Actions

Work Header

your embers, this still beating heart.

Work Text:

“Try and stop by when you can, okay?” Her voice was crisp and clear through the receiver, so much so that Mu Qing could just picture the smile on her face when she talked.

He sighed, then, packing up what little luggage he had. His suitcase caught on the door, making him swear softly as he gave it a kick before replying. “I’ll try. Don’t know when I’ll get the chance, though.”

She laughed at that point, for some reason. “I know. I know. I think you’re a little too old now for me to be buggin’ you so much.”

Mu Qing frowned as he listened, working yet another bag out of the apartment and setting it atop his suitcase. “You know I’d never say no to coming over and visiting. It’s just become a little…”

She cut him off. “I’m pretty tough too, you know!” He could spy the crinkle of her nose, one he’d been told he has. “But, you’re right. Suppose you won’t be visitin’ your sisters much either, huh?”

“Of course not, mama.” He mumbled as he locked the door behind him, working his procession of suitcases down the way to the elevator. “It’d be stupid if I did.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She sounded thoughtful. “You’ve always been the most responsible one out of the bunch, but I gotta tell you, this isn’t what I had in mind when I said you should leave the nest.”

There’d been another ring of laughter, and Mu Qing found it in him this time to laugh back. “Once this is over and done with, I’ll come and visit. Just don’t give anyone too much trouble while I’m gone.”

“Who’s the parent now, you or me!?” She chided. “Just make sure you’re safe. Eat well. Just because you’re big now doesn’t mean anything, take care of yourself.”

While she talked, he’d made it downstairs, and started work loading things into his rental. He held back a sigh as he best as he could. “I will, mama. I’ll call you when I get a chance.”

Her voice came through sad, now, thought it remained hopeful at the ends. “This is what happens when you raise a kid stubborn, I guess.”

Mu Qing brought the trunk down with a slam. “Wonder where I got it from.”

She snorted and went quiet for a time. “I love you, okay, sweetheart? Come back safe.” She finally said.

He closed his eyes and took in a breath before settling down in the driver’s seat of the car. “I love you, too, mama. See you soon.” Mu Qing popped the key in the ignition as he pulled his phone away from his shoulder.

Her voice broke through one final time before he closed the call. “See you soon, goodbye, honey.”

Mu Qing never made that call. He’d received text messages, but he’d never made that call. Updates from all walks of life those around him took while he was forced to make a detour, but not once has he given himself the chance to settle off that path. A path unwanted.

One that leads him here.

Beginning with a knock.
 
Knock, knock.

Mu Qing’s breaths come down harsh, white against the visage of a dark backdoor. His boots are caked with snow from trudging through the couple thousand steps it’s taken to get to this place. He doesn’t expect anyone will answer if he’s knocking from the back of the house rather than the front, but the good ol’ college try wouldn’t kill him now would it?

There’s a noise as the mechanism of the door unlocks, and standing there, clad in all black, is a rather disgruntled looking He Xuan.

Tight in his grip, there’s a metal baseball bat.

Feng Xin’s voice bubbles in his head, supplying a rather helpful. “Just what the fuck were you expecting?”

Nothing, really.

He Xuan quirks a brow at Mu Qing, before turning his head and calling back into the house. “Oi, goofball. It’s nothing bad, just a ghost.”

A shrill voice emanates from somewhere inside the house, loud and whiny. The pitter patter of footsteps come along side it. “You’re so unnecessarily mean! Who even--

--Ah!”

The shock in Shi QingXuan’s eyes as he casts a glance on Mu Qing makes him twitch, his lips pulling back into a slight snarl. Normally, he’s not the type to bother fighting such a reaction, it’s far too cold to even bother. But he’s never really thought his physical appearance degraded that much, not to the point of shock and horror at least.

Feng Xin said a couple things when they met, too, now that he thinks about it. Just remembering makes him feel nauseous, unfortunately.

Shi QingXuan eventually manages to get over his stupor. “You look miserable, come, come…” He says, ushering Mu Qing in.

“I’ll make tea. I guess.” He Xuan mutters as he closes the door behind them both. 

“Such a thoughtful man.” Shi QingXuan teases while easing Mu Qing’s coat off of him. The movement brings shudders to the surface as though he’d been peeling off his skin instead.

Once his shoes are off, he’s lead back toward what looks like a living room. Giving him a pat on his back, Shi QingXuan disappears off into some adjacent hallway before returning with a blanket in his hands. The whole scene makes Mu Qing feel uncomfortable when he considers that he hasn’t really seen Shi QingXuan in so many years. To be treated as though he had a relationship with him of any kind, especially after he left, is odd.

Unable to reject warmth, Mu Qing holds trembling fingers out as he grabs for the blanket. He comes to sit down, curled into the folds of a nearby couch with the blanket draped over him. 

“Do.. do you need anything? Mu Qing?” Shi QingXuan asks as he settles with his knees tucked under his chin.

Mu Qing curls further into the blanket. “No. Apologies for not calling in advance.” He replies curtly, coworker voice in full effect.

Shi QingXuan seems almost offended. “I don’t mind at all. I always said if you needed something, you could come here. That hasn’t changed, you know.”

He knows. That’s why he’s here, even if being here means that Shi QingXuan will only want more and more answers he can’t provide. Mu Qing sits there in contemplative silence, staring at the rug that lay neatly over hardwood flooring. The silence goes on too long, because Shi QingXuan talks again.

“You know, everyone’s been wondering where you’ve been.” He chimes, plopping himself down on a nearby chair. “Boss won’t tell us anything, of course, confidential stuff. We know how it is. Doesn’t stop people from talking, though!”

Small tall, Mu Qing thinks. Something to ease the iceberg’s width of distance between who Mu Qing is now and who he was before. “Hmph. And just what have people been talking about?”

Shi QingXuan smiles, a little hum leaving him as he taps a finger repeatedly to his bottom lip. “Some people thought you were like, being chased by the mafia or something. Or the FBI. At first, most people thought you just eloped.”

Mu Qing’s expression goes complicated. There were rights and wrongs, and then the completely and horribly incorrect. He can’t tell if he wants to scoff or roll his eyes. What settles him down is a rather haunting sensation, a hand held under his, warm and secure.

“None of those things are true.” He finally murmurs, trying to sink further into the couch.

Shi QingXuan’s eyebrows tent. There’s another long pause between the two of them, filled only by the sound of a kettle going off in the kitchen.

The sentence that comes next is said low to the ground. “I almost didn’t recognize you.” Shi QingXuan moves off of the chair and comes to his knees, arms leaning on the couch, looking up at Mu Qing with a gentle gaze. It makes him feel childish.

“I remember, you know? How tired you looked. But this...  This is a lot. No one’s seen you in so long, there are people in the office who just think you’re an inside joke. A desk with a nameplate.”

