Chapter 1: A Crime Unfolds
Things had been quiet in Dragon City lately. When Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan first reappeared after a year presumed dead, there hadn't been a moment's rest for quite some time. They'd been rushing headlong between meetings and social obligations and diplomatic meltdowns all over Dragon City and Dixing, with barely enough time to eat and sleep. It certainly hadn't helped that Zhang Shi, ejected from Zhao Yunlan's body by the force of his Hallows-enabled re-entry, had landed in what appeared to be the otherwise unoccupied body of Ye Zun. Nobody liked the situation, except maybe Zhang Shi, who was astoundingly blasé about being trapped in the body of a psychopathic war criminal. But it had forced something of a truce, at least temporarily, over what was to be done with Ye Zun. Zhao Yunlan didn't like to think what would have happened otherwise: what would have been left of Ye Zun, and what they would have had to do with him, and what that would have done to Shen Wei.
There was plenty of time to think about it now, though. New policies were being enacted regarding relations between Haixing and Dixing, but due to the collapse of the old passageways, no one without official sanction could even get from one place to the other. As a result, the SID was back to dealing with its pre-Zhu Jiu level of criminal activity. There were still cases, but there were long lulls between them, and as the frequency of boring meetings Zhao Yunlan was obliged to attend dwindled, he and his team just hung out in the office a lot.
It was a relief, mostly. A welcome return to normalcy. But it wasn't all popcorn and hijinks; there were still some kinks to work out with the team.
Zhu Hong was furious that he sacrificed himself and left her alone for her first year as High Chieftain. Lin Jing was still salty about getting eaten, and he hadn't stopped sighing about Sha Ya. Wang Zheng and Sang Zan didn't hold a grudge, but were a bit out of sorts, since they had only reappeared when Ye Zun's body did. And Da Qing...Da Qing had hated Chief Zhang Shi as only a cat could hate. He'd clung to Zhao Yunlan for days after he'd come back, but even now Da Qing couldn't quite look him in the eye.
Shen Wei always took Zhao Yunlan's side in front of the others, but when they were alone, it was obvious there was a lot on his mind. There was Ye Zun to worry about, and all the casualties and remaining damage from the war, and the continuing turmoil in Dixing. And, yeah, there was also stuff between them that they maybe hadn't completely gotten past.
Objectively, none of what they'd done to get back would have worked if they hadn't both done the thing the other was most upset about. Shen Wei's insane plan of using their mixed-up energies to turn himself into an explosive device, combined with Zhao Yunlan's use of the Mountain-River Awl against Ye Zun, meant that neither Shen Wei nor Ye Zun had technically died, and the three of them had been left in an inextricable energy tangle. When the Hallows subsumed Zhao Yunlan, it prevented their energies from dissipating, but they wouldn't have had an anchor in physical reality if Zhang Shi hadn't been keeping Zhao Yunlan's body warm for him.
When they'd been trapped in the void outside of spacetime, they had agreed that when it came to heroic self-sacrifice and lying about it, they were each as bad as the other and they'd done what they had to do. Back in the world of the living, it didn't seem that simple. Zhao Yunlan wasn't angry, exactly, and he didn't think Shen Wei was either. It was just that now that they were moving around the world in mortal bodies again, they had to be scared for each other. All the self-sacrifice set an unfortunate precedent.
It was a good thing the dean of DCU had come to Shen Wei on bended knee, begging him to come back to his old job and pretending he didn't find his year-long unannounced sabbatical suspicious. Shen Wei loved teaching. It kept him away from some of the SID team's drama and gave him something to do with himself that wasn't tangled up in fear or guilt or shame or ten thousand years of bitter history. He was always in a better mood when Zhao Yunlan picked him up from school, which, along with Zhao Yunlan's waning workload and the intense relief of being safe and together again, had been resulting in some truly excellent sex. Often followed by equally enthusiastic snuggling. Shen Wei was slowly learning the art of staying the hell in bed and chilling out. It was Zhao Yunlan's honor to be his tutor, now that they had time.
They were together, that was the main thing. Everything else would work itself out. They'd swindled another chance out of the universe, and they had everything they needed to finally get it right. Third time's the charm, right?
And that was enough thinking for one morning, as indicated by the empty lollipop stick clenched between Zhao Yunlan's teeth. He stretched in his chair and dropped his feet off his desk so he could toss it in the trash. Surely he could find someone to annoy until Shen Wei's lunch break. Strange to say, but Lao Chu was pretty entertaining lately; he wasn't bothered by anything Zhao Yunlan had done, so their arguments had gone right back to normal, and teasing him about Xiao Guo provoked hilarious reactions.
He hooked his thumbs into his pockets and meandered out into the main room. A bunch of the team members were busy at their computers, probably not with work. Da Qing was on the table, curled into a ball and napping, but his ears flicked as Zhao Yunlan approached. Zhao Yunlan sighed loudly to announce his presence and dropped into the couch. "Who wants to bribe the boss with a snack?"
"I'm not sharing," Zhu Hong said. She was crunching her way through a bag of chips at her desk.
"Youths today, no sympathy for an old man in need. Guess I'll starve." Zhao Yunlan tipped his head backwards over the arm of the couch and stared at her pathetically. Zhu Hong snorted and stuffed another chip in her mouth.
"Snack?" Da Qing muttered groggily, cracking opening one big yellow eye. When no food magically appeared in front of him, he nodded off again, with the end of his tail tapping.
"I'll get you a snack, Chief Zhao," Xiao Guo said. Zhao Yunlan caught his eye and shook his head, jerking his chin at Zhu Hong. Xiao Guo's mouth formed an 'o' and he sat back down. Well, he'd understood that surprisingly quickly. The kid had obviously been corrupted further during Zhao Yunlan's absence, so it wasn't all his fault.
The landline rang and Wang Zheng answered it. Zhao Yunlan really hoped he wasn't about to be summoned to the Department of Supervision. Whatever it was, Wang Zheng sounded serious, but when didn't she? He pulled out his phone for entertainment while he waited.
He didn't start worrying until Wang Zheng softly called, "Deputy Chief? They want to talk to you."
Da Qing raised his head, gave the feline version of a raised eyebrow, and then came to the phone in human form. Zhao Yunlan gave Wang Zheng a questioning look, but she looked away sharply. What the hell?
After listening for a weirdly long time, Da Qing had gone pale and was responding in his rare serious voice. "Of course. Yes, sir, we'll make a decision and call you back. Please send over the information anyway." He listened for a moment more and then hung up.
"Damn cat, what the actual fuck," Zhao Yunlan demanded, leaning up over the back of the couch.
Da Qing swallowed hard. "I think we should talk in your office," he said slowly.
Zhao Yunlan scrambled off the couch to loom over him. "Just tell me," he said. Something in the cat's demeanor had his heart in his throat.
"I'm serious, Lao Zhao," Da Qing said, looking him in the eye for once.
"I'm serious too!" Zhao Yunlan shouted, throwing his arms up. "Whatever it is, you can say it out here!"
Da Qing exchanged a look with Wang Zheng, whose eyes were very wide. "There's been a triple murder that they'd ordinarily call us in on," he said slowly, "but they're not sure we should handle this one, so they wanted us to talk it over first."
"Why? What would we not be able to handle?"
Da Qing closed his eyes. "One of the victims. It's your dad."
The words didn't make any sense. Zhao Yunlan blinked at Da Qing blankly. "He...what?"
"He was riding in a government car that was attacked. He's dead."
The office went floaty for a second and Zhao Yunlan realized Da Qing was holding one of his arms and Zhu Hong had the other. That was silly. He wasn't going to faint or anything. He just couldn't understand. Zhao Xinci was impossible to shake, like a bad case of chlamydia. The guy was only...sixty-something, whatever. He always had a gun on him and had no compunction about shooting people in the face if they got too friendly. He couldn't have just been killed, just like that.
Several people were talking. Zhao Yunlan interrupted them. "We're taking the case."
"Lao Zhao -- "
Zhao Yunlan took a couple steps back, away from all the supportive hands. "No, we're taking the goddamn case. Who else is going to handle it? The city police? That'll be a disaster. If they called us, there's gotta be a good reason."
"This is a terrible idea," Lao Chu commented from his desk.
Zhao Yunlan would have thrown something at him but there was no decent projectile at hand. "Good thing that's not your call to make!" he said crisply, then searched his pockets and came up with his car keys. "Wang Zheng, text me the location of the scene and call and let 'em know we're coming. Da Qing, get Lin Jing, you two are coming to the scene with me." Da Qing headed for the lab, head down.
Zhu Hong grabbed for Zhao Yunlan's elbow again. "You don't need to go to the scene."
"Yes I do!" he snapped. She held her hands up placatingly and he exhaled. "Look, I can't solve anything without seeing it for myself. We're doing this according to procedure. Clear?" He cast a look around the gathered SID members and waited until there was a reluctant chorus of agreement. "Good. Let's go."
The Dragon City Police had the entire block cordoned off, but as soon as the three of them stepped out of the Jeep, the cops were waving them under the tape. Zhao Yunlan never got asked for his badge anymore. Perks of minor celebrity status.
A young policeman greeted them. "Chief Zhao, what an honor. It's a real mess in there, hope you've got strong stomachs," he added knowingly.
Lin Jing and Da Qing went palpably tense behind him. "Yeah, we've seen some shit before," Zhao Yunlan said through clenched teeth, ignoring them as hard as he could. They were here to assess the scene and collect evidence, they'd better get their heads on straight.
There was no one else inside the barrier and no evidence markers or chalk outlines or other CSI junk. It looked like the regular police had done the smart thing and left the scene mostly untouched once they realized the unusual nature of the case. The sleek black Haixing DS limo had skidded to a stop in the middle of the street, leaving tire rubber on the pavement. All the doors were hanging open. From here, Zhao Yunlan couldn't see any damage apart from a circular spiderweb of cracks in the windshield that probably had a bullet hole at the center. There were three bodies in the street.
The first one, furthest from the car, was a young woman in a skirt suit, lying prone. Zhao Yunlan crouched down next to her. He didn't recognize her face, but she looked like any other staffer, professional and conservatively dressed, her half-rim librarian glasses askew, and her right leg torn off at the knee joint. It was lying a yard away, still wearing a navy blue kitten heel.
Well, that certainly did look like an SID case. It would be hard to say for sure, since a heavy sword or similar weapon wouldn't have taken the leg off much more cleanly, but the wound didn't look like it had been made with any conventional weapon to him. It looked like the joint of an undercooked, oversized chicken wing after you'd split it in half by hand. There was quite a bit of blood pooled under her head as well, so the severed leg was probably what brought her down, but not what put her out.
The next victim was a short, greasy-haired man in perhaps his late thirties, and Zhao Yunlan did recognize him, although he couldn't bring his name to mind. He'd been expecting the second body to be the driver, but this guy wouldn't have been; he was some undersecretary of something or other, often seen lurking around the top-level Haixing officials in a slightly creepy fashion, with folders of documents that he was unnaturally eager about. Zhao Yunlan had thought him irritating but basically harmless: an unlikely target for such a dramatic attack. He was sprawled like a ragdoll on his side, and only had one wound. A big chunk of the back of his neck had been ripped out. Looked like a vertebra or two were gone, which would have been a fast way to go. There was a half-open briefcase on the ground next to him, spewing a fan of paper, but Zhao Yunlan didn't have gloves on him so he didn't touch them.
Zhao Xinci was right next to the car. No surprise there. He wouldn't have run. From a distance, Zhao Yunlan could see there was a lot of blood. He only knew it was Zhao Xinci from the plum-colored coat, and by process of elimination.
Resolutely ignoring whatever his team was doing, he approached his father's body, prepared to make a detective's observations just as he had done with the other two.
He was worse than the others. They only had bits torn off. Zhao Xinci had been...the word sticking in Zhao Yunlan's mind was 'unfolded'.
Between the tattered halves of his ripped three-piece suit, his ribcage had been cracked apart down the middle and split open to either side like a very sloppy autopsy, the fractured remains of the sternum clinging tenaciously to the cartilage on the left half. Most of the left lung had gone with it as well, torn away from the right in a spray of blood and fluid that had flooded his shredded chest cavity. On the right side, the white stripes of the insides of his ribs were visible. From the waist down he was undamaged, his pants merely bloodstained from the spillage above. His face, though. His eyes were wide open, dull and dilated as a corpse's eyes always were, and his mouth was hanging open, too. Zhao Yunlan had been at plenty of murder scenes, and spent months in the distant past fighting in a war. He knew the rictus of a man who had died in pain, screaming.
Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes and took a long, slow breath. The smell of blood was intense, beyond metallic: meaty. He let the air out. It hadn't helped. He clamped one hand over his mouth and walked at a calm pace back up the street, under the yellow tape to the Jeep, then leaned against the grill and hunched over, his stomach rebelling and making his mouth water.
There were soft cat's footsteps from behind. "Lao Zhao."
Zhao Yunlan wheezed. "Looks like he learned the hard way not to piss off the forensic pathologists," he joked too loudly, keeping his head down. He was clammy, hair sticking to his face in cold sweat.
"Let me call Professor Shen," Da Qing said, squeezing Zhao Yunlan's shoulder.
He whirled, dislodging Da Qing's hand. "Do not," he gritted out, and then he had to slap a hand across his mouth again and breathe carefully for a moment before continuing: "call Professor Shen. He's in class, he won't pick up anyway." That may not have been true, he had no idea what time it was. He rubbed his wrist across his mouth and glanced back at the crime scene, where Lin Jing appeared to be collecting evidence dutifully. "Go help him, and take lots of photos. I'm gonna talk to the cops." Zhao Yunlan was stubborn, not stupid. He wasn't gonna go back over there and make himself puke all over the evidence.
Da Qing looked like he didn't want to give in but also didn't want to upset Zhao Yunlan further, so Zhao Yunlan stared him down until the latter urge won out.
The senior officer in charge didn't have a whole lot of information, but she had compiled a list of witnesses before letting anyone go. It wasn't a busy street, but the murders had taken place in broad daylight in a very visible location. There were going to be a lot of interviews to conduct. While Da Qing and Lin Jing finished up, Zhao Yunlan got a head start and found the man who had called the police. "Found" may have been putting it strongly. The guy was refusing to leave.
"I heard the tires screech and then a gunshot, so I rushed out of my shop to see what was going on!" he narrated for probably the tenth time that day. "There was a woman running up the street after the car. Then she caught that girl and ripped her leg clean off! I've never heard anyone scream like that. Oh, it was horrible."
"That must have been frightening," Zhao Yunlan drawled, cutting him off before he could continue down that path. The level of enthusiasm here was troubling. You had to be careful with 'helpful' witnesses. Even if they weren't trying to make it more dramatic on purpose, repeating the story over and over was enough to cause the facts to shift. "You say you saw the woman who attacked them. Did you get a good look at her face?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Detective," said the witness, leaning in. "I'm sure I could pick her out of a lineup."
Zhao Yunlan pointed a finger at him. "Good to know, bro. Do me a favor, after this, write down a description for me. Everything you can remember." The man made enthusiastic noises and Zhao Yunlan kicked his foot up against the Jeep's tire behind him, deciding what else was worth asking. "The woman. Was she alone?"
The witness stopped to think about that. "I don't remember anyone else. But there must have been someone else, right? Because she came from behind, so why did the car stop?"
"That's my line," Zhao Yunlan said, slapping his shoulder chummily. The others were coming back towards the car, annoyingly grim-faced. "Thanks, man, you've been a big help. One of my people will stop by to get that description from you later."
"Oh, you're welcome, yes, of course, I'll write everything down," and he went on like that while Zhao Yunlan shook his hand and smiled and slowly backed away, reaching for his car keys.
Da Qing let the city cops know they were done with the scene. It wasn't Zhao Yunlan's job to worry about how they'd pick up the scattered pieces of the victims and transport them to the morgue. He turned the Jeep around and didn't look back.
As long as he kept the momentum of the investigation plowing ahead like this was any other case, his team wouldn't be able to break stride long enough to do anything more troublesome than stare at him glumly. That was Zhao Yunlan's theory anyway, so as soon as they got back to the office, he got everyone together at the table for a fast-paced briefing. He gave the rundown on the state of the victims, resolutely ignoring the variety of facial expressions he was getting. "Looks to me like we're dealing with a Dixingren with a real gory power. If the target was Zhao Xinci, the motive was probably revenge, so I'm thinking we need to crack open the old case files from his time as chief. Wang Zheng, Sang Zan, I'll leave that to you. Look for anyone he arrested or might've pissed off with a power that seems related first." The pair nodded at him miserably. "Now, forensics - " He didn't want to admit it, but he hadn't looked, and if he asked quickly enough, it wouldn't stick out to anyone. "Did you find a gun on Zhao Xinci?"
Lin Jing looked at Da Qing. Da Qing twitched his nose threateningly. Lin Jing cleared his throat. "Uh, yeah, it was in his hand, I bagged it. It was fired twice. There was a bullet lodged in the windshield of the limo. We found a casing inside the car and another one in the street, but only the one slug."
"Then he -- " Of course. The bulletproof glass had screwed up his first round, but the second time, he wouldn't have missed. "We need to know about anyone admitted to the hospital with gunshot wounds, earlier this morning or over the next couple days. Zhu Hong, that's your job." Zhao Yunlan pulled his legs up on the couch and tried to call the mental to-do list back up. "Fatass, you and I are going to Haixing DS. I'm gonna stir up shit and see what settles out. You find out where the victims were coming from and going to, and who would've known about it."
"And we need to know who was driving the limo," Da Qing added. "They're still missing."
Zhao Yunlan wanted to yell at him for the unsolicited advice, but he was absolutely right, and Zhao Yunlan had forgotten about it. "Right, yeah." He licked his lips. "Lin Jing, get me info on the other two victims. No, on all three." It wasn't as if Dad ever told him anything. "And we have a giant list of witnesses to shake down, which is my special gift to you, Lao Chu, Xiao Guo. Have fun with that first guy, he's a bit -- "
The portal that split the air by the front door was nearly silent, but it might as well have been a gun going off for how effectively it interrupted Zhao Yunlan's flow. Shen Wei stepped through, dressed in a checked suit and silk ascot exactly as he had been last Zhao Yunlan had seen him. Which had been a few hours ago when he dropped him off at work. It only felt like days.
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei said urgently, and that was it for the whole investigative momentum thing. He crossed the room in about four long strides and physically lifted Zhao Yunlan out of his customary Zhao Yunlan-shaped dent in the couch and onto his feet. If there had been any doubt that one of his insubordinate underlings had called Shen Wei and tattled the whole story to him, it was gone now. Traitors.
Shen Wei's eyes searched his face intensely, a deep frown creasing his forehead as he brushed Zhao Yunlan's hair out of his face, and Zhao Yunlan could hear the traitors politely sneaking away from the table but suddenly he was too tired to yell at them, or do anything at all except slowly slump forward against Shen Wei's chest and bury his face in the side of his neck. "Xiao Wei, we have to...we..."
"Shh," Shen Wei hushed, wrapping his arms around Zhao Yunlan, tucking him close and cradling his head against his shoulder. "Sorry I'm late."
That wrung a wry laugh from Zhao Yunlan's throat, which sort of came out more like a sob. He wasn't crying, he was pretty sure he wasn't going to, but he was shaking suddenly, hard enough his teeth were nearly chattering. He clung onto the fabric of Shen Wei's suit and tried to take a steady breath.
"We're going home," Shen Wei said to someone over Zhao Yunlan's shoulder, his voice vibrating warmly through Zhao Yunlan's bones.
Zhao Yunlan smacked at his shoulder. "No, no, we're not. This is - this is time-sensitive, the investigation can't wait for me to have a nice leisurely breakdown, we have to get going," he protested. It was hard to sound sincere about that given how he was still letting Shen Wei hold up half his body weight, but it wasn't any less true for him being a bit pathetic while saying it. The murderer had been shot at by Zhao Xinci, and had still managed to kill him and get away. She was dangerous and capable, and if this was more political than personal to her, she could be planning on other targets. Finding her wasn't just a matter of private urgency.
Shen Wei sighed. It was a small sigh, but Zhao Yunlan was right up in there and couldn't miss it. "Very well, we're going to your office," he muttered. Before Zhao Yunlan could decide whether to argue about that or not, he was being stood upright by a pair of very firm hands, and then towed back the hall by the arm.
Shen Wei closed the door, deposited him in his chair, and got up in his space. Zhao Yunlan got a good look at his face and realized that he was maybe a little bit in trouble. "Why didn't you call me?" Shen Wei asked quietly.
"Who did call you?" Zhao Yunlan fired back, pulling open his lollipop drawer and groping around blindly. He came up with one, but his fingers were shaking so badly he couldn't get the wrapper off.
Shen Wei snatched it out of his hands, opened it, and held it out, only to pull it back when Zhao Yunlan reached for it. "Talk to me," he said.
Zhao Yunlan slumped back in his chair forcefully. "I really, really need something in my mouth. I'd accept an alternative, if you're offering."
"Zh-Zhao Yunlan -- " The implication flustered Shen Wei enough for Zhao Yunlan to surge forward and snatch the candy out of his hand with his teeth, then flop back down again. Shen Wei's eyebrows twitched. He pulled a chair around the desk and watched Zhao Yunlan work over the lollipop, looking like he was concerned about too many things to decide where to start. Eventually he went with, "I really don't think you should be handling this case."
"I agree," Zhao Yunlan said dully, "but there's no one else qualified. Last time, when Wang Xiangyang kidnapped him, we handled it."
"Your team can take care of it, with me. You don't need to be personally involved."
Zhao Yunlan stared unfocused into the surface of his desk. "This chick cracked my dad open like an egg." Shen Wei went rigid in the corner of Zhao Yunlan's vision. "I'm not going to sit at home and weep into my hanky while she eviscerates the rest of you. Don't ask that of me." He flopped his hand over his armrest in Shen Wei's direction, palm up. Shen Wei caught it without hesitation, squeezing gently. Zhao Yunlan glanced over at him and watched his eyelashes flutter as he made calculations in his head vis-a-vis Zhao Yunlan's wellbeing. Zhao Yunlan figured he needed another nudge. "I don't wanna be alone right now. Please." That wasn't the reason, but it wasn't a lie.
Surprised, Shen Wei met his eyes. Zhao Yunlan wondered how shitty he looked right now. Probably pretty shitty. But it wasn't like he was doing it on purpose. Wouldn't have had the energy to. "Alright." Shen Wei swallowed. "Perhaps some lunch first?"
Zhao Yunlan scoffed. It was just like Shen Wei to try to feed him right now. "I'm not gonna be able to eat anything, honey. I don't know who told you what, but I just about hurled at the crime scene and I'm pretty sure the smell of food is gonna bring that right back." Shen Wei had a look on his face that was one part frustration, one part guilt, and about a billion parts worry, so Zhao Yunlan pulled out his lollipop with a sardonic smack and offered, "I could drink some tea."
Shen Wei rose from his seat instantly, but before he could run off to make tea, Zhao Yunlan pulled on his hand until he got him between his knees, and then pulled downwards on his shoulder until Shen Wei had to brace his free hand on the edge of the chair and then Zhao Yunlan could kiss him. "Listen," he said against his lips, and, yeah, that was getting those images out of his head a little bit, "Shen Wei, I know I'm gonna fuck up with this investigation if I don't have someone keeping an eye on me. So keep an eye on me." Shen Wei took a soft breath and nodded, brushing his nose along Zhao Yunlan's cheek, and Zhao Yunlan found he needed a few more kisses before he could let him go.
Chapter 2: Trust the Tape
Ratbones comes trotting in like a sooty-faced street waif paid a ha'penny to deliver you a chapter. By your leave, and beg pardon for interruptin', Your Grace, but there's been a development in the case, there 'as!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
By the time Zhao Yunlan made it out of his office, hydrated and thoroughly smooched and less jittery, Da Qing had already left for the Department of Supervision without him, but he didn't have to wait long for something to do. He had a billion texts from Xiao Guo to respond to, and then Zhu Hong called from the hospital while Zhao Yunlan was tapping his foot waiting for a babbling Lin Jing to bring something up on his computer. Zhao Yunlan waved at Lin Jing to shut up and answered his cell. "What've you got?" he asked with no preamble, putting her on speaker for Shen Wei's sake.
"Two people treated for gunshot wounds today," Zhu Hong said. "The first one is a cop shot in the arm during a drug bust. He's been discharged already, but it's all documented, and he came here in an ambulance. I don't see how he could be involved."
Zhao Yunlan leaned back on the lab bench. "Fine. The other one?"
"Shot in the head, still in surgery, and they're not sure if he'll survive. The guy's wife is here, she's a mess. She says it was a suicide attempt. There's no proof of that, though, and the police have been typically useless in confirming it for me," she said, irritation creeping into her voice. "It's probably not related, though. Our suspect should be a woman, right?"
"Yeah, so far all the witnesses only saw a woman," Zhao Yunlan said. He exchanged a glance with Shen Wei. "Get his files anyway, and get a description from the wife. We know we're missing a highly suspicious limo driver. Da Qing can cross-check with the DS people just in case."
"Got it. I'll call him as well." Zhu Hong hung up.
Zhao Yunlan turned back to Lin Jing. "Your turn. You have profiles on the victims?"
"Already in your inbox. The other two are Sun Shufen, she was a legislative aide, whatever that means, and He Chao, assistant to the Secretary of Commerce. Boring, but like I said, I got something better." He must've said that while Zhao Yunlan had been ignoring him. He blew up a window on his central monitor, grinning. "CCTV."
Zhao Yunlan leaned in over his huge dumb sci-fi chair and planted a hand on the desk. The footage was paused on a black-and-white fisheye shot of the empty street, the camera angled down from above. "Play it."
Lin Jing's cursor hovered over the play button. Shen Wei came up on his other side and Lin Jing startled, then sunk into himself sheepishly under the weight of two very intense men leaning over him. "Uh, Boss, are you sure?"
"Oh, not you too," Zhao Yunlan said, thumping the back of his head. "Play it!" Lin Jing held up a defensive hand and finally hit play. Shen Wei took the kind of short breath you take before starting an argument, but then turned wordlessly back to the monitor as the DS limo came onscreen.
For no discernable reason, the car swerved and skidded, a rear tire harmlessly bumping over the curb as it plowed to a stop. The only pedestrian on the sidewalk jumped out of the way and then turned to stare. Between the tinted windows and the video quality, there was no indication of what was going on inside the vehicle, not even a shadow of movement, and long seconds passed by. Then the starburst of cracks appeared on the windshield.
There was no audio, but it must have been loud outside the car because the lone onlooker booked it. The limo doors swung open in quick succession and everyone bailed out. Sun Shufen and the driver took off in opposite directions, both offscreen in seconds. Zhao Xinci put his back to the vehicle and kept his gun up, like he was trying to get a bead on a target just out of the frame, below or behind the camera: in front of the building or in the alley beside it. He Chao initially froze near the back of the car and looked like he might try to hide, but then an unarmed woman in a dark jacket came sprinting up the road and He Chao made a break for the buildings on the other side of the street. She caught him by the scruff of his neck with one hand, and she barely even had to pull. He went down like Lao Chu's puppet being dropped, a clumsy tangle of inert limbs.
It was impossible for Zhao Xinci not to have noticed both of the other victims going down, and he was angled so that end of the street was in his periphery, but he was still focused on the same target he'd been tracking. His arms jerked as he fired, and at the same moment the woman reached him and seized the front of his coat, elbowing his gun arm wide for just long enough to plunge her other hand right into the middle of his chest. He would've shot her point blank if the timing had been off by a fraction of a second.
