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Sins in Sacrifice

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The night air was dank, the skies dark save for the twinkling traces of cracked and chipped stars dotting the triumphs and defeats of long-forgotten deities. Bracketed by towering streetlights that were either defunct or too dim to pass highway lighting regulations, the stretch of freeway ahead of them was deserted. And theirs to claim.

He Tian wasted no time shifting gears and rolling the throttle, the thrum of the motorcycle’s cylinders reverberating through the worn saddle. And through his worn, tattered soul. He tightened his grip on the handlebars and clamped his denim-clad legs against the gas tank, longing for the exhilarating illusion of freedom only a high-speed race could offer. In the periphery of his vision, Zhan Zheng Xi flicked on the high beams of his Z H2, body leaning forward as he became one with the bike. Together, they made tracks on the asphalt, burning rubber and spitting fumes, the combined sounds of their revving engines like the howls of demonic choir boys.

The landscape—mere shadows and Stygian silhouettes—was too dark to make out but He Tian was going fast enough for the faded road markings to blur to nothing. For his mind to empty of everything but the beast under him. The Streetfighter V4 had the edge in terms of speed, but the Z H2 was smoother around bends, and Zheng Xi was a formidable rider.

By the time they veered onto the exit ramp, the familiarity of their surroundings tempered the adrenaline rush coursing through He Tian’s veins and he felt a pang of sorrow laced with regret; the aftermath of the Blood Wars had followed him home. He wasn’t naïve enough to have presumed that a seven-year battle against the undead wouldn’t decimate the already-precarious economy with debt and inflation. He just hadn’t expected this level of neglect and dereliction; he barely recognised his home city in the cracks of unmaintained roads and the ruins of condemned buildings.

He Tian took point, leading Zheng Xi from the outskirts of the city through to the downtown district. Although traffic was non-existent, they were forced to slow down to manoeuvre around sewage muck and drifts of litter. The street lighting was as shit as it had been on the highway and they both left their full beams on—more for He Tian’s benefit as Zheng Xi could comfortably rely on his own natural night vision.

They passed a single-story shopping complex, the doors and windows boarded up, loutish graffiti and bleached posters coating most of the exterior. With a sense of nostalgia—bittersweet with a hint of a heartache—He Tian spotted the tobacco store where his fourteen-year-old self had underhandedly scored his first pack of Lucky Strikes. Slowing his bike down to a stop, He Tian remembered long drags, the dizzying rush of unfiltered tobacco, and the high of sharing a smoke with the prettiest boy in school.

Clumsy fingers, clammy. A fit of coughs and giggles. A tired Bic and the strike of a matchstick like a comet in the night.

He Tian heard it before he saw it—the scuttle of a vagrant as it hastened towards him. It was fast. Fast for a crackhead scampering on hands and feet like a four-limbed beetle. Long, lanky hair trailed on the slick surface of the road and, at first, He Tian thought its head was twisted upside down. Then he realised it was crawling with its belly arched towards the sky and its back to the ground. It was emaciated: dark, ragged clothes hung off its distorted frame, and its cheeks were hollow enough to cradle a grenade. When it leapt into the air, He Tian caught sight of the ravaged pulp of its palms and soles and he grimaced as its mouth gaped open to reveal a festering tongue and uneven rows of jagged teeth.

Casually, He Tian paddled his bike in reverse to avoid a messy collision just as Zheng Xi shot ahead. He was fairly certain that the growl that tased his eardrums was only partly due to the Kawasaki’s revving engine. With a sigh, He Tian paddled a couple of more feet backwards so that he was clear of the oh-shit zone. Folding his arms and resting them over the handlebars, He Tian looked on as Zheng Xi, barely lifting off his saddle, caught the humanoid vagrant mid-leap and pulled its head off like he was popping a cork.

It was obvious Zheng Xi hadn’t anticipated the gush of vile, viscous sludge as it spilt out of the severed neck and into his lap. Nor had he anticipated the way its skin would slide off and come apart like soggy tissue paper. Or the stench.

The stench was the worst part. It made He Tian’s eyes water and his throat clench, and reminded him of flesh-eating harpies feasting on enemy carcasses and regurgitating undigestible remains.

“Son of a bitch.” Swearing, Zheng Xi tossed the decapitated corpse and its head to one side before spearing He Tian with a look. Even through their smoked visors, He Tian could make out the lambent lustre of saxe blue eyes as they flashed accusingly at him. And there was that growl again. “The hell was that?” Zheng Xi demanded, the indignation in his voice dulled by the helmet. He viciously shook his gloved hands, trying to fling off the bits of skin. He only succeeded in lobbing them over the metalwork of his Z H2.

He Tian leaned back with a half-hearted shrug. “Junkie. It’s usually best to just let them be.”

“What?” Zheng Xi flicked a glob of greyish-brown goo off his tank cover and cursed when it landed on the toe of his lace-up boots. “A junkie?”

“They’re like cockroaches. Harmless mostly. Just a nuisance and ugly to look at it.”

“It didn’t look harmless as it was coming for your ass.” Giving up on trying to clean himself up, Zheng Xi rolled his bike away from what was left of the vagrant.

“It’s the ghouls that aren’t on crack that you need to watch out for,” He Tian explained. “They’re unpredictable fuckers. One minute they’re spit-shining your wheels and calling you ‘sir’. And the next, they’re wearing your balls around their ears and frying up your innards for brunch. With the crackheads at least, you know where you stand.”

Standing is what made you a target,” Zheng Xi pointed out as he looked around, searching. “Why’d you stop?”

He Tian jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the dilapidated tobacco store, a silly smile playing on his lips. “That’s where I had my first kiss.” He snickered when Zheng Xi huffed, the flickering flare of blue indicating that Zheng Xi had rolled his eyes. “See, Xi, this is why you’re single and still cherry as the first day on earth. You haven’t got a romantic bone in your body.”

“You know what, He?” Zheng Xi said, deadpan. “I’m suddenly feeling very romantic.” He swung off the Z H2 and spread his arms, a spray of slime sliding off his bomber jacket and pelting the ground around him. “Bring it in.”

He Tian laughed, shifting into first and steering away. “No fucking way.”

“Ow, come on,” Zheng Xi whined with a drawl in his voice that was one part tease and two parts threat. On foot now, he followed after He Tian’s Streetfighter at a leisurely pace. “I thought you were all about bromance between battle brothers.”

He Tian circled around Zheng Xi whilst keeping out of reach. “You’re covered in ghoul scum, you furry asshole,” he protested between chuckles.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Zheng Xi groused. “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” With that clichéd retort, Zheng Xi flipped He Tian off and hopped back into his saddle. The puddle of greasy gloop in the seat though promptly had him slipping right off. Luckily, his preternatural reflexes kicked in before he landed on his ass.

He Tian lost it. Throwing his head back, he laughed harder.

This time, Zheng Xi flipped him off with both hands.

⋆⍣ ✬ ⍣⋆

As they delved closer to downtown, foot traffic picked up and the road detritus petered out. They even passed by the occasional car. The establishments, quaint with their peeling paint and sputtering neon signs, appeared more structurally sound than the buildings on the purlieus of the city centre. In his teens, this insalubrious district of the metropolis had been the hub of nightlife, where no one cared what you were or where you came from, just how much fun you were going to be. He Tian had taken full advantage and had shed his family name so that, for the night at least, he was nothing more than a mundane human with a fat trust fund. Or, more accurately, a walking cocktail of hormones with money to burn and a panache for pissing off his older brother.