It’s as though he’s become the ghosts he sees.

Mu Qing’s facade starts withering away, falling to pieces like dust, settling against soft covers. “I’m… I’m sorry I missed your wedding.”

Shi QingXuan smiles his bright as always smile, reaching a hand over to pat at Mu Qing’s calf. “There’s always other events. Oh, I know! You can make it up to me when you get married!”

Mu Qing’s thin lips curl into a sneer immediately at the suggestion, and he throws the blanket over his head. “Me? As if!”

“QingXuan, stop imposing your ideals on others.” He Xuan reprimands from his place in the kitchen.

“I’m no~t!” Shi QingXuan sings, words ending in a dignified huff. “You never know anyway!”

They’re arguing, slightly, in a way that Mu Qing thinks should spell disaster.

“You talk too much, let the man rest.” Though his voice is pitched louder to carry from the kitchen to the living room, it’s so neutral-- just a touch above indifferent. He’s akin to the still waters of a lake.

While Shi QingXuan is a roaring wind. “I am so letting him rest! Sometimes you need to chat to wind down, you know! Where’s the tea, mister snippy? Weren’t you gonna bring some?”

“Oh, did I say that? I must’ve forgotten.” He answers above the sound of clatter in the kitchen. Despite the presumed aggression in his words, there’s no real anger laced among them. Indifference feigned, nothing but a series of teases. 

They’ve always been this way, however. They’d stride around, have an argument here and there, but ultimately came together in a way that no one could really understand. He remembers their engagement baffling everyone, himself included. 

In the lull, Mu Qing’s nose catches the phantom smell of far away motel rooms, bad coffee made in tiny filters, and stale fast food. He can hear the reverberation of Feng Xin’s voice against his ear, feel him close. His far too strong cologne along with the bristle of stubble against his forehead that all too peculiar morning, before Feng Xin had had time to shave. 

Mu Qing’s mind clings onto tendrils of each and every sensory detail it can find, dredging it to the surface, refusing to let him forget. Even if he was the one who let go.

His fingers curl into the blanket covering him, something akin to resolve burning in his heart as each memory comes in waves, crashing against the edges of a battered will. Cold can try, but it cannot rub away with warmth, not when he wears it well.

That thought in particular reminds him of something else, something he’d long forgotten.

He’ll dig for it later. Instead, he looks up. “Shi QingXuan?”

Attention back on him now, Shi QingXuan stands up and tilts his head as He Xuan comes over with two small saucers, teacups placed nicely at their centers. He sets both trays down on the coffee table as Shi QingXuan replies.

“Mu Qing? What is it?”

He slowly eases out of his self made cocoon. “No one knows I’m here, for now. But that means I can’t leave, not yet at least. I’m going to have to ask you for some favors.”

A mock salute, before decidedly throwing his arm around He Xuan with a grin. “Whatever you need, we’ve got you covered!”

Mu Qing finds it in himself to stand up now that he no longer feels so frigid. “... Are you certain? There are a couple things, but first things first, I’m going to need to borrow your washroom. Do you have washing machines?

“We do, ah, but, I don’t think I have anything that’ll fit you. Bu~t.” Readjusting his arms, he pats He Xuan on the chest. “This one might!”

Unbothered, He Xuan asks. “How long will you be staying?”

“Two days.” 

Shi QingXuan visibly deflates, dropping his arms. “Two days? That’s so short isn’t it? If you need to stay longer…--”

Raising a hand to stop him mid sentence, Mu Qing follows up with a shake of his head. “Two days is all I need. I need to be out and about by then, so I can finish my work.”

He Xuan, the more pragmatic of the two, gives him a questioning look. Naturally, he’d be the less accepting one. 

“Have you done something? Why are you trying to hide so bad?”

“Who the fuck will trust you when you come and go? Slippery bastard.” Feng Xin chides in the back of his mind, nearly making him sneer without provocation.

Mu Qing returns his gaze without wavering, though his expression is sour. He figures the best course of action is honesty, especially when he’ll be using their home for the time being-- as much as it kills him to be forthcoming in any regard.

“It has to do with the No Face case.” He finally answers. “I’ve been working on it with someone else, but we’ve split off for now. I can’t let anyone know I’m here because--...” It’s dangerous? For everyone, Feng Xin included? Because it’s supposed to be his target reticule? His devil’s bet? 

Because he’s scared, somewhere in the deep recesses of his cold soul?

“--It’s a rather precarious situation.” Mu Qing says instead.

He Xuan looks ready to say something, even taking a step forward when Shi QingXuan abruptly swings his arm in front of him. His eyes are ready set. “We don’t need to know anymore, I trust you. You wouldn’t come here if it’d put us in harm’s way, right?”

Although he can’t readily be sure, No Face isn’t super human. He wouldn’t know where he’s gone even immediately. Certain, he nods and He Xuan backs off.

Beaming, Shi QingXuan continues. “Okay, good! Now, back to the topic at hand, you need a washroom, you said? Washing machines? You got it. What else is there?”

“I left my motorcycle with Shang QingHua when I went off the grid.” The simultaneous confused faces they give him amuse him slightly, he’s their boss, after all. “I had asked him for some help hiding it, no one would know if it was him rather than family. You’ll need to get it from him once it’s dark so it can be brought here discreetly.”

“Let me guess, whatever-- or whomever, you’re running from, knows both your plates and your face.” He Xuan asks pointedly, suddenly bothered again.

The irate pitch to his voice earns him a very gentle knock to the side of his head, Shi QingXuan speaking over them again. “It. Does. Not. Matter.” He emphasizes clearly, puffing out his cheeks as he raises a finger. “This is pretty dangerous! I know that, but I like danger! And it’s for a friend, why would I just leave him to deal with it on his own…”

That finger is then jabbed into He Xuan’s cheek. “So you, stop being such a sour puss or I’ll do it without you.”

Mu Qing watches quietly as He Xuan sighs and brings his finger down. He doesn’t seem particularly happy, and this is the first time Mu Qing has seen him be so active in the emotional department in the time he’s worked alongside him. 

Was it a protective thing?

He tosses the thought away, unsure why it makes him bristle. He Xuan asked a question earlier, anyway and Mu Qing might as well answer it now that he can. “The individual involved knows my plates, just… not where I’ve placed it. And while it’s been many years and I doubt they’d keep information like this at the ready, I’d rather take the precaution.”

Nodding, Shi QingXuan throws his hands up and puts them on Mu Qing’s shoulders. “You can count on me, okay? You have full access to the guest bedroom, which has a bathroom. Washing machines are on this floor, down that way.” He points over to an adjacent hallway.

