Shen Wei has always appreciated the city's nekomimi population. They remind him of his own people, not only in their abilities but in all the ways mainstream society subtly discriminates against them. Since no imbalance can be corrected by equity alone, he’s careful to show them slightly more respect than their human counterparts.
The cat people are few and far between. Some of them hide their feline features when interacting with humans, wearing hoods or scarves over their ears and keeping their tails carefully tucked away. Others live apart, keeping their own company in cat communities that don’t welcome outsiders.
Some are visible and proud on the streets of the city. They shake hands with humans and meow at each other and refuse to apologize for being who they are. They patronize restaurants that cater to their palate and they protest media that portrays them as cute and subservient.
Some of them take a human lover or partner. Some of them choose not to speak to humans at all. Some wear clothes made for them while others adapt human clothing in more or less outrageous ways. Shen Wei respects their choices and their boundaries.
He certainly does not fetishize them.
Except for one.
He met Zhao Yunlan during an unfortunate incident at the university involving one of his students. The Guardian order that protects the city employs a number of nekomimi, and two of them handled the investigation. Officer Daqing conducted a first and second interview of Shen Wei’s student, and Officer Zhao accompanied him on both occasions: poking his nose into every corner, flashing his badge with a smirk, and making an unusual nuisance of himself for someone who never said a word.
Shen Wei tried not to be amused. He imposed himself on the initial interview to support his student, but he accompanied her to the follow-up out of sheer curiosity. What contribution did Officer Zhao make that he went on interviews but didn’t speak?
It was quickly clear that Officer Zhao’s sharp eyes missed nothing, and his ability to be where he was least expected seemed to fluster witnesses. It might prompt them to provide information they would otherwise have kept to themselves. He and Officer Daqing seemed to share observations and reactions without words, and Shen Wei could see the value of their partnership.
He was not prepared when, following the formalities that concluded the second interview, Officer Zhao walked over and handed him a business card.
“I--” Shen Wei wanted to ask why, but of course the nekomimi wouldn’t answer. “Thank you?” he tried instead.
Officer Zhao smiled at him. It was close-mouthed but very human, and Shen Wei remembers catching himself just before he would have looked at Officer Zhao’s ears. Were they angled forward or flattened back? Did his human and feline expressions match? And what business was it of Shen Wei’s?
He looked down at the card just as Officer Zhao leaned in, the coincidence of timing bringing their heads very close together. Officer Zhao pointed to the number under his name. Shen Wei remembers wanting to ask who he talked to on the phone--would he talk to Shen Wei?--or if he only used it for texting. Maybe he called his people and just exchanged texts with humans.
Shen Wei knows it’s inappropriate and potentially dangerous to blurt out, “I’m not human either,” just because he wants Zhao Yunlan to like him. The knowledge might not have stopped him that day, but something did. Something made him nod, closing his fingers around that card, and allow Officer Zhao to stroll out of the room with his partner.
He still regrets it.
He was surprised to walk into his apartment that night and find Officer Zhao sitting on his couch. He often leaves the window cracked to receive messages from home, and he knows many city residents welcome feline visitors the same way. Surely, though, his wasn't wide enough for a cat to squeeze through?
Even if it were, what purpose in testing it?
Officer Zhao just looked at him, and Shen Wei wondered if this was standard procedure somehow. It could be some sort of witness tracking or case research. He knows just enough about the Guardian order to know that no one knows enough about the Guardian order. Not even him.
“Hello,” he said, for lack of anything more appropriate. “Have you come to interview me this time?”
Officer Zhao gave him a very skeptical look. Instead of feeling embarrassed, something about that expression made him smile. “Yes,” he said. “Well. I guess that wouldn't work too well, would it.”
Unexpectedly, this got a smile in return: not mocking or malicious, just… cheerful, like they were sharing a joke. It made him comfortable enough to say, “Would you like some tea?”
He wasn’t looking, but he couldn’t miss the way those black ears flicked forward.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Shen Wei said. He assumed he was supposed to interpret Officer Zhao’s expressions, human or otherwise, given that he didn’t seem any more inclined to talk to Shen Wei alone than he had when surrounded by other people.
He set his bag down and went to the kitchen, aware of Officer Zhao folding his hands on his knees while he watched. It was all too easy to imagine a black cat in his place, staring at him with its front paws crossed, and Shen Wei was careful to hide his smile. He expects nekomimi must get tired of hearing, wow, you look just like a cat!
Officer Zhao stayed for tea, sipping it slowly while Shen Wei made awkward, one-sided conversation about the way the investigation had affected campus life, the rumors that flew because of it, and his own concerns about his student’s experience. If the goal was to find out what he knew about the case, he was as clear as he could be without compromising anyone else.
He tried not to talk more than he usually would, but it was difficult when his was the only voice. That was what Officer Zhao brought to interviews, after all. His silence encouraged others to speak.
When he’d finished his tea, he didn’t get up. Shen Wei wondered if he was waiting for something else, or if he might finally reveal a reason for his visit. Instead, Officer Zhao looked pointedly at the cup Shen Wei still held, his remaining tea cool and mostly forgotten.
“Ah.” He lifted the cup quickly, taking another swallow. He was subject to the same intense scrutiny when he drank as he was when he spoke. He wasn’t sure why the insistence on courtesy for what must have been a professional visit, but he finished his tea as soon as he could without gulping it down.
Officer Zhao nodded when he set his empty cup down, which was a surprise in and of itself. Not once during the course of their interaction had he moved his head as a human would to indicate yes or no. Everything else about him suggested he was very aware of human body language, so Shen Wei assumed it was a deliberate choice. Why he abandoned it after tea was a mystery.
When he got up, Shen Wei immediately followed suit. He waited, and for a long moment they just looked at each other. Finally Officer Zhao gave him a lopsided smile and a little wave, and Shen Wei blinked. Was he leaving?
Sure enough, he turned and headed for the door like the interview was over. Shen Wei stared after him, baffled. He watched Officer Zhao open his door, then turn around and wave again, so he offered a tentative wave in return. It made Officer Zhao smile before he slipped out, closing the door behind him.
Officer Zhao was standing at his door when he got home the next day. Well, standing might be overstating the case. He was lounging against the wall like it needed him to hold it up, and he looked bored and disgruntled even when he caught sight of Shen Wei.
Shen Wei frowned at him, genuinely puzzled by his returning visitor. “Can I help you, Officer Zhao?”
He got an incredulous look for this. The nekomimi fumbled with his pockets and pulled out another business card, shoving it in his face. Shen Wei didn’t flinch, eyes flicking over the name again and noting the thumb that covered his title underneath.
“Zhao Yunlan,” he said, and the hand fell. Zhao Yunlan was beaming at him, and he couldn’t help smiling back. “Very well. Can I help you, Zhao Yunlan?”
Zhao Yunlan held up the card again, a little less aggressively the second time. He tapped the number at the bottom, giving Shen Wei an expectant look. The message was clear, if unexpected.
“I… I don’t have a mobile phone?” Shen Wei said uncertainly.
Zhao Yunlan looked shocked by this statement. He wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last. He actually mimed texting, eyebrows raised, and Shen Wei shook his head reluctantly. He was torn between delight that Zhao Yunlan had just mimed something for him, and disappointment that he had no way to take him up on his offer.
That was the first time he ever thought: maybe it would be worth it to get a phone.
Zhao Yunlan further surprised him by shaking a finger in his face, like he was scolding Shen Wei for his inability to communicate, then pulled back and put his hands in his pockets. He didn’t walk away. He just stood there, watching Shen Wei, until finally Shen Wei said, “Would you like to come in?”
Zhao Yunlan brightened, sweeping a hand toward the door like he was inviting Shen Wei to precede him into his own apartment. Shaking his head with a smile, Shen Wei opened the door and stepped inside.
Only when he went to the kitchen to put the kettle on did he remember he’d closed the windows before he left that morning.
He hadn’t meant to draw more attention on campus. Apparently his interaction with the Guardian order had been noted, and some of the rumors surrounding the investigation were starting to include him. He ignored them, but after class one of his students asked if they were keeping him and he said no: he was only planning to stop by the university tech store.
If he’d thought about it, he might have realized this would sound exactly as unusual as it did. He wears an analog watch and he can’t operate a digital projector. Of course his students would take notice when he mentioned shopping for technology.
When pressed, he was reluctant to admit he needed a phone, but he couldn’t find a reason not to. It probably says something about his degree of technological ineptitude that no one understood at first. One of his students actually said, “I’m not sure the tech store has desk phones?”
“Ah.” He smiled, because there was no other appropriate response. “I’m looking for a mobile phone.”
At least three of them exclaimed at once, but it was Jia-Jia who asked the obvious question. “Professor Shen, does this mean we can call you now?”
“Of course,” he told them. “You may call me at my desk, as usual.”
They weren’t satisfied with this answer, but people rarely were. He couldn’t afford to provide others with a means of tracking his location, superficial or otherwise. He was too often beyond the reach of satellite signals for that. Carrying a phone that was consistently unavailable would only raise questions.
He didn’t expect the passing interest of a member of the Guardian order to jeopardize his identity. Zhao Yunlan hadn’t asked him to get a phone, after all. He hadn’t even indicated he would use it. Once the Guardians completed their investigation, he would certainly have other concerns.
In the meantime, if having a phone made it conceivable that Zhao Yunlan would communicate in actual sentences, Shen Wei was very curious to know what he would say.
The university tech store was an intimidating place, and Shen Wei didn’t try to pretend otherwise. He went immediately to the counter for assistance. He said plainly that he had never owned a mobile phone and had no affinity for them, but he needed one for work and would be grateful for any recommendation the staff made.
It was the truth, at least in that the need was Zhao Yunlan’s work, rather than his own.
A young woman named Chen Huiying picked out a phone for him and set it up. He didn’t know phones had to be set up, but she only laughed when he said so, so perhaps this was funny enough to seem like a joke. When she handed it to him for the first time, glowing and mysterious, he reminded himself that it was unlikely just owning such a device would compromise him.
“Can you tell me how to send a text message on this phone?” he asked her.
“Sure,” she said. “Tap this icon here: it looks like a speech bubble? Then tap this little picture of a pencil.”
He was so grateful she used words he understood that he didn’t point out the contradictory nature of this symbolism.
“Then you put the phone number of the person you want to text here,” she continued, “and you type your message here.”
He stared at the screen, but it still didn’t have any characters on it. “I don’t understand,” he said. “How do I type with this?”
“Oh,” she said, letting her finger hover over the screen. “Just tap in the place you want to type, and a keyboard will appear.” She demonstrated by tapping the top of the screen, then added, “You can switch from letters to numbers or symbols down here.”
He decided that he might need more supervision than he’d expected to use this device. “Do you mind,” Shen Wei asked, “if I try to follow your instructions now?”
“Of course not,” she said. “I’m happy to help.”
He still suspects she was more amused by him than anything, but he took her at her word and removed Zhao Yunlan’s business card from his jacket pocket. He held the phone in one hand and tucked the business card against his palm in the other so he could use one finger to type. The numbers on the screen weren’t easy to isolate with his fingertip, but he did learn how to use the delete key, which was very useful.
He remembered her instruction on where to tap for the content of the message, but it was another long and laborious process to type, Hello, Zhao Yunlan.
He stared at the phone for a long moment before he looked up again and asked, “Is this message sent as soon as I type it?”
“Um, no,” she said. He got the impression she was being very patient with him. “You have to tap a button to make the message go to someone else’s phone. Right here.”
He did so, and then she added, “Is whoever you’re texting expecting to get a message from you? Your phone number is new, so whoever you text probably won’t recognize it until they know it’s you.”
He hadn’t thought of how the phones would recognize each other. The phone on his desk automatically turned numbers into names. “No,” he said. “He's not expecting me.”
Before he could start to type his name, though, the screen changed. A question mark appeared under his greeting, and he frowned. “Why is there a question mark now?” he asked. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” she said. “That’s the other person typing. The person you’re talking to sent you a message with a question mark in it? Probably because they can’t tell who you are from your phone number.”
He didn't know whether to feel pleased that Zhao Yunlan replied so quickly, or disappointed to realize he might not use words even via text. It was his choice, Shen Wei reminded himself. A person’s mode of communication was not for others to decide.
“Of course,” he said aloud. And then, as he painstakingly wrote his own name, he added, “This seems like a very slow process.” He almost said, Wouldn’t it be faster to call? But in this case it was apparently texting or nothing, so no. It wouldn't be.
“The keyboard will learn how you type,” she told him. “So it gets easier the more you use it.”
“It learns how I type?” he repeated.
“Well, no,” she admitted. “Actually you'll just get better at typing on a tiny touchscreen. We only tell people it learns to make them feel better so they keep practicing.”
He finally tapped “send” on his self-identifying message. He could appreciate the psychological subterfuge. He probably wouldn’t use the phone enough to develop any real skill, but it was reassuring to hear that even natives had to practice.
This time an exclamation point appeared after his message, and he looked up. “Is this a warning of some sort?”
“I think it means the person you’re talking to is surprised,” she said.
“Oh.” Shen Wei looked at the phone again, where another message with two exclamation points had appeared. “That’s reasonable. To be fair, I’m surprised myself.”
But when a third message appeared, this one with actual words that said, Did you get a phone just for me? He could feel the smile on his face, and he knew his expression was inexcusably delighted.
Yes, he wrote in return. He thanked Chen Huiying for her help, almost forgetting the box the phone came in when he turned away.
“This has instructions with it,” she reminded him, handing over the box, and he nodded.
“I will study them,” he said. “Thank you again.”
“Try looking things up on the internet if that doesn’t work,” she offered. “Just type in ‘how do I,’ and your question, and then the type of phone.”
“Of course,” he said, looking at his phone again. He didn’t bother telling her he didn’t have a computer, because there were already three new messages from Zhao Yunlan.
The first one just said, Aww. The second one said, I’m so flattered! And the third one said, You’re gonna regret this.
Shen Wei could not imagine why that would be true. He started to type, Do you mean I’m not going to regret it?
Before he could finish “do you mean,” the next message form Zhao Yunlan said, You better put that on silent when you’re teaching, because I have so many questions.
Shen Wei didn’t make it back to his office before his afternoon lecture that day. He quickly learned that trying to read Zhao Yunlan’s messages while he walked, let alone any attempt on his part to answer them, was not conducive to his safety. He didn’t realize how many of them there would be when he sat down on a bench outside the Campus Student Center, but even if he had, he would have made the same choice.
Obtaining regular meals was an important part of an unremarkable facade, but the rare opportunity to exchange words with someone who didn’t speak should be reason enough for changing his routine.
He did think it unfair that Zhao Yunlan was the one with questions, given he was also the one who didn’t answer them. That was before it occurred to Shen Wei that all of his own questions were completely inappropriate, and he could never ask any of them in a text message. Or in person. Or at all.
So he decided to be grateful for Zhao Yunlan’s continuous barrage of do you like teaching? and do you like your students? and do your parents like what you do? and are you seeing anyone? Shen Wei wasn’t sure how all of those things related to the investigation, but Zhao Yunlan hadn’t requested an official interview, either. He was clearly someone who took advantage of opportunity.
At first Shen Wei tried to offer explanations with his answers, but his replies were painfully slow compared to Zhao Yunlan’s endless stream of speech bubbles. He settled for answering yes and no as appropriate, and marveling at the way Zhao Yunlan never seemed to run out of words. How in the world did he walk silently among humans?
Was it only humans, Shen Wei wondered? It couldn’t be everyone, could it? He supposed it was possible that Zhao Yunlan had so much to say precisely because he didn’t speak at all, but considering the non-superficial nature of his questions, it seemed unlikely.
Shen Wei found a tiny clock in the top corner of his phone screen, but he kept forgetting to look anywhere except the bottom, where the latest questions appeared. He missed lunch. He missed his unposted office hours. Only when his lecture period started to creep up on him did he reluctantly type, I have to go.
It was right in the middle of Zhao Yunlan’s speculation about how little time he spent in the lab, which Shen Wei could have discussed in greater detail if he had the typing skill and speed. Or unlimited time. The last thing he wanted to do was be rude, but growing evidence suggested there would never be a polite moment to disengage.
Indeed, when he finally said he had to go, Zhao Yunlan replied, You think that's going to stop me?
No? Shen Wei guessed. He was learning to make do with fewer words. Maybe this was a kind of cultural exchange.
No, correct, Zhao Yunlan replied, and one of his tiny smiling face pictures followed. Where are you? Where are you going?
CSC, Shen Wei replied. And then, Lecture. He was very proud of himself for answering both questions before Zhao Yunlan could ask another one.
Zhao Yunlan's next question turned out to be, Can I come?
He followed it with, CSC? Then, Is that the Campus Student Center? And, Where’s your lecture? Is it open to the public? What about interested third parties?
Shen Wei wanted to ask why he wasn't working--surely even Zhao Yunlan couldn't type with this much dedication and still work at the same time--but he still had to walk to the lecture hall. Which was not closed to the public, precisely. Certainly he could have guests at his lectures if he chose.
You can come, he said. He wanted to mention the topic, which Zhao Yunlan was unlikely to be interested in, and at the same time ask if he needed directions. But there wasn't time, so he wrote the building name and room number and then resolutely pushed the button that would turn his new phone off.
It lit up again before he could put it away, which was how he learned that phones were never really off. But it didn't make any noise, and he wasn't a student, so he slid it carefully into a pocket of his bag and started walking. He refused to be late to class because he was sending text messages, no matter how interesting the recipient was.
He didn't check the phone when he reached the lecture hall. He didn't even take it out of his bag, because the moment one of his students saw it they would ask the same thing Jia-Jia did. He scanned the room for a nekomimi officer among the students, but Zhao Yunlan either wasn't there yet or he knew how to make himself invisible.
Shen Wei decided not to rule out either possibility.
He was ten minutes into his lecture when a door at the back of the room opened and a familiar figure sauntered in. Shen Wei didn’t pause, but Zhao Yunlan lifted his hand in a wave and he smiled back without thinking. A late arrival wasn’t unusual, but of course his acknowledgment made everyone turn to see who it was.
Which meant that a large portion of the class was treated to the dramatic flourish of Officer Zhao’s tail as he took a seat, sleek and black and very obvious as he swung it out of the way and draped it casually over the arm of his chair. A perfectly logical place for it, Shen Wei told himself. The real question should be, what did nekomimi who hid their tails do with them when they sat down?
He turned back to his slides so there was at least one person in the room not staring. In retrospect, this was not going to dispel any rumors concerning his involvement with the Guardian order.
Shen Wei’s home was silent and still when he returned to it that evening. No one waited for him in the hall, or inside on the couch. He’d been careful to leave the window open when he left that morning, but he could look at it and know the sill hadn’t been crossed since.
Zhao Yunlan had sat through his entire lecture and then some. He’d lingered in his chosen seat at the back of the room for some minutes after it started to empty. Shen Wei imagined that he curled his tail closer to his body when people started getting up and shuffling past, but he couldn’t see through the crowd and he was distracted by questions.
When he looked up again, Zhao Yunlan was gone.
Shen Wei was suddenly sympathetic to every student who furtively checked their phone under their desk or behind their lab bench. There were many good reasons for not pulling out his own new phone and checking it for any sort of reaction, explanation, or even more questions. There was only one reason to do it, so numbers alone dictated that he not.
But oh, how he wanted to.
He waited until he was back in his office, because that seemed a reasonable location to calmly inspect the new technology he had acquired to see if it required attention. It did, of course. The picture of a speech bubble Chen Huiying had indicated to him had the number “22” in red over top of it. When he tapped on it, twenty-two was exactly the number of messages Zhao Yunlan had sent him since he left the bench outside the student center.
The first one would have let Shen Wei know he was on his way. No message mentioned the paucity of directions, but Shen Wei was under no illusions about how closely the Guardians researched their witnesses. If Zhao Yunlan could make telling comments about the amount of time Shen Wei spent in his own lab, there was no doubt he could find his way around campus lecture halls.
Most of the other messages were comments on Shen Wei’s lecture: insightful ones, somewhat to his surprise. They were largely speculative, which wasn’t a surprise at all, but they were relevant and most were clearly provoked by something Shen Wei had said. He wondered if he should ask Zhao Yunlan about his background, or if it was acceptable to research it himself, as Zhao Yunlan had clearly done to him.
The final two messages on his phone had been, Guardian emergency gotta go, followed by, Thanks for the date!
Shen Wei had taken care to answer all of his questions before he left the university, but no further messages had appeared since. It was understandable; surely Zhao Yunlan’s investigation had been thorough enough. He must have learned everything he needed to know--what more could there be?
