.

“Thanks so much for your help. We’ll take the stairs. Have a good day!”

“You too,” the women both said, automatically.

Wu Xie herded the others back into the stairwell, and they started climbing. The carpeted stairwell with its mood lighting wasn’t recognizable from the one he’d seen in his dreams, or Lin Nansheng’s dreams. Though that wasn’t surprising, since it seemed as though the whole inside of what had once been the Hui Da company headquarters had been gutted at some point and then rebuilt, fancier.

“Straightforward so far,” he said, trying not to sound breathless.

“Idiots,” said Liu Sang.

Wu Xie raised his eyebrows, and didn’t answer.

The carpet disappeared for the last bit of stairs, which led to a locked set of doors, easy enough to pick, and then they were out on the roof. Pangzi, muttering under his breath about how shit modern security was, swung his rucksack down and started going through it. Xiaoge walked purposely over to one side, checking for hazards.

It looked safe to Wu Xie. The roof was a flat space, lined with low walls. The thing that Lin Nansheng had described as a kind of cupola with stairs running up inside it, and drawn for Xiaoge, was long gone, no mark of where it had been. Wu Xie shivered, looking across. He walked to the edge and looked down at the street, staying out of sight.

Lin Nansheng’s account had been very precise. Even though not all the buildings he’d been able to name had survived, or looked exactly the same, it was still clear. They were in the right place.

“This is it,” Wu Xie said. Xiaoge had come up beside him.

“Yes,” he agreed.

Wu Xie took a deep breath.

“Liu Sang?” he said. “This is right. Do you want to, ah, get started? I don’t know how long we have before those girls get suspicious.”

Liu Sang nodded, his gaze straying to Xiaoge again. He tucked a wisp of hair behind one ear, and started taking things out of his bag, with care. Interested, Wu Xie went over to squat beside him and look at them.

“Are these, hmm, hearing urns?” he said, reaching out. “I’ve never seen them in use.”

“Don’t touch!” Liu Sang snapped. “These are fragile. And they aren’t ordinary hearing urns.”

“No,” Wu Xie agreed. “The shape’s not quite right. What do you use them for?”

Liu Sang gave him a withering look, which was perhaps justified. Other than fetching the things he’d been told they needed, Wu Xie had been too distracted by everything else going on to pay attention to how this very expensive ghost-finding expert operated.

Xiaoge folded himself down gracefully beside Wu Xie, and picked up one of the urns, turning it in his fingers. Liu Sang made no objection.

“I can hear resonances,” Liu Sang said, with a slight air of boasting, doubtless for Xiaoge’s benefit. “Vibrations. These were used to locate spirits in ancient times, but only people with very, very acute hearing can make them work today. It takes years of training.”

“Who was your teacher?” Wu Xie said, curious.

Liu Sang glanced at him, and his expression shut down.

“I use whistles too,” he said, in Xiaoge’s direction, pulling something else out of his bag. “The ancients thought they called spirits to life. I use them more because the frequencies are important in mapping dead spots. Haunted areas, some people might say. Or places where there’s something unusual happening.”

Xiaoge nodded. “Traps,” he said.

“Wait, you can map tombs, too?” Wu Xie said. “Useful.”

“That’s how he knows Hei-ye,” Pangzi said.

Liu Sang arranged his stuff in some order that must have made sense to him.

“I need you all to move at least twenty metres away,” he said. “Over there.” He pointed towards the building’s edge.

“Hoping we’ll fall off, ah,” Pangzi said. Wu Xie wanted to ask how long this was going to take, but he assumed Liu Sang wouldn’t answer. He winked at Pangzi instead, and went to loiter at a safe distance.

“Is something supposed to be happening?” Pangzi said in a loud whisper, after they’d all watched Liu Sang frowning and pressing his ear intently against his pots, for some time. He and Wu Xie were eating sunflower seeds, dropping the shells on the ground.

“Shut up,” Liu Sang said, straightening and glowering at them. “I can hear you crunching those stupid things.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Wu Xie said, holding his hands out, placating. “We’ll stop.”

Pangzi sighed very loudly, and folded his arms.

Liu Sang muttered to himself, and scrawled some things in a notebook, then fiddled around with his urns again. More time passed. He wrote some more, and then turned to his whistles.

“There’s something here,” he said. “I’m trying to pin it down.” He didn’t sound excited, he sounded professionally disinterested. “You might want to cover your ears, the sound affects some people.”

He picked up the first whistle. They were interesting antiques too, Wu Xie would have loved to examine them. He was considering their likely provenance and age, when Liu Sang blew into it.

The sound was sweet and piercing, with an intensity that felt as though it bypassed Wu Xie’s ears and went straight into his brain. He put his hands to his ears, closing his eyes and screwing up his face, and endured it.

“Ow,” he said, as it eased off a little, blinking. “What was—"

He swallowed. Pangzi, Xiaoge, Liu Sang, they were all gone. Immediately on his left was a tower, with two stories and a metal staircase running up to its top. The one from the sketch Lin Nansheng had done for Xiaoge. There were piles of old furniture, and rubbish, on the roof that hadn’t been there before, and the air was sharp with the scent of gunpowder. Shouts and cries were audible from below.

And there was a woman scrabbling at a set of doors, trying to get out—no, Wu Xie realized, with a lurch of horror, trying to keep people out, because this must be Lan Xinjie, the one they were looking for.

She stood up and turned around, indecisive. Her eyes swept over, or rather through, Wu Xie. She was beautiful: Lin Nansheng had said so, but it was different to see her in person. And she looked desperate.

“Lan Xinjie!” Wu Xie said, loudly. She obviously couldn’t hear him. Fine, so he wasn’t really here, wherever here was. He must be…hallucinating? Usually he didn’t know he was hallucinating while it was happening, though. He looked down at himself. He was still wearing the white work shirt and ugly khaki trousers. He pinched his arm: his body felt present, and normal.

He should focus on trying to communicate with Lan Xinjie, who was running towards the cupola, her heels obstructing her, clutching a bag to her side. He shouted her name again, with no effect, and then began to follow her. As he did, the crashes against the door she’d barred became more urgent, and it burst open.

Wu Xie hesitated, his heart racing, even though the men with guns pouring onto the roof weren’t for him. He should….He ran after Lan Xinjie, a few scant steps ahead of the police, pulling himself up iron stairs that felt real, the handrail cool and textured under his hand, the stairs ringing with his footsteps. He made it to the highest point and stopped short.

Lan Xinjie was looking at where he was standing, at the staircase, with terror. As he stared at her, helpless, her face hardened in resolve, and she started fumbling in her bag.

Wu Xie took a step towards her. “No!” he said. There were men just below him, seconds or minutes away.

Lin Nansheng’s hands had been gripped so tightly together that they were almost bloodless, for this part of his story, and he hadn’t been able to meet their eyes. She could have saved herself by turning on me, he’d said. I don’t think they would have shot her, if she’d given herself up. I never told her who I was, but I think she guessed. She knew what would happen to me if they caught her, if they even saw her face….

Wu Xie couldn’t do anything to stop her, to stop this from happening. Even if he’d been able to intervene, he couldn’t. He backed towards the staircase as Lan Xinjie took out the explosive, her hands shaking, and fumbled with it. He was still close enough to hear her breathing, panicked and rough, to see her biting her lips, glossy with lipstick.

Lin Nansheng had been—was—on that roof too. If Wu Xie turned around, he might see him. But he couldn’t make himself look away.

“I’m sorry,” he said to Lan Xinjie. “I’m so sorry.” And then the world exploded, and he was thrown backwards into darkness.

He landed, surprisingly, on something soft. There was the taste of ash and blood in his mouth, and his ears were ringing. He coughed, and coughed again, pushing himself up and retching, wiping at his mouth. His eyes felt stuck together: had he been blinded by the blast? Was he still—

“Wu Xie,” a familiar voice said, laced with worry.

“Xiaoge?” Wu Xie’s voice came out croaky. Someone had an arm round his shoulders, he realized. He blinked his eyes open. Xiaoge was leaning over him, supporting him, his expression tense. The sky was visible above his head, and Wu Xie became aware that he was lying half on concrete. The roof: he was still there. He was—he did a quick check of whether he could feel all his body parts—still whole.

“Tianzhen.” That was Pangzi, equally worried, on his other side. “You coughed up blood, what the fuck?”

Wu Xie struggled to sit up properly and take in his surroundings. The roof looked exactly as it had before his vision, hallucination, time travel, or whatever. Liu Sang was standing a few feet away, staring at him, looking almost concerned.

“What happened?” Wu Xie said.

“Liu Sang blew his whistle, and you put your hands over your ears, and then you keeled over,” Pangzi said. “You’ve been out for a couple of minutes. We couldn’t wake you up.”

“Ah,” said Wu Xie. He licked his dry lips, tasting blood. “So none of the rest of you—had anything weird happen?”

“You mean, other than you lying here like a fucking corpse, Tianzhen?”

“What happened?” Xiaoge said. He didn’t sound any less worried, and he wasn’t letting go of Wu Xie. Wu Xie let himself lean into the contact.

“I was, ah. I saw Lan Xinjie.” He looked over at Liu Sang. “The ghost, the one we were hoping might be here. I saw…the way she died.”

Pangzi drew in a breath.

“Is that meant to happen?” Wu Xie asked Liu Sang. “Visions, flashbacks? I was there, but it was like I was the ghost, she couldn’t see or hear me.”

Liu Sang shifted, uncertain. “It’s—mentioned in the surviving literature. At least, it says that the sound can induce visions of the past. It’s never happened before, though.”

“You knew it was possible, and it didn’t occur to you to mention it?” said Pangzi.

“I’ve used these hundreds of times! What part of ‘never happened before’ don’t you understand? How was I supposed to know that he…” Liu Sang broke off, probably wisely.

“Anyway,” Wu Xie said, loudly. He suppressed the desire to cough some more. There was blood on his hand, he wiped it off on his trousers. “Let’s focus on the fact that something worked. Lan Xinjie’s here, I think, all we need to do is reach her.”

He tried to push himself to standing, managed to get up, and then was overcome with a wave of dizziness. He staggered, and Xiaoge was there to catch him, one arm round his chest. Wu Xie closed his eyes for just a moment, to reorient himself.

“I think we should take Tianzhen to a hospital,” Pangzi said. “Right now.”

“I’m fine,” Wu Xie said, opening his eyes. “It’s nothing.”

Pangzi’s face creased in suspicion. “You hit your head, when you fell. You could be concussed.”

“Please, Pangzi.”

Pangzi threw up his hands, and then fished a tissue out of his pocket and tossed it to Wu Xie. “Wipe your face,” he said. “You’re all over blood.”

“Maybe you should try it again,” Wu Xie said to Liu Sang, dabbing at his face. He didn’t want to go back to that time, to see Lan Xinjie’s death once more. There might be things he’d missed, though. Clues. Something helpful.

“No,” Xiaoge said, to Liu Sang.