He Xuan speaks up again after his moment of silence. “I hope you know what you’re doing, QingXuan. This idiot seems way in over his head.”

His words are sharp, curt, but nothing Mu Qing can’t retaliate against with barbs of his own. “Che. I’m still alive, aren’t I? I’ll be out of your hair soon.”

“You sound so sure.”

Mu Qing’s eyes narrow-- if only because he swears he’s heard that exact same phrase with that exact same cadence before. Doubting, but familiar, all in the same breath.

Shi QingXuan puffs his chest out, ready to hop in between He Xuan and Mu Qing to stop another fight before visibly getting caught on another train of thought. “Wait, Mu Qing. You said you were with someone else?” His head cants. “Who? I don’t remember you hanging out with anyone at the office.”

He finds it incredibly difficult not to be insulted by that, but there’s no retort for something that’s true. He sighs, looking off to the side. “Do you remember the lead detective on the No Face case?”

Shi QingXuan hums exaggeratedly before slamming a fist in the center of his palm, then jabbing a finger at him. “Oh! The burly guy! The one who always got all nervous on the podium, haha.” He stops mid laugh. “Wait, you were with him?”

He Xuan only raises his brows as Mu Qing answers. “We were… working together.” And then I left him, and he hasn’t stopped calling since.

“Wow. I didn’t even know you knew him, but that’s amazing. Where’d you meet him even? He seems like one of those high profile, no nonsense people, y’know? Cops don’t usually like us very much.” He chuckles.

“Especially not ones in charge of a high profile murder case spanning multiple counties.” He Xuan remarks, soft breath teasing the ends of his words.

Mu Qing feels his phone vibrate from its place in his pocket, almost on cue. The piano piece plays in his head, settling into place along the tips of his fingers memory fragments tend to. It gives him pause, but only for a moment.

“We grew up together.” He manages, voice a touch too soft for his comfort before he adds. “I’ve known the idiot for years.”

Shi QingXuan and He Xuan exchange glances before Shi QingXuan takes the initiative to ask. “Is… that why you never went to any of those meetings?” 

The timid way his voice carries over makes Mu Qing scoff. “I got my work done without him, haven’t I? Perhaps not this exact case, but it’s not like I need him. We’re just in it for the same thing, that’s all.”

Something builds in his throat weirdly the longer he spends talking, his voice clipping at the very end of that last sentence. Shi QingXuan seems to catch onto something, because he relents immediately. “Okay. I won’t ask anymore. You’re here now and that’s what matters.”

Moving over, he picks the forgotten teacups back up, smile on his face. “We’ll go visit the boss tonight once I’ve given him a call and ask about your ride, okay? You can go get comfortable in the meantime.”

The kindness in his voice has always been too much, too akin to Xie Lian’s in some ways. It takes a lot, but eventually Mu Qing manages to agree. “I’ll do that. Make sure to tuck the motorcycle out of sight when you bring it here.”

Shi QingXuan nods, and both He Xuan and him head toward the kitchen, leaving Mu Qing by himself to finally take in a breath. He lowers himself onto the couch, head in his hands.

With a plan set in motion, Mu Qing follows Shi QingXuan’s instructions regarding the guest bedroom and heads up the stairs. His home is rather spacious, more so than the place that Mu Qing had before he’d started moving around. 

Once he steps into the room, there’s untouched covers, colorful decorations everywhere. No white sheets, no bleak smell of cigars, no strange white towels. An actual room, and yet the feeling of not belonging remains ever present.

His palm burns.

Settling down the borrowed blanket atop the bed sheets, he eases himself down onto the mattress after placing his bag off to the side. Sleep finds him rather quickly once he lays down, exhaustion not letting him conjure up any threatening nightmares or mirages for the time being. 

He stirs back awake hours later, when the light of the day has already faded to night and he’s enveloped in nothing but dark. He’s quick to panic in his delirium, patting at his bedside before dazedly remembering he’s supposed to be on his own. There’s no one else here, in this room.

The shadows that marked the walls were not people, and the space by his side is meant to be empty. And though those figures twitched at his bedside, hovering precariously with ghostly half smiles, Mu Qing would never invite them in.

For all the ways his power sucked the life out of him, he couldn’t let them have it yet.

Once the haze breaks and the dark returns to normal, settling back into place in the corners of the guest bedroom, he eases up and manages to turn on the lights. By the edge of the bed are clothes, a note telling him how to turn on the water and that there are towels in the bathroom for him, as well as a be back later. 

He sighs, pulling his phone out of his pocket so he can set it by the sink as he takes a shower while waiting for Shi QingXuan to return. A vain attempt to scrub away not winds this time, but the feeling of Feng Xin’s chest against his back. Fool that he is, thinking he could rub away a memory by turning his skin bright red.

When he steps out, his phone starts ringing again, filling the bathroom with pianos. Each syllable worms its way into his head until he gives up and silences the call.

Mu Qing tends to make it a point to terminate the call quickly to conserve battery, but he is not without his fallacies. In moments of weakness, like later when he’s laying back down with a layer of borrowed clothing keeping him warm, Mu Qing finds himself staring blankly at his phone screen.

When the ringtone sounds, he’s greeted by a picture of Feng Xin from their college days. It’s a picture he’d had to ask Xie Lian to take because heaven knows he’d never dare take a photo of Feng Xin himself. 

It’s a rather stupid image, too. One that’s stood the test of time and multiple phone changes. Flexing at the height of their youth, Feng Xin grinning, messy dark hair tied back haphazardly. There’s a cheeky grin planted on his face, so wide that his face looks rounder than it is, an image only Xie Lian would be able to catch.

Once the call ends on its own, he sits up and flips through is contacts, landing on the one he should’ve made a call to much earlier than today.

Six plus years much earlier than today.

The phone line sounds for a time, before finally, the ringing ends and he hears shifting. 

His mother’s voice sounds the same, he happily discovers.

“... Hello?” And she sounds like she was napping, voice thick with sleep.

He swallows. “Mama?”

“... Oh, oh my gods. Mu Qing? Sweetheart? Is that you?” There’s more rustling, probably her getting up. “Oh thank goodness you’re okay.”

“I…” There are no words, so he falters a bit. At least he knows he can do that here. He’s safe with his mother. “I’m sorry, mama. I’ve been--really, really busy.”

She doesn’t say anything for what feels like a minute, her voice coming through a little pitched. “Shush. Don’t apologize to me, I just. You’re alive, isn’t that the best I could ask for?”

“I’ll be coming home soon.” He says, despite not knowing if it’d be in a body bag or not. “I’ve.. I’ve gotten everyone’s messages. At least everyone’s okay.”

“Well, of course they’re okay! They’re not the one’s on the run, are they?” She reprimands, sniffling. “Care for yourself a little more.”

