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Black Hands, Clean Slate | 黑手漂白

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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.

Chapter Text

Everyone goes back to work on Monday. Shaofei had left several insistent voice messages in the LINE group chat himself telling them that he was fine, to not be so worried, that Dr. Jiang was checking up on him, that other than the tubing being itchy, he was comfortable, and fine, so please go back to work and stop hovering. They’re all going to visit him the second they’re off the clock, Jack knows (he’s already prepared some boxed dinners), but it seems Officer Meng will at least get the day to himself.

He makes Zhao Zi a special lunchbox as well because he knows he’s still feeling down, packed with a disparate selection of his favorite foods, and rides to the office.

“Little one!” he calls, brandishing the bag as he pushes his way through the doors. “I brought you lunch!” He takes special pleasure in embarrassing Zhao Zi by announcing his presence as loudly as possible whenever he comes to the office. There’s something so very endearing about Zhao Zi’s flustered attempts to keep their interactions discreet. Everyone knows about them—that’s not a problem—but Zhao Zi’s struggle between embarrassment and joy is still one of his favorite things to witness.

“Jack!” Zhao Zi says, getting up from his seat so quickly that he almost knocks it over. “You’re here!”

“Of course I’m here,” he says, nodding at the new captain who just rolls her eyes. He and Fa Xuanmu have had their share of tense run-ins in years past, but they shared a healthy mutual respect. Jack can work with that.

“You’re just in time, actually,” Zhao Zi says, taking the bag from him, ears all red as he plows on determinedly. “You can meet Yu Qi’s girlfriend! She just arrived! What did you bring me—oh! Oh! All my favorite things? Jack!” His smile could light the earth, and Jack crows internally at his success. Job well done.

“Yu Qi’s girlfriend?” he asks, looking around to hide his own smile. “Where?” Zhao Zi had gushed about her, about how well she treated Yu Qi, how happy he was that Yu Qi had found someone so kind and pretty and funny and strong even! Jack you should have seen her pick up all our file boxes! In heels! — and Jack is curious.

“Just over there. Yu Qi’s introducing her to one of the new recruits—”

Jack turns just in time to meet this girl’s eyes from across the room, and his heart fucking stops.

Her black hair is a sleek waterfall down to the small of her back, and her nails are short, but flawlessly manicured a deep blood-red. Her clothes flatter her perfectly, technically modest, but revealing in their shape, color-coordinated and obviously professionally tailored. She has a pair of very expensive sunglasses perched on her head, and a makeup job that belongs on a fashion model. Her heels are spotless and bespoke, strappy black stilettos so sharp they could kill a man.

And they have. Jack’s seen them in action. There are twin knives strapped to their soles.

To her credit, the only sign he’s taken her off-guard is the fractional widening of her eyes before she schools her face into an innocent and pleasantly surprised expression.

“Jackdaw!” she exclaims in crisp British English before switching back to Mandarin. “Long time no see. Proud Jackdaw, what are you doing here?”

Jack grimaces internally at the pun. “Tiffany!” he says instead, showing teeth. “I could ask you the same thing.”

“Oh—you know each other?” Yu Qi asks, looking between them with the true innocence of an ingenue.

“Old work friends,” Tiff says smoothly.

“Oh! That’s nice,” Yu Qi says, as if this means nothing to her. Jack glances at Zhao Zi out of the corner of his eye, but Zhao Zi doesn’t seem to find this strange either.

It’s been a while since he worked a job with Tiff. She’s a deadly grifter-hitter multiclasser, with a frankly unbelievable command of language and weaponry. She’s feared by at least eighty-five percent of people in the business and respected by all of them. There’s a legendary rumor that she cut off a reigning drug lord’s thumb on her first job because he tried to cheat her before making off with twice what she was promised, along with half his art collection.

(The rumor’s 95% true. Jack was there.)

“I’m just here delivering my baobei’s lunch,” Tiff says, gesturing to a tooth-rottingly cute bento on Yu Qi’s desk.

“You can’t just call me that in front of my teammates!” Yu Qi hisses, turning red.

“Why not?” Tiff asks, lips quirking and leaning close. “It’s how I think of you.”

Jack feels a little queasy. He’s seen Tiff work a mark before. Yu Qi doesn’t stand a goddamn chance, and that isn’t—that isn’t fucking fair. She’s already had her heart broken twice in the last half year, once by Meng Shaofei and the other by Zhou Guanzhi. Tiff could have picked anyone else, but this is Zhao Zi’s friend, and Jack can’t stand for that.

Jack thinks about knives, thinks about Tiff’s killcount, thinks about her voice, dismissive as she says, “If you’re going for the heart, best target is between ribs four and five, but don’t bother, Jackdaw. You’re not as good as me.”

“Aw, Tiff, are you finally settling down?” Jack teases, taking a step forward. “I didn’t think I’d ever see the day you’d call someone ‘baobei’. It’s not really your style.”

“People change, Jackdaw,” she says, flashing a grin. “Like you. Didn’t think someone so proud could date.”

She nods at Zhao Zi, who waves back. Jack steps between them.

“I guess people do,” Jack says brightly. “I didn’t know you were back in Taipei. Last time I saw you here was, oh, six years ago?”

“That sounds right,” she says easily. “Consulting at the university, wasn’t it?”

“That’s right! You remember,” Jack says. “We worked well together.” You owe me, remember? he doesn’t say. I don’t forget my debts.

“Yes, we did,” she agrees. “Finished up in record time. Thanks for taking care of the final details—I really had to run for that family emergency.” I don’t forget either, she doesn’t say. But I pay them back on my own time.

“How did that work out, by the way?” Jack asks, genuinely a little curious. Tiff doesn’t have family as far as he knows. Most people don’t, in their line of work.

“Fine,” Tiff says. “I got there in time.”

“That’s good to hear.”

Tiff turns back to Yu Qi, brushing an errant lock behind her ear. “I have to go now, but I’ll see you after work.”

“Just meet me at the hospital,” Yu Qi says, hand going up to her hair automatically. “Jun Wei’s driving us all.”

“All right,” Tiff agrees. “In a few hours then.” She straightens to leave, pins Jack with one last lingering look. “Should I expect to see you too, Jackdaw?”

“Of course. What kind of boyfriend do you think I am?” he asks. He holds her gaze without blinking.

“I guess I’ll have to wait and see,” she says, and walks out the door with a final kiss blown to Yu Qi.

Jack breathes out a long, silent breath.

“Wow, I can’t believe you know Yu Qi’s girlfriend, Jack,” Zhao Zi says, oblivious. “Small world, isn’t it?”

“Very small,” Jack agrees, turning his attention back to him. “I’ll see you after work too, then? Meet you at the hospital?”

“Yeah!” Zhao Zi says. “Yeah. I’ll see you then.”

Jack gives him a quick kiss to scattered whoops around the office before he leaves the building. He scans the lobby—Tiff can’t have gotten far, and they need to talk—

He almost walks straight into her knife as he rounds a corner.

“Hello, Tiff,” he says, pushing it out of his face with one hand. She doesn’t lower it.

“What are you doing here?” she demands.

“What does it look like?” he asks. “I’m just delivering lunch. I was going to ask you the same thing.”

“Don’t play dumb, Jackdaw, it doesn’t suit you,” she snaps.

“Funny, I feel like you told me it suited me very well six years ago.”

She snorts. “Was that before or after you slept with me?”

“You know, I rather think it was during,” Jack remarks.

Tiff laughs at that, all teeth and no eyes. “You know, that sounds right. You had better things to do with your mouth than being a smartass.”

“It’s true,” Jack agrees. “But you didn’t answer my question.”

“You of all people know information isn’t free,” she counters. “You stay out of my way, and I’ll stay out of yours.” She cocks her head at him, gesturing for him to leave first.

Jack grabs her wrist. “Not good enough, Tiff,” he says. “Sorry. This one’s important to me.”

She twists out of his grip easily, slippery and strong in a way Jack has never managed to grasp. “What makes you think this one isn’t important to me?” she asks. “Come on. Give some face, and I’ll give some back.”

“I don’t have any face to give,” Jack says apologetically.

“Then you’ll have to satisfy yourself with not knowing,” she says, stepping back. “After you.”

Jack doesn’t have to look to know that they’re in a camera blind spot, but he also knows he isn’t nearly good enough to take Tiff one-on-one like this. And he can’t risk a full-on knife fight inside the goddamn police station of all places. He raises his hands in surrender.

“Very well,” he says, planning his next moves. “I’ll see you at the hospital.”

 

The second he’s back at the house, Jack opens his laptop and runs through his encrypted copy of Xing Tian Meng’s trading list to start pinpointing potential employers—groups that he knows Tiff has worked with previously are primary suspects, and groups that the two of them worked with together are next. He ranks them by general pay grade high to low, and then cross-references the list with his limited knowledge of the current political climate of the underworld now that Xing Tian Meng is making real steps towards a clean slate and Tang Yi is temporarily locked away. It’s not a long list.

Jack dropped everything to stay, but it doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to work.

He’s already prepared dinner, so he quickly lays out ingredients for tomorrow’s meals before starting the complicated process of concealing weapons on his person. He’s not as good as Tiff, but he’s still good. He can work with what he has. He can work.

He heads to the hospital early hoping to stake it out. Officer Meng is awake reading a book and looks up as Jack enters.

“Oh, Jack?” he says, surprised. “Where’s Zhao Zi?”

“Still at work,” Jack says, more relieved than he’d like to admit at seeing him still alive and recovering. “I came early.”

“Why?” Shaofei asks suspiciously.

“I can’t be concerned about my former boss’s boyfriend?” he asks with a grin.

“That would have been more convincing before you gave him that speech about your true intentions or whatever,” Shaofei informs him.

“Then, say I’m concerned for my boyfriend’s friend,” Jack revises. “Concerned for a hardworking officer of the law.”

Shaofei snorts. “Enough bullshit.”

“I was just bored,” Jack says with an elaborate shrug. “I came to annoy you.”

“That I believe,” Shaofei says, picking up his book again. “But I’m not interested in talking to you right now.”

“That’s fine,” Jack says, and it is. He’s really only here to make sure the room is secure, that there aren’t any obvious weaknesses, and that Tiff doesn’t show up early to finish what she started. Zhao Zi would certainly cry. Jack can’t have that.

Nothing looks amiss after a cursory examination—well, other than the hospital’s abysmal native security system, but it might be enough to keep out casual attempts. Unfortunately, no one’s ever accused Tiff of being casual. The room is several floors up—too high to climb to from below, Jack notes with some satisfaction, though the lock on the window itself isn’t very good. He cranes his neck to see how feasible it would be to come down on a rig from the roof. It’s a bad angle for it, which is a relief. It doesn’t face any buildings, which is also good—fewer opportunities for a sniper, though that isn’t really Tiff’s style anyways.

“Will you stop pacing?” Shaofei says.

Jack pauses in the midst of measuring the room. “I said I came here to annoy you.”

“Yes, you’ve succeeded.” He sets his book down, wincing as he pulls on the tubing in his chest. “Now you can stop.”

“I don’t think you understand how this works,” Jack says, but he does stop, plopping himself into a chair with its back to the wall. There isn’t much in the room, and his fussing isn’t going to make a new exit route appear out of thin air. He pulls out his knife instead, doing some basic backhand twirls to relieve some of his energy. It gives him something to do while he waits for Zhao Zi and the others.

“What’s going on with you?” Shaofei asks, eyes narrowed. “You’re all restless.”

“I’m always like this, Officer Meng,” Jack retorts, pointedly moving into a quick series of ladder and scissor variations.

“You don’t usually take your knife out at the hospital,” Shaofei says, jerking his chin at it, eyes absently entranced by the motion.

“You don’t know that,” Jack says. He flips it closed and tucks it away. “Does this make you happier, Officer Meng?”

“Not really,” Shaofei says, but before he can continue, Dr. Jiang knocks and enters. He stops in his tracks at the sight of Jack in the corner, but, after Jack gives him a cheeky salute, just heaves a long-suffering sigh and performs a truly impressive eyeroll. Really, Tang Yi never paid the good doctor enough for his services. The entertainment value alone would be worth his salary.

“How are you feeling, Officer Meng?” Dr. Jiang asks, walking over to check on his vitals.

“I told you to stop calling me that,” Shaofei says. “I’m fine. When can I leave?”

“You were stabbed in the lung three days ago, and almost died,” Dr. Jiang enunciates. “Or did you forget? Be a good boy and stay put for once in your reckless life.”

Shaofei scoffs. “It wasn’t a cannon, was it?”

“Eventually, all these bullets and knives will add up to one.” Dr. Jiang says darkly, poking him hard enough in the chest to make him wince. “I don’t care how big and tough your life is, you will die if you take a knife to the heart.”

“I’m not dead now,” Shaofei mutters.

“No, and who do you have to thank for that?” Dr. Jiang reminds him sharply. “Remember that you’re lucky. Don’t tempt fate.”

Jack lets the bickering fade into the background as he checks the time—the others should be arriving any minute now.

“Do you remember anything about your attacker?” he interrupts after a moment.

Shaofei looks taken aback. “What? Why do you care? We’re the police; we’ll handle it.”

“Just wondering,” Jack says. “Entertain a normal citizen, won’t you?”

“Why, do you think you know something?”

“No, why would you think that?”

Before Officer Meng can respond, the door opens with a burst of chatter and laughter as Team 3 piles in, snickering at some joke that Jack presumes Jun Wei just told.

“Jack!” Zhao Zi exclaims happily when he sees him, and Jack stands up to greet him.

But then he catches sight of the person holding Jun Wei’s hand and—fuck.

Chapter Text

Jack thinks he ought to be awarded some kind of medal for not losing his composure right then and there. He holds it together, gives Zhao Zi a kiss, greets the other officers, and does his damnedest to pretend he doesn’t immediately recognize the woman on Jun Wei’s arm.

“Vivian,” she introduces herself in her distinct Shantou accent, as if Jack isn’t acutely aware. “But you can call me V. And you are?”

“Jack,” he says, as if she isn’t acutely aware. “You must be Jun Wei’s girlfriend.”

“Guessed right!” she says cheerfully, plump face scrunching up in good humor.

“A’Fei,” Zhao Zi calls, wandering over to the bed. “How are you feeling? Okay? Any pain?”

“I was just stabbed,” Shaofei grumps. Behind him, Dr. Jiang throws up his hands in disgust, muttering darkly. “What do you think?”

There’s a round of laughter, which gives Jack a moment to breathe and get his rising panic under control. No, he corrects himself. Not panic. Justified concern. Jack doesn’t panic. Panic gets you killed.

V. What does he know about V? He’s never met her in person, only seen photos—he’s heard her voice a handful of times giving instructions over burner phones and low-res video files. The accent is hard to mistake, and it’s something that frightens Jack. While he and Tiff (and the majority of people like them) work hard to disguise their voices, their native accents, their identities, V has never been anything but open about her hometown. It gives Jack hives, that brazen confidence, the hubris of it, as if to say, I know you know, but it won’t do you any good.

And it hasn’t. V’s identity is still hidden—no one knows who she is. For someone who never even bothers using a voice distorter, whose face isn’t difficult to identify, she’s remarkably mysterious. Jack trusts her about as far as he can throw her, which isn’t far. She probably weighs over 100 kilos, and Jack knows that under the fat, she can certainly throw a vicious punch.

Her presence also throws a wrench into his current suspect list. A lot of the groups at the top of the list are ones that he knows V has standing blacklists against for one reason or another. She’s picky as hell and is good enough to justify it. As far as Jack knows, she’s one of a handful of people who knows his real name and life history and probably keeps it in an organized file somewhere. Hell, she probably has enough blackmail material to keep half of southern Asia off her back, which is something he tries not to think about.

Jack keeps a close eye on her as she chats with Shaofei, who clearly finds her hilarious and is delighted that she’s part of their group, though he keeps cutting his laughter short with winces. Zhao Zi comes over to his corner and slips a hand into his.

“Are you okay?” he asks in a low voice. “You’ve been kind of quiet.”

Jack considers telling him, then discards the notion just as quickly. He needs more information, and he can’t start something here. As far as he knows, V isn’t even after Shaofei’s life—it’s not really her style. She’s more likely to rob marks blind from behind the curtain. A string-pulling thief for the most part, not a killer, but she’s certainly worked with killers before. Like Tiff. And himself. Something is up, but Jack doesn’t know what it is, and he can’t involve Zhao Zi until he’s on more stable ground.

“I’m okay,” he says, squeezing Zhao Zi’s hand. “I’m just—worried, I guess.”

“Worried?” Zhao Zi asks, actually sounding kind of happy. “About A’Fei? Jack! That’s so nice! Are you having real feelings?”

“What?” Jack says, thrown for a moment. “What? No, I—no, not about—I’m just worried about the situation, in general. Officer Meng is your friend. I’m worried because I care about you.”

“Sure,” Zhao Zi says, clearly not buying it in the slightest, which is a little infuriating. “Okay, Jack. I’ll keep it a secret.”

“No, I’m not—I’m not worried about Officer Meng, I’m—never mind.” Jack gives it up. Zhao Zi just beams at him with his absurdly precious face, and Jack grudgingly allows that his smile is worth being thought of as a little softer than he actually is.

Tiff shows up a little while later in a completely different outfit. Her hair is twisted into a messy updo, and her clothes are all loose and spotless and chic. The heels are the same, though. Jack’s eyes linger on them long enough so that she knows that he knows. It’s as much a warning as he can give her. She meets his gaze steadily and then pointedly goes to greet V and Shaofei.

They’re working together. They have to be—no way Tiff and V don’t recognize each other. And both of them worming their way into Team 3 by targeting the two single members left? Jack doesn’t believe in coincidences. He can’t afford to.

Tiff’s arm is slung casually around Yu Qi’s shoulders in a protective, possessive gesture. The sight of it gives Jack the same angry, nauseous sensation that Jun Wei’s arm around Zhao Zi had a few months ago. Yu Qi isn’t Tiff’s. Yu Qi is a pawn. She’s being used because she’s kind and a little lonely. Jack wants to push that arm off of her, intimidate Tiff into backing down like he did with Jun Wei, but he can’t. That would be showing his hand.

He also couldn’t intimidate Tiff if his life depended on it, and this time it’s Zhao Zi’s friends’ lives on the line, so he certainly can’t risk anything. He’s just going to have to stick around and play the field.

 

The hospital visit is excruciatingly long. Jack feels wrung out when they finally leave. He kept having to find excuses to outlast the others, which only prompted them to try and one-up him until the whole group was finally herded out of the room by a harangued nurse once visiting hours were officially over. Stalemate, then. Jack needs to sit down with his list and comb through it again, reevaluating his initial hypotheses, but he’s on edge and jittery inside. He doesn’t want to go through the list. He wants to dump all the dishes in the sink for tomorrow and crawl into bed with Zhao Zi until he calms down.

They ride home in silence on his motorcycle, the cool night air blowing past. Jack can feel the tension in his fingers gripping the handlebars. He wills them to relax. Tension means broken bones and torn muscles. Tension gets you killed, he reminds himself. A lot of things get you killed.

Jack fumbles for his keys at the door, but Zhao Zi beats him to it, waving him inside. Jack sets his helmet in its place by the shoe rack as Zhao Zi follows suit. Shoes off, jacket off—he heads to the kitchen.