“I wasn’t going to!” Liu Sang said, defensive.

Wu Xie sighed, secretly relieved. “Then we try using the talisman to talk to her, see if it will work.”

Xiaoge and Lin Nansheng had discussed it yesterday: they thought that perhaps Lan Xinjie being Lin Nansheng’s former wife would mean that she counted as family too, and could be called by Wu Xie’s blood.

How this was going to work for their second ghost, even if they succeeded with the first, was a lot more dubious. Since this was all more or less uncharted territory, speculation was all they had to go on.

“I’ll get it,” Pangzi said. “Jinx, where are we setting this up?”

Liu Sang looked flustered for a second, and then he took out his notebook, studied it, and walked purposefully to the corner where Wu Xie knew the cupola had stood. It seemed wrong, now, that it was completely gone.

“The traces are all over the roof,” he said. “But strongest here.”

“That’s where—the explosion was,” Wu Xie said. Xiaoge still had an arm round his waist, and he felt him tense.

“It’s OK,” Wu Xie said. He straightened, and Xiaoge dropped his arm. Wu Xie still felt a little disoriented, and queasy, but he could manage. He picked up his pack and took it to where Pangzi was carefully unwrapping their talisman.

Xiaoge made an unhappy noise at Wu Xie taking out his knife, and Pangzi sighed heavily.

“One drop, Tianzhen,” he warned. “If you faint again, straight to the nearest hospital, yes?”

Wu Xie rolled his eyes at him. “One drop,” he said, nicking his palm neatly and letting it fall onto the paper.

Even though they’d seen this happen before, he still flinched when he realized that another person—Lan Xinjie—was suddenly standing there. Pangzi swore, and Liu Sang took a step back. She looked exactly the same as he’d seen her, except her expression was calmer. Her red and black qipao fit her like a glove, unblemished, and her shoes were shiny, not covered with the dust of the roof and the street.

Wu Xie was used to people who wore ordinary clothes like armour, he respected it when he saw it.

“Lan Xinjie,” he said, standing up—Xiaoge and Pangzi both made movements to help, but he was barely even dizzy now—and giving her a small bow. “My name is Wu Xie. These men are Zhang Qiling, Wang Pangzi and Liu Sang. We mean you no harm. We were sent here by Lin Nansheng, with a message for you.”

Lan Xinjie sat neatly on Pangzi’s rucksack, hastily rearranged as a seat for her, and listened to their story, frowning over it. Her eyebrows raised a little when they told her today’s date, and her lips tightened on the parts about finding Lin Nansheng, and his wish to make amends. Wu Xie skipped over what Lin Nansheng had told them about his future after the revolution, and his death. That was his story to tell, if he chose to.

“And so we came to see if we could, ah, take you back to Hangzhou with us?” he concluded.

Lan Xinjie brushed her skirt straight, her face thoughtful. Pangzi opened a water bottle, and held it out to her, and she shook her head.

“When I made my choice,” she said. “I didn’t want to see Xiao Lin tortured and killed. I already owed him my life, I couldn’t owe him that. And I thought I’d failed him.” She smiled, small and ironic. “Failed them. Their cause. But mostly, I thought I’d see my son again.” She was silent for a few moments, gazing off into the distance, towards the shining towers that hadn’t existed in her time. “Instead…I don’t know. Where I’ve been, exactly. I was…sad.” She frowned. “As if I was floating somewhere, half-way between sleep and waking. Things changed, people came and went—but I’ve never spoken to them. I’ve never left this place, I don’t think.”

“If you come with us,” Wu Xie said, “We would work out a way to, ah. To help you to rest, if that’s what you want. We’ll make sure you have a funeral, and a grave marker. In my family shrine. We’ll burn money for you every year. We’ll remember you. And before that, Lin Nansheng…he would like to see you.”

Lan Xinjie bit her lip. Then she put her shoulders back, and smiled at Wu Xie, a practiced, knowing smile. “It can’t be worse than being stuck here,” she said. “What do you need?”

“Only your consent,” Wu Xie said. He felt Liu Sang make an aborted movement beside him, at the lie. The ritual was designed to capture evil spirits and release them to haunt your enemies: asking the spirits’ permission hadn’t exactly been a key focus.

The way that Lan Xinjie’s eyes narrowed slightly suggested she knew this too, she was clearly no fool.

“Then I consent,” she said lightly. She folded her hands in her lap. “Go ahead.”

The weight of her attention, as well as Liu Sang’s cynical gaze, made Wu Xie feel extremely self-conscious, as he and Pangzi and Xiaoge lit incense, and drew the symbols in the diagram, and set a piece of jade (“the finest you have” the instructions stated) in the centre, along with a small ivory box, open. Wu Xie lit the candle beside it, glanced at Xiaoge and Pangzi for reassurance, and spoke the brief words he’d memorized. They were in no dialect he knew.

There was something like a magnesium flare, a piercing flash of light and clap of sound, and then the sun was shining again above him, the candle was out, and the lid of the box was closed. Lan Xinjie had vanished.

They all stared at the box.

“Shit,” Pangzi said. “She was a nice lady. I hope that fucking ritual hasn’t, I don’t know…”

“Something happened,” Wu Xie said. “We won’t know until we’re safe back home. Xiaoge, you look after this?” He picked up the box and passed it to Xiaoge, very cautiously, and Xiaoge nodded, and took it.

Wu Xie studied Liu Sang. He was trying to look blasé. Wu Xie had the impression, though, that he was shaken.

“Are you OK, Liu Sang?” he asked.

Liu Sang scowled at him. “I’m perfectly fine. Are you? Your heartbeat is all over the place.” He looked Wu Xie over, his eyes lingering on his chest, and then met his gaze, defiant.

“You must admit that was exciting,” Wu Xie said lightly, smiling, and pretending not to see Xiaoge looking sharply round at him. His heart was certainly racing now. If Liu Sang could hear someone’s heart beating, what else could he hear? Wu Xie’s breath had had a slight wheeze in it since he’d witnessed Lan Xinjie’s final moments. Or all day, really. If Liu Sang had noticed….

He tried to keep this thought off his face, busying himself with helping to pack up their stuff.

“That didn’t take too long,” he said, checking his watch. It had been less than four hours since they arrived. “We could go straight on, try to bluff our way into the next place?”

“No,” said Pangzi. “You are going back to the hotel to sleep and recover, Tianzhen. The rest of us, we’ll go case the joint.”

“But– ” Wu Xie protested.

“We won’t be going in without you, don’t worry. We’re not even going to try unless Liu Sang thinks we have the right place.”

“Liu Sang and I will go,” Xiaoge said.

Pangzi looked between him and Liu Sang, and then at Wu Xie. “OK, good plan. Fuck knows what Tianzhen might get up to in Shanghai unsupervised. I’ll make sure he gets some rest.”

“Not even lunch?” Wu Xie said, in his best pitiful tones. “If you’re worried about me feeling faint again, you should feed me soup. And dumplings.”

“Fine,” said Pangzi. “Lunch, and a post-lunch nap. Regrouping, ah, by 6 at the hotel?”

Liu Sang seemed to be observing this byplay with bemusement. Pangzi raised an eyebrow at him. “Jinx? That work for you?”

Liu Sang shrugged, though again, Wu Xie thought he was faking being relaxed. At least this would give Liu Sang the chance to spend time with his hero, and possibly appreciate that Zhang Qiling was a real person. Rather than, or as well as, a figure out of myth and legend.

“Back to the base for us then, Tianzhen. Coming?”

“You go ahead,” Wu Xie said, slinging on his pack. “I want to ask Liu Sang something about the whole hallucination thing. It’ll only take a moment.”

Pangzi eyed him sceptically, and Xiaoge looked unhappy, but they both headed for the staircase.

Liu Sang folded his arms. Wu Xie sighed.

“Can you hear anything wrong with my lungs?” he said.

“Like the fact that they’re not working?” Liu Sang said. “Of course I can.”

Wu Xie rubbed his forehead. “Don’t tell the others. Please.”

Liu Sang’s expression didn’t soften: if anything, he looked more scornful. “It’s not my business,” he said. “That’s why you’re able to communicate with spirits though, isn’t it? Because you’re already dying.”

Wu Xie flinched, he couldn’t help it. It was one thing being told about your possibly imminent death by a ghost. It was another thing entirely having a person recognize it.

“I have no idea,” he lied. “And I’ll be fine anyway, don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried,” Liu Sang said, automatically. Then his expression turned thoughtful. “You and ouxiang…you haven’t told him. Have you.”

Wu Xie met his eyes, and it was Liu Sang’s turn to flinch. “Like you said, it’s none of your business.” He held Liu Sang’s gaze until Liu Sang looked away, swallowing.

“Thank you,” Wu Xie said. “Now let’s join the others.”

Wu Xie slept most of the afternoon, to his annoyance. He could see how much better he must look in the way that Xiaoge’s expression relaxed, very slightly, when he and Liu Sang came into the restaurant to meet them. Over a very good dinner, Liu Sang confirmed that of the three buildings they’d marked down as the most likely, on the basis of newspaper reports and rumours about events there over the years, only one had sounded suspiciously haunted.

It was the Bright Moon tower, a shiny skyscraper that had already changed hands five or six times in the years since it had been built, and was currently the headquarters for a large financial services company. Several of the previous companies there had gone bankrupt, due to a series of scandals. And a number of former staff had committed suicide, some in the building itself, according to reports. Of course, what Liu Sang had been hearing might be their ghosts.

Every square inch of the area where Chen Moqun had died was built over. They’d been able to map it within maybe 100 metres or so, but that still left a lot of space to check. What they were holding on to, and it didn’t seem like much, was the notion that Chen Moqun was likelier to be a great deal angrier than Lan Xinjie had been, and that this would leave more traces.

Liu Sang, whose outing with Xiaoge seemed to have done him good, as he was at least a little less aggressive and jumpy, agreed with this assessment. “Violent spirits died by violence,” he told them, with an air of being the expert that Wu Xie found strangely charming. “They’re unhappy and angry. They cause trouble. Makes them easier to find. Some of the ghosts I’ve located tried to kill people. Some of them succeeded. If what you say about this guy is right, he’d be a classic case.”

“What time do you think we should go?” Wu Xie asked Xiaoge.

“I heard the security guards talking,” Liu Sang said. “If we go at three am, there are only two on duty, and they were planning to catch up on a game.”

“Morning shift takes over at six,” Xiaoge added.

“Will that be enough time?” Wu Xie scrolled through information about the building on his phone. It was thirty-five stories high, and they’d need to pin down the location to exactly the right floor.

Xiaoge’s mouth twisted, doubtful.

“We need to try,” Wu Xie said. Pangzi nodded, assenting.

“Early night, then,” he said. His eyes wandered over Wu Xie and Xiaoge. “I’ll go up first. I’ll see you when I see you, Tianzhen.”

Liu Sang gave Wu Xie a thoughtful and unreadable look. “I’m going too. I have work to do.”

