Four months into Tang Yi’s incarceration, three seemingly unrelated things happen in rapid succession. One, Yu Qi introduces her new girlfriend to her team. This is met with general cooing and congratulations as Yu Qi blushes, not quite able to hide her pleased grin. Two, Jun Wei follows up with an introduction of his own a few days later, sheepish hand on the back of his neck. This is met with a bit less cooing and more raucous, good-natured mockery. Three, Meng Shaofei is stabbed on the way home from work.
“What?” Jack asks, phone sandwiched between his ear and shoulder as he scrambles eggs. “What? Zhao Zi, slow down, what did you say?”
“A’Fei’s in the hospital!” There’s a burst of static, some background shouting. “The hos—wait, nonono, just a—”
“The hospital? Which one?” Jack asks, already switching off the fire and scooping the half-done eggs into a bowl. “Do you need me to come get you?” He’s mapping out the possibilities in his mind, tracing out routes and cataloguing traffic patterns. “I’m on my way.”
“Jun Wei’s driving us—it’s the one by the university! Okay, see you soon! Bye-bye!”
Jack is out the door the second he gets himself out of Grandma’s apron with practiced ease, door locked, helmet on—
He guns it.
It’s not that Jack is overly concerned about Meng Shaofei, as it were. Oh, he certainly likes the man well enough—Officer Meng is earnest to a fault, genuine to the point of embarrassment, and far too open with his heart to dislike—but Jack has priorities.
“Where?” he asks as soon as he spots Zhao Zi, yanking off his helmet.
Zhao Zi’s eyes are predictably watery, and Jack reaches for him without thinking. Zhao Zi reaches back automatically. Jack’s heart still takes a stumble at that, but that’s something just for him to know.
“Near Da’an Forest,” Zhao Zi says, voice muffled against Jack’s shirt. “He was cutting through on his way home—”
“Where on his body,” Jack clarifies. Different priorities. “How serious is it?”
“Oh,” Zhao Zi sniffs. “Between the ribs, aiming for the heart. They missed, but I think he has a collapsed lung.”
“Motive?” Jack prompts.
“We don’t know. He called the hospital himself, so we think he fought off the attacker, but—in the lung, Jack!”
“Hey.” Jack holds Zhao Zi’s face in his hands. “Shaofei’s survived worse. A knife isn’t a cannon. It’s going to be okay.”
Zhao Zi nods as if trying to convince himself. “You’re right. Right. He’s going to be okay. A’Fei’s too stubborn to die like this.”
Jack represses a snort. “That’s very true,” he says as guilelessly as he can manage. Zhao Zi still punches him in the shoulder. “You said it, not me.”
“I can tell you’re laughing,” Zhao Zi says petulantly, but he scrubs a sleeve over his eyes and stands up straight again. Jack takes in the rest of the room. Yu Qi is there, crying softly into Jun Wei’s shoulder. Jun Wei, ever the practical one, lets her, caressing her head in slow, measured strokes. He nods at Jack. Jack nods back, an ever so slight incline of the head.
“When did he arrive?” Jack asks, leading Zhao Zi by the hand over to sit with the other two. Yu Qi, sweetheart that she is, scoots over to make room. Jack smiles at her encouragingly. She almost smiles back, but then seems to remember who he is, and her mouth twists awkwardly, halfway between suspicion and acknowledgement. Her nose scrunches adorably in confusion. He’ll take it.
“Less than an hour ago,” Jun Wei says. “He left work early—he likes walking in Da’an on Friday nights, if we’re not busy. Hospital called us while we were still at work.”
“Not long after sunset then,” Jack muses. “And in Da’an? Bold of them.” He’s running calculations because of course he is, running through lists of names and enemies, sorting them by likelihood, skill, MO—there aren’t a lot of suspects, and the known evidence is so thin that it’s hardly worth trying to remember which ones are even supposed to be in Taiwan, much less available for a hit, but well. Old habits die hard and all that. For all he knows, it was a simple mugging, though it’s been a long time since Jack was inclined to dismiss a crime as happenstance.
“What are you thinking about?” Jun Wei asks.
“Nothing much,” Jack lies, breaking out one of his too-wide smiles. Jun Wei isn’t moved, because Jun Wei isn’t an idiot. Jack appreciates that.
