“I’m sorry, Lord Envoy. I’m afraid I don’t date older men.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth that Zhao Yunlan dismissed them. “Nope. Nope. Nope. Who taught you manners? You can’t just go around telling people they’re too old!”
Zhao Yunlan tried again. “I’m sorry, Lord Envoy. I’m extremely flattered by your interest and the possibility of kinky Dixing-powered sex, but my heart already belongs to another.”
This was almost good enough if he took out the dumb, perverted joke. Except… Would this put Shen Wei in danger? The Black-Cloaked Envoy was all about law and justice, right? He wouldn’t just kill a romantic rival? Then again, if the excruciating evenings he spent playing politics as the SID Chief taught him anything, it was that you can follow every rule to the letter and still accomplish a great deal of evil. Weighing it against his suspicions that Shen Wei may be an illegal Dixing resident on Haixing, Zhao Yunlan scrapped this approach.
“I’m sorry, Lord Envoy. I’m just not ready for a relationship right now.”
That was the worst one yet. Zhao Yunlan collapsed back on his chair and put his face in his hands. That wasn’t going to work if he was ever spotted with Shen Wei. And it wasn’t as though an immortal would have any issues waiting until he was ready.
Spotting Chu Shuzhi working out in the office gym, Zhao Yunlan decided that he needed an expert’s opinion.
1. Chu Shuzhi
“Lao Chu! I see you’re feeling better!” exclaimed Zhao Yunlan, clapping Lao Chu on the back.
He must have overdone it on the enthusiasm because Lao Chu looked less than impressed. “Out with it. What do you want?”
“You’re a citizen of Dixing. I was wondering if you could tell me something about your courting customs?” asked Zhao Yunlan.
“Yeah. Like, if you’re not interested in someone, you can rest a fan on your left cheek during your conversation, and they’ll know they’ve been turned down.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. What’s wrong with using your words? Where did you even get a fan?”
“I mean, if you wanted to be more subtle and save someone the embarrassment? What if I turn down someone from Dixing and they set me on fire?”
Lao Chu barked out a laugh. “Okay, I changed my mind. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Chief Zhao, you’re friends with the Black-Cloaked Envoy. Only someone with a death wish would dare to lay a finger on you.”
Zhao Yunlan refused to be deterred. “Okay, but what about someone who isn’t as well-protected as I am?”
“The Black-Cloaked Envoy will punish the wrongdoer regardless of who the victim is.”
“Which isn’t much consolation for the poor guy already burnt to a crisp.”
Lao Chu shrugged. “Sorry, Chief Zhao. I’m no good with hypotheticals. Maybe you can ask the Envoy the next time you two meet? He enjoys talking philosophy, and he knows the Dixing laws better than anyone.”
“Right. Yeah. I’ll just put in a call on the incense burner and ask him for a nice, friendly chat about dating and philosophy.” It wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for Lao Chu to consider the Black-Cloaked Envoy the answer to all of life’s problems, but there was something about the way he held himself that gave Zhao Yunlan pause.
With a strange gleam in his eyes, Lao Chu spread out his hands. “Why not? And if you’re afraid of being set on fire by anybody, there’s no safer person to spend time with than the Envoy. He’s already very protective of you.”
Oh. Oh no. He was in enemy territory. Lao Chu was trying to play the world’s least subtle matchmaker! Retreat. Retreat. Retreat. “Right. I’ll let you get back to your workout.”
Zhao Yunlan buried himself in paperwork for the rest of the day, in what was definitely not an attempt to avoid a certain Dixing team member who may or may not be working for the Black-Cloaked Envoy to set them up on a date. There was no shame in taking time to re-group after an unexpected attack.
2. Zhu Hong
In hindsight, asking Lao Chu for advice was a mistake. Zhao Yunlan knew he was a pretty good boss all things considered, but he’d be deluding himself if he thought any of that held a candle to the hero worship Lao Chu had for the Envoy. He needed an impartial third party. And there was Zhu Hong, typing up a report on the computer. Perfect. She even had experience dealing with unwanted admirers back at the Snake Tribe.