“Hey,” Zhao Zi says, moving over to block him from the sink. “Let me do those.”

“What, the dishes? Don’t be silly, little one, I’m your househusband, aren’t I?” Jack jokes, holding the lunch bags over Zhao Zi’s head. “You’ve been hard at work all day.” He’s going to do the fucking dishes. And then he’s going to go through the list. He can sleep when he’s done.

He starts to dodge around Zhao Zi, but he finds himself blocked again as Zhao Zi just extends a leg out to hip height. Perfect form, Jack notes with some amusement. Pointed toes and everything.

“Jack,” Zhao Zi says seriously. “I mean it. If you won’t let me do them, at least leave them in the sink for tomorrow.”

“What’s gotten into you?” Jack asks, giving up on getting around him and leaning back against the fridge as languidly as he can manage.

“You’re tired,” Zhao Zi says bluntly. “You don’t want to do them, but you’re making yourself because you think you should. Just forget about it for tonight. Let’s brush our teeth and go to bed.”

“Little one,” he says, “you know I slept far less while I was working for Xing Tian Meng, right? I’m fine.”

“Why are you lying about this to me?” Zhao Zi asks, not exactly angry. His brow is a puzzled squiggle. “I can tell you’re tired. Come on.”

Zhao Zi holds out his hand, and Jack be damned, he takes it. “Okay,” he says, even though it’s the wrong thing to say. It’s dangerous complacency. “Okay.”

Zhao Zi’s lips quirk up like he’s suppressing a victory smile. “Okay,” he echoes. He takes the bags from Jack’s unresisting grip and empties the contents carefully into the sink, running some water for soaking. “Let’s go.”

Jack lets himself be led up the stairs to the bedroom, fingertips to fingertips. Is four months all it takes for his survival instincts and discipline to atrophy? One season to forget a lifetime?

“Tomorrow,” Zhao Zi says, breaking him out of his reverie. Jack looks up to find him watching him from a few steps above. “Stop thinking so hard. It can wait until tomorrow.”

What if it can’t? Jack wants to ask, but doesn’t. He hasn’t been so afraid in so long he’d forgotten what it felt like. It’s awful, the constriction of it against his chest. Maybe it had been a mistake to hold onto something he couldn’t bear to lose.

But still—he doesn’t pull away. Their fingertips still touch. He follows Zhao Zi to the bedroom. To their room. He draws the curtains for some small sense of security, even though he likes a bit of light. Zhao Zi doesn’t mention it, though his eyes follow his hands as they tug on the fabric. They brush their teeth. It’s quiet and domestic and comfortable in a way that suddenly hurts again. Zhao Zi’s heart beats slow, slower than Jack’s despite how small he is. Jack leans into Zhao Zi’s chest as they lie together, waits until his breathing matches the rhythm, and he feels some of the urgency of the day leach away. He tips his head back for a kiss.

Later, when he’s shuddering inside Zhao Zi, bright and broken, he thinks, I will do anything to protect this.

Chapter Text

The next morning, after Zhao Zi leaves for work, Jack returns to his list. It takes less than half an hour for him to come to the unfortunate conclusion that he simply doesn’t have the information he needs. Being out of the game for this long has its consequences. Anything, he thinks. I’ll do anything. He bites the bullet and rides to the Tang estate.

The guards at the door have their hands on their guns before he even disembarks from his motorcycle. He doesn’t let it faze him, shaking out his hair as he removes his helmet with practiced nonchalance before he hangs it neatly from the handlebars.

“What are you doing here?” one of them demands. Jack can’t remember his name. An earnest kid, though.

“I’m here to see Daoyi-ge,” Jack says, hands up and open in a gesture of good faith. Everyone here knows he could outdraw both of them. The man blinks, surprise and suspicion warring on this face, and whispers something to his companion, and then something into his earpiece. Jack is prepared to wait.

It takes enough time that he actually decides to sit down cross-legged on the ground, hands still raised and starting to ache. He checks the time, makes a show of yawning loudly. It seems Gu Daoyi is also prepared to make him wait. He’s probably sitting for about fifteen minutes before the increasingly heated whisper-conversation comes to some kind of conclusion.

“He’s agreed to see you,” the guard says gruffly, looking rather affronted by the fact.

“Oh good,” Jack says. “My arms hurt.”

Daoyi is waiting for him in one of the offices, dressed impeccably and regarding him with a cold blankness. Truth be told, Jack had always thought of Gu Daoyi as kind of a wet towel, at least until he finally got over himself about his relationship with Zuo Hongye. It seemed that once the years of stoic repression fell away, Gu Daoyi was a bit of a loose, sarcastic bastard underneath, and a shrewd one at that. Jack can finally see what exactly caught Zuo Hongye’s eye, and what made Gu Daoyi qualified to be Tang-ye’s lieutenant all those years ago.

“Daoyi-ge,” Jack greets him, bowing slightly.

“I’m not your brother,” Daoyi says.

“Mr. Gu, then,” Jack amends. “If that’s acceptable.”

Daoyi inclines his head. “Why did you come here?”

“I need information,” Jack says.

Daoyi watches him. When nothing more is forthcoming, he raises an eyebrow with slow deliberation. “And?” he prompts.

“I’m waiting for Mr. Gu to name his price,” Jack says, not really expecting it to work.

“I don’t negotiate against myself,” Daoyi says easily. “Tell me what you want, and make me an offer.”

“I need the updated trading list for Xing Tian Meng, and any intel you have on the current power struggles in the related drug world, especially groups you consider to be high-priority threats to Xing Tian Meng now that Chen Wenhao is out of the picture.” Jack says.

Daoyi raises his other eyebrow. He hadn’t expected that. Good. “I’m still waiting to hear an offer,” Daoyi says after another beat passes.

“I want to know if Mr. Gu is even willing to consider my request before making my offer,” Jack counters with a smile. “I also don’t like negotiating against myself.”

“Tell me why I should consider it at all, given your… behavior regarding this organization in the past.” Daoyi is smiling too. It’s not exactly pleasant. Jack doesn’t really blame him. He had essentially triple-crossed Xing Tian Meng for cheap thrills and pocket change, after all.

Jack reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small USB key. He wills his hands not to shake, tries to breathe deep without letting Daoyi see. He holds it up, just out of reach.

“I will give you the power to destroy me,” Jack says, smile unwavering, fingers steady, poise relaxed. The little plastic key glints in the sunlight through the window.

Daoyi remains impassive. “And what makes you think I wouldn’t immediately use it against you?” He folds his hands on the desk in front of him.

“I believe that you’re a man of honor,” Jack says. “You always deal fairly. It’s why others respect you.” He keeps his voice soft and unhurried. “Besides, mutually assured destruction, isn’t it?”

“And what proof do I have that what you’re offering me is real?” Daoyi asks.

“I’ll let you look at it first,” he says. He extends his hand. It doesn’t tremble.

Daoyi takes it carefully, plugging it into the laptop. The time it takes for the files to load is interminable, and every second has Jack feeling more and more like he’s being eaten alive.

“Fang Liangdian,” Daoyi reads finally, the syllables rolling off his tongue slow and deliberate. Jack’s blood runs cold at the sound. Fuck, it’s been so long since he’s heard that name. “Wanted for the murders of your uncle and parents.”

“Indeed,” Jack says, resisting the urge to rip the key out of the laptop and never stop running. Anything, he reminds himself.

“These warrants are sixteen years old,” Daoyi remarks.

Jack holds out his hand. Daoyi closes the windows and unplugs the key, placing it in Jack’s open palm. “You won’t be able to dig them up anywhere else,” Jack says, closing his fingers around it. “This is the only copy. I destroyed the rest.” This is a lie, but as far as Daoyi’s concerned, it might as well be true.

“I see,” Daoyi says.

“Do we have a deal?” Jack asks. His heart is loud in his ears, the fight-or-flight instinct screaming through his veins. He tamps it down viciously.

“Perhaps,” Daoyi says. “Tell me why you want it.”

“I have a personal stake in it,” Jack replies. That’s honest enough.

Daoyi watches him blankly for another excruciating minute. The bastard. “Very well. We have a deal,” he says finally. He holds out his hand, and Jack takes it. For a man with such terribly limp posture and sad eyebrows, he certainly has a strong grip. “Give me a few moments to get the information you want, and we’ll make the exchange.”

“Thank you, Mr. Gu,” Jack says. “I’ll be sure to use it wise—”

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Zuo Hongye is standing in the doorframe, hands full with official-looking folders and files. She’s glaring truly vehement daggers at him, and Jack thinks that he’s very lucky looks can’t kill or he’d be dead thrice over just from this.

“Zuo-zong!” he says with a winning smile. “Long time no see.”

“You, shut the fuck up,” she says, jabbing a pen in his direction as if it were poisoned. “Daoyi. What’s he doing here?”

Daoyi stands. “He came to make a trade.”

“What kind of trade?” Hongye asks. She walks around Jack to stand beside him, never taking her eyes off Jack.

“Information,” Daoyi says, his cold facade immediately starting to melt as she approaches. A hopeless man. “Hello, Hongye.”

“And are you agreeing to it?” she demands.

“I am,” Daoyi says, kissing her on the forehead.

“After everything he did?” she asks incredulously. “He sold us out to Chen Wenhao. He betrayed our A’Yi. He betrayed all of us.”

“I believe in his sincerity this time,” Daoyi says, which—huh.

“I’m honored, Mr. Gu,” Jack says cautiously.

“Don’t be,” Daoyi says cheerfully. “It’s because you’ve finally shown yourself to be the fool I always suspected you were.”

“Excuse me?” Jack says.

“You might even be worse than that Officer Meng and our boss,” Daoyi continues casually, as if he isn’t in the process of roasting Jack within an inch of his life with just two sentences. “Wait here for me. I’ll deliver the information to you myself. Give Officer Zhao my regards, will you?”

Hongye’s eyebrows are so high they’re in danger of disappearing into her hairline, and there’s an air of dawning mirth to her expression that Jack doesn’t like.

“Fine,” Jack says instead, feeling a bit caught out on the wrong foot. “I’ll see you in a few minutes then, Mr. Gu.”

“Please,” Daoyi says, smile growing ever wider, eyes crinkling. “Call me Daoyi-ge.”

 

Jack is well and truly shaken by the time he gets back to Zhao Zi’s house, USB key with the information he needs tucked safely into his jacket pocket. It isn’t just that he’s handed over the tools for his own destruction, though that certainly doesn’t help the mounting anxiety in his gut. It’s the casual way Daoyi deconstructed his motivations without so much as batting an eyelash—it isn’t even the fact that he’s essentially right that has Jack so wound up exactly, it’s… something about the discomfort of having the strange intensity of his feelings boiled down to a point of amusement. As if this isn’t the most committed Jack has been to anything since he was thirteen and bloody and running. Jack is a fool, yes, he supposes that’s true, but that’s—this thing—it means more. Jack doesn’t like being read, and he likes being catalogued and dismissed even less.

Why does he care? It doesn’t matter. Jack has a new list, new intel, new leads. The information is good—Daoyi showed him the files before handing him the key, all while Zuo Hongye sat balanced on the corner of the desk, long legs crossed and watching him like a cat watches a mouse. He expects they probably had a good laugh at him after he left, which boils his blood in a different way.

It doesn’t matter, he reminds himself again. Doesn’t matter. He has what he needs.

It seems Lao Ke and Si He Hui are still perceived as contenders, though Jack is inclined to dismiss them. Lao Ke might be well-connected, but his whole troop are has-beens, and they know it. There’s a number of groups out in Cambodia circling the power vacuum left by Chen Wenhao like sharks, though there are only two that have emerged in the last four months as viable threats: the Xiong family and Lei Si Tuan.

The Xiongs are a strange one—not a traditional drug cartel so much as a quasi-anarchist group that spends more of their resources dealing firearms to fund their distribution of contraband and hard-to-get medications to vulnerable areas. That isn’t to say they don’t profit off the medications—they don’t inflate their prices to the same degree as other groups, but they certainly don’t sell cheap. They draw part of their power from their semi-benevolent reputation, and the rest from their very impressive armory. They’re a bit of a wild card in that respect. Jack’s done a handful of jobs for them over the years, and he’s never quite sure how much of their goodwill is genuine (Jack’s bet is usually somewhere around 2-5%), and how much of it is simply calculated marketing. They seem to think that the drug markets could be repurposed and expanded for firearms, which would almost certainly escalate violence and destabilize Xing Tian Meng’s legitimization process by starting an arms race.

Lei Si Tuan is Jack’s personal guess, though. They’re a merciless group, largely comprised of queer women, who take no shit and somehow control almost half the lines from Cambodia to Singapore and Malaysia. Jack avoids Singapore like the fucking plague whenever drugs are involved, and frankly, anyone invested in dealing in and out of there is someone he’s keen to leave to their own devices. They’ve been eyeing Chen Wenhao’s throne for years, especially their leader, Su Liquan.

It fits—Tiff and V are both queer, and Lei Si Tuan has a penchant for hiring their own. Jack’s had offers, but found ways to turn them down as politely as possible. If they could take down Xing Tian Meng and seize control of Chen Wenhao and Wang Kuncheng’s networks, they’d suddenly be very big players in Taiwan. Jack hadn’t realized how much they’d grown in recent years—the numbers in the files Daoyi gave him are orders of magnitude higher than when he’d last encountered them. They hadn’t even been on his radar during his stint at Xing Tian Meng. Their name is on the outdated trading list, but the estimated stats were so low at the time that Jack had eliminated them on the first pass.

He groans, looking helplessly at the data. Lei Si Tuan is up there among groups he’d been hoping to avoid dealing with for the rest of his foreseeable future. Fucking Singapore. His fears, he knows, are largely irrational—the way he used to work, he was much more likely to be killed in a firefight than by any legally mandated sentence, but there’s something about the idea of being killed by a cruel system that settles cold in his chest. There’s no thrill to waiting for an execution you cannot hope to escape. At least in Taiwan, he’s almost familiar friends with the law at this point—he knows the ins and outs, how to keep his visits to police custody short and his interactions comedic. And he has Zhao Zi now.

He did just give Gu Daoyi a copy of his arrest warrants.

He tries hard not to think about it.

 

Meng Shaofei leaves another series of scolding voice messages in the Team 3 groupchat during the day, thanking everyone for their concern and reprimanding them for causing trouble for the nurses. Zhao Zi forwards all of them on to Jack before texting him a series of heart and food emojis and an estimated time he’ll be off work.

Jack calls him on his lunch break. “I’ll come pick you up,” he says.

“Oh, no need,” Zhao Zi says, mouth full of the noodles Jack had packed him this morning. Jack smiles a little to hear it, though it’s objectively kind of disgusting. “The weather’s nice! I can walk.”

“Isn’t that what Officer Meng was doing when he was stabbed in the lung?” Jack points out.

“Jack! Not everyone walking is going to be stabbed!” There’s a sound of slurping. “I’ll be fine! You know I also have police training, right?”

“Still,” Jack says. “I like doing it. And you can still breathe fresh air on the motorcycle.”

“Jack—”

“Please,” Jack interrupts.

There’s silence for a moment.

“Okay,” Zhao Zi says. “I’ll see you at 5:30.”

“See you,” Jack says and hangs up before Zhao Zi can say anything else.

By the time he gets to the station, he’s already outlined a plan of action for how he’s going to analyze his suspicions about Lei Si Tuan and cleared all the incriminating evidence of his activities out of sight. Zhao Zi won’t see anything.

“How was work?” he asks as Zhao Zi approaches. Jun Wei and Yu Qi wave, and Jack raises one hand in vague acknowledgment.

“Okay,” Zhao Zi says with a shrug.

“Any headway on Officer Meng’s case?” Jack asks casually.

“Ugh,” Zhao Zi groans, which is pretty much all Jack needs to hear. “Not really. There weren’t any witnesses or anything. The attacker took the weapon with them, and forensics isn’t done with A’Fei’s clothes yet. We’re not really hopeful, though. Yu Qi was looking at the photos of the wounds and said it looked kind of professional, actually.”

“Did she?” Jack asks, handing him a helmet.

“Yeah. Yu Qi is actually pretty good at analyzing wounds and stuff. It’s a special interest of hers.”

“Really?” Jack wouldn’t have guessed.

“Yeah. It was why she started on this career path,” Zhao Zi continues blithely. “She was originally going to go into forensics, but she found out she liked general detective work better.” Zhao Zi shrugs. “When she first joined the team, she was really nervous and tried to make conversation by talking about how she spent a lot of her childhood researching murder cases. A’Fei was the only one who was really good about listening to her, since the rest of us got kinda creeped out.” He pauses. “Maybe that’s why she liked him for so long.”

“You thought Yu Qi was creepy?” Jack asks with a laugh.

“We didn’t know her!” Zhao Zi exclaims. “Like now she could talk about it all day, and it would be fine, but back then we were all wondering if the department had accidentally hired a serial killer!”

Jack can picture it: Yu Qi, wild-eyed and anxious, babbling on and on about mortality rates for different types of injuries and obscure murder cases as the rest of the team slowly backs away, except for Shaofei, who’s nodding along earnestly. It’s a funny image. He files it away for rainy days.

It’s not a long ride back to the house—honestly, it probably would have been fine for Zhao Zi to walk, but Jack’s chest feels looser with Zhao Zi’s arms tight around his waist. He imagines feeling Zhao Zi’s slow heartbeat through his back, times his breathing to it as he drives. It helps.

“So what are we cooking tonight?” Zhao Zi asks, unlocking the door.

“I was planning on some shrimp and peas,” Jack says. “And then another vegetable dish—I haven’t decided yet.”

“Ooh, do we have celery?” Zhao Zi asks. “I feel like that would go with the shrimp. You like celery, right?”

“Sure, little one,” Jack agrees indulgently.

“Okay, I’ll start the rice!” Zhao Zi says happily. “Did you already defrost the shrimp?”

There’s something meditative about cooking—all the little steps and procedures in order. Jack peels the shrimp and moves methodically through the steps: flour, flash cook, peas, egg white and tapioca starch, garlic, scallions, ginger and a splash of wine—all while Zhao Zi washes and chops ingredients for the celery beside him, chattering on about nothing in particular. Jack interjects to flirt at inappropriate breaks in the conversation because it satisfies some ridiculous melodramatic streak within himself, and it’s always hilarious to watch. Zhao Zi’s even starting to flirt back these days, stumbling over his words and turning red all the while. He wonders how far they can take it, if every meal is just going to slowly evolve into an absurd battle of increasingly preposterous flirting. Jack is a big enough man to admit that he would live for that. He is, after all, the one who squatted in a muddy garden in the rain for an hour just so he could play housepouse jack-in-the-box with the guy he was crushing on.

He thinks sometimes he’s this ridiculous because it takes some of the sharp edges off his feelings. He can’t let himself look too closely at their full depths because he’ll drown. Keep it light, and he can tread water. Keep it embarrassing as fuck, and he can keep breathing.

Jack feeds Zhao Zi one of the shrimp with his chopsticks and then immediately kisses him. “Which one tastes better?” he asks, unable to keep from smiling against Zhao Zi’s lips.