“Bullshit,” he says without any heat. “Let us know if you figure it out, okay?”
“I’m not figuring anything out,” Jack says placidly. “Just worried.”
“Sure,” he replies.
Zhao Zi’s watching him, but says nothing. “Just worried,” Jack repeats, leaning over to press a kiss to his forehead.
Meng Shaofei is in surgery for longer than expected, which has Zhao Zi pacing the room and Yu Qi shivering in her seat. Jack mulls over the known variables pointlessly, fingers itching for his knife. Jun Wei sits in silence, one arm around Yu Qi’s shoulders, eyes on the clock ticking seconds by.
When the nurse finally calls them in, Yu Qi half-leaps to her feet before composing herself. Officer Meng isn’t yet conscious when they pile into the too-small room, tubed up and ashen-faced in the bed. Dr. Jiang is there, which at this point isn’t even surprising.
“Does former boss know?” Jack asks him as Officer Meng’s teammates crowd the little cot.
Dr. Jiang meets his gaze coolly. “How does that concern you?”
Jack considers his options, even briefly considers actual honesty, before deciding on, “Call it professional curiosity.”
“Then let me professionally tell you to mind your own goddamn business,” Dr. Jiang replies without missing a beat. Jack doesn’t laugh, because that would give away the game, but god, he does like the good doctor.
There’s really no need for everyone to stay and wait for the patient to rejoin the land of the living, but Jack knows better than to expect anyone to leave before that happens. He settles into a chair in the far corner to wait. And he can wait. It’s what makes him good at his job. Well, former job.
Officer Meng comes back to consciousness with a flicker of his eyelids and a barely-audible groan. Instantly, all of Team 3 is on high alert. Yu Qi immediately pours a cup of water.
“Hey,” Shaofei croaks. “Everyone’s here.”
“You scared us!” Zhao Zi exclaims immediately. “How could we not be here?”
“What about Tang Yi?” he mumbles.
“He—A’Fei, he’s in prison,” Zhao Zi reminds him carefully. “I’m sure he’d be here otherwise.”
“Oh.” Shaofei blinks. “No, I remember he’s in prison, that’s not what I meant. Does he know what happened?”
“I don’t know,” Zhao Zi says. He glances at Dr. Jiang, who grudgingly shakes his head.
“If I told him anything, he’d go crazy in there,” he admits. “I don’t think your life is in danger anymore, so I decided it would be better for him to find out once you could tell him yourself.”
“Oh. Good, good,” Shaofei murmurs.
Jack can already picture it, Tang Yi tearing at his perfectly coiffed non-regulation hair, shouting at the guards, shouting at his cellmates—Dr. Jiang probably has a point, but he’s probably also going to be personally murdered by Tang Yi once he does find out he missed his boyfriend getting stabbed in the lung. Officer Meng has good intentions and a good heart, but he’s a fool if he thinks Tang Yi is just going to let this go.
“Xuezhang, do you want some water?” Yu Qi asks tremulously, holding out the glass.
“Yu Qi,” he says, sounding terribly touched. “Have you been crying? That’s no good, you have a girlfriend now.”
Jack sees her visibly restrain herself from dumping the water over his head in exasperation. “Just because I have a girlfriend doesn’t mean you’re not still a very important friend to me,” she says a bit more evenly. “Am I not allowed to cry over a friend?”
“I just don’t like making you sad,” Shaofei says, reaching for her weakly.
“My feelings aren’t going to disappear overnight,” she says smartly, squeezing his hand.
“Technically, it’s been almost half a year at this point,” Jun Wei points out, and Yu Qi does whack him lightly on the arm for that.
“I liked xuezhang for a long time, okay?” she says. “I can take time.”
She finds the remote to raise Officer Meng’s bed into a slightly more upright position before holding the glass to his lips.
“Are you really not telling former boss?” Jack asks Dr. Jiang quietly as they fuss over Shaofei. “He’ll kill you the second he gets out.”
“He’s too soft for that now,” Dr. Jiang says, rolling his eyes. “Officer Meng’s made sure of that. I’m safe.”
“Wow, he’s really fulfilling his police duty, protecting innocent citizens such as yourself from dangerous gangsters,” Jack says. Dr. Jiang shoots him a dirty look and refuses to dignify that with a response.
