The first time that Wu Xie talked with the dark brother wasn’t actually the first time he’d met him. He always remembered him being around, usually somewhere close to Wu Xie’s grandfather, always slightly apart from everyone else.
He was also aware, in the way that little kids sometimes are of things that their parents won’t say, that he shouldn’t ever bother dark brother. His mother would always pull him away from whatever fun game he was playing with his grandfather if the tall, dark man came closer. It didn’t matter how much he cried or pleaded, mom would always urgently shush him and quickly carry him out of the room. He remembered that more than anything else because his mom wouldn’t really pick him up often because her back hurt. But whenever the dark brother showed up, she would always pick him up. He kinda liked it, even if it meant he couldn’t play with his grandfather anymore.
His grandfather always knew the best games and had the best toys and told the best stories ever. His dad had fun stories, too, but nobody had better stories than his grandfather, which was one of the many reasons why he loved his grandfather so much.
But his grandfather went away.
Wu Xie wasn’t quite sure what it meant, he only knew that all the adults were sad and everybody wore black, and he was forced to wear the stiff clothes he hated, and no matter how much he cried and protested his mom wouldn’t budge.
There were many people in the house, even both of his uncles were there at the same time, and no matter how hard Wu Xie tried he couldn’t remember both of them being in the house at the same time for long. And there were all these strange uncles and aunties and big brothers and sisters whom he hadn’t met before, all dressed in dark colors and looking sad, and carrying flowers and gifts. But none of the gifts were for him, which only made him more irritated. If they were bringing so many, then surely they could bring him at least one?
And whenever he tried to play, everyone told him to be quiet, to not make noise, to not bother the adults. He didn’t know what was happening, but he didn’t like it. Even his uncles wouldn’t play with him, and there were no other kids, just loads and loads of adults everywhere and his grandfather's picture with black ribbons on the frame.
He didn’t like that picture. Grandfather looked mean in it, like he was glaring, and that wasn’t the grandfather he knew. Grandmother was also strange. She looked sad and sick, sitting ramrod stiff and barely speaking to anyone. He wanted to hug her, but every adult in the house kept chasing him away and he didn’t want to cause any trouble.
Eventually, he found out that the side courtyard, the one that had a couple of currently empty large dog houses under the wall, was also empty of adults. It was lonely there, but at least nobody shooed him away as he found first a stick, then a little hole that ants were coming out of, and tried to see if he could make little roads in the dirt for the ants to use.
He wasn’t quite sure how long he’d been playing with the ants when he turned around to extend the latest road, and dragged the stick right into a pair of black shoes. Which were attached to a pair of black-clad legs. When he looked up, blinking a little against the sunlight streaming into the courtyard, Wu Xie found that the legs were unsurprisingly attached to a person, someone he hadn’t even heard come into the courtyard and walk over to him.
What was surprising was that the person was the dark brother, looking down at him expressionlessly. Wu Xie blinked up at him again, slightly surprised that his mother hadn’t come and whisked him off immediately.
True, he’d snuck off and hadn’t told his mother where he’d be, so she probably didn’t know he was here, but she’d always seemed to just know whenever dark brother was around so that she could snatch Wu Xie away. He wondered if she was going to be cross. Probably. It seemed that everything he did today was making people cross. He stared up at the man above him a little cautiously. He didn’t seem cross, at least.
“Um,” Wu Xie said, as the dark brother didn’t seem inclined to say anything. “Want to make ant roads?”
The dark brother nodded and crouched down beside Wu Xie.
Wu Xie was disappointed but unsurprised that, when dark brother crouched, he was still much taller than Wu Xie. Life was unfair that way.
“You should get a stick,” he instructed the dark brother. Usually, dark brother and his all-black clothing stood out among all the colorful clothes the other adults wore, but today he looked exactly like everyone else. “And look,” Wu Xie continued when he saw the dark brother reach for a stick - a little curved and not quite right, but Wu Xie thought that the dark brother should be forgiven for mistakes if this was his first time playing with ants. “Look, you have to watch where they are going.” He pointed to a little line of ants marching towards one fo the bushes. “And then, when you see them, you have to make a road. Like this.” He demonstrated slowly, making sure the dark brother was watching, the same way his teacher did for him and the rest of his class. Examples were important. “And if you make a good road, the ants will walk over it. If it’s, bad they won’t,” he informed the dark brother. He, Wu Xie, was the expert here, obviously.
The dark brother nodded, some of his hair falling into his eyes, and Wu Xie stared jealously. He also wanted his hair to do that, but mom kept taking him to have his hair cut even though he really, really didn’t like that.
The dark brother, it turned out, was very bad at making roads. Not a single ant would walk his paths, all of them avoiding the little grooves like a plague. Wu Xie first laughed at how bad the dark brother was, but eventually he started feeling sorry for him and, whenever the dark brother wasn’t looking, he would use his own stick to push some ants onto the dark brother’s roads. Then he would point them out loudly and congratulate the dark brother on a good road.
The dark uncle didn’t look like he was smiling, but Wu Xie thought that he was. On the inside. Like when mom got cross with him for not eating the broccoli and told dad to tell him off, and dad would do it loudly but would also give him candy when mom wasn’t looking.
Maybe the dark brother was just embarrassed about how bad his roads were, but Wu Xie knew that he just needed to do more of them. He would get better in time.
Eventually mom found him.
She called his name, and when she came out into the courtyard she froze up and made a little sound, kinda like all the air had escaped her. Wu Xie knew that sound. He’d heard it a couple times before, and he winced, because each time it ended with his parents yelling at him and once even spanking him!
He didn’t know why she was making that noise, though. He wasn’t climbing any really tall ladders this time, wasn’t trying to climb inside one of the larger dog houses while it had dogs in it, nor was he anywhere near the pond, let alone trying to swim in it.
He looked at his mom, then at himself - he didn’t even get that dirty! - and then looked at the dark brother, who had stopped making roads to look at Wu Xie. Probably waiting for instruction, since he really was bad at the road thing.
“Please,” his mom said in a low, strangled tone of voice that he had never heard from her before. She took a couple of hasty steps towards them and stopped, not quite reaching them. “Please,” she repeated, and something in her voice made Wu Xie upset. He didn’t know what was happening, but he could tell that it was bad, really bad. “He’s just a child,” she said in that same horrible voice, her fists tightening by her sides.
She looked so upset that it made Wu Xie scared, made his eyes burn and his throat tighten. “Mom?” he asked, hoping she would come and pick him up, but she didn’t move, just stood there and watched them with a terrible expression on her face.
Movement from the dark brother drew his attention and he looked over to see him straighten up, all seventy miles of him looming over Wu Xie. He was taller than his mom, Wu Xie realized. Maybe even taller than his dad! He wondered what it was like being so tall.
Then the dark brother turned and walked away, his steps soundless. Wu Xie wondered where he was going and if Wu Xie could find him again to play more - after all, practice was important! Mom always said so! But that was when his mom picked him up and cuddled him fiercely, kissing his head and… crying?
Wu Xie had no idea what was going on, but he hugged his mom, because that was always what his parents did for him when he cried, and it always helped. He hoped it would help mom now, too.
After his grandfather's death, it took Wu Xie a while to understand that his grandfather didn’t just go out somewhere, but was gone for good. During that time, he and his parents moved out of the family compound and into what felt to him like a cramped and noisy apartment in the city center. He hated the apartment, hated it so much. It was much smaller than the compound, and always noisy. During both day and night he could hear the a constant rush of cars outside, or sirens or music. It took him months to get used to it.
There was no space for all of his toys, the ones that filled his whole room back at the compound, so they had to leave some of them there. His parents promised that they’d be there for him to play with whenever they went back to visit his grandmother, but even months after the move, they hadn’t gone back, only met his grandmother at parks and teahouses. There was also no space for dogs or pets of any kind, while in the compound he had the family dogs, and the occasional cat, and birds, and fish in the pond, and all sorts of bugs in the gardens.
He couldn’t even go outside whenever he wanted to anymore. Sure, there were the big glass windows and the sliding door out onto the wide balcony, but it was tiny compared to the compound, and definitely no room to run around or dirt to play in. The front door was always locked, and even when he figured out how to unlock it and went out to the lobby of the apartment building, there was a grumpy-faced man in a uniform who stood at the door, and wouldn’t let Wu Xie outside at all. He just called Wu Xie’s parents to come and get him, and they even thanked him for not letting Wu Xie go outside! All he wanted to do was to find a good space to run around and play!
It was awful and he hated it, hated his smaller room, hated that he couldn’t play with all the people that were usually in the compound. He asked his parents many times if they could leave the apartment and go back, but they were unmoved, telling him that he would get used to it eventually.
At least he didn’t lose everything he knew. The dark brother showed up to his new school a couple times. And that was another horrible thing about the move - he hated the new school, and didn’t know why he couldn’t stay at his old one. He missed his friends, and while he made new ones, they did not make up for the fact that he couldn’t see his old ones anymore.
And he didn’t dare to admit it to his dad, but he was scared of the new school. It was big, and it had so many bigger kids, too, and not everyone liked him at first. Some kids stared and murmured. And there was this large dog that was always there at recess when they were let outside to play. Wu Xie knew dogs, his grandfather - and now Ershu - had many, many dogs, and Wu Xie knew each and every one! But there was something wrong with this dog. He would sit still beside the fence until someone came closer, then he would lunge. It wasn’t like when the family dogs wanted to play. It was different and scary. But the dog was behind the fence, so they shouldn’t be afraid, right? But still, Wu Xie - and not just him - dreaded going out during recess and lunch, because what if the dog made it through the fence one day?
He didn’t want to seem like a little kid who was afraid of everything (even if he was a little kid compared to everyone else), so he didn't say anything to his parents. He was ashamed to be afraid of a dog, ashamed to be afraid of the bigger kids at school, and just… his parents were already short with him for complaining about the apartment all the time, he didn’t want them to think that all he could do was just complain about things that they thought were silly to complain about.
But then the dark brother came by! It was lunch, and Wu Xie and a couple of the girls from his class were… not hiding, precisely, but keeping away from that part of the playground, even if it had the best swings, because the dog was there again. He was sitting there behind the fence, staring at them intently, like he wanted to eat them.
It was the dog that noticed the dark brother first, flattening himself to the ground and growling, his ruff rising up in a way that Wu Xie’s grandfather had always told him was very bad, and to never trust a dog that did that to humans. The dark brother didn’t pause, didn’t stop, just kept walking with his hands in the pockets of his black coat. He looked like a long splotch of black on an otherwise sunny day, not appearing to even notice the dog. Wu Xie was just thinking that he should call out a warning when the dark brother lifted his head - and Wu Xie was still jealous of his hair, it looked so cool! - and looked at the dog.
The dog whined, flattening himself to the ground and whining again, even louder, backing off until he was far enough away to run away. Wu Xie waited until he was out of sight and could no longer be heard before cautiously approaching the fence, where dark brother still stood, looking at him.
“Hello,” he said, and the dark brother just inclined his head. Wu Xie figured that that was greeting enough. Sometimes he, too, didn’t feel like talking. “Um. I’m glad it didn’t bite you.” Because dogs like that usually bit if they were scared, he remembered his grandfather saying that. “Is it going to come back?”
“No,” the dark brother said, and Wu Xie startled at how quiet and soft his voice sounded. It was really very pretty. Prettier than even his mom’s, and until now he’d never found anyone with a prettier voice than her. “It won’t ever come back.”
It didn’t even occur to him that the dark brother wasn’t telling him the truth. He called his new friends over, and they victoriously took over the swings that everyone had been too afraid to use before, gaining them the title of the bravest kids in school. By the time he looked over from arranging the swings between his friends, the dark brother was gone, but so was the dog, so it was a good day.
And the dark brother had told the truth. The dog never again appeared by the school. The dark brother came from time to time, always dressed head to toe in black, his fringe falling into his eyes, and Wu Xie was still so damn jealous of it.
Wu Xie wanted to always go up and talk to the dark brother, but the teachers, who had ignored the dog, would always call them away from any people who might be around the fence, never letting him have a chat. It made Wu Xie very grumpy. But he started waving to the dark brother whenever he showed up, and sometimes - okay only twice so far, but it still counted - the dark brother would take one of his hands out of his pocket and wave back. A little. But still, Wu Xie took that as a victory.
And also, it gained him a lot of school cred. He had a very cool big brother who had permanently scared away the scary dog. Nobody had a big brother like him! Even the bigger kids started being nicer to Wu Xie after that.
It wasn’t just at school that Wu Xie saw the dark brother. Quite often, he’d look out the window at home and spot the man on the other side of the street, usually after his parents had put him to bed for the night and he’d pulled the curtains aside to look out because he wasn’t sleepy yet, no matter what they said. He always waved, of course, and even though dark brother didn’t seem to be looking up at Wu Xie’s window, sometimes he waved back.
He was a little surprised when, one day after dinner, he looked up from his homework to see dark brother across the street. Usually it was much later that he saw him. Behind him, he could hear his parents talking quietly and quickly, sounding worried about something, so he decided not to say anything and instead slipped off the chair to go over to the window and wave. Dark brother didn’t wave back this time, but Wu Xie was sure that he inclined his head a little.
“Xiao Xie, what are you…” his father began, then stopped what he was saying as he made a slight choking sound. Wu Xie stopped waving to turn around to look at his father, worried at the sounds. Had his father been talking while he had food in his mouth? Mom always warned Wu Xie not to do that or he’d choke, after all. But dad didn’t look like he was eating anything, he just stared out of the window, his eyes wide, and looking kind of scared, as if there was a big dog out there. Wu Xie turned back to look, but no, all he could see out there was dark brother. Before he could ask his dad what was wrong, though, mom grabbed him and picked him up, hurrying out of the room and away from the window.
That weekend they finally went back to the compound for a visit, and Wu Xie couldn’t be happier. His mom and dad spent the whole trip there telling him that he was not allowed to talk with the dark brother under any circumstances, but it wasn’t like the dark brother ever really talked back. So he was probably safe on that front, because talking to someone who didn’t say anything in return wasn’t the same thing as talking with someone, after all.
His parents and uncles and grandmother all went away to discuss adult things with each other, but Wu Xie didn’t care. He had to say hello to all of the family dogs, after all, then find out if the stray cats still visited, and check every garden and courtyard to see if things were still good. And, well, if he saw the dark brother, he could thank him properly for scaring off the dog. And ask him to play ant roads again.
The weather wasn’t cooperating with his plans, though. No sooner had he finished distributing treats in the kennels then the skies opened up and it started pouring.
Grumpy, he tried playing alone in one of the rooms, but without his uncles or parents there wasn’t all that much to do by himself, and while there had been uncles and big brothers following him while he visited the kennels, away from the kennels there wasn’t anyone to play with.
Bored, he decided to go and seek out his uncles. Somebody would play with him, they usually did if he asked enough times and made his eyes really big and wide.
He knew where the adults went when they didn’t want others to hear what they were talking about. It was one of the newer buildings with brick walls and a second story. He knew about the meeting room because, once, he’d noticed a stray kitty that kept hanging around the house because the cooking lady gave it food. The cat was hanging around more than usual, and one day Wu Xie followed it, only to discover that it was a mommy! There were kittens hidden on the upper floor. He followed the cat by jumping onto the old dog house, using the gutter to get onto the low roof of the storage room that Wu Xie loved to play in, then onto the wide window sill of the long second story windows. One of the windows was cracked open enough that the mommy cat could squeeze through, and, when Wu Xie pushed it, it turned out that it opened easily. He visited often, bringing treats for the kittens and playing with them until they were big enough to go away. But, as he played with them, he realized that he could sometimes hear adults talking.