Zhao Zi splutters something incomprehensible and smacks him with a wooden spatula, and Jack laughs, turning off the fire and covering the pan to keep the food warm. Jack is giddy with love, so he kisses Zhao Zi again, long and slow enough that Zhao Zi finally shoves him away, exclaiming that the celery is going to burn, oh my god, Jack, come on, you can do that later—

Jack certainly plans to do that later, and informs him so to his increasing exasperation.

Dinner is uneventful and tasty. They do the dishes together, as is becoming routine, and settle into the cushioned seats by the window. Zhao Zi has extra work to do, so they sit on opposite sides of the table. Normally, Jack would view this as a tragedy because he does like cuddling after dinner, but well, he’s got plenty to do tonight.

“Oh?” Zhao Zi says, watching Jack pull out his laptop. “Are you not going to try and bother me all night?”

“I would love to, little one,” Jack sighs wistfully, because he would. “But I have some things I need to take care of.”

Zhao Zi’s face immediately scrunches up with concern. “Take care of? Like what? Are you okay? Are you in danger? Have you done something frightening again?”

“Nothing serious,” Jack says—it’s not exactly a lie. He doesn’t actually know how serious the situation is yet. All the evidence points to it being very serious indeed, but there’s no real proof. “Just some final weeds I haven’t pulled.”

Zhao Zi pouts at him. “Is this why you’ve been so weird since A’Fei got stabbed? You’re worried that it’s related to your history?”

That’s… a little too on the nose for Jack’s taste. “No, nothing like that. It’s just a coincidence that the timing worked out like this.”

“Do you want to tell me about it?” Zhao Zi offers. “I like listening to you talk.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Jack says regretfully. “Sorry, little one,” he adds, catching sight of Zhao Zi’s unhappy face. “It’s nothing you need to worry about yet. Finish up your own work, and then we can go to bed.” He punctuates that sentence with an ostentatious wink.

Zhao Zi throws a pen at him, which he catches between two fingers.

“You and your stupid reflexes,” Zhao Zi grumbles. “And I know you’re trying to distract me from my questions!” He points a finger at him sternly. “I’ll let it go this time, but if it gets any worse, you have to tell me, okay?”

“I’ll tell you if I have to,” Jack agrees slantwise. To his relief, Zhao Zi doesn’t try to exact a promise out of him. He’s not sure he would have been able to give one. “How’s Officer Meng?” he asks, changing the subject.

“You can text him yourself, you know,” Zhao Zi says, pulling a sheaf of paperwork out of his bag. “Didn’t I give you his number?”

“It didn’t seem proper,” Jack says. “He’s not my friend.” Zhao Zi gives him a Look. “He’s not!” Jack insists. “Did I say something untrue? We’re only acquaintances because of my connection to you.”

“And to Tang Yi!” Zhao Zi says.

“I was only using Xing Tian Meng for my own purposes,” Jack reminds him, though he doesn’t much like to think about that argument.

“Sure,” Zhao Zi says. “That’s why you’re always asking me about A’Fei’s condition and trying to get information about Tang Yi out of him.”

“I don’t try to get information about former boss,” Jack protests. “I’m just poking fun at Officer Meng, that’s all.”

Zhao Zi sighs dramatically and pulls out his phone, firing off a series of quick texts. A few moments later, Jack feels his phone buzz several times in his pocket.

“Did you just text me?” he asks, confused, pulling it out. “I’m sitting right here.”

“No,” Zhao Zi says and shifts his focus to his paperwork.

The texts are from Meng Shaofei.

 

08:37pm [Officer Meng]

ZZ told me you wanted to know how I was doing

I’m fine

why didn’t you just ask me directly?

 

08:38pm [Officer Meng]

are you still curious about my attacker?

I can tell you if you if you’re serious

 

Jack blinks, then starts to text back.

08:39pm

I was afraid Officer Meng wouldn’t want to speak to me

tell me about your attacker

08:39pm [Officer Meng]

why would you think that

can you just add me on LINE it’ll be more convenient

 

The next message is his LINE ID. Somewhat nonplussed, Jack dutifully copies it into the app and sends Shaofei a friend request. Shaofei accepts in seconds, following up with several silly stickers, and then—just a lot of voice messages. Jack plays them one by one, holding the phone speaker up to his ear.

 

Look, I don’t actually think I can tell you a lot about the attacker,” Shaofei’s voice crackles. “It was already kind of dark, and they were wearing all black and a hood. I don’t even know if it was a man or a woman. They were about my height, pretty skinny.”

Didn’t make any noise when I hit them back, and I got them pretty good in the gut. They ran off when I started yelling, so I think they were hoping to take me down in one shot. I don’t know if they were trying to mug me—they didn’t take any of my stuff.”

I didn’t see the knife very well, but it looked like yours.”

Haha, was it you?”

 

Jack glances at the screen to see a sticker of a cat holding a JK sign, followed by yet more voice messages.

 

I was joking, don’t take it too seriously, okay? Anyways, it’s not a lot to go on. Even if you do have secret mercenary knowledge or something, I don’t know that you could figure it out from that.”

 

08:45pm

did it seem like they were trying to kill you

08:45pm [Officer Meng]

how do you mean

08:45pm

did it look like they were aiming for your heart

 

08:46pm [Officer Meng]

I guess when you say it like that, maybe? I interrupted them so they missed. I don’t know if I could say they were aiming for the heart specifically.”

Are you texting me instead of using voice because Zhao Zi’s there, and you don’t want him to know what you’re asking me?”

 

Jack stows his phone back in his pocket and ignores the next few buzzes until it quiets down. Shaofei’s right—it’s not enough information to confirm or deny his suspicions. Even if Shaofei had hit Tiff hard in the stomach, it’s an easy enough bruise to hide. Tiff is about his height and skinny. If it is Tiff, then it’s a little surprising that Shaofei actually managed to keep her from killing him in one go, though Tiff is the sort of person who backs off quick and regroups later. He knows that Tiff has a knife like his. They started learning tricks around the same time—one of Tiff’s trophies from her notorious first job was a very beautiful, mother-of-pearl inlaid balisong that Jack still kind of covets to this day.

He’s got the money to get one of his own at this point, but it just wouldn’t be the same.

He remembers her cutting her fingers open and offering her a pack of bandaids. He remembers cutting his own fingers open and her laughing at him, mouth open. She was rougher then, wilder and crasser. They both were. He puts it out of his mind.

Chapter Text

Jack does get to kiss Zhao Zi a lot that night, and it’s very nice. Having a plan of action has loosened the knot of anxiety just enough for him to claw his way out of his little pit of paranoia. He still draws the curtains.

He also sneaks out after Zhao Zi falls asleep and breaks into Meng Shaofei’s hospital room to make sure no one makes another attempt on his life while he’s bedridden. (Maybe he’s still a little paranoid.)

It’s depressingly easy, actually. He puts on a black wig he’s kept in storage for a while to hide his distinctive red hair and exploits a broken latch he’d discovered during his first assessment. It’s quick work for him to steal a set of nondescript scrubs and an ID badge from an unattended locker room, and then he just snags an empty wheelchair and pushes it around until he reaches Meng Shaofei’s door. He revises his previous evaluation of the security from abysmal to utterly useless.

Officer Meng is sleeping soundly when he finally enters, snoring gently. Jack draws the curtains as quietly as he can and posts up in the corner chair to keep watch. In the meantime, he fires off a message on an encrypted line to an old contact out of Cambodia about getting in contact with Su Liquan and Lei Si Tuan.

The night is uneventful. Officer Meng doesn’t even wake to pee in the middle of the night, it seems, and Jack tiptoes out of the room shortly before dawn to get back before Zhao Zi figures out he’s gone and done something stupid. He returns the scrubs and ID and resists the temptation to leave a strongly-worded note scolding the owner for being so lax with their belongings. They had their combination written on the back of the lock, for heaven’s sake. It was almost insulting.

He shoves his wig back into storage at the back of the closet and goes down to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. If he goes back to bed now, he won’t be able to get up again. His body aches a little with the distinct nausea-hunger of staying awake all night, and his head feels a bit stuffed with wool. Something simple then—he opens the fridge and lets the cool air revive him a bit.

He grabs two packs of silken tofu and some scallions and lays them out on the counter before raiding the pantry for some century eggs and soy paste. By the time Zhao Zi wanders down, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and yawning, he’s plated two servings and added a cilantro and pork floss garnish on a whim.

“Good morning, little one,” Jack says, pitching his voice to what he thinks is his usual energy level. Fuck. He’s out of practice with sleep deprivation. He had drawn himself a glass of water earlier and gargled a little to see if he couldn’t get rid of some of the fuzzy sleep sound in his voice, but he’s not sure it worked.

“Good morning,” Zhao Zi says around another jaw-cracking yawn. “You were already gone when I woke,” he says, a little petulant. “I wanted to give you a good morning kiss.”

“You can give me one now,” Jack suggests, puckering his lips in the most unattractive way he can muster.

“Not like that!” Zhao Zi says, but he’s laughing and approaching anyways, so Jack pulls him in by the waist and gives him a proper kiss.

“Like that?” Jack asks.

“Yeah,” Zhao Zi says, voice a little burred around the edges. “Like that.”

“I made us some chilled tofu and century egg,” Jack says, gesturing to the table he’s already set. “We’re running low on scallions, though. I’ll have to pick some up later.”

Zhao Zi studies his face. “Jack, are you okay?”

“Hm?” Jack blinks, feigning ignorance. “What do you mean?”

“Oh.” Zhao Zi pauses for another moment. “Nothing. You just feel tired.”

Jack laughs. “What do you mean I feel tired? Do I look tired? Do I sound tired?”

“Don’t make fun of me!” Zhao Zi says. “I just mean you feel tired. When I touch you, you feel tired.”

“That doesn’t make any sense, little one,” Jack says, though he’s simultaneously touched and a bit anxious. Zhao Zi noticed! Zhao Zi cares! On the other hand, fuck, Zhao Zi noticed. He must be getting sloppy.

“Okay, whatever,” Zhao Zi grumbles without sounding very upset. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, fine,” Jack lies easily. “Are you visiting Officer Meng after work today?”

“He didn’t say not to, so I think we’re all going,” Zhao Zi says, picking up his chopsticks and sitting down. Jack sits down across from him, already dreading the evening.

“Everyone?” he asks.

“Yeah, I think so. Jun Wei said V’s bringing a flower arrangement or something, it’s a hobby of hers?”

 

Jack naps fitfully during the day, waking only just in time to slap together two boxed dinners before he heads to the hospital. V does indeed bring a delicate ikebana arrangement, which Shaofei praises effusively and photographs to excess. Jack watches like a particularly neurotic hawk, but Shaofei never touches it, and V sets it carefully on his bedside table.

Jack’s trying to think of all the ways you could kill a person with a flower arrangement. Poison applied to the holder? Exploitation of allergies? He’s pretty sure Shaofei isn’t deathly allergic to anything, but his left lung was collapsed recently, so maybe she’s hoping to trigger something? Even as Jack thinks about it, it sounds implausible, but he really doesn’t trust V. Maybe there’s a bug or something in it. He watches Jun Wei lean against her, chin resting on her shoulder with casual affection as they sit down a little ways away to give Zhao Zi and Yu Qi a turn to talk to Shaofei.

Officer Meng, being Officer Meng, is restless and wants to walk around. Everyone rushes to help, but Tiff and Jack somehow both get hands under his shoulders at the same time.

“It’s okay, Jackdaw, I’ve got it,” Tiff says sweetly.

“I can’t let—” Jack begins.

“I know you know better than to finish that sentence,” Tiff interrupts. “I’m very strong, thank you.”

“I’m not questioning that,” Jack says. “I was going to say I can’t let you do that without offering to help. That would be disrespectful.”

“Well, you’ve offered,” Tiff says. “And I’m fine, so—”

“What’s the harm, Tiff?” Jack pushes back.

“Oh my god, both of you back off,” Shaofei exclaims, flapping his hands at them. “Yu Qi, Zhao Zi—you guys help me up. Your partners are useless. Jeez, are you like, ex-rivals or something? Calm down.”

Jack backs off. Tiff follows suit, but lingers for just a second longer, which has Jack grinding his teeth. No one remarks on the rivals comment. Shaofei isn’t really correct, per se. Jack’s never considered Tiff his rival—they’re both high up in their field, but he actually much prefers working with her than anything else, and they don’t compete on a job. It’s dangerous, no to mention amateurish. He’s not actually sure he’s ever squared off with her on an opposing team before. It’s a very different dynamic, and he’s pretty sure he hates it.

Shaofei gets to his feet with Yu Qi and Zhao Zi’s assistance, clinging onto his IV drip for support as he hobbles around the room. “Ugh,” he groans. “I hate being in the hospital. I can’t wait to leave on Thursday.”

“You’re getting discharged on Thursday?” Yu Qi asks, sounding distressed. “That’s so soon!”

“That’s almost a week! I can’t be stuck here any longer,” Shaofei says. “I’m losing my mind. And I’m supposed to visit Tang Yi on Friday, so—”

“You show up looking like that, and he’s going to stage a prison break,” Jack remarks drily.

“Well, I can’t just not go,” Shaofei says. “He’ll feel better hearing about the attack from me anyways. He’ll be able to see I’m fine, right?”

“Are you going to have that chest drain in?” V asks, nodding at the apparatus attached to the IV stand.

“Dr. Jiang said it was coming out tomorrow,” Shaofei says. He does a few laps of the room, still talking. “I can’t wait! I’m sick of being here.”

“Xuezhang, can you please… try and take care of yourself more?” Yu Qi asks dejectedly.

“Yu Qi! It’s not like I was trying to be stabbed!”

“Will you have people around to help you during recovery?” V asks. “I did some research on lung surgeries. Don’t you live alone?”

Shaofei flounders a little. “Well—I mean, I technically—that is—”

“He just lives at Tang Yi’s house now,” Zhao Zi supplies. “I don’t think I’ve seen him at home in months.”

“Zhao Zi!” Shaofei says, sounding scandalized.

“What? Am I wrong? Anyways, who’s going to help you? Zuo Hongye?”

“Obviously not!”

“One of Xing Tian Meng’s brothers then?”

No.

Jack feels his phone buzz and glances down. Blocked number. He touches Zhao Zi on the shoulder and waves the phone, jerking his head towards the door. Zhao Zi nods absentmindedly, still arguing with Shaofei.

He picks up once he’s outside the room. “Hello?”

“Jack. I heard you were looking for me.”

“Su-nai.”

“Don’t call me nai.” He can almost hear her wrinkling her nose in disgust. “I hate that the most.”

“What do you prefer?” Jack defers.

“My name is fine. Dajie if you must.

“Very well, Liquan,” Jack acquiesces, though the lack of honorific gives him a bit of a squirrelly feeling inside. “Yes, I was looking for you.”

“What for?” she asks. He hears her smoking. He can almost picture her: butch and grizzled, buzzcut shot through with grey as she leans against a railing with cigarette in hand. “Looking for a job? You’ve turned us down a lot over the years.”

“Not for me,” Jack says. “I’m on a job already, but I have this friend…”

“Tell me about them,” Su Liquan says.

“Well, she’s a lesbian,” Jack says.

Liquan snorts. “Good start.”

“She’s specialized a lot like me—but she’s new to the area, she actually spent most of the last decade working jobs in Europe. She asked me to ask around for her, so…”

“Specialized like you?” Liquan echoes. “Hitter-grifter?”

“Just about,” Jack says. “She’s better at hacking than I am, though. You have any openings?”

There’s a beat. “No,” she says. She sounds almost amused.

“Oh,” Jack says with a shrug. “Well, I did try. Did you already hire someone for a job?”

“Yes,” she says. Nothing more seems forthcoming.

“Can I ask who?” Jack asks, keeping his tone light. “Just so I can tell her about the competition.”

“No,” Liquan says. “Funny, though. You’re the second person in as many days to ask about job opportunities.”

“Really? Who was the other?”

“Goodbye, Jack.”

“Wait, Liquan—”

There’s a decisive click on the other end of the line. He sighs. ‘Asking for a friend’ isn’t a very good ploy, all things considered, but it does move Lei Si Tuan a little higher on the suspect list. He’ll have to do more digging. He turns around to go back into the room and sees Tiff leaning against the frame watching him.

“Who was that?” she asks.

“What happened to not getting in each other’s way?” Jack asks, walking around her.

 

That night, Jack breaks into Shaofei’s room again and disposes of the ikebana arrangement while he sleeps. He takes another series of short naps during the day, and Zhao Zi tells him all about how annoyed Shaofei is when he gets home from work.

“He thinks one of the hospital staff must have removed it,” Zhao Zi sighs, pulling off his shirt and tossing it in the laundry hamper. “Which is a shame! It was a really nice arrangement.”

“Yeah,” Jack agrees innocently. “Weird. You’d think they would have asked before taking it.”

“I know! V made it with all of her earnest feelings. It’s really a shame!”

“How do you know she was earnest?” Jack asks.

You’re asking that?” Zhao Zi exclaims. “You make lunch boxes ‘full of love’! How is this different?”

“I told you they were full of love! Did V say that?”

“No, but you don’t have to declare everything, Jack,” Zhao Zi says primly. “Sometimes, you can just feel the love.”

“Oh? Like this?” Jack asks, smelling an opportunity and tackling Zhao Zi to the bed.

“Jack!” he half-shrieks. “Wait! I was just trying to change—we haven’t even made dinner—”

“Well, you should have thought of that before undressing in front of me like that,” Jack mock-scolds him, trying and failing to keep him pinned. He’s not trying very hard, granted, and Zhao Zi does have police training in self-defense. He’s also unfairly flexible. Jack nuzzles into his neck, fingers digging into the soft bits at Zhao Zi’s waist, and Zhao Zi smushes his palm directly into Jack’s face with a peal of laughter.

“Stop!” he giggles. “Seriously, Jack, come on, I’m hungr—no, wait—”

But it’s too late. “Eat me!” Jack says like the predictable dumbass he is, and Zhao Zi groans in despair, throwing his head back. It’s great, because that just gives Jack easier access, and he takes prompt advantage.

It slows everything down from something childish to something else, which wasn’t exactly Jack’s intent, but he’s not complaining. Zhao Zi makes a noise, and Jack moves up to kiss it out of his mouth.

They break apart breathless after a few minutes.

“Hi,” Jack says, suddenly a little overwhelmed.

“Hi,” Zhao Zi whispers back, nose almost brushing his. “We should really go eat some food.”

Jack clambers off him, kind of regretting starting something he couldn’t finish. Zhao Zi pulls on a shirt clumsily and starts heading for the stairs, blushing furiously, but he takes Jack’s hand to lead him to the kitchen.

Dinner is… something. He’s hyperaware of Zhao Zi in his space, and every time they brush against each other, he almost jumps out of his skin. He nearly burns the garlic while distracted by the tug of Zhao Zi’s shirt across his shoulder blades when he stands on his tiptoes to reach for something in an overhead cabinet. He’s doesn’t want to eat, he wants to—

Well. Okay, he wants to eat. Just maybe not what he’s cooking.

It’s actually Zhao Zi who finally breaks the tension. They reach for something at the same time, chopsticks clacking awkwardly in midair across the dinner table. Jack looks up and finds Zhao Zi staring at him, eyes bright and lips wet. He finds himself unable to move as Zhao Zi stands, carefully setting down this chopsticks, and leans impossibly far forward over the table to kiss him.