Left alone at the table, Wu Xie turned his wineglass around, and felt his heart beating in his chest. Maybe Liu Sang had heard that, too, his reaction just to the idea of being alone with Xiaoge, finally. He forcibly shoved down thoughts about what else Liu Sang had heard. There was no point thinking about it until he went to see a doctor, which he’d do the moment they got back home.

Meanwhile, Xiaoge was watching him, across the table.

“I have the keycard for your room,” Wu Xie said. He fished it out of his pocket, and started to slide it over.

Xiaoge put his hand over Wu Xie’s, stopping him.

“Keep it,” he said.

Wu Xie wet his lips. “You mean?”

Xiaoge nodded.

“Yes,” Wu Xie said. He wanted to lean across the table and see if Xiaoge would allow himself to be kissed. The restaurant was busy, though. “Can we go now?”

Xiaoge’s mouth turned up a little, and he pushed his chair back.

Wu Xie followed him along the hotel corridor, his heart beating still faster, feeling like a teenager again. He was very aware of the way Xiaoge moved, the strength that was hidden beneath his cheap disguise. Slow, he told himself. Like they’d agreed. They had to get up in the middle of the night. They should just sleep together. Maybe they could kiss, first. His hand trembled a little, as he took out the card and pressed it to the lock.

Xiaoge followed Wu Xie in, and before Wu Xie had even worked out how to get the lights to come on, Xiaoge had caught his arm, pulled him around, and was kissing him.

Wu Xie heard himself make a noise of surprise, but when Xiaoge started to pull back, he clutched at him, fitting their mouths back together.

This felt different than the other times they’d done this. Xiaoge licked into his mouth with very clear intent, and Wu Xie felt all of his body light up, his legs going weak. Xiaoge tugged at his shirt impatiently, and Wu Xie pulled the whole thing over his head, and his undershirt with it. By the time he’d managed to remove it, Xiaoge had stripped off his own hoodie and shirt. He pulled Wu Xie in again, and Wu Xie gasped at the feeling of their naked skin, touching.

Xiaoge had seen Wu Xie bleeding earlier. Perhaps that was where this new possessiveness, this heat, was coming from. It was difficult to have a coherent thought about this with Xiaoge’s half-naked body pressed against him, though, and especially when he felt the same desperation himself. Xiaoge kissed down his neck, with a hint of teeth, and Wu Xie groaned out loud, and tugged him back up to his mouth, trying to convey all the things he’d like to do to Xiaoge, or Xiaoge to do to him, without words.

Liu Sang and Pangzi’s rooms were across the hall. Liu Sang…there was a half-formed thought there about Liu Sang’s hearing, but Wu Xie dismissed it. Xiaoge was walking him towards the bed, in the dim glow of city lights from the windows, and Wu Xie could hardly breathe for wanting him.

“Wait,” he managed to say, as his knees hit the edge of the bed. “My boots—”

Xiaoge let go of him, and Wu Xie sat on the bed and tried to get his boots and socks off as fast as possible. As soon as he had, Xiaoge’s hands and mouth were on him again, and Wu Xie let himself be manhandled onto the bed, Xiaoge between his legs, kissing his neck, his shoulders.

He stroked Xiaoge’s back, and teased a finger under the waistband of his trousers, and Xiaoge’s breath caught, his hips moving. Wu Xie arched up against him. He was hard, and he thought Xiaoge was too.

Xiaoge drew back a little, propped on one elbow, and ran a hand down Wu Xie’s chest, like a question.

“Yes,” said Wu Xie. “Please. Touch me. Please, Xiaoge. You’re so—I want you so much.”

He thought he saw Xiaoge’s eyes widen, and then Xiaoge moved his hand lower, cupping Wu Xie’s cock, and Wu Xie’s mind went entirely blank for a moment, filled with white noise. Xiaoge was deftly undoing his fly, and pushing down his trousers; Wu Xie tried to help but he was too uncoordinated, all his nerves sparking everywhere that Xiaoge’s fingers brushed him.

Xiaoge stopped touching him and Wu Xie made a noise at the loss, except that he was only standing up so that he could strip off the rest of his own clothes more efficiently. Wu Xie watched, breathless. He wanted to be able to see better, but if he turned a light on, it might break the spell.

Then Xiaoge lay down over him again, and he was lost in the sensation of heated skin against his own, their mouths moving together. He could come like this, he could barely stop his hips from thrusting, pleasure glancing through him. But he wanted—he managed to get a hand between them, and curl it round Xiaoge’s cock, and Xiaoge made a sound into his mouth, and then shifted to bury his face in Wu Xie’s neck, breathing hard. Wu Xie swallowed and moved his hand, experimentally, testing out what made Xiaoge shudder.

He shifted, aligning them so that he could try to get a hand around both of them, shuddering in turn at how that felt. Xiaoge made a low, wordless sound, and Wu Xie caught his free hand and guided it to help. It was rough and frantic and a little awkward. And it was the best sex Wu Xie had ever had; fire running through him, and Xiaoge coming undone with him, around him. Wu Xie came with a cry that he couldn’t have suppressed, and felt Xiaoge still above him, shaking through his own orgasm.

He pulled Xiaoge close, on top of him, caging him in, and held him tightly, the aftershocks of intense pleasure shivering through him. When he felt more recovered, and as though he might be able to speak, he rubbed his face against Xiaoge’s, and kissed his cheek.

“Was that—are you alright?”

Xiaoge made a sound that might have been a laugh, or almost a sob. Wu Xie, concerned, pushed at him until he could turn on his side, and see him better.

“Xiaoge?” he said. Xiaoge smiled at him, a slight but real smile, and Wu Xie smiled back, relaxing.

Xiaoge’s tattoo was showing. He stroked over it, soothing. He wanted to ask what Xiaoge was thinking, but he also didn’t want to question why this was happening. And he wanted to tell Xiaoge how much he loved him. That would be…pushing him, though.

“We’ve only got about four hours or so,” he said instead. “Do you want to sleep?”

Xiaoge shook his head. His eyes glinted.

“Do you want to, ah, do more of this?” He allowed his touch to become more of a caress.

Xiaoge closed the distance between them, and kissed him, lazier but still with an edge. That seemed like a pretty clear answer.

“Good,” said Wu Xie, breaking off to speak. “I do too. I don’t know if I can get it up again, though. Maybe in a bit, with enough motivation. And I left all my stuff in Pangzi’s room.”

He’d even, optimistically, brought supplies in case things developed with Xiaoge, though he hadn’t anticipated them developing this quickly. This seemed like an oversight. Still, there was plenty they could do, starting with a plan to trace all the lines of Xiaoge’s tattoo, and kiss him there and then everywhere.

Xiaoge huffed at him, pulling him close again. Wu Xie shut his eyes, and let himself fall into it.

Chapter Text

Wu Xie managed to charm the tired all-night concierge into giving him a very large coffee before leaving the hotel in the early hours of the morning. It didn’t help at all, or rather, it made him feel even more wired and shaky and as though everything was slightly dreamlike.

Every time he looked at Xiaoge, which was all the time, because he couldn’t stop sneaking glances at him, he remembered with a shock to the pit of his stomach what Xiaoge’s skin felt like under his hands, what he tasted like. The weight of his cock, in Wu Xie’s mouth. The small sound he’d made, of helpless pleasure; that Wu Xie had caused.

He shifted in his seat, bit his lip, and took another gulp of coffee.

“Tianzhen,” Pangzi said over his shoulder, as they stopped at some traffic lights. Liu Sang had elected to ride in the front with Pangzi, which might be related to the resigned way in which he’d looked over Wu Xie and Xiaoge, as they emerged from the same room. Wu Xie wasn’t going to ask outright if Liu Sang had heard them, but he was fairly sure the answer was yes.

“What?” Wu Xie said.

“Cut it out.”

Wu Xie widened his eyes at Pangzi, and Pangzi jerked his head towards Xiaoge.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled at this development,” Pangzi said. “I’ll be throwing a fucking party and inviting all our friends to celebrate with me, the minute we get back. But tonight we’re on a job, and you’re practically vibrating, Tianzhen. This might be dangerous. Give the coffee to Xiaoge and stop thinking with your dick until tonight, yes?”

The lights changed.

“And you too, Xiaoge,” Pangzi added, pulling off with a screech of tires. “Don’t think that just because you’re less obvious I can’t tell what you’re thinking about.”

“Are you always like this,” Liu Sang said. His head was tipped back in his seat.

“Sometimes we’re worse,” said Pangzi. “Cheer up, little Jinx, you only have to put up with us for today.” He patted Liu Sang on the shoulder. Liu Sang groaned.

The Bright Moon building was a tall and very ugly black glass skyscraper, with zero redeeming architectural features. Wu Xie eyed it with displeasure. Hard to believe that less than a century ago, this might have been trees.

Liu Sang, back in his smart suit, had been deemed the most unthreatening of their party. He went and banged on the glass entry door, waving at the security guards at their desk, while the rest of them loitered out of the guards’ line of vision. Xiaoge had already neatly taken out the surrounding CCTV cameras.

After a couple of minutes, one guard noticed and came over. Liu Sang pulled some papers and a tablet out of the briefcase he was carrying with a flourish, and waved them in the guard’s face, gesturing. The guard fumbled with the lock and then opened the door, several inches, looking confused rather than suspicious.

Xiaoge was there in a blur of motion, neatly chopping the guard on the back of his neck before he knew what had hit him, and easing through the door. As the other guard stood up, his mouth opening, Xiaoge took him out. Then he jumped to the side and disabled the two interior cameras with some neat sword throwing, before the rest of them had even got through the door. The ease with which he did this sent another pang of lust through Wu Xie, which he tried to ignore.

Pangzi stopped to check on the first security guard, who was unconscious and breathing heavily. He started dragging him over to hide him behind the counter, while Wu Xie checked on his friend. Not that he needed to, given Xiaoge’s expertise.

“OK,” he said. There was a security station elsewhere in the tower, where one of these guys should have been: the international football game playing on the monitor explained why he wasn’t at his post. They’d need to do something to delete any footage before they left, but that was a problem for later. “Remind me where you wanted to start, Liu Sang?”

“Floors 35 to 37,” Liu Sang said.

“Good.” Wu Xie checked the foyer and the street again, still quiet, and hit the button for the lift.

Liu Sang started setting up his equipment again, on the landing outside the lifts. Wu Xie slid down to prop himself against the wall, at a reasonable distance, yawned, and looked at Xiaoge under his eyelashes. Pangzi came down and sat beside him, close enough to touch. Wu Xie bumped him with his arm.

“You’re OK, right?” he said, low.

Pangzi ruffled his hair. “I’m happy for you two. You know that.”

Wu Xie leaned his head onto Pangzi’s shoulder. He could feel Xiaoge’s attention on them. “It’s still the three of us,” he said, smiling over at Xiaoge.

“Of course it fucking is,” Pangzi said, putting an arm round him. “Iron Triangle for ever.”

