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One familiar fading tune

Chapter Text

Crawl on my belly til the sun goes down
I'll never wear your broken crown
I can take the rope and I can fuck it all the way
But in this twilight, our choices seal our fate

 

Mumford & Sons - Broken Crown

 

 

 

Shang Qinghua was not a popular part of the Cang Qiong base’s community at the best of times, but right now he felt on the more hostile side of being tolerated. Even when he told people he was just doing his job, following orders like every other person on the lower end of the food chain, he felt only seconds away from a knife between his ribs or a club bashing his head in. Not that he himself had done anything to warrant such actions. More often than not had he skimped on his own rations when Shen Jiu again decided to try and cut off the few children in their community as useless mouths.  It had never lasted more than a day or two, with Yue Qingyuan coming back from a hunt or patrol to revise the orders of his second in command. But Shan Qinghua always had to bear the brunt of the people’s ire, as well as the tirades how he dared to endanger their future like this.

 

Granted, he could simply say ‘No’ and shut Shen Jiu down until their leader returned. As the head of logistics and food distribution he had enough power to do so. In theory.

 

Looking at it from a practical standpoint, though, he only had this job because he was good with numbers and organization. So he really was not in the position to provoke a fucking sociopath. Especially one with an advanced ability to manipulate air and who was able to debate himself out of everything due to lack of evidence. Line of sight was enough. Even Mu Qingfang could only declare him dead after a few minutes without oxygen. Yue Qingyuan would probably hand wave the whole thing as a freak accident and everyone would go on with their lives. Some might even be glad to have him out of the way.

 

Nope! He still wanted to live for a few years, apocalypse or not, thank you very much!

 

How long he could stay with thing progressing as they were was still another story. Again, in theory Shang Qinghua was a valuable asset, his ability being in the realm of the wood element with the option to grow edible fruits and vegetables in no time. A constant supply of fresh, healthy food in this wasteland of mutated plants and polluted earth. They should be treating him like a gift from the gods and protect him like the rare treasure he could be!

 

Only… For his powers to work he needed seeds from plants that were not mutated or at least edible. Something that should have been preserved from the start as a precious resource to prevent future food shortages. Easy to find in warehouses or the personal dimensions of space ability users, right? WRONG! There was nothing! Nil! Zilch! People just bitched at him that he should have thought of this himself and how useless he was once again.

 

Not that had been taken by surprise like everybody else when things went south. Being a loner by nature he had almost died a few times in the first couple of days after the power supply died and zombies roamed the streets. Everyone had been panicking and defended themselves without thinking twice. The two scars from the bullet wounds in his shoulders still hurt whenever the weather changed. Liu Qingge had never apologized for those, even after he realized his mistake and brought him into the group.

 

An incident that ultimately saved Shang Qinghua so he did not hold a grudge so much as lamented the inconvenience. If they had not taken him in, nobody in the area would have.

 

It was only half a year after the zombies appeared that flora and fauna started to change. Until then food was not hard to come by and the healing abilities of wood element, when not trained diligently, were far behind the water ability users like Mu Qingfang. Only in the higher levels would he be able to shine as an outstanding support who could even regenerate missing body parts. Something he still was far away from achieving after being neglected from the start when it came to certain resources like zombie nuclei and jade to level up his ability. And when someone was kind enough to share a few scraps with him, they didn’t seem to do anything for his powers. Adding to all of this the fact that he was, quite frankly, a disgusting coward and absolutely useless as a fighter, he could count his lucky stars that anyone was willing to put up with him.

 

At least that was Shen Jiu, Wei Qingwei and half a dozen others held against him at every opportunity. Especially Shen Jiu’s constant barbs and needles hurt a lot, after he had gotten used to friendly words and kind gestures from a person with the same voice and face.

 

He really should have pulled himself together and tagged along when Shen Yuan left with Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge, unwilling to put up with the abuse of Shen Yuan’s insane brother anymore. Being the third wheel didn’t sound so bad compared to a life as a doormat most people wanted to use as disposable meat shield at the right opportunity. Alas, now he was stuck in this place with no desirable option to leave.

 

Shen Yuan and he had never been what one would call friends, but Shang Qinghua missed the kind, young man who had always sported way too many bruises. He had been willing to just talk a bit, graciously putting up with the whining while one or even both of his grouchy bodyguards were nearby to make sure nothing else happened. When it came to the stories Shang Qinghua invented Shen Yuan had even been an appreciative audience. They both had needed this little escapism to keep themselves sane.

 

Shang Qinghua still did, but now there was no one left to listen. The parents in the base did not appreciate him near their children and who could fault them? Everyone else was too busy to pay him more attention than absolutely necessary.

 

He only hoped Shen Yuan, Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge were still alive. Decent people where hard to come by these days and even with their occasional jerk attitudes Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge had cared just as much as Shen Yuan.