He takes the reprimand in stride, though he huffs a retort anyway. “Says you, what with your bad eyesight and insisting you don’t need help around the house. What if you fall and break something, eh?”

She bursts into laughter. “You haven’t changed one bit, have you? I’m the parent, mister, not you.” 

Mu Qing gets off of the bed, picking up his dirty clothes to take them downstairs to wash, phone perched on his shoulder as he walks.

As he makes it downstairs, he notices a couple of the lights have been left on for some strange reason despite the fact no one is home. It unsettles him though he tries to keep in mind that no one knows here’s here. Not a soul. Especially not No Face, who would need time and sightings to track Mu Qing down.

“I wouldn’t need to be one if you took care of yourself.” He says as he reaches the bottom, rolling his eyes though she can’t see him.

“Shush. How are you..? Can you video call?”

He bristles at the request while throwing his clothes in the washing machine. “No, not for now. You’ll have to wait until I come back.”

She deflates, he can tell just listening to her. “Okay, honey. This is enough anyway. I’m really glad you called. Are you safe, then? Have… you not been safe this whole time?”

Mu Qing finishes figuring out how to load the machine in the time it takes his mother to figure out what she wants to ask. “My job is dangerous, you know that already.”

“I know. But knowing is one thing, Mu Qing. You’ve always been the smallest, always came home crying about something. Is it so bad to worry about my own son?” 

Listening quietly as he leans against the washing machine, his phone starts beeping at him. Another incoming call. 

“What is that noise?” 

“I get calls from work sometimes, mama. It’s not that weird, but I’m… I know. I’m just saying that it’s just generally unsafe, but I’m okay for now. I’m taking a short break before getting back to work.” He manages to explain while Feng Xin’s call goes unanswered.

“Okay. I won’t keep you too much then. Thank you for calling, I’m proud of you, okay? No matter what you do, as long as you’re okay, I’m proud.”

He manages a gentle smile, and hopes she can catch it in his voice. “I’ll do my best, mama.”

“I love you. See you soon? For real this time?” 

Though Mu Qing can’t promise much, he tries. “Soon, I love you too.” 

The call terminates, and Mu Qing waits for his clothes to be done before throwing them in the drier and heading back upstairs.

Once back in the room with a timer set on his phone for his clothes, he sits back down on the bed, this time pulling his laptop bag up onto the duvet with him. Flipping it open, he pulls out his laptop, and a few other miscellaneous items like a set of hair ties and his chargers. Mu Qing plugs his phone and laptop in, setting them off to the side so he can snag the thing he’d remembered earlier.

A sweep of his bag uncovers a little compartment tucked in the corner of one of the pockets. Zipped up and unopened in the last six years, it’d been the last thing on his mind until now. He pulls the pocket open, reaching inside to pull the forgotten necklace out from its hiding place. 

It doesn’t glitter in the light, gold far too tarnished for that, and the locket at the end remains closed for now. Mu Qing dances it along his thin fingers before putting it back on his person, for nostalgia’s sake. 

Maybe it’d hold back the smiling faces he keeps seeing at his peripheral. 

Instinctively, Mu Qing pops his manuscript open on the screen, leaning back with his arms crossed.

“Figured it out, yet? Nancy Drew?” Feng Xin teases him.

“Not yet, asshole.” He says aloud to the ghosts in the room. 

He thinks about the note he’d left Feng Xin, and how if Feng Xin actually finds Xie Lian, there’d still be a host of other problems.

If his hunch is correct, the same hunch he’d illustrated in his note, then No Face wouldn’t just disappear when they found Xie Lian. As far as he could tell, there was nothing except potentially circumstantial evidence against him in this case. Detectives could never catch the monster for a reason, his tracks too obscure, elusive like he didn’t exist in the first place.

Mu Qing knows that he’d hunt Xie Lian down again if he came out of hiding, there might be even more bodies. AN innumerable amount of possibilities rear their ugly heads alongside static hallucinations of each and every body strung up on the walls for Mu Qing to observe.

Feng Xin might be able to figure it out, he thinks, even if his heart doesn’t wholly believe it. Worst case scenarios file in one by one, serving as reminders and he writes a few more lines in his word documents. In the even that Feng Xin fails, he needs a backup plan.

There’s no point checking sites nine through thirteen now, especially when they won’t tell him anything he needs. The only place left for him to check would be site fourteen, the final dumping ground and the resting place of the last poor bastard No Face took his rage out on.

Reasoning that he can’t go during the day since he’d most likely run into Feng Xin, he makes a note reminding himself to go at night. Just the thought makes those the corpses strung up along the wall rattle, dragging up shivers. It was his rule not to visit a single site at night, even if staying in hotels at night was a touch more on the expensive side, Feng Xin agreed with him.

Never investigate a site alone, never investigate in the dark if it can be helped.

But if Feng Xin is looking for him, assuming he’s still playing by Mu Qing’s rules, then there is no point playing by them himself. Helping Xie Lian now that he’s absolutely sure he’s alive comes first, cracking this case wide open comes immediately after.

He’s stuck thoughtful until he hears the sound of the door downstairs unlocking, loud voices coming through the door. Mu Qing isn’t sure if that’s just how easily sound moves through the house or if that’s just how loud Shi QingXuan is.

“Mu Qing!” He calls. “We’re back and I’ve got something for you!”

Figuring he hasn’t brought the motorcycle inside, Mu Qing mild interest is piqued, and he closes his laptop and sets it aside before coming down.

“What is it?” He asks as both Shi QingXuan and He Xuan come into view.

He Xuan doesn’t say anything and walks toward the adjacent hallway while Shi QingXuan stands proud by the dinner table. Mu Qing observes a couple of brown containers sitting in neatly placed stacks over top, the wafting smell of food making his stomach twist, reminding him how long he’s gone without a proper meal.

“Tada! We brought you dinner.” Shi QingXuan slides over none too majestically, leaning into his ear. “It’s nothing greasy, I can tell you haven’t been eating very well.”

As he leans away, Mu Qing purses his lips, adjusting his shirt mindlessly like he might’ve been trying to hide how loose it is on his person. 

Shi QingXuan pushes a couple of the boxes toward him, still grinning. “We also picked up your ride. It’s in the garage and covered with a tarp for good measure.” Reaching into his bag, he fishes out the keys and presents them to Mu Qing. “It’s all yours, though I do have one request, sir.”

Mu Qing takes the keys, examining them for a moment. From the little fuzzy ball on the key chain, to the keys themselves, before looking back up, wordlessly tilting his head.

What greets him this time is a small smile. “I want to be there when you go, okay? You don’t need to tell me anymore things, but at least let me say goodbye this time.”

Mu Qing’s caught staring at him for a long while, and just as Shi QingXuan is about to say something else to ease the silence he manages to find his words. “Alright. I’ll… be sure to tell you before I go.”