“Good morning, Zhu Hong!” Zhao Yunlan put on his best charming smile. “You’re looking gorgeous as usual, unlike the rest of us mortals.”
A faint blush rose in Zhu Hong’s cheeks as she rolled her eyes. “What do you want?”
Zhao Yunlan mimed an arrow piercing his heart. “Why does everyone assume I have an ulterior motive in complimenting them?”
Ignoring him, Zhu Hong kept typing.
“Okay, okay. You’re right. I need a favor.”
She stopped typing and arched an eyebrow.
“I need your advice.” He took a deep breath. “You see, there’s someone I work with who I’m pretty sure has romantic feelings for me. And I have no idea how to turn them down them nicely without making things awkward and possibly ruining an important working relationship.”
Zhu Hong’s cup of coffee crashed to the ground. Cursing, she ran off to retrieve towels to clean up the floor while Zhao Yunlan picked up the broken pieces of her coffee mug.
“So, I remember you saying you had these two guys bothering you back at the Snake Tribe, but you managed to reject them without messing anything up with the tribe, right?” asked Zhao Yunlan when Zhu Hong returned.
For a long time, Zhu Hong didn’t reply, focused only on scrubbing and wiping the floor clean.
When it looked like Zhu Hong might scrub the patterns off the floor itself instead of answering him, Zhao Yunlan began to worry that he committed some cultural faux pas. “You don’t have to tell me if it’s private Snake Tribe business.”
“It’s fine,” said Zhu Hong coldly. “You’ve said all you needed to say.”
Knowing better than to push his luck, Zhao Yunlan got out of her way. Another glare from her sent him scurrying out of the SID building altogether. He checked his watch. It was almost lunchtime. Why not pay the lovely Professor Shen a visit? That always brightened his day. Strapping on his helmet, he hopped on his motorcycle and headed for Dragon City University.
There were some who might accuse him of shamelessly strutting down the university hallways like a peacock; those people were simply jealous that they weren’t the ones who got to shower Shen Wei in kisses every day and fall asleep in his arms every night. He opened Shen Wei’s office door, leaned against the entrance, and ran his eyes up and down Shen Wei’s body.
“Professor Shen. Are you available for one-on-one tutoring right now?”
The tips of Shen Wei’s ears immediately reddened. Pushing his glasses up on his nose, Shen Wei cleared his throat. “Yes. Come in. And close the door.”
With a chuckle and a smug grin at the nosy onlookers outside, Zhao Yunlan shut the door. It was hard to believe that this picture of demure elegance was the same man who had pinned him to the bed after their last case, taking him apart with an intensity and reckless abandon beyond his wildest imagination. He had dreamed about teasing Shen Wei until he finally lost his control. Reality made those filthy fantasies look like positively tame.
Zhao Yunlan eyed Shen Wei’s lap and his desk speculatively.
“No,” said Shen Wei firmly.
“Next time,” Zhao Yunlan promised. “When the halls are a bit more deserted.”
He pulled up a chair next to Shen Wei, and happily opened the new box of cakes on Shen Wei’s desk to share. How lucky he was to be loved by a popular professor whose students regularly gifted him food! Licking the sweet taste of frosting off Shen Wei’s lips, he basked in the warm contentment spreading through him. Birds sang, flowers bloomed, and sparkly hearts danced around Shen Wei’s head. He could stay like this forever.
“Yunlan, don’t you have a meeting with the Black-Cloaked Envoy this afternoon?” chided Shen Wei gently.
With one sentence, Shen Wei shattered Zhao Yunlan’s beautiful illusion. He pouted. “But Xiao Wei, I would rather be here with you.”
Spotting the slight twitch of Shen Wei’s lips, Zhao Yunlan seized the opportunity to further his argument. Sidling up until he sat in Shen Wei’s lap, he batted his eyelashes. “Come on. Xiao Wei. It’s just paperwork. It’s not that important.”
Shen Wei let out an exasperated sigh, but he did not push Zhao Yunlan away.
Having successfully put off an awkward meeting with the Envoy, Zhao Yunlan was in a great mood when he returned to the SID. He only stopped short when he saw all the papers on his desk strewn on the floor and a slab of raw meat sitting in the middle of his desk.