When he investigated, he found a crooked plank on the floor that could be shifted with a little prying. When he looked through it, he could see a sliver of the room below, with its heavy leather couches and large table.
Bored and curious, he climbed the now long familiar route and wiggled through the window into the second story. Then he looked down through the crack to see a little bit of his dad and most of Ershu. A little more wriggling around and he could spot what he was pretty sure was his Sanshu’s arm on the table next to Ershu. At least, it looked like Sanshu’s watch around his wrist, and the hand looked way too big to be his mom’s or grandmother’s. So it had to be Sanshu’s. His mom and grandmother were probably on the other side of the table, then.
His suspicion was confirmed a moment later when a teacup appeared in his line of sight, held out towards his dad, who took it and he could hear his dad saying thank you. Then teacups to Ershu and Sanshu, too. That was probably his mom, his grandmother’s hands always shook a little bit when she gave people tea, and these teacups didn’t shake at all. He wondered why adults seemed to like tea so much when juice and milk both tasted so much better. He could see some plates of nuts and sweet nibbly treats on the table, too, with his Sanshu’s hand taking a couple of them. Wu Xie hoped that they wouldn’t eat all of them and would save some for him, even if his mom would tell him not to spoil his dinner when she inevitably saw him eating them.
“You should think about it calmly,” Sanshu said in the same tone of voice his mom had when she had to repeat the same thing multiple times.
“Calmly!” His dad sounded mad. “He followed us! He made sure we saw him!”
“He was at Xiao Xie’s school,” his mother added. She didn’t sound angry, not like his dad did, but she definitely sounded scared. “For days, the school said!”
“What did you expect?” Sanshu said. “There was nothing in his contract about staying here, or being confined to a single place. He can go anywhere. He used to go to tombs, remember, either with Dad or because Dad asked him to.”
“Your father never told anyone the specifics of the contract,” his grandmother said. She sounded firm and distant. She always scared Wu Xie a little bit, with the way she looked at him, how often she seemed displeased with his behavior. “He was protective of it. Of… him. All I know is that he wanted to pass the contract onto one of you. He presented you to him after each of you were born, and he rejected all of you.”
“Thank god,” Wu Xie’s dad said.
“Speak for yourself,” Sanshu cut in. “I, for one, would have loved him working with me like he did with dad. How do you think dad managed to accumulate so much wealth in such a relatively short time? Damn, that one man is equal to a whole army. And he can’t be bought or threatened into betrayal, and he’s uninterested in money. You can’t get a better man for this kind of trade.”
“Then you could just change careers and make a decent man out of yourself,” his dad snapped.
“You…” Sanshu’s voice rose sharply in a way that made Wu Xie flinch back. His uncle was always quick to yell.
“This is not the time to argue about this.” Ershu sounded firm, in a way that immediately stopped the fight. “Sanxing, the issue isn’t about the potential profits here. Yiqiong, don't forget what kind of money raised you and paid for your education.”
“We need to protect Xiao Xie!” his mom said sharply.
“Ridiculous, just let it happen,” Sanshu muttered.
“Mom, do you know how dad signed the contract? Or at least when?” Ershu asked.
“When I met him, they were already together, and your father never spoke of how he formed the contract, or when. After we married, I tried asking the staff, but nobody knew for sure. There were rumors that he went to investigate a tomb and came back without the people he left with, but with Xiaoge. Even my cousin didn’t know any more than that - that your father just came back with Xiaoge in tow one day, and that was it.”
“We have to free Xiao Xie from him,” his mom insisted. “We need him to be free and to marry and have children of his own one day. He can’t be tied to that… that thing!”
“What has one to do with the other? Do you think that my husband and I weren’t actually married? Where do you think our sons came from?” his grandmother said in that sharp tone that he especially disliked. “Think before you speak,” she scolded sharply, and Wu Xie heard his mom stutter a quick apology.
“Let’s look at the facts,” Ershu said tiredly. “You took Xiao Xie away from the compound and he didn’t stop you. It took him a while to follow, right? Do we know how long it’s been since he found you?”
“No,” Wu Xie’s dad said with a sigh. “The school wasn’t sure when he started showing up.”
“So at least a week, maybe longer?” Sanshu said. “The way I see it, you have three choices. One is to stay away and see what he does when he gets pissed. Two is to come back and live here as dad assumed you would. Three is to find a compromise.”
“We can’t bring Xiao Xie back here!” his mom protested. “Who knows what will happen to him?”
“Oh, for… he’s not going to hurt Xiao Xie,” Sanshu said. “If he was going to, he would have. Anyway, it’s completely against his best interests to do that. Did he ever hurt dad?”
“No,” his grandmother replied immediately, not letting his parents get a word in. “He never hurt me, either. Or any of you. Although that might change if you continue to try to keep Xiao Xie from him,” she added, her voice returning to that earlier sharpness. “The contract is between the two of them now.”
“Whatever the contract is, I want it broken,” his mom said decisively, the same way that she told Wu Xie there would be no dessert until he cleaned up his toys at home. He swung his feet in the air above him, shifting his weight on his elbows, trying to figure out what it was they were all so upset about. What even was a contract, anyway? And who was this ‘he’ they were talking about?
“I agree,” his dad said. “Dad wanted the family to get away from the old ways. Xiao Xie is our future, he shouldn’t be burdened with a past that he isn’t even responsible for.”
“We can try and look into… ways to make him leave,” Ershu said. “Even though it may pose a risk to our reputation if this got out.”
Sanshu laughed, loud and somehow not fitting the mood of the other adults. “Come on, if anyone decides to blab, we can have them taken care of. And really, who would even believe it? Things like that don’t happen in the real world.”
“I still can’t believe dad would leave such a mess for us to clean up,” his dad said.
“I don’t know if he had a choice in this,” his grandmother said, sounding tired.
“I suggest you start with weekly visits,” Ershu said. “See if that calms things down. It should be easy to handle with Xiao Xie’s school schedule and your work. We can adjust from that.”
“I don’t like the idea,” Wu Xie’s dad said. “But I don’t see any way around it for now.” He sighed. “Start looking into ways to protect Xiao Xie, or at least to get that thing away from here.”
Wu Xie knew that they were talking about something that related to him, since they were using his name, but they used words he didn’t understand and he didn’t like the way his parents seemed so upset, or how they kept arguing with Sanshu. He liked Sanshu, and he hated hearing him argue with dad. And grandmother also seemed upset. Wu Xie didn’t like it when the adults were upset. He regretted coming to listen. All he got from this was that they were all upset, and it had something to do with him, and now he, too, felt a little upset, as well as guilty for being the cause of whatever it was that had the adults so worried and upset.
He put the board back and slipped out into the rain, running back towards the house. He was going to go to the kitchen and see if he could beg a snack out of the cooking lady. Snacks made everything better.
After that, Wu Xie and his parents came back to visit his grandmother and the dogs every weekend - and his uncles, too, as it turned out. As well as the aunties and uncles who always helped out around the house or with the dogs, Sanshu or Ershu - or sometimes even both of them - would also be there every weekend. Dark brother was usually there, too, sometimes just watching from a distance, sometimes close enough to actually talk to, although he never really said anything much. Sometimes, when the other adults were off talking about boring adult things or watching boring adult shows, Wu Xie would be playing in one of the gardens and, when dark brother came out to watch, he could get the man to play with him.
Unfortunately, dark brother’s ant roads never got any better than the first time.
Everything settled into such a stable routine, that soon Wu Xie forgot that things had been any other way.
The weekends when Sanshu was there became Wu Xie’s favourite weekends, because Sanshu was the only adult besides dark brother who was happy to come play with him. And, unlike dark brother, Sanshu was also happy to talk. And talk. And tell lots of stories and help come up with new games.
Stories that he perhaps wasn’t supposed to tell Wu Xie, judging by how his dad and mom and Ershu would scold Sanshu whenever they overheard him telling Wu Xie yet another of his thrilling adventure stories about zombies and shibie and finding treasure in ancient tombs, which just made Wu Xie want to hear them all the more. Whenever Sanshu would catch his eye and wink, he knew it was time to run out to the very back courtyard, where Sanshu would inevitably find him, and they would set next to the fish pond to watch the koi while Sanshu told his latest story and they ate whatever treats Sanshu had pilfered from the kitchen.
Unlike the other adults, Sanshu also let him talk about dark brother and ask questions about him! Wu Xie told him all about the scary dog at the school - he hadn’t been scared of it of course, it had been the other kids who were scared, but those kids were very impressed when dark brother chased that dog away! Sanshu also told him a little about dark brother, that he was an adventurer like Sanshu and had travelled to find the most amazing treasure in various tombs. Sanshu also told him in secret that he was sure that dark brother had some really good stories to tell if Wu Xie asked nicely enough.
Sanshu, Wu Xie had concluded very early on, was just the best.
Wu Xie was angry. His parents had refused him when he asked to go on a tomb raiding trip with Sanshu. It was extremely unfair, because it wasn’t like it would be his first! And, really, he was needed! The last time he went on an expedition with Sanshu, he was the only one who found any treasure! What if he didn’t go this time and there was nobody to find the treasure? What then? He absolutely had to go! Sanshu and Pan Zi had both told him he was the one who saved the whole trip last time.
After all it was him, Wu Xie, who found the clue painted on the rock wall! It was sneakily hidden behind very tall grass that was almost as tall as him, but he found it! Not Pan Zi, not Sanshu, but him, Wu Xie!
He’d watched both adults dig holes in the clearing, while they talked about how hard it was to find treasure and how many holes they would need to dig. But Wu Xie found the arrow! It was painted really low, hidden well behind the grass, and Wu Xie was the only one who had thought to look that low! Once he looked there, he could see that it was super clear because it was so white and the rock was kinda dark that close to the ground. It pointed right to a spot in between where Sanshu and Pan Zi were digging, and when Wu Xie went and dug there, he found the treasure! Sanshu and Pan Zi had huffed and puffed away, digging the whole morning while Wu Xie had run around looking for clues, but when he started digging he had the treasure uncovered in no time at all!
Which is why it was so annoying that he was being left behind this time! He’d asked Sanshu if he could come with him again, and Sanshu had just laughed and ruffled his hair, and said that it was going to be a longer trip and further away, and Wu Xie’s parents would be mad if he missed school, so maybe when on the school holidays Wu Xie could come on another trip that was closer to home. When Wu Xie had begged and pleaded and made his eyes as wide as they could go, Sanshu had finally sighed and said that he could only come if his parents said it was okay.
Wu Xie had felt victory in his grasp! He’d raced off immediately to ask his parents, who had immediately forbidden him from even thinking about going anywhere near a tomb, and then his dad had gone and yelled at Sanshu for ‘filling Xiao Xie’s head with nonsense, Sanxing, he’s not going to be a trouble maker like you, he needs to be respectable because he’s the family’s only heir, since some people refuse to get married and have a child of their own.’ Wu Xie wasn’t quite sure what that last bit meant, he was too busy sulking over not being allowed to go. He’d been so close!
Obviously, this just meant that he needed to take matters into his own hands.
So, he packed his backpack with all the things that he would need on an expedition. He packed his favorite plushie (the one that he absolutely denied having to other kids at school, because they’d all agreed that seven was far too old to still be sleeping with plushies), his favorite game, and all four candy bars he had saved up. He remembered his mom insisting that candy bars weren’t a proper diet, so he’d also begged a couple of mantou from the kitchen at the compound just before they left to come back home, and had wrapped them up and snuck them home to stash them in the bag between the candy bars and rocket ship patterned drink bottle that he’d filled with water. He’d had to pack a change of clothes when he went on the last expedition with Sanshu, since they were away overnight. Sanshu had said that this one would be longer, so, to be on the safe side, Wu Xie made sure he packed two changes of clothes. And, of course, a notebook and pen so that he could take notes like his grandfather had written in his old notebook that Sanshu had once let him look at, and said that he could read once he was older and knew more characters!
He waited to be dropped off at school and then, under the excuse of going to the bathroom, he snuck out the small window in the second floor bathroom. He’d actually found this route earlier in the year, on a dare from some older kids. He climbed the sinks and wriggled the window open. He was still just small enough that he could squeeze through and onto the roof beyond - the sports equipment shed - and dragged his backpack after him. Then he carefully walked to the edge of the shed where the old oak had grown over the roof. Wu Xie knew, from previous attempts, that if he jumped well enough, he could catch one of the branches that stretched overhead and use that to climb over the school wall, then jump down on the other side. Which is exactly what he did, even if the backpack was heavier than he expected.
Then he was out and running for the bus stop. He knew busses took you to where you needed to go, so he just needed to catch one, and then he would get to Sanshu’s place! And he had to hurry, because otherwise Sanshu would have left before he got there.
He didn’t have to wait too long at the bus stop, which was good, because he was so impatient to get to Sanshu’s place on time that he thought he might burst. The bus driver was very surprised to see him going away from school, but Wu Xie had smiled brightly and made his eyes very wide and explained that his parents had called the school and said he needed to leave and go to his uncle’s house, but his teacher wouldn’t say why, only that his parents would tell him when he got there. The bus driver asked him what stop he needed to get off at for his uncle’s house, and Wu Xie confidently told him that he knew which one it was and wouldn’t miss it. Because that was how buses worked, right? You always got off at the right stop.
The bus driver made him sit up the front and said to say when they got to the right stop, and Wu Xie nodded and sat right behind him as the bus set off. They went further and further away from the school, and stopped at a lot of stops to pick people up and let people off. None of the stops looked like Sanshu’s street, though, so Wu Xie stayed where he was and waited. He might not have ever caught a bus before, but he’d been to Sanshu’s house by car a few times, and he was confident he knew what Sanshu’s street looked like.
Finally, just as he was beginning to worry that the bus would never get there in time, some of the houses looked like the ones near Sanshu’s house! He called out to the driver that he needed to get off here, and the driver pulled up at the next bus stop to let him off.
“Your uncle isn’t coming to meet you here?” the driver asked with a frown.
“It’s okay!” Wu Xie told him cheerfully. “His house is really close! He must have just not known what time the bus would get here. Thank you!”
He waved cheerfully as the bus drove off, then turned and walked up the road, looking for the familiar houses. Ah, there they were! So, if he turned down this corner, then Sanshu’s house should be…
Where was it?
Maybe he’d gone the wrong way? Wu Xie turned around and walked back to the familiar houses, and tried walking the other way, but that just took him back to the bus stop, and to houses that didn’t look familiar. He frowned, and turned back.
Okay, so these were the houses that looked familiar…
...except now that he was looking at them more closely, wasn’t the gate supposed to be dark red, not that reddish-brown?
“Oh no,” he mumbled, staring at the houses that grew less and less familiar looking the more he stared at them. He’d got off at the wrong stop, and now he was never going to get to Sanshu’s house before he and Pan Zi set off to the tomb!
Or, wait. He didn’t remember seeing a bus stop on Sanshu’s street, so maybe it was just that he was on the wrong street! A lot of these houses looked similar to each other, so he just needed to find the house that looked like this one but had a dark red gate, and then he’d find Sanshu’s house! That decided, he started walking again, turning down the next street he saw and examining all the houses there, then turning down the street at the end of that one.