The prognosis is good, and Officer Meng quickly falls asleep again, so after another hour or so, Jack rises from his seat and gently touches Zhao Zi on the shoulder. “We should go home,” he says softly, “Get some food in you.”
“’M fine,” Zhao Zi mumbles, head pillowed on the side of Shaofei’s bed. “I should stay.”
“You didn’t eat lunch,” Jack points out. “You must be starving. There’s nothing you can do here.”
“Don’t say things like that,” Zhao Zi almost snaps before reeling himself back in. “Sorry.”
“Zhao Zi-ge,” Yu Qi says, looking concerned. “Jack’s right. You should go home and eat. Me and Jun Wei will stay.”
“But you guys—”
“The two of us ate lunch today,” Jun Wei points out. “You were just trying to get all that paperwork finished and skipped like an idiot.”
“I’m not an idiot.”
“Go home, Zhao Zi,” he says.
“But how are you two going to eat dinner?” Zhao Zi presses unhappily.
“Girlfriend,” Yu Qi and Jun Wei respond in unison, holding up their phones.
Zhao Zi manages a laugh at that. “Wow, remember the days when all of us were single? Seems so long ago,” he says, leaning into Jack’s hand. “Okay.” He gets up. “Okay, you’re right. I’ll go home. But!” He points a stern finger at both of them. “Keep me updated.”
“That’s what the group chat is for,” Jun Wei says, rolling his eyes. “When have we ever not?”
Zhao Zi starts to respond, but Jack quickly covers his mouth before he can get out an accusation. “Then, we’ll have to thank everyone for their hard work,” Jack says, pulling Zhao Zi towards the door. “Come on, little one.”
“Jack!” Zhao Zi protests, muffled into his glove, and Jack laughs. Dr. Jiang waves sardonically.
“Play nice,” he warns as they leave. Jack only winks.
Zhao Zi is subdued at dinner, though he still wolfs down the tomato and egg dish. Jack watches with satisfaction.
“Are you okay?” Jack asks him as they do the dishes together.
Zhao Zi blows out a sigh. “No,” he says. “I feel—no.”
“Talk to me about it,” Jack prompts, handing him a dish to dry.
“It’s just—” Zhao Zi’s lips purse, and he frowns. “I feel so—I’m so useless,” he says. “Last time I was supposed to take care of A’Fei, and I—I just fell asleep. He’s one of my best friends. And I’m not—I’m not a very good friend to him.”
“But if you hadn’t fallen asleep, I couldn’t have pulled that prank on you!” Jack points out, trying to lighten the mood. “And would he have gotten to kiss Tang Yi?”
“You know they would have kissed eventually anyways,” Zhao Zi says, unswayed. “A’Fei’s been after him for so many years, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. I lost the betting pool because he was too slow.”
“There was a betting pool?” Jack asks, delighted by this new twist.
“Yeah. Jun Wei won.”
“Of course he did.”
“It doesn’t really matter though, because A’Zh—uh Guanzh—well. Anyways, Jun Wei didn’t get the money. We didn’t ask Yu Qi to play because we knew how she felt about A’Fei.”
That certainly sours things. Jack’s no stranger to betrayal, but it’s been a long time since he was close enough to anyone to feel the way Zhao Zi and the rest of the team do now. It’s a terrible thing. He wants to spare him, wants to spare them—but there’s nothing for him to do. The past is past.
“Hey,” he says. “Look at me.” Zhao Zi does, eyes bright with unshed tears. “You’re not a bad friend. You rushed to his side without even stopping to think about yourself. You were there for him when he woke. You can keep helping him through recovery. Taking care of yourself, feeding yourself—that doesn’t make you a bad friend. Friends share the burden, don’t they? Jun Wei and Yu Qi are there too, and their new girlfriends! Remember? And you have me. You can send me to help. Whatever you want, I’ll do it.” Jack means it. If that means playing nursemaid to an Officer Meng who’s honestly starting to resemble a bloody sieve at this point, then so be it. Jack’s done worse things.
Zhao Zi is smiling in spite of himself. “Okay, Jack,” he says. “I’m holding you to that, okay? I might ask you to feed him. Or help him use the bathroom. Or—”
“I got it, little one,” Jack laughs. And in his mind, he’s still running through Xing Tian Meng’s trading list, sorting and discarding suspects like defective products on a factory line.