Of course Shen Wei hoped there had been no Guardian emergency: that it was only an excuse to take his leave without causing a bigger scene in the lecture hall. The energy in the city had been calm all day. If Zhao Yunlan’s department was dealing with some new interspecies incident, it wasn’t serious enough to make waves.
He pushed the window up a little higher before attending to his work that evening. Just in case there was some word from home.
His eyes were hot and gritty by the time he heard something from the window. It wasn't a messenger from home at all, but a far more welcome inquisitive meow. It only came once, but he looked up sharply and called, “Come in,” before he thought.
He was exhausted, and he couldn’t do anything about it while one of the Guardian order was watching. If he’d hesitated even a moment, he could have discreetly expended some energy to sharpen his mental state and improve his physical wellbeing. But there was already a black shape silhouetted in his window, flowing gracefully to the floor as he watched.
It was the first time he’d seen an all-black nekomimi up close. He’d decided to do some research after all, and Zhao Yunlan’s cat form was on record with his mostly human guise as part of his Guardian profile. But seeing a still picture was in no way comparable to seeing a shadow move. Nor had it prepared Shen Wei for how soft and shiny his fur would look when he got close enough to touch.
The meow sounded irritable this time, and he blinked. There was a cat sitting on his living room table, staring back at him, and he had no more idea what it wanted than he did when Zhao Yunlan’s human form watched him like this. “Hello?” he offered.
The cat meowed at him again. It didn’t sound any happier.
“You know, speaking in a language I don’t know doesn’t make you any easier to understand,” Shen Wei told him. He could probably be more polite, but he was tired and baffled and it really was unfair that Zhao Yunlan couldn’t just tell him why he was here.
The cat’s ears flattened and it hissed at him. It didn’t crouch, though, making the reaction look more deliberate than instinctive. Shen Wei wasn’t sure if the attempt to communicate should soften his response or not.
“I didn’t tell you to come here,” he reminded Zhao Yunlan.
The cat hung its head.
Shen Wei blinked at it. He was sure that wasn’t a feline expression. Human guilt? Apology, even? Was he reading too much into it?
“It’s fine,” he said. “You’re certainly welcome. Would you like--” He stopped before he could offer tea to a cat, then he realized there wasn’t any way to save it that would be less awkward. “I was going to offer you tea, but maybe you’d prefer something else?”
The cat stood up, leapt from the table to the couch, and curled up next to him with its tail over its nose. The speed of the transition made it seem as though Zhao Yunlan dove into the cushions with the intent of not looking at him. Shen Wei was careful not to move while he considered the options.
“All right,” he said at last. But quietly, because the cat’s eyes were closed and the very tip of its tail was twitching: like it couldn’t decide between angry and grumpy and sad. Or maybe Shen Wei just didn’t understand which it was supposed to be.
“Let me know if you need anything,” he said, and he went back to work.
The next day Shen Wei received a single text from Zhao Yunlan that just said, Sorry about last night. Bad day at the office.
It took Shen Wei several minutes to decide how to reply. He hadn’t planned on sleeping the night before, but with a Guardian pressed up against his hip, even in cat form, he hadn’t dared draw more than the barest minimum of energy to keep an eye on the city. His alertness, perhaps ironically, had been sacrificed to the cause.
He wouldn’t have said he nodded off, but by the time he noticed the warmth against his leg had disappeared, Zhao Yunlan was gone.
You’re welcome whenever you like, Shen Wei wrote at last. He sent it before he could think any more about what it meant.
There was no reply, and he wondered what could have happened between the end of his lecture and the time when Zhao Yunlan showed up at his window. Perhaps he should pay more attention to the activities of the Guardian order after all. They couldn’t be operating within appropriate boundaries if they were causing their members such distress.
He’d gotten some sleep, intentional or otherwise. He could spend a night observing them.
Looking back, Shen Wei can say this for certain: that was the decision that turned the rest of his life into an uncontrolled tumult of emotion and uncertainty. Even at the time he’d been aware that he was more interested in Zhao Yunlan than was wise, but he didn’t see any harm that would come of it. His reputation was largely protected by his academic status, and he didn’t believe anyone in the city would be determined enough to unmask him.
As far as Zhao Yunlan’s reputation went, he was already a nekomimi in the Guardian order. He didn’t hide who he was and he had no reason to fear public scrutiny. If he spent an untoward amount of time prowling the university campus, well, it was a public institution of learning and open to all. He wasn’t anywhere he wasn’t supposed to be.
He also wasn’t working the evening shift when the Black-Cloaked Envoy of Dixing opened a portal inside Guardian headquarters. Shen Wei would be sorry to miss their nightly appointment, but it was an informal thing and he had left the window open, after all. Zhao Yunlan might not even visit, and then he would have wasted this opportunity for nothing.
“Lord Envoy!” Officer Daqing was still on duty, apparently. “We weren’t expecting you!”
“No,” he agreed, looking slowly over the entire room. He took in the current cases, officer locations, and the assignment board. Zhao Yunlan was listed as “at large,” “off duty,” and “unassigned,” respectively.
“I’m afraid Lord Kunlun just left,” Officer Daqing told him. There were three other people in the room, all of them staring. One of them was holding up what looked suspiciously like a mobile phone. “I hope you can accept our humble assistance in his place.”
He had never met Lord Kunlun, though the city knew their hooded hero well. The Envoy of Dixing kept his distance from the Guardian order, and it returned the favor: policing humans and human hybrids, leaving the policing of his people to him. The order’s leader was his equal in the city and nominally his liaison, but Shen Wei preferred to go directly to the appropriate agency when he needed cooperation.
He represented Dixing. No further liaison was required. Frankly Shen Wei found it offensive that the surface government would suggest an intermediary at all. That wasn’t the fault of the Guardian order, of course, and they had cooperated civilly, if remotely, in the past.
This time he was only interested in information. Specifically, information about what might have upset Zhao Yunlan the day before, but he supposed it would sound strange to say so.
“You’ve been investigating a case on the university campus,” he said.
He’d judged the young man who attacked his student’s roommate and sent him back to Dixing several days ago. He’d considered informing the Guardians at the time, but they hadn’t asked for his help. If they didn’t know the perpetrator was from Dixing, why tell them? And if they did, why hadn’t they told him?
“Uh, yes,” Officer Daqing said. “We suspect it may be related to Dixing, but Lord Kunlun didn’t want to bother you without evidence.”
“That’s unnecessary,” Shen Wei said. And likely untrue, though well-rehearsed. “That’s why I’m here.”
It was ambiguous enough to be threatening, but Officer Daqing only looked attentive and helpful. “Do you want to collaborate on the case, Lord Envoy?”
Behind him, the others who weren’t using a mobile phone looked at each other.
“No,” Shen Wei said. “Tell me about your investigation, starting today and going backwards.”
Officer Daqing didn’t balk at this, and after he’d gone back three days, Shen Wei stopped him. “Are there any other ongoing investigations?”
Officer Daqing clearly didn’t understand why he was asking, which was good as far as discretion went but inherently frustrating when it came to getting the information he wanted. Shen Wei thought they must sense his displeasure, but Daqing was still perfectly polite when he said, “Nothing active, Lord Envoy.”
“Nothing active?” he repeated.
“Well, we have some cold cases and research projects,” Daqing offered. “But the campus incident is the only one with a potentially dangerous suspect who’s struck in the last week. Or month, even.”
“I see.” He did see: that explained the assignments from the board that din’t relate to anything he recognized. It didn’t explain why Zhao Yunlan’s name was the only one listed as “unassigned.”
“Thank you,” he said anyway. “I located and detained the man you were looking for on campus. As a native of Dixing, he was taken home and sentenced there.”
For the first time, Officer Daqing narrowed his eyes. His perpetually folded ears revealed less expression than Zhao Yunlan’s, but his face was too kind for the irritation they mimicked. “Lord Envoy, did you close this case without telling us?”
“You opened this case without telling me,” he pointed out.
Officer Daqing made a face that seemed to agree. He wouldn't disagree, anyway, and for Shen Wei’s purposes the two were equivalent. He wondered if Zhao Yunlan would be as courteous to an anonymous authority figure. How did he get along with Kunlun?
“Perhaps we’ll be able to work together in the future,” Shen Wei added.
He was careful not to smile at the way Daqing’s expression lifted. Bright and cheerful, like all was forgiven, it reminded him of a similar look on Zhao Yunlan’s face. “Lord Envoy,” Daqing said, “I know I speak for all of us when I say we’d be honored.”
He probably didn’t speak for his distracted coworker with the phone, but Shen Wei didn't require respect. Only compliance.
If he couldn't find out what was wrong from Zhao Yunlan directly, he could at least watch over his place of employment and make sure it didn’t become too dangerous. It could even be considered part of his ambassadorial responsibility. Surely his people would be better served if there were closer communication between their enforcement agencies.
Shen Wei stayed out the rest of the night, following Guardian operatives without their knowledge and absorbing as much as he could about their activity by watching. Everyone he saw was just as casual as Zhao Yunlan: more focused than they appeared, but less formal than he would have expected. As Daqing said, most of them seemed to be following old reports with little urgency.
He didn’t encounter their leader, but Kunlun’s name hadn't been on any of the tracking boards in their headquarters. Perhaps he only tracked his subordinates, never the other way around. Perhaps he, like the Envoy of Dixing, had duties that required him to be away from the order periodically. Perhaps he was simply taking a night off.
Or perhaps, as unlikely as it seemed, Kunlun was aware of the Envoy’s sudden interest and was watching him covertly even as Shen Wei did the same. He had no reason to expect it, but he would be foolish to ignore the possibility.
Shen Wei didn't plan to have breakfast before he was due on campus, but he did stop at home for his bag. The door was locked and his keys were inside, but the hall was empty. He thought nothing of opening the door without them.
Until he sensed a presence inside and he slowed, carefully reaching for the light switch. Surely there was no one--
He couldn't see anyone, but that only meant no human-sized shapes were visible. He stepped forward and found a black cat curled up in the same corner of the couch where he'd fallen asleep the night before. “Zhao Yunlan,” he said quietly.
The cat lifted its head immediately, but it blinked and yawned at him and he was sure his visitor had been sleeping.
“Were you here all night?” Shen Wei asked.
There was a phone on the table next to the couch. It didn't look like the one he'd bought for himself, so Zhao Yunlan must have been human at some point between arriving and awakening. He paid no attention to the device now, leaping off the couch and strolling over to Shen Wei with his tail held high in greeting.
“Hello,” Shen Wei added. “I'm sorry I wasn't here.” He was. His presence elsewhere had been necessary, but he could have left a note.
Zhao Yunlan meowed at him. It didn't sound cross. It sounded curious, encouraging… chatty, if such a thing could be said of cat speech. He supposed it could--any language could be conversational, surely? Exchanging information was its primary purpose.
“I'll leave a note next time,” he promised. He should probably offer some excuse for his absence, but if there was any advantage to Zhao Yunlan's extremely selective communication, it was that Shen Wei could also choose what to respond to.
The black cat stepped carefully between his legs and he held very still. “What are you--” Zhao Yunlan’s paws were precisely placed, turning in a tight circle around Shen Wei’s ankles before he sauntered away. Toward the kitchen.
Shen Wei once again found himself biting back the urge to say, How very cat-like of you. He was a cat, after all. There was no need to state the obvious.
When Zhao Yunlan turned to look back at him, as though surprised he wasn't following, Shen Wei asked, “Are you waiting for breakfast? I'm not sure I have anything that would appeal to you.”
With no warning except a brief blur of dark energy, Zhao Yunlan’s mostly human form stood before him for the first time in days. He held his hands out to the sides with a smile, and Shen Wei blinked. It was the first time he'd seen Zhao Yunlan transform, in either direction, and it felt… surprisingly disconcerting, seeing a human look back at him where before there had been a cat.
“Hello,” Shen Wei said again. Perhaps it was inappropriate, but he wasn’t sure what was expected in such a situation. “Would you--would you like something to eat, then?”
Zhao Yunlan beamed, swinging both arms to the same side in a grand gesture to the kitchen behind him. Was it strange for him to be unworried about Shen Wei’s absence the night before, yet still so confident in his welcome this morning? Shen Wei wasn't used to overnight guests, casual or otherwise, so he had no frame of reference.
He took the invitation, such as it was when it involved his own kitchen, to prepare rice porridge with eggs. As far as he knew, it was the most nekomimi-friendly food he had, but he would have to do more research if Zhao Yunlan made a habit of eating with him. Asking him was unlikely to be helpful unless he started texting again.
He also didn’t ask about Zhao Yunlan's rumpled clothes: they looked slept in, despite his cat form. Was that typical, or unrelated? He didn’t ask about Zhao Yunlan's ears, less quick than usual, or his tail, swishing gently and mysteriously while he watched Shen Wei. Friendly? Thoughtful, puzzled? Concerned?
He didn’t ask where Zhao Yunlan usually spent the night, or why the person he lived with hadn't missed him. He did live with someone; he’d sent cheerful and probably teasing texts about Shen Wei’s ability to do whatever he wanted with his own space only two days before. But he didn’t seem to go home to whoever it was. Different schedules, or a different sort of relationship?
Shen Wei couldn’t ask and he didn't know what else to say, so he said nothing. Of course Zhao Yunlan didn't speak; he only watched until Shen Wei handed him a bowl and a plate. Two startling things happened then.
Zhao Yunlan put a hand on his wrist, catching his eye with a searching expression that was followed by a careful smile. And Shen Wei realized that he liked having Zhao Yunlan on his couch and in his kitchen, awkward silences and all.
He liked it very much.
With the revelation of just how much he liked having Zhao Yunlan around came the inescapable awareness of exactly what about him Shen Wei found so fascinating. If the answer wasn’t “everything,” he’d like to believe he would have stood a chance. As it was though, the nekomimi was friendly, observant, clever, and embarrassingly attractive.
He's everything Shen Wei values and nothing he dislikes.
Well. He’s eye-catching, which Shen Wei has never had much use for. There’s an arrogance to him that would be infuriating, if he wasn’t so careful to temper it when Shen Wei glares. He is entitled and demanding and he has no care for personal space. He doesn’t know how to take care of himself. He’s possibly the messiest person Shen Wei has ever met.
But he cares very deeply for the people around him, and he respects them in ways that are unfamiliar to Shen Wei. If he’s reckless with his own safety, it’s largely in defense of others. He is delightfully curious. At times his cheerful insouciance is enough to defuse the most difficult of situations… and even when it’s not, Shen Wei finds it personally relaxing.
In hindsight, perhaps that was part of the problem: that he came to know Zhao Yunlan first as a source of comfort, and everything after took him by surprise.
Shen Wei didn’t find out until later that Zhao Yunlan’s coworkers had staged an intervention the day he attended Shen Wei’s lecture. Zhao Yunlan neither laughed it off nor took it in the manner they intended. His first reaction was apparently to sulk, then to rebel, and finally to ignore whatever warning they’d given altogether.
Shen Wei has to assume he is not the only one who despairs of ever understanding Zhao Yunlan.
The first time Shen Wei made him breakfast, Zhao Yunlan sent him a text message minutes after he left: Thanks for breakfast! Followed immediately by, You didn’t have to feed me, by the way. And then, Well, you did, because you’re polite and I’m not.
The only reason Shen Wei knew those texts were sent immediately on Zhao Yunlan’s departure was because he heard a chiming from somewhere in his home. He couldn’t identify the sound, but he did trace it to his bag. Where his new phone was.
His new phone that unexpectedly made a sound when it received a text message, which it definitely hadn’t the day before. When he ran his fingers gently over the screen he could feel traces of Zhao Yunlan’s curiosity clinging to it like cat fur on the couch cushions. And when it lit up with yet another message, he saw there was a name associated with it instead of just a number.
Shen Wei was apparently receiving texts from “Xiao Lan Mao.” He decided to ignore Zhao Yunlan’s comments about breakfast and typed instead, Xiao Lan Mao?
Yes? Zhao Yunlan replied. The next one said, I’m not my phone number, you know.
Nor was he Xiao Lan Mao, at least as far as Shen Wei knew. It was an adorable but very embarrassing nickname--not one Shen Wei would have used even if he'd thought if it--and it didn't suit him at all. It was also, thanks to the exclusion of Zhao Yunlan's family name, overly familiar.
On the other hand, Zhao Yunlan had clearly searched his residence in his absence, found his phone, and altered its function without leave or warning.
As if he could read Shen Wei's mind, the next text said, I also turned on your sound for text alerts. And then, You should probably set a passcode for your phone.
Shen Wei assumed a passcode kept people who didn’t know it from accessing his phone. He also assumed that Zhao Yunlan knew some way of getting around it. Why? he asked.
To keep people from messing with your phone? Zhao Yunlan replied.
He was sure he only knew one person who would do such a thing. Why should I stop you? he wrote. He sent it before Zhao Yunlan could start on some new tangent, then sent a second message that said, Stop yourself.
I don’t want to, Zhao Yunlan replied immediately.
Shen Wei smiled at his phone. He wouldn’t be able to type his entire reply before Zhao Yunlan said something that would make it completely irrelevant, but he tried anyway. Then why ask me to make you do something you don’t want to do?
To his surprise, not only did Zhao Yunlan not interrupt him, he didn’t reply for several seconds. Well, when you put it like that, he said at last.
He didn’t finish his sentence, and Shen Wei wondered if he had said something wrong. You should be good because you want to be, he typed. It was very slow, but even if Zhao Yunlan had gotten distracted by something else, he would see the message eventually. Not because someone makes you be.
Zhao Yunlan must not have been distracted after all, because he replied right away. Think you can make me be good?
Shen Wei considered this. It was his self-appointed mission to enforce a certain standard of behavior, but Zhao Yunlan had no reason to know who he was talking to. Although it wasn’t in the spirit of his warning, there was only one true answer to that question.
Yes, he said.
Great, Zhao Yunlan replied immediately. This was followed by a tiny picture that might have been a dancing cat, and he added, See you tonight!
It looked like a dismissal, a way of saying goodbye, but this wasn't a phone call. Shen Wei didn't have to stop talking just because Zhao Yunlan did. Tell me what you like to eat, he said.
Fish, Zhao Yunlan replied.
It was possibly the shortest reply Shen Wei had ever gotten from him. What kind of fish? he insisted.
All fish, Zhao Yunlan answered. I'll bring something to drink.
I don't drink, Shen Wei told him.
Are you joking with me right now?
Shen Wei frowned. No.
Am I supposed to be good and not drink? Zhao Yunlan wanted to know.
What does not drinking have to do with being good? Shen Wei had no idea why Zhao Yunlan was actually waiting for him to reply instead of reeling off a dozen more questions while Shen Wei struggled through the conversation. He checked the time, but it was already clear he wouldn’t be on campus at his usual hour.
Where was Zhao Yunlan, he wondered? He couldn’t have gotten far when he sent the first text message, and surely he shouldn’t be continuing to travel while engaged in conversation? Shen Wei was suddenly tempted to get his jacket and bag and follow him.
He didn’t, but Zhao Yunlan’s mysterious reply, Just for that, I actually will do something for you, if you want, didn’t make the decision any easier.
He must have spent too much time trying to figure it out, because Zhao Yunlan sent another question mark text. There were no words with it. Just like that, Shen Wei knew what he wanted.
I like knowing what you’re thinking, he wrote with painstaking slowness. At least having to concentrate kept him from thinking too much about what he was saying. I know you don’t talk. But thank you for writing to me.
There was no immediate answer, and Shen Wei wondered if he had misunderstood. Or maybe he had just said it wrong. It really wasn’t for him to comment on how Zhao Yunlan expressed himself.
Finally a reply appeared. I like talking to you. That was all it said.
Shen Wei decided that was enough.
He was late arriving on campus that morning, but he hadn’t missed anything scheduled. He still felt slightly awkward, as though someone might ask where he’d been at any moment. That was likely the only reason he noticed Professor Zhang glance into his office when she walked by.
He looked up, and she paused when he caught her eye.
His phone chimed then, and he was careful not to sigh. He appreciated every message Zhao Yunlan sent him, but he would have to leave his phone in his desk if he couldn’t figure out how to turn the sound off. It chimed again, and he couldn’t help looking at it.
“Teacher Shen,” Zhang Ruonen said, lingering in the doorway. “Did you get a cell phone?”
“I did,” he admitted. He wouldn’t check the messages while he was talking to someone else, because that would be rude. “Don’t tell my students. I expect it will ruin my reputation.”
He smiled to show he was joking, and she smiled a little in return. “You’re very dedicated to your students,” she said.
His phone chimed again, and he said, “I’m sorry to ask you this, but do you have any idea how to keep it from making noise?”
Zhang Ruonen drifted a few steps further into his office, and it occurred to him that she was unusually tentative. He was a poor judge of human moods at the best of times, but he’d spent a good portion of the morning trying to interpret Zhao Yunlan’s every fleeting expression. Zhang Ruonen looked… uncomfortable.