Thinking of He Cheng made He Tian grit his teeth.

The few stragglers still out at this time of the night gave He Tian and Zheng Xi a wide birth, not least because of the ghastly, ghoulish odour Zheng Xi was giving off. As soon as the pair were noticed, eyes hazy with hard liquor sharpened in suspicion, tipsy twitters died down, and drunken totters tumbled into a quick trot.

“Should we check into a hotel or something before we meet your contact?” Zheng Xi asked, dimming his headlight when the number of working streetlamps were sufficient to light their way. “I could wash this stink off.”

Pursing his lips, He Tian considered it; he’d welcome the small reprieve the detour would offer but it would only delay the inevitable. And he could already feel his threadbare courage waning. “Nah, his place is only a couple of blocks away from here.” He Tian exhaled, keeping his voice carefully neutral. “Let’s get this over with.”

They rounded a corner and were slowed down by a cobblestone path. Juddering along, He Tian was so preoccupied with trying to keep a steady throttle that he almost missed his landmark for their next turning: Warp—the city’s most scandalous sex den. Or at least it had been once. Now, the club looked abandoned; the few mirrored windows were outfitted with metal bars and the double-door entrance was furnished with rusted chains and a heavy-duty padlock. Dimly, He Tian wondered what had become of the owner, a succubus with several centuries under her studded belt.

When He Tian’s dick thickened in the confines of his dark denim pants, he figured his body was subconsciously reacting to the salacious memory of the only time he and his partner in crime had successfully snuck into the strictly twenty-one-and-over-only club—which turned out to be a haven of consensual depravity neither of their vanilla asses was ready for. But when Zheng Xi shook his head like he was trying to clear it, He Tian surmised that vestiges of the succubus’s sexual energy must still be lingering around the premises.

Eventually, they cleared the cobblestone and took the next turning. And fuck if He Tian wasn’t about ready to shit a steel brick.

It felt like he’d stepped back in time; the sleek, black stucco two-level structure looked exactly as it had seven years ago. He Tian was grateful it hadn’t succumbed to the decay and disuse that he’d witnessed so far. The familiar fascia sign above the door with its cursive, 3D lettering was unilluminated and the twin panelled windows on either side of the door were shuttered closed, but both were in reasonable condition. Ground Up had been more of a home to him than the outrageously opulent glass mansion his father owned on the other side of the city. If He Tian were honest with himself, at times it had been more than just a home; it had been a sanctuary.

The barbed knot in the pit of He Tian’s stomach tightened. And he staunchly ignored it in favour of lowering his kickstand and removing his biker gloves. He was unfastening his helmet when Zheng Xi pulled up alongside him.

“When you said he runs a drinking establishment,” Zheng Xi began as he swept up his visor and eyed the flat-roofed building. “I was thinking more dive bar, less... chic café.”

“Coffeehouse,” He Tian corrected. “And it isn’t completely sober,” he added with a half-smile. It wobbled and Zheng Xi noticed immediately, his gaze narrowing. He didn’t call He Tian out on it, though. Neither of them said anything as He Tian dismounted and propped his backpack in the saddle, Zheng Xi’s silent question a stifling charge between them.

He Tian had had years of practice controlling physiological parameters that—

—“make you weak”—

—would give him away in the field. And he was damn good at it. He had to be. Being an easy target in enemy territory was nothing compared to the danger of being a liability to his fellow soldiers. The upside of honing the ability and skill to steady his heart rate and regulate his breathing was that anyone with preternaturally heightened senses—friend or foe—found it frustrating as fuck when they couldn’t read him. Zheng Xi was an exception. He respected He Tian’s boundaries and never tried to garner more than He Tian was willing to give.

Equally, however, Zheng Xi had zero tolerance for He Tian’s bullshit.

Having had just as many years of practice of waiting He Tian out, Zheng Xi pulled off his headgear with a mildly irritated sigh. He faced He Tian, crossing his arms over his chest like they had all night.

Instead of acknowledging Zheng Xi’s put-out expression, He Tian tugged at the neckline of his own shirt and took a whiff. It was a pointless exercise; he couldn’t smell anything other than the fetor of decomp wafting from Zheng Xi’s direction. He Tian lofted a brow at his companion—an unspoken request.

Zheng Xi shook his head in exasperation and, with blatant reluctance, supplied, “You smell like a day’s ride.”

Frowning, He Tian contemplated the unwise decision to not make a pit stop to spruce up a little; his wash in the lake that morning had been interrupted by a possessed elk.

“So, like, good funk or bad funk?”

Zheng Xi rolled a shoulder. “Guess that depends on what kind of history you have with your contact,” he replied pointedly.

He Tian worried his lower lip in, looking away from Zheng Xi’s piercing stare to scan the second-floor windows of the building. He’d spent a lot of time in the apartment above the coffeehouse and had slept over more times than he could remember.

Pillow fights and blanket forts. Bedtime stories and soft snores. Nightmares that splintered into screams and hushed promises.

“He’s more than just a contact,” He Tian confessed, voice low and a little hoarse because the words didn’t come easy. He didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t know how. How could he describe the relationship they’d had when he could barely put a name to it? What did you call it when the good times made your bones ache and the bad times made your soul bleed?

What did you call walking away from the best thing that ever happened to you?

Zheng Xi waited a beat before guessing, “The smoke store?”

A press of lips; a dry, chaste thing. It was nothing. It was everything.

With a perfunctory nod, He Tian turned back to Zheng Xi. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Glancing at the bedroom windows He Tian had been studying, Zheng Xi sniffed with a subtle flare of his nostrils. “Fae,” he stated.

“Yeah, he’s half-fae.”

Eyes still focused on the glass panels, Zheng Xi slanted his head to one side like he was listening in on something that was beyond He Tian’s audible frequency range. “He’s not alone.”

“He runs the shop with his mom,” He Tian explained as he pulled on the cuffs of his leather jacket and popped the collar. “Wait here for me.” He started making his way to the entrance of the coffeehouse when Zheng Xi called out. Briefly, He Tian paused in his stride to look back.

“So he’s important,” Zheng Xi commented and He Tian nodded in affirmation. A teasing glint in his eye, Zheng Xi smirked. “Maybe do something about the helmet hair then.”

He Tian grinned in return, not all that surprised that, with a single remark, Zheng Xi had managed to make him feel a little lighter. Running a hand through his black locks, He Tian ruffled his longer-than-regulation hair, scratching momentarily at the shorter bristles at the back of his head.

When he was finally close enough to knock on the carved black door, he quelled the urge to turn back and flee. The sharp rap of his scarred knuckles against the hardwood echoed eerily down the alleyway. Distantly, a burst of liquor-oiled laughter echoed back.

He Tian waited a minute before knocking again, louder and for longer this time, although no less patiently.

A moment or two later, he heard a soft thump as someone clomped inside the coffeehouse. The pattering steps grew closer and were punctuated by, “Pixies’ tits, if this isn’t an emergency, I will castrate you”—the copper handle dipped and the door opened wide—“with my bare hands.”