“Good.” Shi QingXuan’s voice comes off tiny, before he inexplicably reaches over, wrapping his arms around Mu Qing in a gesture he’s only experienced a couple times in the last ten years.

And most of the times he’s been given it, he’s absolutely sure, have been entirely accidental. It leaves him feeling caught off guard, frozen in place and unsure what to do.

Shi QingXuan, at least, seems to know what to do in his stead. “I’m sorry! It’s just been so long.” There’s an awkward pitch to his voice, but when he pulls away his face is all toothy grins. “Our line of work is dangerous, and sometimes we need to hide, I get that. I’m just happy to see you. I’ll be sad when you go, but I at least want to see you go this time.”

As it tends to happen with Shi QingXuan, listening to him talk brings with it the soft warmth of a memory, echoing throughout the kitchen space.

His addled mind replays the scene, Xie Lian’s shape taking form in the middle of Mu Qing’s then new apartment. His hands were on his hips, smiling as he looked around. 

“It’s so nice for one person!” He exclaimed as he finally turned to look at Mu Qing. “I’m so happy for you.”

Mu Qing himself stood off to the side, rubbing at his arm absently. “I thought it was about time I leave my ma-- mother her home to herself. Even if she does need the help, she deserves her own space.”

Xie Lian came over, giving him a couple pats to the arm. “See, you do have a heart and soul.” 

He frowned, brushing Xie Lian’s hand away. “Shut up.”

Unfazed, Xie Lian just laughed softly. He turned his gaze around at the empty apartment, the only things unpacked being an air mattress, blankets, clothes and kitchenware. His expression was bright, almost beaming, as if this was his home and not Mu Qing’s.

“You’re so far away now.” He commented, after some time. “So far away from everyone.”

Mu Qing stiffened. “It’s for the best. Everything else makes it--...” Hard? Painful? Lingering tendrils of unrequited emotions refuse to let him go, and thus he couldn’t stay? 

“Annoying.” He had said instead.

Xie Lian’s expression turned solemn, then. The faint outline of a smile remained on his lips, though it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I never expected all of us to stay within earshot all our lives, you don’t have to explain yourself.”

Those words made his stomach twist, and he’d ended up giving Xie Lian a slight shove. “Quit acting like I’m dead. You can just call me, we’ll make time or something or whatever.”

“Did you tell him?” Xie Lian inquired.

Mu Qing rolled his eyes. “Of course not, why would I? I haven’t seen him since he got with his girlfriend, I have better things to do than chase him around and beg him to come over.”

He’d caught it back then, but didn’t understand why. Why Xie Lian’s eyes had gone a little dim before he turned around to look at the apartment some more. His hands clasped neatly in front of him, clad in white, even in Mu Qing’s memories he looked more akin to a ghost. 

He’d dropped the topic, which in the past, Mu Qing had been grateful for. But now, Mu Qing couldn’t help but wonder. 

Xie Lian eventually smiled again. “You deserve some time.” 

Mu Qing stared at him for a long time and ended up only nodding, with Xie Lian excusing himself with the promise of meeting up again. All three of them, even if maybe things weren’t the best between Feng Xin and him. 

Except he’d never walk back through that door. Xie Lian’s calls became less and less, until the day he disappeared entirely. No meetings, no get togethers, no parties. He vanished, and took the last shred of whatever connection Feng Xin and Mu Qing had had with him.

His eyes close as the memory fades, his brain relaying thoughts about lost time. About goodbyes, and how he wants nothing to do with them anymore. He also thinks about Shi QingXuan, who stares up at him worriedly because he’s gone quiet for too long again.

Eventually, Mu Qing steadies himself and takes in a deep breath. “You’ll see me at the office again soon.” He says with all the faux hope he can. For Shi QingXuan, of course. 

Shi QingXuan buys it, urging him away. “I’ll be waiting! Now go, shoo. Go eat and rest up.” 

Mu Qing picks up the boxes of food set aside for him, grateful for the out as he heads back up to the second floor. A little voice following him as he goes.

“That guy? Psh, he hardly likes me, we all know he’s here mostly for you.” Feng Xin said to Xie Lian once, his laugh coming off haughty.

Mu Qing rolls his eyes as he steps back into the guest bedroom with his silhouettes, snorting.

“You were wrong, I did. More than you ever knew.” But as I’ve grown, I’ve come to realize that’s my fault for not telling you.

And he feels he’s grown more in the last few weeks than he has in the last decade. 

True to his word to his mother, he takes a break, catches up on articles assigned to him by work as well as eats relatively healthier meals. Rest doesn’t come very easy, no matter where he is, but sleeping when he can hear Shi QingXuan and He Xuan downstairs brings a secret blessing all on its own. The sound of movement, of others existing outside flickering memories and distant images.

It leaves him ready for the night Mu Qing removes the tarp off his motorcycle, kept as pristine as possible despite how many years it’s been. He pats its center, remembering the first few sites he visited on his own.

The clothes on his back are now the same ones that he’d arrived to Shi QingXuan’s home with, except now clean and warm. Extending a leg over, sitting with his motorcycle between his legs is almost surreal after not having ridden it for so long. 

Once he’s gotten comfortable, Mu Qing dismounts and with Shi QingXuan’s help, the door is opened and he eases out into the driveway. Snow falls cleanly down all around them, painting the driveway a dusty white, he cannot feel tightened fingers.

But he can feel the hand that finds itself on his back. “Okay. I’ve prepared some snacks for you based on your allergies. Nothing in your bag should make you sick.”

He Xuan, not far behind, just sighs. “What are you, his dad?”

Shi QingXuan sticks his tongue out before turning to Mu Qing. Mu Qing, who is remounting his bike and getting reacquainted with it. Noticing the attention, he mumbles. “It’s appreciated.”

“Okay.” He pulls his hand back reluctantly. “If you need anything. Just call me, okay?”

Mu Qing knows he won’t, but that’s not a conversation he’s going to have right now. He busies himself with tying his hair and flinging it over one shoulder as he starts putting his helmet on. “You’ll see me soon.” He says needlessly.

Shi QingXuan, whose worried gaze hasn’t abated the entire time they’ve been outside, manages to finally smile brightly. “Good luck.”

Slipping his helmet on, he nods before starting his motorcycle and pulling out of the driveway. Once again, exchanging what feels like safety and comfort for the sheer embrace of a frigid cold he does not want. The only thing left to signify that there’s even a place left for him in that warmth is the necklace that lays neatly over his chest. 

His first order of business is getting to a gas station, preferably one not too far from the fourteenth crime scene. Of course, the real trouble comes with the fact that No Face could be anyone. Mu Qing didn’t know what he looked like, no one did, but if this is his area of expertise the chances of running into him just at random increase exponentially.