Jack feels like all the breath is leaving his body. Which is silly, because it’s obviously not the first time they’ve ever kissed, it’s just—it’s just—

Zhao Zi pulls back just enough to murmur, “Okay, Jack, you win,” and he actually takes a fistful of Jack’s collar and hauls him to his feet.

Jack almost puts his hand in his rice as he stumbles up. His whole head is buzzing, skin electric and hot. “What did I win?” he somehow manages to get out.

Zhao Zi pins him with another of his Looks as he drags him towards the stairs. “Don’t pretend you don’t know what you were doing,” he admonishes, and sounds miffed enough about it that it startles a laugh out of Jack. It’s grounding, which is good. It means he can find his feet again, put one in front of the other.

Zhao Zi shoves him onto the bed and undresses him like he’s angry. Jack lets him. He feels haunted by the ghosts of touch and others. Zhao Zi’s hands leave afterimages of sensation on his bare skin.

“Okay?” Zhao Zi asks, voice low and teeth against the lobe of Jack’s ear.

“Yes,” he breathes back.

Zhao Zi’s body describes a function of tension and restraint, the two variables drawing a furious cartesian curve as he takes the lead—four months into this relationship, whatever it is, and it’s the first time Zhao Zi has ever come for Jack like this, so full of purpose and desire. It spins Jack’s head, so he rides the wave of it, lets himself be borne upon its crest like a drowned man as Zhao Zi becomes the sea, inexorable and fierce. And yet, when he finally, finally pushes into Jack, he moves with the stuttering bird-rhythm of a gentle man afraid to wound.

It breaks Jack’s heart in a new way that he’s afraid to name.

“Okay?” Zhao Zi asks again, and his voice is smaller, hesitant. He’s shaking, Jack can feel it. He thinks he’s swallowed his own tongue, it’s so hard to speak. There are tiny sounds fluttering in his throat like the chirps of a fledgling learning to beg. “Jack?” Zhao Zi asks, the slightest tinge of fear coloring the sound of his name. He’s almost human again—unsure and nervous, hands gripping tight to Jack’s hips in tremulous wonder.

Maybe it’s because it’s the first time, or maybe it’s just—Jack doesn’t know. Jack’s not good at feelings, he can be the first to admit that. It’s nothing at all or everything at once, and when he’s spent so much time in that void of nothing, it makes the everything that much harder to dissect. But Zhao Zi is asking something of him, Zhao Zi needs him to say something, anything, so—

“Move,” Jack spits around the leaden weight of his tongue. “Move.

And Zhao Zi does, and all Jack can do is breathe and breathe and breathe.

 

“Was that really okay?” Zhao Zi asks into the silence. They’re lying on the bed, fingertips just barely entangled between them. Jack still doesn’t know if he can find his voice, so he nods, a jerky, imperfect thing. “You’re just… very quiet,” Zhao Zi continues. “I didn’t—did I hurt you?” It comes out hushed and frightened and quick.

How does he tell Zhao Zi yes, but not in the way that he thinks? Yes, but I can’t tell you how. Yes, but it’s still okay. Yes, but I think I might—

“No,” he says. “No, you didn’t.”

The relief is instant and palpable. “Oh, good,” Zhao Zi says, a crooked smile blooming on his face. “I was afraid I would—well, anyways.” He’s transforming back into himself, stepping back into his skin. “Anyways, I’m glad.”

Jack kisses him, because that’s the only way he thinks he can approach the enormity of whatever it is that’s looming inside him. It was just sex, he tries to rationalize to himself. He’s done it before. There’s no reason for him to be in such bizarre turmoil.

Someone’s stomach gurgles. It might actually be Jack’s for once.

“Do you want to finish dinner?” Zhao Zi asks ruefully, breaking the kiss. He looks a little embarrassed, a little pleased. It’s a good look on him.

Jack boops their noses together. “Yeah. Okay, let’s do that.” Jack doesn’t want to put on fucking clothes—he actually doesn’t really want to get up from the bed at all, if he’s being honest. But he does want to have his dinner with Zhao Zi. He silently laments the fact that both of these things are in fact not possible at the same time.

But then Zhao Zi, kissing the tip of his nose, shimmies back into his pants and stands up to grab a silk robe he’d bought for Jack a last month. It’s one of the most ridiculous pieces of clothing he owns—a rich, dark burgundy that skews red and hangs down to his mid-calf. There’s lace panelling on it! And tiny golden brocade flowers! How the everloving fuck Zhao Zi had seen this piece in a store and somehow come to the conclusion that Jack would love a woman’s silk robe was beyond him. What was he even doing in a store that sold women’s silk robes? It’s so unexpected of a man who not even half a year ago declared that while he could support his friend’s queer leanings, he couldn’t support his own. Zhao Zi, despite his innocent, airheaded mien, is so weirdly unpredictable at times, and it delights Jack to no end.

The thing is, Zhao Zi was right. Jack fucking loves this robe. He feels like a princess when he wears it, or like some softer version of a femme fatale. It’s a nice change of pace from who he is and has to be most of the time. And he likes the way Zhao Zi looks at him when he wears it. Not lustful, his ass. Zhao Zi is shy and silly and a bit naive, but he’s full of wants. He’s just not very self-aware when it comes to desire. Well, most of the time.

Jack looks at the spill of fabric in Zhao Zi’s proffered hand. “Oh. Thank you,” he says, taking it.

“I just felt like maybe you didn’t really want to put on clothes,” Zhao Zi says, shoulders hunching up a little. “So I thought this might be a good compromise.”

“Little one, you can just say you want dessert,” Jack says with a wink, throwing it across his shoulders with a little more flare than strictly necessary. Back to familiar ground.

“Jack!” Zhao Zi splutters. “Oh my god, why are you like this? Seriously!” He snatches a t-shirt off the floor for something to do and tosses it at the laundry hamper. He misses.

The truth is, Jack is moved by the gesture. Zhao Zi strikes again with his alarming preternatural ability to somehow sense Jack’s petty internal conflicts. Jack hugs him from behind as he dejectedly goes and puts the shirt into the hamper properly, tucking his head into curve of Zhao Zi’s neck.

“Sorry,” he says, not really sorry at all. “Let’s finish dinner.”

Zhao Zi sighs with fond exasperation, but pats Jack on the head anyways. “Yeah, okay.”

Chapter Text

Meng Shaofei is released from the hospital the next morning. Jack is grateful, because it means he’ll no longer feel compelled to keep breaking into the hospital at night. He can at least trust the Tang estate to have security befitting a gang headquarters on its way to something approaching legitimacy. He’s exhausted, and it all came to nothing anyways. No attacks were forthcoming at the hospital. He just sat in the dark and waited. Maybe, just maybe, Meng Shaofei will keep himself out of any more trouble, at least while he’s recovering from his most recent life-threatening injury. This hope lasts all of about four hours, until Zhao Zi texts him, dismayed, that Zuo Hongye of all people is at the office picking up some work for Shaofei to look at while he’s recovering.

 

03:23pm [Little One]

A’Fei’s supposed to be *recovering*!!

why is she letting him do work???

should I stop her?

i’m too scared to stop her ( Д ;)

03:23pm

just let her

it’s probably her own way of punishing him

it serves him right if he injures himself again

he’ll only learn if he makes the mistake

03:24pm [Little One]

jack!!!! how can you say such a thing!!

 

It’s a little strange that Zuo Hongye would personally take a trip to the police station to pick up mundane paperwork for Officer Meng, given how busy she is with the Shi Hai company these days. But then again, Jack’s seen the way she looks at him, the reluctant fondness buried beneath her veneer of disdain. This is the man her brother loves, after all. Sao-sao, she calls him, dressing it up as a barbed insult, but Jack’s pretty sure everyone’s seen through that particular ruse at this point.

Still, she’s drowning in financial contracts and project proposals—has been, ever since Jack first became aware of her. Her competence and efficiency is really astounding—she dual-wields a harmless feminine persona and ruthless street-smarts with such skill, it’s no wonder Xing Tian Meng looks like they might actually succeed in escaping from the criminal underworld. Hell, she might be the main reason they do.

Zuo Hongye rebounded from a back-to-back assassination attempt and hostage situation with barely a falter in her step. Oh, she cried, certainly, but she’s quick to move forward, laser-focused with her eyes on the prize.

Maybe some light paperwork will be good for Meng Shaofei, Jack thinks. Maybe it’ll keep him occupied and within the confines of the Tang estate. He’s already researched lung surgery recovery procedures (because damned if he’ll let V beat him on that front), and he’s allowing himself some small hope that Officer Meng will follow at least some of the doctors’ advice.

But alas for Jack, he should have fucking known better. Friday afternoon rolls around with another panicked phone call from Zhao Zi.

“Jack!” he shouts as soon as Jack picks up. “Oh good, you picked up—”

“Zhao Zi?” Jack asks, instantly on high alert. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

“A’Fei is—” —dead, Jack’s mind immediately supplies with horror.

“What?” Jack demands.

“He ran off!” Zhao Zi exclaims. “He ran off by himself to visit Tang Yi! I’m going to kill him myself, I swear—ugh!”

Jack feels his world realign. Meng Shaofei isn’t dead. Meng Shaofei is just an idiot.

“What do you need me to do?” Jack asks. He slams his laptop shut with a bit more force than strictly necessary, then winces, patting it apologetically.

“Can you—Jack, I’m so sorry, can you follow him to the prison? Make sure he’s okay? The rest of the team has overtime to take care of, and he’ll be less mad if it’s you rather than one of Xing Tian Meng’s brothers—seriously, A’Fei! Hongye and Daoyi are tied up in meetings right now, so—”

“I got it,” Jack says, already putting on his shoes.

Thank you, Jack, oh my god, I can’t believe—thank you. I have to go, but keep me updated! I’ll see you after work!”

Jack makes it to the prison in record time, spots Tang Yi’s sleek ride in the parking lot, where it stands out like a sore thumb, and composes himself enough to saunter into the building. He’s not technically allowed a visit without an appointment, he doesn’t think, but he feels like the honest reason he’s here might actually be enough to at least get him into the visitation hall.

He provides one of his many fake IDs to the official on duty, explains the situation with as much disarming charm and self-deprecating humor as he can muster and actually succeeds in wrangling a small laugh from the man. He’s shown into the visitation hall with some token supervision.

The second he walks in, he zeroes in on Meng Shaofei’s wan and hunched form talking animatedly in one of the booths. With a nod from the official, he wanders over as nonchalantly as possible until he’s positioned right behind Officer Meng.

Tang Yi actually has shaved his head to regulation standards in opposition to Jack’s amused imaginings. It’s a bit of a shame because it was a lovely hairstyle, but this look just accentuates the fact that he has a bone structure to die for. Jack sees Tang Yi notice him, the telltale flare of his nostrils and widening of his eyes. His former boss always did go on the most hilarious and puffed up face journeys.

Jack waves with his fingers, grinning widely.

“Jack,” he sees Tang Yi say into receiver.

“Jack?” Shaofei says, confused as he turns around. “Jack!”

“Hi,” Jack says.

“What are you doing here?” Shaofei asks, looking significantly less alarmed and more annoyed now that the initial shock is over.

“Zhao Zi told me that you’d done something stupid and asked me to come look after you.” Jack shakes his head. “You really know how to find trouble for everyone, don’t you, Officer Meng?”

Shaofei makes a face. “If you were me, would you want one of Xing Tian Meng’s brothers breathing down your neck while you tried to have a nice conversation with your boyfriend?”

“Wait, Shaofei—” Jack sees Tang Yi say. Jack is decent at reading lips, but it’s hardly an exact science. There’s a lot of words to fill in. “Did — happen?”

“You didn’t tell him?” Jack exclaims. By his calculations, Shaofei has already been here for a good half hour.

“I was getting to it?” Shaofei winces.

“Tell me what? Shaofei! Shaofei, what — ? — — tell me — now, I’m going to — !”

“Are you going to tell him, or do I have to?” Jack asks, jerking his head at Tang Yi, who’s becoming progressively more and more agitated.

“Look, Tang Yi—calm down, okay? It’s just—look, so. Oh my god, how do I say this?”

It’s dawning on Jack that Meng Shaofei, being an absolute disaster, hasn’t devoted a single braincell on planning out his announcement. It’s extremely funny to witness. Jack doesn’t offer any help.

“SomaybeIwasstabbedlastFriday?” Shaofei finally gets out all in one breath. He flinches preemptively.

“Where?” Tang Yi demands.

“By Da’an Forest—”

“No, where — — — ?” Tang Yi gestures to his body. Interesting, Jack notes. He and his former boss have the same priorities.

“The—the lung,” Shaofei confesses in a small voice.

“The lung?” That’s loud enough that Jack can hear it through the glass, no lip-reading required. “Shaofei!

“Hey, quiet down over there,” the muffled voice of an official calls out.

“I was fine!” Shaofei says quickly. “I didn’t want you to worry, so I just thought I would come by for our usual visit, and just—tell you now? That way, you could see that I was fine, and you wouldn’t have to spend any extra time worrying—I’m fine, Tang Yi! See!”

Shaofei immediately derails his own point as he tries to gesture and then cries out in pain. What an absolute dumbass. Tang Yi actually sets down the receiver so he can bury his face in his hands for a few moments. Jack pities his former boss, he really does. It’s also taking every ounce of his carefully cultivated composure to not start snickering uncontrollably.

“I’m sorry,” Shaofei finally concedes with a penitent frown as Tang Yi picks up the phone again.

Tang Yi regards him with stony impassivity.

“I’m really sorry, Tang Yi—I just didn’t want you to worry while you couldn’t do anything, you understand?” Shaofei bites his lip. “It’s a terrible feeling, being helpless when someone you care about is—you understand. You understand, right?” He’s pleading a little now, turning his tried and true beseeching expression on Tang Yi’s glacial front.

Tang Yi doesn’t look any happier, but he does say, “I understand.”

“If you understand, that’s enough,” Shaofei says, nodding. “And I told Dr. Jiang and Zuo Hongye and Gu Daoyi and all the rest not to say a word to you, so don’t go blaming them, okay?”

Tang Yi takes a deep breath, pinches his nose, and grudgingly nods. Jack wonders how far he’d gotten in planning Dr. Jiang’s untimely demise.

“Okay,” Shaofei says, taking a deep breath with only the barest twinge of pain in his expression. “Now you know.” He glances at Jack. “Do you mind?” he asks pointedly. “I’m trying to have a conversation with my boyfriend.”

Jack huffs a laugh and raises his hands in surrender. “Fine. I’ll go stand back here.” He walks away a few feet to lean against the wall.

“You’re still watching us,” Shaofei grumbles.

“Then, Officer Meng and former boss had better be on their best behavior,” Jack says sunnily.

Shaofei rolls his eyes so hard, Jack’s almost impressed. He hunches over the receiver and talks quietly. That’s fine with Jack—he doesn’t actually have any real desire to listen in on their lover’s conversation beyond using it as a means to needle Officer Meng and Tang Yi. Still, he watches absently with a vague curiosity.

Tang Yi, though he seems to be taking the news far better than Jack expected (growth!), is still clearly lecturing Shaofei intensely—too fast for Jack to follow. Shaofei is looking more and more chastised by the second. The tips of his prominent ears are turning red. It’s really very sweet.

Tang Yi looks more raw without his perfect mop of hair, a little more bare. Jack takes in the planes of his face, ones he’d seen so cold they could shatter glass, soften into something adjacent to warmth. He wonders what Tang Yi looks like unguarded, what he looks like when he speaks to Meng Shaofei alone without the watchful eyes of guards and other inmates and—well, Jack.

The only murder Tang Yi ever orchestrated in his criminal career was carried out by Jack.

Jack wonders if that haunts him.

He decides to look away.

 

[05:43pm]

I found him he’s not dead

[05:43pm] [Little One]

thank god!!!

I was so worried he was going to pass out and crash the car

tang yi’s beautiful car ;—;

 

Jack snorts.

[05:44pm]

are you an officer or not

shouldn’t you be more concerned about potential injuries???

officer zhao!!

[05:44pm] [Little One]

I was first worried that a’fei would die!!

but if he didn’t fixing the car would be so expensive

and you know he would do it

he was ready to spend NT$60000 out of spite because of tang yi

what an idiot!! that’s such bad CP!!

[05:55pm]

do you think former boss’s heart isn’t worth NT$60000

you’ll hurt his feelings

hey what’s a good CP for my heart ;)

[05:55pm] [Little One]

I have a meeting now

sorry

bye-bye!!!

 

Zhao Zi is so stupidly adorable. It lifts Jack’s spirits. He puts his phone away.

Meng Shaofei is slowly forgetting that Jack is there it seems, as his voice starts to rise in volume until it’s back to normal speaking range. He’s got a sappy smile on his face as he talks to Tang Yi, who seems to have finished with the angry part of his lecture and has proceeded into the tenderly concerned part instead. If Tang Yi is admonishing him, or giving any advice at all regarding his health, Jack doesn’t expect Shaofei to remember any of it by the time he leaves. He seems far more intent on staring lovingly into Tang Yi’s face than on actually listening to the words coming out of his mouth.

“—yes, I know, I’m being forced to take a month of leave. Captain Fa was really insistent. Yeah. Yes, I’m listening to Dr. Jiang’s advice.” That’s a lie, Jack knows, because Shaofei snuck out of the Tang estate and drove himself here when he was only supposed to be attempting short walks around the house. “Okay, Tang Yi. Yes. Oh, Hongye brought me some paperwork so I wouldn’t be too bored at the house. Yeah, we’re getting along really well now! I know, I’m glad too, since she’s so important to you. Huh? Oh. No, I don’t think so. No, I’m not sure. I haven’t heard the results from forensics yet.”

Jack perks up at that.

“Nothing yet. It might just be random. It seems random! No threats, no repeat attacks, nothing. There is such a thing as random violence, Tang Yi. Not everything is premeditated. It might have just been a kid who wanted to see what it’s like to stab someone—no, of course it’s still important, I know—calm down a little—everyone is working hard on the case, but we have a backlog. I know it’s been four months, but we’re still dealing with fallout from—you know.” Jack hears his voice fall a little. He knows, and Tang Yi certainly does too. It is unacceptable how many nights Jack has noticed Zhao Zi crying about that clusterfuck, red-eyed and trying to hide it. Sometimes, it makes him want to throttle Zhou Guanzhi himself, though he knows that would only make everything a hundred times worse.

There’s something about the red-hot anger that hurts more than usual. Jack knows why and chooses not to engage.

Their conversation turns to lighter topics—what Shaofei has been eating, how well he’s been taking care of Tang Yi’s car (“Not a scratch!”), silly coworker shenanigans. Shaofei complains about how V’s ikebana arrangement disappeared overnight and proceeds to swipe through an album of the pictures he took of it to show Tang Yi.

“I’m looking forward to meeting her,” Jack sees Tang Yi say through the glass. He’s smiling, and it even reaches his eyes.

“Yeah! I like her a lot. She and Jun Wei are a good match. I think they really get each other. She definitely appreciates him for who he is,” Shaofei says enthusiastically. “Jun Wei can be sort of awkward, but she’s very grounded.” He glances at his phone. “Oh! Oh no, it seems our time is almost up.” An air of dejection descends immediately. Shaofei’s slouch becomes that much more pronounced. “I guess I’ll have to wait to see you again. Oh, but since I’m not working, maybe I’ll have more free time to visit?” That thought seems to cheer him a little.