Unlike He Chao, he didn't fall limp instantly; he dropped his gun and fell with his attacker over him, blocking most of the camera's view, but there was a brief struggle during which he almost knocked her off of him. Then her arm wrenched out to the side with a sharp motion and Zhao Xinci kicked once and stopped moving.
The Dixing woman didn't move, either, for a moment, and then she stood up slowly and turned towards the security camera. Her hands were darkened with blood.
"Pause it," Zhao Yunlan said, and then cringed at the sound of his own cracking voice, too loud in the silent room. Shen Wei's hand was pressed against the middle of his back.
Lin Jing hit a couple keys on the keyboard and zoomed in on the woman. The quality wasn't great, but her face was visible, recognizable. It helped that she had her hair up in a ponytail. "See if you can get that any clearer after this," Zhao Yunlan said.
"Should I send it out to the media?" Lin Jing had his head down and sounded a bit woozy. He took a screenshot.
"No. Not for now. If she's planning more, we don't want spook her into thinking we're getting close. Play the rest of the video." Lin Jing just nodded and started the video again.
The Dixingren seemed to catch sight of something behind the camera, roughly where Zhao Xinci had fired his second shot. She shouted something, and then ran in that direction.
A few seconds later, a couple of shellshocked bystanders appeared at the corner of the screen. Lin Jing let the video play out, people beginning to poke their heads out of doorways, recoiling in horror or frantically pulling out cell phones, as Zhao Yunlan sighed loudly and straightened, rolling the tension out of his shoulders. Shen Wei let go of him, but Zhao Yunlan caught him stealing a worried glance. "Finally earning your keep," Zhao Yunlan said to Lin Jing, and then took a couple steps back to simulate a private conversation with Shen Wei. "He could've shot her. He didn't even look at her! What was he aiming at that was so important? Another suspect, sure, but how could they have been more of a priority than her?"
"Maybe he didn't see her coming," Shen Wei said. "I know how that sounds, but I -- " He glanced away. "We both know he wouldn't have failed to take the shot." Ah, right. Shen Wei knew Zhao Xinci very well, after all. Zhao Yunlan huffed in agreement, and Shen Wei continued, "That's not the only thing that doesn't add up. The driver looked as scared as the others, but he stopped for no reason. They should have just driven out of there."
Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes. "You don't trust the tape?" he probed.
"I'm not sure. I don't trust something about what we just saw."
Zhao Yunlan tapped Lin Jing's headrest. "Hey, do you have other camera angles? Any chance we could see through the car windows?"
"Not really, not with the tinting. There are a couple other buildings with cameras, but that's the best one." Lin Jing brought up thumbnails of a few other security videos. "I can double-check if any of them show what Director Zhao was aiming at, though," he suggested.
"Go for it," Zhao Yunlan said, a bit absently. He stepped out of the lab with Shen Wei at his side. He could feel Shen Wei's eyes boring holes into the side of his head, but his brain was busy running the footage back, fixated not on the grisly deaths, but the two gunshots. He felt certain that he'd crack the whole thing if he could work out what the hell his dad had been thinking, but he was so hard to read. And wasn't that just classic Zhao Xinci fathering for you.
Da Qing returned mid-afternoon with information. The limo had been taking the three victims from a breakfast celebrating the promotion of Dragon City's new Health Department Director, which was exactly the sort of stuffy thing Zhao Yunlan imagined his father did all day, to a meeting on public school funding, which was relevant to the other two victims directly and to Zhao Xinci only because the schools were requesting increased security next term. It had taken the creaking gears of bureaucracy over an hour to produce the identity of the driver, so Da Qing was now hungry and grumpy, but he had the guy's file. His name was Chen Baoming, 52 years of age, and his long employment record as a chauffeur was tarnished only by an unusual number of tardies. It was noted in his file that he was the primary caretaker for his disabled adult son. Apparently the creaking gears of bureaucracy did have a heart hidden somewhere, not firing him over that. Nobody at Haixing DS had been able to tell Da Qing anything about Chen Baoming's current whereabouts other than that he hadn't come back to work, and Da Qing had quickly given up asking. They'd have to find him themselves.
The guy who'd attempted suicide was 23, according to the medical records Zhu Hong brought back. Clearly he couldn't have been the driver. Zhao Yunlan still had Wang Zheng make a hard copy of the records for Shen Wei and scan them into the case file for everyone else. They were looking for a possible second suspect now.
Lao Chu and Xiao Guo were still plugging away at the list of witnesses, and Sang Zan at the old files with Wang Zheng's help, when she wasn't fielding phone calls. Since the hospital was right next to the morgue, Zhu Hong had headed there to scare up autopsy results, probably literally. Lin Jing had re-checked several other buildings' security cameras, each less useful than the last, and was now either following a hunch of his own or, more likely, playing video games. Normally this would be a good time for a nap.
But Zhao Yunlan couldn't settle down, could barely sit still, a fidgety mess any time he wasn't hassling his team for updates. He'd watched the security footage over repeatedly, staring at Zhao Xinci tracking his unseen target in jerky low-frame rate slow-mo; he'd been over the evidence twice, skimming through He Chao's paperwork and turning his father's handgun, in its plastic bag, over and over in his hands. As afternoon wore on into evening with little progress, Shen Wei mildly suggested that they go to the Department of Supervision's garage and ask around; someone might know something about Chen Baoming, or how the killer targeted the victims en route. At the very least, they could get Chen Baoming's home address from the transportation office. It was something potentially useful to do. Zhao Yunlan could've kissed him, so he did.
They were stepping into the Jeep when Chu Shuzhi parallel parked behind them. Zhao Yunlan rotated with one foot up on the running board and watched. Lao Chu opened the rear door and he and Xiao Guo pulled out an absolute mountain of a man, his hands cuffed in front of him and a hangdog expression on his weathered face. Zhao Yunlan stalked towards them, shaking his finger. "Highly Suspicious Limo Driver Chen Baoming! You're in a world of trouble, big fella." The guy was at least Lin Jing's height and twice as wide, but he cringed back like he was waving a gun at him.
"He came looking for us himself," Lao Chu grunted.
"He was just scared, but then he realized he needed to talk to the police," Xiao Guo continued, reaching up to pat the driver's arm sympathetically.
Shen Wei had come up close enough for Zhao Yunlan to give him a look of exasperation and get a doubtful sniff back. "Fine," Zhao Yunlan sighed. "Gentlemen, escort our esteemed guest to his accommodations. We've got questions."
"He's jumpy as hell," Zhao Yunlan commented. They were standing at the one-way mirror outside the interrogation room, watching Chen Baoming pace. "Worse than you used to be, Xiao Guo." It had taken quite a while to get his identity confirmed by the Department of Supervision, giving the man time to become anxious in the windowless room.
"He's like that," Chu Shuzhi said. "That's why I cuffed him. Don't trust the nervous ones."
Shen Wei didn't like the idea of Zhao Yunlan alone in a room with this witness, even if he was right outside. Zhao Yunlan was visibly on edge himself. "I'll speak with him," he volunteered.
Zhao Yunlan waved him down with a manila folder. "You have lab time tonight, baby. You need to get going in like ten minutes. He's just a human, we can handle him."
Shen Wei ducked his head. Now was not an appropriate time to be so pleased about -- about any of that. "I've already canceled it," he admitted.
Zhao Yunlan shook his head and laughed. "Of course you have. Well then, you're less likely than any of us to accidentally scare him under the desk anyway. He's all yours." He handed the file over to Shen Wei and hooked his thumbs into his pockets.
The suppressed tension and exhaustion underlying the easy posture Zhao Yunlan had assumed had Shen Wei wanting to just get him out of here, take him away from the case, but he didn't want to undermine him in front of the others. He swallowed the urge back and nodded, stepping into the interrogation room.
The witness startled at the opening door, then stood there with his shoulders hunched, staring. "Please, have a seat, Mr. Chen," Shen Wei said, smiling politely. "I just have a few questions for you." After a moment, Chen Baoming sat, and Shen Wei took the opposite chair. "I'm Professor Shen Wei, a consultant with the -- "
"Am I going to be able to go home tonight?" Chen Baoming interrupted. "It's just, my son needs me."
Shen Wei paused. He didn't want to promise anything. "If we can determine you haven't committed a crime, yes. Otherwise, we'll let you make any calls necessary to make arrangements for his care." This seemed to calm him, by a degree. He wilted into his chair, which was barely big enough for his bulk. Sliding the victim profiles across the desk, Shen Wei asked, "Can you confirm for me that you were driving these three people to a meeting this morning around 10 o'clock?"
Chen Baoming nodded quickly, eyes flicking across the ID photos. "Yes, sir."
"You stopped the car quite suddenly. Why?"
"There was a kid in the road," he said in a quavering voice. "He came out of nowhere and scared the living daylights out of me. I didn't hit him, but it was really close..." The man closed his eyes tightly.
Shen Wei poured a glass of water from the pitcher for him and tried to make his voice gentler. "How old was this boy?"
"I couldn't say. Eight or nine? I barely saw him." Chen Baoming gulped down half the glass at once and then wrapped both hands around it and began speaking as though he'd been uncorked. "I can't explain the next part. It's like all the air went out of the limo. I guess it could have been some kind of chemical weapon? I couldn't breathe at all and I panicked. The passengers were choking, too, I heard that. I tried to get out but I couldn't get the door handle to work. Then there was a really loud noise right next to me, I guess a gunshot, and I got the door open. I ran away because I thought someone was shooting at us. I was scared stiff, so I hid all day." He wet his lips and looked up for the first time, wearing a haunted expression. "I know it sounds crazy, sir, I do, but I swear that's what I remember."
"It doesn't sound crazy to me. I think you remember it quite clearly, Mr. Chen." If this man hadn't made the logical leap to blame Dixingren for the attack, Shen Wei wasn't going to bring it up, either. Instead, he flipped through the files in front of him. While he was looking, he asked, "When did you realize your passengers hadn't made it?"
"Not until later. I spent a while watching the news on the TV at a noodle shop. It's horrible, it's just horrible, I was right there." Chen Baoming trailed off, staring down at the glass in his hands.
"One last thing, if you would. Have you ever seen this person before? Does she look familiar?" Shen Wei held up the print-out of the murderer's face from the security footage.
Chen Baoming took the picture and looked at it for a while, apparently making a real effort to remember. "No," he said slowly. "I suppose I might have seen her somewhere, she's pretty ordinary, isn't she? But I don't remember ever seeing her."
Shen Wei stifled a sigh. "Alright. Thank you for your time." Standing, he began to gather up the documents.
"Shen," Shen Wei supplied.
"Mr. Shen, sir. Can I go home now?"
Shen Wei adjusted his glasses. "That's the chief's decision to make, not mine, but I believe you'll be released. Please be patient for just a little bit longer."
Outside, in the observation room, Zhao Yunlan was waiting on the couch, one long leg crossed over the other, booted foot bouncing. "Great, he's innocent of everything but being a nervous wreck."
"He mentioned a boy. We might be on the lookout for a very young suspect," Shen Wei said.
"That's fucking perfect, that's all we need," Zhao Yunlan said in a voice that had turned hoarse. He pressed his thumb and forefinger to the corners of his eyes and let out a sharp breath which he might have intended as a laugh.
Shen Wei's stomach clenched. "Zhao Yunlan, it's past eight. Perhaps everyone should go home and get some rest."
Zhao Yunlan craned his head back and took a long breath, then let it out as a tired groan. "I guess. I can't think of anywhere to force anyone to stake out. Xiao Guo, go let everyone know we're doing a team meeting. Lao Chu, get Chen Baoming's contact information and take him home."
After the meeting, Zhao Yunlan insisted upon driving home, even though Shen Wei offered to open a portal. It was a regular disagreement, ever since their return, and one Shen Wei usually didn't mind losing. Allowing Zhao Yunlan to drop him off and pick him up from the university, when their schedules allowed, was no great hardship. He wasn't sure if anyone had noticed Zhao Yunlan's vehicle -- it wasn't exactly subtle -- or the man himself, nearly as unsubtle, coming and going from his office, waiting outside his classes, once or twice sitting in on a lecture, but nobody had said anything to him, and it made Zhao Yunlan happy.
In this instance, he'd really have preferred to leave the car behind, as Zhao Yunlan looked far too tired to be driving. He got the sense that Zhao Yunlan was also on the edge of snapping and insisting on working through the night, though, so he didn't press the issue. At least it wasn't far.
At home, Zhao Yunlan immediately headed for the shower, dropping articles of clothing on the way. He invited Shen Wei to join him with a wink, but it was perfunctory, not a sincere effort, and anyway Shen Wei had other plans. Asking Zhao Yunlan to eat may or may not have provoked further contrariness. Far simpler to just cook dinner. He would find he was hungry when there was food in front of him. Shen Wei was not going to sit back and watch him revert to his old habits and give himself a relapse of gastritis, least of all with everything that was going on now.
When Zhao Yunlan emerged, dressed in boxers with a towel around his neck, his skin was alarmingly red, as if he'd turned the hot water the whole way up. Shen Wei paused in setting out dishes to hand him the t-shirt and sweatpants he'd been sleeping in. Zhao Yunlan took them with a shrug, and Shen Wei stopped him with a hand on his overheated cheek. Zhao Yunlan leaned into it a little, eyes drifting half closed, damp beard sliding against Shen Wei's palm. "Zhao Yunlan, are you..." That was a ridiculous question. He pivoted. "Dinner's ready."
Zhao Yunlan's eyes flicked up. He tapped Shen Wei's chin. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing," he said lowly. Shen Wei opened his mouth a fraction, wondering if Zhao Yunlan was angry, but then the corner of his lips quirked up. "You know I can't say no when you've already cooked. I'll get dressed and eat like a good boy."
They ate quietly, which was not in itself unusual after a long day. When they'd finished, Zhao Yunlan slid his empty bowl aside and leaned forward, elbows on the breakfast bar. "So we're looking for a kid who can suffocate people at a distance. What a lovely pair, him and Ms. Bonesaw."
"That's how it appears," Shen Wei said. "I have seen her power before, I think, during the first war. Unless I'm mistaken, it requires physical contact. The suffocation, though..." He started making a mental list, but it quickly became unhelpfully long. "That could be accomplished with any number of different powers. But he's quite likely injured, at the very least."
"Right. Dad was a good shot. He might be dead." Zhao Yunlan rubbed his lips. "Still makes no sense to shoot him first."
Shen Wei took his glasses off and set them down, trying to call up the other strangenesses he had noted. "I can't understand the timing of the attack, either. The security at Zhao Xinci's office and apartment is heavy, so attacking him in public does make sense, but -- I imagine they must have been followed from the breakfast, and perhaps that wasn't top-secret, but how would someone know Zhao Xinci would be there?"
Zhao Yunlan listed off options on his fingers. "Stalking: the old man would've probably noticed. Could be a lucky guess, but you know I don't trust those. Or they had insider knowledge of his schedule." Zhao Yunlan perked up and grabbed his phone off the counter. "Lemme send that shot from the CCTV to the bosses, have them email it around the building, see if anyone recognizes her."
While Zhao Yunlan tapped something out rapidly with his thumbs, Shen Wei turned the possibility over in his mind. It would fill in certain gaps, but security had been tightened substantially in Dragon City during their absence, particularly against Dixingren. "Could anyone from Dixing have entered the Department of Supervision without disclosure, though? Lin Jing and Li Qian installed a dark energy detector at the checkpoint."
"Xiao Wei, honey, you pranced right past our shield and detector from the start." Shen Wei's ears heated up and he averted his eyes. All of that deception back then was deeply embarrassing now. Zhao Yunlan chuckled, shaking his head, and rubbed the tip of his bare toe against Shen Wei's ankle under the table. "You're the almighty Black Cloak, true, but if our professor can fool the technology, someone who knows something about technology could probably figure out a way." He was peering up at Shen Wei from under his lashes, leaning low over the bar, and his teasing voice was so warm.
Shen Wei gripped Zhao Yunlan's wrist like a lifeline -- as if Zhao Yunlan would save him from Zhao Yunlan, as if Shen Wei could possibly want him to -- and searched for something to say. "I -- I suppose the woman is our only lead." Zhao Yunlan's face fell slightly and Shen Wei immediately regretted bringing the conversation back to the case. He guiltily continued, "Neither the witnesses nor the cameras detected the young boy. He must have been in a blind spot, and taken cover very effectively after Zhao Xinci's first shot."
"You're not suggesting Chen Baoming lied after all?" Zhao Yunlan said, tilting his head to the side and watching Shen Wei's face.
"I didn't think he did, but you pick up on that better than I do."
"Nah, I agree, his story fits too well with facts he's not privy to. Guess he could've been mistaken, but, like you said, we got nothin' on the kid, so let's not worry about that for now." Zhao Yunlan sat up and stretched out his back, his spine crackling. "Ahhh, I'm bushed." He started to get up, no doubt heading for the bed or the couch.
"Yunlan," Shen Wei said softly, not releasing his wrist. Zhao Yunlan stopped and turned back towards him, his full attention back on Shen Wei immediately. That look, unlike the flirtatious one from before, made it almost easy for Shen Wei to say what he meant. This man had always been able to draw the truth from him. "This...it should never have happened. I am so -- so deeply, unspeakably sorry."
"Oh, sweetheart." Zhao Yunlan's eyes turned sad and he wriggled his hand in Shen Wei's grip to interlace their fingers. He looked away and swallowed twice, wet his lips, and spoke louder. "Don't be. He was a nasty piece of work, he finally got his comeuppance." He ran his free hand through his hair, forcing a smile. "Definitely don't be sorry for me, everyone knows the old goat hated me."
Shen Wei found himself at a loss. He knew the bravado was false, and he'd thought -- he supposed he had thought Zhao Yunlan wouldn't feel the need to use it, with him, but he'd presumed too much. He was afraid to push further, and wasn't even sure where to start, regardless. Perhaps Zhao Yunlan blamed him, as the Envoy, for letting this happen. He wouldn't have been wrong to. And a paltry apology could not possibly rectify that.
He owed Zhao Yunlan so much -- his life, many times over, and things much more valuable than that -- but when it came down to it, there was precious little he could do for him.
Zhao Yunlan tugged his fingers out of Shen Wei's grip and took a step backwards. "I need sleep," he announced, jabbing his thumb towards the bed. "Join me soon, 'kay?"
He really had been tired. He'd fallen asleep while Shen Wei was still washing the dishes, lulled by the familiar noise of his favorite person moving around in their shared space. But then he'd woken up to pee, and now he couldn't fall back asleep.
Shen Wei was warm and solid behind him, one arm loose over his waist and his slow, slow breaths stirring the hairs on the back of Zhao Yunlan's neck. He'd lifted his arm to sneak out and then again to sneak back in, and Shen Wei hadn't done more than stir in his sleep and shift closer. Obviously Zhao Yunlan wasn't the only one who was worn out. Shen Wei had been sleeping more in general, too, ever since they got back. He still didn't need quite as much sleep as Zhao Yunlan did, though, so as side effects went, it seemed a pretty small price to pay for not being dead.
Ugh, and there it was again. It seemed like every train of thought eventually circled back to that mental image of his father split open in the street, spilling blood and viscera, expression contorted with the last, worst pain of his life. He shoved his face into the pillow in frustration. It was a bad crime scene, but it wasn't the most horrifying way to die that he'd ever seen. It wasn't even the most torn-apart he'd ever seen someone. And there was no love lost between him and his father, so why was this so...
Their relationship had changed a bit since he'd come back. Zhao Xinci and Zhang Shi had clearly been spending time together socially, so people who worked around them who didn't know any better thought the father and son had grown closer, and maybe that made it a little easier to be -- if not kind, at least cordial -- to one another when they had to see each other. And towards the end, back then, they'd made a kind of peace. Zhao Yunlan had let go of every hurt from his childhood, and the years of chilly silence in between, in the interest of being able to die with no lingering anger between them. Zhao Xinci had known that was what he was doing. He'd almost had Zhao Yunlan convinced he'd be sad when Zhao Yunlan was dead.
But then he'd come back and practically the first thing out of his dad's mouth, once he'd asked about Zhang Shi, was to say, "I warned you not to get too close to the Black-Cloaked Envoy." And with that any illusions he'd had regarding a more permanent forgiveness had gone up in smoke.
The man was an incurable bastard. The civility they'd had over the past month or so only functioned so long as neither of them brought up Shen Wei or Mom or Dixing or the motorbike or anything else from the giant list of old stale arguments. And, really, they'd seen each other, what, five or six times? Spoken one-on-one for a total of ten minutes? Hi, Dad, how are you doing, nice weather today, well, I have a case to get cracking on, bye. Zhao Yunlan had been trying, but it was hardly a touching tale of reconciliation. Barely the beginnings of a functional relationship with his boss.
Face-down in the pillow, Zhao Yunlan realized that the last time he'd seen his father was going to be the last time, period, and he stifled a miserable groan. It had been nearly a week ago. He'd just been to Minister Guo's office to get something signed off on, and when the elevator came to take him back down, his dad had stepped out of it. He'd pasted on a grin and jovially called him Director Zhao and asked "how are the kids?" His dad had pretended to find that funny, and then Zhao Yunlan had stepped into the elevator and they'd both gotten on with their days, probably equally relieved to have gotten out of there quickly without any open hostility.
What a stupid, meaningless goddamn conversation. What an absolute insult to Mom's memory. And that was it. No more time for half-hearted trying. They'd had their shot and they'd fucked it up and now Dad was just a bunch of chunks of meat on ice. It sounded like a sick joke; he'd seen it himself and he still barely believed it.
Zhao Yunlan rolled onto his back and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes hard. Fuck fuck fuck. This was the leisurely breakdown he couldn't afford and he needed to stop, now. He picked up his phone. He'd been awake for an hour and fifteen minutes. This was not helping the investigation.
He rolled the rest of the way over. Shen Wei made a tiny snuffling noise and tucked his arm around him tighter. Zhao Yunlan shifted down till he could see his face straight-on.
That was a better image. Shen Wei's hair was ruffled across his forehead. His expression was perfectly serene as it never was when he was awake, no trace of a line between his brows. The room was dark, but Zhao Yunlan was close enough to make out that his lips were slightly parted and flushed a healthy red. He looked positively cozy. And so, so beautiful, so achingly lovely striped in the faint moonlight coming through the blinds, every line of that precious face impossible and perfect. Zhao Yunlan lifted his hand and almost put his finger to Shen Wei's lips, just lightly, just to feel his breath, but that might wake him. He let his hand curl on the pillow and just looked.
A few minutes later, there was a thud as Da Qing jumped through the window, a dark silhouette in the alcove, and then His Noble Chubbiness hopped up on the bed, jostling the entire bedframe. Without a word or even a glance of acknowledgement, he insinuated his fluffy bulk between Zhao Yunlan's and Shen Wei's legs, circled twice, and curled up. A police siren passed by outside, faded out.
Zhao Yunlan didn't know how long it took him to fall asleep after that.
Kisses to everyone who expressed interest/excitement/horror last chapter <3 Everyone having fun? Is 'fun' the right word? This is the Guardian fandom, we like pain, right?
Chapter 3: A Meeting of the Dead Dads Club
Someone throws down a knapsack and drops down next to you in the grass by the train tracks. Oh, it's just Ratty, taking out a harmonica to play a lonesome chapter into the warm night air.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There was soft golden sunlight streaming in across the bed, the sheets were neatly tucked in around Zhao Yunlan, and Shen Wei was shifting away from him. Zhao Yunlan flailed one arm out in his general direction, but Shen Wei caught his hand and gently laid it back on the pillow. He was still tired, so he gave up the fight, rolled over into the recently vacated Shen Wei-scented warm spot, and melted back into a puddle with a sigh, limbs all over the bed and sheets freshly rumpled.
Zhao Yunlan woke up again some time later to Shen Wei leaning over him, one hand planted on the bed and the other running through the rat's nest of his hair, a little too intent on smoothing out the tangles to be entirely soothing. "Xiao Wei," he whined into the pillow. More sleep was required.
But the muffled protest only seemed to encourage Shen Wei, who switched to patting his shoulder. "I've already let you sleep in," he said.
Zhao Yunlan squirmed around till he could get his face halfway out of the pillow and made an exaggerated kissy face over his shoulder, eyes still closed. He heard Shen Wei's exhale and tried not to smile because that might ruin it. Sure enough, Shen Wei's lips brushed against his, and he softened his silly pucker so Shen Wei could really kiss him, slow and tender, tasting of toothpaste. Zhao Yunlan's morning breath probably tasted like ass and not in a fun way. He really did have the best boyfriend.
The kiss ended too soon and Zhao Yunlan's weird position prevented him from chasing Shen Wei's mouth, so he rolled the rest of the way onto his side and blinked his bleary eyes open. Shen Wei was already impeccably dressed, of course, sleeve garters and coiffed hair, but he was halfway sitting on the bed and not-quite-smiling at Zhao Yunlan with that bottomless adoration, undisguised. Zhao Yunlan grinned up at him like a dope. "You're not gonna run late for class because I was sleepy, are you?"
Shen Wei's smile faded. "I took off work for the rest of the week," he said.
"Why -- " Reality slammed into him none too gently. Dead dad, missing suspects, tons of leads going nowhere in particular. He groaned and sat up. "For a second there I thought I was gonna have a good day today." Before Shen Wei could feel obligated to try to respond to that, Zhao Yunlan asked, "What time is it?"
"A quarter to nine," Shen Wei said, eyes shifting guiltily.
"A quarter to -- why did you let me -- shiiiit!" Zhao Yunlan grabbed his phone off the nightstand. There were a few messages from the SID team, an email from Dad's secretary with the subject line "Funeral Arrangements" that he didn't want to open, and another email directly from Minister Guo, which he skimmed. Condolences blah blah blah, he'd sent out an official memo with the picture of the perp, any tips would be directly reported to him, and then the unsurprising but unwelcome news that this case had caused a governmental shitstorm. Zhao Yunlan took the hint that he'd better resolve it quick, or find someone who could. You couldn't say that outright to the son of the dead guy but apparently you could heavily imply it.
Zhao Yunlan chucked the phone onto the bed and rubbed his temples. "I wanna go back to bed."
Shen Wei stroked a hand down his back. "I know. Come eat breakfast."
They made it into the office in a record-setting half-hour. Everyone was already bustling around, working their leads from yesterday or starting on assignments Zhao Yunlan had texted to them with one hand while eating with the other. Da Qing and Zhu Hong were out of the office, talking to the wife of the guy who'd been in surgery for a bullet wound to the head yesterday, who they learned had since died. Zhao Yunlan was doubtful it was related and felt slightly guilty for inflicting those two on a grieving widow, but he wasn't going to let anything slide.
And in the interest of not letting anything slide, he and Shen Wei had worked up quite a list of questions they'd failed to ask the limo driver, Chen Baoming, last night. Nobody had been in the best state at that point in the evening, so it was no surprise. The transportation office had given him the day off, so they drove to his home address.
Chen Baoming and his son lived on the first floor of a little house that had been divided into three apartments. It was in a quiet, respectable residential neighborhood within walking distance of Haixing DS, populated in large part by people who worked there. The yard was small but well-kept, and sheltered from the street and the neighbors by trees and a privacy fence. Zhao Yunlan's Jeep roared into the driveway and sent a flock of birds flapping away from a bird bath in mortal terror. He gave Shen Wei an impish smile. "Do you think we should've called ahead?"
Shen Wei pursed his lips and gave Zhao Yunlan that delightful stern teacher look. "He might not even be in."
Zhao Yunlan waved his hand airily. "I'd settle for a gossipy neighbor."