 

With a sigh Shang Qinghua  jumped from the small wall, shoving all the depressing thoughts in the back of his mind. Why did the sunset always turn him into an emotional wreck? He needed to pull himself together and do something useful. The inventory lists for the personal dimension needed to be checked again. Some of the space ability users were too opportunistic to be left to their own devices.

 

The fading daylight barely touched the tips of his worn-out shoes when they hit the ground, only to turn into a raging inferno a second later. Ruins, like the rotting teeth in an old person’s mouth, were all that was left of the tidy, well-organized sanctuary he had called home for the last year. Walking corpses shambled around him as his knees buckled, their groans weaving a horrible cacophony with the screams and the sounds of flesh and bones being ripped apart by merciless hands and teeth. The old military base had fallen.

 

Not again!

 

The carnage around him was blurry enough to keep him from outright losing his mind, but when the smell hit he already tasted bile in his throat.

 

Burned wood, charred meat, excrements and the ever present stank of rot ripped through his senses. He could not tell where he found the willpower to not outright vomit and soil himself at the same time. A hand clasped over his quivering lips, he tried to get back on his feet. It wasn’t real. Only another nightmare his mind decided to torment him with. Like the monsters and strange creatures he always dreamed about. It would pass and be just another story he needed to tell or write down to get it out of his head. 

 

Just close your eyes and breathe. Everything is going to be alright.

 

Stumbling forward he imagined the looks he must be getting and the snarky remarks thrown at the next weirdo who finally broke and went nuts. He would have laughed at the image if it were not for the nausea. Neither the smell nor the sounds faded, clawing at the fragile walls that protected his sanity. How strange that human flesh smelled so much like harmless barbeque when cooked…

 

He knew he needed to see and understand the dream for it to go away. He needed to take in and remember everything that was shown to him regardless of how much I he just wanted it to stop. To leave him alone. Even when everything inside him screamed to run away and forget, he would still be forced to watch.

 

Resigning himself to his fate he raised his head, eyes burning from the acrid smoke in the air.

 

His whole body shook like a leaf in the wind and suddenly it was so clear what had happened. The sturdy gates were wide open without any sign of damage. His head spun as he tried to process the picture in front of him. 

 

Who would…?

 

He made a step forward without the intention to do so and his foot bumped into something solid. When he looked down it took him a moment to find the item he had just kicked away. The expression on Ming Fan’s youthful face was one of disbelief and betrayal, the neck separated by a clean cut instead of ripped and bitten.

 

Shang Qinghua felt an odd calm settle over himself, his body losing all tension before the world faded to black. He just wondered why the laughter in his ears sounded so utterly helpless and devastated.

 

----

 

He woke up on the floor of his patient’s room from a ratty designer shoe breaking two of his ribs.

 

His full-blown scream quickly turned into a pathetic whimper when the pain of simply breathing registered in his brain. Curling into himself, he almost blacked out again in the process. The following coughing fit brought him back just enough to make out the snarling voice next to his ear.

 

“And here I thought you were just some pathetic charity case like my stupid brother. Was it fun to play the idiot? How much did you weasel away, rat?!”

 

“What-?” was all Shang Qinghua managed before another kick hit his back. This time not quite hard enough to break bones, but enough to leave an especially painful bruise right above his tailbone. He couldn’t help but whine when a rough hand pulled him upright by his hair.

 

“Don’t you dare play innocent with me!” the voice – Shen Jiu – hissed, emphasizing the words with a painful shake before he threw his victim back to the floor. “The boy already spilled everything. All I want are names and numbers!”

 

Spilled what? What boy? Whose name? Shang Qinghua wanted to ask. He found himself breathless and lightheaded instead.

 

How was he supposed to answer without the ability to breathe?!

 

The struggle to get up – get away and hide - was met with yet another kick. This time it hit his wrist, forcing his nose into an intimate marriage with the floor when his arm gave way. He could already taste coppery liquid on his tongue. He managed a shaky breath, but the carefully reduced atmosphere around him did nothing to lessen the panic.

 

Shang Qinghua was only half aware of the pained groan that escaped him when he met Shen Jiu’s disgusted look with bleary eyes. His lounges almost hyperventilated to make up for the lack of oxygen. The black specs that started to mar his vision weren’t helping things at all! As was the feeling of the ground rolling and churning beneath him.

 

“Who are you working for?” Shen Jiu snapped, kicking his head for good measure.

 

“I don’t know-.“

 

Shang Qinghua wasn’t able to finish the sentence before Shen Jiu hauled him up again, his free fist hitting Shang Qinghua’s temple. The sharp pain mixed with the rest of the injuries, sending his jumbled thoughts again in a spiral of fear and the primal instinct to escape and hide. The words ended in a low whine, his legs twitching from the urge to curl himself into a ball.

 

Shen Jiu made a contemptuous noise. “Disgusting.” After another look he flung his victim to the floor. “I will break every single bone in your body, one by one, if that is what it takes to make you talk.”