He poked his head out of his office door. “Hey Zhu Hong, this means you’re not mad at me anymore, right?”
3. Sang Zan
Zhao Yunlan watched the studious ghost poring over a book of poems, learning to read character by character. Regardless of what kind of person he was in the past, the Sang Zan now was a besotted young man who either spent his time looking like a Valentine’s Day advertisement with Wang Zheng or learning to read and fit in with this strange new world. Zhao Yunlan liked his hard-working attitude, a stark contrast to the rest of the team.
“Sang Zan! Let me guess. Learning a new poem for Wang Zheng?”
Sang Zan nodded, a far-away look in his eyes. Probably imagining his next date with Wang Zheng where he planned to read something tooth-rottingly sweet to her.
Zhao Yunlan couldn’t help but smile. “You know, I’ve never seen two people so far gone for each other.”
“We-we’ve waited a h-hundred years f-f-for each other,” Sang Zan stuttered out, blushing.
“Yeah. Anyone can spot it from a mile away, even when the two of you are apart.“ Zhao Yunlan rubbed his chin. "Thank you for the chat today, Sang Zan. You’ve helped me a lot.”
Zhao Yunlan almost sprinted to his office, leaving a befuddled Sang Zan behind. That was it! He could subtly - well, “subtly” - let the Black-Cloaked Envoy know that he was taken without telling him who the other person was. If he could pull off even a tenth of Sang Zan’s love-struck look, then there would no need for awkward conversations and embarrassment. With any luck, the Envoy’s pride would stop him from pursuing the matter any further.
He opened his desk drawer and took out the notebook and pen Shen Wei gifted to him. Next was his phone. He searched around until he found a picture filled with hearts, candies and rainbows, complete with a sappy line from a love poem, and set it as his phone’s lock-screen picture. For the pièce de résistance, he put the home-cooked breakfast Shen Wei made for him on the center of his desk. With the scene set, he summoned the Black-Cloaked Envoy.
“Lord Envoy. Thank you again for coming. I apologize for missing our meeting yesterday. You know how the honeymoon phase can be.” He lovingly stroked the notebook cover before opening it. “Anyway! As you know, I spent the last part of the case somewhat unconscious—”
Zhao Yunlan coughed. He probably shouldn’t mention being awake enough to hear the Envoy desperately calling his name and telling him that he loved him. “Okay, completely unconscious. And I thought I’d get your point of view of what happened.”
“I defended you against the beasts while Chu Shuzhi chased down the Mountain-River Awl. Unfortunately, Zhu Jiu escaped amidst the chaos.”
Zhao Yunlan made a show of jotting down notes as the Envoy spoke, turning his pen at an angle to show off the golden engraving of his name. “I believe we all owe our lives to you.”
“It was nothing,” replied the Envoy, his eyes glued to the pen in Zhao Yunlan’s hand.
“You are very gracious, Lord Envoy.” Zhao Yunlan picked out a steamed bun and handed it to the Envoy. “Care for some steamed buns? Nothing tastes better than these home-cooked ones, I promise you.”
The Envoy’s cheeks turned a startling shade of pink. “Chief Zhao’s appreciation for his loved ones is commendable.”
Huh. He really thought the Envoy would be more upset by the revelation that he was in love with someone else. Instead, it seemed that the Envoy found this entire display… romantic? Endearing? Time to make the situation more real. He pulled out his phone, making sure to let the Envoy see his new lock-screen before unlocking it. Shen Wei didn’t have class until the afternoon, which meant he should be in his office grading papers. With a sheepish grin, he shrugged at the Envoy. “I hope you don’t mind. My delicious breakfast reminded me that I forgot to call my beloved treasure1.”
The Envoy’s smile faltered.
The phone rang. And rang. Zhao Yunlan plastered a forced smile on his face. “He’s not too great with technology or phones. I’m sure he’ll pick up soon. He always picks up my calls. Because we love each other a lot.”