They stepped out in unison, followed the path of pavers towards the front door, and stopped walking at the same moment. There was a streaky trail of something dark that really couldn't be anything but blood. It started a few feet in front of the wheelchair ramp and curled around behind one of the oversized planters full of shrubs set to either side. Zhao Yunlan's heart sank.
Shen Wei put his hand out in front of Zhao Yunlan and stepped forward, following the trail. When Zhao Yunlan saw him stop in place and close his eyes, he got right up next to him.
The body half-curled on its side between the wall of the house and the planter was most certainly Chen Baoming, based on size alone. Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei exchanged a grim look. Shen Wei squeezed into the space between the man and the wall. They each grabbed a limb and turned him over.
Most of his face was gone. Frontal lobe, too.
It took the whole morning to deal with the crime scene. Half the SID was there, along with a passel of city police, and the building's tenants and neighbors had begun to show up. There were no witnesses and no cameras this time, but the way the front of the man's skull had been sheared off would've been enough to suggest it was the same killer, even if she hadn't obviously hunted him down for his role as a witness. She didn't seem that worried about leaving physical evidence, though, if the half-assed attempt to hide the body was anything to go on. They'd found the missing chunk of his head in the planter, gobbets of grey matter clinging to the needles at the bottom of a juniper bush.
Zhao Yunlan was sitting on the hood of the Jeep eating his third lollipop of the day with some degree of wrath. The tiny driveway was full of cars, as was the street in front of it, and he was parked in. Not that he would have gone anywhere. He just wouldn't have minded a little privacy to think.
He'd been checking his phone while Lin Jing monopolized the corpse and Shen Wei (adorably conspicuously) sniffed around the house and yard for dark energy. Nobody at Haixing DS had sent in any useful tips yet, and Zhu Hong and Da Qing had concluded there was nothing sketchy about the gunshot victim, so, with nothing else to check up on, he'd given in and read the email from his father's secretary. As it turned out, Zhao Xinci, ever the control freak, had already had all the plans in place in the event of his untimely demise. They were set into motion by his laywer and personal assistant. The funeral was being arranged for tomorrow, which was fast, but Zhao Xinci had wanted an open casket and then had the poor grace to be part of a crime scene on a warm day. They didn't need much from Zhao Yunlan as far as preparations went. He was essentially just being invited to attend.
It stung in the old familiar way, and it was annoying as hell to find out via email, but there was relief there, too. Zhao Yunlan couldn't possibly have handled things so quickly while conducting the investigation, and his dad was probably right to think he'd have made a mess of it regardless. All he had to do was go and sit through it. For now, he could concentrate on the case. Which was his mess to deal with.
Chen Baoming should have been under police protection. Zhao Yunlan had been a cop too long to blame himself for the murder, but it was an SID screwup he'd take responsibility for, even if screwups had been practically inevitable due to the nature of the case. And yes, it had been unavoidable that someone had to make the ugly call to put Zhao Yunlan in charge of this investigation, and yes, it had been engineered, through misguided kindness or petty malice or standard stupidity, such that Zhao Yunlan had gotten stuck making the ugly call himself, but it didn't matter now. He was plenty used to the DS raining bullshit upon him from above, and he'd still insisted on taking the case. They were going to be in deep shit on every level if they didn't make an arrest today.
The thing that was really bothering him, though, was that Chen Baoming had been killed in his own driveway, when no one else was home. The killer had been watching the house, waiting for him to come out. Which meant that she'd been watching 4 Bright Avenue first. That pissed him off -- not just how close she'd been, but how much she knew, when they knew almost nothing. He was on the back foot, coming from behind, having to throw his people at every possible lead, and she was running him around handily.
It might have been exciting, under other circumstances. As it stood, the prospect of anyone else, let alone any of his team, getting on the wrong end of that woman's power --
Zhao Yunlan tipped his head back and cracked the lollipop with his teeth.
Xiao Guo came trotting up a few minutes later and froze at the sight of Zhao Yunlan, looking more intimidated by him than he had in recent memory. Zhao Yunlan tried to ease the clench of his jaw and waved for him to start talking. "Um, Chief Zhao, you wanted to see Chen Baoming's son? His grandma brought him home. I, uh, I told them it was okay to go in the side door, I didn't want them to see the crime scene..."
Zhao Yunlan sighed deeply and hopped down. "Yeah, that's fine. I'll go talk to him." He patted Xiao Guo's shoulder and stepped around him.
Chen Ji was out on the small terrace, which didn't have much of a view, just a strip of grass and the back of the house behind. Next to him, a side table held his cell phone, several used tissues, and an open bottle of beer. He was a tall, strongly-built kid, strikingly so even seated in his wheelchair, but he was only a kid. He was wearing a DCU sweatshirt and basketball shoes and his round babyface was blotchy from crying. He could've been one of Shen Wei's freshman, distraught over a bad grade. Shen Wei was good with crying students; maybe he should talk to him instead.
But no. Blame or no blame, Zhao Yunlan's decisions had put Chen Baoming in danger. Besides, this kid wasn't the only one who'd lost his father. It looked like the Chens had truly loved each other; Zhao Yunlan wasn't sure whether to envy or pity Chen Ji for that.
Zhao Yunlan knocked on the doorframe. "Hey."
Chen Ji turned. "Hi. You're the cop in charge?" He picked up his cell phone and ran his thumb over the dark screen idly.
"That's me. Chief Zhao Yunlan. But I'll let you call me Zhao-ge." The boy didn't look impressed. Zhao Yunlan pulled over a faded deck chair and flopped down on it. "You a student?" he asked, gesturing at Chen Ji's hoodie.
The kid looked down at himself, frowning, then back up. "Oh, right, yeah. Computer science."
"Ah, a smart one. My partner teaches there. You should take biology with Professor Shen as an elective, he's a great lecturer."
Chen Ji laughed. Out of politeness, but at least he'd broken the ice. "Maybe next semester. Are you sure you're not biased?"
"I'm biased, but it's true," Zhao Yunlan said with a wink. Chen Ji tried to smile, rubbed his eyes with his hand, and woke his phone screen. Zhao Yunlan cut in with, "Listen, man." There was no good way to have this conversation, but he needed Chen Ji to talk, so he'd wing it. "Probably stupid to tell you this, but the person who we think killed your dad, she killed my dad, too." Chen Ji startled and fumbled the phone. Now he was paying attention. "So, it's not that I know what you're going through, but I promise you, I'm gonna bring her down. We fucked up once, letting this happen to your father. We're not gonna fuck up again."
"That's...I..." Chen Ji took a shaking breath and finally put his phone down. "Okay. Thanks. But this is just unreal, it feels like a nightmare, you know? He was my best fr-- " His voice broke. He pulled a fresh tissue out of his pocket and rubbed his nose with it. "He was a good man, Chief Zhao, and he was my best friend," he said tremulously. "I guess I don't have to explain how it feels to you."
Zhao Yunlan almost laughed at that. Turned out he felt a little guilty about this after all. Rather than touch that last bit, he said, "I need your help, Chen Ji," shifting to sit upright, sideways on the seat, to put some pressure on.
Slightly muffled by the tissue pressed over his face, Chen Ji said, "Of course, anything."
Zhao Yunlan leaned forwards, elbows on his knees. "When did you last see your father? Did he tell you where he'd be today?"
"I know he meant to go shopping since he had the day off. I left to catch the bus to school around 8 AM. He was still eating breakfast."
"Did you see or hear anything unusual this morning? Or last night? Anything at all that stands out."
Chen Ji shook his head. "Sorry, I really didn't. I've been wracking my brain over that myself."
Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes. Those answers came very quick and easy. Of course, Chen Ji knew his father had witnessed the murders the day before, and anyone who had watched a few crime dramas probably would have been thinking along those lines, but planned answers didn't give much to read into. New topic. "Your father seemed spooked last night when he was in police custody. Was he a timid man, Chen Ji?"
"No," Chen Ji said immediately, and then blinked rapidly several times. "No, but he's -- he was a quiet, simple person, he always stayed away from trouble. He was never involved with crime or violence or the police before. The stuff that happened to him yesterday, I'm sure that would have shaken anyone up. And he worried about me. There are things I can't do on my own, so he never liked to come home late."
A lot of excuses from a boy who'd previously been terse. "Xiao Chen," Zhao Yunlan said just shy of sharply, "do you know of any other reason your father might've been afraid?" Chen Ji crossed his arms and sank into his chair, making himself smaller. He was worrying his lip between his teeth. Zhao Yunlan added, "I don't know where his killer is right now. Anything you can tell me might help me stop her before she hurts anyone else."
"He's a good person, okay?" Chen Ji blurted, face ashen. He rolled back from Zhao Yunlan a little. "He wasn't a liar. He just didn't know what to do."
Ah. "Of course. Good people in bad situations don't always make the best choices." He stopped and waited.
Chen Ji closed his eyes for a long moment. When he spoke again, he sounded a lot older. "Last night, he was helping me get ready to sleep like normal, but I could tell he was upset. We talked about what he'd seen, and eventually he told me...he said that early yesterday morning, at work, someone had asked him about his chauffeuring schedule for the day. It was some government person, with a name badge and all, so he just told him." Zhao Yunlan remained still and silent while his pulse doubled. "It didn't seem odd at the time. He thought it was somebody's assistant checking to make sure they had a ride or something, you know? But afterwards he realized that maybe that person wasn't supposed to be there, and the whole thing might have been his fault."
"Did he describe this person at all?" Zhao Yunlan said, pulling his phone out.
"Not really, but like I said, he showed his ID badge." Chen Ji picked up his beer for the first time during the whole conversation and took a swig. "Dad said his name was Fang Guisheng. I made sure to remember it in case it was important."
Zhao Yunlan leaned forward and squeezed Chen Ji's wrist, then pressed a card into his hand. "Thank you," he said fervently. "If you think of anything else I might need to know, you call me, okay?" Chen Ji nodded, wide-eyed. "Good. We'll be in touch."
Zhao Yunlan was dialing the Department of Supervision before he was even out of the apartment. He waved at Chen Ji's grandma briskly as he dashed past her.
Shen Wei didn't know what was going on for quite a while. Zhao Yunlan emerged from the house at a jog, speaking urgently into his phone. When he hung up, he assigned Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng to guard the tenants of the house, and then threw a shouting fit in the driveway, which proved highly effective for getting enough vehicles moved out of the way for them to pull out. As they drove across town -- probably far too quickly, but Zhao Yunlan was a good driver -- he told Shen Wei what he had learned.
There was one Fang Guisheng working at Haixing DS. He had been employed for one year as an archivist with the Office of Records. He hadn't signed out of work yesterday and hadn't arrived today. At present, Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei were on their way to the home address listed in his file. Lin Jing and Da Qing would be following in case backup was needed.
"You think he's from Dixing?" Zhao Yunlan asked when he'd wrapped up his explanations. "He started his job a year ago, which is a hell of a coincidence otherwise."
Zhao Yunlan was referring to the Dixingren who had flooded aboveground before and during the battle, and had to start new lives when it was over. "It does seem likely, unless a Haixing accomplice was the murderer's technique for avoiding the dark energy screening. We'd best assume he's dangerous," Shen Wei said. For a moment, he watched the buildings and pedestrians whip by. The weather was beautiful, very warm for so early in the spring, and there were many people out in the streets, even in the middle of the workday. Such normalcy, people enjoying ordinary moments just beyond the edges of Shen Wei's grim work, had often felt oddly comforting, even as it reminded him he could never quite be a part of it. It had lost the pleasing element now, with Zhao Yunlan mired in his own darkness. At least this new lead was promising. "If Chen Baoming was silenced to protect Fang Guisheng's identity, then I expect he can lead us to the culprit."
"That's a big 'if'," Zhao Yunlan said. "For all we know, she had no idea what he knew or said, and just killed him because he snitched and she was pissed." Shen Wei watched the muscle in Zhao Yunlan's jaw twitch. "She obviously likes breaking people," Zhao Yunlan added through his teeth.
Shen Wei had that sickening sensation of uselessness again. He should have caught Zhao Yunlan's mistake last night and had him call for a protective watch for the witness, but he'd been so focused on getting Zhao Yunlan home. He had sent a message to the Dixing Palace after Zhao Yunlan fell asleep, requesting any information on people with a power to cut through flesh or break bones, but he hadn't received a response yet. Even when he did, it would be incomplete at best, since the Dixing Register was long gone.
He touched Zhao Yunlan's knee tentatively, then curled his fingers around it. Zhao Yunlan flicked a handsome half-smile at him and rested his own hand on top. "We're gonna get her, baby. You're right that we're getting close."
When Zhao Yunlan's hand returned to the steering wheel, leaving Shen Wei's cold, he realized that instead of comforting, he had been comforted. Shame choked him and he pulled his hand back.
Fang Guisheng's apartment was in a dangerous part of town. There were a lot of abandoned buildings nearby, including the factory where Zhu Jiu had hid out for months. Zhao Yunlan winced when he realized where they were. "Should've brought the junker," he muttered, circling the block for somewhere unobtrustive and relatively safe to park.
Shen Wei knew a lot of the city's new Dixing population hid out here. It was easy to rent accomodations with no identification and little money. Some of them had fought for Ye Zun during the war, but many more had left Dixing as refugees, trying to escape the escalating violence. A lot of them didn't even have awakened powers. Shen Wei couldn't do much to help them. They had come here illegally through portals that no longer worked for them. He turned a blind eye as long as they didn't cause trouble for their Haixing neighbors.
Being recognized would be a problem. If the Black-Cloaked Envoy was sighted, the best-case scenario was that word would spread quickly and people would scatter, likely including the suspect. If they were less lucky, somebody might react poorly, and Shen Wei had no desire to waste time making any trips to Dixing today that were not directly related to Zhao Xinci's case. Shen Wei kept his head down as they made their way into the building and climbed the crumbling stairs to Fang Guisheng's third-floor walk-up. Zhao Yunlan, typically the most vibrant presence wherever he went, had the ability to blend into the landscape in a place like this, looking completely at home. The effect seemed to screen Shen Wei as well. Nobody they passed gave them a second glance.
When they reached Fang Guisheng's door, Zhao Yunlan took his hand out of his pocket and knocked casually, like a friend come calling for a visit. He tried twice more, and jiggled the knob, and when there was still no response, he raised his eyebrow at Shen Wei, shrugged, and kicked the door in with a single blow above the lock.
It swung back and thudded hard into the wall, revealing an unoccupied room. Both men stepped inside, splitting up to check opposite sides of the apartment. Shen Wei cleared the tiny kitchen while Zhao Yunlan popped his head into the bathroom and closet, and at a confirming glance from Shen Wei that no one was here, Zhao Yunlan closed the door. The flimsy lock had simply popped free from the latch, so he was able to lock the door again and leave it looking untouched, save perhaps for a dent from the toe of his boot. The drywall had a hole in it from the doorknob, though. "So...wait and see if he comes back?" Zhao Yunlan suggested, looking a bit put-out.
Shen Wei nodded. "Shall we take a look around in the meantime?"
Zhao Yunlan pulled a pair of gloves from his jacket pocket and winked.
Fang Guisheng's apartment had been recently occupied and did not look intentionally abandoned. The closet was full, the refrigerator was stocked, and there was a messy stack of bills and mundane to-do lists on the narrow kitchen counter. The decor in the main room exhibited a curious clash of cultures. The furniture was fairly sparse, consisting of inexpensive things with contemporary styling. There was a desk, a bed, a coffee table with two chairs, and far more lamps than such a small room called for. Shen Wei understood. Light was extravagantly unrestricted in Dragon City. A small sculpture, an urn, and a censer were distinctly Dixing in style, incongruous on their plain white shelf. There were pens and brushes on the desk, and a waist-high stack of books leaning against it that made Shen Wei jerk with surprise. "Chronicle of the First Haixing War," "Dixing Neurology", "A Proposal on the Origin and Nature of Dark Energy," "Astrobiology: An Introductory Text" -- for goodness' sake. An ordinary Dixing citizen would have trouble landing their hands on these without a lot of money, and an entry-level archivist with the Department of Supervision wouldn't be granted access to some of them.
Zhao Yunlan looked up from the stack of papers he was flipping through. "Anything there worth reading?"
"It's an odd collection," Shen Wei said absently. Why these books? Mere intellectual curiosity, or...?
Zhao Yunlan leaned over Shen Wei, who was crouched down to read the titles near the bottom, and gave a low whistle. "Damn, boy. What kind of research is he doing?" He picked up the book on top and riffled through the pages. "So what would you recommend? If we have to wait a while, I'm gonna need something to do."
"The Chronicle is entertaining, especially if you were there," Shen Wei said, then hesitated. Zhao Yunlan waited. "I wrote a chapter in this one," he admitted, pointing at the astrobiology textbook.
Zhao Yunlan punched his shoulder. "Oh, look at you! Poor Professor Shen, so accomplished, stuck with this uncultured, semiliterate husband," he cooed. Shen Wei kept his head down. He could feel the exasperation and fondness all over his face, and the relief at Zhao Yunlan behaving like himself, too.
Once they'd been over the whole apartment and come up with nothing more suspicious than the reading list -- and the lack of personally identifying material -- they settled in to wait. Shen Wei sat in one of the chairs while Zhao Yunlan ran his finger down the spines of the books. He picked out "Astrobiology", carelessly threw himself onto Fang Guisheng's bed, and flipped to the table of contents, then found what he was looking for and thumbed through to what could only have been Shen Wei's chapter on comparative genetics, around 200 pages in.
Shen Wei considered taking a book himself, but instead he wound up watching Zhao Yunlan's face as he read. His deep focus may have surprised someone who hadn't felt the light and heat of Zhao Yunlan's relentless mind. After a time he put a lollipop in his mouth, idly turning it in his cheek as he read with a slightly furrowed brow. Shen Wei couldn't look away, even after Zhao Yunlan gave a loud slurp and a smirk and Shen Wei realized he had noticed his gaze.
Time passed. Zhao Yunlan finished Shen Wei's chapter and the next, then fell into a shallow doze. The light cast across the scratched floor faded from afternoon-bright to soft amber, shadows sliding up the furniture. The air grew a bit too warm, close and stuffy. After a while, Shen Wei closed his eyes and attuned his ears and his second sight to any movement outside, data coming in below the constant, dear, familiar thrum of Zhao Yunlan's living presence. People passed by in the hallway outside every so often. A Haixingren with a plodding gait and rustling grocery bags, tired from a long workday. A couple, laced through with modest currents of dark energy, shushing a pair of arguing children. He spared a half-thought to hope the children's powers lay dormant.
On the cusp of dusk, a Dixing presence approached in the corridor and stopped. Shen Wei's eyes shot open. Zhao Yunlan was already looking at him. He silently slipped off the bed and pulled his phone from his pocket and his gun from under his jacket. Typing one-handed, he disappeared around the edge of the bathroom doorframe. As the doorknob began to rattle, Shen Wei took a position against the wall next to the apartment door. He would have a heartbeat's worth of advantage.
Whoever was outside the door, they didn't have a key. It hardly mattered if it wasn't Fang Guisheng; the intruder was a suspect now, either way. It took many seconds, perhaps half a minute, of struggling, before the person managed to slide something between the doorjamb and the latch and jimmy the lock open that way. Half of Zhao Yunlan's face poked out from the bathroom, his eyebrows raised and eyes glittering: 'My breaking-and-entering method was faster!' Shen Wei repressed an answering smile and jerked his chin for Zhao Yunlan to hide himself properly again.
The door swung open quietly. Shen Wei was ready. He sent a wave of paralyzing energy at the person as they stepped through, but they ducked aside with impressive prescience and the attack dissipated against the wall. Shen Wei had a fraction of a second to recognize the woman with a ponytail and a dark jacket before she'd engaged him.
She was quick and powerful, and he had to move further into the room to prevent the fight from spilling out into the hall. He dodged behind the bed, power brimming in his palms as she cornered him, and they met each other blow-for-blow. Shen Wei drove her back towards the desk. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Zhao Yunlan in the darkened bathroom, mostly hidden but angling himself for a line of sight, his gun raised.
Shen Wei retreated towards the kitchen, trying to draw her out into the room, to open a space between them. If he could summon his dao, or Zhao Yunlan could get a clear shot -- but then she was on him again. She aimed for his head, and he barely managed to seize her wrist as a plume of her dark energy licked his cheek. He used her momentum to spin her sideways. She stumbled -- his arm snapped out to shove her against the wall -- and her other hand flew up and slammed into his back.
There was little pain. He knew enough of her power now to stop it from penetrating to the bone. But the impact's force sent him reeling forward, trying and failing to keep a grip on her, and unable to catch himself. He hit the floor badly, a faceful of hardwood and the sharp edges of his glasses.
The woman whirled away and Zhao Yunlan met her in the middle. Shen Wei rolled to his feet, blinking blood out of his eye. The woman struck open-palmed at Zhao Yunlan, he dodged, his fist smashed into her face, she tripped backwards over the coffee table, sending a lamp toppling to the floor with a crash of shattering ceramic, and seized Zhao Yunlan by the shoulder as if for stability. Shen Wei's yanyuedao was in his hand. Zhao Yunlan's uppercut took her the rest of the way down, her arm yanking as she went.
A wet-ripping crack and Zhao Yunlan's startled shout, and the butt of Shen Wei's weapon impacted the ground, sending a crackling wave of ice up the woman's body, freezing her tight to the table.
Shen Wei barely noticed. He caught Zhao Yunlan as he listed to the side, drawing in a sharp short breath and letting it out as a choked-off cry of pain. "Shit," he wheezed, already gone pallid.
Blood was spilling down the front of Zhao Yunlan's denim jacket, his opposite hand coming up jerkily to hover over the wound, hesitant to touch it. Shen Wei heard himself whispering his name, his heart in his mouth. How could Shen Wei have been so slow and clumsy, how could Zhao Yunlan have been so reckless --
Swallowing down the oppressive tide of nauseous horror, Shen Wei lowered Zhao Yunlan to the floor, cradling him close. He swatted Zhao Yunlan's hand away and raised his own, energy spilling from his fingertips. He closed his eyes.
And saw Zhao Yunlan's collarbone, cleanly snapped an inch or so from where it met the shoulder joint. There was quite a bit of torn flesh, a five-fingered breach through the trapezius muscle above and behind, but this -- he could repair this. Zhao Yunlan would be alright.
At that realization, he nearly lost his grip on his dark energy. It had a disconcerting slippery quality to it. Shen Wei got his hand around it before it could go anywhere, mastered it and pushed it into Zhao Yunlan's clavicle, snapping it back into place. Zhao Yunlan's gasp of pain washed over him. He mended the bone, then began sealing the muscle around it back together like wet clay, power stroking it and coaxing it into place.
Dimly, he felt himself going lightheaded, but he didn't realize something was wrong until he began to hear Zhao Yunlan's voice through the buzzing in his ears: " -- enough, stop it, Xiao Wei!" Zhao Yunlan's hand was weakly pounding against his chest. He opened his eyes, energy fizzling, and the ensuing wave of dizziness was so strong he had to put a hand out to avoid tipping over, coughing on the blood that had flooded his mouth. He wiped his chin.
They spent several moments like that, on the floor, clutching each other, their fast, ragged breaths slowing. Zhao Yunlan was still bleeding. With his hand hidden behind Zhao Yunlan's back, Shen Wei tried to call forth just a little more healing energy, but the moment he did, he felt sickly faint again. He stopped pushing and pressed his cheek to Zhao Yunlan's hair, throat tight with failure.
Clumsily, they pulled themselves and each other to their feet, Zhao Yunlan keeping his bad arm close to his chest. The coffee table had skidded into the desk amidst a mess of lamp shards, and the Dixing woman was slumped backwards over it. Shen Wei's ice was gone, but she was very much unconscious, blood running across her cheek from her nose and mouth. "You knocked her out," Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan had a hand on his chin, turning his head. "Your face is cut up," he murmured, pulling Shen Wei's glasses off carefully. His eyes were intense with concern, as though the cut next to Shen Wei's eye from the nosepad of his glasses was comparable to Zhao Yunlan nearly having his arm torn off, to the vicious claw-wound still half-open, and Shen Wei's ears were still full of the sound of this brave madman's bone snapping. He wrapped a hand around the back of Zhao Yunlan's neck and kissed him fiercely. There was a clatter as Shen Wei's glasses hit the floor. Zhao Yunlan's good arm snuck out from between them and up Shen Wei's back, finding the tear in his clothing and the shallow, wide scrape on his skin, pressing a shaky hand into the abrasion till it hurt as he nipped at Shen Wei's lips.
The apartment door slammed into the wall. "Lao Zhao! Oh god." Shen Wei jerked back from the kiss, then steadied Zhao Yunlan when the jolt caused him to falter forward. Da Qing had clapped his hand over his own mouth in some combination of embarrassment and horror.
Lin Jing came up behind him, armed with a jet injector. "Are we too late?"
Dixingren: *throwing down with superpowers that can kill you with a single touch*
Zhao Yunlan: HERE COME MY FISTS
And that's why I love him.
Chapter 4: Don't Slip
A ratbones breaks the surface of the Lake of Editing, panting around the chapter clamped between its teeth, the wild glint of a successful hunt in its eyes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Lord Envoy, Lord Guardian. Kind of you to pay me a visit."
The suspect had a fat lip and was holding an ice pack to her swollen face, but she still managed to look smug in the hot seat. She was a bit younger by appearance than Zhao Yunlan had thought from the security footage. Maybe late twenties, although it was hard to be sure with Dixingren. While Zhao Yunlan was at the hospital getting about a hundred stitches in his shoulder, Zhu Hong had gotten a head start on the interrogation, but even under snake hypnotism the only thing she'd gotten out of her was a name: Xia Yang. Shen Wei had received a list of suspects via a message from the Regent during all the commotion, and they'd been able to match her to a description and confirm her identity. She was previously a member of the Dixing guard, which explained the combat training, but that's about all they could say for sure.
"We wouldn't've been so late except I did need urgent medical attention. Not to worry, no permanent damage," Zhao Yunlan told her, taking a seat.
Truth be told, his entire upper body ached fiercely, the arm in its sling was vaguely numb, and individual stitches tugged and stung if he moved just slightly wrong. Aside from feeling like he'd been run over, he was also unable to get the image of Xia Yang's hand, billowing energy, making contact with Shen Wei inches from his spine. By this point in the night, Zhao Yunlan was nursing a bitch of a bad mood.
Shen Wei stood at his shoulder, wearing a bloodied sweater vest, projecting the Envoy's authority in the set of his shoulders and the ice in his eyes. He had a little bit of a shiner from where his glasses jabbed him in the eye, and he'd been dangerously quiet ever since Zhao Yunlan had bled all over them both. Zhao Yunlan knew they were the precise same shade of angry. It felt good. It was the first untainted good feeling he'd had since this case began.
"Xia Yang, I'll level with you. We know about the four people you killed in the last two days. There's no question it was you. The Black-Cloaked Envoy will be taking you to Dixing to be punished for those crimes." Zhao Yunlan flicked a glance up and back at Shen Wei. "But he's been known to show leniency when people cooperate. You see what I'm saying?"
Xia Yang uncrossed her legs and leaned up on the table. "Fire away," she said.
Zhao Yunlan laughed. This was going to be difficult. "How do you know Fang Guisheng?"
"I don't know anybody by that name," Xia Yang told him.
"You don't know the person whose apartment we caught you in?"
"I broke in. Didn't you notice that? I thought you were a detective." Her eyebrows tilted almost pityingly, but for the smirk. "Surely it's not rare for burglars not to know their victims personally?"