Jian Yi froze. And time stammered.

He was even more ridiculously beautiful than He Tian remembered.

Pale, dainty features grew paler. A peach-tinged mouth slackened around a startled puff of air. And dazzling gilt eyes with flecks of diamond dust widened.

He Tian couldn’t help himself. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his slim-fit jacket and winked. “Bare-handed castration, Yi? You should probably charge for that kind of service.”

A wet sheen rippled over Jian Yi’s shellshocked gaze and he tensed up. “Tian? The fuck?”

He Tian shrugged, because he wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

“How—Is it... It is really you?”

Jian Yi’s scepticism was valid; shapeshifting imposters and charlatans were rife in larger cities, taking advantage of the budget cuts in law enforcement as the Blood Wars bled the federal grants dry.

He Tian plucked one of the memories that had resurfaced when he rode past Warp. “Lady Lian’s sex den. Your eighteenth birthday. That ugly-ass minotaur asking if you wanted to wear his pearl necklace and you—”

“Asked if it came in a set,” Jian Yi finished, his posture relaxing.

Zheng Xi’s snort cut short as he masked it with a clearing of his throat. Jian Yi’s eyes snapped up over He Tian’s shoulder to zero in on Zheng Xi, his svelte figure tensing again.

“He’s with me,” He Tian said. “A friend.”

Jian Yi’s glower simmered with something He Tian couldn’t read, and he heard Zheng Xi shift in his saddle with an uncomfortable creak.

Lips thinning into a firm line, Jian Yi blinked before fixing his gaze back on He Tian. “Seven years. Seven godsdamn years .

“I know,” He Tian replied, sounding small even to his own ears.

“After everything, you just up and left.” Jian Yi’s voice quivered at the end and it made He Tian feel like ten shades of shit. He had expected Jian Yi’s ire and had prepared himself to be flayed by it. But Jian Yi’s hurt was something he could never fortify himself against. “I grieved for you—”

He Tian cut in with a choked “I’m sorry”, the word too watered down to even begin to convey how fucked up it had been to disappear without a goodbye.

“—until I found out what you’d done.” Jian Yi’s jaw clenched, his tone hardening.

The temperature plummeted suddenly and He Tian’s magically warded jacket, which maintained his body heat and shielded him from extremes of weather, could do nothing to protect him from the cold sting in his chest. It felt like an ice pick blade was skewering its way to his core.

Jian Yi knew.

He knew about the sacrilegious contract He Tian had signed.

“She told you,” He Tian murmured. Dammit, this wasn’t how he’d wanted Jian Yi to find out.

Jian Yi shook his head like he could hear the betrayal in He Tian’s voice. “She told me because I was ready to come after you.” His breath hitched and his lower lip trembled. “I thought you’d gone on a fucking suicide mission, Tian.”

If he were being completely honest with Jian Yi, He Tian would have disclosed that even without securing the soul contact he would have gone to war. The sanguinary disharmony between the preternatural community and the undead spanned millennia, and the Blood Wars were an inevitable consequence. But it was only in the last two decades that a leader, He Tian’s father, had risen to unite the different species and pull their resources—warriors, weapons, magic—together to obliterate the enemy. He Tian had had no interest in fighting the undead, not least because he was too human to be a soldier of any worth.

Until his father had told him the truth about his mother’s death.

“She said you bargained for ten years when you could have got twenty,” Jian Yi accused. “Thirty. Forty. It’s your soul, Tian. You could have asked for a fucking lifetime.”

He Tian ground his molars, thinking back to how his father had goaded him. Told him he was—

—“weak, just like your mother”—

—foolish if he didn’t offer up the only thing he had of value for the imminent war. His soul.

He Tian noted how Jian Yi’s expression was a study in anger and anguish, and wondered if he could ever make it right again.

It was on the tip of He Tian’s tongue to admit that he could only ask for ten years of immortality to fight in the war because there was a second clause to his part of the contract: he wanted first dibs on the vampire who had murdered his mother.

It was a stale argument. Jian Yi had never truly believed that He Tian’s mother had met her end at the hands of the undead. As far as Jian Yi was concerned, He Tian’s father twisted truths and fabricated tales so that the country—his sons included—would bend to his will and throw themselves into a bloodbath that was nothing more than a shrine to Vera, the Goddess of War and Vengeance.

“It wasn’t negotiable,” He Tian lied, and loathed himself for it.

Jian Yi looked away as a resigned sigh escaped his lips. “Why are you here, Tian?”

Squaring his shoulders, He Tian glanced down the empty, darkened alleyway before asking, “Can we take this inside?”

Jian Yi simply swept his gaze skyward like he was trying to stem the wetness in his eyes. He turned away from He Tian with a muted sniffle, leaving the entrance door open. After a quick nod to Zheng Xi, He Tian followed Jian Yi into the coffeehouse and let the door swing shut behind him.

It was like crossing a tripwire of history.

⋆⍣ ✬ ⍣⋆

The warm, black interior of the coffeehouse was offset by gold, copper and brass accents. The copper-clad bar, located centrally, glinted under the only pendant lantern Jian Yi had switched on. The rest of the space was thrown in shadows and whispers of light, but He Tian could make out the traces of square tables and chairs, the simple wall décor and the glass sugar dispensers, his memory filling in the gaps when his mundane vision failed him.

The place smelled of ground coffee beans and cinnamon buns, vanilla spice and wood polish.

Jian Yi tromped over to a barstool, the too-large, fluffy white slippers on his feet a sibilated hiss on the dark laminate flooring. He Tian smiled fondly at the bedhead Jian Yi was supporting, lush golden strands tangled in a pillow-ruffled mess. When he plonked onto a stool, his oversized, long-sleeved white tee rode up, and the light blue shorts he wore underneath poked out from under the hem.

“Well?” Jian Yi prodded, resting his chin in one hand and drumming the fingers of his other against the countertop of the bar—the bar where Mrs Jian had sat He Tian down once after-hours, offering to help him navigate the wordplay and half-truths of the complex Ts & Cs of the contract she shouldn’t have known anything about. He still couldn’t figure out how she’d known, but He Tian’s latest theory was that his brother had had a hand in it.

Mrs Jian was a fae queen who had renounced her throne in the wake of a blasphemous marriage to a man He Tian had never met and who Jian Yi couldn’t remember. As children, they had both suspected that Jian Yi’s father had ties to the Underworld. And, as they grew older, the tattooed, fork-tailed thugs who irregularly dropped by the coffeehouse seemed less like random, wayward customers and more like henchmen with purpose.

He Tian didn’t begrudge Mrs Jian telling her son about the contract; in fact, it was unfair of He Tian to presume that she would keep it to herself after all these years.

Jian Yi hummed, quirking a fair brow at He Tian’s prolonged silence.

In a couple of long strides, He Tian crossed the distance between them and pulled Jian Yi into his arms. He hadn’t been rough, just abrupt, and the short yelp Jian Yi let out was smothered against He Tian’s chest. Jian Yi wriggled in a half-assed attempt to push He Tian away, but when the barstool he was perched on teetered, he grabbed at the back of He Tian’s jacket to steady himself. And didn’t let go.