After a little while, he started to feel hungry. He sat down on a bench under a half dead tree and pulled out one of the mantou. He was hungrier and more tired than he thought, though, and he ate all of the mantou and drank most of his water. His legs hurt from walking so much and his shoulders ached from the heavy backpack. This wasn’t anything like playing in the playground or going camping with Sanshu. If he got tired, Sanshu would just carry him, and he never had to carry such a heavy backpack, either.
After he ate, he sighed as he realised that he had almost certainly missed Sanshu and Pan Zi now, so he decided to go back to the bus and go back to school. He’d get into a lot of trouble for sneaking off, of course, and probably get a beating at school and a spanking at home, but the longer he took to get back the worse it was going to be.
But he couldn’t quite find his way back. The streets were empty. No people were walking on them, there was only a dog barking from behind a closed gate from time to time. The houses looked even more strange the further he walked, and some of them had overgrown yards of scary, boarded up windows.
And there was no bus stop. He couldn’t even find the road that the bus stopped on.
Everything was starting to look scarier and stranger, and he was hungry and tired, and he just wanted to go back.
But he didn’t know how.
And there wasn’t anyone to ask.
He ended up sitting on the sidewalk, hugging his backpack and crying. He was tired, and his legs hurt, and his feet hurt, and his shoulders hurt, and none of the houses looked at all familiar, and the streets were just so empty and quiet, and he didn’t know where the bus was, or where his house was, or his school, or Sanshu’s house, or the compound, or anything. He didn’t even know in which direction he should walk, once his legs stopped being so sore and he felt like walking again.
He wished he’d waited until he was sure the bus was passing the right houses. He wished his parents or Sanshu had said yes so he didn’t have to do this at all. At this point, he even kind of wished that he hadn’t wanted to go on this expedition so badly and had done what Sanshu had said and waited for the school holidays instead. He hugged the backpack even tighter, leaning his chin on it as he cried.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a pair of feet stop next to him, feet wearing study black boots. Someone was here! There was actually someone else here, someone whom he could ask for directions!
Rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes as he kept sniffling, he looked up, then was almost startled right out of crying when he saw dark brother’s familiar face looking down at him, a small frown creasing his brow.
“Are you mad at me?” Wu Xie asked, his voice sounding very small and still more than a little sniffly. Dark brother was never mad at him, not even when his parents and his uncles and even his grandmother were mad at him. If dark brother was mad at him, then he’d really badly done something wrong. When dark brother shook his head, Wu Xie felt a massive wave of relief, and he dropped his bag to lunge forward and wrap his arms around dark brother’s legs.
“I came to find you,” dark brother said, and he didn’t sound mad at all. Wu Xie pressed his face to the black denim and hugged the dark brother harder, crying again, but it wasn’t because he was scared! He wasn’t scared! It was because dark brother wasn’t angry, and now that dark brother was here he could take Wu Xie home!
He felt a hand land on his head. It wasn’t stroking and it wasn’t as nice as his mom’s, but it was there and he just hugged harder and cried harder. Unlike other adults, dark brother didn’t say anything, didn’t tell him to stop crying or to stop clinging, he just let him cry until he finally cried himself out, that hand ever present and heavy on his head.
Wu Xie pulled back eventually, using his sleeve to wipe his runny nose off. Nobody liked a crybaby, after all. He looked up at the dark brother, and no matter how much he grew, the dark brother was always impossibly tall, making Wu Xie have to stretch his neck to even look at him.
“You are too tall,” he complained.
Dark brother blinked at him, and wow, but Wu Xie had never met anyone with eyes as black as dark brother’s.
“You are just too small,” dark brother said, and Wu Xie squeaked in offence. He wasn't too small! He was very big now! Everyone told him so!
“That’s mean!” Wu Xie whined, one arm still wrapped around dark brother’s leg as he pouted up at him. It might have been a trick of the light, but he almost thought that dark brother smiled at him, and he’d never ever seen dark brother smile before. He rubbed the drying tears on his face, and let go of dark brother to scramble to his feet.
“Can we go home now?” he asked, then winced. “Mom and dad are going to be really mad at me, aren’t they?”
The dark brother didn’t say anything but he nodded. Which was somehow worse. Wu Xie winced again, but when dark brother moved, he lunged to grab hold of his hand, unwilling to be left without any connection.
It occurred to him, out of nowhere, that he didn’t know what the dark brother’s name was.
“My name is Wu Xie,” he said, just in case the dark brother didn’t know. And mom always said it was best to lead by example. “What’s yours?”
The dark brother didn’t respond, just started walking. But his hand closed on Wu Xie’s and pulled him along.
“If you don’t tell me your name, then I will call you…” he struggled for something to call the dark brother. Something about him reminded Wu Xie of cats, rather than dogs, but all cat names just didn’t seem to fit the dark brother at all. He just didn’t look like Mr. Fluffy, or Mittens, or Puss. Since he didn’t know any other cat names he let go of that idea. “... Xiaoge!” he said eventually. That’s what he’d heard his parents and his uncles and his grandmother and people on TV call young men whose names they didn’t know, and, while dark brother was definitely older than him, being an adult and all, Wu Xie didn’t think that he was that old. “I will call you Xiaoge!” Wu Xie announced again, as strongly as he could with his voice still somewhat nasal from all the crying he did.
The dark brother looked back at him, his dark eyes studying Wu Xie for a very long moment. Just as Wu Xie was starting to worry that he’d got it wrong, the dark brother nodded.
“Xiaoge.” Wu Xie meant to shout it, but instead it came out quiet and pleased.
“Xiaoge,” he said again, just to prove that he remembered and that he could use it now. He bet nobody else called dark brother Xiaoge! “Are we walking home?” he asked, already bummed at the idea of more walking.
Xiaoge shook his head and pointed ahead.
Wu Xie followed his finger and saw a motorbike parked on the road just ahead. It was black and really huge. Wu Xie had seen a lot of bikes, he’d even got a ride from Pan Zi on his a couple of times, but he’d never seen a bike quite like this one. It was very black and very shiny and very, very large.
It was the coolest bike he’d ever seen in his life.
“We are riding that?!” he asked, immediately forgetting how he’d got lost, and getting excited at the prospect of riding this beast.
Xiaoge nodded and walked along in that same calm, unhurried pace. Wu Xie ohhed loudly when Xiaoge straddled the huge bike effortlessly and started it. The roar of the engine made his teeth ache and Wu Xie grinned even harder. He watched impatiently as Xiaoge put on an equally black helmet that had a mirrored front, then extended his hand toward Wu Xie.
When he came closer, Xiaoge picked him up - and he didn’t grunt the way Wu Xie’s dad or his uncles did when they picked him up - and settled him in front so that he could see everything, the whole bike vibrating like a dragon under him.
Xiaoge felt very strong when he wrapped one arm around Wu Xie, the arm feeling like a steel band, no give at all as it pinned him back to that equally hard chest, then Xiaoge kicked off to drive them back home.
Things went back to normal for a while. He went to school during the week and spent weekends at Wushanju, where he sometimes saw Xiaoge around and talked to him a couple more times. But it wasn’t exactly the same. His parents didn’t try to stop him talking to Xiaoge as much as before, but his dad always looked at him with that strange expression on his face that made Wu Xie feel strange, worried, and anxious. All of the adults in the house were extremely tense and worried about something. Arguments about small things happened all the time. Adults murmured between each other that “this was too much” or “what if he does more?”, and the adults looked even more grim every time.
Wu Xie didn’t like it, didn’t like how it felt around the adults or how tightly his mom hugged him every day. He was aware of them meeting up after he went to bed. If he stayed up, he could see his parents come back with drawn faces. They always came into his room after to hug him or kiss him. He could sense they were worried, and did his best to be good for them, hoping that would make them feel better.
Then, one Monday morning after they’d packed up after another weekend at Wushanju, his dad didn’t drive him to school. Instead, they drove for a very long time, out of the city and into a forested area with a very pretty old house.
The house was exciting, and there was also a large yard and a whole forest to explore. But he was also confused. It was Monday. He should be at school. His parents were always, always very firm about Wu Xie studying as hard as possible. It also made him wonder why it was okay to skip school to suddenly go to this house, but it wasn’t okay for him to skip school to go with Sanshu to look for treasure.
His parents didn’t answer him when he asked, instead they just told him to go play, which was strange, they usually answered his questions. His father also kept constantly checking his phone.
Well, there was a whole forest to explore, and Wu Xie eventually got lost in it (not really, not like when he’d tried to go to Sanshu’s and Xiaoge had come and found him, but it felt like it until mom came and got him), and spent hours in the small playground he found behind the house. His mom also packed some board games, and they got to play those until it was dark and Wu Xie was wondering if they would stay there for the night.
But they didn’t. Suddenly both his mom’s and dad’s phones started ringing, and when they answered they looked grim faced and angry. Then mom packed him up in a rush, urging him to move faster and faster as he got more and more anxious about how she was acting, and his dad kept carrying bags to the car and looking very worried.
They got back into the car despite the fact that Wu Xie was hungry and they hadn’t had dinner yet, and drove back through the dark roads. What looked cool and exciting in the light of day suddenly looked very threatening. His dad drove all the way back in silence, stopping only once to buy Wu Xie some snacks in a store that they passed when Wu Xie kept complaining about being hungry. This, too, was strange, for his parents were usually very vocally against letting him eat ‘unhealthy’ food.
They drove all the way back to Wushanju in that heavy, cloying silence, and when they arrived Wu Xie realized that something bad must have happened, because Wushanju was a mess.
Two of the trees in the front courtyard were broken, almost all of the old - and fortunately unoccupied - dog kennels were smashed to bits, and wood and branches littered the whole courtyard, some of them sticking out of obviously broken windows. The door to the kennel’s courtyard was wide open, one wing of the doors laying against the outside compound wall. The decorative features along the driveway were crumbled, rocks scattered everywhere, and water pooling under the damaged water feature turning the thick layer of dust and earth scattered everywhere into a load of mud. The small garden with the pretty violet flowers that his grandmother liked so much was just a patch of bare earth, the plants ripped out and scattered everywhere - splattered against the broken windows, smeared on the previously white walls, and even hanging off of the roof.
Xiaoge was standing at the end of the driveway, dressed all in black as always, in a long dark coat and the hood pulled up. Wu Xie wondered if he was cold. There was something in the way he looked, though, that made Wu Xie think he was angry or upset. He was always still, but there was just something else to that stillness that made Wu Xie uncomfortable for a moment.
Or maybe he was feeling uncomfortable because of how tense everything felt in the car as it pulled to a stop a few meters away from Xiaoge. Wu Xie’s mom and dad sat in silence for a few moments, his mom’s breathing coming fast in the way that it usually did when she was really upset, and his dad’s knuckles were white around the steering wheel.
“It’s okay,” his dad said, although he didn’t sound very sure, and Wu Xie wasn’t sure what he meant. What would be okay? Before he had time to think about it very much, though, his dad turned around and looked at him. “Okay, Xiao Xie,” he said. “Come on, let’s get out of the car now.”
Wu Xie blinked at him. Were they staying at Wushanju tonight, even though it was Monday night? And even though it looked like there had been a really bad storm here? But none of the other houses looked like they’d been through a bad storm, so he wasn’t sure how that worked. Well, today was already weird, since they’d skipped school to go to that big house in the forest, so he guessed staying at Wushanju tonight wasn’t any stranger than that.
He hopped out of the car, looking around at all of the mess, and going over to poke at one of the broken garden statues next to the driveway while he heard his parents also get out of the car. He didn’t hear them move away from the car, though, and they didn’t tell him to come away or not get dirty or anything like that. It was weird.
He turned back to look at them, and saw that they kept glancing between him and Xiaoge. When he looked at Xiaoge, he saw the quiet man was just watching him from under his hood, and he remembered how he thought Xiaoge had seemed upset as they drove up. There was definitely one cure for being upset, it was the one his parents always used, so he jumped over some broken stones and went and gave Xiaoge a hug. He was still unfairly tall, but Wu Xie thought he might be a bit taller than last time, he was pretty sure his head was taller than Xiaoge’s waist now.
Xiaoge didn’t put a hand on his head like last time, just stood still, and Wu Xie looked up at him.
“Are you really cold?” he asked. “Since you have your hood up? It’s not that cold anymore,” he added earnestly. “Whatever storm was here and made all the mess is gone now.”
Xiaoge blinked at him, then slowly reached up to pull his hood back, letting it fall back over his shoulders like usual, but still didn’t say anything. That was okay, though, Wu Xie was used to that. At least Xiaoge didn’t seem so upset anymore. Even though it was dark, maybe they could go play with… oh. Still hugging Xiaoge, he looked around the dark and messy compound.
“I hope the storm didn’t drown the ants,” he said worriedly. “Or wreck their homes.”
There was a long pause, then he felt Xiaoge’s hand drop onto his shoulder.
“The ants are okay,” Xiaoge said, and Wu Xie looked back up at him with a relieved smile.
“Oh good! And the dogs? And the kitties?” he asked. “The mommy kitty has more babies in the very back building, are they okay, too?”
There was another long pause, then Xiaoge just nodded, and Wu Xie hugged him tighter, feeling even more relieved. A storm like this that damaged things and broke windows might have been really bad for the animals that lived here.
Behind him, he heard his mom make a small, distressed squeaking sound, and when he looked back at her she was staring at him and Xiaoge, one hand over her mouth. He didn’t know what she was so upset about, but obviously, she needed hugs, too. He let go of Xiaoge and ran back over to her to wrap his arms around her, and he thought she almost fell down with how fast she bent down to hug him so tightly he thought he wasn’t going to be able to breathe.
When he looked back over his shoulder, Xiaoge was gone.
He was almost about to call out, wanting to make sure that Xiaoge was being careful with how much broken glass and stone and branches were littering the compound, but at that moment the front door opened, and his grandmother was making her slow way out with Ershu over to his dad, and Sanshu and Pan Zi were helping another man that Wu Xie didn’t know. He was dressed in robes like some people in TV shows, or at temples they’d driven past sometimes, and there was blood all down the side of his face, like something had hit him really hard or he’d fallen down.
“I told you so,” Sanshu was saying to Ershu.
“You agreed to this,” Ershu said, sounding really annoyed with something. Probably with Sanshu.
“Because you would have done it anyway. Mom and I still told you it was a bad idea.” Sanshu sighed as the man he was helping groaned. “Pan Zi and I will take him to hospital. You can explain everything to Yiqiong.” Then he spotted Wu Xie looking at them from where his mom was still hugging him really tight, and waved. “Go to bed and get some sleep, Xiao Xie,” he called, smiling in that way that wasn’t really real but adults always wanted Wu Xie to think was real. “It’s all okay. We’ll get all this cleaned up in no time.”
Wu Xie managed to get an arm free to wave back as Sanshu, Pan Zi, and the strange man in robes made their way to the garage. He had no idea what was going on, but maybe he could get Sanshu to explain it to him later. For now, though… he yawned into mom’s shoulder. For now, he thought he understood what adults meant whenever they said it had been a really long day.
Wu Xie got older, school got busier, and his parents started to take him to all sorts of gatherings that, before, he’d been far too young to attend. At first, it made him feel all grown up and important, but it quickly turned out that it was always the same - lots of adults sitting around tables for a long time while they talked, and shushing him when he tried to talk, too. Sometimes, if he was really lucky, there’d be one or two other, equally bored, children there, but usually he ended up spending a lot of time wandering whatever house or restaurant they were in trying to find something to entertain himself without dirtying his clothes.