Zhao Yunlan tilted his head back in supplication. No wonder Zhu Hong had been grumpy when they got back. "Okay. I don't believe you, but if you'd prefer another question, we can try that. You weren't alone yesterday morning when you killed those three suits. Who was with you?"
"You're wrong again, I was alone." Zhao Yunlan gave her a flat look. Xia Yang sighed like Zhao Yunlan was the one being difficult, and ran her hand through her hair. "I'm telling the truth. It was the middle of the day in a public place. If I had an accomplice, somebody would have seen them. Did anyone see anyone else?" Well, Chen Baoming had claimed to, but Zhao Yunlan had never put much weight in that part of his statement, and he wouldn't say it to her if he wasn't certain. It would get ten times harder to read anything useful from her if she started running with a piece of information he didn't know whether to trust.
Xia Yang took his stony silence for a victory. "See? No accomplice. Why are you making me do your job for you?"
In a moment of weakness, Zhao Yunlan indulged a fantasy of pounding her face the rest of the way in. He felt like shit, he was supposed to be at a funeral in less than twelve hours, and she was needlessly prolonging this. He desperately wanted to just ship her off to rot under the Palace so he could go home and take a bath with Shen Wei and forget this entire debacle. Except he couldn't even take a bath, could he, because of the damn stitches. His rising temper must have shown, because Shen Wei's hand settled onto his good shoulder. He breathed into the touch and refocused. Xia Yang's eyes were alight with laughter at his lapse.
"So you admit to the murders, then," Zhao Yunlan said, sounding just about calm. Xia Yang shrugged. "Why? How did they get on your bad side?"
Xia Yang laughed aloud at that. "Don't you know? I think you do, Zhao Yunlan. How many Dixingren has Zhao Xinci killed? How many of them might have been innocent?" Her smile was relaxed, no trace of a sneer, no anger. "If anything, he deserved worse. As for the others, it's a shame, but guilt by association was always your policy towards us in this town, so I think you must agree it was justified."
Zhao Yunlan stood up, watching her through narrowed eyes. She returned the gaze, face serene under the swelling. He headed for the door, and after a moment, during which he felt some warning or promise passed silently between Xia Yang and Shen Wei, Shen Wei came behind him.
As soon as the soundproof door was shut, the thoughts burst out of Zhao Yunlan. "She's lying, she's lying about everything. All of it."
"Of course she's lying," Da Qing said. He'd been watching the interrogation from the sofa. "She's protecting Fang Guisheng, he's obviously the accomplice."
"No," Zhao Yunlan said abruptly, "about EVERYTHING. That's not her motive. It wasn't about revenge."
Shen Wei's eyebrows drew together. "You're certain." It wasn't a question, just a surprised remark. "Then what is it about?"
Zhao Yunlan dug in his pockets for a lollipop. He sorta wanted a cigarette. Hadn't felt that for a while. "It's not about Dad's past. There's not gonna be anything in the old case files." Maybe she meant the revenge stuff as a real justification. But she'd poked her fingers into those wounds too surely, and she didn't take any real satisfaction in it, and as Zhao Yunlan finally got that sweet artifical strawberry flavoring between his lips, something clicked. "Fu-- Dad wasn't the target!"
Da Qing and Shen Wei were both giving him bewildered looks. He shoved open the observation room door and stalked out into the main hall, the other two towed along in his wake as he tried to explain. "She made the connection between him and me and she thought it would distract me, that I'd fixate on him and miss it."
"Miss what?" Da Qing said blankly.
"I don't know yet, okay, but we've been looking in the wrong place. This isn't about Zhao Xinci." He dropped the hardcopy case file on the main table and started pulling out evidence one-handed, fanning victim profiles and bad eyewitness sketches and obscenely graphic crime scene photos across the surface.
Zhu Hong, reclining in her chair, opened one eye and asked, "Who else could it be about? You think one of those other two was worth this kind of trouble?"
"I won't discount it, but I don't think any of them were the target." The words were out before Zhao Yunlan had realized what they meant. "Oh! Ohh -- she fucked up." Zhao Yunlan fell into the couch and winced at the jolt to his collarbone. He clicked his lollipop across the backs of his teeth and tried to slow down. Xia Yang targeted the car at a specific time and place. Fang Guisheng asked Chen Baoming about his chauffeuring schedule. So was someone else supposed to be in the car? He shuffled through the documents on the table but the text was swimming in front of his eyes.
Shen Wei grabbed his wrist to stop him pushing paper around. "What are you looking for?" He sounded slightly irritated at the mess Zhao Yunlan had made.
"Chen Baoming's schedule for yesterday?" Shen Wei started looking, sorting things as he went. "Thank you, my dove," Zhao Yunlan said sweetly; tensions were high enough without him pissing off Shen Wei as well.
Zhu Hong tapped her phone against Zhao Yunlan's shoulder from behind the couch. "I've got it."
9:45 AM, He Chao, Sun Shufen, Zhao Xinci. Only those three. Zhao Yunlan shoved the phone away. "We're so close," he moaned, pinching his eyes closed. He could feel the edge of epiphany wriggling away into the brain fog.
"Maybe you're close, we're confused," Da Qing said, climbing onto the couch next to him. "Do you want to try once more, coherently?"
"He's tired and injured," Shen Wei interjected tautly, placing organized stacks of paper back into the file folder.
"Gentlemen, please," Zhao Yunlan said, pressing the heel of his hand into his forehead.
During the ensuing silence, the door buzzer sounded. Wang Zheng appeared from nowhere to answer it. She came back into the room a moment later with an apologetic expression and a cop at her heels. Zhao Yunlan was pretty sure that uniform meant the guy was high up on the food chain. "Chief Zhao, good evening. I'm Sergeant Jiang with International Crimes. I've been sent to collect your suspect and bring her to Haixing Department of Supervision for questioning."
Zhao Yunlan rolled his head to the side where he was melting into the couch and gave Sergeant Jiang a baleful look. "She's not under your jurisdiction."
"Because she's a foreign national who assassinated members of the government, we have an obligation to interview her," the officer insisted with importunate politeness.
"That's nice," Zhao Yunlan said. "But no. We're not done with her, and you don't have the authority to order me. You want me to give you custody, you can come back with binding orders from Xingdu Bureau."
"I have orders, sir." The officer held up a document with an official-looking seal. Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes. He flailed his hand behind the couch until he managed to smack Zhu Hong in the arm and point his thumb at Sergeant Jiang. She gave a loud sigh to let him know how she felt about that, but fetched the document anyway.
Zhao Yunlan looked it over, then showed it to Shen Wei and Da Qing with a raised eyebrow. It was signed off by Minister Guo. Zhao Yunlan was going to have choice words for him later. For now, Shen Wei nodded his reluctant assent, and Zhao Yunlan knew they were stuck. "Fine. You two," he said, gesturing to Zhu Hong and Da Qing, who were the only ones left because Lin Jing had vanished into the lab, "go put her in a pair of our cuffs so she can't disassemble this guy. Cuff her in front, she's gonna be stuck like that for a long time. And you, Jiang-ge." Zhao Yunlan stood up and slouched into his personal space, giving him a good eyeful of the bloody mess of his ruined jacket. "You're walking a tightrope, bro. You screw up and she'll kill you and all your officers before you can even think about drawing a gun. But if she comes back to us with one more bruise than she's already got, you've got a diplomatic nightmare on your hands." He poked him in the chest. "Don't slip."
"Understood, sir," Sergeant Jiang said seriously.
Xia Yang was silent and appeared emotionless as Da Qing and Zhu Hong brought her out and handed her over. Sergeant Jiang took hold of her arm without flinching and led her out the door, where two more officers helped him load her into the back of a police cruiser. It was nearly two o'clock in the morning and Zhao Yunlan had been running on fumes and spite; with the murderer out of their hands and no further leads on their second suspect, it was honestly a relief to let everyone go home to rest.
Funerals for public officials were long, boring, and impersonal. Zhao Yunlan had attended one or two before, and made excuses to skip others. He really did have to go to his own father's, though. Even if scheduling it this soon, with the investigation still open, was pretty goddamn inconsiderate.
He'd suggested not attending aloud earlier, while Shen Wei was buttoning himself into his almost inappropriately well-fitting funeral suit. Shen Wei had turned from the closet and given him a look of concern so intense that he'd played it off as a joke. He'd already declined to speak, on the completely legitimate grounds that he was too busy with the case yesterday to prepare remarks; with the murderer in custody but not available to him for questioning, he had no excuse not to show up at all. People were going to be looking at him. People would notice. Important people, from Xingdu Bureau, some of whom held sway over the peace process with Dixing, or the SID's budget. And, although he told himself it didn't matter anymore, it felt like not attending would reaffirm all the worst things his father believed about him.
He didn't even own a suit, so it wasn't an intentional fuck-you-Dad when he walked in in his nicest leather jacket and slightly ratty jeans, with an immaculately turned-out Black-Cloaked Envoy under his arm. The funeral was being held in an assembly hall where a lot of similar official city events took place. It was decorated with a profusion of banners and overflowing arrangements of white flowers. The place seated a couple hundred, and it was filling up fast. At the front of the room, the casket was open as planned, Zhao Xinci's corpse reassembled and stuffed into a suit. A good funeral director could make nearly any death look peaceful with a little movie magic.
Zhao Yunlan made his way up there with Shen Wei, not looking too hard at the body -- the image of Zhao Xinci as he'd actually looked when he died was still right there at the front of his brain and he didn't care to encourage it. He fell into a patter of somewhat subdued schmoozing with the guests who approached him, shaking hands and accepting condolences with the right kind of smile. It was such a habitual thing that he expected it to be nice and mind-numbing, but it quickly started to grate. Some of the guests were a little too pitying, and others didn't appear to know he was Zhao Xinci's son at all. He started noticing a thread of anti-Dixing bigotry running under half the comments about how horrible it all was; he couldn't tell if he was being overly sensitive and imagining it, and he couldn't tell if it was bothering Shen Wei, either, because Shen Wei was being way too polite. On top of that, people kept making it awkward by mentioning things Dad had been doing that Zhao Yunlan had no idea about. He'd organized a big fundraiser to repair damage after the battle last year. He'd held court at a certain restaurant every Saturday afternoon. He'd played xiangqi regularly with the city's public health minister, a man Zhao Yunlan had met exactly once before. It wasn't a surprise that Dad's coworkers knew him so much better than Zhao Yunlan did, and he should've been inured to it by now, but, god, it still stung. He hated himself a little for caring. It was almost a relief when the music started and they took their seats.
After a few minutes of boring eulogy, however, Zhao Yunlan started to ache. Overnight, while Zhao Yunlan was asleep, Shen Wei had predictably mustered up a second round of healing energy and fixed the worst of the remaining damage to Zhao Yunlan's left shoulder, but it was still sore, scabby, and stiff. The discomfort was a perpetual reminder that there was something going on with Shen Wei's energy that they hadn't talked about. Plus the stitches were maddeningly itchy, and the chairs in this place kind of sucked, so Zhao Yunlan's back was starting to hurt.
The excessively detailed eulogy concluded and the officiant turned over the microphone to Ex-Minister Gao, who proceeded to go on about his time serving as Zhao Xinci's partner when they were both greenhorn cops. To Zhao Yunlan's right, a very dapper Da Qing, who had arrived at the last minute, appeared to be nodding off, and to his left, Shen Wei was listening intently with a slightly pained edge to his expression and a still-bruised eye. The three of them were the entire family section. The rest of the SID had been invited, but Zhao Yunlan had ordered them to keep working on the case instead.
Right, the case. He still hadn't gotten the full picture, and whenever he thought about it, the sense of having nearly worked something out became an annoying itch of its own. He was convinced that Zhao Xinci hadn't been the intended target of the attack. He'd reread the files on the other victims, but there really was nothing there. Xia Yang obviously thought she was smarter than them, so was it really too much to ask for her to get the right assassination target? It was perverse irony for Zhao Xinci to die at the hands of a Dixing criminal by mistake. It could almost be funny.
He realized he had a white-knuckled grip on the funeral program in his hands. He dropped it deliberately and flexed his cramped fingers.
"...Shen Xi, his beloved wife," Ex-Minister Gao was saying. Zhao Yunlan's head snapped up. What? Oh. Oh, no. "Even so, he stayed strong and continued to serve the community, but I know how dearly he loved her, and how much he missed her for the rest of his life." He didn't know shit. Zhao Yunlan took a slow breath. Even this guy couldn't be tactless enough to stay on this topic for long. "As a police officer, you expect to put yourself in danger in the line of duty, but to lose a family member because of it is just unthinkable." Unthinkable, his ass. "But, as you all now know, our work at that time put us in unprecedented danger: we were working on the front lines against the Dixing menace." Zhao Yunlan froze mid-fidget, the derisive commentary in his head dying. "And it was a struggle for Zhao Xinci, raising his willful little boy on his own -- " The fucking idiot was beaming at him. "But he never faltered, and now Xiao Zhao is the one guarding our people from Dixing!"
Zhao Yunlan shot out of his chair so violently it slid back with a screech and immediately every eye in the place was on him. There was an awkward smattering of applause like people thought he was about to get up and speak or something. He glanced around, meeting eyes, his jaw tight, letting everyone get their bewildered gawking out of the way, before shoving his way between the chairs, stalking down the center aisle, and plowing through the double doors at the back of the silent room. He heard Gao say his name in a questioning tone from the podium right before they swung shut.
He found himself walking into the reception hall, just up the corridor, pacing past the piano and the banquet tables and the long table set up just to hold the dozens of ridiculously expensive flower arrangements and white envelopes and gifts people had sent. He was vibrating with energy, with a toxic, vicious anger that came from way down deep. To make out his mother's death like some kind of noble sacrifice -- to portray his dad as a hero -- and, just, Dixing menace? You had to be fucking joking. And then to talk like Zhao Yunlan, sitting right there in the front row between the two non-Haixing men he lived with -- like he was following in his father's footsteps, like he'd be honored to hear it. Dad might've been an asshole, but even he wouldn't have made that mistake. Is that what people saw?
He paced up and down twice more, the hot black tar of it bubbling up in him, less emotional than physical, pushing a burst of hysterical laughter out of him, and then he seized one of the stupid giant flower arrangements, a bevy of white lillies in a gaudy crystal vase, and hurled it full-force overhand at the wall. It exploded against the ugly beige wallpaper with a loud crunch, spraying flowers and water and a million glittering sharp shards all over the tile.
The abrupt movement jarred Zhao Yunlan's shoulder and he hissed, shaking out the stabbing pain and the tingles that spread to his fingertips, and, yes, he was a grown man and he was conscious of the fact this wasn't constructive, but damn was it ever satisfying. He grabbed the next vase and wound up to throw it like a baseball.
A hand closed around his forearm, both gentle and inescapable. He startled. He hadn't heard Shen Wei come through the door. Maybe Shen Wei hadn't used the door. "Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei started, but he didn't say anything else, just looked at Zhao Yunlan's hand.
Zhao Yunlan jerked his wrist and Shen Wei voluntarily let him go. He watched stone-faced as Zhao Yunlan set the flowers back on the table with theatrical exactitude and held his hands up to demonstrate no further ill will towards the decor. "Okay, I'm done smashing shit, happy?"
Shen Wei's mouth twitched. There was a lot going on there: worry, frustration, pity, reproach? "Yunlan," he said softly, "what do you need?"
Laughing again, the sound brittle even to his own ears, Zhao Yunlan turned, trying to get away from Shen Wei's grave stare. He had the distinct impression that Shen Wei thought Zhao Yunlan needed to be talked down from something, and it rankled. "A pack of cigarettes and a fifth of vodka would be nice," he gritted out.
Shen Wei said, "Yunlan," and that time it was definitely reproachful.
"Would you cut that out?!" Zhao Yunlan snapped, whirling around. "I'm fine! I don't need puffed-up old statesmen treating me like a child when I've still got a missing suspect, okay, so don't you even start! I don't need anything from you!"
Shock widened Shen Wei's eyes. He looked thrown, confused, and then hurt, and for the span of several seconds Zhao Yunlan was viciously pleased to have bitten and drawn blood. Shen Wei swallowed twice, blinking rapidly, lowered his head, and said, "Of course. I apologize." He took a large step back, turned, and walked calmly towards the door.
Zhao Yunlan had wanted an argument, a shouting match to take the edge off. He wanted -- well, he wanted to shout at his father. This, Shen Wei taking him in earnest and leaving him -- no. Zhao Yunlan dashed after him and grabbed his shoulder; Shen Wei stopped, but stiffly, like he was still about to bolt. "Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said falteringly, "Shen Wei, it's not you. It's not you, baby, I know you're trying to help, I'm just. I can't." He didn't know what the end of that sentence was supposed to be. He scrubbed his free hand down his face, and the motion tugged at his stitches again. That, of all things, is what finally made his eyes blur with tears. "Fucking hell," he choked, sniffling and rubbing his eyes, but it was futile. The crying was going to happen no matter how he felt about it.
He gave up and pulled Shen Wei backwards into his arms, burying his face against the crook of his neck as his breathing went shaky. Shen Wei made a brief attempt to turn around, but Zhao Yunlan didn't want to be held. It was the full-body awareness that Shen Wei was here and safe that he was after. He tightened his hold and Shen Wei didn't fight him, just rested his hands over Zhao Yunlan's on his waist and let him get tears and snot all over his nice tailored jacket and starched collar.
It was not dignified crying. He wasn't sobbing out loud only because he didn't have the breath for it. It hurt his chest and his head and it was no kind of catharsis at all, just an overflow of stress and exhaustion. He wasn't even thinking about his father, really. It wasn't how he'd cried for his mom as a boy, and it was nothing like how he'd screamed for Shen Wei a year ago, but it punched the fight out of him just the same. It left him physically drained, emotionally hollowed-out, and probably looking all kinds of swollen and blotchy.
When his breath evened out, he let Shen Wei turn. The despairing tenderness in Shen Wei's big dark eyes would have set him off again if he hadn't cried himself out so thoroughly. Shen Wei pulled out a handkerchief. Zhao Yunlan huffed, took it, and made an attempt to clean himself up. "We can leave," Shen Wei offered quietly.
"No," Zhao Yunlan said. Yep, his voice was wrecked. Great. "No, I have to at least join the procession. They can think whatever they want, they always do. Besides." He stepped back and waved a hand at the banquet tables, turning a congested sniff into a wheeze of laughter. "If we go now, we won't get any cake!"
The lab in the basement of the Haixing Department of Supervision was bustling with activity when someone finally noticed Zhao Yunlan waving plaintively at the security camera and buzzed him in. The facility was working on a bunch of projects that at some point he'd make an effort to understand, and they'd brought in a troop of new postdocs who all seemed to currently be busy with...science stuff. The one who had let him in scuttled off, calling, "Director Li!"
Li Qian hurried over to him. "Chief Zhao, it's good to see you. Sorry I missed the funeral, there's a lot going on today."
"Don't worry about it, it sucked," he said, sticking his thumbs in his pockets.
His frankness surprised a laugh out of her. "Oh. That's too bad. You must be busy, too," she commented, glancing behind him at the space where Shen Wei wasn't. "Are you here for him?" She pointed over her shoulder towards the back of the lab.
"Yeah, just for a quick chat, if you could let me in," he said. He followed her between pieces of equipment, around a rack of servers, under a half-raised security grille, and down a narrow corridor lined with corrugated steel; he'd been back here a dozen times and still found it creepy. They turned right at the end of the hall and she held up her ID badge on its lanyard to the sensor at the door. It beeped, and she stepped back politely.
Zhao Yunlan reached for the door handle and paused. "Has someone told him? About my father?"
Li Qian bit her lip. "Yes, he knows. He can read the news, too, you know."
"Oh. Right." Zhao Yunlan glanced at her. He wasn't quite sure how to thank her for any of this, so he just shot her a smile, steeled himself, and stepped inside.
The room might have looked like a secure bunker or a cell from the outside, but, apart from the lack of windows, the inside did a good job of mimicking a classy apartment, with wall-to-wall carpet, art on the walls, two packed bookshelves, and a kitchenette. Zhang Shi was at the desk, watching some kind of realtime data readout on his laptop, which was hooked up to a cuff attached to his arm. He looked up at the sound of footsteps. "Oh, Yunlan. I've been expecting you."
It was still disconcerting. On some level Zhang Shi-as-Ye Zun didn't even look like Ye Zun; he looked quite a bit more like Shen Wei than Ye Zun had. His expressions were gentle, his posture upright but relaxed. The sweater and slacks he wore obviously hearkened back to a couple decades of shared habits with Zhao Xinci. Over the millennia, Zhang Shi had seemingly settled on a sort of code of ethics for body-sharing, and changing clothes without permission was okay, but dramatic haircuts were not. As a result, he wore Ye Zun's long silver hair up in a bun. That was so starkly not Shen Wei that it provided some relief.
The thing was, you couldn't really get around the weirdness of your parent figure occupying the body of your boyfriend's identical twin. It was nobody's fault. It was just gonna be weird. Zhao Yunlan cringed internally at some of Zhang Shi's mannerisms and speech patterns, but he didn't blame Zhang Shi, and he didn't begrudge himself the lingering discomfort, either. It was what it was.
Zhao Yunlan pulled up a chair. "I've been busy with the case. Sorry I couldn't get you out of here for the funeral." That really did feel unfair. As far as he knew, nobody had been closer to Dad than Zhang Shi. It's why he'd made time to come at all today.
"There was nothing to be done about it," Zhang Shi said with a faint smile. "Have you just come from there?"
"Not 'just', I ran to the office first. You didn't miss much. It was very speech-y." He'd numbly gone through the motions for the rest of the ceremony, serving as a pallbearer along with Da Qing, standing stiff and solemn through the burial, burning joss paper at the fresh grave, so empty of emotion that he'd probably look like a good dutiful son in the photos. He stuck around for enough of the reception lunch afterwards to not look like he was in a rush to leave. Shen Wei and Da Qing did an embarrassingly thorough job of diverting anyone who tried too hard to talk to him. It had all taken way too long. "There's just the will left now. He updated that a few months ago. Left his condo and most of his money and stuff to me, by which he meant you."
Zhang Shi leaned back in his chair, crossing Ye Zun's slim legs. "I'm sure he meant exactly what he said. You returned, so it's yours."
"I don't want it," Zhao Yunlan said. He heard the words come out much more vehemently than he'd expected and averted his gaze. He shouldn't have brought this up.
If Zhang Shi was waiting for him to say more, it wasn't going to work. After a moment, there was a sigh and the click of the laptop lid closing. "Tell me, Yunlan, how are you holding up?"
The parent-voice made Zhao Yunlan wince. Not even because it was Ye Zun's voice; he just hadn't gotten past the fact that Zhang Shi was completely comfortable considering himself a second father to him. As though one father hadn't been enough. "I'm fine," he said tartly. "I have people. I'm being looked after."
"To put you in charge of the investigation, though," Zhang Shi started.
Zhao Yunlan wasn't going down that road again. "How about you?" he interrupted. "You were closer to him than I was."
Zhang Shi tilted his head -- yikes, that was all Ye Zun -- and looked as near to surprised as he ever looked, which wasn't very. "Ah...I'm used to loss. I've been around for a long time."
That sounded like the same breed of bullshit Shen Wei liked to use to deflect, but Zhao Yunlan didn't have it in him to dig past it with this guy. "Did you hear we caught the murderer? Haven't closed the case yet, but we're halfway there."
The change of topic was successful. Zhang Shi was deeply interested in the police work, asking all the right questions, and before he knew it Zhao Yunlan was telling him the whole thing in chronological order. If he didn't overthink it or look too closely at Ye Zun's face, he almost enjoyed talking shop with him; it was a relief after all the other crap. His phone went off with a text when he stopped for breath after relaying the fight with Xia Yang, and when he saw the time, he cursed and stood up. "I have to go, it's getting late. I have to harass someone about getting my detainee back before I can go back to the office, too."
Zhang Shi caught his wrist with soft, white, vicelike fingers. "Don't work yourself too hard, Yunlan, will you? Let Black Cloak and the others help. You're only one man."
Zhao Yunlan sniffed dryly. Zhang Shi would know something about that -- but Zhao Yunlan wasn't like Zhao Xinci, and he didn't need to be reminded he had a family. "Sure, okay. Listen," he said, freeing his arm, "when this gets wrapped up, I'm gonna see if we can negotiate some more freedom for you. I know Li Qian won't let anyone mistreat you, but we can't just lock you in a box and leave you indefinitely if Ye Zun isn't coming back. You haven't done anything wrong."
"Well, I'd appreciate that, but don't make too much fuss over it. Haixing has good reason to want Ye Zun in a box, and I've lived many lives stranger and less enjoyable than this one." He gestured at his laptop and smartphone on the desk. "I have the entire internet in here, anyway."
Zhao Yunlan stared at him for a second. Stranger lives, eh? He really knew almost nothing about Zhang Shi, which was a strange imbalance. Zhang Shi knew about the first time Zhao Yunlan ran away from home at age twelve, and about the teenage binge drinking that had gotten him into all kinds of trouble and landed him in the hospital. He must've noticed firsthand the bruises Zhao Yunlan had had on his thighs when he died, the scratches down his back and across his hips. He'd even worn Shen Wei's pendant for the whole year like he knew what it was. For his part, Zhao Yunlan didn't even know if Zhang Shi was originally a man or a woman, or named Zhang Shi. Add that to the list of unsettling things that weren't anyone's fault. "Yeah," he said vaguely, and then laughed. "I'll still make a fuss over it when I can, you know me. See you soon."
The door slammed shut behind him even though he tried to close it gently, and some mechanism inside it whirred, activating the specialized shielding designed to keep Ye Zun in. Nobody knew if it would actually hold Ye Zun if he was determined to get out, but the best minds in the business had designed it, and were still improving it. Zhang Shi was as unfazed by being a research subject as he was by everything else. If anything, judging by what he was working on when Zhao Yunlan walked in, he was helping them out by making a study of Ye Zun's body himself.
All of that was a concern for another day, and Zhao Yunlan put it out of his head as he rode the elevator up to the top of the building. He needed Xia Yang back. She was a pain in the ass, but if she could be relied upon to lie, he was confident he could use her to find Fang Guisheng and any other members of her conspiracy.
He was counting on the timing to get him into the minister's office quickly. Guo Ying hadn't had a chance to speak to him at the funeral, but he had attended and had even given a speech, which Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei had missed while cleaning up glass shards and making themselves look approximately presentable. Minister Guo was probably already feeling a bit rude at failing to deliver condolences in person. With Zhao Yunlan loitering on his proverbial doorstep, he'd be forced by politeness to drop whatever he was doing and give him an audience.
It worked. He didn't have to wait more than three minutes before the assistant who'd greeted him popped back out of the office to ask Zhao Yunlan in.
Of course, Minister Guo felt the need to shake his hand warmly and say, "Chief Zhao, I'm sorry I missed you earlier today. It was a beautiful ceremony."
Zhao Yunlan clapped him on the shoulder. Beautiful, right. "Already forgotten, man. This isn't a social call, I won't take too much of your time, just as long as you can do me a little favor."
Guo Ying leaned back against his desk. "What do you need?"
"Get my suspect released. Without interrogating her, our investigation's stalled out." He wet his lips and narrowed his eyes. "Also, technically, your people are in violation of the treaty, you've got no right to hold Dixingren and you've had her for almost a whole day. Can't imagine she's been very helpful." Silence. Guo Ying was frowning at him in a way that was starting to become worrisome. "What? If you'd rather give her to the Envoy for paperwork reasons, I can have him here in about two minutes flat."
"What suspect?" Guo Ying said slowly.
Zhao Yunlan jerked back in disbelief. "Xia Yang? The murderer in my dad's case? Who the hell else would I be talking about? You signed the paperwork yourself."