The dark, at least, should provide some cover.

So Mu Qing rides for miles, until neatly spanning suburbs disappear and are replaced with the familiar outlines of large, all consuming forests. Cold air beats into his fragile frame as he drives, but he does not feel it. Instead, his focus narrows to a single point. A lonely little gas station not thirty minutes from the fourteen dump site, dark and dingy like the countryside surrounding it on all sides. Going in to pay for what he needs doesn’t take very long, leaving him idle and leaning against a support beam as another car rolls up.

A quick check of his phone reassures him he’s in the right place, and he moves off the beam once the nozzle clicks. Mu Qing replaces the pump back in its place before throwing his helmet on when he feels his pocket start vibrating.

Now that he’s out on his own, paranoia envelopes him much more easily. Fingers fumble as they dip into his pocket, only to realize as he pulls it out that -- no, it’s not No Face. And strangely, in time with it, is another much louder ring. The sound of someone making a call, and his own voice breaking through the night when he doesn’t pick up.

Reality finally hits him and he ducks back behind the pumps.

“Son of a bitch.” Feng Xin’s voice comes strained, followed by a rather loud smack against… something. He isn’t sure what, most likely whatever poor thing was closest to his foot.

Curiosity and guilt gnaw at him and he moves out from behind his cover as he hears footsteps trail away, Feng Xin mumbling something to himself as he goes.

Mu Qing frowns, watching him leave, looking at his now blacked out phone screen at yet another missed call. This would be the exact sort of trouble that comes with growing up in what constitutes as a barren wasteland. There's always the knowledge that because both Feng Xin and him are traveling the same roads, they’re more likely to run into each other.

It’s also the knowledge that if he wanted to see him, Mu Qing could.

He envisions it, even. Running into the convenience store, bumping into Feng Xin at the door. His absolutely irate face in his as the two of them start a brawl just outside, one Mu Qing might let him win because at this point he doesn’t want to win. He hardly knows what he wants anymore. 

The rediscovered locket burns him, but he’s steadfast. It’s far too close to Xie Lian to take this chance now, far, far too close. Feng Xin is still by himself, which means Mu Qing needs to keep going. Even if his eyes linger on him as he pays. 

Mu Qing quickly hops back onto his motorcycle and drives off just as Feng Xin is about to leave the store. He figures his calculations were off, and that Feng Xin might actually visit the fourteenth site tonight. His lips purse as he drives, deciding that he absolutely cannot chance it. He’ll need to change tactics and go tomorrow.

So he stops at the third inn he sees down a winding road, buys himself a room for two nights, then parks down there to wait.

Card key in hand, stepping into a motel room after everything feels just as wrong as staying in Shi QingXuan’s room did. Except here, he cannot pretend he isn’t on his own. In here, intermingled with the smell of hotel soaps is an overwhelming sensation of cold. Some seemingly archaic sense of loneliness Mu Qing thought he’d no longer experience.

But there are a lot of things he’s thought and has ultimately been horribly wrong about in his lifetime. The saving grace here is that without Feng Xin, he can turn on as many lights as he wants if he really needs the sleep.

The following morning does not come swiftly enough, and there’s only so much messing around with his manuscript and phone can do. He waits impatiently, foot tapping as he goes through the food Shi QingXuan packed for him. 

The phone calls keep coming, thought they aren’t as frequent as they were the last two days, leaving Mu Qing to wonder if he’s started giving up.

It’d be for the best if Feng Xin did for now, so he can focus his efforts on Xie Lian instead.

When dark finally hits, Mu Qing is ready, picking up his things and driving off onto ailing roads and into the biting cold yet again.

The final resting site is off to the side like all the others, an abandoned warehouse like structure on the far outskirts of a smaller town. The concrete walls were worn down, he noticed as he came up to it. Mu Qing is also unsure of the state of decay, the time the police were called into the site itself.

These were details he ultimately didn’t need, however. Everything would come to him the way it always does, edging him closer and closer. No need for files, no need for documents, no need for anything else. Just himself, the grey world and the fragments at his frozen fingertips.

The ride up the dirt road is bumpy, making the whole trek uncomfortable in the worst places, but he stops just outside the dark outline of the looming building. Setting his bag next to his motorcycle, he pauses to observe. Snow has piled up on spaces were exposed concrete met the air, briefly leading Mu Qing to wonder if there was a pile up inside as well. 

Only one way to find out.

He wanders around the perimeter until he finds a doorway, kicking away fallen brick. There’s no paper pad in his hands this time, the flashlight on his phone his only guide. 

Just like the burnt out farmhouse, there were fallen beams, a state of decay that could only be reached if this place was abandoned for years before this. Closed walls make it the perfect dumping ground, which only made Mu Qing wonder how anyone discovered the body.

The road leading here is laden with gravel, and though he isn’t entirely sure, he’s pretty sure he didn’t even see any residents within the general area. Confusion mixes with familiar dread as he walks, marching through patches of snow that made it through holes in the roof above.

Then, an already dark world pitches down. Mu Qing can no longer hear the sounds of the odd vehicle driving by, or even the creaks of an old withered building.

Instead, in front of him, lies a bleak, bright day. Something singes his fingertips as he walks, and he inhales deeply as he meets the ebbing flow of the memoryscape. The transition is seamless like always, and he can see faceless detectives standing just off to the side, talking about the corpse in question.

At first, he doesn’t really catch it, looking around at the floor aimlessly until he’s inexplicably drawn to Feng Xin’s silhouette. Him craning his head up has Mu Qing do the same.

Strung up from the ceiling, just above their heads, is the body. Bound arms, cut torso, stitched half smile, this time poised upside down in death. It’s dramatic in an almost careless, theatrical way, like No Face was laughing in the faces of investigators. 

Look at what I can do, and you can do nothing to stop it. How boring.

Mu Qing can’t readily examine this one, and it’s probably why the investigators themselves weren’t doing much else other than processing the crime scene before they got other hands to bring it down. 

Not that this wait would lead anywhere. A year after this body was discovered, the task force was disbanded, the trail went cold. Feng Xin went on to do whatever else while Mu Qing dedicated far too many years to trying to find out what he couldn’t.

He can’t smell the rot in this world, but he knows it’s there. 

Mu Qing decides to keep walking, working the cycle to see if he can pinpoint when help arrived to bring the corpse down. What the officers did, if they did anything more at all other than having it transported out. Every cycle has hands grabbing at his ankles, claws digging into his arms.

There’s the distinct feeling of being watched, but Mu Qing’s unsure from where. How, even. There’s no where he can see where anyone could hide. The feelings showcased mark themselves as being from this time, not later, not before. Now.