They didn’t say anything, content in simply breathing each other in. And fuck if Jian Yi didn’t smell like home.  

He Tian slid one hand up Jian Yi’s back, weaving his fingers through Jian Yi’s velvety tangles and working them free.

It was mutually therapeutic and Jian Yi moaned softly. “You don’t have the right to play with my hair anymore, babe.”

“I know, Yi. I know.” He Tian didn’t stop til the last knot unravelled. Til the tremors quaking through Jian Yi’s slight frame subsided. Then he stepped back, gliding his palms down Jian Yi’s arms and taking both his hands in his own.

“I’m not ready to forgive you.” Jian Yi’s eyes were red-rimmed and wet streaks glistened down his face. His flaxen, feathered lashes were damp and clumped together.

He Tian leaned in to kiss the arch of Jian Yi’s flushed cheek—the half-fae’s tears tasted like honey and huckleberries. He squeezed Jian Yi’s hands before letting go. “I didn’t come looking for forgiveness.”

An ephemeral flash of rejection crossed Jian Yi’s features and he masked it with quick swipes at the wetness on his face. With an audible swallow, he twisted away from He Tian and folded his arms on the copper bar top, curling in on himself. “Why’d you come back then? What did you drag me outta bed before the ass crack of dawn for?”

He Tian exhaled. “I’m here to see your mom.”

Jian Yi’s head whipped towards him. “What?” The question cracked midway. “Not... Not another fucking contract?”

“No,” He Tian replied sincerely. His contract with Vera had left his soul weathered and worn. And He Tian had nothing left to bargain with anyway. “We’re searching for something that was stolen during the Blood Wars. I think your mom might be able to help.”

“But the fight is over. You won. Your father got what he wanted, he—”

“We won the seven-year battle, Yi. The war isn’t over. There are covens in the far west that we haven’t been able to reach yet.”

Jian Yi released a shuddering breath. “If they aren’t fighting you, why are you hunting them down?” He Tian hesitated and Jian Yi saw straight through him. “You’re after the vampire who supposedly killed your mother.”

He Tian moistened his lips, picking his next words cautiously. He pulled back the barstool next to Jian Yi’s and sat down, clasping his hands together and resting them between his thighs. “The undead desecrate the laws and treaties that allow us to live peacefully together. They’ve never respected them.” He Tian clenched his fists. “They’ve kidnapped and tortured and slaughtered.”

“Yeah, a handful of corrupt, lawless covens have done exactly that. But that doesn’t mean we condemn their entire race. We don’t go to war just because your father—”

“They’re all the same, Yi. And we’re nothing but blood bags to them.”

“No,” Jian Yi interjected. “You didn’t use to think they were all the same. Not until your father poisoned you with lies.”

“My mom—”

“Died naturally,” Jian Yi asserted, his tone softening. “That’s what you were told as soon as you were old enough to understand. But then your father used his influence to form a coalition, alleging that he’d seen the future and the future was war. Nobody questions him because he’s a seer. The gods know better but they can’t touch him because he’s in bed with the war goddess, and Hades hath no fury like Vera on a warpath.”

He Tian knew his father was capable of such deception. Seers were rare and revered, their status in the preternatural world sacred because of their ability to see hidden truths and obscure futures. And they were cherished more so because, despite their gift, seers were still human—still painfully, unequivocally mortal.

It wasn’t inconceivable to He Tian that his father would use his position to manipulate the masses for his own nefarious gains. But...

“Cheng confirmed it,” He Tian divulged.

His older brother had tried to talk him out of entering into a contract with Vera, but what did He-fucking-Cheng know about losing a parent. About being—

—"worthless”—

—mundane.

“Right.” A derisive retort. “I forgot that your brother, son of the goddess you sold your soul to, is wholly unbiased and would not lie to you.”

Vera, like all deities, was only as powerful as the prayers invoked by her disciples, but the lives sacrificed in her name during The Blood Wars had made her more formidable than ever. And when He Tian’s ten years were up, she’d own his soul too.

He didn’t want to think about what she would do with it.

Jian Yi had other ideas though, and gave voice to both their fears. “She’s a goddess infatuated with a mortal. She’ll use your soul to prolong your father’s lifetime.” Distress leaking into his words, Jian Yi dropped his chin to his chest and screwed his eyes shut. “You signed away your Hereafter, Tian, and for what? So you could fight in a war you don’t believe in and track down a killer that doesn’t exist?”

“I didn’t take you for a vamp sympathiser,” He Tian grit out. “And he does fucking exist. He’s a member of the She Coven.”

Jian Yi hummed sardonically. “And, let me guess, that particular coven has managed to elude you so far. So, what’s the plan?”

Justice is the plan.”

“Really? Because it sounds a lot like vengeance,” Jian Yi challenged, his eyes a shimmering liquid gold. “I guess you’re more like your stepmother than you thought.”

They both stilled as the words left Jian Yi’s lips. Vera had never been a parental figure to He Tian, let alone a mother of any kind. She favoured He Cheng in all ways that mattered and all the ways that didn’t.

Aghast, Jian Yi slapped a hand over his mouth. “I’m sorry.” His other hand reached out to cover He Tian’s trembling fist. “Fuck a pixie. I didn’t mean that, Tian. I didn’t. I swear it.”

As the ice pick in his chest twisted mercilessly, He Tian turned his hand over to lace their fingers together. “I know.” He gave Jian Yi a reassuring squeeze, gripping a little harder than he meant to when the icy blade twisted again. “I know you’re hurting.”

“Forget the war,” Jian Yi begged. “You have three years left. Let’s go away together. We can—”

“Jian Yi.” Withdrawing his hand, He Tian stood up. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I do. But my fate was sealed the second I bled onto that contract.”

He was feeling restless; seeing Jian Yi desperately trying to come up with an alternative ending only filled him with more guilt, and the false hope left him yearning for a future he could never have.

He Tian strolled alongside the length of the bar until he was on the other side. He snagged one of the crystal glasses from the drying rack and turned to the sink. Once he’d filled the glass halfway, he downed the chilled water in one go.

Jian Yi finally broke the silence.  “You said you needed to speak to my mom about something that went missing.”

“It was stolen,” He Tian corrected. “And we need to find it before it gets into the wrong hands.”

“By the wrong hands, you mean the undead?” It was a rhetorical question. “What was taken? And by who?”

“We’re not sure who took it.”

It ...?” Jian Yi said after a long pause that He Tian wasn’t keen to fill.

Eventually, he blurted, “A dragon egg.”

Jian Yi blinked then slowly nodded like that made perfect sense.

Wearily, He Tian rubbed a hand down his face. “I know what you’re going to say.”

“Really? Because I don’t.”

“Dragons aren’t extinct.”

Jian Yi leaned forward in his seat. “I know that. Just because they haven’t been spotted in a while—”

“Try a few thousand centuries.”

“—doesn’t mean they’re extinct,” Jian Yi continued, undeterred. “What have the dragons got to do with the Blood Wars?”