Guo Ying dropped into his chair and made a quick survey of the folders on his desk, then clicked around on his computer for a while. Zhao Yunlan leaned both hands on the side of his desk and watched with a mildly threatening smile. After a couple of minutes Guo Ying looked up, frown set in deeper still. Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes. "What?" he demanded peevishly.
"The Department of Supervision didn't take custody of anyone from you yesterday, Chief Zhao."
oof. Thanks for sticking that out. Next one will be less...miserable.
Chapter 5: No, Seriously, Trust the Tape
I updated the chapter count! After this one, there are going to be two more proper chapters to close out the plot. Chapter 8 will be a shorter epilogue. Now then --
In the burned-out husk of the house where you grew up, you stand with hot sun on your shoulders. You think you hear a voice like dry reeds behind you, but there's nothing there. When you finally walk away, you realize you're clutching a fresh chapter in your hands.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
From inside 4 Bright Avenue, the sound of Zhao Yunlan's motorcycle tearing into the garage was loud, sudden, and unmistakable. Shen Wei stood up from his chair, putting down the case file. Something had Zhao Yunlan in a hurry. The roar of the engine revving down was quickly followed by the man himself ramming through the door and all eyes in the room turning to him. "We lost Xia Yang, we let her go!" Zhao Yunlan growled in lieu of a greeting. "Wang Zheng, who was that cop last night?"
Wang Zheng stared at him wide-eyed. "Ah, um, Sergeant Jiang Xue? From the International Crimes Department?"
"What do you mean, we let her go?" Da Qing asked, scampering up to his owner. "Did she get away from the cops?"
"There's no Sergeant Jiang. I don't know who the hell that was, but we let him walk out with our murderer!" Zhao Yunlan stormed through the room towards the lab, everyone else dropping what they were doing to trail after him. "Lin Jing!"
"B-boss?" Lin Jing said from behind his computer, the fear of a paycut written across his face.
"Bring up our security feeds from last night, when we sent Xia Yang with that guy." Zhao Yunlan sat himself on the edge of the desk and raked his hands through his hair. "Ugh, we're so fucked. I don't know which is worse, if this is some giant conspiracy or if some dude in a cheap cop costume punked us."
Shen Wei finally made his way to him. "You have confirmation that Xia Yang isn't in custody?"
"Minister Guo had no idea what I was talking about, and neither did the International Crimes director. It was humiliating." He looked wan and tired now that he'd stopped yelling. Shen Wei stepped closer, and Zhao Yunlan took the prerogative to lean into him and prop his chin on his shoulder, hooking restless fingers under his sleeve garter like a handhold. Recalling his earlier refusal to let Shen Wei touch him in return, Shen Wei kept his hands to himself.
That had been nearly unbearable: Zhao Yunlan crying so brokenly, Shen Wei utterly powerless to fix what was wrong, unable to do anything but stand there and feel him fall apart. And afterwards, he hadn't wanted Shen Wei's company at all. He'd gone back to acting cold, with an edge of anger, and left the office alone.
Shen Wei yearned to provide whatever support he would be permitted to give. This physical contact, evidence that there was at least something Zhao Yunlan wanted that he could give, did lend some relief from the worry that was starting to chafe, although the heaviness of his body against him brought new worries. At this rate, Zhao Yunlan would fall ill from the physical and emotional strain.
The quiet moment didn't last long. Lin Jing said, "I've got the video," and there was a shoving match to get close to the monitor, although the best view was left clear for Zhao Yunlan.
There were four different camera angles, one from outside the front door and the other three from inside the office. A man appeared on the first and rang to be let in, and everyone who had been present last night reacted, recoiling and gasping. Da Qing let out a succinct, "What the hell?"
The man in the video did not look like the police sergeant Shen Wei remembered. He was younger, taller, a completely different man. He wasn't even dressed in a uniform.
They all watched in tense silence as Wang Zheng opened the door for the stranger. The alarms in the office started blaring, indicating that the intruder wasn't human, but nobody onscreen reacted to it. None of them had been able to see or hear it at the time. Otherwise, the conversation took place much as Shen Wei remembered it: Zhao Yunlan argued with the man, received a document, and then gave him a stern warning as Xia Yang was brought out. Escorted by a visibly annoyed Zhao Yunlan, the pair simply walked out together, no police car, no other officers, Xia Yang still in power-suppressing handcuffs.
Shen Wei had gone ice-cold with dread. Dread, and a sneaking sense of familiarity. Nobody else was saying anything, dumbstruck by the revelation that they had all been so perfectly deceived, so he spoke up. "Can you make the man's face clearer like you did with the woman in the other tape?"
"My cameras don't suck -- no offense, Professor -- but we can just zoom in." Lin Jing rewound the video to a point at which the man was facing one of the cameras, then enlarged it on the screen.
Zhu Hong thumped her fist on the desk. "That's the cop!"
"I think we've just established he isn't a cop," Da Qing said dryly.
"No, the cop from the hospital! There were two gunshot victims, and we didn't investigate the first one because he was police and it all looked above-board! Lin Jing, bring up the medical files," she demanded, and Lin Jing rolled his eyes and muttered something uncharitable while he did so.
There was a file photo of a patient having his upper arm wrapped in gauze. It did appear to be the same man. He was young, at most Zhao Yunlan's age, and had a thin face and curly hair. Shen Wei closed his eyes as the pieces clicked together. "Xia Guiren," he said.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan asked in a small voice. "Xiao Wei?"
"His name is Xia Guiren, not Fang Guisheng. He must be related to Xia Yang." He should have made the connection between the similar names earlier. He had hardly made the man's acquaintence, though, and had only been able to recall his name at all due to the heavy prompting. With this new information, it became perfectly plausible for a Dixingren to secure and maintain a position in the Haixing archives. "I met him once or twice when I was doing research in the Dixing library last year. I see he found his skills to be transferable."
"Ah, right, a librarian. Is being able to make people see whatever you want also a common library science skill Dixing?" Zhao Yunlan asked wryly.
"I would assume he had no such ability at the time." If he had, Shen Wei would have been informed. The potential for misuse was too great, and he wouldn't be permitted into the Palace unless Shen Wei had acquired the ability to nullify his power. Of course, his own people had gone behind his back more than once during Ye Zun's bid for power, but to his knowledge, the only illusionist of whom Ye Zun had made use was Mi Lu. "There would be a record we could check."
"Couldn't you have recognized him before?" Zhu Hong said despairingly.
Chu Shuzhi, who had been leaning mutely against the exam table behind them the whole time, grumbled, "Don't blame Lord Envoy for this. Lin Jing didn't put that photo in the case file."
"Because Hong-jie said it was irrelevant," Lin Jing said, holding his hands up.
"Oh, this is my fault now?" Zhu Hong made a fist over the computer monitors.
"Enough!" Zhao Yunlan barked. Silence fell. "I don't know how helpful it would have been for tracking the guy down, anyway. We should check, but all the personal details in the medical file are probably fake. Seems he's a good liar." He searched his pockets, probably for a lollipop, came up empty, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay. One thing at a time. How did Xia Guiren get past the shield? If we have a security loophole, we have to fix that before anything else."
"Oh." Lin Jing grimaced. "Ah, last night, the shield did act up. A phase offset had developed in the detector's beta particle beam and..." Zhao Yunlan gave him a flat look and Lin Jing cleared his throat. "It's nothing bad, there's natural drift over time due to interference. Even without Professor Shen teleporting in and out all the time, cosmic rays goof it up eventually. I just have to reboot the shield every few weeks to fix it."
"What a helpful coincidence for Sergeant Jiang," Zhao Yunlan said.
"One second," Lin Jing said, tapping at his keyboard to display a graph. "1:42 AM...Yeah. The data doesn't show an offset, just a five-minute gap from when I powered the shield down. Oops."
"How could that be faked?" Xiao Guo said, getting everyone's attention. "Um, that is, if his power is illusion, doesn't he need to know what the data should have looked like? And Lin Jing-ge is probably the only one who knows that, so..."
"You're right," Shen Wei cut in. "True illusions would be visible on film, as well. Rather than manifesting anything in reality, he must be altering his targets' perceptions."
Zhao Yunlan froze, then tipped his head back and shook his finger at no one in particular. "The mysterious kid that jumped out in front of the limo. Everyone being trapped in the car and suffocating -- he must've been trying to kill them by making them think they couldn't breathe."
"The first gunshot broke his concentration," Da Qing piped up. "Maybe Director Zhao was just trying to shoot the windshield out, but it worked."
"And that's when he spotted him. Xia Guiren must've had a pretty good hiding spot, since the camera didn't catch him, but I guess once Dad had seen him, he couldn't hide himself from him completely anymore."
"He could, however, hide his sister from the man with the gun," Shen Wei added.
Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes. "Goddamnit." There was a throatiness to his voice, a hint of tears. He took a breath, puffed his cheeks out on the exhale, and opened his eyes, grim but composed. "He did get shot, though. He needed medical attention at a hospital, so I think we can safely assume he's still injured. He and Xia Yang have been hiding out somewhere, but they must have wanted something from his apartment, which is how we caught her. We won't catch them there again." He chewed the end of his thumb contemplatively. "They must have known the apartment might've been compromised, or why leave? Xia Yang didn't have the key, either. What was worth the risk of going back?"
"There was little of value there apart from the books," Shen Wei said.
"If you think they made a mistake the first time, then maybe they're planning a redo," Da Qing said. He was perched on the desk as a cat, tail over his paws, as though looking endearing would soften the blow. "Was there something in the apartment that could lead them to their real target?"
Perhaps the feline charms worked after all, because Zhao Yunlan reached over and scratched behind his ears. "Nice idea, fatass, but we already looked. Guess we can go back, see if we missed a notebook labeled 'Murder Plans'." He waved his hand over his shoulder. "Lao Chu, Xiao Guo."
"What, now?" Chu Shuzhi said, forehead wrinkling.
Zhao Yunlan shot him a rote sort of glare. "Yes, now, did you not get the part where they might be hunting down their real target?"
Guo Changcheng took Chu Shuzhi's elbow and tugged. "We're going. I'll call if we find something promising."
They did not find anything promising. There was a conspicuous lack of personal materials in Xia Guiren's apartment. Even the few photograph frames had been emptied. He may not have planned very far ahead, but it seemed he'd at least managed to pack a bag.
That night, Zhao Yunlan opened a bottle of cheap wine. He started with a cup at dinner: rare, since he'd stopped drinking around Shen Wei almost completely, but not unreasonable. By the time Shen Wei was done washing up, Zhao Yunlan was miserably swigging directly out of the bottle in bed. Shen Wei had an impulse to snatch it out of his hands, but a wave of guilty, selfish fear overrode it. After everything he'd done or failed to do in the past few days, he couldn't bring himself to argue. He didn't want to give Zhao Yunlan any more cause to never smile at him again.
He lingered around the apartment, doing little chores he'd been putting off to avoid watching Zhao Yunlan -- for whose sake, he wasn't sure -- until he noticed Zhao Yunlan had fallen asleep, halfway under the covers and curled into a tight ball around the bottle. He checked to make sure he was just asleep, not passed out, and then pried the bottle out of his hands and wrangled him out of his t-shirt, which he'd spilled alcohol on, and into a sleep shirt. Zhao Yunlan woke up just enough to whine unhappily at the manhandling, and then fell very soundly asleep again with Shen Wei wrapped around him. In the morning, Shen Wei fed him tea, congee, and painkillers in bed.
Over the course of the day, the case ground to a troubling halt. Lin Jing traced the signature of the SID's handcuffs to a shopping area further up Bright Street, where Zhao Yunlan recovered them from a dumpster, twisted from being forcibly pried off. Wang Zheng put in a request for all files relating to "Fang Guisheng's" work at Haixing DS, and Sang Zan spent the afternoon going through endless archive check-out lists, which reaffirmed Xia Guiren's odd research habits but gave little new insight. Da Qing was in Xia Guiren's neighborhood, prowling around and making subtle inquiries; people knew who he was talking about, but hadn't seen him. Zhu Hong had pressing Yashou business she had been delaying in favor of the case, and things slowed down so much that Zhao Yunlan let her go home to take care of it.
For his part, Shen Wei spent the day in Zhao Yunlan's office, reading those books on Xia Guiren's reading list which were unfamiliar to him, under the theory that the books were the reason Xia Yang had returned to the apartment. It was an agreeable task, especially when Zhao Yunlan, still looking groggy, brought him a cup of tea and settled down in the other armchair for a nap, but he didn't think he was making any real headway on the case.
The science books were not so strange; an academically-inclined person with a newly awakened ability as subtle and powerful as controlling others' perceptions might well wish to understand more about how it worked. The smattering of books of history and myth stood out as odder. It seemed probable that they indicated more than a personal interest, but what? The Hallows were mentioned more than once, but those were secured in Dixing. He and Kunlun appeared a few times, but if they wanted to assassinate either of them, they had gone about it in a very strange way.
The question of who else the Xia siblings might have thought would be in the government car lingered. These criminals were sophisticated. They had targeted the car on purpose. If the driver had indeed given his agenda for the day to Xia Guiren, such a mistake seemed impossible. The impossibility dogged Shen Wei, in the back of his mind. There was a missing piece there.
In the early evening, after some staff had already begun to go home, there was a gentle knock at the office door. Wang Zheng smiled through the open blinds. Shen Wei waved her in; Zhao Yunlan, engrossed in typing something, didn't even look up.
"Professor Shen, there's a call for you," Wang Zheng said.
"Thank you, I'll be right there," Shen Wei told her. She cast a concerned eye over Zhao Yunlan before stepping out again.
Zhao Yunlan raised an eyebrow from behind his monitor.
"It's probably Associate Professor Tang," Shen Wei said, referring to the young scientist who had been eager, but somewhat underprepared, to cover his classes for the week. He detoured to the desk on his way to the door. "Shall we go home after this, too?"
"I guess," Zhao Yunlan sighed, thumping a foot up on the desk. "I regret only punching that woman twice."
Zhao Yunlan didn't mean that -- he would never abuse a suspect -- but Shen Wei understood the frustration. Zhao Yunlan had bruisy dark circles under his eyes and was biting what looked like an empty lollipop stick. Before Shen Wei could think better of it, he was reaching out to touch. He cupped his hand around the curve of Zhao Yunlan's skull and pressed a kiss to the crown of his head: thick soft hair and the scent of familiar shampoo. "When we talk it over at home this evening, we might see something we've been missing," he said quietly.
Zhao Yunlan looked up at him with an abrupt, genuine, warm smile, of the sort that turned his eyes to glittering crescents and made Shen Wei's heart seize in his chest. "Sounds good. Don't keep Xiao Tang waiting."
His words had fled him, so Shen Wei just nodded and stepped out, his cheeks warm.
Wang Zheng handed him her desk phone and stepped out of earshot politely. "Hello?" Shen Wei said.
"Oh, good. Professor -- ah, this is Li Qian. Sorry to bother you when you're out of the office." She was slightly breathless, even flustered.
He frowned, immediately worried. "It's no bother, I'm glad you could reach me. Is everything alright in the lab?"
"No. Well, yes, but...I don't know. It's just a little odd. It's probably nothing?" There was the background noise of movement on the other end of the line, as if Li Qian was pacing around with her phone.
It was probably not nothing. She wouldn't have called over nothing. "Strange results?" he guessed.
"What?" Li Qian sounded nonplussed. "Oh, no. No, it's not a science thing. It's about your -- about Chief -- ah, I mean Zhang Shi. He's fine," she added hurriedly, "no developments. There was just some secretary here asking about him, and after he left, I thought about it, and it seemed a little strange. Most people don't know he's here."
The hair stood up on the back of Shen Wei's neck, and a tingle of dark energy danced across his fingertips. Zhang Shi. If one knew what to look for, one could find him in both "Chronicle of the First Haixing War" and "Dixing Neurology". If one were to have, say, read about him in the Dixing library first. And targeting Zhao Xinci, then, would have been a mistake of a different kind. "Tell me exactly what happened."
"Surely it's nothing dangerous, though?" she said. "He had security clearance and everything." That was the opposite of reassuring, at this point, and Shen Wei didn't know how to explain. After a moment's silence, Li Qian continued. "He came to the door and showed his badge and papers, and my intern let him in. He was asking her some questions about our research, and I noticed she was getting a little flustered so I interrupted. He said he was going to be doing an audit on our expenses. I took him through a list of our projects, and when I got done, he asked if it was true we were also housing a prisoner from Dixing." There was a pause and Li Qian's voice became quieter. "I told him the basics. And he asked about our security, and when the lab was unattended. I thought he was worried about Ye Zun getting out, but maybe...Professor, I'm really sorry. I should've just lied, shouldn't I? But it's all above-board, we're not doing anything wrong, and he had clearance to know."
"You did exactly the right thing, Li Qian." She could hardly have done otherwise, under Xia Guiren's thrall. "When did you tell him the lab would be unattended?" With the SID on their heels, the Xias would be in a hurry. Once they had what they needed, they would act.
"Between midnight and six AM," she said. "Should we request security -- "
"No." This, at least, was a complication Shen Wei could rectify. "Can you set up your lock system to let me in?"
Zhao Yunlan tossed his laptop off his lap onto the bed, rubbing at his eyes. He'd been fielding emails and calls from the Department of Supervision all day. They were not happy with him. At least the conciliatory tone had waned; he preferred honest impatience and disapproval without the veneer of concern. But it was getting late and he thought he was well within his rights to stop placating people for the night.
He glanced over his shoulder. The silky-haired top of Shen Wei's head was poking up above the back of the couch. He was reading through a folder of student research reports; they had made a stop at the university and he'd picked up a huge stack of paperwork to catch up on. They'd both been working since dinner, Shen Wei wasn't deliberately ignoring Zhao Yunlan.
Or he thought he wasn't, but Shen Wei had been very quiet all day. It was possible that Zhao Yunlan had freaked him out at the funeral. Or that he was mad about the pathetic bed-drinking last night.
In retrospect, he was a tad embarrassed about that. He'd fallen asleep clutching a bottle to his chest more than once in the past, but only before Shen Wei came into his life and gave him a reason not to destroy his liver. It hadn't really been a choice, though. This week had been, and still was, and would probably continue to be a clusterfuck of the highest order and he'd just needed very badly to stop thinking. For that matter, he needed to stop thinking now. And he needed Shen Wei to pay him some attention.
Impulsively, he grabbed the orange accent pillow off the bed and wound up for a gentle toss. Just enough to muss Shen Wei's hair and elicit mild chastisement, and maybe knock over the top-heavy owl sculpture that Shen Wei was constantly standing back up. He twisted around to aim, but the motion pulled his shoulder and sent a wave of horrible, stinging itchiness across the scarring wound. He hissed and reached under his shirt collar to scratch, but that just made it hurt.
Shen Wei was peeking over the couch at him. "Are you alright?"
"No," Zhao Yunlan grumbled. He stood up, went to the bathroom, and came back with a pair of nail scissors and tweezers. He dropped them on top of Shen Wei's papers and pulled his t-shirt over his head.
"What..." Shen Wei gave him a wide-eyed look of startled innocence, as though he'd never seen a topless man before in his life.
Ridiculous, perfect man. Zhao Yunlan leered in habitual response. "I just want you to take out my stitches, Brother Black. What did you think I was doing?"
Shen Wei swallowed. "Ah. But -- you should go to the hospital for that. It might be too early."
"Uh-huh, it might be, if someone wasn't sneakily healing me by increments." Zhao Yunlan dropped onto the couch. Shen Wei didn't deny it but didn't answer either, his brow furrowed. Zhao Yunlan affected a slump and a pout. "They're so itchy, they're driving me insane," he whined. "Please? I can't reach them all myself."
Some combination of the cute begging and the suggestion of Zhao Yunlan trying to pull out his own stitches in the mirror spurred Shen Wei into action. "Fine," he said, setting his papers on the coffee table, "but I've never done it before."
"All you have to do is trim the knot off and then use the tweezers to pull the stitch out. As long as you don't try to pull the knot through, it won't even hurt me." Shen Wei laid his papers aside, picked up the scissors, and gave him a wary sort of look. Zhao Yunlan pecked him on the cheek for reassurance and shifted sideways so Shen Wei could start with the ones on the back of his shoulder. Best to face away for now, in case he winced or gave any other visible indication that having stitches removed wasn't a completely enjoyable experience.
Shen Wei's left hand settled very gently on Zhao Yunlan's ribs below the wound, fingers curling slightly around his side, and it sent a shiver up his spine. He hadn't planned this as a come-on -- he hadn't planned at all -- but they'd barely kissed in the last few days and suddenly Zhao Yunlan was keenly aware that he was not really all that tired tonight.
The backs of Shen Wei's fingers came to rest above one of the lines of stitches, accompanied by an audible snip. The wound pattern was hand-shaped, four fingers across the ridge of his shoulder, and Shen Wei was starting with the index finger. He worked his way up, cutting through stitches, and then reached for the tweezers. It didn't hurt, not really, just a tug and a prickly spark of sensation that made Zhao Yunlan twitch. He could feel Shen Wei hesitate and then lean closer, body heat and, oh, the brush of an exhale across the skin of his neck, before he pulled the next stitch, and Zhao Yunlan pinched his eyes closed until he remembered what he'd been meaning to talk about. "About the healing thing," he said.
"Hmm?" Shen Wei hummed distractedly, soft and close to his ear.
"Why couldn't you do it?" He felt Shen Wei's hands stop and he rushed to clarify. "I get it, it was a bad wound, a lot of damage to fix, but you almost passed out. You overestimated yourself. Is something wrong?"
Shen Wei pulled a couple more stitches before answering. "I don't know," he said tonelessly.
What the hell did that mean? "Okay, is there something wrong with you? Contaminated energy, or, I don't know, Dixing flu, or something?"
"No. No, I don't think so. I feel fine." It sounded like he was thinking, so Zhao Yunlan waited him out. "I just couldn't draw as much energy as I expected."
Zhao Yunlan thumbed at his lips, only half-feeling stitches being pulled loose. Shen Wei was being frank, and the lack of eye contact probably helped, so he shouldn't waste the opportunity. "Is there less energy available, since we came back?"
"Yes, the restricted access to Dixing has decreased the ambient dark energy aboveground to a degree." Shen Wei traced a finger lightly along a freshly exposed scar, sending a hot-cold thread of dark energy into the skin. It felt amazing, soothing the persistent itchy sting that had been driving him to distraction and leaving behind a cooling tingle.
Zhao Yunlan sighed and relaxed back till Shen Wei was halfway propping him up. "Mmm." He replayed Shen Wei's words. "We better check on that energy thing. There's gotta be a fix for that, right?"
"I'll look into it," Shen Wei murmured. He gave Zhao Yunlan a gentle push. "Your back's done. Turn."
Zhao Yunlan did not need to be told twice. He shifted till they were face-to-face, hiking his knee up over Shen Wei's legs and hunching down to catch Shen Wei's eye. "Hi," he said lowly, bangs in his eyes and a grin on his lips.
Shen Wei pulled his shoulder up and bent over it, going straight to work with the scissors, his red ear right in Zhao Yunlan's line of sight. What else was he supposed to do? He leaned in and put his mouth on it.
Shen Wei inhaled sharply but held his hands steady. Zhao Yunlan hadn't even considered that it might be a bad idea to startle the guy with the sharp implements. Shen Wei wouldn't hurt him. "Yunlan," he scolded half-heartedly.
Zhao Yunlan gave the top of his ear a little bite and then started pulling his shirt up out of his slacks. "Baby," he said, nosing at Shen Wei's hair, "I want you."
He was close enough to hear the tiny stutter in Shen Wei's breath. It took Shen Wei a moment to respond, his hands gone still between them. "Do you want me to finish with the stitches or not?" he eventually managed, a bit strained.
Hah. He'd definitely gotten his attention. "Go ahead and finish on me," he purred, sneaking his fingers up Shen Wei's shirt anyway.
Delightfully, Shen Wei had the audacity to sniff with laughter at his awful innuendo. Zhao Yunlan held still and behaved himself, except he was running his fingertips slowly up and down Shen Wei's skin, feeling his breaths across Zhao Yunlan's shoulder speeding up. Shen Wei was healing the jagged scar as he went, but the fingers on his collarbone weren't so cooling now.
The instant Shen Wei moved to put the tweezers aside on top of the pile of discarded bits of surgical thread, Zhao Yunlan surged forward into his lap and slid their lips together messily, pulling Shen Wei's lower lip between his and sucking, his fingers working Shen Wei's shirt buttons with practised dexterity. He hummed at the feeling of Shen Wei's hands on his bare waist, nuzzled Shen Wei's head back and bent to nip at his throat the way he liked. "Come on," he mumbled pointlessly against his skin, "come on, please," and pressed his hips down and in tight, drawing a choked moan out of Shen Wei, whose fingers dug into the muscle over his ribs.
"Yes -- Yunlan, yes, of course, but not on the sofa," Shen Wei insisted breathily, surprising a laugh out of Zhao Yunlan -- always with the hygiene, but it was true that if the couch got dirty Shen Wei would have to deal with it. Rather than argue over something as inconsequential as venue, Zhao Yunlan just half-fell off him, grabbed his wrist, and dragged him to the bed.
When they were both satisfied and sleepy, and cleaned up courtesy Shen Wei attacking with a washcloth, Zhao Yunlan coaxed Shen Wei into cuddling up with his head on his chest. A part of him still felt guilty about snapping at Shen Wei yesterday, but he really, really did not want to talk about it, so he was trying to fix any lingering hurt through snuggles. By the way Shen Wei had his face pressed into his skin, it wasn't unwelcome. And, if he was being completely honest with himself, there was a pit of fear in his stomach, a sense of abandonment, of not being worthy of anyone staying. It was a silly old outgrown thing that he could never quite seem to shake, but recent events had brought it back up with a vengeance, and having Shen Wei tucked against him so securely was...good.
That thought reminded him of something he'd wondered idly a few times in the past. Shen Wei wasn't asleep, but was breathing slowly, his thumb rubbing a slow hypnotic arc where his hand rested over Zhao Yunlan's belly, and he thought maybe he was still in a good talking mood. "Xiao Wei?"
"Yes?" Shen Wei said, his lips soft against Zhao Yunlan's skin.
"Tell me about your parents?" he murmured, trying to make it a polite suggestion, as unthreatening as possible.
Shen Wei tensed up anyway, craning his neck and peeking up at Zhao Yunlan's face. After a moment, he put his head back down. "I remember very little. We were orphans from the time we were small."
That wasn't a no. Zhao Yunlan petted his back over his pajamas. "You remember something, then?"
There was a pause so long that Zhao Yunlan thought it was a no after all and had resigned himself to going to sleep, and then Shen Wei spoke quietly. "My mother was strong. She taught us to be strong, but she was still protective of us, especially my brother. I think she died protecting us."
Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth and found his voice missing. His mother had been strong, too. He took Shen Wei's hand in his, playing their fingers together. "And your dad?" he whispered.
"I...I'm not sure." Shen Wei's eyelashes tickled his chest. "I can still hear his voice, though. He had a beautiful voice, for storytelling and singing."
"Do you remember what he sang?"
Shen Wei's head shifted in a minute shake. "Yunlan, I don't even remember our birth names. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, love." Zhao Yunlan squeezed him closer. "I'm sorry too."
He was most of the way asleep when Shen Wei started humming.