“It sounds like someone’s texting you,” she offered. Her eyes were focused on his desk. Or more likely, his phone.
“Yes,” he agreed, glancing at it again. The words “Xiao Lan Mao” appeared on the screen every time Zhao Yunlan made it chime. “Only one person has my phone number, and already I have my hands full.”
“One person?” she repeated. She was standing directly in front of his desk now, and he had no doubt she could read the name Zhao Yunlan had given himself. “Is that your…”
“It’s Officer Zhao from the Guardian order,” he said. He thought it was only fair to add, “I didn’t choose the name he put in my phone.”
“I heard he attended your lecture the other day,” Zhang Ruonen said.
“Yes.” He didn’t know whether to smile or sigh, but he felt like he was doing both at the same time. “His presence isn’t subtle, is it.”
“No,” she said. “He’s… nekomimi?”
“Yes,” Shen Wei repeated. He was certain of his smile as soon as it was gone. He didn’t like to expect prejudice from anyone, but what reason could she have for confirming something so obvious?
“The students say you champion the underrepresented,” she said. She was looking at him, instead of his phone, and it sounded like she was asking a question.
“The students give me too much credit,” he told her. “I do what I can, as we all do.”
“I have a friend,” Zhang Ruonen blurted out. “From Dixing. I think she might be in trouble.”
Shen Wei frowned. Wang Yike was the only one of his people who spent a remarkable amount of time with Zhang Ruonen. “Why do you think that?”
“Because something happened to me,” Zhang Ruonen said, staring toward the window. “And she’s angry about it.”
Wang Yike’s power was deadly, and she was only allowed on the surface with supervision and regular reporting. If she was emotionally compromised by harm to someone she cared about, she could easily become a threat. “What happened to you?” Shen Wei asked.
When he saw Zhang Ruonen flinch, he added, “I’m sorry; if it’s too personal…?”
“Some students played a trick on me,” she murmured. “My friend is… very angry.”
Before he could answer, or ask anything else, she looked at him intently and asked, “Do you ever think… Officer Zhao is a Guardian. So he wants to protect people, doesn’t he? But what if something happened to you? Do you think he’d react… appropriately?”
“Of course,” Shen Wei said.
She looked away, but not before he’d thought better of that reply. “Maybe not,” he added. Zhao Yunlan was many things, but “appropriate” was not any of them. “Have you gone to the authorities about--any of this?”
“No,” she said quickly. “There’s nothing to report. I’m just--my friend is from Dixing, Teacher Shen.”
“Yes,” he said. There was no sense in pretending things were other than what they were. “I understand. I might be able to help. But I’ll need your assistance first.”
She didn’t look any more worried than she had when she first came into his office. “With what?”
He pushed his phone across the desk to her. “Can you make this be quiet?”
Professor Zhang disabled the sound alert on his phone, for which Shen Wei was very grateful. He had to leave it in his desk anyway when he went to find Wang Yike. He couldn’t have it tracking him around town when he was on official business.
Wang Yike knew him immediately, though they hadn’t spoken since she’d been granted a surface visa. She paled when she saw him, and he silently commended her decision not to run. It was a waste of both energy and time.
“I haven’t done anything yet,” she said. Her shoulders were stiff, and she looked as angry as Zhang Ruonen had claimed.
She also looked terrified.
“Your friend is worried about you,” he told her. They were on a public street, so he didn’t warn her against using her powers explicitly. “If you violate the law of this land, you will not be allowed to stay.”
“Then why can they!” she said fiercely. “Why are they allowed to hurt people and just walk away afterward! It isn’t fair!”
“There are human police,” he said. “Who has wronged you?”
“They won’t do anything,” she snapped. “She’s just a woman; it happens all the time. What do they care?”
“I care,” Shen Wei said. “Tell me what happened.”
She couldn’t argue without calling him a liar, and her anger wasn’t enough to override her fear. “They raped her,” Wang Yike hissed. “Not for fun. For revenge. Because they failed her class.”
He considered the accusation as dispassionately as he could. “Are the rapists human?”
“Who cares!” Wang Yike shouted. “They’re lower than we are!”
“We are not low,” Shen Wei said sharply. “Words become the truth, Wang Yike. Do not speak of our people that way.”
She looked away. He wondered if she would be so willing to risk herself to avenge Zhang Ruonen if she knew how good she was. Maybe it would change nothing. The good ones so often gave of themselves until there was nothing left.
“I care,” he repeated quietly. “If they are of Dixing, then I can punish them. If not, justice must be administered by Haixing authorities. So tell me: are they human?”
“Yes,” she said. She still didn’t look at him. “I think they’re all human.”
He didn’t want to ask how many. “Then she’ll need to file a report.”
Wang Yike was already shaking her head. “She won’t. She says the--she says she’ll lose her job. Her reputation. Everything.”
He knew too well that the fear wasn’t baseless. “Do you know the names of her attackers?”
She looked at him, then, and he was careful to maintain a neutral expression. “No,” she said. “I don’t--she wouldn’t tell me. But she knows. They’re--the school would know. Only three students failed Engineering 4 last semester.”
Three, he thought. “And they’re all guilty?”
She nodded wordlessly.
He scanned the street, finding no one close enough to overhear, but he lowered his voice anyway. “Don’t kill them,” he said. “I’ll take care of this.”
“But Lord Envoy,” she whispered, staring at him without fear. “They’re not of Dixing.”
“I will live and die by the Zhenhun treaty between our peoples,” he told her. “I expect others to do the same.”
It was the first night he had reason to expect Zhao Yunlan would be waiting for him, so naturally it was also the night circumstances conspired to make him later than usual. He was determined to cook. He was also determined to keep his phone away from Zhao Yunlan. His priorities might have been a little scattered, but Shen Wei wasn’t distracted enough to miss how his guest was sitting on the couch when he let himself in.
He wasn’t really sitting at all. He was lying on the couch, one arm behind his head, barely propping himself up enough that he could see his phone. He might have been texting one-handed, but he let the phone fall to his stomach when Shen Wei walked in.
Zhao Yunlan made no move to get up, just waved cheerfully and curled his tail in what might have been a greeting. He was wearing fewer layers than usual, jacket flung over the far end of the couch and his socks and shoes on the floor beside it, leaving his feet bare. One of his ears flicked in what looked like amusement when Shen Wei went to wave back and found both hands full.
“Hello,” Shen Wei said, when he remembered he could talk. “I'd say make yourself at home, but I see you already have.”
Zhao Yunlan tipped his head back like he was trying to look over the end of the couch upside-down. It couldn’t possibly work, but Shen Wei watched in fascination as the movement pressed his ears into the cushion and made his tail curl tighter when he arched upward. He was pointing toward the kitchen, and Shen Wei belatedly followed his gaze just before he flopped back down.
There was a bottle on his kitchen counter that hadn’t been there before, and Zhao Yunlan made a drinking motion when Shen Wei caught his eye again.
“I don’t know what that means,” Shen Wei told him.
Zhao Yunlan smiled, rolling off the couch and straightening up in a fluid motion that reminded Shen Wei of his cat form jumping through the window. He ignored his phone, left behind on the cushions, and padded into the kitchen. Shen Wei watched him pick up the bottle and bring it over, putting both hands under it as he presented the label for Shen Wei to read.
Non-alcoholic plum juice.
He didn’t mean to smile, but he couldn’t help it. “That’s very thoughtful,” Shen Wei said. It was certainly more than he asked of company, and it was kind of Zhao Yunlan to forgo his own preference for the sake of inclusion. “Thank you.”
Zhao Yunlan beamed at him, then made the drinking motion again. When he pointed at Shen Wei, it was easier to understand what he was offering this time. “Yes,” Shen Wei said, then repeated, “Thank you.”
So Zhao Yunlan sauntered back to the kitchen, and Shen Wei might have wondered what he planned to do there if he hadn’t been watching the way Zhao Yunlan’s tail swayed as he walked. There was still a slight curl in the end, like he was holding it up off the floor, except it wasn’t long enough for that to be necessary. It seemed a purposeful motion, though, and Shen Wei wondered if he thought about what his tail was doing the way other people might deliberately position or ignore their arms or legs.
Then he realized he was staring at Zhao Yunlan’s tail, which was inexcusably rude, and also that he was still holding everything he’d walked through the door with. He quickly set his bag down, propping up the groceries briefly while he shrugged out of his coat, and followed Zhao Yunlan into the kitchen. He wasn’t sure that being in such a small space would improve their communication, but at least it would be easier to keep his eyes to himself if his hands were occupied.
Or it would have been, if Zhao Yunlan didn't keep getting in his way. Shen Wei didn’t even notice at first, distracted by the sink and the stove and then by Zhao Yunlan shoving a wine glass at him, which he definitely was not expecting. He wondered if Zhao Yunlan had been through all his cupboards the night before, making the choice of wine glasses intentional, or if he’d just decided to use them because they were the first thing he came across tonight.
Either way, it made the sharing of a drink seem significantly more intimate. He blinked when Zhao Yunlan reached out with his own glass to tap it against the one he’d pressed into Shen Wei’s hands. He almost said, “Cheers,” just for something to say. But Zhao Yunlan didn’t speak, of course, so he just nodded and took a sip of the plum juice.
Zhao Yunlan watched him very intently. Shen Wei couldn’t help but be aware of his ears, pricked forward like he was trying to catch every word neither of them were saying. He pointed at himself, and then at the stove.
Shen Wei raised his eyebrows, looking at the stove and back at Zhao Yunlan.
A smile broke across Zhao Yunlan’s face, and he rolled his eyes in a way that seemed strangely fond. He tapped his mouth, then pointed at Shen Wei. Which of course made Shen Wei look at his mouth. It wasn’t his fault, but he was still embarrassed when he lifted his eyes again.
Zhao Yunlan grinned and he pointed to his mouth again, this time making nonsense shapes that looked like “ba ba ba ba.” When he pointed at Shen Wei, it was as genuinely baffling as it had been the first time. Shen Wei shook his head, not understanding.
Zhao Yunlan gave him a long look, like he was waiting for something. His grin faded, but he didn’t look exasperated. It was still a shock when he mouthed, very clearly: You can talk.
Shen Wei stared at him, startled not by the reminder that he wasn’t talking, but that Zhao Yunlan obviously could. He just chose not to. Why?
Shen Wei had never been more intensely curious about something in his life, and he swallowed hard, tearing his gaze away in an effort to refocus. “Of course,” he said out loud, and the words sounded strange and clumsy in the pervasive silence. “I--I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to--”
Mock you, he thought, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.
There was a gentle pressure on his wrist, and he almost dropped his glass. Zhao Yunlan obviously saw him jump, because he pulled his hand back immediately. He held it up in apology, and as soon as Shen Wei looked at him he mouthed, Sorry.
What was happening? Why was he standing in his own kitchen, reading the lips of an unreasonably attractive nekomimi who refused to use his voice? Zhao Yunlan would text and mime and apparently mouth entire sentences for him, but he wouldn’t talk.
“It’s fine,” Shen Wei said firmly. It was. His curiosity was not Zhao Yunlan’s concern, and if Zhao Yunlan needed to touch him to get his attention then surely that was understandable. “You can--you can touch me, I didn’t mean to--”
Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows, smiling at him in a way that was as confusing as everything else had been so far.
“I’ll put the soup on,” Shen Wei said. The fish was already sliced; the soup could heat while it was cooking. He had shredded vegetables left over from a previous night, but one did not serve guests old food. He could prepare fresh dishes if Zhao Yunlan would only stop distracting him for a few minutes.
In retrospect, he had no idea why he ever considered that a possibility.
Zhao Yunlan leaned back against the counter by the sink, one bare foot propped over the other, and watched everything Shen Wei did with interest. His elbows were braced on the counter behind him, his wine glass in hand. He couldn’t have chosen any place that was more in the way.
Shen Wei thought it was to his credit that he got halfway through meal preparations before he finally said, “I’m sorry; I need that space.”
Zhao Yunlan straightened quickly: just fast enough that Shen Wei thought he would actually step away, and went in to take his place. Instead Zhao Yunlan only turned. He angled his body so there was space at the counter without leaving it, and Shen Wei’s shoulder brushed against his chest when he moved.
“I need to--” Shen Wei began, but Zhao Yunlan could see perfectly well what he was doing. He wasn’t looking at the food. He set his glass down on the counter, but he was still watching Shen Wei, and they were so close there was no way to look at each other that wouldn’t be inappropriate.
“Excuse me,” Shen Wei said, keeping his eyes on the bowls until Zhao Yunlan stepped back.
Only Zhao Yunlan didn’t step back. He lifted a hand and let one finger trace a line along Shen Wei’s cheek. Shen Wei was so surprised he didn’t move, and Zhao Yunlan traced a second line just below the first. It wasn’t until the third line, slow and gentle across his skin, that Shen Wei finally understood.
Zhao Yunlan was drawing whiskers on his face with his finger.
He had no idea what to say, other than I don't understand. He had even less idea what to do. Should he just say so? Would it be rude, implying that he had to know why Zhao Yunlan did everything he did in order to accept it? But what if it was a gesture with some deeper meaning and Shen Wei failed to respond appropriately?
“I don't know what that means,” Shen Wei blurted out. It probably sounded just as awkward as he felt, but he’d hit his limit on guessing.
Zhao Yunlan’s fingers settled on his chin, exerting the slightest pressure to make Shen Wei look at him. I like you, he mouthed carefully.
Shen Wei wondered if he should take a class in lip-reading. Were there classes? He should find out.
“I like you too,” Shen Wei said, hoping he hadn’t misunderstood. “But if you expect to eat food that isn’t a disaster this evening, you need to stop distracting me.”
It sounded more stern than he’d meant it to. He almost added, Not that I want you to. Fortunately before he could say anything else, Zhao Yunlan grinned at him, and the hand on his face fell away to pat his shoulder instead.
Shen Wei was almost relieved, and then Zhao Yunlan cupped the back of his neck and squeezed gently.
He could feel his eyes widen. Zhao Yunlan was watching him. There was no way he missed Shen Wei’s expression, but he just smiled, patting his shoulder again before he stepped back. He took his wine glass with him and leaned against the refrigerator this time: not far enough away for Shen Wei’s peace of mind, and certainly no less in the way.
On the other hand, Zhao Yunlan wasn’t actively touching him, and that seemed to make a difference in his ability to function. He checked the fish, stirred the soup, and went back to the vegetables as he’d planned. If he felt much warmer than he had before, he could pretend it was the heat of the stove making him flush.
Zhao Yunlan managed to be right where he needed to be, every time he turned around, the entire time they were in the kitchen. It was a small kitchen. It might not be so surprising except that Zhao Yunlan always looked him in the eye and smiled.
He was doing it on purpose. It was the only obvious conclusion when Zhao Yunlan never seemed surprised by their proximity, and never shuffled quickly--or slowly--out of the way. He might not have moved at all if Shen Wei didn’t ask. Verbally or otherwise.
He had to admit the silence was contagious. After the third time he almost bumped into Zhao Yunlan and said “excuse me” automatically, Shen Wei was turning toward the counter with his hands full and found Zhao Yunlan leaning into him yet again. Shen Wei nudged him with his elbow instead of speaking, and Zhao Yunlan made a huffing sound that could have been a laugh.
He did move, though. So next time, even when Shen Wei had a free hand, he put it on Zhao Yunlan’s arm and pushed him carefully out of the way. Zhao Yunlan beamed at him like he’d done something exactly right. It was disconcerting but not unpleasant.
It wasn’t until Shen Wei was setting out the food and went to shoulder him gently to one side that Zhao Yunlan reached back. Running his hand down the arm that had pushed him, he caught Shen Wei’s hand just after he set the dishes down and lifted it to his lips. Shen Wei didn't freeze until Zhao Yunlan’s mouth pressed against the middle of his palm.
Zhao Yunlan was watching him--of course he was, he hadn't stopped since Shen Wei walked in--and he mouthed, Okay?
Shen Wei nodded, but it wasn't really. He was confused and out of his depth and terrified of making a mistake. He couldn’t understand Zhao Yunlan, and he wanted to. He wanted to understand so badly. He couldn’t stand the thought of him walking away.
Zhao Yunlan lowered the hand he was holding slowly, without taking his eyes off of Shen Wei. He patted Shen Wei’s hand carefully before letting it go and took a single step back. Shen Wei felt himself relax, suddenly able to breathe again, and from the way Zhao Yunlan’s eyes narrowed he saw it too.
Zhao Yunlan held up one finger in a very human “wait a second” gesture, then patted his pockets and looked around impatiently. When he glanced out at the living room he held up his finger again. Stepping around Shen Wei and giving him wide berth for the first time all evening, he strode toward the couch.
Shen Wei watched him go, relieved that he was distracted and disappointed to lose his attention at the same time. He had no idea how to behave in this situation. At least ordinary human interaction involved a wide range of public examples on which he could model his behavior. This--anything that happened behind closed doors--was much more mysterious to him.
Particularly when it involved a different sort of person, there was a limit to how much he could extrapolate from the general population.
Zhao Yunlan was coming back with his phone. Which he was typing on. Shen Wei automatically looked around for his own, but it was still in his bag, and it didn’t matter because Zhao Yunlan’s phone was shoved in his face a moment later.
You look afraid, it said. Are you okay? Tell me the truth.
Shen Wei swallowed. He was reaching for the phone when Zhao Yunlan yanked it back. He pointed at Shen Wei’s mouth, so that the finger almost touched his lips before it was pulled back.
Talk, Zhao Yunlan mouthed. Then his expression softened and he added, Please?
“I am afraid,” Shen Wei admitted, very quietly. “Of… misunderstanding.”
It made Zhao Yunlan frown, searching his expression before letting his breath out in a huff. He looked back at his phone, thumbs tapping out something on the screen. When he held it up again it said, I think I’m the one who misunderstood. I thought we were going to fool around tonight, but that’s not what you thought, is it.
“I don’t--” Shen Wei started to say he didn’t understand, but even he was getting tired of hearing it. Surely there was something more helpful he could add. “What do you mean by fool around?”
Zhao Yunlan smiled, which was at least a welcome change from the frown. He was writing something on his phone, and Shen Wei wished he could read the last message again. Or see what he was writing now. Or both.
The silence was strange in a way it never was when he was alone. He carefully didn’t look at the food, not wanting to seem distracted or impatient, and he tried not to stare at Zhao Yunlan’s black tail, curling and uncurling absently against his knee. It would flick to the side in between each curl, and Shen Wei couldn’t tell if he was doing it on purpose or if he wasn’t even consciously aware of it.
Zhao Yunlan offered him the phone again, less aggressively this time, and Shen Wei could feel those eyes on him as he read the screen. I mean touch, kiss, cuddle. Sex if you're interested, no pressure if you're not. When you said you could make me be good this morning, I thought you meant in a sexy way. Now I think you probably meant something else.
“How do you type so quickly?” Shen Wei blurted out.
Zhao Yunlan grinned at him. He mouthed something that was probably “practice,” and Shen Wei sighed. “That's what the person at the tech store said,” he admitted. “You're very good at it.”
Zhao Yunlan waved the phone in his face again, and he added quickly, “No? I mean, thank you. That's very helpful. I remember saying I could make you be good, and I meant what I said. I didn't--it wasn't intended to be… inappropriate.”
Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows, still smiling, and typed something else on his phone before showing it to Shen Wei again. I think that's more interesting now than it was when I thought we were talking about sex, he'd written.
“Not that I--” Something about how matter-of-fact he was made it easier to say, “I’m not… opposed to the idea.”
Zhao Yunlan obviously brightened. He swiped at his phone screen again and held it up with an expectant look. Of sex?
It was embarrassing and funny and maybe a little bit charming at the same time. “Yes?” Shen Wei said tentatively. “I mean, I don’t--”
Zhao Yunlan interrupted him all the time, but he wasn’t doing it now. He could have listened and looked at his phone simultaneously, but he didn’t. He didn’t type anything while Shen Wei was talking. He just watched, waiting patiently for him to finish.
“This isn’t something I do,” Shen Wei said. He tried to make it as clear and understandable as Zhao Yunlan’s text messages. “I don’t… invite people over. To--fool around.”
Zhao Yunlan nodded, and he wrote something on his phone before holding it up. Do you want me to go?
“No,” Shen Wei said quickly. “No, I’m glad you’re here. And--I’d like to touch you. If it’s all right with you. I just… I’m afraid I don’t really know what’s expected.”
Having Zhao Yunlan listen, and nod, and start typing again made it feel like an actual conversation. He knew how to have conversations. He knew how to discuss things in a way that was informative and respectful, and there was no reason this couldn’t be one of those things.