The Envoy now looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Zhao Yunlan wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground and die. Did he mix up Shen Wei’s schedule? Did Shen Wei offer to teach another professor’s class? Or heaven forbid, did he get called into a committee meeting somewhere? Why didn’t Shen Wei have an answering machine?
“If you have the information you need, perhaps I should be on my way. And you can have your privacy with your loved one.”
This was embarrassing, but at least the Envoy finally got the hint? Zhao Yunlan nodded. “Thank you again for your help, Lord Envoy.”
A few seconds after the Envoy disappeared, Shen Wei picked up the phone.
“Sorry, Yunlan!” Shen Wei sounded out of breath. “I had a student in my office with an urgent exam question. Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine. Everything’s going to be just fine.” His laughter was filled with giddy relief.
Everything was not fine. Zhao Yunlan stared at the parchment and calligraphy set on his desk, placed conspicuously next to the notebook and pen Shen Wei gifted him. He had only been gone one afternoon to investigate a crime scene! With shaking hands, he picked up the top-most piece of parchment.
I notice that you enjoyed love poetry. The notebook and pen are practical gifts for your work. Let this calligraphy set be for your personal pleasure. Perhaps next time you can copy your favorite poems here and we can discuss them together.
The Black-Cloaked Envoy
4. Wang Zheng
“Wang Zheng, do you feel sorry for your poor chief?” asked Zhao Yunlan, a pitiful expression on his face. She had a soft heart and didn’t like to gossip, so he opted for a more straight-forward approach with her.
As expected, she gave him her full attention. “What’s wrong?”
“Complications in my love life. I’ve already fallen for someone, and now there’s a second person fighting for my affections.”
“And you want to discourage this second suitor?”
“Yes! I tried showing off all the gifts and food I received, but that just encouraged him to start giving me gifts too.”
Wang Zheng nodded sagely. “Many suitors think that love can be won with the promise of power and riches. They treat it as a competition of resources rather than a competition for someone's heart.”
“Hmm. So I went about showing my love in all the wrong ways?”
“I think it’s worth demonstrating that your love isn’t something that can be bought.”
Zhao Yunlan thought back to the love poems the Envoy suggested he write down. If he dedicated each poem to Shen Wei, then his devotion would be clear for all to see. He went back to his office and turned on his computer to research poetry. If only he had paid more attention in Chinese literature class!
5. Da Qing
“You’ve come to the right cat for help,” proclaimed Da Qing, tossing a fish snack into his mouth. “As the king of all cats, and a prime specimen of masculinity, I have broken my share of hearts. It is an indisputable fact that though many crave my love and approval, few are deserving of it.”
Barely two sentences in and Zhao Yunlan already regretted asking Da Qing for help. Especially since he had a perfectly good plan from Wang Zheng too.
“We’ve worked and lived together for so long, I consider you an honorary cat who can learn from my wisdom.”
It was easy to look at Da Qing’s youthful face and forget that he was a 10,000-year-old Yashou. When he was in the right mood, though, he sounded like the worst stereotypes of long-winded old men all put together. Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes and tuned out Da Qing’s self-aggrandizing speech, waiting to hear pertinent information.
“And this is the single most important principle of being a cat: It is not you who should change and accommodate the weakness of others. It is others who should prove themselves capable of handling us at both our best and our worst.”
Zhao Yunlan stifled a yawn. “So what you’re saying is that I should be a lazy no-good cat and the person willing to put up with all that nonsense is the one deserving of my love?”
Da Qing nodded. “Isn’t that why you’re with Professor Shen now? What a perfect cat companion. He does all the cooking, all the cleaning, and all the petting without a single complaint.”
If Zhao Yunlan didn’t know any better, he’d swear there were hearts in Da Qing’s eyes at the mention of Shen Wei. He kicked Da Qing. “For your information, I love Shen Wei because he makes me happy. Him doing all the chores around the house is just a bonus.”
Da Qing whistled. “So it’s love already, huh? Well, I’m not complaining. Like I said: What a cook! This cat will never go hungry again!”
He kicked the wordy cat out of his office.