He Tian came back round to reclaim the barstool he’d vacated, glass of water in hand. “A year into the war, we came head-to-head with a faction of the undead who were like—fuck, this is gonna sound crazy—super vamps. Their strength, stealth, speed—everything—was that much more than a regular vampire. It’s like they were on steroids or something.” He Tian took a breath. “And they were a bitch to kill. Near impossible, in fact.”

“Wow. And that’s saying something given how much stronger and faster vampires are anyway compared to other predators,” Jian Yi pointed out.

“Exactly.” Tipping the glass back, He Tian emptied the contents in one long swallow. His throat convulsed as he remembered the long nights spent burying their dead. “We lost more soldiers to this faction alone than we did collectively over the seven years.”

Knees deep in his captain’s grave. Soil soaked in blood and tears. Digging until the blisters on his palms wept and his heart was level with the ground.

Digging, digging, digging.

Because the alternative was facing the suspicious looks of soldiers who wondered how a man who reeked mundane had survived when their preternatural brothers and sisters hadn’t.

“Holy shit,” Jian Yi gasped.

“Yeah.” Their battalion had never quite recovered from the losses. “But they weren’t on fucking steroids. They were feeding on dragon blood.”

Squinting, Jian Yi frowned. “Dragons are the mother of all apex predators. How did the vamps subdue one long enough to feed?”

“They didn’t,” He Tian replied elusively. Dragons were known to be immune to most magic, so manipulation by sorcery was out of the question. Their sheer size meant that being physically overpowered was just as unlikely. And an allegiance between dragons and other species was unheard of; they’d never picked a side other than their own during times of mass conflict and the Blood Wars were no different. “Think about it, Yi,” He Tian prompted. “Why would a dragon be willing to let a vampire sink his fangs in her?”

“She wouldn’t. Not unless... she was in love with him.”

Grimacing, He Tian said, “Love is a strong word. She’d been seduced.” He ignored the disbelieving look Jian Yi threw him. “When our military mages recognised dragon essence in this group of super vamps, the higher-ups lost their shit and Cheng made it his mission to locate the dragon that’d been duped.” It had taken his brother close to a year to find the lair in the volcanic mountains on the other side of the battlefield.

Jian Yi pouted a little. “Are you sure they weren’t in love?”

“The undead don’t have feelings, Yi. He used his vampiric powers of seduction so he could feed on her.”

A shadow of doubt lingered in Jian Yi’s tone. “But how did the other vamps get amped up on her blood too?”

“Well, we identified the index vampire—”

“You mean her lover?”

“—and he had clear evidence of being fed on by his kin.”

“Willingly or unwillingly?”

He Tian grumbled. “Why would that matter?”

“Because,” Jian Yi answered patiently, “What if they were lovers and he was a victim in all this?”

“How do you figure?”

“I don’t know.” With a shrug, Jian Yi twirled a length of champagne blond hair around his finger. “Maybe the couple didn’t know what her blood would do to him. Or maybe they did, and she offered it as a way of protecting him during the battle. I suppose it’s possible that he might have willingly extended that to his coven, but you said they went all cannibal on his ass. Why? Why would they do that when they could’ve just used their own powers of seduction, as you call it, and fed on her themselves?”

He Tian grit his teeth; he hadn’t thought of that, and the reason was simple: The undead were incapable of compassionate feelings like love, kindness and mercy. He momentarily flashed back to the image of the index vampire, captured and shackled in warded iron, before he’d been transported to the military prison. His build—lean, chiselled marble— was that of a hunter, but his colourless eyes had been downcast, unblinking; sharp-angled shoulders slumped against a weight no one could see; his silence unyielding during the field interrogation.

That wasn’t grief, He Tian told himself. It was indifference. Defeat.

“I call bullshit,” he scoffed and Jian Yi replied with a tempered roll of his eyes.

Feeling himself bristle at Jian Yi’s empathy towards the monsters that he had spent the last seven years cutting down, He Tian bit his tongue before he said something he’d regret. He wasn’t annoyed as much as he was disappointed in Jian Yi’s attitude. Then he chided himself for being so self-centred; Jian Yi was probably just projecting his parents’ forbidden love affair onto the scandal between the dragon and the undead.

“The egg,” Jian Yi quipped. “What’s all this gotta do with the dragon egg you’re looking for?”

He Tian smiled despite himself; trust Jian Yi to pick up on He Tian’s mood and steer the subject in a different direction. “Cheng never found the dragon. Only her lair and an empty nest.”

Jian Yi looked at him expectantly. “She fled before your brother could get to her?”

“No, she didn’t.” He Tian wet his lips. “Dragons live for centuries and are near-immortal. But there are a handful of things that are fatal to them, one of them being—”

“Laying an egg.”

“Exactly.”

Jian Yi made a face. “The undead can’t—”

“Procreate. I know. But who she mated with is beside the point. The fact is she laid an egg and there was no evidence to suggest it had hatched. Now, it doesn’t matter who took it or why.” He Tian could feel his excitement brimming. “It went missing five years ago and we’ve searched high and low for it, including every coven we’ve come across. The reason we haven’t found it yet is because the egg is here. In the city.”

“How do you know—” Jian Yi stopped himself, his features tightening, the diamond dust in his eye swirling. “Your father.”

“I know what you think of him, but he has no reason to lie about this. He had a vision last week and—” He Tian’s elation dimmed at the shuttered look on Jian Yi’s face. “Think about it, Yi. If the undead get hold of it—or have it already—and it hatches in their possession, they’ll be un-fucking-stoppable. It won’t just be a coven of super vamps this time. It’ll be hordes of them. And no one will be safe.”

Jian Yi’s expression remained steely. “Not that I believe a single word your father has ever said, where in the city would you even look?”

“We’ve been keeping our ears close to the ground. There’ve been some whispers about a black-market auction, but nothing tangible yet. I was hoping your mom might have heard something on the grapevine.” He Tian didn’t need to elaborate that her affiliation with both the Fae Courts and the Underworld meant she was privy to classified chatter that most weren’t. “Will you please call her down for me?”

Jian Yi’s brow furrowed in confusion. “She isn’t here.”

“What?” The frost in He Tian’s chest hardened.

“Tian, I haven’t seen my mom in months.”

Jian Yi’s voice grew distant as the deafening crack of ice in He Tian’s core drowned all other sounds. “What do you mean you haven’t... Where is she?”

“You know that she ups and vanishes for months at a time.” Jian Yi looked down at his hands, a forlorn undertone weighing down his words, his voice low enough that it almost seemed like he was talking to himself.  “And when she comes back, we just pretend she never left. This time is no different.”

He Tian was no stranger to the unscheduled trips Mrs Jian made, her unexpected and lengthy departures often leaving a young Jian Yi bewildered and a little broken, wondering what he’d done wrong. And, evidently, an older Jian Yi too.

Fuck. He Tian hated seeing him like this.

“Why does everyone leave?” Jian Yi mumbled, and He Tian caught the sound of a heart breaking in his sigh.

Feeling a snarl trying to claw its way out of his throat, He Tian suppressed the urge to curse the fates that had painted Jian Yi’s past and present with a palette of pathos. But when it hit him that the stars had aligned to shit all over his last-ditch plan to secure the dragon egg and decimate the undead, his self-control snapped.