Which was how he found himself wandering through yet another hallway in yet another building, curling his toes inside shoes that were still so new that the leather was all stiff and pinched the sides of his feet, and trying very hard to resist the urge to pull off the tie that felt like it was choking him. If his appearance was anything less than perfect when he found his way back to the large function room with the half empty tables and boring speeches, then he’d get even more scolding from his parents than he was going to get for sneaking off when they weren't paying attention.
He found his way out of a side door into a small garden, lit not only by lights from the windows around it but also by lines of garden lights along the paved paths. It wasn’t very big, just big enough for a tree, some large bushes, a few rows of flowers, and a stone bench next to a tiny fishpond. It was a fairly mild night, what with it only being early autumn, so he flopped onto the bench and plucked a long stem of decorative grass to poke into the pond, watching the ripples across the surface of the water.
Ugh, this was so boring. He would even rather be doing homework than be stuck here at this boring wedding reception for an even more boring cousin who he had maybe met once before in his life. He took a moment to be jealous of Xiao Hua, who had escaped having to come here by dint of being in hospital with appendicitis. Wu Xie wished that he was the one in hospital with appendicitis right now.
He was so busy feeling bored and utterly sorry for himself that he almost didn’t register the fact that he could clearly hear music and talking, even though he was sitting in this little garden. He glanced up from smacking the surface of the pond with the grass to see the curtains at one of the windows overlooking the garden were fluttering in the evening breeze. Someone must have opened a window, and now all the boring talk that he’d been trying to escape was spilling out into this little bit of peace that he’d found to sulk in.
“Have you seen the way Wu Yiqiong is acting? He walks with his head held up as if him being a geological engineer in any way washes out the stain of what his father did.” The woman who spoke had a nasal, unpleasant voice. That got Wu Xie’s attention. What about his dad? And were they talking about his grandfather?
“Well, he should be held responsible for the shameless behavior of his father, we are no longer in the feudal ages. This is a modern world now.” It was a man who spoke that time, and there was a chorus of agreeing voices. Wu Xie didn’t recognise any of them.
“I could understand if it was in the past, but they keep the boy in their compound still! My cousin said she saw him just last week! They gave him a whole house there!”
“After Lao Wu died I expected them to quietly get rid of the boy,” a different woman said, this one with a delighted, low voice. Wu Xie frowned, smacking the water with the grass stick again, but barely paying attention to the ripples this time. What boy? There weren’t any boys at Whushanju except for him, and he was only there on weekends. But why would his family get rid of him? They were always telling him that he would have to carry on the family when he grew up, and that’s why he had to pay attention and study hard at school, and come to boring events like this and be on his best behaviour.
“Such shame. It’s a man, after all! I could understand a woman, maybe, but a man?”
“Come off it, MingMing,” a third woman said. “That man is too young. He couldn’t have been Lao Wu’s lover. I really think he is another son. Look at how young he is, clearly Lao Wu found himself a younger companion like men his age often do, and the boy is the result of that affair. Why else would Lao Wu’s wife accept that boy into the household if she wasn’t forced to?”
Wu Xie frowned a bit. What were they saying? There wasn’t anyone who was unwelcome at all at the compound. Well - Xiaoge, maybe. Wu Xie had come to realise as he got older that not just his parents, but also Ershu really didn’t like the man for some reason. And a lot of the people who worked for the Wu family seemed cautious of him, and no one ever seemed to seek him out apart from Wu Xie. But his grandmother didn’t seem to dislike Xiaoge, so they couldn’t be talking about him, right?
“Isn’t that the whole point?” the man from before pitched in. “I heard that he was really pretty and really young when he first came into their house.”
“I’m not convinced. He had three sons of his own. Why would he suddenly set his sights on a pretty boy?”
Somebody laughed. “Because he finally could. If he’d done it before he got the kids out of his wife, she might have left him, and even taken the kids with her. When all the kids were just big enough that it wouldn’t be easy to cut them off from him, he was confident enough to indulge.”
“Indulge!” the woman named MingMing snorted. “It was so shameless to just bring him back to the house like that. He should have at the very least kept him hidden away somewhere.”
Wu Xie kicked his feet in the air. Even though he’d been growing fast this past year, so fast that he kept outgrowing his clothes almost as fast as his parents bought them, his feet still didn’t quite reach the ground. He wasn’t quite sure what these people were hinting at, but the way they were talking made him feel uncomfortable. Whatever it was they meant, it was definitely not anything nice. And he was very sure that it wasn’t anything that they’d dare say to his father’s or his grandmother’s faces.
“Which is exactly why I think that boy is his son,” the woman with the low voice said. “I heard Lao Wu was a handsome man in his youth, and he was rich and charismatic, so it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him to have a mistress or three on the side. If one of them bore him a child, then he might have brought the child in. I heard he was very into keeping his family together.”
“If that was true, then I have no idea how the inheritance went through. Did he actually split his wealth with the illegitimate child?” the man wondered.
“Obviously they didn’t,” MingMing rejected. “That boy is Lao Wu’s dirty little secret. It's probably why they let him live in the compound, this way they can control what he says and to whom. It's why nobody in the family talks to him or acknowledges him.”
Wu Xie frowned again, trying to think of who at the compound that could be. Was there anyone who was ignored and not spoken to? As hard as he tried, he couldn’t think of anyone. Even Xiaoge, who most people avoided, was never ignored - in fact, it seemed that whenever they visited, his parents tried to be aware of exactly where he was as much as they could. They just weren’t very good at it, because, Wu Xie thought, Xiaoge didn’t like being stared at by them all the time, so he’d just disappear when he got tired of them. And people spoke to him - well, Wu Xie spoke to him. He very rarely spoke back, but Wu Xie had come to accept that that was just what he was like. That was okay, though. Wu Xie could talk enough for both of them.
But it still bothered him, so he decided to bring this up to his Sanshu. He would know exactly who those people were talking about! And if Wu Xie really had one more uncle that he hadn’t about, then that would be exciting!
Wu Xie breathed a sigh of relief when he snuck into Wushanju through the side entrance where the cars were kept and saw that the car his grandmother normally used was gone. His grandmother seemed to have a sixth sense about him setting foot in the place, and he’d been trying to figure out how best to avoid her while he was still dirty and bloodied from the fight he’d just had. He didn’t think that she’d appreciate it, even if he said that the other guys looked worse.
He wiped some more tissues across his nose to wipe away the blood still trickling from it, then stuffed some fresh ones there in an attempt to stem the bleeding, if not stop it, before licking his split lip. His left eye throbbed, and he was pretty sure he was going to have more bruises than just the black eye he could feel forming, but at least he hadn’t broken anything - which was more than he could say for Gao Yong, he was damn sure he’d broken the bastard’s nose.
He could already hear his mom’s voice scolding him for getting into fights, and his father telling him off for not being ‘the bigger person’ and ‘stooping to such levels’. This was one of the reasons why he’d come to Wushanju instead of going home, with the size of the compound, he was far more likely to be able to clean himself up without anyone knowing than he would be at home - even if he got there before either of his parents, the guard at the apartment building’s front door would almost certainly tell his dad what kind of state he’d come home in. Then there would be the scolding, and the disappointment, and they’d probably drag him over to the Gaos and make him apologise to Gao Yong, and like hell was he going to apologise after what Gao Yong had said about Xiaoge!
Just the thought of it made him growl under his breath and ball his hands into fists as he skirted the other car and slipped out into the courtyard, looking around carefully to make sure that there was no one in sight. The things that Gao Yong and his friends had been saying weren’t anything that Wu Xie hadn’t heard people say or imply before, of course - he’d been overhearing rumours and sly comments about Xiaoge and his grandfather for years now, at various social events he’d been forced to attend by his parents. Adults always overlooked children and said things around them without noticing the children were there, and even though they’d noticed him more in the past couple of years as he hit his mid-teens, he still had a tendency to sneak off somewhere private at the first opportunity to avoid all the boring stuff, and often overheard things because no one realised he was hidden away.
So he’d heard all the rumours that Xiaoge was his grandfather’s bastard son, or his much younger lover, or that he was blackmailing the family, or that the family had him locked up, and all the other scandalous little ideas that jealous and small-minded people with too much time on their hands came up with. But the adults just tended to whisper it amongst themselves in private, they’d never dare say it to his dad’s face, or his grandmother’s, or his uncles’.
Teens, on the other hand, didn’t have the manners or circumspection of adults, and Gao Yong and his friends had gleefully thrown every single rumour in Wu Xie’s face as if they were facts and each and every one were true. Which was honestly both impossible and disgusting, to be honest, but Wu Xie had got so angry that he wasn’t inclined to calmly point out just how illogical it was for all of them to be true. He’d been angry about the rumours for years, ever since he’d been old enough to properly understand all the veiled implications that the adults had been making, but he’d never been able to actually do anything. This time, though, this time he could do something, and he’d gone in swinging without a second thought.
Of course, it being five on one meant that he got his ass well and truly kicked, but he’d broken Gao Yong’s nose with that first hit, and he felt that he’d given as good as he got. Sanshu had always told him to not be afraid to fight dirty, and he’d followed that advice, hitting and clawing and biting, and absolutely kneeing below the belt. In the end, the fight had broken up when one of them had called out that the school’s security guard was approaching, and all six of them had stopped fighting and scrambled to go their separate ways.
Wu Xie skirted around the next courtyard, still keeping an eye out for people. He could hear people in the kitchen, and smell that dinner was already started, which meant that his grandmother would probably be home soon. That ruled out using the main bathroom or the main guest rooms, then, he couldn’t be sure that he’d be all cleaned up and changed by the time she got back, even if there wasn’t already the risk that one of the people who worked keeping Wushanju in order didn’t notice him. He pondered where to go next. There was the smaller bathroom in the back building, of course, but again, he risked one of the workers seeing him. Where could he go that no one would be likely to spot him.
The answer was so obvious that he almost smacked himself for not thinking of it immediately. Of course, the small house at the edge of the compound where Xiaoge lived! Wu Xie pretty much never saw Xiaoge there, so it was most likely empty. And all of the staff were intimidated by him and gave him a wide berth, which Wu Xie had never understood because Xiaoge had never given him any reason to be afraid. Even his grandmother and the rest of the family avoided Xiaoge’s house - his parents and Ershu because they’d never seemed to like him, Sanshu because he said that Xiaoge preferred his privacy, and his grandmother said it was just polite not to go barging into someone’s home without their permission.
And, well, yes, that was kind of what Wu Xie was planning to do, but it was an emergency! And he didn’t think that Xiaoge would mind, not really! And he’d be cleaned up and changed and out of there as quickly as possible, it wasn’t like he planned to poke around Xiaoge’s house and get into all of his things.
He wiggled the tissue pad in his nose, grimaced, and looked in his bag for some fresh tissues, only to find that he didn’t have any left. He grumbled a little at that, sneaking into the wing he was passing just long enough to snag one of the ever-present boxes of tissues that his grandmother had all over the place, before continuing on to the small house in the most secluded corner of the compound.
As he expected, no one appeared to be there, and none of Wushanju’s staff were anywhere near it. He hesitated at the start of the path to the front door, feeling a little awkward about just walking in like this, then took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, winced as he pulled half a dozen bruises he hadn’t really taken stock of, and cautiously tried the door. It wasn’t locked, the door opening easily under his hand, and he carefully stepped inside and looked around.
The front room he found himself in was sparsely furnished, which both did and didn’t surprise him. He wasn’t sure what he expected, to be honest. Xiaoge was so mysterious and quiet that he had no idea what kind of taste he might have in furnishings and decorations. Wu Xie hefted his bag over his shoulder again, took out a handful of fresh tissues, and turned towards where he expected the bathroom to be. He wasn’t here to examine or judge what Xiaoge did or didn’t have in his house. He was there just to get cleaned up and changed, and then go without disturbing anyone.
Sounds of movement stopped him from actually going into the bathroom. He pressed the new wad of tissues to his nose, making sure to pack as much paper into the nostrils as possible, and turned towards the noise. Who would dare to come into Xiaoge’s house? Even Wu Xie was only here because he had no other option and because he was fairly sure Xiaoge wouldn’t actually skin him for this if he caught him.
But he was just going to use the bathroom, while somebody was making noise.
The noise wasn’t actually coming from inside the house itself, but from the little courtyard that the house was overlooking. Wu Xie crept through the small corridor and the living room with its simple furniture towards the open door to the courtyard. He noticed a heavy and truly ugly looking vase on a table nearby and grabbed it, fully intending to brain whoever was making the noise.
He approached the open door carefully, making sure to stay out of sight, and lifted the vase up for a good throw.
What he saw made him fumble the vase and barely catch it before it shattered on the floor.
Xiaoge was the one making the noise. He was in the courtyard, dressed only in some kind of black, extremely clingy pants and those heavy fuck off shoes he’d worn for as long as Wu Xie had known him. He was also shirtless.
Shirtless and sweaty and training with a sword. And fuck, but it wasn’t just training. He had a strange short, black sword in his right hand, the handguard flashing gold amongst all that black and a black scabbard in his other hand. He moved through forms with a speed and precision that Wu Xie expected from a highly edited TV drama, not from an actual human person. There was sweat glistening on his muscular upper body, and Wu Xie had kind of been aware that the man was strong, but he was in no way prepared for all the muscle. His abs alone looked like one could shred cheese on them. And not just the abs, the arms looked like they were carved from marble, each muscle standing out in sharp definition, and his chest. Oh god, his chest. Wu Xie stared at the firm pectorals, the way they tensed and released with every movement as Xiaoge’s movements steadily increased in speed. There was a tattoo over his chest, too, and a large one at that. It was very black and intricate, covering the left side of his chest, then climbing over the ball of his shoulder and down his arm, a few tendrils of black almost reaching the elbow. It hugged his back, too, spreading possessively over the shoulder blade. With how fast Xiaoge was moving, going from nearly on the ground to up and jumping and flipping his body over as if gravity was just a concept he didn’t agree with, Wu Xie couldn’t really tell what the tattoo was of. He only caught a few glimpses of what was probably flames, but, to be honest, he couldn’t even stare at the tattoo too long. There was just so… much. He watched, fascinated, as Xiaoge performed a series of extremely quick flips from left to right, going down and then flipping up over his own head, each landing perfectly planned for the next launch, his muscles standing out in perfect relief as the sword and scabbard painted deadly arcs in the air, fast enough that Wu Xie could hear the sharp sound of cut air.
Xiaoge landed again, and this time he didn’t launch himself into another set of movements. Instead, he sheathed his sword into the black scabbard and used his free hand to push his completely sweat soaked hair out of his face.
Wu Xie had always been aware, on a certain level, that Xiaoge was attractive. He knew that, he’d noticed even as a kid that the dark brother was pretty. But it had never been like this. It had never been this visceral, like a sudden blow to his chest at how absolutely, stunningly beautiful Xiaoge was with those high cheekbones and a line of jaw sharp enough to cut glass.
Wu Xie could hardly breathe as he stared at him, unsure where to even look at first, his eyes tracking the way Xiaoge’s chest expanded with heavy breaths, to the way his belly worked with each inhale and exhale, to the tight waistband of his pants, that were basically painted on the man for all that they concealed.
“Wu Xie,” Xiaoge said without even turning around, his voice low and a little husky, probably from the exertion.
Wu Xie squeaked, fumbling the vase again, and jumped when it hit the floor. It didn’t shatter as it fell from his numb fingers, but it rolled damningly to the middle of the room.