It was tempting to ignore Da Qing. Taking advice on his love life from a cat had to be a new low, even for him. But when the Black-Cloaked Envoy arrived in his office uninvited to ask him about his new calligraphy set, he decided to throw everything he had at this oblivious wall of an Envoy until something stuck. With a lollipop in his mouth and a breezy attitude, he waved away the Envoy’s question. “I’m afraid I spent too much slacking off during calligraphy classes to make good use of this set. Would you be willing to write out the poems for me?”
The Envoy didn’t look insulted or put out at all. Instead, he took the calligraphy brush in one hand while moving the ink stick with his powers to grind the ink. With a soft smile, the Envoy asked: “Which poem did you want written first, then?”
Zhao Yunlan pondered the question. “What about To The Oak Tree 2?” He lowered his voice and put a hint of breathiness in it. “It perfectly illustrates my undying dedication to the love of my life.”
“Of course.” With practiced ease, the Envoy wrote the poem down on the parchment and handed it to Zhao Yunlan.
He didn’t understand it. How could anyone so easily write love poems for one’s romantic rival without a hint of jealousy? He put his feet on the desk, “accidentally” knocking over the ink stone. Without moving a muscle, the Envoy halted its fall in mid-air and floated it back to its original position. Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes. “How about another poem, Lord Envoy?”
How was this possible? Zhao Yunlan was about to run out of Shen Wei’s virtues to wax poetic about, but the Envoy showed no signs of impatience. In fact, he seemed to look happier and happier as time went on. Could it be that he just wasn’t the jealous type?
After the Envoy left, Zhao Yunlan caught up to Lao Chu at his training session with Xiao Guo. “Say, do Dixing people typically take multiple husbands and wives?”
Lao Chu covered Xiao Guo’s ears. “Absolutely not!”
On the one hand, he was relieved that he wouldn’t need to have a conversation with Shen Wei about how the Black-Cloaked Envoy wanted a threesome. On the other hand, that left no reasonable explanation for the Envoy’s behavior at all. He looked at Xiao Guo’s terrified face and shrunken demeanor. How desperate was he feeling?
6. Guo Changcheng
Lao Chu had a bad habit of monopolizing Xiao Guo, so Zhao Yunlan did not have a chance to corner him until the next day. “Hey, before Lao Chu drags you over to be his lackey again, mind giving me your opinion on something?”
Xiao Guo’s eyes almost bugged out of his head. “You want my opinion on something?”
“I know. I’m just as surprised as you are.”
Xiao Guo blinked. “Um. Okay.”
“So let’s say you have someone who’s hellbent on pursuing you romantically. They’re not taking any of your hints. How do you let them down easy?”
“Tell them the truth?” offered Xiao Guo.
“The truth. I’m not sure I consider that letting them down easy.”
“For me at least, I always appreciate the truth when I’m getting rejected. It’s a lot more embarrassing to have someone lie to your face about why they don’t want you, and you both have to pretend to believe them and then —” Xiao Guo stopped himself, cringing a little. “Just tell them you’re not interested. That’s all you need to do.”
This idea sounded crazy enough to work. There were days when Xiao Guo really surprised him. Seeing Lao Chu standing behind Xiao Guo with a thunderous expression, Zhao Yunlan bid them both goodbye and went to summon the Black-Cloaked Envoy again. All he had to do was get it over with. One sentence. Rip off the band-aid.
“Are you going to make these calls a habit, Yunlan?” asked the Envoy, his lips quirking up in a pleased smile.
Dammit dammit dammit. He was Yunlan to the Envoy now? And why did he have to look so happy at the prospect of a daily lunch date? Remember the band-aid. With a grimace, Zhao Yunlan gestured for the Envoy to sit. “Actually, I need to talk to you about something personal.”
“I heard you tell me that you love me.”
The Envoy froze.
“And I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.”
Time stopped. Possibly literally, considering the range of the Envoy’s powers. By the time he felt he could breathe again, the Envoy had already stood up with his back to Zhao Yunlan. “Chief Zhao. I am sorry if you misunderstood. I’m not in love with you.”