“Some of us are working here,” Liu Sang said tightly, and they subsided into silence.

Liu Sang listened, and made notes, and the line between his eyebrows grew more defined.

“If I use the whistles,” he said to Wu Xie, after a while. “Would that be a bad idea?”

“Yes,” Xiaoge said, as Wu Xie opened his mouth.

“I’m getting something,” Liu Sang said. He pushed his hair out of his eyes, with a frustrated gesture. “There’s a…response. But I can’t pin it down.” He shot an apologetic look at Xiaoge. “I’m not going to use those whistles, but this one won’t have any effect, look—” He fished out a much more modern silver whistle on a small chain, looped it around his neck, and blew.

Wu Xie tensed, and felt Pangzi’s hold on him tighten. Nothing happened, however. Liu Sang blew a few more short blasts, in some kind of pattern. Then he stopped, head cocked, listening.

The hair on Wu Xie’s arms prickled, and the lights flickered off and then on. Xiaoge was unsheathing his sword, when two of Liu Sang’s urns exploded, abruptly, into fragments. Wu Xie was dragged down by Pangzi, and when he scrambled up, Liu Sang was lowering his arms from round his head, Xiaoge in front of him, on the defense.

“Xiaoge!” Wu Xie said. “Liu Sang! Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” Xiaoge said, standing up and surveying the hallway. The lights flickered again.

“So am I.” Liu Sang uncurled and started picking up the remainder of his urns, his face unhappy, and packing them away, fast. Wu Xie crouched down to help, and to check Liu Sang subtly for injuries. There were a few scrapes on one cheek, but otherwise he looked OK, if shaken.

“Sorry about your stuff,” Wu Xie said. “I’m assuming we’re in the right place, then?”

Liu Sang shook his head. “No. I was getting a fix on it. I think it’s maybe centred three, four floors up. Not much more than that.” He hesitated. “It’s, ah. Strong.”

“Yes, we got that,” Pangzi said, picking up shards of pottery, beside them.

“Careful,” Xiaoge said, sharply, and they all froze. There was a ping, and the doors of the lift nearest them slid open, and stayed open.

“No fucking way I’m getting in there,” Pangzi said, loudly.

The doors stayed open, waiting.

Wu Xie stood up, and put on his backpack. He was fairly sure that the temperature was dropping sharply in reality, and not in his imagination: goosebumps were rising on his skin. The lights flickered again. There were two sets of doors on the landing, into offices on either side, and a door to the emergency stairs. He looked over at Xiaoge, and went to try the ones on the right, pulling them as hard as he could. They were locked.

Xiaoge was trying the other ones, while Pangzi tried the stairwell door. Both were very locked.

“Were they locked before?” Liu Sang said, quietly.

“The offices, yes,” Xiaoge said. “Not the stairs. And these aren’t locked. They’re sealed.”

“Could you break it?” Wu Xie asked.

Xiaoge’s mouth narrowed, which meant he wasn’t sure.

Wu Xie breathed out, deliberately, watching the cloud his breath made.

“Looks like we’re taking the lift,” he said.

Pangzi made a very unhappy noise. Liu Sang’s face was set.

“You want to talk to us, right?” Wu Xie said loudly, to the air around them. “Well, if your name was Chen Moqun, we’re here for you.” He took a deep breath, blew it out, and then walked into the lift.

Xiaoge was immediately in front of him, crossing its threshold first. Wu Xie followed him in: it seemed like a normal lift. He beckoned Pangzi, who made a face at him and then stepped in, followed gingerly by Liu Sang.

The lift doors slid closed of their own volition.

“I have seen this film,” said Pangzi, “and I don’t like it.”

The lift lurched, and Pangzi made his unhappy noise again and clutched his necklace. Xiaoge was holding Wu Xie’s arm, with a grip like steel. The lift started moving upwards, smoothly: one, two, three floors, and then a fourth. Wu Xie caught Liu Sang’s eye and nodded, as it stopped with a ping. The doors opened.

They all stumbled out into another identical foyer. Pangzi bent over, his hands on his knees. “I’m taking the stairs down,” he said.

Wu Xie thumped him on the back. “It was fine, see?”

Xiaoge was testing the doors. “Here,” he said, holding open one of the doors on the right, and they followed him in, lights coming on as they walked into the room. Possibly due to motion-sensitive lighting, or possibly…not.

It was a large, bland office, expensively and aggressively designed, rectangular desks in sleek grey with computer monitors on them, a few spaces where uncomfortable-looking chairs were arranged around tables. The usual detritus of office life—family photos, empty coffee cups, post-it notes— marred what was probably intended to be a minimalist aesthetic. Outside the glass windows, city lights blinked.

“Shit,” Liu Sang exclaimed, stopping. “My phone. I think I left down there—it might’ve fallen out of my pocket.” He was patting his pockets down, frantically.

“We are not getting back in that lift,” said Pangzi.

“Let wait and…” Wu Xie began, and then his own phone started ringing, in his back pocket.

He pulled it out. Pangzi had saved Liu Sang in their shared contacts list, yesterday.

“It’s your number,” he said, showing it to Liu Sang.

Liu Sang blinked, uncomprehending.

Wu Xie hit the button to accept the call, and put it on speaker.

“Hello?” he said.

There was a crackling sound of static down the line.

“Are you going to play us some vintage radio classics too?” Pangzi said loudly.

The phone screamed, a man’s voice, hoarse with fear and pain, and Wu Xie jumped, and dropped it. It skidded across the carpet.

“I’m not!” said the voice, resolving into anguished, slurred, words. “I’m not, I swear, I’m an ordinary shopkeeper, I’m not one of them, I swear, please.”

“I see you’re not ready to tell the truth yet,” said a different voice, a cultured male voice, sounding bored. “Give us the name of your superior and all this can stop.”

“I’ve told you everything! I’ll do anything, please, you’ve got the wrong man, I’m not a communist, I’m not, I don’t know anything…”

“Keep going,” the second voice said, obviously an order. “I’ll send Xiao Lin down to check on him in a couple of hours. Do try to get some answers out of him before then.”

“Yes, Station Chief,” barked someone different, and the first voice trailed off into sobs, and then rose into another inarticulate scream.

The sound cut out, leaving a resounding silence. All the overhead lights went out, at once, leaving only the dim light from the windows, the floor near-invisible. Wu Xie blinked, trying to adjust his eyes: he put out a hand to grip Liu Sang’s shoulder, as the nearest person to him. The phone buzzed and its screen lit up, several times, and then the lights came on abruptly.

Wu Xie’s phone now seemed to be lying in an oozing pool of red. Xiaoge bent down and touched it.

“Blood,” said Pangzi, not a question. Xiaoge nodded.

Wu Xie had a crumpled handkerchief in his pocket, he fished it out. “Here,” he said, passing it to Xiaoge. “Check the messages.”

Xiaoge picked up the phone, wiping it off, and looked at it, scrolling, a slight frown on his face. Then he passed it to Wu Xie. It was still sticky.

Liu Sang’s phone had messaged him five pictures, in black and white, which as Wu Xie studied them resolved into piles of bodies, a man kneeling with a soldier holding a gun to his head, a woman screaming.

“I’ve seen these before, I think,” he said. “At school? These are…they’re well-known. From the war. You can probably find them online.”

Pangzi had come over to look over his shoulder.

“I preferred the English poetry,” he said. “And a ghost using the internet? Fucking creepy. That was our man in that little radio play, right?”

“I think so,” Wu Xie said. “Did you hear him say ‘Xiao Lin’?”

Pangzi made a noise of assent.

“Lin Nansheng sent us,” Wu Xie said to the air around them. “I mean, Lin Nansheng’s spirit. I’m his, ah, a descendant of his. We’re going to do a ritual that will let you talk to us directly, OK?”

The lights went out again. Wu Xie counted to five, and then they flickered on. He glanced around and stilled. There were giant red characters on the wall facing the windows, dripping.

“Get out,” said Pangzi, reading them. “You know, that sounds like a fucking sensible suggestion.”

“Aren’t you curious?” Wu Xie said to the air. “We know who you are, Chen Moqun. We know how you died, and why. How long since you spoke to anyone who could say that?”

There was a clattering sound and an odd noise, which Wu Xie identified after a moment as drawers sliding open all around them. Sets of scissors, and what looked like paper cutters, were rising slowly into the air. They were all twisting to angle their sharpest points towards them.

Pangzi swore. “Get down,” Xiaoge said, raising his sword, and Wu Xie pulled Liu Sang with him and dived under the nearest large desk, trusting Pangzi to follow.

They could hear the clang of Xiaoge’s blade striking objects, and a sound like the rush of wind. Wu Xie, peering past Pangzi, saw sheets of paper blow past, and a pair of scissors bounce onto the carpet and then immediately rise back up again.

“We need to help Xiaoge,” he said to Pangzi, glancing at Liu Sang, who had his hands pressed over his ears and was hunched in the corner, his face drawn.

“You getting sliced apart by a ghost is not going to be fucking helpful,” Pangzi said.

There was a very loud crash, right next to them, as a computer monitor hit the ground, its screen splintering.

Xiaoge appeared, crouching down to look in at them for a second, checking them over.

“Use the talisman,” he said, and then twisted up and away with unnatural speed before something heavy—a glass paperweight, it looked like—smashed down where he’d been.

“Will that help?” said Pangzi, dubious, but he was already unpacking it, fast and careful. He looked at Wu Xie and Wu Xie, already holding his knife, nodded, and let a few drops of blood fall onto it.

There was an immediate and ringing silence. Wu Xie waited a moment and then pulled himself out from under the desk and stood up, wary. Xiaoge was standing poised on one of the desks, his sword still raised, surrounded by chaos. He seemed unhurt. But it looked as though every single thing not fastened down in the office had been forcibly lifted and thrown somewhere else, or in Xiaoge’s direction.

Against the wall, under the characters, there was a man in a grey striped suit, leaning against the wall with his arms folded, and studying them. His face was amused.

Wu Xie recognized him. The talisman had worked, then; interesting, though not their most immediate concern. Pangzi and Liu Sang were scrambling up next to him, and then standing beside him, flanking him.

Xiaoge lowered his sword, and Wu Xie noted the man’s eyes flick to him, and then survey the rest of them. He stepped forward, sheathing his own knife as he did.

“You must be Chen Moqun. I saw you, in Lin Nansheng’s dreams. I’m Wu Xie, from Hangzhou, these are my friends.” Out of the corner of eye, he saw Liu Sang turn his head to stare at him. Xiaoge jumped lightly down from the desk, and came to stand within reach.

Chen Moqun looked Wu Xie over, slowly. “I trust they were the good kind of dreams.”

Wu Xie gave him an edged smile. “Can we talk, without the, ah…?” He waved a hand towards the mess.

Chen Moqun shrugged. He pulled something out of his pocket, and turned it in his hands: Liu Sang’s phone. He tapped the screen.