Except that the reason he’d had to learn a foreign way of conversing was something he hadn’t disclosed to Zhao Yunlan.
He didn’t think he made any outward sign of distress at this realization, but Zhao Yunlan looked up sharply and frowned at him. He didn’t hold up his phone, even though he’d stopped typing, which made it seem like he’d stopped talking in the middle of a sentence. When he caught Shen Wei’s eye, he mouthed, What?
Shen Wei swallowed, but he had to ask. This wasn’t something he could afford to not know. “Can you tell when I’m upset about something?”
Zhao Yunlan was studying him, his phone apparently forgotten. He lifted his free hand, palm-down, and wiggled it back and forth in a “so-so” gesture. Then he pointed at his nose, making it wrinkle and then pretending to sniff the air.
“You can smell emotions?” Shen Wei repeated.
Zhao Yunlan grinned and shook his head. Then he held up his hand with his thumb and forefinger almost touching, which Shen Wei assumed meant yes after all. If only a little.
That was not at all reassuring.
On the other hand, if nekomimi could detect emotional states by scent, it was possible they could also sense other things not obvious to the strictly human population. Zhao Yunlan might already know what he was about to say.
“I’m not human,” Shen Wei told him. The only worse time for such a confession would be later. “I don’t know if you can tell I’m from Dixing?”
Zhao Yunlan didn’t look surprised, but he made the same “so-so” gesture he’d used before. It wasn’t an answer, but he pointed at his ears before catching the end of his tail casually in his hand to display it. He pointed at Shen Wei and then he pointed down at the floor. Finally he shrugged, large and deliberate. Gesturing back and forth between the two of them, he shrugged again and very clearly waved it off.
“I take that to mean you don’t mind,” Shen Wei said carefully. “My being from Dixing isn’t a problem for you.”
Zhao Yunlan pointed at him and gave him a thumbs-up, and Shen Wei had to smile.
“Are you using so many human gestures because I don’t understand cat?” he asked. “Because you seemed less animated than this when we first met.”
Zhao Yunlan put his hand over his heart and gave him a shocked look. His lips formed the word, Me? in a way that was hugely exaggerated, and he gave Shen Wei an extremely skeptical look.
“Yes,” Shen Wei said, amused by the display. “Are you more dramatic the longer you know someone? Or are you just trying to make me feel more comfortable?”
Zhao Yunlan’s expression relaxed into a smile, and he shrugged again. The gesture looked more natural this time. He mouthed something that might have been, Is it working?
Shen Wei nodded.
Zhao Yunlan gave him another thumbs-up, then held up his finger for “wait” and went back to typing. When he held the phone up, it had parts of both conversations on it: Nothing’s expected. Tell me what you want, I’ll tell you what I want, then we can figure out if it works. Followed by, I like Dixing; do you ever visit? What are you doing here? Did you come here just to teach? How long have you been here?
Shen Wei smiled when he saw the screen. “I’m sorry if this is rude, but I don’t know how you can walk around with all these questions and not ask them. It must be very trying.”
Zhao Yunlan snatched the phone back, and his expression was hard to interpret. Shen Wei had to wait until he offered the screen again: Believe me, I’m nowhere near as interested in other people as I am in you.
“That’s very flattering,” Shen Wei said, and this time the look Zhao Yunlan gave him was obviously indignant.
He typed something else on his phone and held it up. Before Shen Wei could even look, Zhao Yunlan mouthed, True!
The phone said the same thing: IT’S TRUE.
“You’re very kind,” Shen Wei assured him. “If you want to know why I’m skeptical, it’s only because I couldn’t possibly be as interesting to you as you are to me.”
Zhao Yunlan shook a disapproving finger in his face, but he didn’t type anything, and Shen Wei assumed that meant he won. He smiled again.
Zhao Yunlan went back to his phone. This time when he held it up he took a step closer at the same time. He kept the phone back at his shoulder so it wasn’t directly between them, but they were toe to toe and Shen Wei had to look away from him to read what he’d written.
Now you look too comfortable, the screen said. Wanna kiss?
Yes, Shen Wei thought. But practically speaking, no. He didn't know how to kiss, and the food was getting cold. He didn't want to move away from Zhao Yunlan. But he didn't know how to get closer, either.
“I don't--” he began, and then realized it sounded like no. “Yes,” he said instead, and Zhao Yunlan took that as permission.
His kiss was as gentle as his touch, and Shen Wei found he didn’t have to school himself to stillness after all. The mouth on his was warm and careful and less overwhelming than he expected. He felt a soft pressure on his arm, a grip that grounded him when he closed his eyes, and that was it: an easy kiss and a hand on his arm. He didn’t have to resist the urge to pull away.
Zhao Yunlan pulled away instead. Only a little, but Shen Wei opened his eyes immediately. Zhao Yunlan was watching him, and he dipped his head when Shen Wei looked back. Asking, he thought. Inquisitive.
Shen Wei nodded, and Zhao Yunlan smiled a little. Okay? he mouthed.
Shen Wei nodded again, then remembered. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you. No one’s ever--no one’s asked before.”
Zhao Yunlan’s smile faded a little, but he just tipped his head like he was curious.
“To kiss,” Shen Wei clarified. “No one’s ever asked me first.”
Zhao Yunlan’s expression was impossible to interpret, but he squeezed Shen Wei’s arm with one hand and raised his phone with the other. Shen Wei took a careful breath while Zhao Yunlan was looking at the screen, and he wondered if it would be rude to kiss him again while he wasn’t paying attention. Surely yes. But his face was right there, and Shen Wei was trying very hard not to be distracted by the black cat ear poking out of his unruly hair.
Zhao Yunlan lifted his head and his phone at the same time, and Shen Wei blinked, trying to remember where to look. His phone. He wouldn’t have held it up if it wasn’t important.
You mean you’ve never kissed anyone before, or people have kissed you without asking? If it’s too personal don’t tell me.
“Oh,” Shen Wei said, amused by the addendum. “Now you think you might be too personal? After you asked about my relationships, my work, my family and my childhood? How I’ve been kissed is where you draw the line?”
Zhao Yunlan grinned at him. No, he mouthed, and he typed something else on his phone. When he held it up it just said, Now you have to tell me.
“People have kissed me without asking,” Shen Wei said. His eyes were drawn involuntarily to the irritated flick of Zhao Yunlan’s ear. “I would ask you to tell me about yourself in return, but I feel like you’re at a disadvantage.”
That seemed to give Zhao Yunlan pause. Then he nodded once, pointing at Shen Wei, and he mouthed, You’re right. Or he might have said, That’s true. It didn’t matter, because he typed, I have an idea, but eat first?
Dinner with someone who didn’t talk was mostly the same as everything else, except that Zhao Yunlan did a lot more pointing and didn’t bother with his phone at all. He used a wide range of effective gestures, most of them recognizably human, although that was probably due to human communication being their only shared reference. Of course they used the common culture more than either of their native backgrounds.
Shen Wei did learn some nekomimi expressions, which Zhao Yunlan made him mimic by using his hands to stand in for ears or a tail. As soon as he did, Zhao Yunlan applauded his effort and pointed down at the floor with a curious look. Shen Wei frowned back at him.
Zhao Yunlan pointed at him, then back at the floor, and he thought he understood. “Dixing?” he said. “How do we show it in Dixing?”
Zhao Yunlan held his hands out to both sides and beamed, which he seemed to prefer as a gesture of agreement or success far more than just nodding his head yes.
“We don’t,” Shen Wei told him. “There’s limited light. Facial expressions and gestures aren’t a primary source of communication.
“It took me a long time to learn to keep a straight face in Haixing,” he added. “I’m told I’m still not very good at it.”
Zhao Yunlan gave him a disbelieving look, and Shen Wei smiled. “You’re much easier to understand than most people,” he said. “At least, your face is. I certainly don’t understand the rest of you.”
Zhao Yunlan put his hand down between their bowls, pointing at himself when Shen Wei looked up again. Want to? he mouthed. Probably. That was Shen Wei’s best guess, anyway.
“If you’re asking if I want to,” he said, “then yes. Of course I want to.”
Zhao Yunlan grinned, propping his chin on his hand and blinking rapidly at Shen Wei. Fluttering his eyelashes, Shen Wei guessed.
“How very human of you,” Shen Wei said. He was more confident in how it would be received than he had been at first, but he still smiled to indicate he was joking.
Zhao Yunlan lifted his head and raised his eyebrows, and the smile he gave in return was… challenging? He didn’t take his eyes off of Shen Wei as he licked the tips of his fingers. He reached up to run them through his hair, flattening one of his ears with his hand as he went.
Shen Wei watched carefully, not catching his eye again until his hand was back on the table. “I would apologize for staring,” he said, “except that I assume I was supposed to.”
Zhao Yunlan smiled, just a little this time, and licked his thumb. He leaned over the dishes toward Shen Wei, reaching out, but stopped short of touching him with a questioning look. Shen Wei nodded.
Zhao Yunlan set his fingers lightly on Shen Wei’s chin and used his damp thumb to trace whiskers on his cheek again. Shen Wei held very still: not because he was uncomfortable, but because he didn’t want to give any sign that the gesture was unwelcome.
When Zhao Yunlan lowered his hand, Shen Wei asked carefully, “Is there… an appropriate response?”
Zhao Yunlan just looked at him, and Shen Wei added, “I mean, it seems like a--it feels like something you do that might be returned?”
There was no smile at this, no nod or dramatic gesture of approval, but Zhao Yunlan turned his head to one side and tipped his cheek toward Shen Wei.
Zhao Yunlan hadn’t licked his finger the first time he did it, and Shen Wei didn’t want to guess wrong. It had been his right hand the first time and his left the second, so Shen Wei reached out carefully with his right hand, grateful that it didn’t shake. Of course he hadn’t been able to see exactly where Zhao Yunlan put his fingers, but drawing too small was probably better than too big.
When he traced the first line, Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes. It gave Shen Wei a moment to study everything he could see: face, hair, ears. The way he was breathing: measured and calm. Deliberate. Shen Wei took an echoing breath when he drew the second line, trying to catch anything that lingered between them.
The third whisker was the last, and he pulled his hand away with some reluctance. He wouldn’t have minded pressing his palm to Zhao Yunlan’s skin, or sinking his fingers into that hair. He was inappropriately curious about how those ears would feel under his hand.
He didn’t notice when Zhao Yunlan opened his eyes, but he recognized the lazy look as one of relaxation or contentment.
Shen Wei didn’t ask if he’d done it right. Zhao Yunlan was clearly willing to correct him, so if he didn’t, it likely wasn’t important. Shen Wei was sure he shouldn’t go around imitating nekomimi expressions with anyone else, but it was more than worth it just to know what they meant.
Zhao Yunlan waved at him, then at the dishes between them. He mimed a careless eating motion, and Shen Wei blinked. Zhao Yunlan didn’t make any move to continue eating himself, so it must be a question. “Would you like more?” he asked.
Zhao Yunlan pointed at him and nodded yes, then waved at the food and shook his head no.
Shen Wei blinked.
Zhao Yunlan just watched him, waiting for him to respond.
He swallowed, because the message seemed relatively clear and he still didn’t know what it meant. But Zhao Yunlan had shown every indication that he was willing to explain or discuss or just… stop. He was clearly better at reading Shen Wei’s expressions than Shen Wei was at his.
“I assume that means you don’t want more food,” Shen Wei said carefully.
Zhao Yunlan looked at him for a moment, then pointed at himself and mimed texting.
Shen Wei almost sighed in relief. “Yes, please,” he said.
Zhao Yunlan smiled a little and reached for his phone. Shen Wei looked around at the food, noting what was left and what had been the most enthusiastically received. He hoped he had a reason to keep track of what Zhao Yunlan liked and didn’t like. Shen Wei had yet to actually invite him over, but he kept showing up, and Shen Wei didn’t want that to change.
Zhao Yunlan slid his phone around the dishes and then pulled his hand back. Shen Wei thought it was the first time he’d actually let go of the phone while they were talking. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to pick it up or not, so he just leaned forward to read the message on the screen.
Thanks for dinner, it said. The food was great. Do you want to cuddle on the couch for a while? You can ask me questions if you want to, and I’ll answer on my phone.
Shen Wei looked up. Zhao Yunlan had laced his fingers together and propped his chin on them, watching Shen Wei while he read. He smiled when Shen Wei caught his eye, but it was a very… nice smile. Not large or dramatic or pointed. It was just a smile.
Shen Wei thought they should put the food away first, and probably do the dishes, but he didn’t want to disappoint that smile. He also didn’t want to miss out on cuddling, which sounded straightforward and might involve Zhao Yunlan using words again. Surely clean up could wait.
“Yes,” Shen Wei said aloud. “That sounds very nice.”
Of course, that was when Zhao Yunlan gestured at the dishes again, and Shen Wei hesitated. If he was willing to--
“They’re fine,” he heard himself say. “We can take care of them later.”
Zhao Yunlan brightened, pushing himself to his feet and snatching up his phone as he went. He waved in the general direction of the couch, and Shen Wei couldn’t help but smile. He might not know what Zhao Yunlan wanted, exactly, but his eagerness was flattering.
He’d moved his jacket and kicked his shoes out of the way in the time it took Shen Wei to reach the couch, and then he just waited. Shen Wei hesitated, looking at the couch and back at him. “Where do you…”
Zhao Yunlan pointed at him and then at the corner of the couch. Shen Wei didn’t bother to finish his question, grateful for the direction as he sat down. Zhao Yunlan crowded up against the front of the couch, patting his knees and pointing at the couch cushions until Shen Wei asked, “You want me to put my feet on the couch?”
Zhao Yunlan had already dropped onto the couch beside him. He patted Shen Wei’s knees again, waving for him to lift his feet. When he did, Zhao Yunlan pulled them into his lap and started taking his shoes off.
“I can--” Shen Wei began, but Zhao Yunlan was very quick. He treated Shen Wei’s shoes more carefully than his own, setting them side-by-side under the table, then picked up his phone again and started typing something.
Shen Wei tried to pull his feet back, but Zhao Yunlan leaned forward and trapped them in his lap by bracing his elbows on them. When he finished typing, he put one hand on Shen Wei’s legs and held out his phone with the other.
I’m going to sit really close to you, it said. Tell me if it’s not okay.
Shen Wei frowned. He had assumed cuddling would involve sitting close together. “It’s okay,” he said, but Zhao Yunlan held up one finger to silently indicate wait.
He started to nod, but Zhao Yunlan was already sliding out from under his feet. He pushed one of Shen Wei’s legs up against the back of the couch and patted the other until Shen Wei bent his knee and let his foot fall to the floor. It was an awkwardly relaxed, wholly inappropriate way to sit in front of a guest, but Zhao Yunlan immediately made it worse by crawling between his legs and turning around so his back was to Shen Wei’s chest.
Shen Wei had no idea what to do with his hands. Zhao Yunlan was writing on his phone again, so he settled one hand tentatively on the back of the couch and let the other rest on his own knee. It pressed their shoulders up against each other, but since Zhao Yunlan was literally leaning on him, some further contact was inevitable.
Zhao Yunlan held up his phone then: not very high, and he didn’t have to turn it around to show the screen, which made Shen Wei realize two things. One, he could see the screen while Zhao Yunlan was writing… and two, Zhao Yunlan had probably done that on purpose.
You can ask me questions, he’d said. Anything Zhao Yunlan said would be immediately visible on the screen Shen Wei could read over his shoulder.
At the moment the screen said, Is this okay? Can you see what I’m writing?
Shen Wei almost nodded, except that Zhao Yunlan’s head was right there and he wouldn’t be able to see the gesture anyway. “Yes,” he managed to say instead. “I can see it.”
Zhao Yunlan craned his neck like he was trying to see Shen Wei’s face. He pointed at the words is this okay on his phone.
“Yes?” Shen Wei repeated. It was… not perfectly comfortable, but Zhao Yunlan was right that it was efficient. Which would probably be useful to share. “It’s very efficient,” he said aloud.
Zhao Yunlan let out a huff that was probably amused, but he stopped trying to look at Shen Wei. He squirmed a little, sliding down just enough that his head rested on Shen Wei’s shoulder when he leaned back, and oh. That was much better.
“That’s more comfortable,” he offered, and Zhao Yunlan patted the arm he’d braced on the back of the couch. Then, to Shen Wei’s surprise, Zhao Yunlan caught his hand and pulled it down to rest on his stomach instead. He set his elbows on top of it and started writing on his phone again.
You don’t have to hold me, he was writing. Watching the words appear gave Shen Wei something to look at other than his arm around Zhao Yunlan, so he did. But I like it. If it’s okay with you.
Shen Wei patted his stomach without thinking. He was too easily conditioned by Zhao Yunlan’s methods of communication, perhaps, and then he was almost distracted by the way Zhao Yunlan shifted his hips to free his tail from under his leg. But that was all the more reason to speak.
“It’s okay with me,” he echoed, watching that black tail drape lazily over his own knee. He was very disappointed that he couldn’t feel more than a slight pressure. “I like it too,” he added, letting his eyes wander over Zhao Yunlan’s sprawled form. He could look without being seen, and it felt indecent and liberating at the same time.
Good, Zhao Yunlan was writing. He reached for Shen Wei’s other arm and settled it across his body too. That’s better. Now you can ask me things.
Shen Wei had already decided that most of his questions were highly inappropriate, but when Zhao Yunlan shifted, his hair felt soft against Shen Wei’s skin. He blurted out, “Do your ears feel like your hair?”
He thought Zhao Yunlan might try to look at him again for that, but instead he just shrugged and wrote, Touch them and find out.
Shen Wei liked his hands where they were, but he wasn’t going to pass up an invitation like that. He barely had to turn his head to press his cheek against Zhao Yunlan’s hair. Rubbing his face carefully back and forth made a delicate ear flatten under his skin, and he pulled back in surprise. “Did I hurt you?”
No, Zhao Yunlan was writing. God, no, do that again. Preferably forever.
“Do you--” It was embarrassing to ask, but it might be more embarrassing not to know. He leaned his head against Zhao Yunlan’s again, feeling that ear fold with the pressure. “Do you like… having your ears touched?”
By you, Zhao Yunlan wrote. Sure.
Shen Wei looked away from the phone long enough to properly nuzzle Zhao Yunlan’s ear. It didn’t feel like his hair after all: it was much softer, and Shen Wei pressed a kiss against the base of it without thinking. Only when he felt Zhao Yunlan pull in a sharp breath did he wonder if he’d gone too far.
“Is that rude?” Shen Wei asked quickly. If it came out as more of a whisper, well. He was speaking into Zhao Yunlan’s ear. It was probably better to be quiet. “I didn’t mean--please tell me if I do something wrong.”
Not wrong, Zhao Yunlan wrote. Feels good. Just surprised me.
Then he added, It’s like getting a scalp massage, right? Good, but better depending on who’s doing it. Most people you wouldn’t let do it in the first place.
“A scalp massage,” Shen Wei repeated. He kept his voice to a murmur on purpose this time. “I don’t think I’m familiar with that.”
I have so much to show you, Zhao Yunlan wrote, and then he added a little smiling face that rolled back and forth.
“Why are you sending me pictures when we’re sitting right next to each other,” Shen Wei said, smiling into his hair.
Because you can’t see my face, Zhao Yunlan replied immediately. This is what it’s doing. He added more little pictures of a face with its mouth open in surprise, then grinning, and finally winking.
“I think mine is probably more like the first one,” Shen Wei murmured, rubbing his face against Zhao Yunlan’s ear again. It was truly unnecessarily soft.
How much do I love that you like my ears, Zhao Yunlan was writing. For most people it’s the tail.
Shen Wei’s eyes flicked involuntarily, guiltily, toward his tail. “I do like your tail,” he whispered. Then, because that sounded terrible when he thought about it, he added, “I like all of you.”
Zhao Yunlan patted his hands again, resting his arm on Shen Wei’s while he typed with the other hand: What’s your Dixing power?
It was a fair question. Shen Wei had needed an answer long ago, of course. When he first came to the surface, in order to maintain a separate identity as the Envoy, he’d needed to provide information about Shen Wei of Dixing that wouldn’t immediately connect the two of them.
He’d chosen the most useful and versatile of his abilities: healing. It had the side benefit of sounding exceptionally benign. He shouldn’t have any hesitation about offering it… except that when Zhao Yunlan asked him, he found himself reluctant to lie.
He extracted one hand from their tangle of arms instead, turning it palm up and letting visible energy gather above it. “May I?” he asked quietly.
Zhao Yunlan was already reaching for it, like he wanted to touch the energy the same way Shen Wei wanted to touch his ears. Shen Wei twitched his hand away just enough to make Zhao Yunlan pause. “It might feel strange,” Shen Wei warned him.