Jack distinctly sees Tang Yi say, “Make sure you rest well first!” while shaking his finger insistently at Shaofei.

“I will, I will, I promise. I promise, Tang Yi. I’m really strong, remember? No knife is going to kill me.” He ducks down close to whisper something into the receiver. Tang Yi does the same. Then they’re both smiling like the lovestruck fools they are. Jack knows what was said. He gets ready to leave.

“What? Wait, Jack?” Jack glances up at his name. Shaofei is looking at him over his shoulder. Tang Yi is also looking at him, his eyes boring twin holes into Jack’s head. “You want to talk to… Jack?” Shaofei looks a little nervous at that.

Jack doesn’t blame him—it’ll be the first conversation they’ve had since their confrontation at the station. He’s not entirely sure what to expect. It’s not like Tang Yi can really do anything to him—he never had enough real information on Jack to be a threat, but.

Jack walks over and takes the receiver out of Meng Shaofei’s outstretched hand. The overseeing official does nothing to stop him.

“Former boss wanted to speak to me?” he asks politely.

“What do you think is going on?” Tang Yi barely moves his lips, speaks so quietly even Jack can barely hear him. Shaofei squints at that, looks at Jack, looks back at Tang Yi.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Jack says with cautious deliberation, watching Tang Yi’s expression carefully.

“Do you think Shaofei is in danger?” Tang Yi asks.

“Are you excluding me from the conversation on purpose? Hey, Tang Yi!” Shaofei protests. Tang Yi either doesn’t hear him, or pretends not to. He hasn’t stopped staring at Jack.

“I don’t know if you heard, but you are my former boss,” Jack emphasizes.

“And you’re Shaofei’s current friend,” Tang Yi shoots back. “Don’t evade the question. There’s not much time.”

Jack considers. He and Meng Shaofei are not friends. He’s been adamant on this point to Zhao Zi for months, and he’s not about to budge on it for Tang Yi. Jack is in this for Zhao Zi. Everything else is just… tangential to that.

Tang Yi’s casual assurance that he can still deal with Jack as an equal surprisingly doesn’t chafe. But then again, Jack doesn’t harbor any particular ill-will towards the man—and he was a pretty good boss when Jack was still selling him out to both Interpol and Chen Wenhao. And their goal, in this instance, is the same, even if their motivations are different. Well, their motivations are the same too, actually. Just prioritized differently.

“I have a few concerns,” Jack says. “But I’m working on it. You were always satisfied with my quality of work, weren’t you?”

Tang Yi inclines his head. “If you let him come to harm, I will kill you,” he says without the slightest change in demeanor. “Give the phone back to him.”

“Very well, former boss,” Jack says with just a hint of irony, and hands it to Shaofei.

“What was that?” Shaofei demands. “Are you keeping something from me? I thought you and Jack were done with each other. Tang Yi!”

Jack watches Tang Yi reassure Shaofei, sees the phrases “leftover gang business” and “nothing to worry about” fly past his lips. It seems to mollify him somewhat, though he still looks vaguely suspicious about the whole thing. “Okay. Okay, then. Bye-bye. I’ll see you—soon! I’ll see you soon. Bye-bye.”

Jack helps him stand, acting as a support as he walks. Shaofei leans into it with an exhausted groan. He must be completely drained, the absolute fool. He takes a few slow, deep breaths, gives Tang Yi a final smile and wave, and begins the arduous trek back through the hallway, Jack supporting him all the while.

Jack glances back for a moment as they leave and sees Tang Yi with a hand pressed against the glass, face open with hunger and yearning so obvious it physically tears a little bit of the air out of Jack’s lungs. It only lasts a moment because Tang Yi catches his eye and immediately withdraws, schooling his expression into neutral apathy as he heads back into the prison, eyes up, posture strong.

Jack is not good at feelings, so he can’t exactly name what it is that surges inside him as he watches Tang Yi go, but he does tighten his grip a little on Shaofei’s waist, offer him just a little more support, walk just a little slower.

Chapter Text

Jack forcibly pickpockets Tang Yi’s car keys from Shaofei and drives him back to the Tang estate himself. The man is in no state to drive, and he’s also clearly starting to feel a lot of pain from his limited exertions. He falls asleep in the passenger seat after dry-swallowing a painkiller, mouth slightly agape and drooling. Jack tries not to be annoyed about the logistics of trying to get his motorcycle back from the prison.

As they pull up, it’s actually Zuo Hongye who runs out to greet them looking painfully concerned. She pulls up short when she sees it’s Jack at the wheel.

“Jack?” she demands. “Where’s sao—oh.” She blinks. “You drove him back?”

“I couldn’t let him drive,” Jack says innocently. “That would have been very dangerous for the citizens of Taipei.”

Hongye’s eyes narrow, but she doesn’t immediately snap at him. “He fell asleep?”

“He took one of his pain pills.” Jack shrugs. “I expect they’re probably fairly strong.”

Hongye sighs in exasperation, hands on hips. “What am I going to do with this stupid man?” she mutters under her breath before seemingly coming to a decision. “All right. I’m going to call one of the brothers to help me get this idiot upstairs to a bed,” she says. “You’re free to go.”

“No need,” Jack says, unbuckling and getting out of the car. “I’ll help you, if you’ll do me a favor.”

Her eyes narrow again. “What kind of favor?” she asks dangerously.

“Drive me back to the prison so I can pick up my motorcycle,” he says. “I left it there when I drove this one home.”

She pauses for a moment. “Is that all?” she asks when he doesn’t add anything. “Just. Drive you to the prison?”

“I can be generous,” Jack says with an affected air of magnanimity. “I’ll drive both of us to the prison, so you only need to drive it back.”

“Cut it out, Jack. Yes, I’ll drive you. Help me with this fool.” She opens the passenger side door and Meng Shaofei’s head lolls out. She looks down at him with a peculiar mixture of disgust, disdain, and recalcitrant affection. “I can’t believe he’s the one my brother fell for.”

“Opposites complement each other,” Jack says with a shrug. “Who can say.”

“How’s Officer Zhao?” she asks slyly.

“Fine,” he says, reaching over to unfasten Shaofei’s seatbelt.

“There’s an opposite if I ever saw one,” she remarks. “But I guess you’re also both empty-headed, so maybe not.”

“Zuo-zong takes a harsh view of me,” Jack says mildly.

“I haven’t forgotten about the two of you playing in the pool while you were supposed to be working,” she sniffs. “I’ve never seen such an idiotic display of male sexual tension in my life.”

“To be fair, I don’t think that one was really my fault,” Jack says. He certainly played along, he can’t deny that, but Zhao Zi absolutely started it. He shakes Shaofei’s shoulder gently. “Officer Meng,” he says. “It’s time to wake up.”

“Mwuh?” Shaofei mumbles. He blinks. “Ah?”

“Sao-sao,” Hongye says, managing to inject a very impressive amount of despair into the two syllables. “What are we going to do with you?”

“Hongye?” he slurs. “Is that you?”

“Come on, get up,” she says, prodding at him. “Jack and I will support you, but you’re going to have to do some walking so we don’t accidentally tear open your injury. Come on.”

Slowly, with much nagging from Hongye, Shaofei manages to stumble to his feet. Jack slips under one of his arms while Hongye immediately ducks under the other for support. She kicks the passenger door closed with her foot, careful to avoid hitting her heel against the paint.

“Okay,” she says. “One foot in front of the other.”

They make their painstaking way to the door and up the stairs into what appears to be Tang Yi’s bedroom. Shaofei flops onto the bed and seems to almost immediately lose consciousness again.

“Well.” Hongye shrugs. “Good enough.”

“You’re not going to tuck him in?” Jack asks.

Hongye fixes him with a withering stare. “Am I going to undress my brother’s boyfriend and tuck him in? Are you?

Jack almost considers saying yes and following through just to annoy her. But no, she’s helping him get his motorcycle back. He raises his hands in deference. “You raise a compelling point,” he says.

“Damn right. Give me the keys.”

“I did say I could do the driving there,” he says.

“I’d rather do it. Keys.” She beckons expectantly. He puts the keys into her hands obediently.

“As Zuo-zong wishes it,” he says.

“Shut up, Jack.”

He quickly wishes he hadn’t allowed her to drive there, as Zuo Hongye drives with what seems to be very little care for traffic patterns and pedestrians. Granted, she never actually hits anyone, but there are many instances that feel uncomfortably like near misses. Jack can’t quite tell if her confidence is unearned or if he’s simply unfamiliar with her driving style and therefore assessing her unfairly. He doesn’t shotgun drive her because he values his life, but it’s very tempting.

She pulls into the prison parking lot and zooms far too quickly into an open spot. Jack’s back hits the seat with a little thud as she brakes. He notes that she’s perfectly even within the lines as he steps out on only slightly shaky legs.

“Thank you, Zuo-zong,” he says with a slight bow.

She doesn’t respond for a moment, just watches him carefully from the driver’s seat. The quiet hum of the engine is the only sound between them. “You’re welcome,” she says finally. “Thank you for bringing Officer Meng back.” And then, before Jack can say anything, she starts backing out. It’s all he can do to slam the door shut before it takes him out with it.

She peels into the street with a screech that has Jack wincing. That can’t be good for the tires.

By the time he gets home, Zhao Zi is already in the kitchen, half-humming, half-mumblesinging off-key over the sound of sizzling oil. Jack thinks he recognizes the melody to EggPlantEgg’s “The Prodigal Son Turns Back”, but if he’s honest, Zhao Zi’s grasp of melody is tenuous at best, and his Minnan isn’t much better, so it might well be something else entirely.

“Little one?” he calls out. The singing cuts off abruptly, which is a bit of a shame because it was cute.

“Jack!” There’s the sound of slippers slapping on the tile before Zhao Zi pokes his head into the hall, dirty spatula in hand. “You’re home!”

“I’m home,” Jack agrees. He sets his helmet by the shoes. “What are you making?”

“Oh, I saw a recipe online for making liang mian huang, so I thought I would try it out.” He makes a face. “I don’t think I’m succeeding, though. I might have to go from liang mian huang to just liang mian if I ruin it.”

“Don’t say that,” Jack says, taking off his shoes and putting them neatly away. “Also, that would be a very weird liang mian. Why waste what you’ve made? Didn’t you say it’s only a waste if it doesn’t get eaten?”

“Sometimes, just because it’s eaten, doesn’t mean it isn’t wasted,” Zhao Zi says, heading back to the kitchen. “If you don’t enjoy it, it’s also wasted!” he calls back.

Jack supposes there’s a certain logic to that. He comes into the kitchen in time to see Zhao Zi poking morosely at the noodles frying in the wok. “They look fine to me,” he offers. They do. Maybe a little flat, but otherwise perfectly serviceable.

Zhao Zi sighs. “I don’t know, maybe.”

Jack runs a hand through Zhao Zi’s hair and kisses him on the temple. “Well I want to eat it.”

Zhao Zi rolls his eyes with a smile. “You’re just being nice because you never know how to tell me no.”

That might be true, but Jack isn’t about to admit it. “Here, is there anything else that needs cooking? I can finish that up while you try and get the noodles to fry right.”

“Oh, not really, but maybe if you could grab the sesame oil—”

The dish is, while not as good as some of the liang mian huang Jack’s eaten in his life, still quite tasty. Anyways, Zhao Zi made it, which is, as far as he’s concerned, the most important point.

“How was A’Fei?” Zhao Zi asks as they eat, words muffled through a mouthful of food he’s already shoveled in despite his initial misgivings.

“Fine,” Jack says, prying at the nest of noodles with his chopsticks. It’s gratifyingly crunchy. “Stubborn.”

“I really can’t believe him!” Zhao Zi laments. “Seriously, he’s a really good police officer, but he’s so impulsive, even though he always says he isn’t! What about Tang Yi? How did he take the news?”

“Better than I expected,” Jack says. “He only shouted for a little bit before calming down. I think maybe prison is mellowing him out.”

“I guess that’s possible,” Zhao Zi says. “I really didn’t think it was possible for Tang Yi to mellow out—he was always so serious and angry.”

“Well, when you’re tangled up in trying to avenge the death of your father figure, I feel like that’s probably expected,” Jack says lightly.

“That’s true. I can’t understand what that’s like, so I probably shouldn’t say anything,” Zhao Zi says thoughtfully. “It’s so surprising that A’Fei is the one that could manage to calm him down, though! Impulsive A’Fei!”

“Didn’t you tell me there was a betting pool?” Jack asks.

“Yeah, but it was still surprising that Tang Yi calmed down. We were actually afraid they’d just bring out more of the worst in each other—well, I mean, dangerous parts of their personality. Not like, actually bad traits, you know? Anyways, I told you I was a little shocked that day because I didn’t think Tang Yi would go and kiss him in front of everyone. I always thought he was more of a private person.”

“I guess once they resolved the sexual tension, they both calmed down a little,” Jack muses.

Zhao Zi chokes.

“What?” Jack asks. “Don’t tell me you don’t think about that, little one?”

“You can’t just say things like that!” Zhao Zi coughs.

“We’re all adults,” Jack says, amused despite himself. “I mean, we had sex just the other d—”

“Shut up!” Zhao Zi wails, covering his face. “Come on, we’re eating!”

“I think it’s been thematically established with our relationship that eating is the perfect time to talk about sex,” Jack counters, grinning. He opens his mouth and takes an unnecessarily suggestive bite all while making eye contact with Zhao Zi, who peeks out at him between his fingers. Liang mian huang isn’t exactly the sexiest of foods, but Jack can work with what he has. He notes with satisfaction that Zhao Zi’s eyes linger on his mouth. Success.

“You’re the worst, you know that?” Zhao Zi mutters.

“There’s really nothing to be embarrassed about. You know that, right?” Jack puts down his chopsticks. “Would you feel this way about talking about having sex with a girl?”

“Absolutely!” Zhao Zi exclaims. “Maybe even worse!”

“You wouldn’t talk about it with your guy friends?” Jack prods.

“No way! That’s so disrespectful to the girl—and a-anyways, I told you I’d never slept with anyone, so—that’s besides the point!” He drops his hands, face very red. “I don’t understand how you do it so easily.”

Jack looks at him, impossibly fond. “Experience,” he says gently.

“O-oh.” Zhao Zi turns, if possible, even redder. “Right, of course. How silly, I should have—I should have known.” He picks up his chopsticks clumsily and starts eating again.

“Are you upset?” Jack asks.

“No.” It comes out too reflexively to be true.

“Zhao Zi.” Zhao Zi doesn’t meet his gaze. “Zhao Li’an.” His hands pause in midair. Jack reaches across the table to tip his chin up until they’re looking at each other. He searches Zhao Zi’s face. “Does it upset you to know that I’ve slept with other people?” he asks.

Zhao Zi’s eyes shift away. “Yes,” he whispers reluctantly. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Jack says, automatically soothing. “It’s understandable.”

“I don’t know why, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know that—” Zhao Zi says, abandoning all pretense of eating and setting his chopsticks down carefully on his plate. “It’s just sometimes I get—it’s stupid, I know—

“It’s okay,” Jack repeats. “Really, it is. Here.” He takes ones of Zhao Zi’s hands. Zhao Zi bites his lip, looking up at him cautiously. “Will it help if I tell you a little bit about it?”

“I—I don’t know. I’m afraid I’ll just get—angry. Even though it’s not your fault,” Zhao Zi adds quickly. “I wouldn’t be mad at you, just—mad.”

“Jealousy can often make people angry,” Jack agrees.

“I’m not—” Zhao Zi cuts himself off with a sigh. “Okay, yes, I’m jealous. Fine. You’re right.”

“It’s very cute, actually,” Jack says, because it is. “But it’ll only hurt you. Just a little bit then—okay? Just one person, for practice. And then we can come back to it later, if you like.”

“Okay,” Zhao Zi agrees, visibly steeling himself. “Sure. Okay. Tell me about one person you slept with.”

“Tiff,” Jack says.

Tiff?!” Zhao Zi yelps. His eyes go comically wide. It’s fucking hilarious. “As in, Yu Qi’s Tiff?!”

“That’s right!” Jack says. He can’t help but laugh. It’s a safe piece of information, unrelated to the dirtier side of their pasts, and Zhao Zi’s reaction is priceless.

“Oh my god,” Zhao Zi says loudly. “Oh my god.” He seems shocked out of embarrassment. “Tiff?” he asks again.

“Yep.”

“Wow.” Zhao Zi blinks.

“How do you feel?”

“I—I don’t know, I just didn’t expect—Tiff?” Zhao Zi shakes his head, as if trying to clear it. “Wait, but—doesn’t she like women?”

“And men,” Jack says. “Like me. And like you.” He squeezes Zhao Zi’s hand.

“O-oh.”

“Unless you don’t actually like women,” Jack adds.

“I do!” Zhao Zi says.

“Well, there you are.”

“I guess it makes sense,” Zhao Zi says, after a few more seconds of silent processing. “It did always sort of feel like there was something else going on in the history between you two.”

Jack has to laugh at that. “I can almost guarantee that all of your teammates already guessed that we slept together.”

“No way!” Zhao Zi insists. “Come on, how could that be the first conclusion?”

“People have lustful minds, I guess,” Jack says cheerfully. Zhao Zi punches him in the arm, but not too hard. “Do you feel better?”

“I—yeah, I guess I do.” Zhao Zi seems surprised despite himself.

“I won’t lie and say it didn’t mean anything,” Jack says, because this is suddenly very important. “But it also doesn’t change the way I feel about you now, you understand?”

“Yeah, Jack,” Zhao Zi says, a smile starting to creep back onto his face. “Yeah, I understand.”

“If you understand, then that’s good,” Jack says. “I lo—” He almost loses his footing on the sentence, sends himself careering off a precipice he’s not sure he could come back from. It blindsides him, because he felt like he’d been handling the conversation very well up until this point. Careless of him. “I really, really like you, Zhao Zi.” His heart hammers, unsure if Zhao Zi noticed the slip of the tongue.

“I… also like you,” Zhao Zi says back, smile growing bigger every second. Jack feels like he can breathe again.

“What a coincidence!” Jack teases. “Let’s finish eating before it gets cold.” He starts to let go of Zhao Zi’s hand, but Zhao Zi makes a grab for him before he can.

“Jack,” he says seriously. Jack looks at him. And Zhao Zi lifts his hand to his mouth to press his lips to it. “Thank you.”

Jack feels like he’s been full-on punched in the face. Who gave him the right, honestly who gave him the right—

He shakily pastes his usual cocky grin on his face (tries to, at least). “No problem,” he says, tapping Zhao Zi on the nose with each syllable.

Zhao Zi giggles. “You act so silly, but you’re actually pretty sincere sometimes, aren’t you?” he comments, finally picking up his chopsticks again.

“It’s what makes me a good actor,” Jack says nonchalantly. “It’s why I can blend in with even the most dangerous of types.” He’s playing it as a joke, desperate to move into safer territory.

“Are you acting now?” Zhao Zi asks.

Fuck. “No,” he says, after a beat too long. “No—I—I don’t want to act about this. Not to you.” It feels like pulling teeth, but it’s an honesty that Zhao Zi deserves. Even if it scares Jack. Even if it’s just a little too close to the bone.

“Okay,” Zhao Zi says happily. “This really doesn’t taste too bad, does it?”