“Some interesting information on your professions, here, and your identities.” He met Wu Xie’s eyes. “And your little ghost-hunting expedition. I told you to get out. You should have taken my advice. I can simply call the police, on this device. I’m sure they’d be very curious as to how you got into the building.”

“There’s nothing on my phone he can use, he’s lying” Liu Sang said, quickly. “I’m a professional, I keep my clients’ information secret.”

Chen Moqun raised an eyebrow. “Not from me.”

“How can a ghost even use a phone?” Pangzi said. “Aren’t you supposed to be immaterial? No offense intended.”

“Oh, I’ve had many years to practice,” Chen Moqun said, tossing the phone in the air, and catching it. “And as you can see—” he spread his arms, encompassing the room “—immateriality doesn’t pose much of a hindrance.”

“We could go,” Wu Xie allowed. “But don’t you want to know why we’re here, first?”

“I know why you’re here,” Chen Moqun said. “Or wait, hmm…let me guess. Xiao Lin was the Mailman, yes? I knew the Communists would get their man, in the end. So, if he survived that long, I imagine he wasn’t too happy about how the glorious revolution worked out, and he’s spending the afterlife wallowing in guilt? Tell me, was he strung up in the Cultural Revolution, or did he embrace it all? I’ve wondered, on occasion.”

Wu Xie’s eyes narrowed. “You learned how to use the internet. I bet you’ve searched for him. So you do want to know.”

Chen Moqun raked a hand through his hair. “I’m not sure I want to know more than I want to kill you all, and see what the morons in this office make of the bodies.”

Pangzi snorted. “I’d like to see you try. If he doesn’t give a fuck, let’s leave him to it, Tianzhen. Lin Nansheng can make up with Lan Xinjie, and this guy can stay here and play with his accountant friends and himself.”

Chen Moqun pushed himself off the wall, and Xiaoge took half a step forward, his hand on his sword.

“Pangzi,” Wu Xie said.

“Lan Xinjie.” Chen Moqun’s tone was light, though his eyes were watchful. “Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in quite some time. The last time I saw Lan Xinjie, she tried to poison me. Very nearly successfully.”

Pangzi muttered something, which could have been “good.”

“Xiao Lin helped her,” Chen Moqun said. “Though I didn’t know that at the time, since I was busy dying. I couldn’t find her, after that: what happened to her?”

“She died young,” Wu Xie said. “She and Lin Nansheng can tell you that story themselves, if you want them to.”

Chen Moqun smiled, the kind of smile that gave Wu Xie a prickle of unease. “So many people, dying so young. But you’d know about dying young, wouldn’t you, Xiao San-ye? That’s why you’re able to call on me, after all. You’ll be keeping all of us old ghosts company, soon enough.”

Wu Xie stiffened, hearing Xiaoge draw in a sharp breath beside him.

“Fuck you,” said Pangzi, putting a steady hand on Wu Xie’s back. “He’s survived worse than you. We all have.”

Chen Moqun’s smile had widened, watching Wu Xie’s reaction.

“It’s hard to believe that Lin Nansheng thought—thinks—so highly of you,” Wu Xie said to him. “He wants you to forgive him, and for both of you to be able to rest. But I know what else he wants, I know what else he felt, back then. And I don’t know what you feel about him, but trapped in a place like this, brooding over wartime atrocities and replaying your greatest hits? It doesn’t seem all that entertaining.”

Something moved across Chen Moqun’s face, and was gone. “You’d be surprised.”

“Those photos,” Wu Xie said. “The Japanese, the Nationalists, the Communists. No-one came out of the war with their hands clean: we get your point. You were already executed. You’ve been stuck here for decades. We’re giving you a chance to get out.”

Chen Moqun’s face twisted. “I wasn’t executed. I was shot in the back by a man who was every inch as much of a traitor as I was, and whom I devoutly hope is rotting in hell.”

“Wang Shi’an,” Wu Xie said. “We know. Lin Nansheng said the Communists killed him, before the revolution.”

Chen Moqun barked a laugh. “Good,” he said. He lifted up his hands, still holding the phone, and blood pooled in them and spilled over, dripping unpleasantly onto the carpet. “I hope he suffered.”

“Lin Nansheng suffered,” Xiaoge said, quietly, but with intensity.

“The mysterious warrior speaks,” Chen Moqun said. “Of course Xiao Lin suffered. That boy was incapable of doing anything without suffering over it.”

“He wasn’t a boy when he died,” Wu Xie said, meeting Chen Moqun’s eyes. “Or when you died.”

They watched each other, the silence lengthening.

Pangzi, beside Wu Xie, shifted. “This is getting dull,” he announced, “and we’re on the clock. Those security guards won’t stay down forever. Are we doing this fucking ritual, or are we sitting down for tea and a chat?”

“The ritual will mean that we take you with us,” Wu Xie said, not taking his eyes off Chen Moqun. “To Hangzhou, with the others. To make your peace, and remain in my family shrine.”

Chen Moqun made a scornful noise. “Why would you want that?”

Wu Xie smiled at him, and this time made it the smile that a great many people had learned to fear, or failed to fear at their peril. “Because Lin Nansheng asked it for you.”

The mocking smile fell off Chen Moqun’s face, for a moment, and he looked—like he had in the scene of his death, that Wu Xie had seen; hunted and unsure.

“We’ll set up,” Wu Xie said. “You can think about it.” He deliberately turned his back on Chen Moqun, wanting to hunch his shoulders against the prickling of Chen Moqun’s attention, and feeling his heart speeding up. He picked up his backpack.

“Might as well clear this space here,” he said to Liu Sang. Liu Sang gave him an unreadable look, then nodded, and started pulling things out of his own bag.

Wu Xie busied himself with clearing stray pairs of scissors and other destroyed bits of office stuff out of the way. And then chalking out patterns on the carpet, which wasn’t that easy, in part so that he didn’t have to think about what Xiaoge had made of Chen Moqun’s comments, and whether Pangzi’s response had been feigned. He didn’t think Pangzi suspected anything. Xiaoge, on the other hand, was attuned to Wu Xie in different ways, and had always had a preternatural ability to tell if he was injured, or needed help.

There was no sense in worrying about it now, not with a possibly still hostile ghost watching them and the need for them to get done and out of this place before morning dawned. He checked his watch, it had been well over an hour already.

He set the jade and a new ivory box in the centre of the symbols, and lit the incense. Hopefully the building didn’t have state of the art smoke alarms.

Xiaoge had moved to stand in front of them, protective. Wu Xie stood, setting a hand on his shoulder for reassurance.

“Are you in?” he said to Chen Moqun. “This is your only chance to get out of here. Take it or leave it.”

Chen Moqun had stopped smiling. His face was set. “Why should I trust you.”

“Because I think you trusted Lin Nansheng. You knew—you know—he keeps his word. And he trusts us.”

Chen Moqun held his eyes for another moment. His mouth twisted. “I expect I’ll regret this. I usually did, when it came to Xiao Lin.” He nodded.

Wu Xie said the words, remembering to shield his eyes this time from the flash; the same kind of something rushed past him, and when he turned to his shaky chalk circle, the box was closed.

That’s the guy Lin Nansheng likes, huh,” Pangzi said. “No accounting for taste. If he wakes me up in the middle of the night to play me his greatest torture hits or throw a monitor at me I’m going to execute him all over again, are we clear?”

“He didn’t hurt any of us,” Wu Xie pointed out. “And he could have, if he’d wanted.”

Liu Sang bent to pinch out the incense. “I think…it was for show. He’s one of the strongest ghosts I’ve met. He might have been able to do worse.”

“Wait, your phone,” said Wu Xie. “What—ah.”

Liu Sang’s phone was lying on the floor, discarded where Chen Moqun had been standing.

“If he could use the internet…” Pangzi said. “Those companies that went bust, in this tower? Want to bet that was him?” He gestured at the ivory box.

Wu Xie made a face of agreement. “Can you take that, Xiaoge?” he said.

Xiaoge bent to pick up the box, and Wu Xie blinked at a disorienting moment of desire, watching him, adrenaline still running through him from the encounter.

Pangzi huffed, beside him. He started to scuff out the chalk marks, to pick up the other ritual things. “I’d love to see the face of whatever drone arrives here first,” he said. “And the police report. Good luck finding someone to blame this on.”

“They’ll blame it on us if we can’t wipe the security footage,” Liu Sang pointed out sardonically. “There are cameras on this floor too.”

Wu Xie groaned. The problem with not being in a tomb was that they couldn’t just waltz out, leaving the mess behind them, as they usually did.

“I should be able to wipe it, though,” Liu Sang added. “As long as I have time. I do surveillance jobs a lot, I don’t like to leave traces.”

“Can you?” Wu Xie gave him his best hopeful look. “That would be amazing. Because I’m sure we could work it out, but it might, ah, take us longer.”

“I’ll go and find the security room,” Liu Sang said. “I should be able to locate it.”

Xiaoge glanced at Wu Xie, and Wu Xie nodded. “Xiaoge will go with you. We’ll go to the foyer and check that the guards are still out and that the coast’s clear. Nothing we can do about this floor.”

“Well, I’m guessing they’re used to strange stuff happening in his building,” Pangzi said. “Let’s go. Breakfast is calling, and we’re only a few steps away from a successful mission.”

Somewhat miraculously, Wu Xie felt, they all made it out of the Bright Moon tower and into the van without anyone seeing them, and with Liu Sang assuring them there was no trace they’d ever been there. He’d brightened since he’d been able to do something genuinely helpful. Maybe he was warming to them, Wu Xie thought, and then wondered why he cared. It was true that he’d like to see what Liu Sang’s hearing could do in a tomb. Perhaps on their next expedition—

And then he remembered what both Liu Sang and Chen Moqun had told him, and his jaw tightened. He needed to make that hospital appointment. He looked over at Xiaoge, who was watching him, outwardly expressionless, but to Wu Xie’s eyes, evidently concerned.

“What now, then?” Pangzi said, pulling them in to the hotel carpark. “Jinx, you staying for breakfast?”

“You’re free to go if you want, Liu Sang,” Wu Xie said, leaning forward to talk to him. “You did the job we paid you for.”

Liu Sang pushed up his glasses. “Hotel restaurants are too loud.”

“There’s a stall on the main road, up that way,” Pangzi said. “I liked the look of their youtiao. They said they open at six, we can go round and check. Pick up takeout, eat in my, ah, our room? Hotel’s not kicking us out until 11.” He turned round to direct a glare at Wu Xie. “That’s not an excuse to, you know…”

“I wasn’t!” said Wu Xie, feeling himself start to blush. “I need to confirm that I can make it to the old people’s home, remember? They allow visitors from nine to eleven.”

“Hmm. You need company?”

“No. I’ll taxi there. You and Xiaoge could pick me up, though?”

Pangzi nodded, unfastening his seatbelt. “Celebratory breakfast, you head off, we collect you. Need a ride back to Hangzhou, Jinx?”