It was half-voiced and halting, at first, Shen Wei stopping to think and doubling back to correct notes, but then it started to flow: a primordial thing, long dissipated and lost to the infinitude of mortal forgetting but for the mind of this one remarkable man, who miraculously dragged it back up through millennia, the sound of it equal parts haunting and soporific, and as the strange woozy quality of it swallowed the last of Zhao Yunlan's conscious awareness, he thought that Shen Wei's warm, deep voice began to put words to it, portentous words about love and valor and things beyond the reach of the firelight with long teeth.
He woke up chilly in the wee hours of the morning. Shen Wei was gone.
[beats a hasty retreat, making finger guns]
Chapter 6: Not Again
In the heat of battle, you've been disarmed! Your opponent stalks closer, sword aloft. You cast about for a weapon, then catch sight of Ratbones waving at you. "Use this!" she cries, tossing you a chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zhao Yunlan stumbled out of bed, checked the kitchen, checked the bathroom, checked the back room that was supposed to be a home office but mostly served as storage and a spot for Da Qing's giant cat tree, crossed the hall in his boxers to check Shen Wei's apartment, lit one of the Envoy's incense cones, and then gave himself permission to freak out. He upended the top drawer of his nightstand for a lollipop. What kind of emergency would prompt Shen Wei to just vanish in the middle of the night without so much as a note? His brain threw out images of the things that happened to Shen Wei when he went off on his own: Shen Wei half-conscious and chained to Ye Zun's pillar, Shen Wei smiling up at him from the volcanic rock floor of Dixing Palace with blood in his teeth.
In his groggy, panicked state, it took him an embarrassingly long time to remember the phone call Shen Wei had received that evening at the office. They'd been so constantly together over the past few days, but for that five-minute phone call. A bit long, for a call from the teaching assistant. Shen Wei hadn't said a word about it.
He dialed the SID landline. It was almost 3 AM. The call was picked up on the second ring. "Hello, Special Investigations," Wang Zheng answered.
Zhao Yunlan loved her. "It's me. Do you know where Shen Wei is?"
"...No?" He could practically hear Wang Zheng making an exaggerated shrug at Sang Zan. "He's not with you?"
"Did you overhear his phone call earlier?"
"No, I didn't want to eavesdrop." Wang Zheng, unfortunately, had a healthy respect for the Black-Cloaked Envoy.
"Who was it?"
"Oh. Director Li, Li Qian," she answered immediately. Li Qian? Had Shen Wei vanished in the middle of the night over a goddamn science experiment? It wasn't out of the question, but -- without telling him? Maybe he was on the wrong track. But no, he knew he wasn't. This had to have something to do with the case, somehow. "Chief Zhao?" Wang Zheng prompted gently.
"Yeah, sorry for the late call. Thanks." He hung up on her. Li Qian. Haixing Lab.
He threw on yesterday's clothes and his holster and grabbed his car keys.
As he sped through quiet streets, a light rain pattering on the windshield and sending glints of reflected neon lights dancing off the pavement, he poked at the hunch in his head until a connection formed between the attack on the limo and Haixing Lab. Xia Yang expected somebody else to be in the car, but she killed them all anyway, which made sense if she couldn't see that the target wasn't there -- if she'd expected Zhang Shi to be in Zhao Xinci. When he wasn't, Xia Guiren would have gone looking for more up-to-date information, and so Shen Wei was expecting an attack on Zhang Shi at the lab, at night, when there wasn't anyone there. Zhao Yunlan scoffed. When had Shen Wei figured it out? How long had he been planning to go off on his own? This was not what he'd meant when he asked Shen Wei for help with the case.
It seemed Xia Guiren knew a lot of things he shouldn't. He had a winning combination of power and position for that. He'd had plenty of time to work on this, a full year of sneaking around in plain sight, making people think he belonged, asking questions and reading files without anyone in the government ever noticing anything odd. Hell, he must have been lying his way around security every morning when he came to work. Finding out where Zhang Shi actually was after the assassination failed wouldn't have been that hard for him, either, but if he knew so much -- if the siblings were really targeting an incorporeal entity whose existence was classified information -- they must have known better than to think they could kill him by killing the host. He would just...
He would just take a new host.
He'd have to use whoever was available. Zhao Yunlan wasn't sure what kind of range he had, but it was possible that if everyone in the street was dead except for the murderers, he'd have to occupy one of them.
People had killed over crazier ideas. Xia Guiren might be able to subdue Zhang Shi with his power, or believe he could, anyway. But why kidnap Zhang Shi? For government secrets? Xia Guiren clearly didn't need to get his or his sister's hands dirty for that. His powers? The body-swapping wasn't much use to anyone but himself, and his fighting abilities didn't match Xia Yang's. For his more esoteric knowledge, then?
Zhang Shi knew more than anyone about the Hallows, but he wouldn't be all that helpful in stealing them. He couldn't get you into Dixing, under current circumstances, and he definitely couldn't get the Hallows out of their secure chamber in Dixing Palace.
Xia Guiren could have waited around for Shen Wei's next trip to Dixing, jumped through the passage with him unseen, and then lied his way into the Palace and walked right out with the Hallows. Zhang Shi was irrelevant. It would be easier than all of this scheming and murder, anyway. They must have needed Zhang Shi for what came after, then, to tell them how to use the Hallows.
For what, Zhao Yunlan couldn't guess. There was a lot you could do with them. Talk to someone across millennia, tear holes in space and time, defy death, enhance powers and gain new ones, and why stop there? With the lit Lantern included, you could probably blow up the planet. If Zhao Yunlan had stayed in there like he was meant to, he could've prevented that -- possibly he could still prevent it now -- sometimes, when he was very still, he could feel it burning -- but that was something nobody else knew at all.
Asking any such thing of the Hallows would come at a devastating cost, but that never stopped anyone, did it.
If he was too late, Shen Wei was in so much trouble. They could have made a plan and brought the whole team, if Shen Wei had just told him anything. The Xia siblings wouldn't succeed, not with Shen Wei there, and if he was right about what they were planning, he doubted they could pull it off regardless; their execution had been sloppy so far, with four unnecessary deaths, a paper trail, and Xia Yang getting caught. But all kinds of things could go wrong, people could get hurt, Shen Wei could get hurt, and, fuck, if these two incompetent assassins put one more scratch on Shen Wei after all the damage they'd already done, he was going to shoot them both in the face and not regret it.
Zhao Yunlan pulled up in front of Haixing DS without a thought for stealth, leaving the Jeep double-parked and tumbling out without locking the door. There were no night guards stationed at the entrance. He walked right in.
The foyer was well-lit by wall sconces even at this hour, quiet with the lulling atemporal hush of a government building: dark wood, squeaky clean marble floor, potted philodendrons. There was the hum of central air, and a soft tapping. The blood splattered on the metal detector was strangely out of place, like a mistake. Zhao Yunlan jogged over to the security checkpoint, almost kicking a standard-issue service pistol that was just lying in the middle of the floor. Behind the x-ray machine, one guard was slumped across a chair, the front of his body soaked in gore, his head barely hanging from the remains of his savaged neck. Blood was still dripping from his hair to the floor, hence the tapping sound. Up ahead, in the hallway, there was another body in pieces, an arm severed at the very least.
Zhao Yunlan turned away and took a breath. More people dead because of his mistakes -- but the bodies were fresh. Xia Yang was ahead of him, but not by far. And the guard had managed to pull a gun before getting killed, so either Xia Guiren wasn't with her, or he was making mistakes.
As Zhao Yunlan ran up the hall towards the elevator, he tried to call for backup. Zhu Hong was out of town and he wasn't letting Lin Jing or Xiao Guo anywhere near this situation. Da Qing's phone went straight to voicemail -- who knew what cats got up to at this time of night -- and his call to Lao Chu just rang out. Cursing their names, he pushed the elevator call button and shot off a text to both of them: "xia yang at haixing lab. get ur asses here. watch out for xia guiren's lies."
Unlike the ground floor, the basement didn't look the same at all hours of the day. The ceiling lights were off, but motion-triggered security lights flickered to life one after the other as Zhao Yunlan rushed past interrogation rooms, holding cells, and a couple of heavily-barred unmarked doors towards the lab entrance. He stepped into the airlock. The lab door locking mechanism was smashed to bits, and the doors themselves were badly dented and held open with a blood-smeared crowbar. He suppressed a laugh; he could respect the straightforward approach.
As he squeezed through the gap into a lab which looked even creepier than normal, deserted and lit with red safety lighting along the floors, he heard a raised voice bouncing metallically from the back. From the corridor, he realized. He approached quietly, sticking to the wall, then ducked behind the rack of blinking servers and peeked around the corner.
"-- not cause harm, what else could I use my power for?!" That was Xia Yang, worked up in a way utterly unlike her smug demeanor under interrogation. Zhao Yunlan could see her back not ten yards up the hall, same ponytail, same jacket, one bloody hand at her side, the other arm up in front of her. Breathing as calmly and quietly as he could, he stuck his head a little further out.
Zhang Shi was backed against the wall. He was wearing pajamas and his hair was coming loose, but otherwise he was as unruffled as he had been the other day sitting at his desk. Xia Yang's other hand was filled with energy, subdued into a compact red-black fireball, elbow bent as if ready to strike. She could just about reach Ye Zun's chest or head in one movement, but she wasn't moving because Shen Wei, in full Black-Cloaked Envoy garb, had the point of his dao inches from her throat. Nobody appeared to be injured yet.
"You could have used it to protect others," Shen Wei was saying coolly.
"And I tried!" Xia Yang snapped back. "In YOUR Dixing Guard. I fought for you, Lord Envoy, we were always on your side. This little snake never fooled us." She indicated Zhang Shi, or presumably Ye Zun, with a jerk of her chin. "We got routed just the same. My friends were dying, and Guiren was a target because of our association with you. He had to get out of Dixing before he got killed, so I came up here with him. To protect him! That's all I've been doing since we've been stuck here. And now you're protecting him," she said, nodding at Ye Zun again, "so don't tell me I should've done different."
"Those murders were you protecting your brother as well?" Shen Wei rarely stopped to chat with a suspect. He was stalling her, possibly because he knew Zhao Yunlan had arrived, possibly just to suss out what was really going on. Either way, he was giving him an opening.
Zhao Yunlan pulled his revolver slowly and lined up a shot on the back of Xia Yang's head. From his position, as long as the standoff held and nobody moved, he could shoot her without risking hitting either of the twins. He just had to be sure of his shot before he took it. If he missed, the bullet would ricochet off that corrugated metal, and it was impossible to guess where it would end up.
"Yes. He didn't even find out he had a power till we got up here and we started having to lie all the time, so he's been overeager to use it." Xia Yang was calming down. She sounded more like her previous haughty self, displeased but not surprised by everyone else's stupidity. "I told him not to attack Director Zhao in public, but he did, and I was there to clean up his mess. Quite a mess, too, and unnecessary, as it turns out."
"Meimei, you're saying too much!"
It was a new voice: male, decisive. Zhao Yunlan took his finger off the trigger and opened the eye he'd closed to aim. He craned his head a little further, and there was Xia Guiren, behind Shen Wei, furthest from Zhao Yunlan. Real-life curly-haired Xia Guiren, like he'd looked on Lin Jing's footage.
"Oh, why hide it?" Xia Yang drawled. Her energy had calmed to mere wisps in her hand, although she was still poised to attack. "He knows we're here for Zhang Shi. He ought to know how much of this is his fault, as well."
Zhang Shi blinked slowly at her. "Why me, exactly?"
Zhao Yunlan was pretty sure that as long as Xia Guiren didn't know he was here, he couldn't mess with his head. Of course, shooting Xia Yang would be a loud announcement of his presence, and then he wouldn't be able to trust anything he saw. Shen Wei might not be affected, but Zhao Yunlan would be worse than useless, a liability.
Xia Guiren was talking, answering Zhang Shi's question, but directing it at Shen Wei. "He belongs to Dixing. He's a national resource. Think of all that he knows. What good are the Hallows if nobody knows how to use them?" The way he talked about Zhang Shi like an object was slightly creepy, but his voice had an eminently rational quality to it that made you want to trust him. "Maybe you won't provide passage to Dixing, Lord Envoy, but with his knowledge, we can. All we want is an open door. Dixing isn't free until all are free to come and go."
Zhao Yunlan listened with half an ear while weighing his options. The smart thing would be to shoot Xia Guiren first. He didn't like shooting someone who was just standing there talking, but with his powers, they couldn't afford to wait for him to try something. The problem was that he was behind Shen Wei.
For a clear line of fire, Zhao Yunlan would need a different angle. He'd have to come out from his cover. He might be able to shift out quickly and quietly and take the shot before anyone could react, but then he'd be shooting between Xia Yang and Shen Wei.
Shen Wei had been silent for a bit too long. Zhao Yunlan could tell he was thrown, uncertain; he'd probably been expecting the motive to be pure anger or some mad grab for power, but instead, Xia Guiren sort of had a point. When Shen Wei did speak, though, he was as cold and unyielding as ever, not taking his eyes off Xia Yang. "You presume to alter the worlds unilaterally, based upon your own desires, and to kill Haixingren in your pursuit? You've shamed all of Dixing. We've been negotiating a migration agreement, but your actions may have harmed our cause."
Xia Guiren gave a light laugh. "You expect us, who are trapped up here away from our homes, to be satisfied that you're 'negotiating'? That's not good enough, Lord Envoy. We came here as refugees. We're not wanted here. We have nothing."
"You're supposed to represent us, but we can't approach you without being arrested!" Xia Yang added, surging forward a couple of inches, only to be backed off again by Shen Wei's weapon. She gave a frustrated growl. "Guiren and I don't even know if our parents survived! We just want to see our goddamn family again! How long do you expect us to wait?!"
Zhao Yunlan barely suppressed a snort. She missed her family? Poor thing. Never mind how many people had lost family members at her hands. In any case, she was getting angry again. She wouldn't be content to chat for much longer, and Zhao Yunlan needed to make a decision before someone else got hurt.
It would be tight, but he should be able to make the shot. His aim and speed were good enough. He'd shot past Shen Wei before; Shen Wei was a professional, they trusted each other, it wasn't an issue. He hadn't been able to do it the other day, but that was different, all that movement in close quarters. This was simple. It just came down to making one move correctly. He just had to trust his timing and take the shot.
He pinched his eyes closed. He wasn't sure he could make himself.
Shen Wei's response to Xia Yang, when he mustered one, sounded a little exasperated. "I understand your concerns, but attacking Zhang Shi is not a solution. You won't be able to force him to go with you, let alone to open a passage between worlds."
"He's lying," Xia Guiren said.
"Is he?" Xia Yang asked, and Zhao Yunlan saw what was about to happen just in time to fix his aim. "Let's find out."
Zhao Yunlan pulled the trigger as Xia Yang lunged for Zhang Shi and Shen Wei's dao flashed. A mess of dark energy bloomed up in the corridor and there was a scream of pain. That's all he had time to understand before a wave of pure chaos overcame him.
For a second he thought he'd somehow been shot in the head himself: his vision became a turbulent, writhing mass of confused color, blinding after the dim lab, his ears were assaulted by a deafening combination of deep rumbling and a high human-like shrieking -- he couldn't even tell where his limbs were in space.
Xia Guiren. This was Xia Guiren's power, used as a blunt weapon. It wasn't real.
As soon as he understood that, the lab flickered back into existence, the mess of overwhelming noise going translucent before vanishing. He realized he had his empty left hand and the gun in his right hand clamped to either side of his head and lowered them. In front of him, the lab was in its own sort of chaos.
Xia Yang, losing blood and a fog of energy from a bullet puncture high on her back, was stumbling backwards into the room, narrowly avoiding a gout of flame that poured from Zhang Shi's palm, while behind them, there was a face-off between Shen Wei and Xia Guiren. Zhao Yunlan couldn't tell quite what was going on there, because of all the energy flying around but also because the lines of the walls and floor seemed to pulse and squirm, rows of bolts leaping from their joins in ripples, the air itself shimmering colors not found in the visible spectrum. Each distortion faded in a fraction of a second as Zhao Yunlan's mind rejected the falsehoods; they were unsophisticated attempts from a distracted conjurer.
Whatever Xia Guiren was showing Zhang Shi, however, was enough to momentarily stop him in his tracks. Zhao Yunlan shouted "Lao Zhang!" and he jolted and dodged aside, but wasn't quick enough to fully avoid Xia Yang, who'd taken her opening. The glancing blow she landed across his chest sent him to the ground, shirt tattered and flesh torn away over his ribs.
Shen Wei was between Xia Yang and Zhang Shi in an impossible instant, fending off the wounded woman with his blade while kicking up a storm of energy with his left hand which swarmed around Zhang Shi protectively. Behind them, still halfway back the corridor and well out of the fight, Xia Guiren was standing alone with strangely pale dark energy curling up from his hands.
Zhao Yunlan hurtled right past the fight, through the hallucinogenic fog towards the hypnotist, denying the existence of a swarm of bats which flew at his face from the hallway like it was a cave, running right through a spontaneous undulation of the floor. Xia Guiren would have to be a lot subtler if he wanted to fool Zhao Yunlan now. Xia Guiren's eyes went wide and he turned tail and fled, trying to make it into the containment bunker before Zhao Yunlan could shoot. He stopped, raised his revolver, and took aim.
"Behind you!" Shen Wei shouted. Zhao Yunlan spun unquestioningly, and he realized he'd begun to lose his grip on reality after all because Xia Guiren was right there in his face, raising his hand with a small metallic object in an overhand grip. Zhao Yunlan batted his hand aside, but the tip of the scalpel nicked his cheek with a sharp little bite of pain. Xia Guiren wound up for another strike, but Zhao Yunlan was ready, seizing his arm, reeling him in, and firing point-blank.
The angle of the recoil's force was shallow and he could tell he'd fired too soon, but it was enough: Xia Guiren made a startled noise, dropped the knife, and clamped his hand to his side. As he did so, Zhao Yunlan felt the shrill-piercing pain of a gunshot to his own abdomen and let go of him, and then he was reeling, clutching his stomach, unable to determine what was there and what was not through the disorienting smear of red lights on gray metal, overwhelmed by the sound of shouts and glass breaking, the smell of blood and something like formaldehyde.
He caught a dizzying glimpse of Xia Yang approaching, blood down her front now and a snarl on her lips, but he couldn't even tell if he was still holding his gun, and then he lost track of her for he wasn't sure how long. He was lost, conscious of little but pain, until Shen Wei's voice sliced through the whiteout: "Yunlan, get down!"
He saw more than felt his body complying, his arm stopping his drop to the floor and catching him in a crouch. A mighty blast of dark energy with the compelling force of a bolt of lighting shot over his head, accompanied by a matching snap of ozone. Xia Yang's body was flung to the end of the corridor by the blast, thirty feet or more, where she smashed into the wall and slid to the floor in a broken heap, leaving behind thick smears of wet gore. In a mirroring movement, at the mouth of the corridor, Shen Wei crumpled. There was a surge of television static across Zhao Yunlan's brainscape, a garbled shrieking, and a moment's horrified sick shock, forcibly bringing tears up to blur his vision further. Someone, somewhere, shouted "Ge!"
Surfacing through the psychic anomalies, Zhao Yunlan found his revolver on the floor, seized it, and ran, but just as he reached the puddle of black fabric that was the fallen Envoy, the rack of servers pitched towards them. It was all he could do to barrel into Shen Wei and roll both of them out of the way as the whole thing toppled in a thunderous explosion of metal-on-metal, components with blinking blue and green LEDs bouncing across the floor, shattering into bits of plastic and stray circuit boards in a hallucinogenic haze of noise and light that spun up Zhao Yunlan's murky brain into a whirl.
And then, quite abruptly, the whirl cleared. The lab went still and lucid and almost silent. Along with electronic parts, the floor was strewn with shattered glass and suspicious dark fluid from a rack of test tubes that had been knocked off a table. The wheels of an overturned swivel chair swung lazily.
Xia Guiren was standing where Zhao Yunlan had been when he first snuck up on the confrontation between Shen Wei and the siblings, where the hypnotist must have positioned himself to push the rack over onto Shen Wei. Dark energy was leaking in a thin trickle from where Zhao Yunlan's bullet grazed him, and his sleeve was damp with blood, washed out to black in the dim red lighting, where the wound from Zhao Xinci's bullet must have reopened. He stood transfixed and expressionless, oddly positioned up on tiptoes. The edges of his body started to blur, and he became translucent.
Zhao Yunlan almost mistook it for another one of his illusions, until he heard the gasping inhale and looked over his shoulder, where a silver-haired man in slippers and bloodied pajamas was propped up against some piece of equipment that looked like a high-tech printer, his head tipped back in a way Zhao Yunlan really couldn't mistake.
Then Xia Guiren was gone. Ye Zun wavered for a moment, his eyes closed with the bliss of a fresh meal, and then shook his head as if to clear it and swept towards Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei.
Zhao Yunlan rolled off of Shen Wei fully and raised his revolver. "Don't move," he ordered.
Ye Zun stopped as if surprised, his weight shifting onto his rear foot. He looked between Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei for a moment, an unreadable half-wild look on his face, and then said only, "Is he okay?"
Zhao Yunlan swallowed and reached for Shen Wei with his left hand, keeping his eyes and his weapon on Ye Zun. He groped his hand up Shen Wei's throat and pressed his fingers up under his chin for a few seconds.
The stillness was like a sucker punch. He choked on nothing, dropped the gun, and pulled Shen Wei's body into his arms. He felt for a pulse again and couldn't find it. He gave Shen Wei a little shake, making his head roll limply against Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. There was blood on Shen Wei's lips; it trickled back along his jaw and dripped onto his throat with the movement. "Shen Wei? Shen Wei!" No, no, no, no, no. Not this, not again, not him. "Xiao Wei?" he whimpered. "Come on. Please?"
Ye Zun was on his knees in front of them, his hands fluttering over Shen Wei's face. Zhao Yunlan pushed his hands away and took Shen Wei's masked face between his palms, too overcome to do anything but stare at him in disbelief, the security lighting casting weird shadows down over his still, wet mouth from the raised filigree of his mask. The mask and robes dissolved a moment later, leaving just Shen Wei, in a cuddly zip-front sweater and dark jeans, heavy in Zhao Yunlan's lap in a way that was unmistakably not sleep.
But he wasn't even wounded. Surely he'd only fainted. Pushed himself too hard and passed out. It was the rarefied dark energy, like the other day. He just needed to rest and build it back up. Zhao Yunlan must have just been freaking out too much to find a pulse, that was all. He spanned Shen Wei's throat with his fingers and felt for his carotid artery.
"It isn't just the dark energy," said Ye Zun's voice. It was strangely composed, and it made Zhao Yunlan glimpse up to see Zhang Shi's fire in Ye Zun's eyes. Eyes which were welling with Ye Zun's tears.
Zhao Yunlan couldn't answer him. His eyes fell back to Shen Wei's face. Under his fingers, he thought he felt the faintest flutter of blood flow, but it didn't repeat and he wasn't sure he hadn't imagined it.
"But he's not dead." That was clearly Ye Zun, his voice high and panicky. Zhao Yunlan looked up again warily, a surge of angry, desperate protectiveness rising up in him. He wondered if Ye Zun had enough power right now to stop a bullet. Through the torn fabric over his chest, Zhao Yunlan could see his wound was completely healed. "It's not the same as being dead. You fixed it before," Ye Zun said waveringly.
"What the fuck are you talking about," Zhao Yunlan said.
"It's the way you conducted us through the Hallows. He has to drink energy through them, but the passage between is too narrow. When he overloaded it, his thread snapped. I felt it." As he spoke, Ye Zun slid forward slowly, cautiously, his eyes locked with Zhao Yunlan's halfway between daring him to try to stop him and pleading with him not to. Zhao Yunlan watched, frozen, as Ye Zun took hold of Shen Wei's hand and cradled it to his chest like a wounded bird, strands of hair spilling forward over his shoulders.
The first thing Zhao Yunlan managed to make sense of was the words. "His connection to the Hallows broke?"
Helpfully, Zhang Shi spoke again, not pulling out of Ye Zun's hunched posture even though he gave Zhao Yunlan a not-quite-reassuring half-smile. "Probably not," he said, "the Hallows are designed to absorb a burst of energy like that, not release it. He would have been recalled into the Hallows, not dissipated. You know just as I do that it isn't death, but it is also not, in principle, something the body survives."
Oh. Zhao Yunlan recalled the brutal violation of being sundered from his solid form and consumed by flames quite clearly. "But then -- he's right, Shen Wei can come back, we all came back before. I just have to bring him back again."
"With your mastery of the Hallows, you may be able to restore him," Zhang Shi allowed. "You needed an anchor before, so his body will need to be...similarly preserved. Preferably alive."
Zhao Yunlan caught the implication right away. His stomach lurched and his arm tightened around Shen Wei. "And leave Ye Zun to do whatever he wants?"
Ye Zun's head tilted in a dissonant performance of humor. "It's charming that you think he could stop me, but do try to remember that I've just rescued you both. If you let my brother die now over some petty grudge --"
"Stop that," Zhang Shi said, not unkindly. "He wouldn't."
It was roughly 4 AM, Shen Wei wasn't breathing, and Zhao Yunlan was not up to watching Ye Zun argue with himself, much less dealing with the insulting irony of Ye Zun getting snippy with him for endangering Shen Wei or holding a grudge, without coming completely unhinged. "Both of you stop fucking talking. Back off and give me a second," he growled.
Ye Zun's brown eyes stared up at him inscrutably for a long moment. He held the eye contact. If this was about who got to make the decisions concerning Shen Wei, he wasn't giving an inch. Slowly, Ye Zun lifted Shen Wei's pliant hand, which he'd been clinging to the entire time, and laid it on Shen Wei's chest, then rose and took a couple steps back. He was still staring, but Zhao Yunlan didn't care.
Shen Wei's bangs had gone a bit messy and floppy. The hood had a tendency to do that. Zhao Yunlan brushed his hair back and tenderly thumbed the blood from his lips. "Xiao Wei," he whispered, taking in the angle of his relaxed brows, the fan of dark lashes casting long shadows, his pretty face unguarded as it was the night after his father died, when he'd watched him sleep. People liked to imagine that the dead looked peaceful like that, but in reality fresh death was rarely so dignified. Zhao Yunlan didn't know how much to trust Zhang Shi, let alone Ye Zun, but looking at Shen Wei, he was sure something of him was still there, or still somewhere, anyway.
That thought gave Zhao Yunlan what he needed. He didn't like Zhang Shi's offer, but if that was what it took, he'd just have to get over it. "Listen, I'm gonna get you back," he promised, softly, just for Shen Wei, even if he wasn't in there to hear it. "I'm going to Dixing and getting you out of the Hallows. If you're not in the Hallows, I'll figure out where you went, and I'll follow you there and drag you back to me, got it? I'm not l-- " He sucked a breath and finished in a cracked whisper. "I'm not losing you. We're not doing this shit anymore. I'm sick of it." He watched Shen Wei's face for another moment, a little part of him hoping that Shen Wei would wake up just to forbid him from going to Dixing to mess with the Hallows. When he didn't, Zhao Yunlan let out a shaking breath and pressed his lips to Shen Wei's forehead.
Wiping his wet cheeks, he looked up and found Ye Zun more of a mess than he was, crying and shaking a little, fists clenched. "Lao Zhang?" Zhao Yunlan said. Ye Zun's shoulders relaxed abruptly, eyes lighting with internal flames. "Do it."
Next time, according to my incredibly detailed outline, "energy shenanigans."
Chapter 7: Teammates
Drenched and shivering, you alone have reached the center of the labyrinth, the beast still on your heels. There's your prize, the final chapter in its weatherbeaten case. Take it. The rest is up to you.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
On the way to the city park, Zhao Yunlan got a call from Da Qing, who'd spoken to the equally clueless Lao Chu first and was in something of a panic. It had been less than half an hour since Zhao Yunlan texted them. Zhao Yunlan told him to pick up Lao Chu and meet them at the portal, and didn't try to explain more than that over the phone.