He had never noticed this before, but the Envoy was probably one of the worst liars he had ever met. Still, what he could say to that? He wasn’t about to get in an argument and insist that the Envoy loved him. Maybe this was the Envoy’s clumsy way of saving his dignity? He felt a pang of sympathy. Somewhere in a parallel universe, they might have met first and fallen for each other, their duties and love mingling to form an unbreakable bond. In this universe, they were nothing more than two boats passing each other in the night.
Zhao Yunlan put on a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. “Okay. Good. Then we’re both not interested in each other. And everyone’s happy.”
The Envoy nodded, a little too quickly. “So we can keep these daily meetings then?”
Zhao Yunlan gave up.
7. Lin Jing
It was funny how pride could blind a person to the obvious. Yes, Zhao Yunlan was damned hot, and he knew it. And in the heat of the moment, the Envoy may have believed that he loved this strange, irreverent mortal friend he had only just met. But to pursue him so persistently at the cost of his pride and impartiality? It made no sense unless it wasn’t Zhao Yunlan that clouded his judgment.
A lonely figure meting out justice must not have many chances for a friendship of equals. Lao Chu came the closest, and even he treated the Envoy more as a figure to be worshiped and obeyed than a friend. Zhao Yunlan remembered the idiotic things he had done in the name of “love” when he was younger, and how the first heartbreak felt as though he could never love another again. But that was the inexperience talking. This same inexperience that must be blinding the Envoy to all the options he could have if he just opened his eyes and looked beyond Zhao Yunlan.
“Ah, Lin Jing. You look like a hard worker who would be interested in earning a bonus!”
Lin Jing put his hand on Zhao Yunlan’s forehead. “Are you okay, boss? Do you have a fever? Did you hit your head too hard in the mountains?”
Zhao Yunlan pushed Lin Jing’s hand away. It was a good thing his epiphany put him in a fantastic mood or he’d be tempted to dock Lin Jing’s pay again. “Asking for a friend - what’s the fastest way to meet a bunch of new people for dates? There’s probably some kind of app out there for that, right? Some special sites for meetups?”
“Er. Well, there is Tantan?”
“Nah, don’t have a picture,” said Zhao Yunlan, waving away the suggestion.
Lin Jing scratched his head. “I don’t know how you plan to do on-line dating without using a picture.” He leaned forward and started tapping away at his keyboard. “I guess I can look up reviews for nightclubs?”
“Get me a report by the end of the day.” Zhao Yunlan stood up to leave.
“Are you supposed to pay me for this kind of personal ‘research’?” asked Lin Jing to his retreating back.
“Do you want your bonus or not? This is critical diplomatic work!”
“Sure thing, boss.”
True to his word, Lin Jing left a summary of social events and nightclubs in Dragon City for Zhao Yunlan before the end of the day. The man liked to slack off, but he was a veritable wizard at his job. Persuading the Envoy to join him tonight at a club was easier than expected too.
Looking up at the classy, low-key sign above the club door that said ‘Masque’, Zhao Yunlan couldn’t believe this perfect place actually existed. He adjusted his mask and swished his cape dramatically, preening a little. Sure, his costume was a cut-and-paste mishmash of his previous Halloween costumes, but he thought it had a certain creative charm to it.
“Ready to go in, Lord Envoy?”
The Envoy tucked Zhao Yunlan’s arm in his own and walked into the club.
In stark contrast to its unremarkable exterior, the interior of the club resembled a grand, old-fashioned dance hall. Masked figures danced inside to the slow, lilting tunes of the Guzheng, played by a green-robed woman with a silk handkerchief covering the lower half of her face.
Zhao Yunlan tried and failed to remove his arm from the Envoy’s grasp. How was the Envoy going to meet a potential date here if he clung to Zhao Yunlan’s arms the whole night? He had to think fast. “Why don’t you find us somewhere to sit while I get us some drinks?”
“All right.” With a lingering caress down Zhao Yunlan’s arm, the Envoy disappeared into the swaying crowd.