“No,” Liu Sang said. “I have a flight at six from Shanghai.” They were all piling out of the van. Wu Xie stretched, allowing himself to feel some satisfaction that they seemed to have achieved their goals. Assuming they could get the ghosts back from wherever they now were.

“Come visit,” Wu Xie suggested to Liu Sang, as they sorted out their bags. “We’ve got plenty of space.”

Liu Sang gaped at him, visibly surprised, and then he pulled himself together.

“I don’t have time,” he said. He sounded suspicious.

“Suit yourself,” Wu Xie said, shrugging. “We’d be happy to have you, though, right, Pangzi? Xiaoge?”

Xiaoge nodded very slightly.

“More the merrier,” Pangzi said, banging the van doors closed and locking them. “You’re not that bad once you loosen up a bit.”

Liu Sang rolled his eyes, but he followed them as they set off down the road, arguing amicably about breakfast choices.

Wu Xie had almost hoped that the Sunrise Senior Care Centre, a couple of miles from the city centre in a suburb he didn't know well, would tell him that Zhu Yizhen wasn’t well enough for visitors on such short notice. Instead, the woman on the phone had gone off to check, and returned to say that Zhu Yizhen was expecting her granddaughter that morning, but that she’d be happy to have another visitor too.

He stood on the neat steps of the home, which was a bland modern building next to a small park, and tried to summon up the nerve to go in. Going to speak to this one very old woman felt more terrifying than going into a building haunted by a furious ghost. Maybe because she was a real, living person, who had known Lin Nansheng as such. And maybe because he had no idea what he was going to say to her.

He took a deep breath, and rang the doorbell.

Zhu Yizhen’s room was much smaller than his grandmother’s apartment, but comfortable and pleasant, with flowers and a number of bookcases. Wu Xie took it in at a glance, and then turned to the armchair by the bed. Zhu Yizhen was small, neatly dressed in trousers and a blue cardigan, her hair pure white and her face seamed with wrinkles. A pair of crutches was propped against the armchair. But her eyes were still bright, sharp with intelligence as they studied him.

An attractive young woman, her hair hanging in a bob, was standing behind the chair and giving Wu Xie a very suspicious look.

“Good morning,” Wu Xie said. “I’m sorry to intrude. My name is Wu Xie, I’m very pleased to meet you, Zhu Yizhen and…?”

“Shen Xiaolian,” the granddaughter said. “You told the staff that you were a distant relative, who wanted to ask my grandmother a few questions?”

“Yes,” said Wu Xie. “I hope this, ah, won’t be a shock.” He steeled himself. Zhu Yizhen was a sweet-looking little old lady now, but she’d married Lin Nansheng and then left him to despair and persecution, under circumstances that he hadn’t been able to talk about, all this time later. And according to his own story, even as a young girl she’d readily given up everyone, and everything, for the cause she believed in.

“I’m here about your—your first husband,” he said to her. “Lin Nansheng.”

Chapter Text

On the drive home, Wu Xie stared out of the window and watched the landscape pass by, and Pangzi, reading his mood, left him in peace.

He had liked Zhu Yizhen, despite himself. She was too frail to leave the home much now, let alone travel to Hangzhou, but she’d written a short note. Wu Xie had it with him, safely tucked away in an inner pocket.

Zhu Yizhen had been almost more disbelieving of Wu Xie’s story, to start with, than her granddaughter. Though Shen Xiaolan’s ideas seemed to come straight from whatever supernatural romances she’d been consuming. Some of the details Wu Xie knew from Lin Nansheng’s story, however, were—convincing.

As he’d taken the note from her, Zhu Yizhen had clutched his wrist.

“Nansheng always put his faith in people. I put mine in a cause,” she said. Her eyes were wet: she blinked, and tears ran down her cheek. “A good cause. I won’t apologize for that. What happened to him was wrong, and I can’t defend it. But I don’t know if—I don’t know if I could have chosen differently; if I could have stayed with him, gone along with what he was trying to do. And I don’t wish I had. Because if I’d been by his side, I wouldn’t have survived, and I would never have had my family.”

“I understand,” Wu Xie had said. He wasn’t sure if it had been a lie.

When they reached the outskirts of Hangzhou, he sat up, glancing back at Xiaoge, whose eyes were closed.

“You OK?” Pangzi said.

“I’m fine,” Wu Xie said.

“So how are we going to play this?” Pangzi said. “Do we have a plan?”

“I don’t know.” Wu looked back again. Xiaoge had woken up, if he was ever asleep. “Xiaoge, what do you think?”

Xiaoge was quiet, considering. “Lan Xinjie first,” he said.

“Yes, that makes sense,” Wu Xie said. “See how it goes with her.”

“And if it does work,” Pangzi said, “are we sure that if we release Chen Moqun, he’s not going to set fire to the place while we’re asleep?”

“We’ll keep an eye on him,” Wu Xie said. “And it’s not as though we’re inviting them as permanent houseguests. We’re not expecting this, ah, situation to last all that long, right?”

Pangzi snorted. “Chen Moqun look to you like he was ready to forgive and forget easily?”

Wu Xie shrugged. “If he doesn’t, we know this ritual works, we can trap him in a box and throw him in the river. Still better than leaving him to haunt those poor office workers.”

“Stockbrokers,” Pangzi said darkly. “They deserved it.”

Wu Xie grinned at him. Then he frowned. “We didn’t have time to sort out all the stuff for memorial services before we left, we need to get on that.”

“Mmm,” Pangzi said. “If we hold a full-on funeral, your uncle is definitely going to have some questions.”

Wu Xie sighed. “He’s going to find out about all this from someone. Maybe we should invite him and Nainai. They’re family, after all.”

“And your parents?” Pangzi said, with scepticism.

“Ah, they’re probably busy. I don’t want to bother them.”

Pangzi rather pointedly didn’t say anything, as he took them round the last few streets to home.

Wu Xie dumped his stuff on his bed and thought about Xiaoge, in it, on it, with him. He ran a hand through his hair. He would like to have, say, a week with nothing at all happening in it, and nowhere for them to be. So that he could see if Xiaoge might permit himself to be taken to bed, and to stay there.

A house filled with ghosts working through their tragic pasts did not seem conducive to this, especially when one of those ghosts was Chen Moqun. But he couldn’t leave Lin Nansheng in suspense, after all these lonely years.

He went out to the garden courtyard. “Lin Nansheng?” he called.

There was no discernible shift or signal: Lin Nansheng was simply now sitting on the edge of the pond, in what looked like his Party uniform. He was watching a set of sparrows quarrel in one of the trees, with a wistful expression. He turned to Wu Xie, a question in his face.

Wu Xie nodded, and Lin Nansheng’s face lit up, making him look, for the moment, young and carefree.

“We found them both and they both agreed to the ritual,” Wu Xie said. “We can try whenever you want. I should warn you, though, that Chen Moqun was, ah, difficult.”

Lin Nansheng smiled, a genuine smile full of what looked like affection. It transformed him.

“Of course he was,” he said. “I would not have expected anything else.” He hesitated, the light in his face dimming. “Were they—did they seem…”

“They seemed like the people you described to us.” Wu Xie said. “They knew you. I don’t know exactly what’s happened to them, ah…since you saw them last. But I’m pretty sure they remember your shared history.”

Lin Nansheng nodded, his mouth twisting. His hands had clenched on the stone edges of the pond, Wu Xie noticed.

“Do you want to wait?” Wu Xie said. “There’s no rush. Liu Sang, the guy who was working with us, he has experience with this. He said he knew ghosts who’d been kept in, I don’t know, stasis, through this ritual, for years.”

Liu Sang hadn’t said what state the ghosts had been in, when they’d been released. But Lin Nansheng didn’t need to consider that.

Lin Nansheng’s expression turned resolute. “Now would be good,” he said. “Unless it inconveniences you.”

“It’s fine,” said Wu Xie. “There’s something else I need to tell you first, though.” He went over and sat on the edge of the basin, beside Lin Nansheng. He took the note out of his pocket, smoothing it down.

“Zhu Yizhen,” he said. “You didn’t tell us to look for her, or ask us to. But you didn’t tell us not to, either. The student doing some research for me? She found her. She’s still alive. She’s in a nursing home, in Shanghai.”

Lin Nansheng had turned his face away, so that Wu Xie could only see him in profile.

“She’s too frail to travel and I didn’t know if you’d want to see her, or speak to her, in any case. She wrote you this note. I haven’t read it.”

Lin Nansheng’s form shimmered all over, as though he was on the verge of disappearing. And then it…solidified somehow, so that he seemed real and human again, in a tan uniform stained with dust. He turned to Wu Xie, who drew in a breath at the sadness in Lin Nansheng’s eyes.

“It’s good,” Lin Nansheng said. “I’m glad. That she made it. Is she happy?”

“I only spoke to her briefly. I think so. She has a family—her granddaughter was there, she seemed—nice.”

Lin Nansheng’s mouth trembled, very slightly, and then he controlled it. Wu Xie wanted to hug him, again, and again he wasn’t sure if he could, or if he should. He frowned down at the note in his hand, instead.

“I can give this to you, right?” He had a vision of the note fluttering to the ground, of his own hand passing through Lin Nansheng.

Lin Nansheng half-smiled. “I can interact with physical objects, yes. If I try.”

Wu Xie passed him the note, and he took it. He turned it over, and then put it in his breast pocket.

“For later,” he said to Wu Xie. He hesitated. “And thank you. For doing this for me.”

“Do you still want to go ahead now, with the ritual?”

Lin Nansheng’s expression cleared. He nodded firmly.

“Then give us ten minutes to set up. Might as well do it here.”

Lin Nansheng nodded again, and Wu Xie pushed himself up and went to find the others. He glanced back, at the doors, and saw that Lin Nansheng was looking back at the birds chattering in the tree, but that one of his hands was resting over his heart.

There wasn’t any great complexity to what they were doing, since it was exactly the same ritual only with a different set of words at the end. By now they were familiar enough with it that the set-up seemed straightforward. He must remember to thank Hei Xiazi, Wu Xie noted. Who knew how long it might have taken them to find something this useful on their own.

“Right,” he said, surveying their work. “Xiaoge?”

Xiaoge took out the first of their ivory boxes, handling it like a precious treasure, and set it in the centre. Pangzi passed a note with the ritual words on it to Wu Xie.

“Here we go,” Wu Xie said.

“Wait.” Lin Nansheng stood up. He was wearing one of his beautiful suits now, in a soft grey, with a crisp white shirt and tie. He smoothed over his hair, self-consciously. “Do I look—alright?”

“You look good,” Pangzi said. “Very smart. Classic.”

Lin Nansheng half-smiled, visibly nervous. He tugged at the bottom of his jacket, brushed his fingers over his tie. “Sorry,” he said. “Please, go ahead.”

Wu Xie took a deep breath, and then he said the unfamiliar syllables, trying to sound confident and not to stumble over the pronunciation.