Zhao Yunlan made a grabby motion with his fingers. He didn’t reach out again, but when Shen Wei brought the energy closer Zhao Yunlan put his hand over it without hesitation.
His fingers went right through it, of course, but his reaction was instantaneous. His hand grabbed Shen Wei’s, fingers clamping down hard as he yanked it close. Startled, Shen Wei tried to disperse the energy, but it was too late. With their joined hands pressed firmly to Zhao Yunlan’s chest, the power spilled out over his body, a wash of gentle recovery that made him moan.
It made him moan.
That was Zhao Yunlan’s voice.
Shen Wei poured energy into him through his other hand and Zhao Yunlan arched up, making a choked-off sound that was as enticing as it was terrible. He shouldn’t--it was instinctive, it was wrong, and he tried to jerk his hands away even as Zhao Yunlan held on.
Shen Wei forced the power to subside instead, ashamed of his own reaction. He had no right to push for what Zhao Yunlan didn’t want to give. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Are you all right? Is it dangerous for you to use your voice?
“I can stop you,” he added recklessly. It was an offer he shouldn’t make, and it couldn’t excuse his unthinking urge to coax more sound out of Zhao Yunlan. “I can keep you from making noise if you want me to.”
Zhao Yunlan’s fingers tightened painfully on his, even as his body shuddered back toward pliancy. He was breathing hard, certainly not relaxed, but no longer straining. His phone had slid off into the cushions, but he just shook his head “no” instead of searching for it.
Shen Wei wanted to apologize again, but he also wanted to do so much more, and the guilt of it was enough to keep him silent.
Zhao Yunlan lifted their clasped hands, prying his fingers free and running them over Shen Wei’s skin. His breath was hot and fast, but he just turned their hands back and forth in front of his face like he was looking for something. He stopped holding Shen Wei’s other arm against his body and reached up, massaging the fingers he’d squeezed so hard, and Shen Wei thought that if he had normal circulation it would probably feel very good.
It felt good regardless, but more for the attention and implied forgiveness than anything else. Shen Wei took the opportunity to slide his other hand free, resting it back on his knee where he wouldn’t be tempted to abuse his power again. He couldn’t have known Zhao Yunlan would react so strongly, but he should never have pushed more energy at him just because he liked it.
Just because it made him cry out.
Shen Wei’s fingers clenched on his knee, but he managed to keep the hand Zhao Yunlan was holding steady and relaxed. “That was my mistake,” he said, when he thought he could speak without babbling. “I’m sorry I showed you… more than I meant to.”
Zhao Yunlan smoothed the fingers of his hand flat and pulled it close, pressing a swift kiss to his palm and then laying Shen Wei’s open hand against his chest. Shen Wei could feel his heart pounding, and maybe he was supposed to. Zhao Yunlan never pushed him away, just reached out to fumble for Shen Wei’s other hand. When he found it he pulled it to his mouth and kissed his other palm as well.
The gesture wasn’t so unexpected the second time. It was also significantly less overwhelming when he had Zhao Yunlan’s body pressed up against his own and all the power of the underground racing through him. His attention was mostly occupied by trying to keep that power separate from Zhao Yunlan, who seemed sensationally attuned to it.
Zhao Yunlan was poking at his hand, pressing the center of his palm with his finger and then turning it over, like there might be something there he hadn’t noticed. It was too much. Shen Wei let his fingers glow, sparkles of energy trailing down his hand and into his sleeve just for something to focus on.
It helped a little. It also prompted Zhao Yunlan to tug at his sleeve in a futile effort to follow the path of the energy. Shen Wei tried not to smile, because of course he did.
“It isn't constrained by clothing,” he murmured. He made the visible aura roll over top of his sleeves instead of disappearing at the cuffs, and suddenly his whole arm was glowing. “Is that better?”
Zhao Yunlan ran his fingers along the length of his arm, then unexpectedly pulled Shen Wei’s hand close again and pressed it against his cheek. Shen Wei tried to force the energy down, to shove it away, but some of it must have tingled into Zhao Yunlan's skin before he got ahold of it. He huffed out a breath that might have been pleased and then made a sound that was more deliberate.
Shen Wei caught his breath. “Are you--” He didn't dare finish the sentence.
Zhao Yunlan turned his head, nuzzling Shen Wei’s wrist and nosing at his sleeve. He made a gentle, vibrating sound that that wasn't a moan and definitely wasn't words. It was something Shen Wei honestly hadn't known nekomimi could do in human form.
Zhao Yunlan was purring.
Shen Wei stared at the side of his head, watching him rub his cheek against a manifestation of dark energy that most people feared. Zhao Yunlan was solid and real against him, warm and shameless and apparently interested in him. It was suddenly much easier to understand why people did this.
“I really want to kiss you right now,” Shen Wei whispered. He didn't know which was stranger: that he wanted to say it or that he could say it, but it felt true and it made Zhao Yunlan twist in his arms like water.
The feeling of that body sliding against his was somehow shocking, even through the unsteady rush of power he hadn’t gotten completely under control. It wasn’t enough: there was no mouth on his, and the hand on his chest actually seemed to be pushing him away. But there was nowhere to go, so instead of him moving it was Zhao Yunlan pushing his knee down and straddling his lap. The hand on his chest held them apart while he stared down at Shen Wei.
He held up two fingers, wiggling them forward and back and then holding them still, like it was important that Shen Wei see them. He wasn’t purring anymore, and that was the most disappointing aspect of the entire situation. Shen Wei nodded anyway because it seemed to be required.
Zhao Yunlan folded one finger down so it looked like he was miming “wait,” then curled his tail up to flick against his hand. Shen Wei’s eyes went to it immediately. It was the first time he was aware of the fact that his own hands had settled on Zhao Yunlan’s hips, because that was where he had to keep them while he watched Zhao Yunlan tug sharply on his own tail.
He could see Zhao Yunlan shake his head at the same time, but he didn’t look away from that tail until there was a finger in his face. Zhao Yunlan had let go of his chest to wag his finger at Shen Wei: in so doing he’d brought them even closer together, but the message was clear.
“Don’t pull your tail,” Shen Wei said aloud.
Zhao Yunlan pointed at him again, but this time it seemed to be a gesture of victory. He patted his tail, stroking gently in the same direction as the fur, and the pointing turned to a thumbs up. Then he pretended to tug on it and shook his head again.
Shen Wei’s eyes widened, looking from his tail to his face and back again. Was he actually getting instruction in acceptable ways to touch Zhao Yunlan’s tail? Was instruction equivalent to permission? He felt like Zhao Yunlan, reaching greedily for the energy in his hands.
Zhao Yunlan held up both fingers again. This time he pointed to the second one, and then to his mouth. While Shen Wei watched, he mouthed, Stop. It was slow and clear and unmistakable, and Zhao Yunlan held up both hands in a gesture of complete surrender.
Or hands-off, Shen Wei realized. “Stop” meant…
He swallowed. “Stop means stop?” he said.
Zhao Yunlan nodded, slow and emphatic. He was already leaning in when Shen Wei asked, “What about you?”
Zhao Yunlan paused, giving him an odd look.
Shen Wei wanted very much to be kissing him. He wanted to reach for that tail, to touch it as carefully and reverently as it deserved. He wanted Zhao Yunlan as close as he had just been, because no matter how appealing it was to be able to see his face, it was indescribably more satisfying to feel him pressed against the entire length of his body.
But more than anything, he wanted this to be fair.
“If you want to stop,” Shen Wei said. “How will I know?”
Zhao Yunlan stared at him for a long moment before the corner of his mouth quirked up and he shook his head from side to side. It made his meaning very clear when he mouthed, I won’t.
“If you do,” Shen Wei insisted.
Zhao Yunlan didn’t look any less amused, but he held up his hand pointedly. Then he reached out and tapped Shen Wei on the shoulder. Four taps. Shen Wei didn’t think he was counting, but he nodded anyway. “Thank you,” he said aloud.
There was that smile again: kind and genuine, and it was an expression that looked like his own reaction rather than a deliberate attempt to communicate something. Shen Wei touched his mouth, then cupped his cheek the way he’d wanted to before. He was careful to keep any lingering dark energy out of his touch.
Zhao Yunlan lifted his hand anyway, pressing it to the one Shen Wei had on his cheek. His other hand slipped around behind Shen Wei’s neck, squeezing gently as he leaned in. His mouth was right there, and the difference between kissing and touching was lost in the confusion of skin and lips and breath that still tasted faintly of plum juice.
It was better when Zhao Yunlan melted into him, pressing heat into every part of his body when he buried his face in Shen Wei’s neck. One of those soft ears folded against his chin. Shen Wei rubbed his cheek against it and slid his hands up his sides, trying to express his appreciation without overstepping. He slowed awkwardly when that soft shirt wrinkled and rode up and left bare skin under his fingers.
Zhao Yunlan’s throat vibrated against his shoulder. Shen Wei’s fingers tightened involuntarily, but of all the things he could say, surely this was the least compromising. “I like it when you purr,” he whispered.
There was a hitch in the vibration, and he felt a kiss pressed to the side of his neck. He spread his fingers, letting them slip under that shirt and hike it up further. He liked having skin under his hands. He liked having Zhao Yunlan wrapped around him more. He would gladly accept every embarrassment and misunderstanding a hundred times over if it brought them here, to this, even just once.
He would never be content with just once. The couch was a surprisingly comfortable place to “fool around,” but Shen Wei wouldn't have minded fewer clothes and more space to stretch out. He did appreciate Zhao Yunlan’s ability to sleep anywhere. He was happy to retain only a limited awareness of the city and a much more significant awareness of the warm body draped over his own, breath soft against his skin with a tail wrapped loosely around his wrist.
He was drifting with the energy of dawn when the tail twitched. He had been stroking that tail all night and it still wasn’t enough. He didn’t dare reach for it now, but the feeling of Zhao Yunlan’s chest expanding as he stretched made him smile.
Then that breath was released in a long sigh, and Shen Wei thought he must be imagining the way it turned into “hey” at the end.
He lifted his free arm and brushed Zhao Yunlan’s hair back, mostly as an excuse to stroke his ears again. Zhao Yunlan shifted again, pressing his face against Shen Wei’s shoulder. Breath tickled his skin, and this time the whisper of his name was definitely not his imagination.
Shen Wei held very still.
Zhao Yunlan twisted against him, pushing onto his side in a space that didn’t really exist on the couch. He was still mostly on top of Shen Wei when he opened his eyes. His next breath made a sound that was halfway between a yawn and a hum, and he tipped his head back to smile through his eyelashes at Shen Wei.
Shen Wei had no idea what his expression looked like, but Zhao Yunlan froze the moment their eyes met. Oh, shit, he mouthed. Then he immediately squeezed his eyes shut, making a face that was unmistakably regret.
Shen Wei pressed his lips together, but maybe he should have expected that. He should have woken Zhao Yunlan earlier. He shouldn’t have let him fall asleep in the first place. He’d had plenty of time to disentangle himself from their comforting embrace and at any point he could have saved them from this--
“Shen Wei.” That whisper came again. He couldn’t ignore it, and he was already turning his head when fingers landed gently on his chin.
“Wow, okay, I’m such an idiot,” Zhao Yunlan whispered, just his breath on Shen Wei’s skin as the words tumbled over each other. It had to be a dream. Or a nightmare. To finally hear him speak, and for it to be this.
“I’m so sorry,” he was saying. Whispering. There was no trace of his actual voice under the words anymore, not like there had been when he yawned. Or moaned. This was just his breath, shaped by teeth and tongue, saying, “I wanted to tell you. I want to tell you now. I shouldn’t even be--fuck, I’m sorry. I’m terrible in the morning.”
Shen Wei swallowed. He didn’t understand, but if given the chance he could learn almost anything. Zhao Yunlan was talking to him. That had to count for something. “Are you sorry you’re here?” he blurted out.
No, Zhao Yunlan mouthed. He shook his head violently from side to side, then dipped his head right next to Shen Wei’s ear and whispered fiercely, “No! No, I’m not sorry. I don’t want to be anywhere except where you are. Right now. Forever, even. Wow, I think it was actually better when I wasn’t talking. That’s a first.”
It was exactly what he’d expected Zhao Yunlan to sound like. Except for the whispering. He’d imagined him loud and boisterous, even when he was silently throwing his arms around and grinning like a fool.
He felt Zhao Yunlan draw in a breath, letting it out as a sigh when he tipped his forehead down to rest on Shen Wei’s shoulder. One soft cat ear brushed against his cheek, and Shen Wei closed his eyes. His hand was on the back of Zhao Yunlan’s neck. He didn’t even remember putting it there.
He heard Zhao Yunlan whisper, “Please don’t kick me out,” and he opened his eyes to stare at the ceiling in surprise. He pressed his cheek against the top of Zhao Yunlan’s head. When he felt Zhao Yunlan sigh again, he patted the back of his neck carefully and tried to gather his thoughts.
“Should you be talking to me right now?” he asked at last. He didn’t know what the question meant, but it seemed to be taking up all the space between them.
Without looking up, Zhao Yunlan shook his head no. His hair was a mess against Shen Wei’s skin. His ears were soft and folded under the pressure, but he pushed his head closer when Shen Wei tried to lean more lightly.
“But you want to be here,” Shen Wei said, as carefully as he could. He tried to make it sound like he was just confirming what Zhao Yunlan had said, rather than hanging on every word.
This time Zhao Yunlan nodded his head yes. He still didn’t lift his head, but Shen Wei could feel fingers clenching in his shirt and the solid press of knuckles against his chest. Zhao Yunlan was holding onto him every bit as literally as Shen Wei was holding him.
“All right,” Shen Wei said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. They’d been managing well enough so far, after all. “Then I don’t see that anything’s really changed. Do you?”
There was a long, still moment where neither of them moved.
Then Zhao Yunlan pushed himself up, catching Shen Wei’s hand as it fell and staring intently at his expression. He was sitting in Shen Wei’s lap, he was talking, and he felt farther away than he had in days. But he clasped their hands tight against his chest and Shen Wei wasn’t going to make the distance any greater.
“I made a promise,” Zhao Yunlan whispered. In the silence, his words were perfectly audible. “To keep other people safe. Talking to anyone--even you--puts those people in danger. It puts you in danger. I’m sorry.”
Shen Wei raised his other hand to Zhao Yunlan’s face, but at the last second he couldn’t bring himself to cover that mouth. He should have pressed a finger to his lips, granting him the freedom of being told what to do. But he couldn’t. He put his hand on Zhao Yunlan’s cheek instead and traced three short whiskers on his skin.
“I’m stronger than I look,” Shen Wei told him quietly.
Zhao Yunlan didn’t smile. “I believe that,” he whispered. “And you look pretty damn strong. But other people need me, and I can’t let them down.”
Shen Wei wanted to say, I need you. He wanted to say, I can defend whoever you’re protecting. He wanted to say, Look at all the things I can’t say to you and tell me what good it does, but he didn’t. He didn’t say any of it.
Instead he let the hand on Zhao Yunlan’s face fall, following the sweep of his collarbone to cover the fingers tangled across his heart. “I’m glad you stayed last night,” Shen Wei murmured. It was the truth, and he was relieved he could offer that.
Zhao Yunlan reached out to put his free hand over Shen Wei’s heart in return. With every appearance of sincerity he whispered, “Can I come back tonight?”
It was strange to suddenly be asked, but there had only ever been one answer to that question. Nothing had changed overnight. Maybe nothing would.
Shen Wei nodded yes without a word.
He’d intended to spend the night before working. Shen Wei didn’t regret the change in plans, but it left him with a variety of inevitable errands that morning. So when he got back to his desk and found multiple messages from Zhao Yunlan on his phone, he didn’t bother to check the time. He didn’t even reply to the lunch invitation. He just put the phone in his bag and headed across town.
Guardian headquarters involved a large and unstaffed entryway, which had always irritated him when he was on business from Dixing. He tried not to be, of course. In one way or another, interacting with the Guardian order meant he had failed to do his job, and he preferred to avoid it. Perhaps dealing with them as a civilian would give him a fresh perspective on their professional relationship.
“Oh, hi, sorry, excuse me!” The young man crossing the entryway seemed as surprised as Shen Wei was to see someone else in the space. “Do you work here? I was just reporting a missing person. I know I’m supposed to go to the regular police, but I really think this is an interspecies incident!”
“Hello,” Shen Wei said, because there was no reason not to be polite. “I don’t work here, no.”
“Oh, are you reporting something too? Do you think there’s been more problems than usual lately? I mean, I know the treaty is a little dated, but it’s worked fine all these years. Why isn’t it holding now?”
“No,” Shen Wei repeated. “I’m not here to report anything.”
In the space between the young man’s sentences, he could hear the faint murmur of conversation from the other side of the wall. It would be inaudible to human senses, but it occurred to him that nekomimi ears could probably hear as much, if not more. Zhao Yunlan might already know he was here.
“Oh, well. That’s good. I’m glad.” The young man nodded at him, then waved awkwardly as he edged around Shen Wei. “Have a good day.”
“Thank you,” Shen Wei said. “You as well.”
He watched the young man leave, wondering about the strange half-energy that swirled around him. He couldn’t be from Dixing, but he’d clearly been in close contact with someone who was, and recently. Shen Wei was surprised not to recognize him.
He looked over at the closed door to the office space when the sound of laughter came through. Their last visitor must have let himself in, so Shen Wei did the same. There was one person at a desk inside and four more gathered around a table in the middle of the room. The one at the desk was the only one who looked up.
Shen Wei raised his eyebrows. Chu Shuzhi did field work for the Guardian order; it should be unusual to find him at headquarters in the middle of the day. From the way the man studied him in return, the Envoy’s presence was equally unexpected.
“Oh, um.” A tall young man at the table made Chu Shuzhi look away, though Shen Wei was quite sure it had been his attention that had directed the young man’s eye to him.
“Hello, can I help you?” A woman in a white dress stepped away from the table, long hair swinging around her shoulders as she put herself between him and the rest of the room.
“Yes, thank you,” he said, smiling as politely as he could. “I’m looking for Officer Zhao.”
The other two people at the table had been present the night the Envoy visited Daqing, and the short-haired woman demanded, “What do you want with Zhao Yunlan?”
It hadn’t occurred to him to ask what Zhao Yunlan might or might not want his coworkers to know about Shen Wei. The university was an island of liberal tolerance in a city that did not openly condone associations like theirs. “I believe he’s expecting me,” Shen Wei offered.
“Oh, oh!” The man with glasses who had pointed his mobile phone at the Envoy now pointed his finger at Shen Wei. “Are you Professor Shen?”
As far as Shen Wei could tell, everyone in the room looked from the man who had asked to him at the same time. “Yes,” he said. “I am.”
“Wow,” the man with the glasses said. “Well, that explains a lot.”
The short-haired woman beside slapped him on the shoulder and he added quickly, “I mean, it’s very nice to meet you, Professor Shen. I’ll go tell him you’re here, all right? Just a minute.”
“Thank you,” Shen Wei said, wondering if he should have replied to Zhao Yunlan’s text message after all. Would Zhao Yunlan have suggested meeting somewhere else if he had?
“Welcome to Guardian headquarters,” the woman in the white dress told him. She had been polite before, but she was smiling at him now. “Officer Zhao has told us a lot about you. We’re very glad you could stop by.”
“Thank you,” Shen Wei repeated, surprised and curious to know what “a lot” might entail. Not to mention how exactly Zhao Yunlan had told them anything. Did he text his coworkers the way he texted Shen Wei? Did Daqing interpret for him somehow?
He heard the man with the glasses knocking on a door, and he heard it open on shouting and laughter. The sudden noise was doubly startling: whatever room that door opened onto must be soundproofed, and one of the shouting voices was unmistakably Lord Kunlun. The sound was cut off when the door closed again.
“Would you like to have a seat?” the woman in the white dress was asking. “I’m sure he’ll be right out. He and Officer Daqing are working on a public safety video for the university. Maybe he’s told you about it?”
“A public safety video?” Shen Wei echoed, forcing his focus back to her. “No, I’m afraid not.”
“Professor Shen doesn’t use phones or computers,” the short-haired woman said. “He probably doesn’t watch any of our videos.”
He was about to agree when the tall young man said, “But--but he does have a phone?” He’d retreated from the table toward Chu Shuzhi’s desk, and Shen Wei wondered if they were partners. Shen Wei should have been consulted before someone with Chu Shuzhi’s background was assigned a mentee.
The young man added, “Professor Shen, haven’t you been texting, um, Officer Zhao?”
He was fortunate that the easy evasion was so plausible. “Well,” he said, letting his smile show everything he didn’t know about the subject, “he’s been texting me, anyway. I do my best to answer his questions.”
He heard the door opening again, but this time the only voice was Daqing’s, exclaiming, “That isn’t what it’s for!”