Xiaoge finally turned around, seemingly completely unselfconscious about being half naked, and looked at him. “You are bleeding.”
Wu Xie looked down at himself dumbly, wondering how in hell he could be bleeding? He stared at his feet, then saw a bloodstained tissue fall to the floor with a plop and yelped, pressing both hands to his face to try and stop the rest of the blood from splattering down.
“I…” Wu Xie tried to say something, anything, but Xiaoge was now right beside him, smelling of the early autumn air and clean sweat, and radiating heat like a furnace. Wu Xie stared at the naked - so very naked! - chest and the qilin painted there, stomping angrily through flames, and couldn’t remember why he’d even come here in the first place. Hell, he could barely remember his own name at the moment.
Then Xiaoge reached out and touched Wu Xie’s chin. His fingers were very hot. And calloused. And Wu Xie made another little strangled noise and went limp like a scruffed kitten, letting Xiaoge shift his face up and from side to side as he assessed the damage.
“Um…” Wu Xie made a valiant attempt to restart his brain and focus on something other than how warm Xiaoge’s hand was against his skin, and the vast expanse of very hot, very naked skin close enough for him to touch if he just dared to reach his hand out. What had happened? Oh. Yes. “I got in a fight,” he admitted.
“You lost?” Xiaoge asked, letting go of his chin and turning to walk away towards the… kitchen? Wu Xie stared at his retreating - naked, so very naked, Wu Xie felt the need to repeat it again - back and noted the way the muscular planes of his back dipped towards his spine and the two - two! - dimples there.
“No!” Wu Xie said quickly, not wanting Xiaoge to think that he couldn’t even hold his own in a fight. “Well… we didn’t get to finish,” he amended. “Security was coming, so Gao Yong and his friends ran one way and I came here to get cleaned up so mom and dad didn’t find out…” He trailed off as he stared at the glistening skin over muscle some more.
“Come here,” Xiaoge said, stopping by a laquered box that was sitting on the kitchen counter. “If you fight,” he said, opening the box and pulling small, unmarked jars out of it, “make sure the other person knows the consequences of ever getting in your way again. Otherwise, don’t bother.” He picked up a swad of cotton and looked at Wu Xie expectantly.
“That’s why I broke his nose, so he knew not to say those things again,” Wu Xie said, his feet already walking him forward as soon as Xiaoge had said ‘come here’. “Then his friends joined in, and then security came and interrupted us.”
Zhang Qiling paused in the process of looking into the box again. “Nose?” He sounded surprised. “People can live without noses,” he said patiently. “Next time, go for something more permanent.”
Then he opened one of the jars and the sheer stink that came from it was enough to wipe Wu Xie’s mind clear of any implications of what Xiaoge meant when he said ‘something more permanent’.
“Holy shit, that stinks,” he blurted out as Xiaoge dipped the cotton into the jar. Then Xiaoge pressed the cotton to Wu Xie’s split lip, and it burned so much he yelped again. His eyes watered and his nose went numb from the sting. He blinked rapidly, but didn’t move away from the hand that kept the cotton pressed to his cut lip.
He blinked again, because the numbness wasn’t just because of the stink. Or, rather, it wasn’t just his nose that had gone numb. His lip was numb, his nose stopped throbbing, and, actually, half his face tingled, then kind of stopped existing altogether.
“Wha…?” he mumbled around the numb lip and the pressure on it.
“This will help with numbing the pain and speed up healing,” Xiaoge said in that quiet, matter of fact voice. He looked Wu Xie over again, and Wu Xie realized that there wasn’t that much of a difference between them anymore. Yes, Xiaoge was still nearly a head taller, but Wu Xie distinctly remembered hugging the man’s legs and barely coming up to his waist, so this was already a huge improvement. He was also standing close. So close Wu Xie could feel the heat still pouring off of him, could definitely smell the fresh sweat drying on his skin and could see the muscles there, under that smooth skin, so close he could touch it if he so much as twitched and…
Wu Xie closed his eyes, thinking cold, cold thoughts, the unsexiest ones he possibly could, as hard as he could, when his body decided to show off its appreciation in the most physical of ways. He didn’t need to feel his face to know his cheeks were burning - his ears were so red that he could feel them sting, as he got very, very hard.
He’d already known that he liked watching girls… and boys, too. He liked their bodies, the way they moved, they spoke. He liked the way girls were tiny and cute and looked fragile. He liked the way guys would touch freely and tease and roughhouse on barely any provocation. He… liked it all, he knew that. But it was a whole different matter to not be especially choosy about who and what he imagined when he had his hand on his cock at night, and sporting a sudden hard on because Xiaoge looked good.
And god, did he look good.
Wu Xie’s heart was beating triple time, and all he could think of was hoping that his shirt was long enough to cover his relentlessly straining cock. And Xiaoge kept touching him, two fingers spreading that smelly ointment over the worst of the damage, the other hand wrapped around Wu Xie’s jaw, keeping him still.
Xiaoge let go of his jaw and Wu Xie exhaled in relief, thinking that there was still a chance for him to get away with his dignity unscathed - or, at least, no more damaged than it already was. But Xiaoge only shifted his grip. He wrapped his hand - warm and so, so strong - around the back of Wu Xie’s head and tilted it back. Wu Xie squeaked at the way the movement made him expose his neck to Xiaoge, and his cock twitched in his pants. Oh god, oh god, he needed to go, needed to get away before he did something even more embarrassing.
He felt Xiaoge’s fingers under his eye, spreading the cool ointment there, and whimpered, because all he could think of was the very naked chest radiating heat at him, the muscles that tensed and flexed with every move, and the scent of the man. God, he was never, ever going to forget the exact way Xiaoge smelled now, even under the stink of the medicine. The hand on the back of his head was not helping matters, and Wu Xie thought he was going to faint any second now.
He had no idea how he survived the stretch of time it took Xiaoge to finish with the salve, but he did.
Xiaoge pulled back eventually, releasing Wu Xie, and reached for the roll of paper towels set out nearby to wipe his fingers. “Anywhere else?” he asked, looking Wu Xie over with those dark, endless eyes.
“Nope!” Wu Xie all but squeaked, backing away so fast that he was honestly surprised that he didn’t trip over anything. He knew he was going to be bruised to hell and back over his arms and torso, and probably legs as well, but if Xiaoge touched him any more he was fairly convinced that he would actually die on the spot. “Thank you so much! I’ll be going now! Bye!”
With that, he snatched up his bag and fled through the front door. He still hadn’t changed into clean, non-torn clothes, but he’d think up some kind of excuse for the state of his clothes on his way home.
There won't be an update tomorrow due to RL, sorry, but Ch 4 will come the day after!
For some reason, there was no fallout from Wu Xie’s altercation with Gao Yong. He got the expected reaction from showing up at home all beat up, with his parents absolutely not buying his story that he’d climbed up the side of a school balcony as a dare and fell off part way up, but for some reason Gao Yong never pointed him out to either their parents or the school, even though he spent the next couple of weeks with his nose swollen and covered in a dressing. He also went out of his way to be nice to Wu Xie, which only confused Wu Xie more, but, frankly, he had other things on his mind at that time.
It was like some kind of wall had been broken. Now that he’d noticed Xiaoge, noticed that he was not just the cool and mysterious guy that his family quite openly shunned, but that he was hot as fucking hell, Wu Xie couldn’t unsee it.
He saw that chiseled chest every time he closed his eyes at night - and not just the chest, but that impossible line of his jaw, those eyes that were so dark and hot. He got unwanted hard ons at school, at the store, in his bed every single night. He couldn’t even go to sleep without jerking off two or three times just by remembering what had happened in Xiaoge’s house. The touch of those long fingers burned like scars on Wu Xie’s face, and he couldn’t stop thinking about him.
Fine, he thought at first. He’d just discovered that instead of vaguely liking the male body, he actually liked it a lot. He was a teenager. it was expected, right?
He lasted through a couple months of that, months in which he learned how to wash his sheets while his parents were asleep, and also took so many showers that he had to start using a girly moisturizer because his skin dried up.
His grades fell because he spent so much fucking time jerking off that he didn’t even have time to study.
He knew that one of the girls in his class had been trying to ask him out for a while now, but he’d always avoided her because he was too busy with his friends to have time for a girlfriend - and, also, because he’d had no idea what to do with one when he had one.
But he’d become desperate to take his mind off of Xiaoge and his chiseled abs, so he stopped avoiding her and agreed to go out. That was how he got his first girlfriend.
That was how she got him, because she obviously knew what was what, unlike Wu Xie, who was like a child in the fog when it came to romancing. Not only did she show him what a girl wanted from a boyfriend when it came to dating, she also showed him all the other things that a girl wanted from a guy.
The distraction worked, somewhat. But, after the first couple of weeks, which he’d spent reeling from how it actually felt to touch a girl and yes, have sex with her, the thoughts about Xiaoge creeped in again. While he’d stopped jerking off to thoughts of Xiaoge every day, he still ended up doing it a couple of times a week for the entire time he dated her.
And the thoughts about Xiaoge didn’t just creep in while he was alone. They crept in when he was with his girlfriend. Wu Xie thought about whether or not Xiaoge would also like this or that - would he like being touched like this? Would he like to touch other people (namely Wu Xie) this way? Did he like kisses on the neck? Did he like sucking on nipples? Because Wu Xie did. He liked doing it, and he especially liked having it done to him.
And he thought about fucking, god, did he think about it. It felt illicit and exciting to imagine Xiaoge fucking him - even if he only ever did it that way with his grilfriend a couple of times, or, when he was absolutely alone in the dead of night, thinking about Xiaoge letting Wu Xie do the fucking. Which led to even more jerking off.
He wasn’t sure if his girlfriend knew he was sometimes thinking of somebody else or not, or if she did, if she cared. They liked each other very much, but he didn’t think they were in love. Not really. They just had a lot of fun together. She dumped him at the end of the school year, telling him she's fallen in love with somebody else. They remained friends, though, and he gave the obligatory shovel talk to her new boyfriend. He had certain responsibilities to her, after all.
The side effect of this whole mess was that Wu Xie couldn’t bear to even think about actually meeting Xiaoge now. Not only because he couldn’t stop fantasizing about him, but because every time he did see him, even in passing, everything just got worse. Wu Xie still went along to the weekly visits to Wushanju - well, mostly, he tried to beg off with the excuses of needing to study or having plans with his girlfriend as often as possible, and his parents were quick to agree that those were much more important - but he stuck with his parents or his grandmother or his uncles when he did, instead of wandering the compound like he used to, and he never went there in between those visits anymore. Every time he actually saw Xiaoge, even at a distance, he felt horribly flustered and embarrassed, so he felt it was better to try to avoid seeing the man as much as possible.
In person, anyway. Seeing him in his dreams and fantasies was something that he was still unable to stop, which just fed into his whole embarrassment at ever coming face to face with him ever again.
Wu Xie got another girlfriend a few months after his first dumped him, but the relationship he had with her was a different thing altogether to his previous one. They went on dates, but never went beyond some kissing, and it left him so frustrated he had to jerk off more than ever. They broke it off after a couple months, after Wu Xie decided that it really wouldn’t be fair of him to try and pressure her into more than kissing when she was clearly uncomfortable with the idea.
They did not remain friends after that, even though he tried. Feeling guilty, he stopped looking for a girlfriend for a while. Which is why he wasn’t quite sure how he ended up with a boyfriend some months after that, at the start of his final year of high school.
They had pretty much nothing in common. They had different friend groups, came from different parts of town, were aiming for different careers - Wu Xie was interested in architecture and planned to study at university, while his boyfriend was interested in sports and hoped to make that his career - and their families were also completely different. Wu Xie’s parents were a geological engineer and a university professor, his boyfriend’s parents were shop owners. They didn’t have much in common at all when it came to conversations, but what they did have in common was a lot of sexual frustration and high sex drives.
It did not help with his Xiaoge problem. Having a boyfriend willing to sleep with him whenever he (often) wanted should have helped with that impossible fascination, but it didn’t. It actually made everything worse. Because now he could imagine what having sex with Xiaoge would feel like in excruciating, explicit detail.
He and his boyfriend spent the whole of the school year together, until they were finished with their exams and were gearing up to go on to their chosen universities. By common agreement, they split just at the start of vacation, both wanting to travel before the university grind began.
Wu Xie and a group of his friends spent that time travelling and hiking, visiting amazing places, and partying as hard as they could between bouts of hiking. It was one of the most peaceful times that Wu Xie could remember. Between the physical exertion and the booze, he didn’t have the time or the energy to get constantly horny and spent most of his nights sleeping like the dead. But even though he wasn’t constantly fantasizing, he still was struck by thoughts about Xiaoge whenever they caught a particularly stunning view. He wondered if Xiaoge had seen things like that, if he would like to see them. Wu Xie realized, with a tired sense of disbelief, that he wasn’t just constantly horny - his fascination with Xiaoge had kept growing instead of finally exhausting itself. It had been years now, and he’d only got more curious about the man. Thinking about Xiaoge was now a constant part of his life. Wu Xie wanted to know more about him, wanted to know why his family treated him so badly, wanted to show him good things, take him to pretty places, give him good food. Wu Xie wanted. All the time. Without a break, or an end anywhere in sight.
It was maybe a month into his first semester when it happened. The first few weeks had been incredibly busy for Wu Xie, what with orientation, signing up for his classes and getting his timetable sorted out, getting his books, learning his way around a campus that was much larger than his high school, joining up to a multitude of clubs that he may or may not stick with, and otherwise starting to settle into his life as a university student. Now, a month in, he was finally starting to feel like he was on top of things - a feeling he suspected was going to change at the first major assignments, but for now, he was happy to have some time to breathe.
Today was a gorgeous late summer day - still hot, but not unpleasantly so, and Hangzhou’s usual summer rains had, for once, given way to clear blue skies. It was honestly a shame that he’d had to spend all morning in classes instead of enjoying the weather, but, on the plus side, he didn’t have any afternoon classes today, so he fully planned to take advantage of that. As he walked out of the building where he’d had his last class and began crossing the large lawn, he slung his backpack over one shoulder and began to think about how to spend the rest of the day.
He didn’t think anything of how crowded it was out here at first. After all, it was a beautiful day, and he was sure he wasn’t the only person who’d decided that this weather absolutely needed to be enjoyed, whether that was spending breaks in between classes out here, leaving right after classes were done, or even deciding to skip out on classes in favour of enjoying the day.
Maybe somebody was putting on some kind of street performance or display or something. That happened often enough with people setting up on the sidewalk along the only road leading into the campus. But the energy was… different. There were excited whispers and, when he paused, he realized that there were more and more people being drawn to the group. And that the vast majority of the group was girls.
That was interesting. It was always interesting when something happened that drew a specific group of students.
Wu Xie made his way to the group, curious. He was distracted from trying to look over people's heads when he got scolded by one of the girls for bumping into her. He was so busy apologizing that, at first, he didn’t even notice that he’d backed right up into the very front of the loose circle as he was speaking.
Once he realised, he turned around to look at what was drawing all that attention and felt his jaw drop.
It was Xiaoge, the same man whom Wu Xie had fantasized and thought about for years now, the same man whom Wu Xie had spent those same years doing his damned best to avoid, because he couldn’t even imagine looking him in the face after everything he fantasized about.
He knew Xiaoge was good looking, damn, of course he did, but he had never expected this.