“It’s delicious,” Jack reassures him and heaps another serving onto his own plate.

Chapter Text

Somehow, one way or another, Jack finds himself playing chauffeur and caretaker to Meng Shaofei in the coming week. He’s not entirely sure how, but it does provide him with some reassurance that the man isn’t going to accidentally kill himself before the assassin tries again. The forensics report comes back with disappointingly little new information, but that was to be expected, Jack supposes. Tiff is a professional and a good one at that.

He gets a call from the Xiong family. They tell him straight that they have no interest in Xing Tian Meng’s affairs and are currently in a deadlock with a different Cambodia-based gang and to kindly piss off. Jack doesn’t even manage to get a word in edgewise after his greeting before they hang up. While he wouldn’t normally take an underworld gang on their word, the Xiongs have always been unexpectedly blunt and to the point with their negotiations. Another dead end, then.

Zuo Hongye and Gu Daoyi are almost unbelievably busy with negotiations—Shaofei tells him a little about what he knows of Shi Hai’s projects, and it sounds like bureaucratic and political nightmare. Jack can honestly say he prefers underworld dealings. At least then, if everything truly goes south, you can always just call a good, old-fashioned duel without any of the legal problems. You’re more likely to die, it’s true, but god, at least you don’t have to sit through board meetings. Jack wasn’t totally lying when he told the Interpol inspector that he liked the thrill of danger. There’s a certain amount of honesty that comes with having brushes with real danger, something depressingly lacking from networking events full of champagne and bland suits and banal smalltalk. Jack doesn’t envy Zuo Hongye. He wonders sometimes if she misses scrapping on the streets, if only because it meant she could pull a goddamn knife if it ever became too much.

Probably not—not for any truly important reason, anyways. There’s a lot of power in money and a full belly every night. Still. Jack would bet she’s fantasized about slitting the throats of at least 75% of her current business contacts if the thunderous expressions he catches glimpses of are anything to go by. Once, he happens to be in the building as she storms in after some board meeting or other, red-faced with furious tears in her eyes. Gu Daoyi trails her, no less angry, but his fury burns cold. Jack and Shaofei both pause in their animated debate about the nuances of Japanese cuisine as they whirl past the living room.

“Did you hear that fucking bastard—” Hongye is snarling, swiping the back of her hand viciously across her eyes and smearing her eyeliner and mascara in the process. “That no-good, piece of shit little bitch!

“I heard him,” Daoyi says, following her tensely. “I heard.”

“I’ll kill him,” Hongye snaps. “I’ll kill that stupid piece of dogshit.”

“Whoa, is—is everything okay?” Shaofei asks, because he’s apparently physically incapable of watching someone go by with tears in their eyes without trying to help. He gets up from his seat a little too quickly and gasps slightly from residual pain. Jack stands and reaches over to support him without thinking, one hand resting on the small of his back, the other on his shoulder. “I’m okay, thanks Jack,” he says, waving him off. “Hongye! Hongye, are you oka—”

“No, I am not!” she shouts from the kitchen. There’s the screech-bang of a pot being slapped onto the stove and scraping over the burner.

Jack follows Shaofei into the kitchen to see Hongye with her face buried in her hands at the stove, whole body shaking while Gu Daoyi caresses her shoulders with a restrained gentleness that belies the rage in his posture.

“Do—do you want to talk about it?” Shaofei asks tentatively. “Maybe drink some tea? I’m supposed to be trying to do some light activity now—I could brew a pot for all of us. I know I’m not as good as your brother, but—”

Hongye lets out a small, broken shriek. Shaofei flinches. But then, she sniffs noisily and shakes herself out of it enough to face him with a terse smile. “Thank you, sao-sao. I think that would be very nice.”

“Was there something you wanted to eat?” Shaofei asks, glancing at the pot all askew on the stove.

She laughs, only slightly brittle. “I don’t know. I was thinking of cooking something extra spicy to… I don’t know.”

“Match your spicy mood?” Jack suggests.

She barks out another laugh. “Fuck you, Jack,” she says, but it lacks sting.

Jack opens the fridge. “Mapo tofu?” he suggests after giving the available ingredients a once-over, already pulling out a few packs of firm tofu. It’s almost lunchtime anyways.

“Hey, if you’re making spicy food, we have to drink cola with it, not tea,” Shaofei says, standing on his tiptoes to try and see over Jack’s shoulder.

“You’re disgusting,” Hongye announces. “I want my tea, thank you.”

“You and your brother both!” Shaofei says. “But I got him to play on my side sometimes at least. Daoyi, do you want some cola?” He snags a couple cans out of the fridge and waves them tantalizingly.

“Mapo tofu is the wrong kind of spicy for that,” Jack protests.

“Nonsense! Have you tried it?” Shaofei demands.

He has. Zhao Zi is, of course, also a fan. Jack is… well, it’s sort of a fun sensory experience, he supposes. A novel challenge for the tongue, as it were. “Yes,” he says. “No, thank you. I’ll have tea.”

“Daoyi!” Shaofei turns back to him, holding out a can of coke like a sacred offering.

Daoyi bows and takes it. “I would be honored to undergo this trial,” he says seriously. “I understand it’s a very difficult coming-of-age process for a young man.”

Hongye outright cackles at that.

“Come on!” Shaofei exclaims. “Well, you said you would, you can’t take it back now. Make good on your word, Daoyi!”

“Of course. As it should be,” Daoyi says without a hint of irony.

Somehow, the affair has turned into a whole meal activity. Hongye cleans herself up in the bathroom and comes back with a naked face to start a batch of rice. Daoyi, for his part, helps Jack chop ingredients while Meng Shaofei slowly and carefully takes a tea set out of the display cabinet. Jack’s—actually not sure how this happened. Zuo Hongye was crying and they were in the kitchen—it was like a reflex. Jack’s not good at feelings, but he is good at cooking. In less than half an hour, they have a main dish, a tea set, and four place settings arranged on the dining table. Shaofei brews the tea—a high-end tieguanyin from Pinglin—and the aroma hits Jack’s nose like an unexpected old friend. He blinks at the unwelcome wave of nostalgia and longing that wells up inside him.

No one seems to notice. Shaofei goes through the formal steps of a dry-pour ceremony—a bit awkward in his handling of the instruments, but he sees it through. Jack takes the cup offered to him, sips at it hesitantly. It tastes the way he remembers. He sets the cup back down.

“Well?” Shaofei asks.

“Not bad, sao-sao,” Hongye says with an exaggerated purse to lips. “Not as good as A’Yi, but I guess you still have a lot to learn.”

“You wound me,” Shaofei says, not sounding very wounded at all. “Ah well! Let’s eat, let’s eat.”

“Spicy enough?” Jack asks as Hongye takes a bite of his mapo tofu.

She stares directly at him, never breaking eye contact as she chews and swallows. There’s not a trace of pain on her face, no telltale watering of the eyes or reddening of the cheeks. “It’s all right,” she says, and takes a small bite of rice.

“Oh my god,” Shaofei says, blinking back rapid tears. “Hongye, you really don’t feel it?”

“I suppose you just have a weaker palate,” she sniffs, taking a sip of her tea. “It’s acceptable.”

“Zuo-zong honors me,” Jack says. He doesn’t know how she does it. There’s enough spice in the dish to numb his whole throat.

Daoyi gamely tries the cola trick and somehow manages to keep an entirely straight face while doing so. He sets down the can very carefully, and then downs his entire cup of tea like he’s throwing back a shot. Jack cringes a little—he’s pretty sure it was still scalding hot. But Daoyi doesn’t even flinch.

“Have I passed your test, Officer Meng?” he asks.

“Oh for—it’s not a test, Daoyi! You’re supposed to enjoy it! Did you?”

Daoyi looks at him dead silent for a full five seconds. He and Hongye were clearly made for one another. “No,” he says, and pushes the can of cola away. “If there’s more tea, I would be much obliged.”

“Ugh, none of you have any taste,” Shaofei complains, but pours him another cup of tea anyways.

It’s actually kind of pleasant, which is maybe the most surprising part of this whole situation. Jack knows he’s personally antagonized every person sitting at this table at least once in the past, and oftentimes, it was for his own amusement. He doesn’t really know what they’re all doing eating a meal together. It should be awkward, but it isn’t—only when he thinks too hard about it.

“So, do you want to talk about it?” Shaofei prompts after another wince-inducing bite of tofu and cola.

“About what?” Hongye asks coolly.

“Oh, I see,” Shaofei says, and drops the subject. “More tea?”

It’s only a few more minutes before Hongye abruptly says, “The potential business partner I met with today was a condescending shithead.” She doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes, doesn’t change anything about her movements.

“Oh yeah?” Shaofei asks, just as casually.

“He knew my history—everyone does, really, and it was like he couldn’t resist making snide comments about me and my family. About how lost I must be, since I never had a proper upbringing, how it wasn’t fair that a woman as unfortunate as I’ve been in life should be in charge of such a stressful and important project. Talking shit about A’Yi, about Tang-ye, about Daoyi—I almost stabbed him right then and there.” Her eyes are burning again, but her movements remain dainty as ever. “But we need his power. He’s the only one with clout willing to negotiate with us in the shipping and distribution field. I can’t wait until we’re strong enough to throw him to the wolves.”

“I know the type,” Shaofei says, nodding along. “Rich assholes who think they can get away with everything and anything because they can pay their way out. They’re the sort that think of fines as just the price for committing a crime.”

Hongye raises an eyebrow.

“I haven’t seen any actual proof of Xing Tian Meng’s crimes,” Shaofei says pointedly. “As such, you’re all still considered ordinary citizens. Please don’t change that. I’d much rather you succeed in going legitimate.”

“Right,” Hongye says drily, but she’s smiling anyways. “Whatever. He’s not worth my goddamn tears. He just gets under my skin in a way that makes me want to fight him in the street.” She snorts, nostrils flaring. “He wouldn’t stand a chance against me. Too bad we have to do this the coward’s way.”

There’s a quiet knock at the door. They all look up to see one of Xing Tian Meng’s brothers standing apologetically at the entryway. He heroically doesn’t grimace at the sight of Jack.

“Zuo-zong, Daoyi-ge. There’s someone here to visit. Says they’re here to visit Officer Meng?”

“Me?” Shaofei asks, pointing to himself.

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, yes, that’s fine,” Hongye says. “They texted me earlier. A woman?”

“Yes, Zuo-zong.”

“Show her in.”

It’s Tiff, because of course it fucking is. She looks crisp and professional as always, though the plastic bag with the 7/11 logo stamped on it sort of changes the overall effect.

“Tiff!” Shaofei says, surprised and excited. “What are you doing here?”

“Visiting you, of course,” she says. Of course. She hands him the bag. “Some snacks from the izakaya. Yu Qi insisted.”

“Oh no, you shouldn’t have! Is this their shrimp kebab? Thank you!”

“Hongye!” Tiff goes over to embrace her. “I’m so sorry about that meeting. I’ve worked with Yan Jintao before. He’s unbearable.”

“You two know each other?” Jack asks, watching the entire interaction unfold with increasing alarm and perplexity.

“I met her during one of the Team 3 izakaya nights,” Hongye says, waving it off. “Sao-sao invited me.”

“Yes, Jackdaw. Funny that I’ve never seen you there.” Tiff pins him with a look.

Jack has never been to one of Team 3’s after-work drinking events—he’d always felt like it wasn’t his place. Just because he and Zhao Zi were together didn’t mean that everyone else suddenly forgot about who he was—it’s not that Zhao Zi hasn’t invited him. Jack has just never accepted. The fact that Yu Qi and Jun Wei’s girlfriends were invited and attended shortly after their introduction had seemed completely innocuous at the time. This was before Meng Shaofei had been stabbed. Jack had still thought they were actual, normal citizens.

“It didn’t seem like my place,” Jack answers, all teeth. And it isn’t yours either.

Tiff smiles humorlessly at him. “Anyways, Hongye, you can always text me if you want to rant about work. Lord knows I’ve got experience in the corporate world. It really is awful. Girls have to stick together, okay?”

Does Hongye not know? How could Hongye not know? It’s not surprising that Tang Yi hadn’t reacted to Shaofei describing V—after all, he’d never seen her in person. But surely Xing Tian Meng is aware that Tiff and V exist? They’d known about Jack. And it is, as Zhao Zi said, a small world.

“I have to run today, but I’ll be available later this week,” Tiff is saying. “Officer Meng, I hope you enjoy the snacks. Yu Qi picked them very specially for you,” she adds significantly. “Don’t disrespect my girlfriend’s feelings, okay? Take care of yourself.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Shaofei says.

Tiff reaches over to give him a friendly pat on the shoulder. Jack’s hand very nearly shoots out to grab her wrist before she can make contact, but he manages to suppress the reflex. Tiff doesn’t seem to notice him twitch. It’s a meaningless reaction anyways—Tiff would never be so stupid as to try and murder Shaofei here in front of both Zuo Hongye and Gu Daoyi. Jack’s being paranoid again.

“Anyways, Jackdaw, I heard you were spending all your time here taking care of Officer Meng. If you ever need a break, you can always ask me to fill in sometime,” Tiff says, adjusting her sunglasses.

“Well, I’m just playing the role of a house-husband these days, so I don’t have much to do anyways,” Jack says, spreading his hands. “I wouldn’t want to trouble a busy woman like yourself.”

“Surely you’d like some free time?” Tiff pushes. “Please. I can always turn you down if I’m busy.”

“I’ll think about it,” Jack says.

“Or, even better, Officer Meng can text me himself,” she suggests with a poisonous grin. “In case he ever gets tired of you. Hongye, Daoyi—it was lovely to see you.” And she sweeps out of the door, leaving only the faintest scent of her expensive perfume in the air.

 

Jack sticks increasingly closer to Shaofei as time goes by. The fact that there is no second attack, or even a hint of encroaching danger actually makes him more nervous rather than less. Zhao Zi takes this as evidence that Jack is finally coming around to the idea that he and Officer Meng are friends and encourages it. He starts spending dinners at the Tang estate where Jack has taken up the role of temporary cook. He takes the opportunity to fill Shaofei in on work news and gossip, and Shaofei tells him about his recovery process.

“Dr. Jiang says I’m doing good,” Shaofei says, leafing through a sheaf of fresh paperwork that Zhao Zi has brought him. “It’s been over two weeks now, and I feel much better. Tang Yi says I look much better too!”

Jack has also been accompanying Shaofei to his weekly prison visits. Tang Yi has studiously ignored his presence thus far, which is fine by Jack. He knows Tang Yi expects him to update him on the situation when he has literally any new information, but until then, he seems happy to pretend that Jack doesn’t exist.

“Tang Yi always thinks you look good,” Zhao Zi says, rolling his eyes. “Come on, Shaofei. He kissed you while you were in an ugly hospital gown and you’d just been shot and hadn’t showered in almost a week.”

“Excuse me, are you saying I don’t always look good?” Shaofei squawks in mock offense. “Zhao Zi, I thought we were friends.”

“Friends tell each other hard truths.”

Hongye, much more relaxed about the whole “cops in her house” situation since one of them started dating her brother, actually joins them for dinner a few times, though she maintains her performative prickly and haughty attitude throughout. She’s civil to Jack, which he’s cautiously beginning to accept as perhaps a genuine expression of her partially regained respect. She’s almost always accompanied by Daoyi—they’re both constantly exhausted and stressed and it shows during meals, but every other moment Jack sees them—on their way out the door, making phone calls, passing through to drop things off—they always look ready for battle. Polished armor.

Tiff also, much to Jack’s displeasure, continues to drop by. So does V, for that matter. Tiff and Jack continue to dance around the elephant in the room, sniping at each other between the lines of their conversations. Tiff doesn’t make a move on Shaofei. Jack feels ready to snap at the slightest provocation.

V, on the other hand, almost completely ignores Jack’s presence. She’ll say hi, but there’s none of the posturing that he gets from Tiff. She’s plays her warm-hearted girlfriend-of-a-friend persona, stopping by with different obscure books and a series of odd, niche board games instead of food. V focuses on entertainment, strange ephemera to catch Shaofei’s interest, and thick tomes on topics of rare interest. Shaofei accepts them all enthusiastically, always ready and excited to play V in whatever new game she’s found that day or to discuss books that she’s lent him. She almost always wins, but that doesn’t seem to preclude Officer Meng enjoying himself.

Meng Shaofei, it turns out, is a voracious reader. He absorbs knowledge and trivia like a deep sea sponge, which V appears to find charming. Jack is finally starting to see how such an impulsive idiot graduated top of his class. It’s not that Meng Shaofei lacks intelligence, or even common sense really—it’s just his tendencies towards obsession and hyperfixation that end up getting him into trouble 90% of the time. Those, coupled with his stubbornly willful personality, land him in hot water more often than his teammates, who might be less technically skilled and knowledgeable, but also have an ability to not fall prey to tunnel vision.

Jack… doesn’t participate. V is polite and friendly to him, but not overtly welcoming, and Jack isn’t interested in engaging in yet more tiring interpersonal conversations with someone who’s probably also trying to kill Zhao Zi’s friend. It’s easier to just watch, and V displays absolutely no sign of nervousness or suspicion in the way she acts towards Shaofei while Jack is around. Her round face is openly pleasant and she throws her head back for booming laughs whenever she finds something particularly funny.

Jack starts to revise his initial assessment of her as well. He’s always known she was an incredibly capable hacker, but her grifting is apparently on par with some of the best. He’s just never seen it in action before. Tiff leans hard into femme fatale territory most of the time, but V? V just appears harmless and trustworthy. She’s fat, and comfortably so, unselfconscious and cheerful. She exudes a sense of unshakeable calm, like a boulder that’s stood in the Gobi for a thousand years.

Jack finds himself wanting to trust her, and he hates that. It means it’s working.

Chapter Text

It all comes to a head about a month and a half after the stabbing. Shaofei’s recovery is going exceedingly well, and, after a post-op checkup from Dr. Jiang who grudgingly declares that he’s a model of a good recovery schedule, he decides to celebrate by finally going to one of Team 3’s izakaya nights again. The group chat floods with excited stickers and deluges of hearts from Zhao Zi and Yu Qi, with a few, slightly more reserved thumbs-ups from Jun Wei.

“You’re coming, right?” Shaofei asks Jack.

Jack doesn’t want to, but Tiff and V are also going to be there, so he can’t not. “I suppose if Officer Meng wants his chauffeur to attend,” he says sardonically.

Shaofei scoffs. “Come on, Jack, just admit that we’re all friends and join us already. No one doesn’t want you there.”

That, Jack knows for a fact, is not true. But he smiles when he wants to grimace and takes Tang Yi’s keys from the hook anyways.

They arrive first because there’s some holdup or other at work, and Jack immediately selects a seat with its back to the wall and a good vantage point of all the exits. A cliché habit, but still worthwhile. Shaofei insists on buying him a drink even though Jack attempts to demur, so he’s stuck with a cup of some very nice Wuliangye baijiu in front of him. He hadn’t been lying to Chen Wenhao when he said qingjiu was too bland for him, not really. Wuliangye is more his speed. It is, in fact, exactly his speed. It’s his preferred baijiu brand, and he’s trying to remember if he ever mentioned that fact to Shaofei, or if Zhao Zi spilled the beans. It’s also possible it was just a lucky shot in the dark, but it’s a bit of an expensive guess to make, especially when it seems like he ordered everyone else some variation on medium-grade sake.