“Fuck dammit!” He pushed away from the bar and clambered off the stool. In his haste, he flung the tall glass that was resting by his elbow. It skidded off the countertop and shattered against the column of Jian Yi’s barstool.

Startled, Jian Yi shrieked as a shard of glass ripped through the tender flesh of his calf muscle. He flailed with a gossamer mist of gold glitter—an inconvenient quirk triggered by heightened emotions that most fae mastered control over by their early teens. He Tian belatedly remembered that Jian Yi never had.

“Motherfucker,” He Tian bit out, fragments of glassware crunching under his military boots as he reached for Jian Yi. “Are you okay—”

A series of loud bangs thudded down what He Tian presumed must have been the stairs connecting the shop floor to the apartment above. This was followed by an explosive crash as the door leading to the staircase ricocheted open with a fine spray of splintered wood.

“Get away from him, you dickhead!” A red-haired man roared just as Jian Yi whined, “Pixies’ tits, Guan Shan, what did I say about using the fucking door handle?”

⋆⍣ ✬ ⍣⋆

Ordinarily, He Tian would not have been caught off guard by the sudden appearance of a shirtless man in grey sweatpants. He would not have stood still as said man—teeth bared in a threatening rictus— barrelled towards him. Nor would he have permitted the man in question to deck him, sending He Tian hurtling over his barstool.

Holy fuck! It felt like He Tian’s cheek had been split to the bone.

But the sharp sting to his face was nowhere near as distracting as the curious bloom of warmth in his chest.

“Guan Shan, stop!” Jian Yi yelled just as He Tian managed to catch himself on the ledge of the counter, barely avoiding face-planting the floor.

The redhead grabbed He Tian by the lapel of his jacket, raising his fist again. Before those knuckles could hit home, a lupine growl erupted and the front door to the coffeehouse smashed open. A blur that He Tian had long ago come to recognise as Zheng Xi rushed towards the bar and slammed into Guan Shan.

They both landed with a resounding thwack on the laminate flooring, rolling and sliding in voracious attempts to gain the upper hand. He Tian rightened himself and pushed away from the bar as Jian Yi screeched about broken doors and busting some balls. He seemed relatively unperturbed by the wound on his leg, so He Tian turned his attention to the ruckus on the ground.

Even when not in his were form, Zheng Xi’s brute strength was rarely matched. He Tian couldn’t tell what Guan Shan was, but he doubted that this would be a fair fight. Zheng Xi’s pack was a combat unit and his instincts had been honed from birth to attack first and ask questions later—as evidenced by his unnecessary decapitation of a ghoul that had presented little to no danger. And the gruelling years of the Blood Wars had only served to heighten Zheng Xi’s killer instincts.

“Xi, stand down.” He Tian caught the collar of Zheng Xi’s bomber jacket and, with a grunt, hauled him off Guan Shan; although He Tian was taller than Zheng Xi, the were was a few inches broader and forty pounds heavier.

By this point, Jian Yi had flicked on all the overhead lights, swathing everything and everyone in a harsh brilliance that made He Tian wince. The black spots hadn’t cleared from his vision yet, but He Tian could make out enough to see that Guan Shan had sprung onto his feet and was poised to charge again.

He Tian stepped between Guan Shan and Zheng Xi. “Lay off, firecracker. You’re no match for him.”

Guan Shan glowered and He Tian took in the redhead’s fine-boned features, the fierce symmetry of his scowling face, and the feral look in his blazing eyes. The dazzling light from the incandescent pendant lanterns glinted off the delicate ring hooped through the left side of his slender nose. Strangely, a sprinkle of Jian Yi’s glitter had made its way to the bridge of his nose and the searing slopes of his cheekbones. In fact, the glitter also clung to the top of his chest, dusting the curve of his delts and the cleft between his pecs.

Wait. Fuck. That wasn’t glitter.

They were freckles.

“I can take him,” Guan Shan sneered. “I can take both of you.”

He Tian edged further forward in case Zheng Xi was tempted to rise to Guan Shan’s challenge. He heard Zheng Xi hiss behind him and glanced over to see the were staring quizzically at his hands. A multitude of longitudinal welts scorched his palms and He Tian caught a whiff of singed flesh.

“The hell?” Zheng Xi muttered under his breath.

A vexed Jian Yi stomped over to them, golden sparkles trailing behind him as he shed glitter in annoyance.  “Guan Shan, I swear to fuck, if you don’t back down, the repairs are coming out of your pay.

“They hurt you!” Guan Shan shot back, gesturing angrily at the blood trickling down Jian Yi’s calf and staining the white fur of his slipper.

“It was an accident,” Jian Yi stressed. “Now sit your ass down.”

Squaring his jaw, Guan Shan glared at He Tian like he was ready to steamroll him down. A tense minute passed as Guan Shan’s balled fists shook and his shoulders quivered. Finally, though, he exhaled petulantly through clenched teeth and turned sharply towards a barstool—the barstool that Jian Yi had been nestled on.

Without thinking, He Tian’s arm shot out and snared Guan Shan by the waist.

“Watch your step,” He Tian cautioned. He jerked his chin at the spill of jagged glass and arched a brow at Guan Shan’s bare feet—narrow and nimble-toed with pinkies curved almost unnaturally so. Damn, they were as tantalising as the rest of him.

Ripping He Tian’s arm off, Guan Shan rounded on him, treading so close their noses almost touched. “Fuck you,” Guan Shan barked and He Tian half thought that Guan Shan might snap his teeth at him. He wondered, not for the first time, what Guan Shan was. Between the fiery temper and the possessiveness Guan Shan was displaying, He Tian was reminded of the sea sirens he once had the unfortunate privilege of meeting. “You touch Jian Yi again and I will eviscerate you.”

“If you get blood on the floor, you’re on mop duty for the rest of the month.” Jian Yi interjected, sounding distracted.

He Tian backed up; the heat coming off Guan Shan’s naked torso was making him uncomfortably warm. Or maybe it was the sheer proximity between them. Beyond close-range combat, the only action He Tian or his dick had seen in the last few years was lonesome knuckle-fucking. But the last thing He Tian was going to do was succumb to his attraction; making a move on Guan Shan—who could be anything from eye-candy on payroll to Jian Yi’s live-in boyfriend—was a blueprint to eunuchism, if Jian Yi’s trademark threats were any indication. If not, the aggravated look Guan Shan was giving him was an indisputable blueprint to disembowelment.

When Zheng Xi hissed again, He Tian swerved his gaze towards his battle buddy, who was currently being tended to by Jian Yi.

Cradling Zheng Xi’s much larger hands in his own, Jian Yi closely inspected the welts on Zheng Xi’s palms. He Tian could see a telltale jump in Zheng Xi’s jaw and the beads of sweat as they formed on his forehead. He seemed to be barely containing himself.

“Shit,” Jian Yi cursed worriedly, rolling his lower lip. He glanced at Guan Shan’s throat and He Tian noticed the thin curb chain necklace Guan Shan was wearing, short enough that it could be mistaken for a collar. “It’s warded silver.”

Incredulous, He Tian asked, “Warded with what?”

Werecreatures, along with dozens of other paranormal species, were alarmingly vulnerable to silver, and warding the metal further seemed like overkill.

“Fae magic,” Jian Yi replied. “Guan Shan’s had a few run-ins—”

The redhead tsked.