There was, if possible, an even more blinding flash than he remembered from the binding ritual, and the soundless clap of thunder noise again: the ground seemed to shift under his feet for a moment. While he was still blinking spots out of his eyes and regaining his balance, he heard Lin Nansheng saying something indecipherable.

He shook his head and could see again. Lan Xinjie was standing in the centre of their circle, her gaze fixed on Lin Nansheng. Her hair was unruffled by whatever had just happened, her make-up was perfect, and her polka dot qipao looked as though it was freshly put on, brand new.

“Lan Xinjie,” Lin Nansheng said, his voice raw. He came towards her and then stopped abruptly, meeting her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” He fell to his knees, his head bowed, and Wu Xie could see that he was shaking. “Lan Xinjie. I couldn’t—”

“Oh,” said Lan Xinjie. “Oh, Xiao Lin, no.” She knelt herself, gracefully, hesitated for a moment, and then tugged him into an awkward hug. Lin Nansheng was still for a moment, and then clutched at her, making a choked noise. Lan Xinjie stroked his hair, bending over him.

“Tianzhen,” Pangzi said quietly, at his elbow. “Come on.”

Wu Xie followed him and Xiaoge into the house, and Pangzi closed the shutters with care. Then he pulled Wu Xie into a hug, and beckoned to Xiaoge, who came and joined them. Wu Xie held onto both of them, fiercely, feeling Xiaoge’s arm firm on his back, and Pangzi’s warmth beside him. He blinked back tears.

“For the record,” Pangzi said, sniffing, and drawing back a little without letting go. “If I were to choose to do something suicidal to save either one of you two idiots, that would be my choice and I would be totally happy with it. No apologizing. No kneeling to me in the afterlife. I’m putting that in writing and giving you both a copy, clear?”

Xiaoge’s hand tightened in Wu Xie’s shirt. “Yes,” he said.

Wu Xie’s heart thumped in his chest; he remembered, with a jolt, that he needed to call the hospital.

“That won’t happen,” he said. “You shouldn’t…we shouldn’t...”

“Of course it won’t. The three of us will live to a ripe old age. We’ll raise chickens, grow vegetables, relax; you can build us a house in the village, eh, Tianzhen, put those degrees to use. But just in case.”

“Just in case,” Wu Xie said. He let go of Pangzi, to find a tissue in his pocket and blow his noise. “Me too then. You know that.”

“Yeah,” Pangzi said. “We do.” He sighed. “We should give those two some time to catch up. I’m going to go check on the shop, see you later.” He squeezed Wu Xie’s arm, patted Xiaoge on the back, and headed off into the house, humming.

Wu Xie leaned into Xiaoge. “Hey,” he said. “I need to make a couple of calls about something.”

Xiaoge looked at him with a question in his eyes, and after a while, when Wu Xie didn’t answer it, he nodded, and let Wu Xie go.

The hospital switchboard was a disaster. Wu Xie was on hold for twenty minutes at a time to three different departments. Then he tried asking for a doctor he was sure he’d met once, when he’d last come back home with assorted injuries, and that got him transferred to a completely different department and back on hold. He hung up, did what he should have done to start with and looked up the department that dealt with lung diseases, and then tried again. But all he got eventually was the news that they had no possible appointments for at least three weeks, and that he should really get his regular doctor to give him a referral.

Wu Xie hung up again and groaned. This was where being mature and adult about his possible imaginary health situation got him. It was extremely tempting to give up. He briefly considered Huo Daofu, and then dismissed the idea. He was an excellent doctor, but it was 50/50 on whether he’d prefer to cure Wu Xie or kill him.

He did need to do this. The sooner he got it over with, the sooner he’d know. One way or another. If Chen Moqun came back, since it was obvious the ritual worked, and then said something else, something even less subtle…He made a face, and called Xiao Hua. Who, of course, had a direct line to a specialist who was prepared to clear an hour for Wu Xie tomorrow, as a special favour to the Xie family.

Wu Xie set down his phone with a firm appointment, and flopped backwards on his bed, staring at the ceiling. His lungs were creaking very slightly on each deep breath, and by now it had become routine. He closed his eyes. It was going to be fine. They’d faced worse. He’d faced worse, alone. He touched the scar on his throat, and remembered Xiaoge’s mouth on it—had that only been last night?

When he got himself up and went to see what was going on, it was nearly evening. Xiaoge had disappeared somewhere, and Pangzi was starting to sort out food in the kitchen.

“Have you seen Xiaoge?” Wu Xie asked him.

“Sent him for food,” Pangzi said. “Feels like we’ve been away for weeks. There wasn’t much here.”

“Did you check on them?” Wu Xie said, jerking his head towards the courtyard.

“No,” Pangzi said. He made a doubtful face. “Do ghosts eat? Should we invite them?”

“I doubt it,” Wu Xie said, “but who knows at this point? I’ll see if they’re alright.”

He opened the courtyard shutters silently, with the ease of practice, and looked out through the gap. Lin Nansheng and Lan Xinjie were at the small table Pangzi kept out there, their hands clasped on it, oriented towards each other, and talking intently. Wu Xie couldn’t see either of their faces clearly.

He closed the shutters as carefully as he’d opened them, and went to report to Pangzi that they shouldn’t be disturbed.

The three of them were eating takeout companionably, with Pangzi telling them about the scandals that had happened in the antiques world during their very brief absence from it, when there was a polite cough. Lan Xinjie had come into the room, and was smiling at them.

Pangzi jumped up. “Miss Lan! Can we get you anything? Is everything OK?”

“Everything is…good,” she said, her smile widening. She was dazzlingly pretty, in the evening light. Pangzi, Wu Xie noted, appeared very dazzled. His gaze kept sliding to Lan Xinjie’s legs, tightly enclosed in her dress, and then back up.

“I wondered if we might have some tea?” she said, looking round them.

“Of course, of course,” Pangzi said. “There’s food too, we weren’t sure if you, ah…”

“I’m not sure myself,” Lan Xinjie admitted. “This is new to me too. But Xiao Lin says that drinking tea is possible, so we thought...”

Pangzi was already getting down the good tea, and arranging their best cups on a tray. Wu Xie hid a smile by ducking his head, and glanced at Xiaoge to see if he was noticing this. Xiaoge was watching Lan Xinjie thoughtfully.

“Here you are,” Pangzi said, passing her the tray. He might even be blushing. Lan Xinjie took the tray from him.

“Thank you,” she said. She surveyed Pangzi’s outfit, which featured his Gandalf T-shirt and a frilly apron round his waist, and her expression turned somewhere in between confused and mischievous. “Who is the man, on your clothes?”

“Ah, this?” said Pangzi, running a hand through his hair. “Ha, well. This is a wizard. I mean, fictional. A fictional wizard. From an English book and some films. He’s also a famous actor, this guy. Oh, we could show you the films, if you wanted. Or any films—also there’s TV, I guess you haven’t seen... Sorry.”

Lan Xinjie was dimpling at him. “I used to love films,” she said. “I would be happy to see your—your wizard.”

Wu Xie thought of something. Not that he wanted to shoot down whatever Pangzi was trying to do here, but Lin Nansheng and Lan Xinjie had been—were—married to each other. According to Lin Nansheng’s account, it had mostly been for show, but that’s not what it had looked like earlier.

“Lan Xinjie, there’s a spare bedroom just down that hall on the right,” he said to her, pointing. “If you two need somewhere…more private.”

Lan Xinjie raised an eyebrow at him, knowing. “I don’t believe we need to sleep, as such,” she said. “And as for other activities, you’re mistaken. Xiao Lin and I were and are good friends, nothing more. We had our own rooms, when we shared a house.”

Pangzi made some kind of vaguely assenting sound. Lan Xinjie smiled at them all again, and walked off, her hips swaying and her heels clicking on the floor.

Pangzi sank back onto his stool and rested his head in his hands, groaning faintly.

Wu Xie elbowed him. “Cheer up. She likes your T-shirt.”

“I can’t believe you asked her if they were fucking, Tianzhen. What’s she going to think of us?”

Wu Xie rolled his eyes. “Pangzi. She worked as an escort.”

“Hey,” said Pangzi. “There’s nothing wrong with working as an escort! You heard Lin Nansheng’s story. She needed that money for her son!”

Wu Xie held up his hands. “Calm down, that’s not what I meant and you know it. I was saying that I don’t think there’s much we could do that will shock her. She’s probably more likely to shock us.”

“I wish,” said Pangzi. “Don’t you think she’s beautiful? Her eyes, her legs, her…everything.” He groaned again. “Fuck. Lin Nansheng’s going to murder me in my sleep. Did I seem as though I was looking at her in a respectful way?”

Wu Xie snorted. “No.” He caught Xiaoge’s eyes again, and smiled at him. Lan Xinjie was very attractive. Xiaoge was infinitely more so.

Pangzi sighed morosely. “I’m done eating. I’m going to go to bed, we can clear up in the morning. Wake me up if there’s a ghost-related crisis.”

“We will,” Wu Xie promised.

The next morning, Wu Xie woke up slowly, by degrees. His bed was warm and comfortable. There was the faint sound of rain, on the roof. His body ached, pleasantly, in familiar and unfamiliar ways. Xiaoge—he shifted, but the bed was empty.

Last night, Xiaoge hadn’t asked him about what Chen Moqun had said, about what Wu Xie had gone off to do on his own. But he’d kissed him ferociously, with the same intensity as the night before. They’d been trying to be quiet, because of possible waking ghosts, but Wu Xie wanted…Xiaoge’s hands had strayed down his back, and Wu Xie shuddered.

“Xiaoge, I want you inside me,” he’d said, gathering his courage. “I want you to fuck me. If it’s something you would want.”

Xiaoge had gone very still for a moment, and then his hands had started moving again.

“Yes,” he’d said. “But I haven’t...”

“I have,” Wu Xie had answered. “Not for a long time, though. I can show you?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, him showing Xiaoge had turned into Xiaoge thoroughly wrecking him, taking it so slowly and carefully that Wu Xie eventually forgot about ghosts and Pangzi and how thin their walls were, and heard himself begging Xiaoge incoherently to keep going, to move.

He swallowed and curled his toes in the sheets, his cock stirring at the memory of how it had felt, when Xiaoge found the perfect rhythm. Heat, and sweat, and the bed creaking round them, and Xiaoge inside him and touching him, surrounding him.

There was something terrifying, about trusting Xiaoge with this, and being trusted. Wu Xie had told Xiaoge he’d done all this before, and it was true, he had, and it had been sometimes fun, and outside that he hadn’t cared all that much. Then again, in those years he hadn’t cared much about anything, outside his purpose. And now, with Xiaoge in his arms, he was so full of feeling that it seemed that it must be spilling out around his edges, rippling around him.

He’d nearly told Xiaoge about the hospital appointment, lying entwined with him in the aftermath. And then he couldn’t bear to, at that particular moment.