Letting out a breath of relief, Zhao Yunlan found his way to an inconspicuous corner of the bar and sat down. His eyes scanned the crowd. There was the Envoy, finding a comfortable spot near a painting of a crane and sitting down. He suppressed a twinge of guilt at the expectant expression on the Envoy’s face and continued to look around. Hmmm. Not that one. Too loud. Not that one either. Too jumpy. The quiet one reading a book had promise though. With a grin, Zhao Yunlan flagged down the bartender and ordered a drink for the solitary reader, and gestured at the Envoy as the man responsible for buying it.
The Envoy cut an impressive figure with his ornate robes and mask, so it wasn’t surprising when the man immediately put down his book and headed for the Envoy with a smile. Keeping one eye on the polite conversation between the Envoy and his prospective date, Zhao Yunlan pulled out his phone and sent Shen Wei a text full of heart emojis mixed with lines of poetry. When he went home tonight, he would have to show Shen Wei how to open the texts and read them together.
His good mood evaporated when the bookworm nodded a polite farewell to the Envoy and left the table after barely five minutes of conversation. Damn. The Envoy had no idea how to flirt, so his prospective date must have left thinking there was no interest. Someone bolder and more confident then.
Another drink, another prospect, another rejection. This time the Envoy was more forceful, moving the other man’s hands off his arm.
Maybe someone funny, to make the Envoy laugh? Zhao Yunlan sighed at the exorbitant prices in this club and ordered another drink. The Envoy stared down the jokester, face impassively blank, until the man slunk away in defeat. He was just considering randomly selecting the next candidate when a gloved hand landed on his shoulder.
“I think you’ve spent enough tonight on drinks, don’t you?”
Zhao Yunlan most definitely did not jump or let out a tiny scream. “Lord Envoy! You’re here. Are you unhappy with my attempt at improving Haixing and Dixing relations through social activities?”
The Envoy’s eyes were unreadable behind his mask. “I thought you would be involved in these activities. Or your team. Not these strangers.”
Zhao Yunlan shrugged. “It never hurts to broaden one’s horizons.”
“I’m happy with the people in my life now.”
8. Lao Li
“Chief Zhao, if you seek a voice of experience in a matter related to your life and career, would your father not be the better choice? I would not presume to know better.”
Zhao Yunlan deflated. Deep down, he must have known what Lao Li would say, or he might have reached out earlier for advice. “It can’t hurt to get a second opinion though, right?”
Lao Li considered the situation for a moment. “Perhaps what you need to accept is that there is no good solution for the situation you’re in. Not all choices are without downsides. Sometimes we can try our best and still hurt the people we care about.”
Zhao Yunlan smiled. “You can’t blame me if I hoped for a better outcome though.”
“There’s always hope, Chief Zhao. That even if we hurt someone, they may find healing and through that grant us some measure of forgiveness.”
He gave Lao Li a thoughtful look, wondering what hurts and losses the old ghost hid. “Thanks for the advice. I appreciate it.”
9. Zhao Xinci
Neither father nor son were morning people, so Zhao Yunlan visited his father early the next morning to ensure they were both suitably irritated with each other’s presence.
“So, how much trouble are you in that you’ve decided to see me of your own free will?”
Zhao Yunlan cut straight to the chase, relishing the shock he was sure to deliver to his father with this revelation. “The Black-Cloaked Envoy is in love with me.”
As with most of his interactions with his father, however, his father’s reaction was disappointing. “Yes. You’ve always had a special way of finding new problems. Is that it, then? You’ve come to seek my blessing?”
“… No?” The gears in Zhao Yunlan’s head turned over the inexplicable events of the past few days, leading up to his father’s uncharacteristic reaction. “I’ve come for advice on how to reject him?”
Surprise showed on his father’s face now. “Hm. I thought for sure you’d let this go on until it became a diplomatic incident, but I’m happy to be wrong this time. It’s good you’re ending this while it’s still early. Give me a moment.”
His father retrieved a thick folder of documents from his desk and slid it over to him. “There. All the policies in the peace treaty about fraternization between Haixing and Dixing officials. A small reminder of his duties and the consequences of defying regulations should do the job without making it too personal.”