“—with a bad bunch that target mundanes. Mom made it for him.”

He Tian reeled, this time taking Guan Shan in from top to toe with a more critical eye. “You’re human?”

“Suck it.” Guan Shan widened his stance and crossed his arms, the action defining the curves of his chest and the curl of his biceps. Appallingly, it appeared that He Tian’s critical eye was linked directly to his cock.

He Tian seriously needed to get laid.

“I know the witch who owns the apothecary two streets over,” Jian Yi was saying to Zheng Xi. “She won’t be open yet, but—”

“I’ll heal,” Zheng Xi bit out, pulling away from Jian Yi’s grasp. His pinched gaze found He Tian’s. “We should go.”

Acknowledging the urgency in Zheng Xi’s voice, He Tian added, “Thanks, Jian Yi, but we’ll manage.”

Jian Yi’s concerned regard fluttered between Zheng Xi and He Tian. “Will you be staying at your dad’s?”

“Nah.” He Tian had meandered far enough down memory lane for one night. “Is there a hotel nearby that’s still in business?”

“Not really.” Jian Yi hesitated. “Well, the love inn on Salvation Walk still rents out rooms.” Zheng Xi was already halfway out the coffeehouse before Jian Yi had finished his sentence. “Or you could both stay here. There’s a spare futon—”

“That wouldn’t be a good idea, Yi.” He Tian said, apologetic. “I gotta go. I’ll swing by during the day.”

Jian Yi nodded, a smile that was more a sickle of hurt gracing his crestfallen face. “Okay.”

“I won’t leave without a goodbye this time.” He Tian was tempted to seal his promise with some form of physical contact—a hug, a modest kiss, a lacing of their fingers—but the Kawasaki had started up, the engine rumbling impatiently, reflecting its rider’s current tenor.

He Tian raised a hand in a swift farewell, his eyes drifting towards Guan Shan for a brief moment. The redhead was contemplating the door Zheng Xi had walked through, looking conflicted. When he realised he was being watched, he frowned and shot He Tian a dirty look.

“What kind of were doesn’t know not to touch silver?”

The kind that was trained to not let the noxious element get in the way of taking down a target, He Tian wanted to reply. But he held back. Guan Shan was young—he couldn’t have been a day over twenty. And, although only twenty-five himself, He Tian had been aged by the Blood Wars in ways that made him forget that bleeding on a battlefield was not a default, but a decision made. A choice.

A contract.

“I’ll pass on your apology.” He Tian winked and headed for the exit.

Guan Shan stammered. “I wasn’t—”

Once outside, He Tian made quick work of putting his gear back on. Zheng Xi had already redonned his helmet and biker gloves and was now fidgeting in his seat.

“You good?” He Tian asked, wondering if it was safer for Zheng Xi to ride pillion and leave the Z H2 by the coffeehouse overnight.

Zheng Xi’s retort was a grating growl and, behind his smoked visor, a galvanic glimmer of saxe blue as his irises bled out to obliterate the whites of his eyes.

Fuckin’-A.

Slinging his backpack on, He Tian heeled up his kickstand and started the Streetfighter’s engine with a snap of his wrist. They gunned it through the downtown district, He Tian taking the lead. What would normally take a quarter of an hour, took them less than half that time, an effluvium of exhaust fumes and tire burnout lapping at their calves.

In its prime, the love inn had been your run-of-the-mill, seedy sex stop—cash-only and no reservations permitted. It was the kind of place you took a nameless hook-up to and hoped you didn’t catch herpes from merely rolling in the sheets. It was definitely not the kind of place that aged well or thrived over time. Or at least, that’s what He Tian had assumed.

And he’d assumed right.

The exterior of the inn was an uninspiring taupe, and the lack of maintenance had turned the plaster fuliginous, loose and flaking in most places. It was a multi-story building—at least seven floors tall—and, presently, the entire structure was sagging worse than a troll’s ballsack. The 24-hour convenience store and the dingy pizza parlour on either side of the inn hadn’t fared well either.

Since there was no designated parking, they both pulled to a stop at the curb. He Tian had only just killed his engine when the smudged glass door to the inn swung open and a diminutive woman glided out. Despite the lack of wind, the cascade of her dark hair and the layers of her diaphanous, knee-length shawl undulated as though a current was coursing through them. The innkeeper, old lady Xiao Hui, was a distant descendent of Cupid and He Tian had crossed paths with her when he and Jian Yi, at the height of their adolescence, had let their curiosity about the inn’s elevator get the better of them. Or, more accurately, He Tian had let his curiosity get the better of him and—

“don’t you wanna know if we’ll be together forever?”

—Jian Yi was a willing accomplice.

The rumours that the mirrored floors in the paternoster revealed your fated partner was likely a load of horseshit, but they’d never found out; Xiao Hui had intercepted them and, given that they were too young to rent a room, had chased them off the property with a finger-wagging.

The youthful woman before them now bore an unsettling resemblance to Xiao Hui, and He Tian guessed she was a granddaughter or a grandniece to the elderly innkeeper. Even the way her doll-like lips puckered into a secretive smile was uncannily similar.

Briskly, Zheng Xi dismounted and started for the entrance of the inn.

“Room one-nine,” the woman purred, snapping her fingers. “Top floor.”

Zheng Xi’s right arm reached out in front of him, his hand curling in a fist around a key and key tag that appeared out of nowhere.

“And another room, please. We’ll pay per night,” He Tian added as Zheng Xi vanished behind the glass door.

The woman’s ecru eyes twinkled. “Minimum two occupants per room.”

Right.

Pulling his wallet out from his back pocket, He Tian withdrew a handful of notes then blinked when they disappeared from his grasp. He looked askance at the woman, not all that surprised that she was busy counting the bills she’d brusquely extracted from him. She singled out a note with the highest denomination and waved it.

“For the carpet,” she trilled. “And the sink.”

Equal parts bemused and baffled, He Tian said, “Come again?”

She wagged a finger at him and, in a tone that was strikingly reminiscent of the elderly innkeeper, repeated what was said to him a decade ago, “Remember, the paternoster doesn’t admit mundanes.”

Huh. So maybe there was no granddaughter or grandniece; old lady Xiao Hui and the woman before him were one and the same. She had simply aged far better than her inn.

He Tian smiled. “I remember.”

With a snap of her fingers, she turned on her heel, heading back indoors. He Tian fumbled for a second as the skeleton key that had materialised in front of him submitted to gravity and spiralled towards the ground.

After pocketing both the key and his wallet, He Tian leaned against his Streetfighter, sighing deep as the events of the night weighed on him and settled in his bones with an unwelcome ache. They hadn’t accounted for Mrs Jian being out of town. And He Tian had no clue what their next move would be. Fuck, he wasn’t looking forward to briefing He Cheng with the latest.