Xiaoge was standing, or rather leaning back, against that huge monster of a motorcycle that Wu Xie remembered riding once. The black beast was gleaming in the sun - all black and chrome metal and black leather seat, accompanied by a black leather jacket accentuated with many gleaming zippers thrown over that seat.
Xiaoge himself was dressed in some kind of stretchy black pants that looked as if someone had to have poured him into them for how tightly they clung to his narrow hips and long, long legs that ended in those heavy, fuck off boots that looked like they were perfect for stomping people into the ground. He was also wearing a sleeveless black tank top. It was loose enough to contrast with the shockingly tight pants, but at the same time it exposed his whole arms. Bare arms. With each muscle visibly defined and shifting with each tiny gesture, flexing and moving under smooth, golden skin.
There was jewelry, too, Wu Xie realized faintly. His eyes dragged down those rounded, perfectly shaped biceps and triceps, stumbled over the hint of a hard pectoral visible though the wide and loose armhole, then down to the nicely defined forearms and a surprisingly delicate wrist that was now covered in a braided leather wrist wrap with bits of shining, silvery metal woven here and there.
There were also silver rings, wide bands on two of Xiaoge’s fingers - one plain, one looking like it was silver latticework - that only made Xiaoge’s fingers look longer and more elegant.
Wu Xie dragged his eyes up to that long, pale neck and had to swallow - his throat only clicked dryly - as he watched something silver gleam at the base of Xiaoge’s neck, some kind of short pendant or choker. Wu Xie was too distracted by the bob of Xiaoge’s throat to even see what it was. Because Xiaoge was drinking. From a small juicebox, looking like some kind of a damned movie star.
He had a different haircut now, sharper and more modern, asymmetrical enough that the just a shade too long strands of hair fell over his eye as he bent down to suck at the straw.
Wu Xie stared, struck mute, at the small silver earring glinting at Xiaoge’s ear and only highlighting the insane line of his jaw and the sharp, impossible shape of his cheekbones. He was again bowled over by how shockingly, impossibly beautiful the man was. Xiaoge somehow combined fragile, delicate looks with obviously masculine properties like the very visible muscularity or the calm confidence of his movements.
Wu Xie wondered briefly about the juice box, but, when he looked around, he saw the gathered girls - and quite a few guys - hanging around with various snacks and drinks in their hands, obviously trying to get into Xiaoge’s good graces.
It immediately made him feel irritated. They were clearly overstepping here. It was impolite to rush a man like this, or to try and force their attentions on him. Wu Xie had had no idea that his fellow students were so ill mannered. They were staring at Xiaoge like they wanted to eat him, and they weren’t even trying to be subtle about it!
“Wu Xie.” Xioage’s voice was lower than he remembered, smoother somehow, waking up a host of shivers marching down Wu Xie’s back at the sound of it.
He whipped his head around from glaring at the surrounding crowd to look at Xiaoge, only to see him without the juice box and instead holding out a helmet to Wu Xie.
The sound that travelled through the people gathered around wasn’t so much a whisper as it was a tangible killing intent. Wu Xie looked around, feeling his back tingle as survival instinct tried to trigger the fight or flight instinct, and wasn’t surprised to find himself the target of many a horrifyingly still and intent gaze.
It occurred to him that Xiaoge looked like he fit in with the group of students surrounding him. He didn’t actually look much older than most of them and it jolted Wu Xie, shocked him, because how old was Xiaoge? Wu Xie… had never asked, had never been told. When he was a kid, Xiaoge had always been other, always different from any other adult. He had also been stunning and shockingly hot back when Wu Xie’s body first took notice of him, just as he was now. And… seemed to still be the same age. But… Wu Xie didn’t know his age, and, given the way his memories all seemed to conjure up an image of Xiaoge as he looked now, couldn’t actually tell.
“Wu Xie,” Xiaoge said again, the quiet voice breaking through Wu Xie’s thoughts.
“What?” he asked Xiaoge stupidly, torn between looking at Xiaoge and keeping an eye on the obvious threats all around him.
“Come with me,” Xiaoge said, still holding the helmet out to him. There was a second one hanging off of the handlebars. As Wu Xie glanced from the helmet on the handlebars to the one being offered to him to the outrageously attractive man offering it to him - and fuck, but somehow even his fantasies of Xiaoge barely held a candle to how stunning he actually was - he could feel a prickling between his shoulderblades, and began mentally thanking absolutely everyone and everything that he could think of that it was almost certain that none of the people currently staring daggers at him were likely to have an actual daggers with them. Or any other weapon. This certainty came from the fact that no-one had actually tried to kill him yet.
“I… uh...” He looked at the crowd again. “Yeah, okay,” he said, grabbing the helmet before he lost his nerve. It had been a long time since he’d actually spoken with Xiaoge. They hadn’t really talked since thate time Wu Xie had got beaten up and Xiaoge had patched him up afterwards. They’d exchanged greetings and nods and a couple sentences here or there over the years, but Wu Xie had been way too embarrassed and guilty over his fantasies to try to be alone with Xiaoge since then, or even have more than a brief, superficial conversation with him.
Xiaoge nodded at him, and straightened, reaching for the leather jacket that was tossed over the seat of the motorcycle, which he extended towards Wu Xie. When Wu Xie made a helpless, confused sound at the jacket, Xiaoge pushed it at him a little more.
“For the wind. When we ride,” he said, and Wu Xie shrank from the tangible wave of jealousy that stabbed him in the back. The murmur was louder and definitely ill spirited.
Wind? Wind! Wu Xie was at least wearing short sleeves! He stared at Xiaoge’s naked arms. And the arm holes of that tank top were so big that he could fucking see the swell of Xiaoge’s pectorals whenever the man moved! If anyone needed the jacket it was Xiaoge, not him.
“I think you might need it more than me,” he said, and fought the urge to curve his back and hide his head between his shoulders at the angry hiss that came from the student body gathered around.
“I’m fine,” Xiaoge said, still holding out the jacket to him, his eyes really shockingly dark in that smooth, honeyed skin. “I tend to run hot,” he added when Wu Xie didn’t take the jacket from him. The arm that was holding the jacket was presenting really nicely, the muscles flexing under the weight of the garment, showing even more definition than before. And yeah, Wu Xie could fucking see that Xiaoge was hot, thank you very much. All parts of his body could see that, so much so that he was considering if it would look very suspicious if he untucked his shirt and let it hang loose.
“I brought it for you,” came the final blow, and Wu Xie hurriedly took the jacket before the collective angry inhale from the students around them really did turn into violence. He was going to be such a dead man. Or a super star. Or both, really, after this whole display.
The jacket was heavy and warm, and smelled of leather, wind, and… Xiaoge. Wu Xie put it on, grateful that it was long enough to cover his hips and obscure the, uh, situation.
Xiaoge nodded at him and turned to reach for his own helmet.
Wu Xie felt as if he was transported into some kind of anime world when Xiaoge tossed his head back to get rid of the hair in his face before he put on the helmet, and Wu Xie felt as if his whole body lit up with how impossibly good that looked. The hair arching back, the long, indecently exposed neck, the even more indecent fingers, and miles and miles of very naked arms.
He cursed under his breath. Next he would see some kind of flowers unfolding in the air around Xiaoge. Roses or lilies or something like that, since he already had the halo effect down pat. Then he shook himself. He must have read one too many danmei manhua, the cheesiness was starting to poison his rational mind.
Then Xiaoge straddled that beast of a motorcycle in one easy move, all fifty miles of leg on display, and did a kind of indecent shimmy to settle in better that immediately made Wu Xie’s cheeks go bright red. He thought he heard a few gasps from the crowd and at least one yelp that indicated someone might have just fainted.
Wu Xie stuffed the helmet onto his head immediately, mortified at the idea that Xiaoge might him go all red cheeked because he’d watched Xiaoge straddle his motorcycle.
Then Xiaoge turned to him and patted the seat behind him. Wu Xie honestly wasn’t sure if he actually heard the growl he imagined came from the gathered crowd around them, or if it was only his own blood rushing in his ears. If it was the latter, he was again very, very glad of the helmet he was buckling on with clumsy fingers.
Doing his best to ignore the angry crowd around them - and really, what right did they have to be angry? Xiaoge wasn’t theirs, after all! They didn’t even know him! Not like him, who had grown up with Xiaoge around, and who clearly was the only one with any right to be wearing his jacket and riding his bike with him… oh god, Wu Xie was wearing Xiaoge’s jacket and going to be riding on his bike with him - Wu Xie swung his leg over the bike, well aware that he didn’t do it anywhere near as smoothly or easily as Xiaoge had. He sat back on the seat as much as he could, keeping space between him and Xiaoge, because there was absolutely no way to hide the, uh, situation if he was pressed up against the man. If anything, he was fairly sure that it would make the situation even worse.
“Closer,” Xiaoge said, his voice somehow just as smooth and clear even with the helmet on, and Wu Xie managed to squeak out something that might have been “what?”. In answer, Xiaoge reached behind him, grabbed Wu Xie’s waist, and tugged him along the leather seat until he was right up against Xiaoge’s back.
“Closer,” Xiaoge repeated. “You don’t want to risk falling off. Hold on to me,” he added, moving his hands from Wu Xie’s waist to his wrists and tugging his hands forward until he was leaning against Xiaoge, his arms wrapped around him and hands clasped in front of his stomach.
Wu Xie could feel the waves of jealousy from the crowd as if it was a tangible, living thing, and figured his days were numbered. If he didn’t die from being practically wrapped around Xiaoge like this, that was.
Then the bike roared to life and Xiaoge kicked off, and Wu Xie found himself instinctively tightening his hold on Xiaoge even through his embarrassment, feeling his face burn even more at how tightly he was clinging to the man as they rode off. He found himself again thankful for the motorcycle helmet he was wearing, because it was bad enough having his chest plastered up against the muscled back he was clinging to, with just a thin tank top between him and all that skin, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to cope if he had his face up against it as well.
Speaking of skin, the position he was in there was absolutely nowhere he could look that wasn’t getting an eyeful of those bare naked arms, honey skin practically glowing in the sunlight, each change in grip on the handlebars or turn of the bike making muscles ripple beneath the skin in a way that Wu Xie was one hundred percent sure should be illegal. Surely the things it was doing to his heart had to constitute attempted murder.
He tried closing his eyes, but that didn’t help at all, it just made him even more painfully aware of the muscled back against his chest, the muscled thighs that his were pressed against, and the muscled abdomen under his hands that he had to literally bite his lip to resist the urge to stroke his fingers over it. Yeah, he was not going to get this bike ride out of his daily fantasies anytime soon.
It wasn’t until they stopped at a red light, the beast of a machine rolling to a stop deceptively easily, that Wu Xie realized that this wasn’t anywhere on the route between Wushanju and the University. Or even his home and university.
The mystery of where they were actually managed to take his mind off of… other things… and he looked around, trying to figure out where they were going. It was, however, a neighbourhood that was completely alien to him. It was away from the city center, some kind of middle class - or maybe not even that - residential area with a lot of small townhouses. Some were bigger and nicely maintained, some were obviously older and nowhere near as nicely renovated. There was also a mix of small businesses, and some bigger houses.
They rode down endless residential streets, the traffic lessening with each turn, until they pulled up to an older house built from red bricks. It was wedged in between a road on one side, a large and slightly decrepit garage with a few cars waiting to be fixed in it on the other, and a sports field behind it, trees lining the fence between it and the townhouse’s small back garden.
“Where are we?” Wu Xie asked, pulling off his helmet to get a better look at the house once Xiaoge killed the engine. While it was old and not quite as nicely renovated as some of the others they’d passed, it wasn’t in disrepair or anything like that. It looked like it was built in the forties, maybe, judging by the shape of the roofline and the windows. It had clearly been renovated since then, since the windows he could see facing the driveway were modern ones.
“Home,” Xioage said as he also pulled off his helmet, his hair falling into an impossibly perfect form that people would pay huge amounts of money for.
“Home?” Wu Xie repeated, his attention taken from the house in favour of staring at the way the ends of Xiaoge’s hair brushed against the top of his neck. “Whose home?”
“Mine,” Xiaoge said
, dismounting from the bike, reaching back into his pocket - it was kind of shocking that those pants of his were even in possession of pockets at all - and extracting a key.
Wu Xie blinked, looking at the house again, then back to Xiaoge. “I thought you lived at Wushanju?” he finally asked.
Xiaoge paused, halfway up the steps to the front door. “You lived there.”
“Not since I was really little,” Wu Xie said, rearranging the jacket he was wearing to make sure that it still covered that hard on that had most definitely not gone away, not with how he’d been pressed up all against Xiaoge on the bike. “Mom and dad moved us away after grandfather died, remember, and we only came back on weekends to visit grandmother.” He shrugged. “I mean, I would have preferred to never have moved, but little kids don’t really get a say in things like that.”
“It was a compromise I accepted,” Xiaoge said, opening the door with a loud click.
“A… what?” He blinked as he trailed up the stairs after Xiaoge. “That you…? What?”
“They thought they could take you away,” Xiaoge said as they entered the house. The first room was cluttered with furniture of a couple different styles, all of them old, and a lot of… stuff… on shelves and all sorts of other surfaces, including on the walls. It was dark in the room, the windows covered by heavy curtains. Xiaoge went to the windows and pushed the curtains open sharply, flooding the room with light, then opened the large windows to let in the fresh, warm air.
“Mom and dad?” Wu Xie asked, standing awkwardly in the doorway, holding onto the helmet. There was so much stuff in here, and he was half afraid to touch it. This house looked much more lived in than Xiaoge’s little house at Wushanju - at least, what little Wu Xie had seen of it that time. “Well, they are my parents and I was a little kid, so… they could? Parents are allowed to do that?”
“No,” Xiaoge said, going to another window and opening it as well.
Wu Xie opened and closed his mouth several times at that simple ‘no’, because, uh, he was pretty sure that yes, actually, parents were allowed to move and take their kid with them.
“Why ‘no’?” he instead asked finally.
“Laogou said you are mine. They can’t take you away,” Xiaoge explained patiently, going to the last window and wrinkling his nose at the dust that came off the curtains.
“What?” Wu Xie squeaked, his brain screeching to a sudden halt as he tried to process that statement. “Lao… grandfather? Said what?!”
“He wanted to give me one of his sons.” Xiaoge frowned again, in a slightly disgusted way, like one tasting some kind of spoiled food. “I said no. Then you were born, and you were much better, so I said yes.”
“Uh…” Wu Xie was vaguely aware that he must look kind of like a landed fish right now with the way he was gaping, trying and failing to wrap his head around Xiaoge’s cryptic statements. “Wait. Wait. Let me try to get this straight. Grandfather wanted to give away dad or one of my uncles?” What the fuck? “To you, but you… didn’t want any of them? So he gave you me instead.” No wonder his parents were always so wary of Xiaoge and didn’t want him around him. Who in their right mind gave away their kid or grandkid? And who accepted that? “When I was born.”
“Yes,” Xiaoge confirmed, looking pleased, like Wu Xie’s school teachers had when he understood something right away. Wu Xie wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or cry or scream.
“You… you realise how insane that sounds, right? I mean, who even does that? Well, these days, I mean, I’ve heard of stuff like that happening hundreds of years ago, but not now.”
“It did not happen now, it happened nineteen years ago,” Xiaoge corrected. He was a bit prissy about details, it seemed. Wu Xie had no idea where to even start explaining how wrong this was.
The problem was that Xiaoge seemed so calm, so confident in what he was saying that despite the utter outrageousness of it, that Wu Xie was starting to feel like he was the one missing something.