Fuck, the hospital appointment. He needed to get up and get dressed. It felt like morning. He allowed himself one more moment to wallow in memories of the night before, and then he pushed himself out of bed.

Pangzi, Lin Nansheng and Lan Xinjie were sitting in their living room, eating breakfast. Or at least Pangzi was eating breakfast, the others were watching him and chatting. Wu Xie wished he’d managed to wash and put on proper clothes, before emerging from his room. He would have to brazen it out.

“Are you all OK?” he said, sitting down with them.

Lin Nansheng looked better than yesterday, more relaxed, in an indefinable way. Lan Xinjie was radiant. The pair of them looked as if they should be in some kind of retro advert, or on a film poster, rather than sitting at their table surrounded by the mess that Wu Xie and Pangzi seldom got round to clearing up.

“We’re fine,” Lan Xinjie said. “We were wondering. About Chen Moqun.”

“We can do the ritual whenever you like,” Wu Xie said.

“Or not,” Pangzi added.

Lan Xinjie and Lin Nansheng exchanged a glance. “Today?” Lin Nansheng said.

“This afternoon?” Wu Xie said. “I have a couple of errands to run this morning, should be back by midday.”

“Yes,” Lin Nansheng said. “Thank you.”

“Might not be thanking us when you see him,” Pangzi muttered, and Wu Xie kicked him, under the table.

Xiaoge was in the courtyard, training. Wu Xie admired him for a few minutes, letting himself appreciate Xiaoge’s body in ways he’d always been cautious about, before. He couldn’t tell if Xiaoge knew he was there.

He’d told Pangzi that he was going out to start making plans around memorial services. He didn’t want to lie to Xiaoge, though, even if he could have done so without Xiaoge knowing. He watched him for another minute, and then slipped out, without making his presence known.

“You can see here how far the disease has advanced,” the doctor said, showing Wu Xie a black blur on the scan. “I’m afraid the tests were very clear, Mr Wu. This is a terminal illness, and inoperable. Medical intervention will be of limited use.”

Wu Xie would have liked to feel surprise, or shock, or outrage. Instead, he felt mostly numb. He was conscious of the need to behave well in front of this doctor, who was fitting him in as a favour.

“How long?” he said. Even his voice came out normal.

The doctor shrugged. “I can’t say for sure. You probably have six to twelve months, at most. If you wished to remain in a private facility, where you would be under daily observation, perhaps more. That would be my recommendation.”

“No,” Wu Xie said. “I need to go home.”

The doctor nodded. “I will prescribe you some medication, and schedule a check-up each month. But you understand, this prescription will simply alleviate some of your symptoms. It cannot reverse the damage. Eventually, a hospice will be your best choice.”

“I understand,” Wu Xie said. “Thank you.”

He took all the pills away with him, and signed the forms, and found himself walking out of the hospital, into an ordinary day in the city. He sat down on a bench, and watched people go by. The sun had come out, and was glinting off the puddles on the pavement.

No-one in the tomb-raiding business spent a lot of time thinking about the next week, or the next year, or the next decade. There was always someone or something trying to kill you, and the chance of death at every turn. It wasn’t as though Wu Xie couldn’t have died hundreds of times over, in the last years. And all told, he’d had plenty of adventures, and enough experiences, for three lifetimes.

That wasn’t going to make any difference to Pangzi and Xiaoge. What would this do to Xiaoge, after Wu Xie had pulled him into this thing out of his own selfish want, when he’d known, he’d known that something was wrong. If Xiaoge felt even a little of what Wu Xie felt about him, what Wu Xie would feel, if he knew that Xiaoge was dying and he couldn’t stop it—

Wu Xie’s heart clenched, a feeling that had nothing to do with his ruined lungs. He tried to school his face so that passers-by couldn’t see it, and to take some deep breaths, but that only made him cough.

“Are you alright?” an elderly women said to him, as he tried to catch his breath. He looked up at her: she had a kind face.

He and Pangzi used to joke with each other, when they were younger, about what Xiaoge would think of them when they were old men, their faces lined.

The woman’s gaze went to the hospital behind him, and her face softened in sympathy.

“I’m fine,” Wu Xie said, quickly. “Just a cold.” He managed to summon up some form of smile. “Thank you.” He forced himself to stand up, tried smiling again, probably not any more successfully, and started walking rapidly in a random direction, the woman still looking after him.

After some time, he stopped walking. The others, the living and the dead, would be starting to wonder where he was. They’d promised to do the second ritual—he couldn’t go back and dump this on Pangzi and Xiaoge now. Lin Nansheng was counting on them, on him.

Maybe he should wait until the ghosts were gone, by one means or another. Until they had the house to themselves. He hadn’t asked Xiaoge about his plans, but presumably he wasn’t going to disappear before then, or without warning. That would give him a chance to…get used to this knowledge, to work out what he was going to say. He was always the one with a plan, and maybe in a few days, he would have come up with something.

His phone pinged: it was Xiao Hua, asking if the hospital appointment had been OK.
“Fine,” Wu Xie messaged back, and started walking again, in the right direction this time.

No-one at Wushanju seemed to have registered that he’d been away for longer than he said he would be, and returned empty-handed. Pangzi was banging pans around in the kitchen, and Xiaoge was leaning on a pillar, watching Lin Nansheng and Lan Xinjie play cards.

“You missed lunch,” Pangzi said, when Wu Xie went to find him.

“It’s fine, I picked something up.”

Pangzi shot him a look, perhaps registered something in his voice. Wu Xie smiled at him, finding it came easier, and ruthlessly pushing the memory of his morning into a dark corner of his mind. Pangzi’s face relaxed.

“You ready to face our friend Chen Moqun again?” Pangzi said. “We’ve been waiting for you. I wanted to lock up all the fucking kitchen knives, but Xiaoge gave me that look when I suggested it, though why he thinks that—”

“Let’s do it,” Wu Xie said over him.

Pangzi subsided into muttering, but he followed Wu Xie out, back to the garden courtyard, where the chalk marks they’d made yesterday were mostly washed out.

Lin Nansheng and Lan Xinjie came and stood by the pond, and watched the rest of them setting up. Wu Xie noted, when he looked up, that Lan Xinjie had gripped Lin Nansheng’s hand, or perhaps vice versa.

When they were done, he turned to them.

“Are you ready?” he said.

“I’m going to wait inside,” Lan Xinjie said. She turned to Lin Nansheng, and raised a hand to caress his cheek. “It will be alright. You can do this. Yes?”

Lin Nansheng swallowed. “Yes.” He didn’t sound very convinced.

“Do you need company?” Pangzi said to Lan Xinjie, hopefully.

“That would be welcome,” she said, smiling at him.

“You two can manage?” Pangzi said. “I’ll, ah…”

Wu Xie raised his eyebrows at him, and looked at Lin Nansheng, to see what he thought of this. Lin Nansheng was watching Pangzi hold the shutters open for Lan Xinjie to step inside , a very slight smile on his face.

“Xiaoge and I will stay, just in case,” Wu Xie said to him.

Lin Nansheng straightened, looking at the circle, and the box inside it. He was wearing one of his perfectly tailored suits again: he looked good in it.

“Thank you,” he said.

Wu Xie took a deep breath. He positioned himself on the other side of the circle, Xiaoge flanking him, within easy reach, and said the words.

This time, he was braced for the feeling of disorientation, and knew to shield his eyes. When he could see the circle again, Chen Moqun was there. He was only a couple of feet away from Lin Nansheng, who had stepped closer, and they appeared to be staring at each other with an intensity that crackled.

Wu Xie stepped back a little, into the shadows under the eaves, drawing Xiaoge with him. Xiaoge was tense, evidently ready to step in if Chen Moqun started anything; one hand was on his sword. Wu Xie wasn’t sure the tension was necessary. Chen Moqun was showing no indication he knew they were there, and presumably he couldn’t actually physically hurt Lin Nansheng in this form, even if he tried his best.

“Xiao Lin,” Chen Moqun said in a drawl, after what seemed like a long while. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“I,” said Lin Nansheng, and then stopped, a corner of his mouth twitching. “I wanted to see you again.”

Chen Moqun raised an eyebrow. “For what? To gloat? About how you fooled everyone? About your glorious revolution?” His eyes narrowed. “Did you marry your little Communist, what was her name, in the end? Tell me you at least got something out of it.”

Lin Nansheng swayed back, as if Chen Moqun had hit him.

“I didn’t fool you,” he said. He raised his chin. His hands were clenched at his sides. “And I married her, yes. We loved each other, for a while.”

Wu Xie was close enough to see some strong emotion pass over Chen Moqun’s face, before he schooled it into a bored expression.

“I wanted to apologize,” Lin Nansheng said. “You told me I didn’t let you down. But I did. I’m not sorry for trying to kill you. I’m sorry about Wang Shi’an: I should have been smarter, more careful. You were left with no way out, and I should have prevented that.”

Chen Moqun blew out a breath, his mouth quirking. “You didn’t owe me anything, Xiao Lin. I regret having to say this, but Wang Shi’an was not as stupid as he seemed.” He studied Lin Nansheng. “Nor were you. Despite how fucking useless you were at executing me yourself.”

Lin Nansheng blinked at him. “Thank you,” he said, with an irony in his tone that nearly matched Chen Moqun’s. “I tried. But after all, I was glad I didn’t succeed.”

Chen Moqun took a step closer to him. “Did you—do you—regret it? The choices you made? The loyalties you chose?”

Lin Nansheng wet his lips. “Yes. And no. There are many things I regret doing. And…not doing.”

“Ah?” said Chen Moqun, stepping closer again. He reached out, and smoothed a hand down Lin Nansheng’s lapel. Lin Nansheng was taller than him, Wu Xie noted with some surprise; it hadn’t seemed so, from Chen Moqun’s presence.

“That’s why I’m here, is it?” Chen Moqun continued. His hand lingered on Lin Nansheng’s chest, and then fell to his side. “For you to weep over me, and tell me all your regrets?”

“Not entirely.” Lin Nansheng was breathing faster, and his voice was rough. He was looking at Chen Moqun as though nothing and no-one else existed. Wu Xie blinked. This was suddenly seeming very…

He wasn’t sure who had moved first, but before he’d finished that thought, Lin Nansheng was pulling Chen Moqun closer, and bending to kiss him, hard.

Chen Moqun wrenched away. For an instant all his cynicism was gone, and the look on his face was naked shock, and then his gaze sharpened. Wu Xie held himself still, barely breathing. He wasn’t sure if Chen Moqun might be about to hit Lin Nansheng, and from the way Lin Nansheng’s shoulders were braced, he didn’t seem sure either.

“This is why,” Chen Moqun said, not quite a question.

“Didn’t you know that?” Lin Nansheng said.

Chen Moqun reached out again and fisted his hands roughly in Lin Nansheng’s suit. Lin Nansheng’s cheeks were flushed, his eyes dark, holding Chen Moqun’s gaze.

“I suppose I did,” Chen Moqun said, and kissed him again.

Chapter Text

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.”