In fact, all He Tian wanted to do right now was crash, but he settled on working off his frustrations instead. Additionally, he figured Zheng Xi would value some privacy; he’d never seen the were struggle to control a shift before and wondered if the warded silver was to blame. Thinking of the necklace brought to mind the yummy redhead that had been wearing it and He Tian let himself relive the moment Guan Shan had pinned him against the bar, primed to throw a second punch. Except, this time, things played a little differently: He Tian imagined that he’d twisted out of Guan Shan’s hold and reversed their positions. It had been clear as fuck that Guan Shan had been commando under his grey sweatpants and He Tian’s mouth watered at the thought of using his weight to keep the slimmer man curled over the counter, gorgeously freckled pecs pressed against the cold copper, nipples growing taut at the contact. He Tian hardened as he envisaged slipping a hand down the front of those grey pants, Guan Shan squirming as he tried to conceal his own arousal.

He Tian wasn’t sure that Jian Yi and Zheng Xi would appreciate the free show. Then again, he wasn’t sure they wouldn’t.

Adjusting himself, He Tian rolled his eyes; working off his pent-up sexual frustrations would need to take a back seat to his other priorities.

He glanced up and down the dreary street that was Salvation Walk before ambling into the convenience store. Aside from a few essentials—toiletries, water bottles and protein bars—he also bought a plastic bucket and a pack of sponges, the former of which the bored dwarf manning the register let him fill with water from the employees’ restroom.

For the next hour, He Tian scrubbed down Zheng Xi’s Kawasaki, wiping it clean of ghoul juice and washing out the ghoul gunk from the crevices. By the time he was done, the horizon was stained oxblood and a bitter orange, and he was too tired to give his own bike more than a cursory rubdown with a damp cloth.

He gathered his helmet and convenience store purchases and trundled into the inn. In the foyer, the reception desk was unlit and unattended; Xiao Hui was either not expecting any further guests tonight or was simply unwilling to entertain any more. As He Tian followed the main corridor to the stairs, the flush ceiling lights winked on and off when he passed under them. They were bright enough to light his path and faint enough to partially obscure the crude graffiti, questionable stains and wispy cobwebs garnishing the walls.

Bypassing the rumoured elevator, He Tian dampened down the urge to stop and perhaps try his luck at hopping on. The paternoster was doorless, its open compartments awash with sickly green hues oozing from the internal overhead spotlights. Rotating in an endless loop, it gurgled and groaned, like a sinking ship destined for a biblical wreck.

When He Tian eventually reached the curved stairway, he took the steps two at a time. The carpet here was less worn, suggesting the paternoster was the favoured method of ascent by the inn’s patrons. By the time he reached the top floor, he was only slightly puffed.

Detouring around a dusty vending machine—that was stocked with condoms, dildos emulating the impressive endowment of a range of preternatural species, and pills promising endurance and enhancement—He Tian searched for room one-nine. There didn’t appear to be any logical order to the numbering of the doors, but he eventually located the room at the far end of the U-shaped hallway.

He tried the grubby knob handle and found it unlocked.

The door lisped open with a raspy sigh, its chapped frame at odds with the lush interior of the generously sized room. Inside, the ambience was a blend of elegant chinoiserie, louche upholstery and dark zebrawood. Smoky greys and regal magenta danced around a come-hither four-poster bed. Its canopy was a sheer fabric that, in the low lighting, seemed to melt into the steam swirling from beyond the glass wall that served as a partial partition between the bedroom and bathroom quarters. Through the fogged-up glass, He Tian could make out Zheng Xi standing in the open shower, the crisp edges of his delts and quads softened by the curls of steam licking up the contours of his well-muscled physique.

He Tian didn’t need to announce himself; Zheng Xi had likely heard his approach from as early as his ascent up the final flight of stairs. Depositing his helmet and the flimsy plastic bags onto the glossy hardtop of the dressing table, He Tian slipped off his backpack and collapsed into one of the luxury lounge chairs. He groaned as he leaned down to untie his boots, an entourage of hitherto undeclared twinges and smarting joints protesting his decision to make the journey back to the city on two wheels instead of four, or on a set of wings chartered by his father’s obscene wealth.

 “Pizza place was closed,” He Tian grumbled. “I bought snacks though.”

Zheng Xi grunted a response, turning the waterfall showerhead off and lumbering out.

With a loud yawn, He Tian toed off his boots, shedding layers until he was down to his underwear. Making his way to the minibar, he eyed the scatter of caramel-hued hair strands littering the ground—although the pelage was too long to belong to Zheng Xi in his human form, the colour was unmistakably his. And He Tian did a double-take when he noticed the ragged claw marks in the plush carpet by the foot of the bed, tufts of fibre and foam underlay documenting the carpet’s distress and highlighting Zheng Xi’s lack of control. Normally, Zheng Xi was disciplined, predictable, and it made He Tian uneasy that the warded silver had had such an effect on the were.

On the plus side, Xiao Hui had already billed them for damage costs incurred.

He Tian rummaged through the minibar, cursing when he realised the stock of alcoholic beverages were all laced with varying potencies of aphrodisiacs. Years out on the frontline together, living in cramped camps with little to no privacy meant He Tian and Zheng Xi were comfortable with each other’s nudity. But ignoring one another’s morning wood—and the occasional jerk-off session that followed—was not akin to tolerating a deliberately self-induced raging boner. And He Tian decided he’d spare Zheng Xi and himself the awkwardness of having to navigate that particular unchartered territory on empty stomachs and no sleep.

Tan skin pinkened from the heat of the shower and from a vigorous towelling, a butt-naked Zheng Xi stalked out from behind the partitioning glass and made a beeline for the protein bars He Tian had acquired.

Dragging his eyes away from Zheng Xi’s tight glutes, He Tian grabbed some toiletries from the bag.

“I was a little worried about you then,” He Tian admitted.

Zheng Xi shrugged, crunching loudly around his third protein bar. “I was a little worried about me too.”

“What happened? Did the fae magic set off your shift?”

Balling the wrappers and pitching them into a wastebasket, Zheng Xi uncapped a water bottle. He hesitated before saying, “Yeah, I think so.”

“I don’t understand why Jian Yi’s mom would need to ward the silver.” He Tian ambled towards the bathroom. “It’s pretty fucking potent without magic.”

At the sink, He Tian brushed his teeth, wincing when he caught sight of himself in the steamed-up mirror. The redhead had a solid right hook; his cheek had been reduced to a bruised, puffy mess that was going to swell to three times its size in no time.

Too tired to shower, He Tian emptied his bladder and was tucking himself back into his boxer briefs when Zheng Xi asked from the other side of the glass, “So, you and the fae... He was your lover?”

He Tian chuckled, the sound tinged in regret. There was little point hiding the truth from Zheng Xi now. “We were best friends. We’d grown up together.” As he emerged from behind the partition, he added, “We weren’t lovers. When we were old enough though, sometimes we hooked up in the same bed, just never with each other.”

A myriad of emotions crossed Zheng Xi’s features, confusion taking front and centre stage. He Tian hadn’t known the were could blush so hard, and he took pity on him; Zheng Xi came from a long line of traditional monogamists who frowned upon casual relationships and outright forbid casual sex.

“Threesomes, Xi. And a foursome once.” He Tian smirked, accepting the makeshift ice bag Zheng Xi had put together—a pillowcase and ice cubes from the minibar—and pressed it against his throbbing cheek. “Sometimes we both wanted to sex up the same guy. So we did.”

Zheng Xi blushed even harder, sputtering unintelligibly.

Damn, they both needed to get laid.