When Zhao Yunlan arrived, flanked by Zhang Shi and Ye Zun, the other two were already waiting on the flagstone path. The rain had stopped, but a thin cold fog was creeping up off the river, and moisture still dripped from the dark branches overhead. Lao Chu and Da Qing looked suspicious as hell loitering in the circle of yellow light cast by a streetlamp.
"Zhang Shi?" Da Qing said, squinting at the man who was now clad in a white pinstripe suit.
"Over here," said Zhang Shi, waving Shen Wei's hand with unnatural nonchalance.
Da Qing pulled a face of exaggerated confusion and waved back skeptically. Lao Chu just glared. "Then who's that?" he asked Zhao Yunlan, jerking his chin at Ye Zun.
"Exactly who you think it is," Zhao Yunlan said tiredly. Lao Chu tensed, ready for a fight, and Da Qing let out a hiss, but Zhao Yunlan was ready for that. "Look, he's only here so we can keep an eye on him." Zhao Yunlan had had the idea to stuff Ye Zun back into the containment bunker, which was, after all, designed for that purpose, but the shielding wouldn't power up, probably because of all the computer stuff Xia Guiren had smashed, and Zhao Yunlan was unwilling to waste any time. "The Xia siblings are dead but we need the Hallows to save Shen Wei -- I'll explain the rest later, just come with us. Zhang Shi, portal."
There were mutters of disbelief and Ye Zun crossed his arms defensively as the man in Shen Wei's sweater and Shen Wei's face stepped up to the tree and opened his palm, Zhang Shi's energy sparking to life. For several seconds, nothing happened. "Zhang Shi? Any time now," Zhao Yunlan said, trying not to get too visibly agitated.
"I can't," Zhang Shi said slowly. "The passage is...shrinking. I don't have enough power to oppose it."
"What?" Zhao Yunlan said sharply. "Why's it shrinking?"
Zhang Shi turned to face him and Zhao Yunlan had to avert his eyes from Shen Wei's face, feeling slightly sick. "This doorway should have closed entirely, like the others, after the Guardian Lantern was lit. The Hallows were supposed to mend these rifts when they were united. Perhaps this one was held open by the connection between yourself and your physical body, and, since your return, by the Black-Cloaked Envoy drawing energy through it continually."
"That would explain why he's been so..." Tired and weak, but he wasn't going to say either of those things out loud. So Shen Wei had been using his soul as a doorstop. Of course he had. Zhao Yunlan didn't know why he was surprised. "Does that mean it's gonna close now?"
"Eventually, but it's not closing all that quickly," Zhang Shi explained. "For a conservative estimate, I expect it'll take a day or two at least. It's just that opposing its momentum takes a lot of energy, and energy is already in short supply, getting shorter."
"What happens if it closes the whole way?" Da Qing asked, with a face like he found everything about this dubious.
Zhang Shi gave a short, surprised laugh, something that would never have come out of Shen Wei's mouth. Zhao Yunlan cringed. "That I do not pretend to know, Da Qing," said Zhang Shi. "Maybe nothing. Maybe all the Dixingren in Haixing will slowly die of energy starvation. Maybe Dixing will collapse and suck all of Dragon City into the crater. The creators of the Hallows thought it was a good idea, but a lot has changed since then."
"Enough speculation," Zhao Yunlan said. Sealing off Dixing permanently wasn't one of Ma Gui's and Fu You's better ideas, apocalyptic results or no. "We're not letting the door disappear."
"As it is, I expect it will take all four Hallows to restabilize," Zhang Shi said hesitantly.
Zhao Yunlan waved his hands to make him shut up before he could freak anyone out. "We'll get Shen Wei back up here and that'll buy us time to figure out a permanent fix. Lao Chu, you try to open it."
Lao Chu's eyes slid between Zhang Shi and Zhao Yunlan. He wordlessly approached, strings unfurling from his palm and disappearing into the space of the doorway. His forehead crinkled and he jerked his hand back, and then his strings snapped and he pinwheeled for a second before regaining his balance. "There's no way I'm getting through that with so little energy coming through," he said, sounding slightly annoyed, like it was Zhao Yunlan's fault he'd almost fallen on his ass.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged and turned to his final resort. "Ye Zun, how are you on dark energy?"
"I did just have a snack," he purred.
Zhao Yunlan snorted. Crass, but Zhao Yunlan wasn't exactly feeling sorry for Xia Guiren. Somehow Ye Zun was the person who was getting on his nerves the least right now. "Your turn, then," he said, holding out his wallet. The portal couldn't be opened by anyone without a key; he'd need Zhao Yunlan's badge.
Ye Zun raised his eyebrows, opened his mouth, closed it, and took the beat-up wallet gingerly between two fingers like he might catch something. He put it in his own pocket, stepped forward, and, with a dramatic flourish, released a cascade of power just like Shen Wei's, stormy black smoke shot through with ice-blue. The air in the location of the doorway shimmered and went still again. Ye Zun's face twisted into a snarl and he jerked his wrist, cutting off the energy.
"No, no, try again," Zhao Yunlan said, shoving his shoulder.
Ye Zun elbowed him away. "I CAN open it, don't think I can't. Regrettably, it's not going to open wide enough for all of your riffraff to fit through," he said, not sounding regretful in the slightest.
So much of this was so familiar in the worst way. "How many?"
"Myself, certainly. Maybe one other."
Zhao Yunlan cursed and closed his eyes. Ye Zun was probably not lying, if Zhang Shi's and Lao Chu's failed attempts were anything to go on. So what other choice was there? This wasn't just a Shen Wei problem; Zhao Yunlan had to protect Dixing and Dragon City, too. He had to keep a passage open for everyone's sake. And Shen Wei had told him Ye Zun wouldn't be a danger anymore, if he came back. Shen Wei had trusted Ye Zun too easily in the past, which is part of why they'd agreed to take so many precautions, but Ye Zun, despite being as creepy as ever, had behaved himself quite well so far. As long as Zhao Yunlan was chill about it, he was confident that he could, by force of personality, keep the others chill, Ye Zun included. So Zhao Yunlan was gonna have to go with him like it was no biggie. For everyone's sake, but mostly for Shen Wei's. "Fine. Let's go."
"Lao Zhao, you can't be serious!" Da Qing yelled, grabbing Zhao Yunlan by the arm as he turned toward the portal.
"I have to bring Shen Wei back," Zhao Yunlan said, shaking him off.
"But -- if you take too long, Dixing will be sealed off and you'll be trapped. In Dixing. With Ye Zun!" Da Qing sounded outraged, but his eyes were big and scared.
Guilt pulled at the very last of Zhao Yunlan's frayed nerves. He pulled Da Qing sideways into a hug and messed up his hair. "I'm not going to take that long, damn cat. I know, I know, last time, but I was dead last time, the spacetime continuum is sneaky when you're dead. This isn't even dangerous, just a quick trip to visit the Hallows and right back again, ah?" Da Qing started to protest and Zhao Yunlan play-punched him in the ribs. "Listen, fatass, I need you to get your head on straight. You gotta cover for me. For one thing, somebody's gonna have to be called to scrape Xia Yang off the lab floor." And those security officers. They hadn't stood a chance. Fuck, that woman had a hell of a body count. "Just talk to Zhang Shi and get shit under control up here. We'll be back before dawn. All three of us."
That was a totally arbitrary promise and he knew Da Qing knew it. Still, he nodded under Zhao Yunlan's chin in sour resignation and wriggled out of his grip.
Zhao Yunlan started to turn away and then got stuck at the sight of Shen Wei's figure. He reached out in an abortive impulse to touch the man he loved before leaving, just in case, but one proper look reminded him forcefully that the only person behind Shen Wei's glasses was Zhang Shi, lips twitching with a smile that didn't belong on them. Zhao Yunlan turned his gesture into an impatient wave at Ye Zun. "Enough dithering, get on with it."
Ye Zun had been eyeing them all with a strange expression, his posture small, but now he turned to the portal, rolled back his shoulders, and repeated his showy gesture. It took him a moment to pry the portal open but he didn't break a sweat. He shot a smug sideways look at Zhao Yunlan, and they stepped through together.
It was also nighttime in Dixing when Ye Zun and Zhao Yunlan landed in the gateway, and there was nobody around. That was a good thing, as Zhao Yunlan immediately realized. "Dude, you can't walk around looking like that. Put on the Envoy's robes," he said under his breath.
Ye Zun frowned, but his appearance rippled and then he looked exactly, uncannily like Shen Wei, beyond just the face and clothes; he'd even mimicked Shen Wei's more muscular frame. "Do you have some kind of plan?" he asked.
"Well, yeah. Now it's easy. You just stay quiet and follow my lead," Zhao Yunlan said, then held up one finger. "And if anyone talks to you, for fuck's sake don't get snarky."
"I know how to imitate my own twin," Ye Zun whined, sounding very much like a little brother. "I fooled you, didn't I?"
Zhao Yunlan gave him a flat look. "You earned a little bit of goodwill by eating the guy who was trying to kill us," he said, although the guy had also been trying to kill Ye Zun, so it was hardly a selfless act of heroism. "If you don't want to lose it, never mention that again." Ye Zun rolled his eyes, then straightened his posture and his expression and gave Zhao Yunlan a very Shen Wei nod. It was uncanny verging on ghastly, but it was what Zhao Yunlan had asked him to do, so he couldn't really complain. "Okay. We're going to the Palace."
They walked through the dark streets of Dixing in tense silence. In the gloom, Dixing may as well not have changed at all in the past year. The few people who were out and about were either staggering home drunk, headed off to some early-morning job, or skulking around in the shadows, scurrying away at the sight of the Black-Cloaked Envoy. The air had that same old heavy quality that still made Zhao Yunlan a little lightheaded, and sounds were oddly muted, although deep rumbles and thuds from geologic activity and what passed for weather down here echoed from a great distance. He had yet to experience Dixing daylight in person, and if it weren't for the flowers blooming in window boxes he would have thought nothing had changed at all. It was a grim notion. Zhao Yunlan shoved it away.
The next thing that popped into his head, as he climbed the Palace stairs ahead of Ye Zun, was the thought that he might not be able to bring Shen Wei back, for any number of reasons. He didn't know how any of this stuff actually worked. He had a feel for manipulating energy within the Lantern after sorting the three of them out once, but this rescue mission was all based on hunches and supposition. How many reanimations did he expect to get away with? They really couldn't let the Envoy die, though, so he'd probably have to watch Zhang Shi walk around wearing Shen Wei as a meat suit for the rest of forever.
Zhao Yunlan bit the inside of his cheek till it hurt.
At the entrance to the Dixing Palace, the guards on duty took one look at the pair of them and stepped aside respectfully. There wasn't much activity inside, not that there ever was. The Regent must have been sleeping or something, though, so they weren't even subjected to any aggressive bootlicking. In the throne room, lit grim red and smelling like an overheated cast iron pan from the flowing magma, there was only An Bai behind his screen, writing furiously, the massive clock ticking away behind him.
Zhao Yunlan stepped up. "Hi," he said. Nothing. "Hey, can we go to the Hallows Chamber? We just need to see 'em, won't be more than a few minutes," he said. He and Shen Wei had every right to ask that, and the King wouldn't have any reason to stop them. Except for the Ye Zun thing. But if all went well, nobody would ever know about that, and if all did not go well, it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission when you were trying to visit the Hallows with the guy who tried to take the Hallows for himself and take over the world.
An Bai's right hand kept writing as he raised his left hand in a quick motion and rang the bell on his desk once.
Zhao Yunlan gave him a big thumbs up and a grin. He'd rather have spoken to An Bai like an actual person, but it seemed he was busy. Hopefully not with the closing passageway business; everything was so quiet that Zhao Yunlan didn't think Dixing had realized anything was wrong yet, but he still wasn't sure how the King...worked. "Thanks, man! We owe you one."
Ye Zun fell into step behind him and they made their way up one of the vertiginous spiral staircases that climbed to the upper floors. "Tell me something," Zhao Yunlan said quietly over his shoulder, mostly to distract himself. The closer he got to the Hallows, the more his stomach knotted up. "After two months of nothing, what brought you back tonight? Shen Wei leaving his body kicked you into yours?"
"Not exactly," Ye Zun said. He didn't seem inclined to say more, but Zhao Yunlan waited him out. They had quite a bit of walking to do. Eventually, Ye Zun sighed like he was doing Zhao Yunlan a big favor. "The release of energy helped me break through, but I could've come back before. I don't suppose you were trying to revive me, were you? That was an accident, hm?" Zhao Yunlan shrugged in the affirmative; he had known it might happen, but he wasn't going to admit that. Ye Zun sniffed. "Thanks to you, I woke up quite scrambled, but I sorted it out a while ago. I just preferred to stay absent from my own imprisonment. I've already had plenty of that."
Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes. Entitled brat, thinking he deserved better after everything he'd done. He should be grateful just to be alive. But on the other hand, he hadn't really deserved being sealed in the pillar back then, much less for ten thousand years, so maybe coming back to a cell wasn't something to be grateful for -- and after everything he'd done, maybe he'd have preferred to die. In that case, it served him right to have to live with it. "So then why didn't you stay dormant? Nobody forced you to wake up, right?"
This pause had a more awkward quality to it, like Ye Zun was struggling to answer rather than being intractable on purpose. "I was needed," Ye Zun said finally.
Oh. Zhao Yunlan had been expecting some more energy hocus-pocus, but. If he'd really come back only because Shen Wei was in danger in front of him...
Zhao Yunlan shook his head and laughed. "Well, you got a cool new trick out of it, didn't you?" Xia Guiren's power was a hell of an addition to the arsenal of someone who was already adept at mind control. Zhao Yunlan wasn't naive enough to discount that.
"Incidental," Ye Zun said coolly. There was no time to read into that, because they'd arrived.
The Hallows Chamber was guarded by two uniformed guards with guns, who simply bowed and pulled open the intricately carved wooden doors. That was nice, but the room also had some kind of security forcefield that depended upon the King's permission to enter. Zhao Yunlan had no idea if permission under false pretenses would count. He wasn't so sure he wanted Ye Zun inside that room regardless.
He turned to him in the open doorway, blocking his line of sight to the pedestals on which the Hallows rested. "Ah, Brother Black, I'm gonna need to concentrate. Can you stay out here and make sure nobody disturbs me?" He gave Ye Zun a wink.
Ye Zun's gaze sharpened, but then he gave a slow blink and a nod. "Of course. Please be careful."
That...was very realistic. Zhao Yunlan swallowed and turned away without another word. He was beginning to understand on a visceral level why Da Qing had been so furious about Zhang Shi occupying Zhao Yunlan's body for a year. At least the Shen Wei impersonators were just here for one weird terrible night. He had to believe that.
He moved into the room, and the guards closed the doors behind him. The thump reverberated in the stone chamber. The only light inside came from the Hallows, which were glowing with the soft cadence of sleepy breathing on their richly embroidered cushions. The Guardian Lantern was brightest by far, giving off a dazzling radiance even at night. Zhao Yunlan's inner ears fizzed unpleasantly when he so much as looked at it, and he knew that touching it was gonna suck, but Shen Wei was in there.
Probably. Based on the reckoning of Zhang Shi, who always sounded so goddamn certain he knew what he was talking about.
He crossed the room and stepped up onto the stone plinth. He was already here, with Ye Zun waiting for him outside, not yet getting into trouble, but that might only be a matter of time. If Shen Wei wasn't in there, then...the phantom feeling of the soft skin at Shen Wei's throat, perfectly still, rose to his fingertips, and with a frustrated growl he seized the Lantern.
For a time, he was passing through the flame. He could see nothing but fire dancing in front of his eyes, and the pain was exquisite. There was nothing mystical or incorporeal about it. His skin burned to crackling charcoal in seconds, fat melting and bubbling and dripping from his exposed flesh as his muscle cooked and sizzled. He felt himself screaming but couldn't hear anything over the roar of the flames, or maybe he had no vocal cords left to scream with.
Then the Lantern decided it had greeted him thoroughly enough and dropped him into the familiar psychedelic technicolor galaxy dreamsoup. "Ow, mother FUCKER," he said, rolling onto his back. "You asshole, aren't we friends by now? Couldn't you give me a break?"
"Zhao Yunlan," said Shen Wei, who wasn't there, and then was, dressed as usual in the outfit he'd had on the day Zhao Yunlan met him. He tugged his trousers over his knees primly and crouched down over him.
The relief was overpowering. A fit of joyous laughter burst out of Zhao Yunlan. "Hello, beautiful," he said when he had the breath for it. He sat up but didn't touch; touching was strange and not at all like you wanted it to be in this place. "What's a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?" Then he registered the look of pure horror on Shen Wei's face and he waved his hands. "It's okay, I'm not dead! You saved me. I'm just here to pick you up." He stood and Shen Wei followed him.
"What did you do?" Shen Wei asked, not really looking any calmer. "How are you here?"
"What did YOU do," Zhao Yunlan said, sort of teasingly, but then he remembered how pissed off he was. "Shen Wei! You left in me in the middle of the night without saying anything! I had to figure everything out on my own! What the hell were you thinking?! If you'd told me, we could have had a plan, and maybe you wouldn't be in here right now!"
Shen Wei stammered, "I-I didn't..." He took a breath. "Thank you for coming to my aid. If you hadn't shot Xia Yang, I'm not sure I could have defeated her while protecting Zhang Shi."
"No shit," Zhao Yunlan said crisply. "That's not an explanation."
"I'm the only one who's immune to Xia Guiren's power. The combination of his lies with her power was too dangerous. Faced with them both, most of their victims couldn't even see their deaths coming," Shen Wei said, and, yeah, if watching the video of Xia Yang waltzing right up to his father and tearing him open wasn't enough, he couldn't deny that back in the lab he'd ended up so mindfucked that only Shen Wei's orders had kept him alive. Zhao Yunlan was about to cede that particular point when Shen Wei added, "I failed in my duty as Envoy. You've lost another parent due to my negligence. And I...didn't handle this case well, either. After all of that, I could not let anything happen to you or your team."
Zhao Yunlan grabbed him by the shoulders. His hands didn't touch the fabric of a crisp white dress shirt over warm, firm muscle; they were stopped by a barrier that didn't feel like anything at all and didn't exactly correspond to the edges of Shen Wei's form. He gave him a little shake anyway. "My parents' deaths are not your fault. You know what is your fault? I woke up and I couldn't find you. I went to sleep holding you and I woke up alone." Shen Wei's eyes were searching his face, his expression a little bit frightened. Zhao Yunlan wasn't done. "I drove the whole way across town trying not to imagine Xia Yang taking you apart, just like she did to my dad! And then I walked in and found those guards in pieces."
Shen Wei spoke in a small voice. "I put the guards to sleep and hid them. They should have been safe. I...when I sensed the assassins approaching, I must have lost focus and let them wake up."
Zhao Yunlan fixed him with a look. "Is that why I woke up?" Shen Wei blinked. "Oh, for the love of -- Shen Wei! You are currently dead, or the next worst thing! Again! Did you plan that, too?"
"No. No, I didn't know," Shen Wei said quickly. "I didn't understand the...the nature of my situation. I never meant for this to happen. I'm sorry. Yunlan..."
Zhao Yunlan let out a long sigh. He didn't want to be shouting right now. He'd just been so damn scared. "I know it's not easy for you to understand how precious you are to me." Shen Wei startled. Zhao Yunlan realized he really didn't understand where the anger was coming from and softened further. "I love you so stupid much, baby. I keep trying to show you that, and...I guess I'm gonna keep on trying till it sinks in, and then never stop." Shen Wei's eyes were welling up, even though he still looked like he'd been slapped. "You're not going to die, so we're going to have a long time to work on that. But starting right now I need you to quit making decisions without me. Even if you have to handle something on your own, I need you to tell me about it. Can you just do that much for me?"
There was a long pause where Shen Wei couldn't meet his eye. "You...that's..." He swallowed and looked up. "Yes. Yes, I'll try."
Not a perfect answer, but Zhao Yunlan would let it slide for now. He gave him a reassuring smile and let his hands drop. "Okay. Let's get you back to yourself. We can talk about the other stuff at home." He prepared himself to send Shen Wei back; last time he'd had to wait for Shen Wei to become whole again, but now, with his body waiting for him, it should be as simple as dropping him in the right place.
Shen Wei rallied, seizing Zhao Yunlan's sleeve before he could turn away. "Wait, what happened with Xia Guiren?"
Zhao Yunlan's smile turned mischievous. Shen Wei was going to have kittens. "Oh, don't worry about that. Your brother inhaled him."
"What?!" Shen Wei said sharply.
Zhao Yunlan tore a flaming hole in space with both hands and shoved Shen Wei into it.
It would have been so satisfying, too, except Shen Wei bounced off with a startled noise.
Zhao Yunlan frowned, took Shen Wei's shoulders firmly, and steered him into the portal, but it was a barrier more solid than anything else in that space and all he was doing was smushing Shen Wei's face into it. Shen Wei brushed him off and pursed his lips at the rough handling. Zhao Yunlan nudged past him and started shoving at the blockage.
He could stick his hand in a little ways, but the resistance got stronger the further he pushed. "Ugh, what is this? Let him out!" he yelled, trying to rip it open wider.
Shen Wei interrupted his disagreement with the wormhole. "What's this about Ye Zun?"
"Oh." Zhao Yunlan paused, turned, and smiled sheepishly. He wasn't expecting to have to answer to that. "Hah. He woke up, I guess? But really, honey, it's your fault he's free. You let him out of the bunker."
"I let Zhang Shi out so that we could try to ascertain the Xia siblings' plan," Shen Wei said, Envoy-serious and just a little scary. "There was still no sign of Ye Zun at that time."
"Well, it's a good thing he showed up, because I needed him to get down here. Without you propping the door to Dixing open, it started to close, and Zhang Shi and Lao Chu both weren't powerful enough to open it." Oh. Oh, shit. The knot of fear that had eased upon seeing Shen Wei's face tightened right back up. "No, no, we were supposed to have at least a day before it closed, you should still be able to get through!" He hadn't been able to aim too well in time last time, but this time he was alive and time was still passing normally for him. There was no way it had been more than half an hour.
Frustrated, he kicked at the open portal and the rebounding force was so strong he would've fallen if Shen Wei hadn't caught him by the arms. He hissed and rubbed his stubbed toes, which hurt just as if all of this was physically real.
"I was holding the passage to Haixing open? Because of my connection with the Hallows? I see," Shen Wei said, his eyes drifting in thought. "But I'm not the only one with such a connection. It would have to stay partially open as long as you and Ye Zun..."
"...Stayed in Haixing," Zhao Yunlan finished for him. If Shen Wei drew power through the Hallows, so did Ye Zun, and now that the Lantern had Zhao Yunlan it wasn't letting go. They'd come through and the trap had snapped shut behind them. "Oh, we're idiots."
Okay, this was bad, it was exactly what they'd been trying to prevent, but as long as the world hadn't ended outside, it was fixable. Zhang Shi said the Hallows could stabilize the passage. He had the Hallows. They were great at making holes of all kinds, really. He just needed to get them to the correct location. Quickly.
He squeezed Shen Wei's hand, because that was better than nothing even if he couldn't feel his skin, and took a large step back from the open hole. "Wait here, baby! I'm gonna fix this. You just keep your foot in that wormhole and go through the second it's clear, got it?" Zhao Yunlan reached out into the usual four dimensions and wrapped his hand around the Guardian Lantern.
"Wait, Yunlan, how --" Shen Wei said, reaching for him again, but now his hand went right through.
"The second it's clear!" Zhao Yunlan repeated. "See you on the surface!"
The image of Shen Wei's face, wide open with dismay, froze and dissolved, and apropos of nothing Zhao Yunlan was thirteen years old, in the hallway outside his middle school gym, during the one and only year he'd been on the basketball team, after the one and only game his dad attended. With his dad's eyes on him, he'd tried to shoot every chance he got. He'd missed, repeatedly, and his teammates blamed him for losing the game, and now he was trying to stay composed in front of his father, who he knew was embarrassed by how easily his son still cried at this age. "Yunlan, you can't win games alone," his dad chided, as he stared at his sneakers and bit his lip to stop it quivering. "Hasn't your coach told you to trust your teammates and pass the ball?"
Zhao Yunlan came to with a harsh gasp, the phantom sensation of gangly pubescent limbs fading fast. He found himself curled on his side on the cold stone plinth, the Lantern nestled against his chest. The familiar weight of his father's disappointment settled on him oddly now, but he'd have to shelve that for the time being. It wasn't exactly new for the Hallows to evoke some buried childhood trauma before letting him wake up, and he had one more job to do tonight.
Peeling himself off the ground and poking his head out into the hallway, Zhao Yunlan was confronted with the back of the Envoy's hood. Ye Zun was standing with his back to the door, doing a good impression of stoically guarding the room. "Brother Black, a word?"
A couple of minutes later, Zhao Yunlan stepped out of the Hallows Chamber with his jacket bulging suspiciously, like the planet's most ambitious shoplifter. The guards didn't even look at him. Ye Zun gave him a small, secret smirk, and Zhao Yunlan shot him a warning glare. Ye Zun was obviously getting a kick out of taking his new ability for a spin, but Zhao Yunlan was anxiously aware that Xia Guiren's lies didn't always hold up under scrutiny. They walked right out, though, just like Ye Zun promised him, past several more guards and staff members and the King himself.
The sky above Dixing -- the vast pocket of air below the cavern ceiling, anyway -- had begun to lighten all over to a hazy, rosy gray, not quite like a proper sunrise but close enough to one that it startled Zhao Yunlan when they emerged into the streets. Even in the half-light, the city looked dramatically different. And people had started to wake up.
It wasn't like Zhao Yunlan didn't know how bad an idea this was. Stealing the Hallows with Ye Zun had not been part of his plan at any point. But if Dixing was truly sealed off right now, or nearly so, then the time it would take to explain the situation and ask for permission and get everyone where they were supposed to be and so on could cost lives. He was taking a gamble that the other two Dixing sovereigns wouldn't dare hold the Black-Cloaked Envoy and the Guardian of Haixing to account after the fact for "borrowing" the Hallows. They just needed to avoid a confrontation before they could get to the gate and do...whatever it was he was had to do. He'd figure that bit out when he got there.
The combination of reputation and whatever amount of power Ye Zun was still using kept the ordinary Dixingren from bothering them, but Zhao Yunlan wasn't sure if there was some mechanism by which the missing Hallows would raise an alarm. As the sky got lighter and shaded towards gold and Dixing's customary gloom receded into patches of diffuse shadow at the foundations of structures, Zhao Yunlan started to pick up the pace, Ye Zun matching him easily, even as Zhao Yunlan was becoming slightly breathless from exerting himself in Dixing's atmosphere, and slightly dizzy with the pins-and-needles shooting through him from the Hallows, separated from his body only by the thin fabric of his shirt.
When they reached the gateway, Zhao Yunlan didn't waste any time in unbuttoning his jacket and taking out the Lantern, and the sensation bloomed into a hot, heady sizzle that made him shudder involuntarily. He wet his lips, stepped into the space where the passage should be, and closed his eyes on instinct.
At first there was just nothing, nothing but the burning, and he anxiously wondered if he could make a hole through the fabric of space from scratch without winding up in the wrong hemisphere, or inside the moon, or in the Cretaceous. But after a moment, he located the door.