Zhao Yunlan swallowed. If he thought about it, the only unexpected thing here was that his father already knew of the Envoy’s feelings. Although… he had been so certain only Lao Chu was there when he was hurt and the Envoy caught him in his arms. Of course, once his father knew, it was only natural that he prepared for the worst-case scenario in that same cold, efficient way he dealt with everything else in his life.
Tucking the folder of papers under his arm, Zhao Yunlan gave his father a half-hearted salute. “Thanks.”
Back at his apartment, he paced the floor. For some reason, he did not feel at all relieved to have this solution handed to him. Instead, a slow anger simmered within him. Was he really going to do this? It was a callous thing designed to hit the Envoy where he was most vulnerable - the duties and responsibilities to which he dedicated entire life.
Amidst his ambivalent emotions, a part of his mind kept forcing him to re-examine a single question: how did his father know? He wasn’t sure why but it seemed vitally important to find out. Putting off the decision until later, Zhao Yunlan threw the folder on the couch, and headed out to work.
10. Shen Wei
Zhao Yunlan’s foul mood was not improved when he arrived at the office to find a giant pile of paperwork waiting for him and everyone hard at work with tasks that his father assigned them. No one could accuse his father of waiting to call in his favors. On top of all that, Shen Wei stopped answering his calls and texts, which always made him antsy with worry. In a moment of weakness, he took out the incense burner and sent for the Black-Cloaked Envoy. One last try at breaking things off before he resorted to his father’s methods. A bit of normalcy to settle his nerves.
The hours passed in silence. Zhao Yunlan stared out the window, watching the light of day fade. The Black-Cloaked Envoy did not come.
Out of patience, he threw the paperwork into his desk drawers and left early. Something nagged at the back of his mind. Something important. Something urgent. He needed to be home.
Trees and street signs passed in a blur. Taking the stairs two steps at a time, he breathed hard as he threw open his apartment door. His heart dropped. Shen Wei sat on the couch with his head hung low, his hands laced behind his head. In front of him, the folder Zhao Yunlan carelessly left behind was spread open on the table.
“Shen Wei…” Something in his head clicked. “It’s you. It’s been you all along.”
Shen Wei raised his head and Zhao Yunlan’s heart clenched. He never wanted to see that look of utter devastation on Shen Wei’s face again. Stumbling over the furniture in the way, he somehow managed jump onto the couch without injuring himself. With a sweep of his hand, he sent the papers scattering to the floor. “Shen Wei, no. Don’t. Please, don’t look at me like this,” he pleaded.
“I didn’t think you were being serious,” whispered Shen Wei, his voice hoarse. “I thought you suspected and were testing me. But you… you mean this. You don’t want the Envoy. You don’t want me if I’m him.”
“Shen Wei, stop.” Zhao Yunlan grabbed Shen Wei’s hand and held it tight. “Let me show you exactly how much I want you.”
Bewildered, Shen Wei put up no resistance when Zhao Yunlan pushed him down flat on the couch. Cupping Shen Wei’s face with his free hand, Zhao Yunlan kissed Shen Wei until their world spun around them, dizzying and breath-taking. They kissed until finally, tentatively, Shen Wei reached out with his hands and buried his fingers deep in Zhao Yunlan’s hair. They kissed until Zhao Yunlan felt Shen Wei’s mouth curve up under his. He pulled back and let out a sharp exhale of relief.
Shen Wei drew Zhao Yunlan back down on top of himself. “Before you came home, I was considering letting my secret stay hidden forever. I wanted so badly to keep you.” Shen Wei’s grip on him tightened. “Do you think less of me for it?”
“Come on. When have you ever known me to give a single fuck about regulation and procedure?” Zhao Yunlan brought Shen Wei’s hand up to his mouth and kissed each of Shen Wei’s fingers one by one. “I don’t want the Envoy if he’s anyone else. But I do want him if he’s you.”
The smile on Shen Wei’s face was so brilliant that his heart could sing at the sight of it. Zhao Yunlan nuzzled Shen Wei’s neck. “Are we good?”
Shen Wei pressed a kiss against his temple. “Yeah, we are.”
Snuggled up warm and happy, Zhao Yunlan grinned. “We are going to have so much fun flirting at work from now on.”