Turning over the fragments in his hands, he manages to latch onto the time lapse he’s looking for. Except, when he turns around, he sees something at the door that confuses him. 

At the doorway he’d just come, just at the edge of this walk cycle, he could see Feng Xin’s figure speaking to someone. While this isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary, a chill washes over him immediately. Because the only people meant to be here are those directly related to the crime scene.

In his time delving into the grey world around him, though he’d never archive it openly, old notepads illustrated constants. This world is cold, this world made him feel on edge, watched, because No Face was almost always watching. 

The people who manifested would always be detectives, medical personnel. The odd eyes he spotted in the burnt out farmhouse had to have belonged to someone related, someone who was connected somehow to all of this.

Civilian witnesses were not something the dreamscape caught. At least, he’s never seen them. Static begins coming at him from all sides, the winding sound of scratching. Whatever warmth had struggled to remain by his side, was forcefully snuffed out. 

The body is no longer his focus. 

Because Mu Qing feels watched, and every one of those sensations is guiding him back to the door, to the solitary tall figure of an unidentified man.

Then memoryscape shatters when a knife is placed to his throat. It's too fast, not giving him enough time to recover as breaths tumble through his mouth while he frantically tries to keep track of where reality begins and the vision ends. 

An unwanted voice greets him, low in his ear, sick jubilee seeping clearly. “Such a good job you’ve done, Mu Qing. Do me the favor of putting your hands behind your back for me, won’t you?”

Mu Qing doesn’t comply, but only because he can hardly move, his head throbbing fiercely. He can hardly open his mouth, tongue unable to form words when No Face himself grabs on his arms and twists it back, eliciting a growl from him.

“Now, now. I’m just helping you since you seem so wound up. Be a good boy.” No Face coos.

Taking advantage of Mu Qing’s inability to move, he binds his hands back and sits him down in a kneeling position. Bleary vision lets Mu Qing finally gather himself, swallowing as he continues to take in shaky breaths. The light his weary eyes catch from above is presumably his phone.

The claws in his back feel as real as ever now. 

“You aren’t getting anything out of me.” Mu Qing seethes, canines bare.

No Face crouches down, and Mu Qing catches the outline of a mask, an ugly half smile painted in black against white. “So rowdy, there’s no need for that, don’t you have manners?”

“Che!” Mu Qing spits. “I’m just telling you you’re wasting your time, idiot.”

Silently, No Face stands back up, and Mu Qing earns himself a sharp kick to the jaw. Pain bursts into the side of his face as his teeth clack against each other harshly, but he doesn’t flinch, pride won’t let him dare-- especially not here.

So, Mu Qing snarls weakly.

No Face seems ready to do something else, when his phone inexplicably rings from its place in his hands. The sound of pianos, and Mu Qing’s heart stops.

No face looks at it, laughing softly before he answers the call. As if Mu Qing would ever let him say anything if he could help it.

At the top of his lungs, Mu Qing yells. “Don’t say anything!”

No Face slowly turns his attention back to him. He doesn’t need some stupid psychic ability to tell how angry he’s become. Mu Qing feels it instead, as second kick connects with the side of his head before his chin connects with pavement. 

The impact knocks him out cold.

--

When he first wakes up, it's underwater.

Fluid is filling his lungs, Mu Qing’s brain tells him. Bound arms tell him he’s powerless to stop it, struggling to keep it out to try and keep it out but every cough brings a harsher exhale until he’s dragged by the hair out of the water. 

His throat burns, coughing so hard he’s afraid he might vomit instead.

His head is pushed back down, leaving Mu Qing blowing bubbles painfully in a vain attempt to keep himself from inhaling. He’s only human, however, and his lungs invite dirty water back in until he swears he might drown. Only to be pulled up again, gagging as his chest aches. 

This time, he’s left alone a minute longer, left inhaling sharply like each breath counts. Until his head is shoved back under, with Mu Qing lasting just a touch longer than before, not that it means much. He swears he might pass out, but fear keeps him from doing it even when his vision blurs each and every time his head goes under water.

Water threatens to fill his lungs again, and he’s yanked back out mercilessly. This time, Mu Qing coughs so hard he actually throws up, right into the bucket. A part of him wonders if he’ll get shoved into that as well.

His mouth tastes rancid. 

No Face pulls his head back, cold fingers dragging against the length of his jaw as Mu Qing snarls, trying to move away.

“Disgusting.” No Face says, disappointed. 

“I don’t care to impress you.” Mu Qing says through wheezes, each word just a bit too much for him to handle.

He’s dragged away from the bucket by his hair, thrown to the floor next to the wall nearby.

Mu Qing’s chest hurts so bad, still coughing, unable to move where he lays squirming. His everything flares, eyes burning like he wants to cry. He won't though, he needs to hold on until whatever end is in store for him.

No Face comes to crouch beside him, still wearing his stupid ugly mask. “This would stop so easily if you’d just tell me where A-Lian is, QingQing. You might not be as pretty, but this really is too shameful.”

“Get away from me before I kick you in the shins.” Mu Qing hisses.

A hand comes around his throat, squeezing painfully. “This sort of behavior is rather unappealing, you know.” No Face says dejectedly, like he’s pouting. “Really, it’s no wonder you’re so alone.”

Though the grip around his neck remains tight, he manages to get a retort through grit teeth. “You don’t know shit.”

Sighing, No Face lets him go and gets back up, digging his pointed dress shoe into Mu Qing’s gut with a kick. “Of course I don’t. You won’t tell me, you’re only prolonging things.”

His vision frays again, darkening at the edges. “End it, then…” Mu Qing breathes as his aching eyes struggle to stay open.

As he loses consciousness again, he hears his answer. “You’re my key. I can’t do that.”

The second time Mu Qing thinks he wakes up, hes strapped down to a metal table. Though his wrists have been freed they are now bound to his sides, burns signify where Mu Qing’s been struggling the most. He’s still struggling now, attempting to throw the table to the floor even if he really has no other plans for what to do once he does so.

Not that he gets a chance, because once the table tips, No Face catches it and brings it back down. 

A bright, clinical light from above burns his retinas, leaving Mu Qing seeing a blotch instead of No Face’s mask. It leaves a rather tense feeling in his stomach, looking more akin to his nightmares. Even if this could be considered a nightmare in it of itself.

No Face examines the expanse Mu Qing’s figure covers, shaking his head. “I don’t take any pleasure from this, you know? If you’d just tell me where A-Lian is.”

“Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you, wretch.” Mu Qing aims thorns with the intent to maim with his words if his hands couldn’t do it.

“QingQing, you’re too foul mouthed.” He sounds like a disappointed father, and it makes Mu Qing absolutely livid.