It wasn't at all what he'd thought, when he'd seen it through Shen Wei's eyes, but then, it was in a very different state now. It wasn't a hole in the conventional sense, but an object. A solid spherical thing firmly fixed in the air, not hovering, more fixed in space to its coordinates in relation to the center of the planet. Far too small for a man to pass through. When he stretched his hand out to touch its surface, he felt doubled. Another him, above, many miles of solid bedrock in between, touching the exact same object which was also fixed in the park in Dragon City.
He dug his fingers right into the rim of the bubble. A nauseous blackness rose up in his throat and he broke out in a cold sweat instantly. He grabbed on and pulled.
The resistance was much like what he'd just experienced with the wormhole he'd made for Shen Wei, springy, but this was firmer, and his fingers were immediately tangled up in it, strands of tarry black adhering to him like he was trying to pull taffy. He could feel and see the flame of the Guardian Lantern intensifying in response to a demand for power, could sense the passage widening when he strained against it, but as soon as he let up, it bounced back.
Panting with effort, he blinked his eyes open, and experienced a weird double-vision. The gate pillars and the austere Dixing architecture and the swath of sky became a confusing overlay of pale yellow and granite gray across the black outline of the black doorway he still had his hand tangled up in. He blinked and blinked until he could make out Ye Zun, leaning too casually for the Envoy against one of the stone horse figures at the bottom of the gate, and a slowly gathering crowd of onlookers, which he decided was not his problem. "I can't get him through," Zhao Yunlan said to Ye Zun. He jerked his arm back and found it held fast, threads of unreality wrapped around the joints of his fingers so tight they threatened to break bone. Well, shit. "Or get myself out."
Ye Zun straightened. "Seriously? I thought you knew what you were doing."
Zhao Yunlan didn't stop and think about it. Maybe it was childish to imagine the Hallows intending to communicate anything with him, but he'd been reminded to trust his teammates and pass the ball. He fumbled to tuck the Guardian Lantern under his occupied arm, then started awkwardly digging Hallows out of his pockets. "Come take two of these." He held out the Dial and the Brush.
Ye Zun's mouth fell open. He took a jerky step forward, his hands reaching out with greedy, twitchy fingers, and then he paused to ask, "You're not -- worried?"
"Should I be?" Zhao Yunlan said, shaking the Hallows impatiently. The blackness in his throat was slowly tightening and he was beginning to see spots. "Just help me pull this thing!"
Ye Zun seized the Hallows, breathing hard, his lips twisting with a hedonistic joy at the first touch of them.
"Grab the doorway," Zhao Yunlan snarled at him, lightheaded and nauseated. "Now." Both his hands were numb; he was managing to hold the Awl and the handle of the Lantern in one hand only because his fingers were locked around them.
Ye Zun's hand, with the Dial, plunged into the sphere. The fibers of the doorway thrashed and cinched tighter in reaction to Ye Zun's grip; they were both trapped now, and there was nothing to do but pull. With both of them straining in opposite directions, the doorway began to unfurl with a sort of slithery hiss. The three visible Hallows went from glowing to strobing. Ye Zun was surrounded by a miasma of bluish energy, his teeth bared, and when Zhao Yunlan looked down at himself, flames were licking along the leather of his sleeve, across his chest, down to his fingers; his body was feverishly hot and he wasn't sure how real they were.
A few seconds to minutes later, he felt something colossal being dragged free from the Lantern and sucked violently into the passage, like a whirlpool swallowing an aircraft carrier an inch from his nose. A lingering trace of soothing cool energy remained, clinging like mist to his overheated skin. He'd felt this before, the first time he'd been in the Lantern, and he'd have known it anywhere. Shen Wei's energy, potent, tightly controlled, unfathomable, and going back where it belonged. Whatever air was left in him came out in a gasping sob.
The passage immediately responded as well, ballooning out to double in size, but the resistance didn't decrease. Zhao Yunlan couldn't see Ye Zun through it anymore. He couldn't hear, either, between the hiss of the doorway, the crackling of flame, and the mosquito whine of his own brain threatening to black out. He could, however, see a contingent of heavily armed Dixing guards rushing up the street towards them, the leader shouting something, and the crowd of rubberneckers shrinking back. He wanted to warn the guards to stay back -- he didn't know exactly what would happen if he and Ye Zun were forced out of the gate right now but he didn't think anyone in the vicinity would survive it -- but he couldn't get any breath into his lungs, and all the force he and Ye Zun and the Hallows were exerting was no longer widening the passage at all, as it coiled and coiled, volatile and caught between them.
The lead guard gave an order, and weapons were levelled in their direction. Zhao Yunlan pinched his eyes shut, so he could only see himself on fire and the black sphere, and put everything he had into burning.
Then, without warning, a storm of energy like a sharp winter wind blew out between the threads of blackness and the sphere exploded open right through him.
"Lord Envoy, you need to stop, this is going to kill you again," Chu Shuzhi was saying urgently, holding half of Shen Wei's weight with a hand under his elbow and one on his back. Da Qing was trying to ask what was going on from somewhere behind them. Zhang Shi attempted to wrest control from him briefly and was swatted aside harder than necessary for his insolence. Shen Wei couldn't spare the attention right now; he had been fully replenished by his forced transit through the wormhole, but he had both hands stretched out in front of him, pouring energy into the doorway, heedless of the burning pressure in his lungs and the familiar tang of blood. The doorway was unstable. If this failed, it could evaporate, or explode violently. He had to hope that his push from the other side was enough to let Zhao Yunlan and Ye Zun stabilize it without coming to any harm. It was the only thing he could do.
Frustrated, Chu Shuzhi gave up trying to reason with him, shifted his grip, and threw his own energy towards the portal. It was meager, less than he would ordinarily have, but the door responded, and Shen Wei surged forward, pressing everything he'd just gained back into the opening.
His energy flashed back at him in a recoil that nearly sent him to the ground. His ears popped, he staggered, and then a body collided with him hard and they both staggered. Zhao Yunlan, whole and beautiful and very red in the face, threw his arms around him and clung on. Shen Wei bracketed his waist with his hands to keep him from falling.
"Xiao Wei, Xiao Wei," he gasped, "oh, sweetheart, it's really you, you saved my ass again, of course you did," and Shen Wei had done no such thing; it was Zhao Yunlan who had rescued him; he had foundered, put Zhao Yunlan in a terrible bind, and contributed the barest pittance to getting him back out of it; but the affection blindsided him and he was too weak to disagree when Zhao Yunlan's lips were on his. He kissed Shen Wei twice, quickly, reached up to wipe blood off Shen Wei's chin with the edge of his shirt sleeve, and kissed him again, deeper and with a desperate hint of teeth. Shen Wei was swept along, and could only cup one hand around his nape and try to show Zhao Yunlan something of his contrition.
When Zhao Yunlan broke the kiss, he was smiling, and his soft, awed gaze held Shen Wei transfixed -- until Shen Wei noticed a streak of dried blood on his face. Frowning, he slid his palm up over his cheek. The cut dwindled satisfyingly to nothing under his hand with the barest wisp of energy. Zhao Yunlan gave a hoarse puff of laughter and put his hand over Shen Wei's. When he spoke, his voice was filled with that same unfair adoration Shen Wei had been trying fruitlessly to deserve ever since Kunlun. "I felt you go, baby. But then I felt you come back for me."
Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows in surprise, then moved aside, as far as he could while keeping one hand on Shen Wei's back. Ye Zun, dressed in a white suit, stood with a glowing Hallow in each hand, framed by the twisting foggy borders of a passageway that was much bigger than he had ever seen, a subway tunnel of a singularity, yawning wide and alien in front of the old tree and the trimmed hedge.
For several tense seconds, Zhao Yunlan and Ye Zun watched each other, and Shen Wei watched them both. Then Zhao Yunlan chuckled and shook his finger at Ye Zun. "You're right. He did it for us." He approached Ye Zun and held out his hands. "Now may I have my babies back, please?"
Ye Zun shrunk back, pulling the Longevity Dial and the Merit Brush to his chest, his eyes flicking furtively between Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei. "Didi," Shen Wei said carefully, bracing to chase Ye Zun to Dixing if he tried to run, "you did well. Thank you. You can give them to him now."
Ye Zun glanced down, his eyes narrowing. The Lantern and the Awl were scattered on the bricks, glowing weakly where Zhao Yunlan had just flung them aside. Ye Zun crouched down to scoop them up, and Chu Shuzhi took two large steps forward, but Zhao Yunlan swung his hand out sharply to stop him. Shen Wei watched, stunned, as Ye Zun crossed to Zhao Yunlan and dumped all four Hallows into his arms, cringing with distaste as he did.
Zhao Yunlan made a surprised noise and struggled to keep hold of them all. Shen Wei placed a steadying hand under his elbow, and then, before Ye Zun could make a move, lifted the other hand to his own temple, and, with a quick surge of energy, threw Zhang Shi back into Ye Zun's body.
Zhang Shi hissed and shook his head. "Ah, that was -- different," he said weakly. "But at least Yunlan won't be kissing me again."
That...Shen Wei had not considered that. His face heated and he ducked his chin. Zhao Yunlan, who was inelegantly unloading the Hallows onto Chu Shuzhi, laughed loudly. "Never say never! You look almost just like my wife."
"Yunlan," Shen Wei said sharply, at the same time as Ye Zun said, "Keep dreaming, pervert."
It just made Zhao Yunlan laugh harder. When he'd partially sobered, he turned back to Chu Shuzhi. "Can you take those back to the Palace for me? And explain what happened. And apologize profusely. I, uh, may have stirred up the hornet's nest a little bit." Chu Shuzhi glared. "You can go home after that! I'm giving you tomorrow off!" Zhao Yunlan said, giving a parody of a gracious bow, and then glancing up at the sky through the budding branches, where it was turning indigo with a few gray clouds lit red from below. "Er, today."
"Today is Saturday," Chu Shuzhi said flatly, but he stomped toward the portal anyway.
"Have them send for us if you get arrested!" Zhao Yunlan called after him, returning to Shen Wei and wrapping an arm around his waist. "He'll be fine," he muttered.
Shen Wei huffed and shook his head, and then glanced back at Ye Zun, who had his arms crossed and was looking away. "We'd better take him...back. To the lab," he said in an undertone.
Ye Zun heard. "No, please, gege, no, not there, don't shut me in there," he said in a rush, crowding them. Da Qing, in cat form, hissed and swiped at his shins, and Ye Zun took a startled step back. His eyes bored into Shen Wei, wide and glistening: his frightened little brother, pleading not to be abandoned again. The sudden, sharp need to protect him stole Shen Wei's breath away.
Zhao Yunlan didn't have that problem. "It's okay, it's okay," he said, gesturing for man and cat to calm down. He bent to pick up Da Qing, whose hair was standing on end. The cat scrambled up to his shoulders, making Zhao Yunlan wince at the added weight. "Honestly, I think the lab is pretty well wrecked for the moment. We can't take you back there now anyway."
"Then where...?" Ye Zun whispered.
"Well, Xiao Wei, that's really up to you, isn't it? He's a Dixing criminal in Haixing, so regardless of what the Department of Supervision would prefer, he's under your authority." Shen Wei just looked at him. What was he suggesting? "Hey, he helped me save you and did a service to all of Dixing just now. And he gave back the Hallows. Zhang Shi will help us keep an eye on him until we figure out what to do with him. Right?"
Ye Zun's eyes lit up with flame. "Yes," Zhang Shi said, "of course, whatever you decide."
"Shen Wei ah," Zhao Yunlan murmured, his fingers spread wide on Shen Wei's flank, "I think it'll be okay."
Shen Wei swallowed twice around the lump in his throat. Zhao Yunlan was serious. In all his impossible kindness, he meant to give Ye Zun another chance. A fragment of dawn sunlight glinted off flyaway strands of his wildly messy hair and lit his eyes golden as he waited for Shen Wei's answer. "Yes," Shen Wei said hoarsely, "okay. Let's..." He cleared his throat and spoke louder. "Let's go home."
Ye Zun's teary eyes overflowed, and it hurt too much for Shen Wei to look straight at either of them. Zhao Yunlan was laughing again, surprised.
"You're all insane," Da Qing said from Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. "And we still have another problem. That portal isn't closing."
Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan both turned in unison to look at the doorway, which was indeed still gaping wide open. "Whoops," Zhao Yunlan said. "We really tore the universe a new one. Well, that does solve the energy situation...?" Despite the persistent good humor, he had become quite pale and was wavering slightly on his feet. His exhaustion was catching up with him.
Shen Wei knew he should go to Dixing immediately and see to securing the gate and clearing up any confusion surrounding the Hallows, and any trouble Chu Shuzhi had encountered. Before anything else, however, he had a more pressing duty. He was going to make breakfast and tuck Zhao Yunlan into bed. And -- the thought staggered him -- Ye Zun, too. "I'll contact the Palace from home," he said firmly. "We'll need to establish security. I don't think it will be possible to set the passage back as it was."
"You'll send them a quick email and then get some sleep. Let's not forget you just died a couple of hours ago," Zhao Yunlan told him, and began walking without waiting for an answer, Shen Wei and Da Qing carried with him.
Ye Zun fell in next to them. "Well, our erstwhile assassins would be pleased, wouldn't they?" he said lightly, at odds with his red eyes and damp cheeks. "This is what they wanted. An open door."
"What they wanted, brother-in-law," Zhao Yunlan sighed, throwing his free arm over Ye Zun's shoulders, "was their family back."
Oh my, Zhao Yunlan seems to have forgotten that Ye Zun has his wallet. I hope he remembers to take it back before Ye Zun discovers online shopping.
Chapter 8: Epilogue: An Overdue Conversation
Ol' Ratty bubbles up like a fluid from a crack in your bedroom wall at night. When you wake, there is a streak of something gelatinous on the floor, and an epilogue wrapped in wet kelp at the end of your bed.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
On the following Sunday, nearly two weeks after the death of Zhao Xinci, Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei picked up two bouquets of white carnations and drove to the cemetery.
The past week had been hectic. With the homicide suspects dead and only one body left behind, closing the case with the Department of Supervision had been a mess. The open passage to Dixing hadn't softened the Xingdu Bureau to Zhao Yunlan's handling of the case, either. People could walk right through -- from either side. The location was so nondescript on the Haixing end that two humans innocently strolling in the park had fallen straight into Dixing in the several hours before the first temporary security barrier had been erected.
Meanwhile, Shen Wei had been splitting his time three ways between the corresponding political and practical proceedings and placations in Dixing, his backlog of university work, and his brother, who was living in Shen Wei's apartment for the moment.
For all Zhao Yunlan believed he was right about Ye Zun deserving another chance, he'd also made that call because he was pretty sure now that Ye Zun was more dangerous locked up, and that the best shields known to science wouldn't hold him for all that long. Shen Wei was also wary, and obviously felt an immense weight of responsibility for both protecting his twin and protecting everyone else from him; the upshot was that Shen Wei was spending the nights across the hall.
When Zhao Yunlan had actually managed to see Shen Wei in between everything, it was mostly as the Black-Cloaked Envoy and the Guardian of Haixing, passing news and demands and documents from one government to the other and sneaking a kiss in before parting. It made for an expedient diplomatic relationship but a pretty lonely romantic one. Zhao Yunlan knew it was sort of dickish to be jealously coveting Shen Wei's attention when he'd been the cause of much of the present upheaval and Shen Wei was still cleaning up after him, but he couldn't help it. He missed his boyfriend. So when Shen Wei offered to come with him today, he agreed right away.
Now he wasn't so sure that had been the best idea. When he'd brought Shen Wei to his mom's grave before, Shen Wei hadn't been able to stop awkwardly babbling about politics, and the last time they'd been here was during the funeral, right after the thing he still hadn't properly apologized for. Shen Wei was silent and tense as they walked towards the Zhao family plot, with a face like he regretted his offer.
Zhao Xinci's grave was visibly fresh, both from the mound of bare earth and the three other bunches of flowers already laying on it. Shen Xi's grave was grown over with grass and undecorated. The only other person who'd still visited her was now buried next to her.
Zhao Yunlan placed flowers on his mother's grave first, pausing to pass his fingers over the characters of her name. He huffed a soft laugh. Mom really would've liked Shen Wei. They'd have been a nightmare together, though, teaming up to make Zhao Yunlan pick up his socks and stop swearing. Yeah, Shen Wei would've liked her, too.
He stood and turned to Shen Wei, who silently held out the bouquet he was holding, not quite making eye contact. Zhao Yunlan took the flowers and crouched down next to his father's grave, found a spot for them. He looked away from the brand new glossy headstone, the inscription like a taunt, "Loving Husband and Father." Well, that was going to be there forever, wasn't it. Great. "I'm not gonna talk to him," he said out loud. "He's dead. And I never had anything to say when he was alive, anyway."
The silence stretched out until it was obvious Shen Wei didn't know what to say. It's not like he expected him to; he hadn't said it for his benefit.
He stood up and stared across the cemetery. It was kind of a chilly day, and there weren't many people around, just grass rippling and rows and rows of graves under a low slate sky. "What really pisses me off is I used to be like him," he told the middle distance. "I took this job because I thought I'd show him I could do it better. I thought that meant arresting more Dixingren. Thought they didn't belong here, that they were...menaces to human society."
"Us," Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan twisted around and frowned at him, picking up only on the Ye Zun quote and missing his meaning for a moment. Then he smiled wryly. "Yeah. You as well."
"But you weren't so wrong about that. Dixingren are dangerous to Haixingren." Shen Wei's eyes flicked down to Zhao Xinci's grave.
"Everyone's a danger to everyone, Xiao Wei. You've got powers, I've got a gun. It's like I told everyone back then. Dixingren are just people." Maybe people would finally start to take that to heart, with the passage wide open. Migration was inevitable. Neither of them was in any danger of losing their job any time soon, anyway.
"Do you think it's that simple?" Shen Wei asked, like he honestly wanted to know.
"It's not simple, but..." Zhao Yunlan held his hands out. "Well, look at you, Lord Envoy. You're just a man, aren't you? Okay, not just," he hedged, when he saw Shen Wei draw breath to say something, "you're a total badass, and super smart, and endlessly complicated. But you're...." Zhao Yunlan deliberately ran his gaze down Shen Wei's body and back up again, smirking. "Definitely a man."
Shen Wei's cheeks flushed, but he still had something to say. "That -- if that's so, then surely -- Zhao Yunlan." He stopped, collected himself, and nodded to Zhao Xinci's grave. "Surely he was just a...complicated man, too."
Zhao Yunlan didn't know what he'd been expecting Shen Wei to say, but definitely not that. He was dumbstruck for several seconds. Shen Wei could shut him up like no one else. "How can you say that?" Zhao Yunlan rasped. "How could you forgive him?" With all the people he killed just for being the wrong race in the wrong place. With the way he'd talked to and about Shen Wei. Granted, that part probably bothered Zhao Yunlan more.
"I haven't forgiven his actions, but I had hoped to find some way to mend things," Shen Wei said. Zhao Yunlan could feel the incredulity all over his face. "He was your father," Shen Wei amended quietly. "You were prepared to give your life for him."
He'd nearly forgotten it: Zhao Xinci on a rooftop at Sha Ya's mercy, mustering his cruelest sentiments to try to shake Zhao Yunlan off. Or to protect him, if you were feeling generous. That moment hadn't made a huge impression on Zhao Yunlan, compared with all the other insanity, but it had obviously stuck with Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan sort of wished it hadn't. "Yeah, well," he said, "We never give up on family."
"No, we don't," Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes, assessing his expression, then raised a finger. "News on Ye Zun, then?"
Shen Wei gave him one of those surprised, befuddled looks, and then smiled ruefully at the ground. "Yes. They're willing to take him on in a position at the Palace, out of the public eye, only because Zhang Shi is with him. Of course, he'll be under many restrictions due to his crimes, and I'll be supervising him carefully."
Ye Zun with his own job and his own place, where they could keep an eye on him. And Shen Wei back in Zhao Yunlan's bed. It was a beautiful solution. "What kind of position?" Zhao Yunlan asked, perching his butt on the edge of his dad's headstone.
"They want him to work in the library."
Zhao Yunlan burst out laughing. "Zhang Shi in the Dixing library! Ye Zun wasn't that far off about the Xia siblings getting their way. Except they ARE dead." Zhao Yunlan looked down. "Hear that, Dad? You'd be proud of that outcome." He scratched a hand through his hair and sighed. "Well, they almost killed you, so I guess I'm not particularly sorry. But they did do us the service of alerting us to the portal situation, and Ye Zun certainly wouldn't be about to become Dixing's most fashionable librarian without them."
Shen Wei was watching him, looking for something. The wind ruffled his hair. "You really believe he's changed." A question, though not phrased as one.
"I do," Zhao Yunlan affirmed. "Well, as they say up north, trust but verify. I don't believe he suddenly grew a moral compass of his own, but I'm sure he loves his gege." Last night, Shen Wei had cooked dinner at Zhao Yunlan's place, and he hadn't had the chance to finally get some time alone with him because Ye Zun had taken his place, leaning over his brother's shoulder, asking questions, making remarks, stealing bites before the food was done, and transparently hanging on Shen Wei's every word. Zhao Yunlan was a big enough man to admit to himself it made him a little jealous, but it was worth it for what it did for Shen Wei.
That disbelieving, bittersweet smile on Shen Wei's face right now said it all. He'd always wanted his twin back, badly enough to fall for it twice when it was offered falsely, and it mustn't have seemed real to him now. The way he asked, it was like he only believed it on the strength of Zhao Yunlan's faith. Well, Zhao Yunlan could do that for him.
"I love him, too," Shen Wei admitted softly. Then his brow creased. "I shouldn't. I still see what he did to you when I look at him." He was seeing it now, Zhao Yunlan guessed; his eyes moved across Zhao Yunlan's face like he was assuring himself he wasn't bleeding. "I will never forgive him for that, but..."
"Yeah. That's kind of how love is, in my experience." Zhao Yunlan smacked the grave marker between his legs and scoffed derisively. "No matter how bad they hurt you, you keep on caring. You don't really get a choice."
Shen Wei flinched, his face turned away and Zhao Yunlan had to stare at his Adam's apple bobbing for a sec to figure out what just happened. When he did, he was off the stone and in Shen Wei's space straightaway, grabbing for his hands. "Oh, no. No, love. I was only talking about Dad. Shen Wei, look at me." It was a big ask, and Shen Wei's eyes were scared when he managed it. "I didn't mean you," Zhao Yunlan said slowly, so he couldn't possibly mistake his meaning. "I will always, always choose you."
"I left you," Shen Wei whispered. "You had to come after me. You could have been killed in a dozen ways."
"Uh-huh. Sometimes you're a pain in the ass. But you're my pain in the ass. We're each other's pains in the ass, that's how this works." Zhao Yunlan cracked a grin, stifled it, and curbed his urge to add something dirty out loud. Not the time. "Listen, I'll reiterate the 'please stop keeping potentially deadly secrets' thing. Please. Stop. But you're still gonna do stuff that stresses me out, and do you think that'll be enough to get rid of me? No, fuck no. Don't even try." This would be the time for the apology. Zhao Yunlan pinched his eyes shut. "And about the funeral..."
"You don't need to," Shen Wei started, but Zhao Yunlan physically shushed him with a finger on his lips.
"I really think I do. I'm sorry I let you think you weren't helping. I was upset, angry and embarrassed, but you -- all I needed was for you to be there. That's why I was so mad when you disappeared on me. What I was going through, what I'm still going through, losing Dad, it's..."
He craned his head back and blew out a heavy breath, tried to loosen up. "I've got a lot of...feelings and shit to sort through, and it's going to take a while. And I'm sorry, but I need you to -- I need you to be around when you can, and I need you to bear the brunt of my...everything, because I don't -- really --" Zhao Yunlan hadn't prepared for how to explain this and way too much was coming out, but maybe they needed that, maybe Shen Wei needed to hear it. "Have anyone else," he confided roughly.
He let the rest just gush forth. "Da Qing and the others are great but you're the one who takes care of me and I want that. I know you're busy. And I know you don't deserve me yelling at you, and spilling booze on your sheets, and cycling from grumpy to horny to withdrawn and back at top speed, but I'm kind of a bastard, okay, and I just need my, my Shen Wei."
When the words stopped, he braced himself, stretched his stiff neck to one side and the other, and opened his eyes. There was a lollipop in front of his nose, unwrapped for him. He uncrossed his eyes and followed it up Shen Wei's arm to his face, which was a breathtaking mess of emotions. Shen Wei blinked rapidly and explained in a thick voice, "I brought it along. I thought you might need one."
Zhao Yunlan laughed incredulously, a big warm bubble of affection expanding too fast in his chest at the sight of this precious boy, who, with all his powers and all their burdens, was somehow still his at the end of the day. Shen Wei had been thinking of him after all, of course he had. Lollipops in his pockets now -- god, that was just about too much. Helpless with giggles, he opened his mouth wide, and Shen Wei, looking for all the world too sweet and delicate of sensibility to mean anything less than innocent by it, inserted the candy. Caramel. Zhao Yunlan made a vigorous and indecent sucking noise. It made Shen Wei break into a smile, and they just looked at each other for a couple of breaths.
"I didn't realize," Shen Wei said quietly. "I'm not very good at..." He didn't fill in the end of the sentence. "But of course, Yunlan, you're more important than any of my other duties. Whatever you ask of me, whatever you'll allow -- if you want me to be here," as if he still didn't entirely believe it, "then I'm here."
Zhao Yunlan tugged on his arm. Shen Wei cast a wary eye around them. "It's a cemetery, nobody's looking," Zhao Yunlan said, chuckling indulgently, and Shen Wei let himself be reeled in. He even hugged back, warm and strong, a hand in Zhao Yunlan's hair and his chin tucked over his shoulder. Zhao Yunlan squeezed him hard, rolled his lollipop into his cheek, and pressed his nose into Shen Wei's silky hair. "I'm not gonna take you away from your various duties, though," he said, muffled. "For one thing, your students would kill me. Do you think you can teach with me hanging off you like a baby koala?"
To Zhao Yunlan's full-body delight, Shen Wei was laughing softly. "It doesn't seem entirely practical?" he said.
"Ah well," Zhao Yunlan responded, nuzzling at the side of Shen Wei's head persistently until he turned his pink cheek enough for Zhao Yunlan to kiss it. "I'm sure I can think of a way for you to make it up to me."
Do you hear that clunking noise? That's Zhao Xinci rolling over in his grave at his only progeny macking on the Black-Cloaked Envoy right in front of his salad.
Tidbit that didn't make it in: Shen Wei has already personally convinced Chen Ji (from ch. 3, the son of Chen Baoming, the murdered limo driver) to change his major to biology so Shen Wei can keep his extremely protective dadmode eye on him. Zhao Yunlan didn't ask him to do that, but he did worry about the kid aloud once, so he might as well have.
Closing remarks: Thank you so very very much for giving me the totally undeserved opportunity to deliver my first fic into your eyeholes! Or the sensory orifice of your choice! I've still got a lot to learn and I know this story has its problems, but I hope I've been able to keep you entertained.
Double thank you with cheese to everyone who has left or will leave kudos and/or comments. I had zero confidence when I posted the first chapter of this thing and the response so far has been unbelievably encouraging and kind and insightful and helpful. You're all beautiful, come here, let Ratty hug you.
At the time of posting, you cannot find me anywhere else on the internet, but you can drop me a line, for any reason or no reason at all, at ratfic at gmail (also available on my profile). Or in the comments, as always. I'm much better at correspondence than maintaining a public presence, it's a personal failing.
Alright, I should go before I babble any more or start crying or something. If all goes well, you'll hear from me again soon!