Jack can’t drink it. He’s always made it a point to never drink while on a job, and even if he isn’t technically working, the rule still holds. He can’t afford to dull his senses. No harm in smelling it, though. He brings it to his nose and lets it burn its way through his nostrils and down his throat before setting it back down regretfully. It’s not like he couldn’t afford it on his own, but he just hates to see it go to waste.

Team 3 arrives like a summer storm, sudden and boisterous. Zhao Zi is first through the door, calling out a greeting to the chef before beelining towards Jack. He slides into the bench and scoots in until their thighs touch.

“Hi,” he says, smile crooked on his face.

“Did you miss me?” Jack asks, leaning in close enough so his lips almost touch the shell of Zhao Zi’s ear.

“Always,” Zhao Zi replies, bumping his shoulder as he grabs a menu. Jack is taken aback. Zhao Zi notices him staring. “What?”

“Nothing,” Jack says. “You’re just usually more embarrassed when I do things like that, especially in public.”

“Oh.” A bit of pink starts to creep into his cheeks. “Well. I thought I would try not being embarrassed for once. Otherwise, it’s too unfair, don’t you think?”

“Aw, little one, are you trying to rob me of my advantage?” Jack teases.

“It’s not robbing! I’m making things even between us! Good relationships are built on fairness and equality,” Zhao Zi says, putting on the air of a stern lecturer.

“Yes, sir,” Jack says, wiggling his eyebrows. Zhao Zi caves and thwaps him with the menu.

“What embarrassing pickup line did Jack use this time?” Jun Wei asks, sitting down opposite.

“Nothing,” Zhao Zi says.

“You share those with your friends?” Jack gasps dramatically. “Zhao Zi! I’m scandalized! Those are priva—

“A’Fei!” Zhao Zi interrupts him loudly. “What do you feel like eating tonight? Jun Wei, Yu Qi and I already discussed some options on the way over.”

“Oh, well you know I like that spicy tempura dish—I feel like takoyaki tonight, though, is everyone okay with that?”

“Yeah, that’s great, xuezhang,” Yu Qi says. “We can order two! I know Tiff likes them as well.” She checks her phone. “She says she’ll be here in ten minutes and to start eating without her.”

“What about V?” Shaofei asks Jun Wei.

“She’s on her way. I’m not sure how long it’s going to be, though. She said she would come after she was done running errands. I’ll order her a couple things, don’t worry.”

V actually arrives first out of the two of them, ducking in through the door mere minutes after Team 3 places their haphazard order of far too much food. There’s a rousing chorus of friendly greetings as everyone shifts in their places to make room.

“So, Jack,” she says, setting her purse down beside her. “I see you finally made it.”

“I did,” Jack says. “It seems everyone’s been having fun without me.”

“We certainly have,” she says. “I’m glad to see you here.” She picks up the pot of tea on the table, making customary offers to everyone before pouring herself a cup after they all refuse.

Tiff doesn’t show up until after the food has arrived and everyone is already beginning to dig in. She kisses Yu Qi on the top of the head and sits down beside her.

“Jackdaw,” she says with a frigid smile.

“Tiff,” he shoots back with one of his own.

“Surprised to finally see you here,” she says, reaching for a takoyaki ball. She never breaks eye contact.

“Yes, well. Officer Meng insisted,” Jack says with a shrug.

“Yeah, and Officer Meng also insists that you start eating something,” Shaofei says, noticing Jack’s empty plate and untouched baijiu. “Come on, Jack, don’t be shy.” He starts loading a variety of the available dishes onto Jack’s plate.

“Officer Meng is too kind,” Jack starts to say, but Shaofei cuts him off with a sharp jab of the chopsticks.

“Stop it, Jack. Just call me Shaofei already. I don’t know why you’re being so weird about it—we’re all friends here.” Jack opens his mouth, but Shaofei isn’t done. “You’re the only one who doesn’t think so. And if you keep insisting on acting that way, you’re just going to make it true.”

There’s a short, awkward silence. Shaofei looks a little embarrassed at his outburst, but doesn’t take it back.

“Jack.” It’s Yu Qi, surprisingly. He shifts his attention to her, and she squirms a little. “If this is about—what I said, um, back when xuezhang and Tang Yi—you know.”

“What?” Jack asks.

“About—how xuezhang should never associate with you guys anymore, and—” She gets even quieter. “How you weren’t welcome.”

What?” Jack repeats. He almost laughs, but it would be cruel to say with completely honesty that he literally didn’t give two shits about her opinion at the time and thus had put it out of his mind completely in the interim. “I don’t even remember—wait, you mean what you said to former boss? I don’t think you said anything like that to me at all.”

“W-well, yes, it was to Tang Yi, but you were there, and—I didn’t know if you’d overheard our conversation before that—”

“No,” Jack interrupts, because Yu Qi is actually starting to look rather ashamed of herself and that certainly won’t do. “It’s nothing to do with that. I don’t even really remember what you said. And anyways, it’s natural for you to be nervous about me.” He looks more closely at her. “You are, aren’t you? Nervous about me, that is.”

What happens next seems to move through water. Tiff shoves herself back from the table just as V reaches for her purse, and in the next second, there are three guns at play. Tiff has a pistol in each hand, one trained on V, the other between Jack’s eyes. V, expression relaxed and posture tight, has a handgun pointed directly at Tiff.

Everything dissolves into chaos.

“Back the fuck away from my girlfriend, Jackdaw,” Tiff snarls amidst a chorus of confused and panicked shouting.

“Drop your goddamn guns, Tiff,” V is saying, just as the owner of the joint looks up at the commotion and freezes in comedic shock. There’s scattered shrieking as the other patrons of the izakaya notice the situation.

“Hey, hey, hey—” Shaofei is on his feet, hands out in a placating gesture.

“Should I call the police?” the owner asks, hand already on his phone.

“We are the police!” Zhao Zi snaps, which in any other situation would have Jack in stitches. He’s also on his feet, and Jack can see him out of the corner of his eye trying to calculate the best way to defuse the situation.

Jack stays absolutely still. He could outdraw and outshoot both Tiff and V and they know it. It’s one of his main advantages. He doesn’t have to be stronger, or more precise—he just has to be faster.

“Shooting akimbo, Tiff?” He tsks. “You know better than that.”

“I can still hit both of you at this range,” Tiff says tersely.

“V, what the hell is going on?” Jun Wei asks, cup of sake still halfway to his mouth.

“I don’t know yet,” she replies calmly.

“Tiff?” Yu Qi says tremulously.

Tiff shifts her position to shield Yu Qi with her body. “Your friends’ lovers have been conspiring to murder Officer Meng.”

“Wait, what?” Jack exclaims.

“Oh,” V says. “Now I know what’s going on.”

“Don’t play dumb!” Tiff shouts, eyes a little wild. “I know you’re working with Lei Si Tuan.”

I’m working with Lei Si Tuan?” Jack demands incredulously. “You’re working with Lei Si Tuan!”

“She’s not, actually,” V says, casually stowing her gun away again.

“You shut up!” Tiff snaps. “I know you’re in on it together!”

“Wait a minute, who’s trying to murder me?” Shaofei asks.

“They are!” Tiff says, gesturing with her guns.

“Jack’s not trying to kill A’Fei,” Zhao Zi says before Tiff cuts him off with a vicious glare.

“Put those away, Tiff,” V says, voice taking on an exasperated tone that Jack can’t help but feel is a little inappropriate for the situation. “We’re not trying to kill Shaofei.”

“I thought you two were trying to kill Officer Meng,” Jack says carefully.

“Tiff, put your fucking guns away,” V repeats, tone a little harder. “You’re causing a goddamn scene. No one here is trying to kill Shaofei.”

“Can someone please explain what’s going on?” Shaofei demands.

“Tiff!” Yu Qi tugs on her sleeve. “Tiff, please—I don’t know what’s going on, but—”

“Baobei—”

“Don’t ‘baobei’ me! This isn’t the time!” She nods at the guns. “Please put those down.”

“Yu Qi, they’re dangerous people!”

“So are you!”

This, more than anything, seems to give Tiff pause. She looks at Jack, then V, then back again. Very slowly, she retracts the guns so they’re pointing at the ceiling instead. “What the fuck is going on?” she asks.

 

It takes a little more convincing on the part of the police officers to get Tiff to reholster her guns in full, but she does it, skittish as a rabbit the entire time. It takes yet more convincing to get her to sit back down at the table. Zhao Zi goes to reassure the owner of the restaurant that everything is fine while Jun Wei runs crowd control with practiced efficiency. Shaofei joins him in taking down witness information. It’s a mess.

Yu Qi stays at the table, one hand massaging circles into Tiff’s back, the other reaching out to shakily refill everyone’s tea. Jack drinks it gratefully.

It’s a long, protracted process, but slowly the restaurant starts to fill with chatter again, and the other three return to the table amidst uneasy glances and low mutters from the other customers.

“Well,” Shaofei says. “That’s definitely going to be an interesting incident report.”

“Easy for you to say,” Zhao Zi says. “You’re not going to be the one explaining it to Captain Fa.”

“Do you want me to?”

“Can we talk about what just happened?” Jun Wei asks, interrupting the conversation before it can descend into actual bickering.

“Uh, yeah,” Shaofei says, shaking himself out of it. “Sorry, who’s trying to kill me?”

“No one at this table is trying to kill you,” V repeats. “But apparently, we all thought everyone else was.”

“Why?” Shaofei asks.

“Jack and V are mercenaries for hire,” Tiff says. She grimaces. “So am I.”

There’s a long and awkward silence following her pronouncement. “Uh.” All the officers exchange looks.

It’s Zhao Zi who finally speaks up. “We… all knew that?” he says.

“Wait, what?” Jack demands, whirling on him. “You knew about them?”

“Of course?” Zhao Zi says, nonplussed. “We’re police officers! How could we not know?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought you knew! Why didn’t you tell me you were worried about it?” Zhao Zi throws his hands in the air. “Oh my god, Jack, you let me think this whole time that you and Tiff were just acting like that because you had sex once?”

“Jesus Christ,” Tiff says in English, burying her face in her hands.

“Are you saying that’s not why you guys act like that?” Jun Wei asks drily. “Because wow.

Jack feels a headache coming on. “No, that was because I thought—fuck.” Jack grabs the cup of Wuliangye and takes an unwisely large gulp of it. Fuck it.

“So…” Shaofei looks at the three of them in turn. “You thought Tiff and V were trying to kill me, and Tiff though you and V were trying to kill me, and V… what did you think, V?”

“I suspected Tiff was involved,” V says, picking up her chopsticks and starting to eat again. “But I knew Jack didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“How?” Tiff asks, head shooting up from her hands again.

“Jack’s been out of the game for almost half a year,” V says.

“Jack’s been what?” Tiff asks. “What do you mean out of the game?”

“I mean he’s out,” V says around a mouthful. “Like, six months ago he dropped all his jobs and burned his bridges. Last minute shit. You pissed off a lot of people, Jack,” V adds.

“I’m aware,” Jack says. “I’ve been trying not to think about it, thank you.”

“Wait, are you saying you retired?” Tiff demands.

“If you want to call it that.” He takes a smaller sip of his baijiu to better savor the burn.

“Six months ago?” Tiff repeats, like she’s trying to wrap her mind around the idea. “Why?”

“A whim,” Jack says with a stiff smile.

“If you think about it for a few moments, I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” V says. “You’re pretty similar people. Emotionally constipated. Melodramatic. Kind of stupid.”

“I could still shoot you,” Tiff says, needled.

“You will not,” Yu Qi scolds.

Tiff opens her mouth for a retort, then seems to get caught up on something. She looks at Yu Qi, then at Jack, then at Zhao Zi, and says, “oh,” very softly.

Jack wants to vomit. This is why he doesn’t do feelings. He feels naked and exposed and cornered. Don’t fucking look at me, he wants to lash out. Don’t fucking look.

Zhao Zi takes his hand under the table and squeezes it. Jack doesn’t look at him because he can’t. He just squeezes back.

“So you didn’t stab Shaofei in the lung,” Tiff says, changing the subject somewhat gracelessly.

“No,” Jack says, seizing onto it anyways. “And neither did you?”

“No,” she says with a heavy sigh. “Okay. Well.” She frowns. “Wait, V, how did you know about Jack but not about me?”

“Jack turned down a very high-profile assignment with no warning. I was in the area, and I was bound to notice something like that. It didn’t take me too long to find out what really happened. You, on the other hand, just… vanished. No news. And then you popped up here, tangled up with the police department involved with the Xing Tian Meng affair. Are you guys not going to keep eating?”

There’s a round of embarrassed murmurs around the table as everyone more or less picks up their chopsticks again.

“Anyways,” V continues, “it’s not like I always know everything about everyone. There’s been times in the past I’ve lost track of both of you for some job or other—usually something particularly dangerous. I assumed that’s what was happening here.” She pauses significantly. “I see I was mistaken.”

“Motherfucker,” Tiff says with feeling in English, then downs her sake directly from the carafe.

 

The conversation breaks down into something a little easier for a short while. The finer details of the clusterfuck are slowly unearthed and clarified. In a series of frankly absurd and unlikely events, not one of the mercs at the table is interested in the current power struggle surrounding the Xing Tian Meng and Chen Wenhao fiasco, despite all somehow getting involved with the very police department closest to the potential disaster in the first place.

“Me and V have actually been together for uh, probably longer than everyone,” Jun Wei admits at one point with a sheepish hand on the back of his head. “I just didn’t tell anyone about it because it didn’t seem appropriate at the time.”

“Wait, Jun Wei-ge, what do you mean?” Yu Qi asks, looking up from the drinks menu.

“We uh, actually met before everything happened with Tang Yi and Shaofei.”

What?” Shaofei asks, eyes wide. “Wait, Jun Wei, are you saying you started dating before we did?”

“Not exactly—we were just talking for a while,” Jun Wei says with a shrug. “It wasn’t until everything happened that we—anyways, we met online. Well, sort of.”

“I’ve been hacking into his police files for years, actually,” V says with devastating nonchalance. “He keeps everything very organized, and his case reports and presentations are always great overviews of high-stakes criminal activity in Taipei. Eventually, I got curious and messaged his online dating profile.”

This is met with shocked silence.

“I’m sorry, you what?” Zhao Zi asks. “That’s—you just admitted to a crime! That’s a crime!”

“Oh? I’m sorry, do you have any proof?” She raises an eyebrow expectantly. “You can certainly try to find some, but you won’t.”

“Jun Wei!” Zhao Zi sputters. “Did you know?”

“I mean.” He shrugs. “She told me eventually. But it’s true—I don’t think there’s any way we’d be able to find proof of it. Even with a warrant—I don’t know. We don’t have anyone in our department with the skills.” He bites his lip. “I’m sure I’m also biased now, of course, but it… just didn’t seem worth it. It’s a waste of resources, especially with everything else going on—I just. She doesn’t use them for evil?”

“Do you know that for sure?” Yu Qi asks, voice high and anxious. “That’s just—well—”

“Look,” Jun Wei says quietly as she searches for and fails to find the words. “I’m going to be blunt. Everyone at this table knows that those two—” He indicates Jack and Tiff. “—are almost certainly murderers.” He pauses for a moment.

The atmosphere turns cold. Zhao Zi and Yu Qi can’t meet Jun Wei’s eyes. Jack looks at Tiff and finds she’s looking back.

“I’m not trying to call you hypocrites,” Jun Wei says after another beat. “And I’m not trying to say that what I’m doing is the right choice. Not one of us has any proof that the people we love have committed crimes, even though we know that they have. And we love them anyways. I know we’ve all recently spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a police officer, but here’s the reality of the situation. Every single one of us is emotionally involved with a criminal. Shaofei too. And he spent four years chasing after Tang Yi without finding a shred of solid proof against him in the end. Xing Tian Meng is undergoing reform. Jack is out. V doesn’t commit violent crime. I don’t know about Tiff, but Yu Qi trusts her, and I trust Yu Qi’s judgment. Where does that leave us? Isn’t it more worthwhile to pursue people who are doing harm right now? Isn’t that still a fulfillment of our duty? I’ve made peace with it. If that makes me like A’Zhi-ge, then—I don’t know.” He smiles wryly. “I guess we could all quit. But I don’t think that would be good for anyone.”

There’s a silence. Zhao Zi is squeezing Jack’s hand so hard it hurts.

“I—” Zhao Zi starts, then balks. He licks his lips, thinking. “I believe that everyone has the potential to be good and to reform, regardless of what they’ve already done,” he says nervously. “That’s—that’s why I became a police officer. So. If I believe that, then. I guess what I’m saying is—I don’t know what I’m saying. I agree with Jun Wei. I guess. I don’t—I don’t want to let go of Jack. That’s what I’m saying.”

Jack wants desperately to break the moment with something stupid and embarrassing and flirty, anything to loosen the suffocating weight in his chest that comes from being seen while vulnerable, but he doesn’t. He can’t. It would be a terrible thing to do.

“I won’t let go of Tiff,” Yu Qi says, and it looks like every word costs her. “I—you’re right, Jun Wei-ge. Anyways, I thought a lot about what xuezhang said to me about black and white thinking—the world is colorful. Things are more complicated than I wanted to admit. You said you’re not calling us hypocrites, but I think I am. We are hypocrites. But maybe I can live with that. As people, we have to keep walking forward. Isn’t that what boss used to say?”

Jack glances at Tiff and she looks unmoored. He looks away again.

“I… don’t believe anyone here is a bad person,” Shaofei chimes in awkwardly. “Even if that’s a little naive. And I think it’s a little late for any of us to be getting caught up in the ethics of it all. We’re police officers, and it’s not our duty to blindly obey the law. We have to use our own judgment too, or it’s all meaningless. Are we being unfair right now? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we’re bad people.”

“That was a lot of speeches,” V says into the silence. “Thanks guys. I appreciate it.” She’s smiling wryly. “Glad all the relationships at this table are still intact. That would have been a real depressing way to end the night. Three breakups in one fell swoop.”

It breaks the tension. Yu Qi giggles a little, covering her mouth. Zhao Zi’s death grip on Jack’s fingers loosens and Jack feels him lean bonelessly into him.

It’s easier after that—everyone starts pestering Jun Wei for more details on how exactly he and V had entered a steady relationship after the frankly bizarre way they’d met, and Jun Wei obliges in his usual laconic way. Eventually, the teasing starts to shift focus, and Shaofei suddenly blinks and turns to Yu Qi and says, “Wait, Yu Qi, how did you and Tiff meet? I don’t think you ever told us.”

“Oh!” she says, turning very pink. “That’s! Um!”

“I saw her kick a man in the balls and slap him with a court order when he tried to grope her at a bar,” Tiff supplies, some of her trademark wickedness coming back. “It was hot. I bought her a drink.”

“Tiff!” Yu Qi wails.

“What? It’s true.”

“Wait, hang on,” Zhao Zi says, brow wrinkled. “You mean that incident report you filed the day after Tang Yi kissed A’Fei in the hospital?”

“Oh no,” Yu Qi says.

“You met the day Tang Yi kissed me in the hospital?” Shaofei demands, eyes as wide as saucers.