It was the man with the glasses who replied, “Technically that’s exactly what it’s for,” but it didn’t matter because Zhao Yunlan was striding across the room, waving his hand in enthusiastic greeting. Shen Wei felt a pleased smile on his face as he waved back.
No one else emerged from the soundproofed room with them, but if they were recording something for broadcast then that wasn't so strange. The sound insulation protected the quality of the recording, and of course Kunlun’s voice would be on any official media they released. He could no doubt keep working without Daqing or Zhao Yunlan to assist.
Zhao Yunlan walked right up to him and clapped him on the shoulder, squeezing hard enough that Shen Wei could feel the comforting warmth of it through his jacket. He didn’t let go, gesturing from him to the rest of the room and raising his eyebrows. He didn’t take his eyes off of Shen Wei, so the question was clearly meant for him.
“Ah, yes, we were just talking?” Shen Wei guessed. “Everyone was very helpful.”
Zhao Yunlan smiled at him, squeezing his shoulder again, then looked around at the others. He made the same gesture, from them to Shen Wei, and the woman in white said quickly, “He introduced himself, but we didn’t.
“Hello, Professor Shen,” she added, giving him another smile. “I’m Wang Zheng, Human Resources.”
“Oh,” Shen Wei said, when Zhao Yunlan gave her a thumbs up. Was that what he meant? How could she tell? “Hello--”
Before he could say anything else, the man in the glasses waved at him and said, “Lin Jing! Technical expert and inventor extraordinaire!”
Zhao Yunlan scoffed at this, and Shen Wei saw the short-haired woman roll her eyes at the same time. She and Zhao Yunlan exchanged glances that the man named Lin Jing ignored, and then she said, “Pleased to meet you, Professor Shen. Zhu Hong, Administration and Logistics.”
He nodded to her, and her expression didn’t change. She was perfectly polite. She was also obviously unimpressed, though he couldn’t guess what part of the exchange she disliked.
“Oh, um, hi?” The other young man held up his hand like he was going to wave, then thought better of it. “I’m… Guo Changcheng? An intern?” He smiled at Shen Wei, then looked nervously at the desk beside him.
Zhao Yunlan made a dismissive motion in their direction, like that was enough, but the man leaning back in his chair spoke anyway. “Chu Shuzhi,” he said. “Field Agent.”
Shen Wei nodded to him, and the man nodded back. Zhao Yunlan looked from one of them to the other before snapping his fingers and wagging one of them in Chu Shuzhi’s direction. The Guardian order must know which of its members were from Dixing, but Shen Wei guessed that Zhao Yunlan had just made the connection.
“Hello,” Daqing added, leaning around Zhao Yunlan to wave from where he sat on the table. “Nice to see you again, Professor Shen. Thank you for keeping Old Zhao out of our way at night; we’re all very grateful!”
Zhao Yunlan was waving dramatically in Daqing’s direction, apparently trying to make him stop talking, but Daqing only grinned back at him. “What?” he said. “We are! Everyone’s life is easier when you have someone else to annoy, and Professor Shen is obviously a saint. He might be able to put up with you for a whole week!”
Shen Wei looked at Zhao Yunlan just as he tipped his head back and appealed to the ceiling with his eyes. It made Shen Wei smile. “I’m sure I can manage more than a week,” he said.
Zhao Yunlan tilted his head sideways to catch his eye, and when he saw Shen Wei’s smile his face broke into a grin. The grip on his shoulder loosened, then disappeared altogether as Zhao Yunlan stepped even closer. Careful hands covered both his ears: far too light to actually keep Shen Wei from hearing, but demonstrative enough that the message was clear.
“Why shouldn’t I listen?” Shen Wei wanted to know. “I think this is very informative.”
“He’s a scholar,” Daqing called from his place on the table. “You can’t keep him from learning!”
One of Zhao Yunlan’s hands tapped him on the shoulder, then reached around him to point toward the door. The gesture brought their heads very close together, which Shen Wei finally understood as a nekomimi way of flirting. He didn’t know how to respond, but he could at least appreciate it.
“Very well,” he said aloud. “I suppose you should eat, so you have the strength to continue denying these outrageous truths your coworkers have created out of nothing.”
Wang Zheng hid her giggle behind her hand, but Daqing didn’t bother. “Come back anytime, Professor Shen!” he declared. “The more often, the better!”
“It was nice to meet you!” Guo Changcheng added.
Shen Wei did not participate in the indignity of trying to reply while Zhao Yunlan was urging him toward the door. He’d given up pretending that he was trying to communicate and just let his arm rest on Shen Wei’s shoulders. It was awkward while they walked, but the weight of it was warm and very welcome.
Shen Wei privately reconsidered what he might say when asked about this lunch later.
“Officer Zhao, so good to see you!” The woman at the counter of the neko cafe was clearly familiar with the Guardians who worked two blocks away. “And with such a handsome escort, you tom. My eyes are lucky today!”
Shen Wei watched, fascinated, as Zhao Yunlan braced himself sideways against the counter and leaned his whole upper body toward her. He wrinkled his nose, ducked his head, and swung his gaze toward Shen Wei. His fond smile was almost as unexpected as the way she put her hand over her heart and said, “Is that so! Well, I never thought I’d see the day.”
Shen Wei raised his eyebrows but Zhao Yunlan frowned, turning his head toward her so that his expression was no longer visible. The woman behind the counter just shook her head at him, patting his cheek with her hand. “I’m sure he’s very dear. Now stop getting your paws all over my counter and go sit down. Daji will bring your food in a minute.”
Zhao Yunlan leaned into her hand, and Shen Wei held very still as she stroked three lines on his face with her thumb before pushing him away. As he straightened she reached for him again--maybe trying to ruffle his hair, maybe trying to pat his ears--and Zhao Yunlan batted her hand down. She just laughed, winking at Shen Wei as she turned away.
Shen Wei blinked. He drew in a breath, because breathing was important and he might have forgotten to do it for a moment. He still couldn’t move.
Zhao Yunlan waved a hand in front of his face, and he blinked again. Zhao Yunlan was pointing at his ears, but he waved after the woman when Shen Wei looked at him again. Then he pointed back at his ears. Which was… utterly incomprehensible, and Shen Wei didn’t think it was just his surprise that made it that way.
Zhao Yunlan held up two fingers, then waved back and forth between him and the now absent counter woman. He pointed at his ears again, then caught the tip of his tail in his hand and held it up. Shen Wei couldn’t help looking.
Zhao Yunlan’s tail flicked out of his hand and offered itself to Shen Wei, who reached out to touch it without thinking. Maybe it looked like an extended hand. Maybe a night spent on the couch had conditioned him to pat that tail whenever it was within reach. Whatever the reason, it was soft and reassuring and it made Zhao Yunlan seem a little less unimaginable.
“She’s nekomimi,” Shen Wei said, very quietly.
Zhao Yunlan didn’t stick a finger in his face, nor did he clap his hands together in applause, silent or otherwise. So Shen Wei had to look up. When he did, Zhao Yunlan nodded. He didn’t look exasperated or impatient. He just looked intent, searching Shen Wei’s expression for something he didn’t seem to find.
“Does that make it okay?” Shen Wei asked. He didn’t know. He had very little concept of how nekomimi behaved among their own kind, and he knew he should be flattered that Zhao Yunlan had brought him here at all.
Shen Wei wasn’t human, yet he lived and worked among the largely human population of Haixing. He thought he knew what it was to be excluded or simply overlooked. He hadn’t expected to feel more foreign in a place where he’d been invited than he did on the streets where he’d been assigned.
Zhao Yunlan had leaned over the counter again, coming up with both a pen and a napkin, which he was scribbling on while Shen Wei watched. They were by no means the only people in the cafe, and the two people who’d come in after them had formed a line behind them at the empty counter. Shen Wei would prefer not to be in their way, but at least if there was no one taking orders they weren’t holding anyone up.
Zhao Yunlan slid the napkin to him over the counter. I don’t know, it said. What part of it wasn’t okay? Tell me, he’d added at the bottom of the napkin. I’m really asking.
Shen Wei put his hand over the words, as much to appreciate them as to hide them from view. “Can we sit down,” he said, staring at his hand.
He saw Zhao Yunlan nod out of the corner of his eye.
He’d stopped patting that black tail when Zhao Yunlan was hunting for a pen, but he felt it brush against his hand when they turned away from the counter. He turned his hand over, careful not to actually catch it between his fingers. Zhao Yunlan’s fingers caught his instead, and he looked up in surprise.
Zhao Yunlan smiled at him, thumb rubbing against his knuckles, and Shen Wei couldn’t help smiling in return. It was exceptionally imprudent. Lunch he could explain, using vague and discreet phrases that would allow everyone to draw their own conclusions. Even lunch at a neko cafe just down the street from Guardian headquarters. With Zhao Yunlan.
This he could not explain at all. There was only one possible conclusion to be drawn from the fact that he had left the university to have lunch with someone whose hand he was willing to hold. In public.
There were booths on the inside of the small dining space and tables pressed up against the windows, and Shen Wei understood what Zhao Yunlan was asking when he stopped between them and waited. “Either is fine,” Shen Wei said, and he meant it.
Zhao Yunlan took him at his word and more, waving grandly at a table by the window and lifting their joined hands over it when Shen Wei went to sit down. It left them holding hands on top of the table, which was embarrassing whether he was happy to be seen with Zhao Yunlan or not. Shen Wei felt warm and ridiculous, and he couldn’t guess if the smile or the flush on his face was more obvious.
Zhao Yunlan tapped his stolen pen on the table between them, and when Shen Wei looked up he was grinning. He made a writing motion. Shen Wei looked around before he realized the napkin from the counter was crumpled in his free hand. He smoothed it out awkwardly with one hand and pushed it across the table.
Zhao Yunlan only wrote one thing on it before pushing it back.
You’re adorable, the napkin said.
Shen Wei let out his breath in a huff. He almost reached for the pen before he remembered, and he leaned forward instead. Zhao Yunlan mirrored him so they could whisper together in the middle of the table. Or Shen Wei could whisper. Zhao Yunlan would probably… he had no idea what Zhao Yunlan would do.
“The whiskers,” Shen Wei murmured, watching Zhao Yunlan’s expression carefully. “Does everyone do that?”
Zhao Yunlan nodded. The pen clicked when he set it down on the table, and he lifted his free hand so it hovered by Shen Wei’s face. Shen Wei glanced sideways at it, then back at Zhao Yunlan, who smiled. His finger lightly traced three lines across Shen Wei’s cheek.
This? he mouthed.
Shen Wei almost looked over his shoulder to see if anyone noticed, but surely if Zhao Yunlan chose to do it then it was acceptable? He nodded.
Yes, Zhao Yunlan mouthed. Then he made a face and looked down, pulling the napkin back toward him and picking up the pen. He couldn’t keep the napkin from moving and write on it at the same time with just one hand, so Shen Wei reached out and held the napkin in place.
Only with each other, Zhao Yunlan was writing. He turned the napkin around when he was done, like that was all that needed to be said.
“I understand,” Shen Wei said. Not an intimate gesture, then, but one of solidarity. “What did you say to her when we came in?”
Zhao Yunlan grinned. He took the napkin back and turned it over, writing much smaller this time. Shen Wei couldn’t read the cramped characters upside-down, so he waited. He tried to glance casually around the dining area, and it was easier than he expected because no one was looking at them. Or no one appeared to be looking at them. Surely they couldn’t all know Zhao Yunlan?
The pen tapped on his fingers, and Shen Wei looked down in surprise. Zhao Yunlan motioned for him to take the napkin. Shen Wei turned it around on the table and read, I said you’re my very good friend, taken, and a keeper. Unless that sounds too serious, in which case I deny all of it except the first part. Also I asked for dessert instead of lunch. We’ll probably get both.
Shen Wei stared at the words for too long, and it was only partly because Zhao Yunlan had apparently claimed him in front of people who knew him well enough to pat his face and ruffle his hair. It was also because he had no idea cat language was so versatile. He knew nekomimi conveyed a certain amount through expression and movement, but he’d been watching their entire interaction. How had Zhao Yunlan said all of that?
How ignorant would Shen Wei sound if he asked?
Zhao Yunlan very carefully reached over his wrist and put his pen in the middle of the napkin. His grip was awkward with the angle, but he dragged the tip of it through the second half of the first sentence. When he lifted his gaze, looking up at Shen Wei from under his eyelashes, he looked… apologetic, was Shen Wei’s best guess.
Shen Wei frowned at him, forgetting that he could talk, and took the pen out of Zhao Yunlan’s hand. He drew a footnote next to the crossed out part of the sentence and then copied “taken, and a keeper” over again at the bottom of the napkin. Some impulse made him add a colon and Zhao Yunlan’s name, and he heard the breathy huff of Zhao Yunlan’s laughter.
When he looked up, it was in time to see Zhao Yunlan kiss his fingertips and reach out to bury them in Shen Wei’s hair. On the side of his head, where he rubbed them back and forth before withdrawing. It wasn’t until Zhao Yunlan flicked an ear at him that he understood.
May I? Shen Wei mouthed. He should talk. He’d forgotten again, but Zhao Yunlan just smiled at him and he decided that meant yes.
He put the pen down and kissed his own fingers, reaching out to press them against the base of Zhao Yunlan’s soft cat ear. He rubbed gently when Zhao Yunlan leaned into it. He wondered if this was just another friendly gesture of cat pride, or if it was anything like what he’d thought the whiskers meant when Zhao Yunlan was lying on top of him on the couch.
He didn’t notice the person walking up to their table until she stood right next to it, a plate in each hand. She didn’t look at either of them, glaring at the table instead, and Shen Wei hastily sat back in his chair. He tried to pull his hand out of Zhao Yunlan’s, but it didn’t work until after Zhao Yunlan squeezed it and patted their clasped hands with his free one.
There was a plate in front of him as soon as the space was clear. Shen Wei expected he would look very guilty if he tried to engage the woman who had brought their food. He probably looked guilty no matter what--how could he have ignored their surroundings to such a degree?
When he snuck a look at Zhao Yunlan, though, he found him making faces at the woman in a way that looked very argumentative. Probably because it was argumentative, Shen Wei thought. Were they talking? His ears were moving more than they ever did when he talked to Shen Wei, and the woman pushing a plate at him was lashing her tail.
Her--Shen Wei tried not to look but he couldn’t help it--brightly calico-colored tail.
Zhao Yunlan let out a sigh that sounded almost like a hiss, and he turned his upside-down teacup rightside-up with a solid sound that wasn’t quite a bang. Then he gestured at it, making a pouring motion. The woman reached out and flipped Shen Wei’s teacup over too before flouncing off.
Shen Wei knew his eyes were wide when Zhao Yunlan looked back at him, but he wasn’t sure what about his expression warranted the bright grin that broke over Zhao Yunlan’s face. Not you, he mouthed, shaking his head emphatically. He hit his thumb against his chest twice and mouthed, Me.
Shen Wei frowned at him. You? Then he remembered, and he said out loud, “What did you do?”
Zhao Yunlan mouthed something more complicated, and Shen Wei thought it was, She doesn’t like me. But that seemed almost unfathomable at this point, so he just stared.
Zhao Yunlan glanced down at the napkin, now covered in writing on both sides, and then back up at Shen Wei. He leaned into the middle of the table, crooking his finger until Shen Wei copied him. Then Zhao Yunlan leaned further, hair brushing against Shen Wei’s temple when his mouth drew even with his ear.
“Daji doesn’t like me,” Zhao Yunlan breathed. The words were hot and tingling against Shen Wei’s skin and he had to clench his fists to keep himself from shivering. “It’s not you, I promise.”
Shen Wei drew in a careful breath, and the way Zhao Yunlan smirked at him when he drew back made him think the intimacy hadn’t been entirely accidental. “I was going to ask,” he said, very softly, “how anyone could not like you.”
Zhao Yunlan’s smirk turned into a grin and he held his hands out to the sides, clearly accepting this as his due. So Shen Wei didn’t feel too bad about adding, “Sometimes it’s not as hard to imagine as others.”
Zhao Yunlan gave him a wounded look for that, but Shen Wei was still trying to dispel the sense memory of Zhao Yunlan’s mouth on his skin and his body pressing them both down into the cushions the last time he whispered in Shen Wei’s ear. It made anything less distracting all too easy to ignore.
When Daji came back with a teapot, Shen Wei looked up at her. “He tells me you don’t like him,” he told her. He didn’t know why, and he did know the dangers of wandering into social interaction blind. But every indication was that he could count on Zhao Yunlan to laugh or bail him out or both. “I want you to know I’m sympathetic.”
She looked back at him for the first time, and her face didn’t seem to have any expression at all. Then she reached out and plucked his teacup off the table, filling it and setting it carefully next to his plate. When she looked at Zhao Yunlan, she just waited.
Zhao Yunlan glared again, and this time the sound he made was definitely a hiss. She hissed back at him. If it really wasn’t about him, then…
Shen Wei carefully picked up Zhao Yunlan’s teacup and offered it to Daji, looking up in time to catch her surprised expression.
It disappeared quickly, leaving the same blank look she’d worn when she first appeared at their table. Shen Wei wondered suddenly if that lack of expression was the nekomimi equivalent of the silent treatment. Maybe Zhao Yunlan’s dramatic expressions were the opposite: maybe he was being as loud in cat speech as he couldn’t be in human speech.
Daji poured tea into the cup he held without so much as a splash. Then she set the teapot gently down on the table between them and told Shen Wei, “I’ll be back with your dessert in a moment.”
“Thank you,” he said, too surprised to smile.
She didn’t smile either, just walked away. Without looking at Zhao Yunlan.
Who was watching him with an amused expression, so Shen Wei raised his eyebrows. “Yes?” he said. He wanted to know why she didn’t like Zhao Yunlan, but if it didn’t fit on a napkin, he knew he wouldn’t survive the whispered version with his dignity intact.
Zhao Yunlan just smiled, sitting forward and picking up his teacup. He carefully clinked it against Shen Wei’s like it was a very different drink. Lifting it in a second, even more silent toast, Zhao Yunlan nodded at him like he knew what he was doing.
For just a moment, Shen Wei believed him.
He should have looked for the videos Zhu Hong mentioned. He meant to, if only to satisfy his curiosity about what role Zhao Yunlan might play in them. If he had swallowed his pride for ten minutes and asked Jia-Jia how to find Guardian public service announcements on the internet, the night that followed would have gone very differently.
As soon as he left Zhao Yunlan, though, he encountered one emergency after another. He couldn't safely divert his attention from any other demand on his time. Frivolous curiosity would have to wait.
The fact that Chu Shuzhi was able to give him both the name of the young man who’d tried to file a missing person report and the subject was the only aspect of the afternoon that went smoothly. Referencing Lin Yusen’s identity solved the mystery of his energy signature, but revealed one much more concerning: he hadn’t been around someone from Dixing on the surface. He’d been to Dixing himself two days before. And when Shen Wei checked the stamp on his transit authorization, it was that of the Black-Cloaked Envoy.
If he had authorized it, he felt sure he would remember, but he reconstructed the timeframe just in case. There was no doubt he had been with Zhao Yunlan for hours on either side of the time that stamp was given. And Lin Yusen hadn’t seemed to recognize him when they saw each other at Guardian headquarters, which only made sense if someone else had invoked his authority.
He should speak with Lin Yusen, and he should do it soon. That evening, if possible. Yet he had explicitly told Zhao Yunlan he could come over that evening. Shen Wei supposed it was fortunate for his self-image that he didn’t find out how long he would hesitate before his phone lit up with another text message.
Guardian emergency, it said. Gonna be late.
Then, immediately, Maybe really late. Sorry.
Shen Wei reminded himself that this was not a disappointment. It was an opportunity to fulfill his responsibility without sacrificing personal desire. He should be relieved, not worried.
Understood, he replied carefully. I’ll finish some things here before heading home, then.
The last time Zhao Yunlan had used the phrase “guardian emergency” he had disappeared immediately and not been heard from for hours. So Shen Wei was a little surprised to receive a reply. Aw, you were going to leave stuff undone for me? I hate emergencies.
Shen Wei also disliked emergencies, and he felt more strongly about those that affected Zhao Yunlan. He couldn’t think of an appropriate way to say that, though, so he didn’t answer. He would have to leave his phone behind while he sought out Lin Yusen anyway. Better not to make the window of his errand more obvious by bracketing it with text messages.
He would regret that decision for many reasons. Not least of which was the fact that Lin Yusen turned out to know everything about what the Guardians were doing--and crucially, why it wouldn’t work.
What he didn’t know was who had approved his transit request if not the Black-Cloaked Envoy. This was frustrating in its opacity. It was also useful for the fact that Lin Yusen thought he knew the Envoy and was happy to share what information he had without question.