“I’m pretty sure it isn’t something that was normal nineteen years ago, either,” he said weakly, leaning against the wall. He really felt that he needed to sit down, actually, because this was just… he wasn’t even sure he had the words to describe this.
“I don’t know what other people do with their children,” Xiaoge answered eventually, sounding somewhat irked.
“They don’t give them away to strangers!”
“I’m not a stranger,” Xiaoge said, still sounding offended. “Laogou was your age when we met and made a deal. I’ve been here longer than anyone else in your family.”
Wu Xie stared at Xiaoge, who looked all of three or four years older than him, but was just casually talking about having met his grandfather when his grandfather was nineteen.
“That must have been at least seventy years ago,” he said finally.
Xiaoge shrugged. “Probably. I didn’t really care about time until Laogou put an age condition on you.” He looked a little torn about that fact. A little miffed, but not really angry.
“I think I need to sit down,” Wu Xie said, his voice sounding very faint and his legs feeling like they were about to give way any moment now. “Because none of this is making any sense.”
“Couch.” Xiaoge pointed to one of the two overstuffed leather couches around what looked like an antique and exquisitely carved table. It was old enough that parts of the leather had rubbed off until the dark brown color was gone, and there were cracks here and there in the leather. “I will get you something to drink.”
“Yeah,” Wu Xie nodded, vaguely aware that that didn’t really make sense, but his head was spinning. “Thanks.” He pushed off of the wall, carefully making his way around everything else in the room to the couch and gingerly sitting down on it. Despite the wear in places, it was overall in excellent condition, and he was pretty sure it probably cost as much as a year’s rent in one of the student dorms. He looked around for somewhere to put the helmet down, and finally settled on putting it on the floor under the table.
“Water, sugar, or alcohol?” Xiaoge’s voice floated down from a corridor that Wu Xie guessed led to the kitchen.
“Uh… yes?” Wu Xie called back. “All of them?” Because dear god, much as he knew he should drink water first right now, he really wanted something harder than that for this conversation. Maybe alcohol would help things make sense. Or at least make them seem to make sense.
Xiaoge came back a few minutes later, carrying two glass bottles in one hand and balancing a jar and a couple of cups in the other. He put the bottles down first - one was an orange soda and the other sparkling clear water. Then he put down the unmarked jar and the cups. Wu Xie might not be doing any grave robbing, no matter how much he’d begged his parents to let him go one one of Sanshu’s expeditions, but he’d been raised around antiques. He could spot a horrendously expensive set of antique cups - most likely Ming dynasty - when they were staring him in the goddamn face.
Xiaoge uncorked the unmarked jar and the first thing Wu Xie could smell was a vaguely fruity - maybe plum - scent that was good enough to make his mouth water. He leaned in to take a deeper whiff and his eyes immediately watered from how strong the underlying scent of liquor was.
Then Xiaoge poured the clearly home made alcohol into the cups so cleanly that not even a drop spilled, and pushed one closer to Wu Xie. Wu Xie watched as Xiaoge picked his own cup with those long fingers, the silver rings glinting in the sunlight streaming from the windows. He looked even prettier like this, all clean, smooth lines and confidence.
He sat down on the opposite chair, if one could even call that indecent sprawl ‘sitting’, Wu Xie thought faintly. His legs were spread just a shade too far apart, the black pants clinging to his thighs, outlining every muscle in loving detail. And there was a lot of muscle to outline, even for someone as slim as Xiaoge, who was now leaning forward, the collar of his tank top spreading out a little, just enough to show off more of those delightfully straight collarbones and the choker glinting at the base of his throat.
Honestly, Xiaoge wearing jewelry should be illegal. It dragged Wu Xie’s attention to all those dangerous places like ears, fingers, and the hollow of Xiaoge’s throat. It was bad, so bad. Wu Xie shifted to pull the leather jacket more closely around himself to cover up his reemerging hard on. God, he wasn’t going to survive with any sort of dignity left to him at this rate.
Xiaoge sniffed the liquor in his cup - he didn't get teary eyed, Wu Xie noted, unlike him - and took a long sip, tilting his head back and swallowing. Wu Xie stared at the bob of his Adam’s apple and completely forgot that he was going to do something, anything, other than staring. He raised the cup to his lips almost mechanically, still unable to tear his eyes away from Xiaoge as he took a sip of the sweet and strong - so very strong, stronger than anything he’d had before - and the burn of alcohol down his throat finally managed to snap it out of it enough for him to remember all the questions he had.
“Um,” he began eloquently. “I don’t… actually have any idea what’s going on.”
“Laogou told me to wait until you were in university before approaching you and explaining things. He made me promise, and I always keep my promises.” Then Xiaoge frowned. “Unlike his children. I made a good choice rejecting all of them.”
Wu Xie felt that he should probably object to that, given that his parents and uncles were being disparaged, but he couldn’t really say that Xiaoge was wrong, given that he himself could think of several instances where one or the other of them had broken a promise to him. Instead, he just pretended that Xiaoge hadn’t said anything about his family at all.
“Okay,” he said, wrapping both of his hands around the cup and leaning forward slightly. “So now you can explain things, right? Like how you only look a few years older than me, but you knew my grandfather when he was my age?”
“I was in between partners at the time and I met him in Changsha by accident,” Xiaoge said. “He’d got himself in trouble, most of his team had been killed off in a tomb, and he’d barely escaped with his life. He offered a deal, and I accepted. We worked well together until he got too old to keep up his end of the deal. That’s when he offered his sons, and then you, as future payment for services granted.” Xiaoge sighed. “I usually don’t agree to those kinds of delayed payment arrangements, but I liked Laogou, so I made an exception for him.”
Wu Xie wasn’t sure how to feel about basically being told that his grandfather had sold him as a baby for… what? Services?
“What services?” he asked. He had many, many more questions, but that one would do for a start. What services were worth selling your child or infant grandchild?
“Protection in the tombs your family was raiding,” Xiaoge said. “It’s how Laogou amassed his wealth. When I met him, he couldn’t even afford to pay the people he took with him, just promised them a share in the spoils. With me, he barely ever lost any men and could afford to strip the tombs a lot more efficiently than just grabbing one or two items and running before something ate him.” He took another long sip of the booze, expression not even flickering at how it must have burned going down.
Wu Xie was suddenly reminded, then, of overhearing Sanshu’s admiring words about Xiaoge when he was much younger, about how Xiaoge was equal to a whole army, and was the reason why grandfather had gained so much wealth.
“By getting you to fight off the monsters?” he guessed.
Xiaoge nodded. “And to disable traps for him.” Then he paused, something sad flickering over his face. “Used to. He is gone now. Humans are too fragile.” He sighed.
“You, um…” Wu Xie paused and took another sip as he tried to figure out how to phrase his next question. “You say that as if you don’t think of yourself as human,” he finally said carefully.
Xiaoge leaned back against the couch, shifting to stretch one arm up along the back, his fingers tracing the subtle cracks in the leather. “I’m not.”
As much as Wu Xie really wanted to call bullshit on that, he remembered Xiaoge saying he’d met his grandfather seventy or so years ago. Couldn’t ever remember Xiaoge looking any different to how he did now, when he didn’t look at all out of place among a crowd of undergraduates on the university campus. Remembered his grandfather’s and Sanshu’s stories about all the things they’d encountered, and how they spoke of the supernatural as something that definitely existed, no matter what Wu Xie was taught in school.
“Okay,” he said after several moments. “If you’re not human, then what are you?”
“One of the others, a Zhang, that you humans rarely are aware of. You sometimes call us demons?” Xiaoge didn’t sound very convinced. “I guess it’s the closest description Laogou could come up with, anyway.”
A demon. Well, that wasn’t even the weirdest possibility that had crossed Wu Xie’s mind. Though Xiaoge having no problem moving around in daylight had definitely ruled out jiangshi, and he was way too intelligent and self aware to be a zombie. Huli jing had been a possibility, he was definitely pretty enough for the legends Wu Xie had heard about the fox spirits.
He went to take another sip of his drink, only to realise he’d been unconsciously sipping it the whole time and had now drained the cup. He poured out a cup of water while he thought it over.
“What kind of deal did you have with grandfather?” he asked. That seemed like the next most important thing to know.
“I did favors for him and he, in turn, provided me with the life energy I feed on,” Xiaoge said easily.
“What, like breath?” Wu Xie said, taking a sip of water. Breath was the stereotypical one the legends said, wasn’t it?
“That works too, yes,” Xiaoge said and smiled. Just a little, but it was enough to throw Wu Xie off, because he couldn’t remember Xiaoge ever smiling before, no matter how tiny that smile was. Even so small, it was so pretty, and he found himself staring at it, at the slight curve of those way-too-perfect lips.
“There’s many ways to transfer energy, some more direct than others. But a human’s ability to generate it does drop with age. It’s why Laogou had to offer me future payment when he got older, because he could no longer give me the agreed amount himself. It’s also why I thought that this place would be better than the guest house in Wushanju.”
Wu Xie glanced around the room again, at all the expensive antiques and what was clearly years’ worth of trinkets and souvenirs and interesting things.
“Better for what?” Wu Xie asked, taking a large swallow of his water. He was overheating in the jacket, but he wouldn’t take it off for love or money right now. It was the only protection from utter humiliation that he had left.
“Sex,” Xiaoge said easily, in that smooth, low tone of voice.
Wu Xie spluttered, water spraying out from between his lips and spraying over his cup and hand as half the mouthful he was trying to drink went out, and the other half went down his throat completely the wrong way, making him almost breath it in and then have to cough in an attempt to choke on it.
“What?” he managed to gasp out, putting the cup down.
“I mean,” Xiaoge said, still in that easy tone of voice, “you were already very good about keeping your end of the deal for the last couple of years, but a direct transmission is always better than an indirect one, even if you did do your absolute best.”
Wu Xie was very, very glad that he hadn’t tried taking another sip of water to soothe his burning throat.
“I’ve been what?” he asked, his voice high and strangled.
“All that fantasizing about me that you did, all the jerking off while doing so was directed at me. I could feel it, and I received an energy boost from that. Then you went a step further and even tried to draw other people’s sexual energy towards me, which was unexpected, but very much appreciated,” Xiaoge said, again looking pleased.
All Wu Xie could do was make more strangled, wordless sounds, his face so heated that he could feel it burning.
“You… um…” Holy shit, he didn’t think he’d ever been so embarrassed in his entire life. “You… knew what I was, uh… thinking?” All that time avoiding Xiaoge, and he knew? Wu Xie felt that he would very much like the ground to just open up and swallow him now, thank you very much. “And other people… what? I did what?”
Xiaoge smiled again, and while the smile wasn’t any wider than before, it was slow and deliberate this time, Xiaoge keeping steady eye contact with him, and god, but his eyes were beautiful. “Each time you had sex with somebody else but were thinking of me, all of that sexual energy got transferred to me. You might as well have invited me to watch.”
“Oh fuck,” Wu Xie groaned, covering his face with his hands in what he knew was an absolutely futile attempt to hide, but at least it was something. He was so, so embarrassed right now. “Oh my god. You knew the whole time. I think I’m going to die.”
“You won't,” Xiaoge said. “Not anytime soon, and not if I’m around.”
“Thanks,” Wu Xie said, opening his fingers enough to peek through them, and promptly being distracted by the way the arm holes of Xiaoge’s tank top shifted, showing that tantalizing curse of pectoral muscle again. Wu Xie had seen those muscles bare once, and would love nothing more than to see them again. Then something about what Xiaoge had just said finally percolated through to his overly busy mindo. “Wait, what? What do you mean, anytime soon? I’m a student, not a tomb raider.” Never mind that he’d spent years begging to be allowed to go on tomb raids with Sanshu, and still hadn’t quite given up hope of one day finally being able to do so. “What could possibly happen to me?”
“There are benefits,” Xiage murmured, taking a sip from his glass, wiping his bottom lip with the side of his thumb, his eyes still on Wu Xie. Wu Xie dropped his hands and openly stared back, one hand pulling the jacket closer around him while he reached for his glass with the other, and struggled to think beyond the wide range of visuals about the supposed benefits that his mind was oh-so-helpfully supplying.
“What,” Wu Xie whispered, pausing with his glass halfway to his mouth, “what kind of benefits?”
Xiaoge made a tiny, humming sound that Wu Xie felt in his very bones, and leaned in slowly. He extended his hand, wrapping it around Wu Xie’s, the one holding the glass still halfway in the air, and it was only that action drawing Wu Xie’s full attention to the glass and their hands that had him realise he’d been about to try to drink from an empty glass. Wu Xie did not squeak at the touch, at the warmth of Xiaoge’s hand around his - he did not, but that was only because making sound required air in his lungs, and currently he had none. He watched, struck mute and dumb, as Xiaoge lifted the jar and, keeping Wu Xie’s hand steady, refilled the glass, the aromatic alcohol pouring slowly and cleanly from the jar.
“There are many,” Xiaoge murmured, so close that Wu Xie could smell the scent of his skin. “I can provide favors, protection from all sorts of danger, but, also, because we will be bound, you will age a little slower, and remain healthy longer. Something about the human body reacts very positively to being close to me for extended periods of time.”
Wu Xie tried very hard to steer his mind away from the images that it conjured up for him when Xiaoge said ‘bound’ in that low, smooth voice of his, while his body reacted very positively indeed to how close Xiaoge was. He squirmed a little in his seat, pressing his legs closer together and pulling the jacket even more tightly closed. His mouth and throat were still too dry for any sound to escape, but his hand stubbornly refused to pull free of Xiaoge’s in order to lift the glass to his mouth so that he could drink.
“Is that...” He struggled to sound like a normal human being. “Is that what you usually did? Do?”
“I usually ended my contracts with humans long before they even hit fifty years old,” Xiaoge said. “It was actually rare for people to live to a very old age in the past, due to lack of medicine and amenities. Also, humans just can't generate the kind of energy I need consistently throughout their life. The older they get, the less energy they can give to me. Even in more recent times, when they live longer and stay healthier longer, the energy that they can give me still drops off with age. But I liked Laogou, and since he promised me that one of his children or grandchildren would repay the debt that incurred once he could no longer give me the energy agreed to in our deal, I decided to stay.”
“And since you didn’t want dad or my uncles, and I’m the only grandchild, it’s falling to me by default,” Wu Xie said.
Xiaoge just shook his head. “No, I picked you when you were born, long before we knew that there wouldn’t be any other grandchildren.”
“Okay,” Wu Xie said faintly, putting his glass back down on the table with a small clink. “So you and grandfather picked me to repay this debt. What… what kind of a debt are we talking about here?”
“When Laogou died, he hadn’t been able to pay me in full for twenty five years,” Xiaoge said calmly. “The last five years of that he hadn’t been able to pay me at all, and it had been steadily dropping off before then. Then there’s been fifteen years since then of almost no payments for me staying and keeping to the contract, not to mention additional fees incurred onto the debt for those occasions when Wu Sanxing asked me to help with an expedition.” The leather chair creaked slightly as Xiaoge settled back in it some more. “While those indirect transfers you’ve made over the last couple of years were very tasty, they’ve really barely made a scratch in the debt.” Xiaoge picked up the cup and pressed it to his lips, not even drinking, just fucking playing with it, licking the edge with the very tip of his tongue and rolling it over his bottom lip.
“This is ridiculous,” Wu Xie said, covering his face with his hands again, the heat from his face radiating into them. “How come no one ever told me anything about this before now?” And saved him a whole tonne of embarrassment.