“Look!” Yu Qi says desperately. “You just rejected me! For a gangster! And I was feeling very heartbroken and ugly so I put on some nice clothes and makeup and went to a bar that night. And then, and then! Some dick tried to grab my ass, and I just fucking lost it, okay? I was having a horrible day! And then Tiff was there, and—and she was really nice, and then one thing led to another, and I thought, well, xuezhang likes men, so why can’t I like women, and—”

“Yu Qi, it’s okay!” Shaofei says, a little alarmed. “It’s okay! There’s nothing wrong! I’m not judging you. I was just surprised, that’s all!”

“I just didn’t want you to think my feelings for you weren’t serious!” Yu Qi blurts out. “Or that they were so cheap that I got over it in less than a day!”

“Yu Qi, I would never think that!” Shaofei says gently. “I know your feelings were serious. And I treated you unfairly in that time, and I’m sorry. But I would never think that you weren’t being serious or that you didn’t really care about me because you found someone else. I’m happy for you! You know that!”

“You mean when you used me to try and make Tang Yi jealous?” Yu Qi sniffs. Shaofei freezes, looking properly chastised. After a second, she drops her serious expression and laughs. “It’s okay, xuezhang, I didn’t realize that was what was happening until later, and by then I’d met Tiff. So it didn’t hurt so much.”

“Sorry,” Shaofei says again with a guilty scrub of his hair. “It wasn’t very kind.”

“I could stab him for you,” Tiff offers. “You know, for real this time.”

“Oh my god, no.

“What were you doing in a bar by yourself, Tiff?” Jack asks.

She fixes him with a withering stare. “I’m allowed to go out and have fun sometimes, Jackdaw.”

“Yeah, but were you?”

She keeps up the disdainful look for a second longer before admitting, “Okay, so I was between jobs and looking for an easy mark, sue me, it’s not like you’ve never done that.”

“Me? I would never,” Jack says, fluttering his eyelashes.

“Eat shit, Jack.”

“You know, it’s not really fair that everyone’s making fun of the way we met when we all know the weirdest was Zhao Zi-ge and Jack,” Yu Qi pouts. Jack is completely unprepared for that, since Yu Qi thus far has been a very sweet and lovely young woman on all accounts. This betrayal comes out of left field. He makes a note to keep a closer eye on her.

“Yeah, but that’s old news,” Jun Wei says dismissively.

“It’s not old news to me,” Tiff says, looking predatorily delighted.

“Nor me,” V says over her cup of sake, eyes sparkling.

“Okay, now hold on a second—” Jack says, futilely trying to divert the conversation.

“How did you meet your lovely cop boyfriend, Jackdaw?” Tiff asks. “I’m dying to know.”

“It’s not that exciting,” Zhao Zi scoffs. “I arrested him in a sting.”

No one cares about that meeting, Zhao Zi,” Shaofei says, rolling his eyes. “We’re talking about when he kidnapped and interrogated you remember?”

“I didn’t fucking interrogate anyone!” Jack exclaims.

“You threatened to break my finger!” Zhao Zi protests.

Jack gapes at him for a full five seconds. “Little one, I’m being completely serious when I say this, but I literally did not know you even realized that was a threat.”

“How would I not have realized that?”

“You didn’t even respond to it! You just asked me to cook you a meal!”

“And you did!”

“That’s—”

“And! And you locked me in a dark room for a whole day!”

How does that count as—oh my god.” Jack takes a breath. Tiff is howling with laughter, pounding the table inelegantly with unrestrained mirth. “Tiff, shut the fuck up.”

“I can’t!” she gasps. “Holy shit, Jackdaw, I knew you were weak for the cute factor, but holy shit.

I was going to break his finger,” Jack says defensively.

Not helping your case,” V says with an expansive grin.

You were?” Zhao Zi asks. “What the fuck, Jack!”

“Well, I didn’t!

Yeah, you just cooked him a meal, and then sent him home, ” Shaofei enunciates. “Worst kidnapping ever.”

“I don’t know about that,” Jun Wei says with a shrug. “Zhao Zi certainly enjoyed himself.”

Whatever possibility Jack might have entertained about becoming friends with these assholes is rapidly vanishing. Betrayed on all fronts. Those fucks.

It’s not that weird!” Zhao Zi asserts unconvincingly.

It’s so weird,” V says bluntly. “And that’s coming from me.”

I t’s not until the end of the night, when all the other patrons have left, when everyone at the table is sleepy with drink and food, that someone voices the obvious question.

“Wait,” Tiff says as they all gather up their belongings and starts shuffling out from their benches. She fixes Jack with a penetrating look, too lucid for how much she’s had to drink. “If I didn’t stab Meng Shaofei, and you didn’t stab Meng Shaofei, then who fucking did?”

Chapter Text

Tiff’s parting question brings the night to a sobering close. Jack hears it on a loop in his head as he drives home, Zhao Zi riding behind him half-asleep. He only had the one cup of baijiu some hours ago, and the night air is cool. He thinks about Lei Si Tuan, about Cambodia, Tang Yi, Xing Tian Meng—to no avail.

Still, it’s not all bad. Tiff and V are unexpected allies instead of suspected foes, which makes everything that much easier. The next morning, he sets up an encrypted chat for the three of them which lasts all of about half an hour before V adds him to a new one.

 

[08:32am] [V]

don’t take this the wrong way jack but your encryption sucks

this one is safer

[8:33am]

all right fuck you too

do you also have a plan or is that all you had to say

[8:35am] [V]

I actually don’t think there’s anything to do just yet. I’ve already reviewed Xing Tian Meng’s trading list now that I know Tiff isn’t involved, and I don’t think we have enough information to move forward. It really might just be a random attack, or something else. Maybe it’s related to someone Shaofei arrested in the past.”

[8:37am]

where did you get the XTM trading list

[8:37am] [V]

I stole it off of Gu Daoyi’s computer

obviously

come on jack

 

[8:37am] [Tiff]

@ V are you sure Lei Si Tuan isn’t involved

 

[8:38am] [V]

@Tiff yeah

I think we need to just wait and see if the department turns up any new information

maybe it really is just someone with a grudge against SF

he’s a pretty good cop he’s arrested a lot of people

[ 8:39am]

wait @Tiff were you the one who called LST like last week

asking about a job for a friend

[8:39am] [Tiff]

yeah @Jack and before you say anything

I know it’s a bad ploy

and I heard you use it too so get fucked

[8:40am]

@Tiff I literally wasn’t going to say anything

defensive much?

[8:41am] [V]

can we all please stop acting like children thank you

the point is I think we just need to wait

 

So that’s that. Jack actually feels a little adrift—the last couple weeks have been a whirlwind of anxiety and paranoia, and suddenly realizing that the dangers he’d been imagining were unfounded—it leaves him at a bit of a loss. V already has plans to visit Shaofei today, and now that he knows he doesn’t need to worry about her intentions, he doesn’t have to go either. The weather is tense, lingering on the edge of a storm.

“Do you want to go on a trip with me?” Jack asks Zhao Zi abruptly as they clean up the dishes from breakfast.

“A trip? When? Where?” Zhao Zi asks, drying a plate.

“Today. When we’re done cleaning. I want to go to Pinglin.”

“Oh! You know, I’ve never been.”

“You’ve lived in Taipei all your life and you’ve never been to Pinglin?” Jack asks incredulously.

Zhao Zi shrugs. “I’ve never travelled very much in my life outside of the city,” he admits. “I know Grandma used to go often when she was younger, back when my parents were still alive. I’m happy in the city, you know? So I never really thought—well, anyways. No reason.”

“Okay, well, we have to go now,” Jack declares.

“Any reason why?” Zhao Zi asks, taking another plate from him.

“I’ve just been missing their tea,” Jack says. It’s not… exactly a lie. He does want to get some big canisters of nice Pinglin teas since Zhao Zi mostly stocks convenience store shit, but. Maybe it’s a stupid idea. He hasn’t gone back to Pinglin in over sixteen years, but it’s been on his mind since that afternoon meal at the Tang estate. He’s filled with a confused and terrified yearning for the place.

“Oh, yeah. Grandma used to keep tins of it in the house,” Zhao Zi says. “After I finished drinking them, I just… never decided to get more. I don’t know enough about tea. I thought it would make me sad if I tried to find the right kind and then couldn’t, you know?”

“Yeah,” Jack says, because he does know. “Yeah.”

“But you know about tea?” Zhao Zi asks, peering up at him. “I didn’t know that about you, Jack! You still drink the stuff I buy.”

“Yes, and it’s terrible,” Jack says, putting on a long-suffering and tragic grimace. “I’ve had enough. It’s time.”

Zhao Zi laughs. “You know you can get Pinglin teas in Taipei, right?” Jack hesitates. Zhao Zi notices. “You can just say you want to go, Jack,” he says softly. “If you want to go, then I want to go.”

“Okay,” Jack says, because that’s all he can say. “Okay. Then let’s go.”

 

Driving there on a motorcycle approaching from the south is a strange experience. All of Jack’s Pinglin memories are hazy slideshows of moving scenery from the backseat of an old sedan. The air is wet and chilly, but his leather jacket keeps the worst off him. Zhao Zi is borrowing one of Jack’s old jackets. It’s too big and a little scuffed, but it works.

The ride there is over faster than he expects. He parks the motorcycle neatly near Pinglin Old Street. It’s quiet—though Jack doesn’t know that he’s ever seen Pinglin busy exactly. The misting of rain has shepherded most people towards shelter, workers and tourists alike. Zhao Zi doesn’t complain, bright-eyed and excitable as always, flitting from one little food stand to another.

“Oh! Oh, Jack, they have candied haw berries!” he exclaims, immediately fishing out his wallet to buy a tiny skewer of them. “Do you want one?” he asks, voice muffled as he tries to speak around the sticky fruit in his teeth.

Jack snaps a picture. “No, thank you.”

“Did you just take a picture? Jack!”

“Do you want it for instagram?” Jack asks innocently.

“That’s not the problem! My mouth was full! Hey, Jack!” Jack forwards him the picture anyways with a series of kissing face emojis before tucking his phone innocently back into his pocket.

Zhao Zi slips his hand into Jack’s, pouting dramatically. “How could you, Jack.”

“How could I not?” Jack counters.

“You sure you don’t want one? You can just have a bite from mine if you like.” Zhao Zi offers it to him.

Jack laughs. “No, really, little one. They’re too sticky for me. Hurts my teeth.”

“Ohh,” Zhao Zi says. “Okay, more for me.”

They make their way slowly down the cobbled street, Zhao Zi still pausing to look at different shopfronts every few moments, despite most of them containing the same sorts of merchandise. He picks up a wooden comb.

“Hey, do you think Yu Qi would like this?” he asks, showing Jack. It’s wide-toothed and smooth, a gentle design of flowers embossed into the wood. The grain runs an almost aqua green. Jack takes it, running his fingers along its edge. It smells like he remembers, a little sharp. He had one, once. He’s no idea where it is now, lost to time.

“Yes, why not?” he says, handing it back to Zhao Zi. “They’re all lovely.”

“Which one?” Zhao Zi asks, picking up one with a handle and another that’s a bit more fine-toothed.

“You know her better than I do,” Jack says. “The wood gets greener the longer it stays in the sun, though. If you want one that’s a lighter color, you can ask for one that’s still in storage.”

“It does?” Zhao Zi examines the comb in his hand. “How did you know that?”

“I’ve been here before, remember?” Jack says.

“Oh, right, right. Well, I know Yu Qi likes green, so I’ll probably go with this one.” He holds up the fine-toothed one. It’s a rich, coppery verdigris. “Sir! Sir, how much is this?”

They wander their way down to a tea shop near the end of the road. Its doors are wide open, and the ceiling is high. Jack hesitates for the briefest of seconds before going in. If Zhao Zi notices, he doesn’t mention it, and Jack is grateful.

“Hello? Anyone there?” Jack calls out in Minnan, just loud enough to carry. Zhao Zi looks up at him, startled. An old man pops up from behind the counter where he was stooped.

“Hello!” He adjusts his glasses, smooths what’s left of his thinning hair. “What can I do for you today?”

“Just looking for some tea to take home,” Jack says. “Can we do a tasting?”

“The two of you together?” He nods at Zhao Zi, already fetching a tea set.

“Yes, we’re together,” Jack says, cradling the warmth that blooms inside himself at the words. He takes Zhao Zi’s hand and leads him over to the table where the man is setting up. A familiar cat emerges from somewhere in the back of the shop, meowing curiously. Zhao Zi, precious and delighted by small things, immediately crouches down in his seat to coo at her.

“So where are you two from?” the man asks, lighting the fire under the teapot.

“Oh!” Zhao Zi sits up again. “I’m from Taipei,” he says in his stumbling Minnan. “Sorry, my Minnan isn’t that good. I’ll have to ask for your patience.”

“That’s not a problem. I can speak Mandarin too, you know,” he replies cheerfully in Mandarin before switching back to Minnan when he turns to Jack. “What about you?”

“Taipei as well,” Jack lies.

They talk about inconsequential things, the man smoothly jumping between languages with a practiced liveliness. He uses enough Mandarin to keep Zhao Zi involved in the conversation and enough Minnan to soothe some of the strange, wounded longing that Jack’s been nursing for the past few weeks. He feels loose, like he’s slipping into old clothes, worn threadbare from love. The tea is good. The owner of the shop tells them about the prizes it’s won, rambles a little about the rules for various tea awards. Jack has indistinct memories of similar conversations from many years ago. He nods along, jokes with the man, complains lightly about how things have changed. A younger man comes out of the back room and nods at them before starting inventory. Presumably the son, Jack thinks.

Zhao Zi, having earned the cat’s trust, has her purring in his lap as he strokes her head with deliberate gentleness. There’s white hair all over his pants and Jack’s old jacket. Jack runs a fond hand through Zhao Zi’s hair as he watches him.

Against his better judgment, Jack reaches out a hand for the cat to sniff, and she immediately hisses, batting it way with a paw. Jack snorts with amusement. She still fucking hates him, apparently, even as an old granny cat. He tries again, much to the same effect.

The old man chuckles. “You remind me of a boy who used to come here all the time with his family,” he says, and Jack’s hand stills. “He’d always try to make friends with her, but she’d never accept. A sweet kid! He never tried to chase her down or anything. Just held out his hand like you do. Got scratched all the time.”

“Oh yeah?” Jack says, his lips twitching. “He stopped coming when he got too old?”

“Oh, I don’t know that he was too old,” the man ruminates. “He was just starting high school last I saw him, I think. A very polite kid. I wonder where he is now. What was his name? It’s been a long time, you know, my memory’s not so good anymore—oh, weren’t they from Keelung? Hey, Xiao Wen, do you remember?”

His son looks up, distracted from his inventory lists. “Sorry?”

“You know, that nice family from Keelung. The one with the—the kid that the cat hated. It was a long time ago, probably more than ten years—oh, wasn’t their name Fang? The Fang family?”

“Dad!” Xiao Wen exclaims, looking—horrified, actually. “Dad, don’t—don’t talk about that sort of thing with customers.” He glances at Jack and Zhao Zi anxiously. “Please forgive my father, his memory isn’t quite as good, and he forgets that—yes, well.”

“Oh, it’s all right,” Jack reassures him. “Is there something wrong with this Fang family?”

He knows exactly what’s wrong with the Fang family, but he can’t quite resist poking about.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Xiao Wen says, waving it off. “It’s just not a very nice story.”

“What are you talking about?” his father demands. “That kid was very nice! It’s funny!”

“Yes, Dad, that part’s funny,” Xiao Wen agrees soothingly. “Let’s just talk about something else, okay?”

Jack almost wants to laugh. It isn’t exactly funny—it’s hard to make murder funny, but maybe the dramatic irony will do the trick. Surprise! It was me all along! He lets it go. There’s an odd sort of satisfaction in him. He was remembered, fondly even. Recognized, in some small way. He feels a surge of affection for this small old man, whose name he never learned, even all those years ago. Hey, it’s me. Don’t worry, I’m doing well.

Jack spends an inadvisably large sum on tea, purchasing the largest tins of everything they tasted, and a few bulk packs of tea-flavored hard candies for Zhao Zi’s sweet tooth. He tears one open and hands Zhao Zi a handful immediately.

“Aw, Jack,” he says with a laugh. “Thank you.”

“Some of them are for me too,” Jack says.

“Yeah? Better eat them quick!” Zhao Zi says, tossing back three at once.

Jack can’t stop himself from making one last pass at the cat, holding out his hand for her to sniff. She rewards him with a violent scratch that he doesn’t feel through his leather glove. He remembers the days of blood and bandaids, and his mouth quirks a little.

“Is that all you wanted to do today?” Zhao Zi asks, squinting up at the sky as they walk back up the street. “It’s still pretty early.”

“We’ve already come this far,” Jack says. “Would you like to see the beach? No one will be there if the weather is like this. Just the two of us. Does that sound nice?”

“Of course!” Zhao Zi grabs the hand that isn’t holding the bag of tea. “I haven’t been to the coast in so long.”

“Little one, you need to get out of the city more,” Jack admonishes.

“I just really love Taipei!” Zhao Zi says. “Is that a crime?”

“Why don’t you tell me, Officer Zhao?”

He drives them to the beach on empty roads, slick with mist. They pause a few times at Zhao Zi’s request to look out over the sea from little observation points carved into the bedrock. It’s quiet, but for the distant waves. They don’t speak. The wind ruffles through Jack’s hair, brushes against his wet cheeks. Zhao Zi folds his arms on the railing, resting his head on his hands. He’s very beautiful and very alive. Jack spends more time watching him than the ocean. He’s seen the ocean before, after all, but he’s never seen Zhao Zi quite like this.

Zhao Zi kicks at the sand when they finally get down to the beach proper, marveling at the color. “It’s so dark,” he remarks, turning over little mounds of it with his sneakers. “Almost black.” He bends down to pluck a broken snail shell out of the disturbed earth.

“It’s different all along the coast,” Jack tells him. “If you go a little further south on the eastern edge, the sand is much more yellow and coarse.”

“I wonder why,” Zhao Zi says, in the absentminded way people do when they’re not terribly curious. He squats down to sift through it with his fingers, searching for treasures. Jack hands him a shell fragment that looks like glazed pottery.

They wander the patch of beach for a little over an hour, Zhao Zi amassing a collection of shards and puzzle pieces. He doesn’t seem to care much for the perfect shells they find, setting them carefully aside, tucked into the corners of rocks.

“For the next person,” he explains when he sees Jack watching. Jack starts to discover what he likes—pieces that are strange, pieces that suggest the form of a whole, pieces with lovely colors—it becomes a game of his own, trying to find pieces that Zhao Zi will like and keep. He’s picky, rejecting more often than not, no matter whether he picks it up himself or Jack hands it to him. The ones that he does keep are special wins for Jack.

They spend some time poking a dead Man o’ War with a stick, pushing its electric blue body back and forth. Beaches are full of the dead—puffer fish, a sea krait, half a muntjac skull, and the thousands upon thousands of shells smashed by the waves. It elicits a deep calm in Jack, the knowledge that the ocean doesn’t discriminate with its violence. There is something comforting about that.

“Are you ready to go?” he asks Zhao Zi, who’s squatting beside him, staring out at the horizon.

“Not yet,” he says softly, tipping his head to nudge Jack’s arm. “Not quite yet.”