So Shen Wei was prepared for the fugitive team, their combined strength, and the poison gas. He was prepared to see Guardian operatives led by Lord Kunlun confronting said team between the portal and the city. He even thought he was prepared to see Zhao Yunlan in danger and to let him do his job without interference from the Envoy.
It turned out he wasn’t prepared to see Daqing down and Zhao Yunlan missing.
Chu Shuzhi recognized his presence, even in the shadows and from a considerable distance away, but it did them no good. Shen Wei was paralyzed by everything he didn’t know, chief among them the location and physical state of Zhao Yunlan. He didn't dare interfere without a clear picture of the consequences.
He heard Lord Kunlun bargaining for Daqing, apparently a hostage for the half of the fugitive partnership currently being held by the Guardian intern. Kunlun referred to the nekomimi as lucky and irreplaceable, which had to mean alive. He could not assume the worst.
Then Lin Yusen whispered, “I have the grenade you gave me. Just tell me when to throw it!”
For one brief, incandescent moment, Shen Wei considered freezing everything he could see.
But he couldn’t see Zhao Yunlan. He could be somewhere else, hurt, possibly dying, and Shen Wei would need someone here in order to get to him in time. When he felt reason had sufficiently overwhelmed his rage, he said, very calmly, “Give me the grenade.”
“But I can--”
“Give me the grenade,” Shen Wei repeated, “and take out your phone right now.”
Lin Yusen gave him a device that must have originated in Haixing with the intent of being used against Dixing. Shen Wei turned it to ice without a second thought. While Chu Shuzhi very capably rescued Daqing by himself, he recited Zhao Yunlan’s phone number for Lin Yusen.
“Send a text message,” he told the young man quietly. “Wei SOS.”
He watched the intern lose his own hostage and knew there wasn’t much time. Neither side had anything the other wanted anymore, and at least one of them had poison gas. Shen Wei glanced at Lin Yusen, who shook his head. “No answer,” he whispered loudly.
The fugitives struck. Shen Wei contained them. Unfortunately cold only slowed the progress of the gas, and Lin Yusen hadn't known the depth of its detrimental effect on Dixing powers. They needed to be closer.
“Ah!” Lord Kunlun exclaimed, the moment they were. His voice was unnecessarily bright and distracting. “Look who we have here! My good ambassador and his friend! I thought I told you to go home,” he added.
Shen Wei’s attention was held by the fugitives: his power was sufficient to prevent new infusions of gas into the environment, but the poison was most concentrated at the source. He had to keep them from overcoming containment that was weaker than it should be. He had no attention to spare for disrespectful leaders and their inanities.
It was Lin Yusen who replied instead. Shen Wei had brought him only to prevent the impulsive use of any undisclosed weapons, but it seemed he’d encountered Lord Kunlun already. Perhaps at headquarters earlier in the day?
“I did!” Lin Yusen was protesting. “The Black-Cloaked Envoy brought me here in case you needed help!”
“Did he,” Lord Kunlun said, sounding so dangerous that Shen Wei reconsidered his initial opinion. Disrespectful, yes. Inane: perhaps not.
The balance of power and poison steadied, and Shen Wei turned on Lord Kunlun. “Is your entire team accounted for?” he demanded. He could see for himself that it was not, but mentioning Zhao Yunlan would only betray his partiality.
Kunlun threw his arms out to the sides, as though Shen Wei could see exactly the opposite. “Yes,” he said. “Of course!”
Then he leaned forward and stuck a finger in Shen Wei’s face, his hood shadowed and strange even in the dark. The magic that concealed his features was disconcerting at close range. “Is yours?”
Shen Wei frowned at him. “I don’t have a team,” he said. “And you’re clearly missing someone.”
“Am I?” Kunlun made a show of looking around, swinging his whole body from one side to the other as though surveying the entire scene. “Lao Chu, assist our dear cat. Xiao Guo!”
“Yes?” The intern held up his hand, then shuffled forward quickly, eyes darting from Shen Wei to Kunlun. “Uh, yes! Lord Kunlun.”
Kunlun’s hood was turned toward him again, oddly sharp and intent, like he could see right through Shen Wei’s mask. “Our young friend was just leaving,” he said. “That is, unless the most honored Envoy has some reason for keeping him out past his bedtime?”
Shen Wei glanced at Lin Yusen, who looked pleadingly back at him. “No,” he said. “Thank you for your assistance.”
Lin Yusen looked like he might protest, but Kunlun’s “Xiao Guo” edged a little closer and another look at Kunlun seemed to convince him. “Fine,” Lin Yusen said. “But I was right, you know.”
“You were right!” Kunlun exclaimed. “And you’re not dead, so this is a good day for you! Xiao Guo will explain to you which of those is more important on the way home. You should listen to him. He has a lot of experience.”
Guo Changcheng looked very proud of this, and Shen Wei couldn’t fault Kunlun for sending them away. Lin Yusen didn't stay quiet, and maybe Guo Changcheng was the right audience for him after all. Shen Wei might have been more appreciative if Kunlun didn’t seem so distractingly… predictable.
“Watch the tail,” he was telling Chu Shuzhi. “Be careful of his head!”
Chu Shuzhi, who had picked up Daqing’s limp form with great care, gave Kunlun a very unimpressed look. “I know how to carry a cat,” he said.
“Yeah, well, I don't see any proof of that,” Kunlun retorted. He made a shooing motion with both hands, and Shen Wei stared at his hood with all the magic-countering power he possessed.
Kunlun was very concerned about Daqing. He was very unconcerned about anyone else. And he was exceptionally--and familiarly--physically expressive.
“Lord Kunlun,” Shen Wei said slowly. “Do you carry a phone?”
“Why?” Kunlun replied, still watching Chu Shuzhi and Daqing go. In one smooth motion, he swung back to Shen Wei. “You want my number, Brother Black? Sorry to disappoint, but as of this afternoon I’m taken.”
As of this afternoon.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Shen Wei said.
Kunlun paused in the middle of patting down his robes, and Shen Wei saw the phone in his hand. “Interested in my love life, are you?” He sounded like he was smiling when he shook a finger in Shen Wei’s face. “Well, let me tell you: if you like a good chat, there’s hope for our partnership after all!”
“Yes,” Shen Wei agreed, on the verge of smiling himself. “I’d like to think so.”
“Oh--” Kunlun was looking at his phone now, and all of the good humor was gone from his voice. “Shit. I have to go.”
There was no reason Kunlun would accept this gesture from someone he thought a stranger, but Shen Wei reached out nonetheless. “Wait,” he said, putting his hand over Kunlun’s phone. “Whisper something for me first.”
“Whisper something?” Kunlun repeated. He sounded more surprised than offended.
“Traditionally,” Shen Wei said patiently, “one doesn’t use one’s voice to whisper.”
“Brother Black,” Kunlun said, irreverent and skeptical and so very dear, even hidden by magic and shadow. “I say this with all the respect I’m meant to accord you and your station: have you lost your mind?”
Shen Wei looked over at the fugitives who were the only lingering reminders of duty and obligation. The gas had largely dissipated, and the containment held strong. Surely they could afford this one moment.
Though the fugitives shouldn’t be aware of anything on the outside, Shen Wei turned slightly so Kunlun was all he could see. Then he reached up and removed his mask.
Kunlun was still for a long moment.
Then he threw back his head and laughed, pointing at Shen Wei like he had done something spectacularly noteworthy. “You have!” he shouted, with every indication of glee. “You are!
“Oh!” he added, pulling his phone out from under Shen Wei’s hand and holding it up. “You were worried about me!”
Almost as an afterthought, he tossed his hood back and the magic fell away. Zhao Yunlan’s soft cat ears and foxfire eyes reflected the moonlight, and Shen Wei felt a helpless smile creep across his face. Of course Zhao Yunlan was the city’s hero. What else could he be?
“How could you not think I was worried,” Shen Wei said, but Zhao Yunlan hadn’t finished.
“This is the greatest joke of my life!” he was saying. “And let me tell you, it has some stiff competition! But answer me this, my dear and apparently very sneaky friend: how in the world do you know Lin Yusen?”
“I met him today,” Shen Wei offered. “At Guardian headquarters. He was just leaving when I stopped by for lunch.”
“And you had time to introduce yourselves?” Zhao Yunlan wanted to know.
“No,” Shen Wei admitted. “Chu Shuzhi gave me his name.”
Zhao Yunlan threw up his hands, taking a step that pretended to turn away but only brought them closer together. “He’s fired,” Zhao Yunlan declared.
He probably wasn’t serious, but just in case Shen Wei said, “You shouldn’t hold him responsible. I am a higher authority.”
“Hah!” Zhao Yunlan scoffed, poking his chest with one finger. “Agree to disagree, Brother Black! And speaking of that--do you know what’s truly terrible about this whole situation?”
Shen Wei couldn’t think of a single thing. “No?”
“We could have been working together for years!” Zhao Yunlan exclaimed. “The tragedy of this missed opportunity brings tears to my eyes! You and me, the team we were meant to be. Diplomacy! Research! And think of all of the cuddling in between! Ah, Shen Wei, we have missed out on so many cuddles.”
When he put it like that, it did seem like there was some ground to make up.
“I’ve always found,” Shen Wei said carefully, “that the best antidote to regret is action.”
“Ah!” Zhao Yunlan was grinning at him, the mantle of Kunlun draped across his shoulders and the bright gleam of insatiable feline mischief in his eyes. “My Shen Wei is so wise! So strong, so smart… tell me, how do you feel about kissing on the clock?”
Shen Wei reached up and rested a thumb on Zhao Yunlan’s mouth, like he could find the source of all those words and ensure they never stopped. “Are you like this because you don’t speak?” he asked, unable to stop smiling. “Or do you not speak because you’re like this?”
“Like this!” Zhao Yunlan repeated with a laugh. His indignation was muted by honest amusement when he said, “My darling secret hero who conceals his beautiful face with masks and glasses, what exactly are you saying?”
“I’m saying I feel positively about kissing,” Shen Wei told him.
“Ah,” Zhao Yunlan said, leaning in to rub their cheeks together. His voice was warm and promising when he murmured in Shen Wei’s ear, “I knew you were wise.”
Everything was different after that night, but it didn’t get easier for a long time. Zhao Yunlan started speaking to him when they were alone and it solved almost none of their communication difficulties. Zhao Yunlan was less careful when he spoke than when he wrote, and Shen Wei forgot to look at him when he could hear the words, so between the two of them they must have misunderstood every other sentence that first week.
The Guardian team took pity on him and gave him a crash course in understanding cat. It was both helpful and frustrating, because they were very good at looking for expressions he didn’t know how to notice, let alone interpret. Maybe it would have helped if Zhao Yunlan had received some kind of Dixing education, but there wasn’t anyone to do it except Chu Shuzhi or Shen Wei himself, and both of them were better at fighting than they were at feeling.
It wasn’t so bad when they were around other people. People who didn’t know. Which should have been ironic, but they had a week’s worth of practice at not talking to each other. Shen Wei had gotten better at asking questions and volunteering information to fill the silence, both of which stopped whenever Zhao Yunlan started talking. Zhao Yunlan had been very careful to make sure he was understood when he relied on expressions and lip-reading, but he took comprehension for granted when he spoke.
The result was that, too often, Zhao Yunlan would end up three conversations ahead before he realized they weren’t on the same page, and working backward until they found the misunderstanding was frustrating for both of them.
Shen Wei continued to text him. When they met for lunch the secret knowledge seemed manageable, even entertaining. But the first night Zhao Yunlan showed up at his apartment and talked to him in a normal tone of voice, it was like Kunlun had dropped in wearing cat ears and Zhao Yunlan's tail.
He was loud. He was unstoppable. He was bright and delightful as always, but he was equally fast and exhausting and Shen Wei didn't know how to keep up.
Shen Wei finally relaxed when he left, and everything was fine the next day. The Guardian Order was distracted by missing persons and Dixing had another round of visa applications and he didn’t even see Zhao Yunlan. Until Kunlun turned up on the wrong side of his locked door again, lying on his couch like he owned it, eyes barely flickering from his phone when Shen Wei walked in.
Shen Wei was tired, and the first thought in his mind was that he missed his cat. He pressed his lips together and said nothing, because surely that was unfair. Zhao Yunlan wasn’t his, and furthermore, he was Kunlun. They were one and the same.
If he missed the awkward silence of evenings past, perhaps it was because he imagined something in it that was never there.
Three days later, he snapped at Kunlun for putting his feet on the couch. It was, even at the time, a ridiculous and unwarranted complaint. But Kunlun must have been just as exasperated with their inability to communicate as he was, and he didn’t laugh it off. He stood up, crowding as close to Shen Wei as physically possible without actually touching him, and demanded, “Why are you disappointed in me?”
Shen Wei blinked at him. He was disappointed because Kunlun was neither as careful nor as thoughtful as Zhao Yunlan. He was disappointed that Kunlun was far less curious about the Black-Cloaked Envoy than Zhao Yunlan had been about Shen Wei. And he was disappointed in himself for expecting more of someone who could only be what he was.
Maybe he preferred the mystery, the fantasy of a stranger he’d just met to the well-worn identity of a public figure. But Zhao Yunlan--or his imaginary version of Zhao Yunlan--was comfortable and comforting. Kunlun was neither, and he didn’t know how to say so. Or even if he should.
Kunlun put on his shoes, picked up his phone from the table, and walked out.
Shen Wei couldn’t help thinking that Zhao Yunlan would have stood there waiting for the rest of the night.
The next day Zhao Yunlan knocked on the door of his office at the university. He had Daqing with him, and he waved when Shen Wei looked up but he didn’t come in. Instead he raised his eyebrows, gesturing to himself and Daqing.
Shen Wei stood up, surprised but not displeased. “Come in,” he said. They were clearly present in some official capacity. He should ask them how he could help, but instead he blurted out, “It’s good to see you.”
Zhao Yunlan beamed at him, and he couldn’t help smiling back. Perhaps the couch incident would not be held against him. Maybe he could make up for it somehow. Was it possible to only ever interact with Zhao Yunlan around other people?
He felt ashamed of the thought as soon as he recognized it, and he came out from behind his desk in an effort to atone. “What brings you to the university?”
Daqing closed the door behind them, but Zhao Yunlan didn’t look back. He pointed dramatically at Shen Wei, then spread his hands to the sides as if to indicate it was an unnecessary question. You, the gesture said. Of course!
It was very familiar, and Shen Wei smiled at his flamboyance. “I’m glad of that,” he said. “Clearly I wasn’t specific enough. What about you wanting to visit me caused you to drag Daqing, whom I sure has many better things to do, along with you?”
Zhao Yunlan made an incomprehensible gesture between the three of them, then held up a file folder. It had the symbol of the Guardians on it, which told Shen Wei very little until Zhao Yunlan pulled out a piece of paper and thrust it at him. The paper said “Missing Person Report” at the top and included an unfamiliar picture, typed details, and largely illegible handwriting in the margins.
“Are you supposed to show me this?” Shen Wei asked, frowning down at it. He didn’t recognize the name or the address, so it couldn’t be another university case.
He looked up at the sound of a sigh, but it hadn’t come from Zhao Yunlan. Daqing was rolling his eyes while Zhao Yunlan glared at him. “Really?” Daqing complained. “I closed the door; you think someone’s got their ear pressed up against it? Just tell him.”
Zhao Yunlan only pushed the report at Shen Wei again, looking mulish enough that Shen Wei took it. He gave Daqing a helpless look as he did so, and the other nekomimi swatted Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder without looking. Zhao Yunlan neatly twisted out of the way, also without looking, but he continued to not speak.
“It’s like this,” Daqing told Shen Wei. “We have a weird report; he thought it sounded like someone you might know. Because you're, you know, you. But he wouldn't ask you alone because he thinks you're mad at him. So are you? Because I definitely have other things I could be doing right now.”
Zhao Yunlan sighed loudly, turning his hand toward Daqing, palm out, and made a pushing motion. It was very clearly an I don’t need you gesture, and Daqing must have taken it the same way because he brightened. “Oh, good, does that mean I can go?”
Zhao Yunlan looked at Shen Wei instead. He pointed at the report Shen Wei held, then pressed his palms together in supplication. As though he still thought Shen Wei could resist, he mouthed, Help?
Shen Wei couldn’t keep from smiling, though whether at the ridiculousness of it or just the fact that Zhao Yunlan was willing to look ridiculous in front of him, he didn’t know. Zhao Yunlan grinned back at him even before he said, “Of course I’ll do whatever I can.”
“Good,” Daqing said. “He’s not mad at you and you don’t need me to interpret for someone you sleep with, so I’m going back to work. Nice to see you, Professor Shen!”
“You too,” Shen Wei said automatically, lifting his free hand in acknowledgement. What he’d managed to learn about nekomimi culture, most of it very recently, made him think that saying “someone you sleep with” was relatively discreet by their standards.
The rueful expression on Zhao Yunlan’s face said he was aware of how it sounded to others, regardless, and Shen Wei smiled again.
Daqing closed the door behind him.
Shen Wei looked from the report in his hand to Zhao Yunlan’s face, watching him thoughtfully but not expectantly, and decided not to ask. “I really am glad to see you,” he said instead. It was only the truth.
Zhao Yunlan nodded, pointing at himself, then mouthed, Me too.
Shen Wei didn’t ask about that either. If Zhao Yunlan chose not to talk, well. At least it was easier to keep up with him when he was silent.
“Do you,” Shen Wei began carefully, then stopped. Asking do you really want help with this? seemed potentially insulting on several levels. “Can I help with this?” he asked instead, holding up the report. He doubted it, but maybe there was more he hadn’t seen.
Or maybe it was just an excuse to get Zhao Yunlan into his office. Shen Wei wouldn’t have turned him away, but after the way they’d been lately, maybe he wasn’t sure. He’d never imagined they would have more difficulty communicating when Zhao Yunlan actually used his voice.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged, but it was a slow and deliberate gesture, not a dismissive one. He didn’t take his eyes off of Shen Wei. Try? he mouthed.
Shen Wei nodded, but Zhao Yunlan reached out a hand as he looked down. Waving it in his line of sight made Shen Wei look up again. Zhao Yunlan made a writing motion, then waved his hand back and forth like he’d changed his mind. Holding up one finger, he used his other hand to pull out his phone.
Shen Wei watched him write on his phone like they were back in his apartment: all the time in the world, and nothing more interesting than what Zhao Yunlan would say next. It was a very easy feeling to recapture. Why didn’t he feel it when Kunlun was talking to him? Was it just that there wasn’t time? He never had time to wonder what was coming next, because he was always trying to figure out what had just happened?
Zhao Yunlan finally handed him the phone, and Shen Wei took it carefully. His own phone was in his desk, but it was certainly more intimate to share Zhao Yunlan’s screen than to read a message that had been sent to him. He liked holding Zhao Yunlan’s phone in his hands.
I’m sorry, the message began. I want to talk about, I guess, everything, but I think I messed it up. If this part isn’t messed up, the part where we can work together, can we please keep it not-broken for now? Can we talk about the other stuff later?
Shen Wei nodded. He started to write a reply and he didn’t even notice that Zhao Yunlan didn’t take the phone away from him until he’d already said, Yes, of course.
He hesitated when the silence registered, and he looked up. Zhao Yunlan was smiling fondly at him, but still he didn’t reach for the phone. He was unusually patient today, Shen Wei thought.
He cleared his throat. “Yes,” he said, handing Zhao Yunlan’s phone back to him. “Of course we can. I don’t think you--” But saying I don’t think you messed anything up wouldn’t be talking about it later. If Zhao Yunlan was worried about fighting again, then Shen Wei could certainly understand that.
“That’s a good idea,” Shen Wei said instead. “Come over whenever you want.”
Zhao Yunlan smiled at him and mouthed, Thank you, but he looked down at his phone and wrote something else before handing it to Shen Wei again. The screen said, When do you want me to come over?
Shen Wei looked up. “Are you busy tonight?” he asked.
Zhao Yunlan looked very pleased by this question, and he made a familiar grabby motion in the direction of his phone. Shen Wei released it back to him with a smile. Zhao Yunlan did something to it that didn’t look like writing before offering it again.
This time it showed a calendar, with Shen Wei’s name marked on today’s date. His name was also on every day after that. Shen Wei frowned, and when he looked up Zhao Yunlan laughed at his expression.
It was an actual laugh, not just a huff of air, and it sounded very much like Kunlun. When Zhao Yunlan reached out to take his phone back, Shen Wei surrendered it reluctantly. He wanted to ask, but he didn’t know how.
Zhao Yunlan was putting his phone away when he caught Shen Wei’s eye again. He paused. What? he mouthed. He looked genuinely curious and a little concerned.