He reaches over, smoothing his hands over the tarnished locket, something Mu Qing had forgotten he’d placed on his person earlier. Whenever that was at this point. 

Everything is surgical steel in this room, no windows that he can see, only bright fluorescent lights that reminded him of dentist’s appointments. Nothing to tell night from day, only serving to further the feeling that he’d be stuck here forever.

“Stop touching my things.” Mu Qing sneers.

“All the things in this room are mine.” No Face counters, hovering over him. There’s something sharp teasing at the edge of his undershirt, barely brushing skin. “That includes you, as worthless as you’d be any other day. Every knick knack has its use eventually, I suppose.”

Mu Qing snaps his teeth aggressively, jerking his head forward. “You’re deluded.”

No Face leans his head back, disgust lacing his voice. “How vulgar. Really. Has no one taught you manners?”

“Same person who taught you yours.” He counters.

No Face sighs, looking down at him. His hand moves up, revealing the scalpel underneath his pointer finger.

“The biggest pity is needing you. Tell me, where is he.” He says, before leaning down and pressing the blade carefully right underneath where his locket lay.

It stings, but Mu Qing holds his ground as best as he can as the blade carves downward. It cuts, he knows it does, but if No Face can’t kill him then it’s nothing fatal. Though it hurts, he can bear it. 

“Fuck off.” Is all he can manage, wrists twisting in their restraints.

He’s cut lower. “Stop being so difficult. Where is he?”

Familiar treads he’d made with his fingers at the start of Feng Xin and his’ investigation now bloom in full against his chest. But though his knuckles are clenched so hard they’re white, he’d never dare. The visage of Xie Lian’s smile, from his youth until the day he disappeared, will never let him.
It rivals another feeling, the potential kindness tucked away inside the locket he wears.

“You’re pathetic.” He says instead through trembles.

What he feels next is No Face reaching a hand over and smashing his fist into the side of his face. And though Mu Qing’s had blows like this before, hours of repeated beatings have made him weak.

Immediately, his vision cuts out.

The third time he wakes up, there’s the feeling of smooth fingers patting his cheek, tapping at him to wake him up. Mu Qing can just barely hear something else, barely make out the sound of a ringer going. Following it is soft, nauseating laughter ebbing in and out as he works himself out of a daze. 

He hears the voice above him coo, talking to him like he’s talking to a child. “Come now, say hi, QingQing.”

Bruised eyes won’t cooperate with him, refuse to open as he stirs, trying in vain to raise his weary head. There’s a couple of lights above him, metallic silver surfaces ahead of him. Mu Qing’s hands are back behind his back, leaving him wondering if he dreamt up being on an operating table.

And then, he manages to finally catch a light coming from a smaller source, a phone screen presumably. 

There’s a picture he can barely make out, but his tired heart knows who it is.

A voice breaks through the careful silence, crackly and distance. Trepidation laces it. 

“Mu Qing?”

Delirium has him tilt his head toward the sound of his voice. Weakness has him call back, hoarse throat doing nothing to hide longing. Doing nothing to prevent himself from conveying what he shouldn’t.

He hopes, subconsciously, that a name is enough. “Feng Xin…?”

No Face laughs again. “That’s a good boy.”

The snarl Mu Qing catches through the phone wakes him up, Feng Xin’s threats even more so. 

“If you touch one fucking hair on his head I’ll pull your spine out through your throat!”

Desperation laces his voice, giving No Face glee. “Calm down, Feng Xin, you’re in no position to bark orders. Please.”

Mu Qing isn’t keen on giving him the satisfaction. His throat aches, but he spits anyway. “Tch! Not unless I do it first.”

Feng Xin roars through the device, his voice cracking over the occasional word.“Shut up! For once in your life, will you fucking shut up!”

No Face slips his hands over Mu Qing’s jaw, seizing it and holding his head up. Though he can’t see his eyes, he can feel the observant nature of them, like he’s gazing at a prize.

A shiver trails down his spine.

“He’s such a talkative boy. Do you want me to show them what you look like, hm?” He says with a hum, like he’s smiling. “If not, you’ll quiet down now. I only told you to say hello.”

Mu Qing swallows, relenting for now. Feng Xin is barely hanging on, just one more sentence away from burning the entire region to the ground to try and find him. He can tell, just listening to him. It’s...surprising.

He’s never heard Feng Xin get this way over him before, not in the thirty plus years knowing him. He's seen this side when defending others, but--

Now that there’s silence, No Face pats his head. “Good, good.”

Talking seems to pull Feng Xin out of his stupor. His voice carries a dangerous edge, and yet each word sounds broken. Mu Qing almost can’t take it.

“What the hell do you mean by that? What about what he looks like?”

“That’s not what’s important here.” No Face replies merrily, standing up. “What’s important is what you’re going to do for me to get him back.”

Irritation settles in the bit of his gut, his hunch from a couple days being right. There’s no way this bastard will ever stop, even if he got his hands on Xie Lian people like this don’t stop.

Fourteen bodies. Maybe fifteen or sixteen later. At some point, it starts seeming like a number, instead of desiccated corpses.

But Mu Qing himself can’t forget them, not when fourteen shadows litter this room, right behind where No Face hovers above him. They're all shaking, different sizes, angry. They're inching closer, and closer with each passing moment. Eager.

And his eyes widen for a moment, bewildered as they come up right behind him.

The room's temperature drops, but he thinks he's the only one who notices. Shaking his head, Mu Qing tries to refocus.

Feng Xin is still talking. He has his teeth grit, Mu Qing knows. “Get to the point.”

“A-Lian. It really is that simple.”

“And what if I don’t have him?”

No Face tsks, laughing again. “Then it’s very unfortunate for you. You’ll only get QingQing back when I’m done having fun. I have so many things I could do, work has me stressed after all. I could use some time to relax.”

Mu Qing can’t help the growl that slips, immediately drawing unwanted attention to himself. The half smiling mask is in his face again, a fingernail scraping under his chin. “Now, now. You’re being bad again.”

Every part of him wants to recoil, wonders briefly if throwing up will make the bastard stop touching him. 

Feng Xin has gone silent for so long that Mu Qing wonders if he muted the phone for a second or hung up. “... If I have him, where do you want to meet for the exchange.”

“Come now Feng Xin, you’re an officer aren’t you? There’s no if. You either have him, or you don’t. Either you bring A-Lian home, or I get to keep QingQing and then you can find him in some bushes later. Off the side of some random road where he belongs.” He sounds irate, almost.

Mu Qing’s hands twists from their place, heart racing. For the first time in his life, he’s begging inwardly. Not for him, please, not when comparatively this isn’t worth it. 

Why would Feng Xin even want to go through with it? And if Xie Lian really was with him, why would Xie Lian agree?

Why are his next words: 

“Where do you want to meet up, then?”