Xiaoge shrugged, and the movement looked nothing else than indecent in his tank top. “Don’t know. They all knew. Your parents, your uncles, your grandmother.” He drained the rest of the cup. “It’s why I stayed close. So that they wouldn’t claim to have forgotten.” He put the cup back down. “And to see what kind of human you would grow up to be.”
Wu Xie thought of having this kind of conversation with his mom or his dad, and god, it would have been even worse than this - if he’d been able to get a straight answer out of them, that is. He groaned, covering his eyes more firmly. “This is insane. Okay, I can get why they wouldn’t tell me. But you could have!” He looked up and pointed an accusing finger at Xiaoge.
“Couldn’t. I promised Laogou that I wouldn’t approach you until you were at least in University,” Xiaoge repeated.
“You know,” Wu Xie said desperately, grabbing for that bottle of water again and decidedly avoiding the booze. “This actually sounds like a lousy contract. What kind of business model is that? To wait so long?”
“Maybe,” Xiaoge agreed. “But it’s rare for me to meet humans I like, and you felt special. I thought it was worth the risk.”
“Risk of what?” Wu Xie asked.
“That you would grow up to be not interested, or that you would fall in love with someone so completely that there wouldn’t be anything to build the contract on anymore.”
“What do you mean?” Wu Xie asked, after gulping down a mouthful of water directly from the bottle. “I thought I had to do this? And I remember overhearing grandmother once saying something about there being a contract between us, but I was so young I didn’t really understand what that even was, and hadn’t even thought about it until you said all of…” He let go of the jacket to wave his hand vaguely around. “...this.”
“Sometimes people don’t find me attractive,” Xiaoge said in a tone of voice that Wu Xie imagined people would use to say that people sometimes ate dirt for no reason.
“Do they not have eyes?” Wu Xie blurted out without thinking, then felt his face heat up again and busied himself with taking another long drink of water. “Besides, what does that have to do with what I asked?”
Xiaoge frowned. “You can’t create sexual energy with someone who isn’t attracted to you.” Then his frown cleared. “But you are good on that front,” he said in the tone of a compliment.
“Oh god.” Wu Xie rested his forehead against the bottle, the coolness feeling stark against how hot his face had gone, and wondering if it was possible to drown oneself in a bottle of water. Yes, he was most definitely attracted to the man… demon… in front of him, but he’d never had anyone talk about such things so frankly before, not even his first girlfriend or his ex-boyfriend, and there had been a couple of times when he’d wondered if they had any shame in the bedroom at all.
Not that they were in a bedroom right now! he hastily corrected himself, sure that his face was now as red as it could possibly go. Just that they were in private. And Xiaoge was… apparently without even the concept of shame.
Then something that Xiaoge had said, or rather hadn’t said, struck him and he raised his head to look at that unfairly pretty face and perfect skin and bottomless dark eyes.
“Wait,” he said. “What do you mean, you can’t create energy with someone who isn’t attracted to you? Isn’t that energy how you get paid? Wasn’t I promised to you to repay, what, thirty, forty years of it? What if I wasn’t attracted to you? How was I supposed to repay grandfather’s debt then?”
Xiaoge made a dismissive wave of his hand. “You are attracted to me, so there’s no point wondering about what if. And yes, forty years sounds about right, unless you are feeling especially energetic? I wasn’t doing that much the last two decades, so I guess you could settle the debt faster if you tried.” Then he touched his bottom lip again. “I am, of course, going to be listening to you over anyone else in the family. I only helped Wu Sanxing out because you were little, and he made a reasonable argument that the money would be helpful to you.” He sounded… defensive almost.
“And because you were going to be paid for it in the future anyway,” Wu Xie teased, unable to help himself even with how embarrassed he still felt right now about, well, everything, not least the way the tightness in his pants just would not subside at all, especially not with the way Xiaoge kept looking at him like that, and sitting like that, and those casual touches. Then he went back to being a bit more serious. “No, really, what would have happened if I couldn’t pay back the debt? What would have happened to you?” Because if he was understanding Xiaoge right, human sexual energy was what literally fed him, and Xiaoge had just basically told him that he’d gone decades with either not enough ‘food’ or none at all. Surely it couldn’t have been good for him?
“I would… leave, probably,” Xiaoge said slowly. “Without a contract, I can only stay so long before I... forget why I was here at all, and then… I go away somewhere, but I don’t remember where.”
Wu Xie was silent for a long moment, both hands clasped around his glass, turning it around and around as he thought that over. He really didn’t like the idea of Xiaoge just disappearing one day, he found. And not just because Xiaoge had been such a fixture of his life for as long as he could remember - since before he was even born, apparently.
“You already stayed around for so long without getting anything out of it,” he said slowly. “How did you manage to stay so long? Would you… would you have had to go soon if I hadn’t accidentally…?” He flushed again. “Would you have ever come back?”
“If I went, I would forget about Laogou, about you, about everything I knew and experienced while I was here. I wouldn’t ever come back here, and if you ever crossed my path elsewhere if someone else had managed to call me back, call me to them and contract with me… I probably wouldn’t recognize you.” Then he frowned. “As for how I stayed… You were promised to me and I kept close, to keep that connection alive. And I saved as much energy as possible.” The frown deepened. “I can usually get at least something from people young enough and interested in me even without a contract, but your whole family is completely useless. How they are Laogou’s sons I have no idea. Useless. Every single one of them.” He sounded nothing less than disgusted by the end of his speech.
Wu Xie blinked. “None of them are interested in you?” That made sense for his dad and Sanshu, of course, with how his dad only ever had eyes for his mom, and Sanshu was still carrying a torch for Chen Wenjin even years after she’d been presumed dead on an expedition, but… “Not even Ershu? I always thought… I mean, he never seemed interested in women.”
Xiaoge gave a small snort. “Wu Erbai isn’t interested in anyone,” he complained, sounding personally offended by this. “I have no idea how they are even of Laogou’s blood. Laogou never needed any encouragement to feed me well, and even got himself a wife to help out. His sons, on the other hand, are a total disappointment.”
Okay, that was more than Wu Xie had ever wanted to know about his grandparents, so he just awkwardly cleared his throat and pretended that he had not heard that at all. Because, eeeewww.
He put the bottle down, instead concentrating on quietly rearranging all the assumptions that he’d been carrying about Ershu for the past few years, along with his hope that either of his uncles would ever have kids of their own. And, ah. On that note. He sighed.
“So, um… since that now makes it pretty clear neither of my uncles are ever going to have kids… I’m expected to, you know… is that, uh, going to be a problem at all?” He didn’t think so, given it sounded like his grandfather had had this contract before marrying his grandmother, and… la la la, no, not going there. God, he definitely was going to need so much alcohol to make sure that the memory of hearing that statement about his grandparents stayed well and truly buried.
“Laoguo had children,” Xiaoge said, sounding baffled. “What does you having to have children to continue your line have to do with anything?
“Right,” said Wu Xie. “Um. Just checking. I didn’t know if… you know, if there were special clauses or whatever in this contract for that that had to be negotiated. Most people I know get kind of jealous about the idea of the person they’re sleeping with then having a, uh, arrangement with someone else.”
Xiaoge looked at him with those dark eyes, large and mesmerising. “You could always invite me, too.”
Wu Xie’s brain stuttered to a halt again, and all he could dimly think as he almost choked on his own breathing was that he was very glad that he wasn’t currently drinking anything.
“Oh,” he managed to get out, the sound small and strangled.
And then he paused, froze in place, really, because the topic of the conversation caught up to him.
If he was understanding correctly, Xiaoge was telling him that they could have sex. Together.
That they should, even.
His body expressed an immediate and enthusiastic interest the moment the idea truly percolated. Sex. With Xiaoge. Wu Xie might die before he actually even got to touch the man, but just the idea of it was delicious enough that he was unwilling to think about anything else for a good long while.
Then he paused. At least, that was what Wu Xie thought Xiaoge meant. But what if he was wrong?
“Xiaoge,” he said, slowly, so stunned and embarrassed that he didn’t even know how to talk correctly. “Do you, I mean, I think… If I understand correctly…. youmeansexwithyouright?” he blurted out as fast as possible, then sat there, panting from stress and half ready to just run at the slightest provocation.
Xiaoge blinked at him. Once. Twice. Wu Xie was honestly about to just die on the spot.
“Yes,” Xiaoge eventually confirmed, and Wu Xie squeaked again, covering his face with his hands because he was momentarily too embarrassed by what might be showing on it, and he absolutely did not want to make himself into even more of a lecher than he already was about this man.
He didn’t hear Xiaoge move, but he felt the couch dip under another person’s weight, and his head snapped up to see Xiaoge resting one knee on the couch, the other knee on the floor.
“I was waiting for you.” Xiaoge leaned in close, taking hold of Wu Xie’s still raised hands. He slowly pushed them down. “And you are now old enough to take over,” he said very quietly, his voice low and very smooth. Wu Xie swallowed convulsively, incapable of taking his eyes off of Xiaoge and the impossible beauty of the man. Then Xiaoge paused. “You don’t like the house? It has a bedroom, too.”
Wu Xie couldn’t help but let out a disbelieving snort of laughter that immediately stuck in his throat. “It’s not…. the house is fine,” he said weakly, the hand on his feeling like it was made of pure fire. “It’s…”
“What?” Xiaoge asked, leaning in closer, and oh, oh, suddenly it made sense why he hadn’t sat down fully on the couch. This position meant that he could brace his other arm against the back of the couch and lean in so close that his nose was almost brushing Wu Xie’s. His eyelashes looked shockingly long from this close.
“You… I… I’m not sure…” Wu Xie stuttered, unable to look at anything but those smooth, pink lips so very close to his.
“It’s fine,” Xiaoge murmured, his breath fanning Wu Xie’s lips. “I can teach you anything you need to know.”
Wu Xie had kissed before. He’d kissed a lot, actually, he liked kissing. He liked the closeness, and the sounds. Liked everything about it, and considered himself good at it. But then Xiaoge kissed him, and it felt nothing like any kiss he’d ever had before. It felt like a first kiss, like he’d never once done this in his entire life until now.
Xiaoge’s lips were smooth and soft as they pressed against his, his hand hot like fire when it slid down to rest against Wu Xie’s thigh. He kissed Wu Xie slowly, deliberately, like he had all the time in the world to just do this. To taste him, to slowly explore him. He nudged Wu Xie’s lips open with his tongue and Wu Xie gave in with a whine, opening up eagerly. He grabbed onto Xiaoge’s shoulders, and god, but he could touch that naked skin without any guilt at all now. He could feel how smooth the skin was under his hands, how it got ever so slightly cool, and, when he squeezed, he could feel the muscles tense in response.
Xiaoge was slow but firm, moving in even closer, and that wasn’t just a hand on Wu Xie’s thigh anymore. It was the whole of Xiaoge slowly installing himself in Wu Xie’s lap, his hands firmly in Wu Xie’s hair now, fingernails scratching gently at his scalp, turning Wu Xie’s brain into mush.
“Xiaoge!” he gasped when the man broke the kiss, but he forgot what he was going to say because Xiaoge started gently biting down his jaw and towards his ear. “I…”
He choked on whatever he was trying to say, because that was when Xiaoge settled more firmly on Wu Xie’s lap and slid forward, his knees pressing into the couch on both sides of Wu Xie’s hips. His mind blanked completely at the weight of the man, the closeness of him, his cock straining so hard against the constraints of his pants that Wu Xie could barely breathe.
He flailed a bit, remembering faintly that there was something important he wanted to say, something… He caught hold of Xiaoge’s hips - they were shockingly slim for someone this powerful - and did his best to push him back enough to think.
“Wait,” Wu Xie panted when Xiaoge reluctantly pulled away from leaving a series of bites on Wu Xie’s neck. “I need to know… “ He swallowed, looking up at those fantastically dark eyes. “What… what should I do to make it, uh...” He floundered, not sure how to phrase it. “To make it good for you?” he blurted out finally, embarrassed but also so hard that he hurt.
Was there something he had to do? A ritual? A contract to sign? Wu Xie wanted this, god, did he want this, but he also wanted Xiaoge to get everything he wanted from this.
Xiaoge smiled at him, a tiny, strangely soft thing, his hands still scratching gently at the back of Wu Xie’s neck. “Enjoy it,” Xiaoge murmured. “The better it is for you, the more energy it gets me.” He leaned in again, shifting closer despite Wu Xie’s grip on his hips. He kissed Wu Xie, wet and deep and so hot that Wu Xie could only whine, overwhelmed by how good it felt, how good Xiaoge smelled.
He grabbed a fistful of that smooth top and pulled it out from Xiaoge’s belt, sneaking his fingers under it with an almost giddy rush, hungry for skin, desperate to feel more of this man he’d spent years fantasizing about.
Xiaoge made a low sound right into the kiss and shifted on his lap. Wu Xie was about to ask if he’d done something wrong when he felt Xiaoge’s hand on his neck, sliding down over his chest to his belly, spreading there, and then, holy shit, going lower. He wanted to warn Xiaoge, wanted to squirm away, to do something, anything to warn him that Wu Xie was way too excited for this, but Xiaoge was faster. He pressed his hand over the bulge of Wu Xie’s cock and squeezed.
It felt like a supernova exploding behind his eyelids, pleasure shocking through him hard enough to make him blind and deaf, only partially aware of Xiaoge still kissing him, still squeezing his cock, and gods, but Wu Xie was gone. He whined and came like that, just like a fucking kid, right in his pants, and Xiaoge, the cruel demon, just kept squeezing him, making everything better and worse, extending the goddamn orgasm so much that Wu Xie was afraid he was going to pass out any second now.
He came to limp as a noodle against the back of the couch, Xiaoge still firmly planted on his lap, his fingers scratching delicate patterns into Wu Xie’s scalp.
Wu Xie opened his mouth to apologize because fuck, fuck, how could he get off like this. Sure, Xiaoge was hot, but this was beyond embarrassing. However, then he got a look at Xiaoge before he actually said anything. There was a pink flush high on Xiaoge’s cheeks and his eyes were half lidded, and his whole body had a certain, relaxed slump to it that Wu Xie thought would rather fit someone who just had an orgasm instead of caused one.
“I…” Wu Xie began, then stopped, not quite sure how to continue.
“That was good,” Xiaoge murmured, his voice lower and lazier now, causing a series of shivers to run down Wu Xie’s back, and oh, god, he’d literally just come, he shouldn’t be getting so horny again.
Xiaoge murmured something unintelligible and dragged his hands down Wu Xie’s chest, lazy and sensual and so pretty that it made Wu Xie dizzy. “That was a good meal,” Xiaoge said lazily. “There’s a shower here, too.” Xiaoge rolled his hips against Wu Xie, robbing him temporarily of any ability to think at all. “It fits two,” he added.
Shower, yes, Wu Xie thought dumbly. He could go for a shower. Water. With Xiaoge. Naked Xiaoge.
“Yes,” he eventually squeaked out.
He wanted. God, he wanted everything, especially that shower.
“Good,” Xiaoge said, climbing up from his lap and making no attempt to hide the fact that he was hard, his cock clearly tenting the very tight pants. Wu Xie immediately wanted to touch. “This contract is already off to a good start,” he murmured, low and pleased, and extended his hand towards Wu Xie.
Wu Xie grinned and reached for the extended hand.
Yeah. Yeah, this was looking really damn good, actually.