“I don’t understand,” Shen Wei admitted.
Zhao Yunlan blinked at him but didn’t otherwise move. He looked like he’d never considered such an idea. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Finally he wrote something else on his phone, with painstaking hesitation, and handed it back to Shen Wei.
I don’t think I’ve heard you say that… all week? Enough? You don’t tell me you don’t understand when I’m talking, even when you don’t. I don’t think? Am I right about that?
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it,” Shen Wei said, frowning down at the screen in an effort to decipher the question. Was the question the only part that was phrased as a statement? “Are you asking if I understand you when you’re talking?”
When he looked up, Zhao Yunlan was staring at him with an indecipherable look on his face. Shen Wei waited, even belatedly handing the phone back to him, but he didn’t look at it. He just kept staring until finally Shen Wei said, “I do? Most of the time. It’s just… hard to stop you, sometimes.”
Zhao Yunlan looked down at his phone, hand hovering indecisively, then let it fall. “Xiao Wei,” he said, very quietly, searching Shen Wei’s expression for something unfathomable. “Would you say it’s true that you talk to me more when I’m not running my mouth?”
It was so pleasant to hear his voice again that Shen Wei didn’t even notice what he said until he realized Zhao Yunlan was waiting for an answer. “I’m sorry,” he said. He could try to explain, but he didn’t understand it himself. “What?”
“Would you say it’s true,” Zhao Yunlan repeated, slowly but kindly, like this was an important thing and he wanted to make sure he got it right. “That you talk to me more when I’m not running my mouth.”
Shen Wei frowned. He looked at Zhao Yunlan, waiting for him to continue, to clarify, but he didn’t. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said. He got the gist, but he didn’t want to guess at the connotation, especially if it was negative. “Running your mouth?”
Zhao Yunlan looked at him a moment longer, but this time he didn’t repeat it or reply. Instead he said, somehow managing to sound abrupt even with the great deliberation of his silences, “This isn’t my first language. Is it yours?”
He supposed it was a fair question. His awkward difficulties with cultural integration must prompt the thought, even if languages were not generally something he struggled with. “It’s my fourth,” he said.
He saw the moment Zhao Yunlan understood, and his expression was as entertaining as it was uncertain. “Really?” he asked, then raised his hand. “No, forget I said that. Actually, forget I said to forget it. Pretend I’m not even speaking right now. Which I’m remarkably terrible at! I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
“No,” Shen Wei said honestly.
When Zhao Yunlan didn’t so much as wave it off, let alone laugh or say something else, Shen Wei added, “Sometimes hearing you speak distracts me from what you’re saying. That’s not your fault.”
Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth, then closed it again just as quickly. He pressed his lips together, making a face that made Shen Wei smile. When Zhao Yunlan still didn't say anything, he had to ask, “Why are you trying not to talk?”
Zhao Yunlan looked at him for a long moment. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking, and finally it occurred to Shen Wei that the question might have sounded like disappointment. Wasn’t that what Zhao Yunlan had accused him of the night before?
“Not that I think you should,” he said quickly. “It’s up to you whether you talk or not. Of course. I was just… curious.”
Zhao Yunlan smiled, and it wasn’t triumphant or even gleeful. It just looked… thoughtful, somehow. He lifted his phone again, and after a moment he turned it around so Shen Wei could see.
Sometimes when I talk too much I forget to listen.
Shen Wei considered that. It seemed too deliberate to be an off-handed platitude. Zhao Yunlan had opened the conversation with an apology, but Shen Wei had been sincere when he said their communication difficulties weren’t his fault.
“I expect I have the opposite tendency,” he said at last. “To listen so much that I forget to speak.”
Zhao Yunlan shrugged, but there was no carelessness to it and he didn’t take his eyes off of Shen Wei. “So we make a good match,” he said. “Think of everything we can learn from each other.”
Shen Wei had spent a good deal of time thinking about exactly that, though not primarily as it related to communication. Something of that must have shown on his face, because Zhao Yunlan’s cat ears flicked forward. “What?” he said.
Immediately he winced, throwing his head back toward the ceiling in appeal. “I’m sorry; I can’t not ask you questions! You have no idea how curious I am! This is why I wasn’t talking; that I have to do all the time, but this--”
“Maybe you should practice,” Shen Wei interrupted.
Zhao Yunlan pointed at him. “Maybe you should stop me! You asked why you should stop me from doing things I want to do, remember? This is why! To help me learn!”
Shen Wei tried not to smile at his overdramatic dismay. “I don’t think you’re as incapable as you pretend to be,” he said.
“Ah, but neither are you,” Zhao Yunlan countered. “We have a rule on the couch, don’t we? You said you could stop me then. Why not now?”
Shen Wei knew exactly what he was talking about. “I didn’t, actually.”
Zhao Yunlan looked at him like he wanted to say something and was trying to keep himself from blurting it out. He continued to look like that for a long moment, and finally Shen Wei added, “I didn’t say I could stop you.”
He could, of course, but he didn’t think that was the point.
Zhao Yunlan pointed at him, then lifted his finger like he was taking it back. “You keep talking when I don’t,” he said.
Shen Wei blinked. “I--” He’d thought that was a benefit of remaining silent that Zhao Yunlan deliberately exploited. “Yes. I thought you did that on purpose.”
“With other people,” Zhao Yunlan agreed. “Not you; I just told you I can’t stop asking you questions, and now I’m doing it again! Okay, but this is important. You didn’t say you could stop me?”
Shen Wei waited, but he didn’t continue. “You said I could stop you,” Shen Wei told him. “I didn’t disagree.”
“Did you?” Zhao Yunlan demanded. “Disagree?”
“No,” Shen Wei said. “I agree; I could have stopped you.”
Zhao Yunlan leaned forward, like he might understand better if he were closer. “But you wouldn’t have done it by saying stop?” he guessed. “So you’re saying I made up rules for you and you didn’t agree to them? Do I do that all the time? Is that why you’re so--”
He barely paused, but even so it was clear he changed what he was about to say in the middle of the sentence. “Why you’re not comfortable around me?” he finished.
“No,” Shen Wei repeated. He would have interrupted again if he thought he could do it without making things worse. “No, that’s not what I meant.”
Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth, then closed it again. He held up one finger and then his phone, and Shen Wei tried not to smile. “You don’t have to--”
“Ah ah!” Zhao Yunlan wagged a finger at him before he went back to writing. When he was done, he didn’t offer the phone to Shen Wei, just lowered it again and looked at him expectantly. “Okay, go on.”
Shen Wei looked at his phone and then back at him. “Go on?” he repeated.
“I’m writing down my questions to ask you later,” Zhao Yunlan said. “I’m very proud of myself. You were saying?”
“I was saying…” Shen Wei frowned. “I don’t think I was saying anything.”
“Yes, exactly,” Zhao Yunlan agreed. “That’s why I’m not asking you questions. I’m waiting until you do say something.”
Shen Wei didn’t find that convincing. “I’m not sure that makes sense.”
“Ah,” Zhao Yunlan said, grinning at him. “But it’s working! If I asked to kiss you right now, would you be okay with telling me no?”
“You can’t kiss me here,” Shen Wei told him. “Anyone could walk by.”
“You could close the blinds,” Zhao Yunlan suggested.
“I’m not closing the blinds,” Shen Wei said.
“I’m both relieved and disappointed that the answer is yes,” Zhao Yunlan informed him.
“The answer isn’t yes,” Shen Wei said. Zhao Yunlan hadn’t made a single motion toward him, so he could only assume this was a game he didn’t understand. “The answer is no.”
“The answer to my question,” Zhao Yunlan said. He was suddenly more careful and less cocky, probably very aware of Shen Wei bristling. “Can you say no? The answer to that question is yes, and I’m glad.”
That was a less frustrating explanation than Zhao Yunlan willfully ignoring him, but the conversation was still mysterious and baffling. “You’re not causing me to do things I don’t want to do,” Shen Wei told him. “I only mentioned the distinction between saying yes and not saying no because it seemed like the kind of communication you’re interested in. You clearly have vast personal experience with how many other ways there are to communicate agreement or displeasure than just using words.”
Zhao Yunlan just looked at him, and Shen Wei waved a hand at him impatiently. “You can talk now,” he said. “If you’re waiting for me to finish.”
Zhao Yunlan smiled like he was trying not to grin, but the finger he wagged in Shen Wei’s face completely ruined the effort. “You just waved at me!” he declared. “Look at us: me sometimes waiting for you to finish and you sometimes waving your hands at me! We’ve come so far in just a few minutes!”
“It’s been days,” Shen Wei countered, “and I’m the Envoy of Dixing. That was an imperious gesture, not an imitative one.”
Zhao Yunlan laughed out loud. “This!” he exclaimed, spreading his arms wide. “This is the kind of argument I’m used to! You’ll have to teach me how to argue silently and reproachfully, the way you do. I have no idea how to do it but it seems very useful.”
Shen Wei didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing.
Zhao Yunlan didn’t fill the quiet that ensued, nor did he reach for his phone. He just stood there: smiling at Shen Wei, occasionally fidgeting, but always looking back when his gaze wandered. He was clearly trying to communicate something by… not using any of his usual communication methods.
“I don’t think it will be difficult for you,” Shen Wei said at last.
Zhao Yunlan laughed again. He reached out like he was going to put a hand on Shen Wei’s shoulder, then pulled it back before the motion resolved. “You know,” he said. “I think with the appropriate motivation, one can learn almost anything. And you talking when I don’t is providing a lot of positive reinforcement for me.”
It wasn’t lost on Shen Wei that the reverse might also be true: him speaking might prompt Zhao Yunlan to stop. He wasn’t sure how to say that, but Zhao Yunlan wasn’t talking so it seemed worth a try. “You listening is similar motivation for me,” he offered.
It felt awkward, but it made Zhao Yunlan smile. “Ah, Xiao Wei,” he said. “I’m always listening; I just don’t always understand. I talk more when I don’t understand, you talk less. We should each pretend to be the other when we’re confused and see what happens.”
Shen Wei considered that. There were many things he wanted to ask for that he thought Zhao Yunlan would be more likely to say than he would. “All right,” he said.
Zhao Yunlan’s smile widened. “All right?” he repeated. “I like that you treated it like a practical suggestion! But I guess I’m not acting much like you when I say that, am I. Are you going to be better at this than I am?”
“Were you confused?” Shen Wei asked.
Zhao Yunlan squinted at him. He started to say something, then very obviously didn’t.
Shen Wei smiled without meaning to. “I only meant, based on your justification, that if you’re not confused there’s no reason to try something different.”
“What about when you’re confused?” Zhao Yunlan countered.
“When I’m confused, I’ll tell you,” Shen Wei said. “And I’m confused by your surprise. Didn’t you mean it to be a practical suggestion? Did I misunderstand?”
“No,” Zhao Yunlan said. Then, “Wait. I don’t know. You mean when I said we should pretend to be each other? That wasn’t a practical suggestion; it was just--but maybe it should have been. If it works, right?”
Shen Wei stared at him, but at least he had guidelines now. “I don’t understand what you mean,” he said, very clearly.
“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan said with a rueful grin. “Neither do I. I think I should stop talking. Can I stop talking?”
Shen Wei studied him. “Is it physically possible?” he said. “Yes. Is it likely? I don’t think so.”
Zhao Yunlan laughed. “I can’t tell if you’re pretending to be me or not,” he said, “but Shen Wei, I like it when you tell me what you think.”
He didn’t mean to glance out at the hallway through the open blinds, but he did, and there were students going by in both directions. It was just past the hour with the typical change-of-class traffic. Most of them weren’t staring through the office windows as they passed, but some glanced in accidentally or out of boredom. He tried not to catch anyone’s eye before looking back at Zhao Yunlan.
“I like it when you call me Xiao Wei,” he said. He couldn’t guess how interested those passersby might be, nor how adept at lip-reading the general population was, but thanks to Zhao Yunlan he was very aware that “Shen Wei” and “Xiao Wei” looked effectively the same.
“Good!” Zhao Yunlan exclaimed. He glanced at the windows too, but apparently no one was obviously staring back. “Does this mean you’ll call me Xiao Lan Mao?”
Shen Wei hesitated, not sure if that was a request, a joke, or simple curiosity. He certainly wouldn’t say such a thing in public. “Do you… want me to?”
Zhao Yunlan laughed again. “No, no, just a joke! I know it’s not your style. But you should know that if you ever do come up with a nickname for me, I’ll be very pleased!”
It sounded like more than a joke, but he had to accept Zhao Yunlan’s word. “I’ll… think about it?” Shen Wei offered.
“It’s not important,” Zhao Yunlan assured him. “Wait, unless you’re already thinking about it, and me saying something stopped you from saying something. Will you please interrupt me when I’m talking for no reason? Please, Xiao Wei.”
“You’re never talking for no reason,” Shen Wei said. “Sometimes it’s just not a very good reason.”
Zhao Yunlan pointed at him. “You’re not wrong! But that wasn’t an answer.”
“Yes,” Shen Wei said with a small smile. “Yes, I will interrupt you.”
Zhao Yunlan beamed, throwing his arms out to the sides, and for the first time Shen Wei recognized it as something more than dramatic emphasis. Zhao Yunlan exclaimed, “I knew you could make me be good!” and he barely heard it, watching the way those outflung fingers twitched and his tail lashed: restless, impatient… a substitute for something else. For some other action.
Shen Wei blurted out, “Do you want to be doing something else?”
Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows, and he didn’t have to say it. Shen Wei heard it as soon as the words were out: the way it sounded inappropriate, like an invitation. He waited, but Zhao Yunlan didn’t say anything. He smiled, and his expression was expectant, but he didn’t say anything.
“I mean,” Shen Wei said, as carefully as he could. “Sometimes you fidget to keep yourself from pacing. You--you swing your tail instead of flinching. Just now, you… I just wondered. Do you hold your arms out to keep from--from reaching for people?”
Zhao Yunlan looked at him for a long moment, smile fading. He still didn’t answer, and Shen Wei sighed. “I’m sorry; I’m sure I’m not asking in a way that makes sense. I’m trying to understand how you… communicate. It’s hard when I don’t know what’s intentional and what’s not.”
Zhao Yunlan took a step closer to him, gaze holding his. It was a step too close but it felt kind and concerned and Shen Wei just wanted it to be all right. He wanted to understand. He wanted to be understood.
He was so, so tired of talking.
For a fleeting moment there was no one in the hallway, and he closed all the blinds at once with a wave of his hand. He closed his eyes at the same time, so he wouldn’t see Zhao Yunlan’s expression. He didn’t want anything else to interpret.
“Would you please hold me,” Shen Wei said softly.
There was a gentle stir of air, and then he felt hands on his shoulders. He didn’t move until they slid around behind him and Zhao Yunlan pressed up against him from the front: an embrace that was warm and gentle and undemanding. Shen Wei put his arms around him in return and rested his head on his shoulder. He was grateful for the silence.
They stood that way for a long time.
They stood there for so long, in fact, that Shen Wei wondered how long Zhao Yunlan would be able to stay still. But every time he wondered, he took another deep breath of warmth and comfort and didn’t move. He didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to talk. He just wanted to feel like there was something more important that hadn’t gotten lost under all the words.
When he felt Zhao Yunlan turn his head at last, he was prepared to let go. He let out a sigh and didn’t move. Then he felt a soft cat ear fold up against his temple when Zhao Yunlan rubbed his head against Shen Wei’s cheek. His fingers clenched in Zhao Yunlan’s jacket, and a quiet purr made him squeeze his eyes shut and hold on harder.
He didn’t ask: did it mean something, was he supposed to respond, were they okay. Were they okay? It was something Zhao Yunlan would ask. He wanted to know too. More than that, though, he wanted to be held and hear that purr and hope that the rest would serendipitously work itself out.
It was the tail that did it. When he felt smooth fur ghost over his hands, tucking itself into his grasp when he instinctively stretched his fingers after it, he blurted out, “I missed you.”
The gentle purr stuttered before picking up again, but the soothing scratch of Zhao Yunlan’s fingers against his back didn’t pause.
To have that go unquestioned was an immeasurable gift. He should have said why, how; he should have tried to explain, but he couldn’t and he didn’t want to. The fact that Zhao Yunlan let it go anyway made him whisper, “I’m glad you’re here.”
There was a long moment before the purr trailed off, and Zhao Yunlan whispered back, “Me? Or Kunlun?”
“Both of you,” Shen Wei murmured. “All of you.”
Zhao Yunlan rubbed his ear against Shen Wei’s head again. His tail didn’t twitch under Shen Wei’s fingers, and even the motion of his fingers remained slow and deliberate. It was, Shen Wei though, the most relaxed he’d ever felt Zhao Yunlan be when he wasn’t sleeping.
He didn’t ask. He was just as happy to keep the observation to himself, to watch and wait and measure it against future experience. But he smiled when Zhao Yunlan asked softly, “Are we okay?”
It was the question he’d expected, but the way it followed his answer made the subject ambiguous: him and Zhao Yunlan, or Zhao Yunlan and Kunlun? He hoped the truth was the same either way. But Shen Wei was only half of the contributing factors.
“I’m fine,” he said carefully. He lifted his head, but he didn’t pull back and he certainly didn’t let go. “Are you?”
Zhao Yunlan’s breath warmed his skin when he replied, “I’m always okay when I’m with you.”
Zhao Yunlan didn’t come over that night. Lord Kunlun and half his team got trapped in a mirror, and it was Shen Wei’s fault for telling him how to access a mirror dimension in the first place. The Black-Cloaked Envoy went in after them, but the result was extensive paperwork and another visa violation.
Shen Wei spent the night in Dixing.
When he came back he had former Engineering students to expel, and sending Zhao Yunlan a text message returned something incomprehensible about bears and Dixing dogs, so they didn’t end up meeting for lunch. Not that they met for lunch most days, but there was always the chance, and Shen Wei remained hopeful until he headed home.
Where he found a black cat curled up in his chair. He wondered what it meant that Zhao Yunlan curled as a cat and sprawled as a human. “Good evening,” he said, setting his bag down.
Zhao Yunlan flicked his tail but didn’t lift his head until Shen Wei added, “Xiao Hei.”
The cat in the chair sat up and, with a glow of dark energy and denim, became suddenly human-looking. “That,” Zhao Yunlan told him, “is appropriately adorable. I approve!”
“I’m glad you like it,” Shen Wei said with a smile. “How long can you stay?”
Zhao Yunlan threw his arms out to the sides, lounging almost sideways in the chair as he spread out to fill the maximum possible space. “As long as you’ll have me!” he declared.
“Oh,” Shen Wei said, and it was definitely not his fault that the view made it so difficult to concentrate. “I didn’t realize you planned never to go home or to work again.”
Zhao Yunlan grinned up at him. “Should I be on the couch for this conversation?”
Shen Wei knew his own lack of appetite and Zhao Yunlan’s tendency to skip meals was a dangerous combination. He also knew from experience that Zhao Yunlan was a disastrous distraction in the kitchen when he wanted something other than food. Surely there would be time for dinner later.
The couch was familiar and welcoming, and the press of Zhao Yunlan’s body against his was so much more. Shen Wei rarely meant to end up underneath him, but for all his care Zhao Yunlan still pushed faster and harder than he did. Shen Wei could have pushed back, but not without knocking both of them to the floor. And when he was trying to hold onto an overflow of personal power and unrecognized sensation, he found he didn’t mind being pinned much at all.
Until he realized Zhao Yunlan meant what he whispering in his ear, he was serious, or at least he thought he was. “Don’t hold back,” he was murmuring. “Not if you don’t want to. You can’t do anything wrong here.”
The couch was easy and comfortable. He understood the rules of fooling around on the couch. But no matter how convenient and reassuring it was, he didn’t want to stay there forever. If Zhao Yunlan wanted to know what he thought, this was the time to say so.
“Xiao Hei,” he gasped, pushing reluctantly at Zhao Yunlan’s shoulders. “Stop.”
Zhao Yunlan peeled himself back: not quickly, but decisively. He disentangled their arms, eased the shared pressure on their legs, and flicked his tail carefully away from Shen Wei’s skin. His lips were red and his cheeks were flushed, but his gaze was nothing but concerned when he asked, “What is it? Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Shen Wei said, pulling in another breath and trying to steady his heart. “Just a question you told me to ask.” He swallowed then, but it only meant as much as they wanted it to. It already meant as much as they wanted it to. “Are you--would you be interested in… doing this in the bedroom?”
Zhao Yunlan didn’t grin, but his tail slid back around Shen Wei’s wrist while he curled their fingers together.
“My bravest, most darling Wei,” he said, somehow pretending solemnity despite his mussed hair and flattened ears and the smile tugging at his lips. “It would be my great privilege.”