 

Knuckles cracked as to emphasize the words.

 

Chapter Text

It would take a long time for Shang Qinghua to learn how many people spoke up for him, after word about Shen Jiu’s actions got out.

 

Mu Qingfang had outright banned the man from entering the infirmary for the foreseeable future, while Qi Qingqi took the initiative to question him in Yue Qingyuan’s presence. However, these actions had only brought ominous silence and none of the expected repercussion for the perpetrator.

 

Some rumors said Shen Jiu tried to murder Ming Fan and Shang Qinghua because they knew too much about his other crimes. Others painted him a hero who tried to prevent an attack on the base. The ones who knew the truth kept quiet for the time being. The only facts known were that Ming Fan still had not woken up after three days in intensive care and Shang Qinghua was too badly injured to answer any questions.

 

And that was true.

 

Shang Qinghua had honestly never been so thankful for the healing powers in his body, yet cursed them for keeping him alive. The pain from hours of torture made the dull ache of his bones mending under Mu Qingfang’s care seem insignificant. At some point he himself had not been sure anymore if he really was innocent. The only thing that had kept him from outright confessing just to make it stop was the fact that he really did not know who was targeting them.

 

Not that Shen Jiu had believed a word he said.

 

At first when had woken up in the hospital bed he had not known if it was really over or if he had been sucked into another of his strange daydreams again. Ning YingYing’s hand on his forehead had been a blessing, shocking him out of the stupor.  The poor nursing student had been so startled by his violent reaction and the following coughing fit. The sedatives Mu Qingfang had resorted to, to give him another few days of rest had been a welcome relief. Shang Qinghua didn’t mind how he had drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to properly think of what had happened.

 

He still could not bear to be touched without prior warning and even then it made him want to shrink away and curl into a ball.

 

He hated his weak self for flinching every time he heard a raised voice. For following every movement with wide, fearful eyes whenever someone entered his room. For not being able to speak or even breath properly as soon as someone’s gaze fell on him, regardless of how much warmth and concern lay in those eyes.

 

Ning Yingying always tried to cheer him up when she brought his meals and asked for stories. It had been Shen Yuan who told her about his hobby and she had always been interested.

 

Telling that she still never found the time to talk to him in over half a year.

 

No, now he was being unfair. There was always too much to do with people getting injured and the effect of the radiation and poison in the air on the normal people. At this point everyone with a brain knew that they could only ease the suffering and maybe give them a few more weeks or months.

 

It was only a matter of time until Shen Jiu would try to also cut off the doomed. At the latest when they were too weak to kick up a fuss.

 

Would he still be here at that time? Somehow Shang Qinghua doubted it. Not that he wanted to anyway.

 

Loud noises in front of his room startled him out of his thoughts. Mu Qingfang, Yue Qingyuan and the voice he never wanted to hear again in his life. He debated trying to eavesdrop, but then the urge to hide won. They might believe he was still asleep and leave him alone if he kept still enough under the blanket.

 

He heard the door open and Mu Qingfang’s angry voice coming closer.

 

“You will not hurt anyone under my care. Shang Qinghua is still injured!”

 

A snort followed. “We just want to ask him a few questions.” Shen Jiu’s voice, arrogant and condescending as always. “But alright, let’s have a nice cup of tea and a discussion with people who want to fucking kill us. You’re still the same naïve idiot, I see.”

 

Shen Jiu and Mu Qingfang were probably staring each other down after that. The anger was almost palpable in the air.

 

Under his blanket Shang Qinghua could not help but shiver. He desperately tried to bite back the pathetic whimper, threatening to make its way out of his throat. His chest felt like there was something slowly pressing down, making it even harder to breathe than the violent pain in his still broken ribs. He did not want to be hurt again!

 

“We need to know what’s missing. Do you want people to starve in a few months?” Yue Qingyuan intervened before things escalated again. He sounded calm, but way too close for comfort as far as Shang Qinghua was concerned.

 

“I don’t believe a word he says,” Mu Qingfang protested. A hand came to rest on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder on top of the blanket. “Ming Fan still has not woken up and it is clear that he almost suffocated. There are no signs of violence on his body, so we all know what that means. Words spoken under torture are not evidence!”

 

“There is evidence of contact to the outside,” Shen Jiu said unfazed.

 

“You still have to present that as well. And incoherent words spoken in one’s sleep are no justifiable reason for violence either.”

 

Yue Qingyuan sighed. “Qingfang,” he tried again. He sounded a bit further away, but the doctor was not done yet.

 

“Even with things as they are there is still something called human rights. If we ignore this fact we are no better than the monster outside our gates,” Mu Qingfang snapped. “Get out.”

 

Someone clicked his tongue, before Shang Qinghua heard the steps of one person move away. The door closed quietly.

 

“I expect civilized conduct.” With this the feeling of the hand vanished and for once Shang Qinghua desperately wished for the touch to return. Right now Mu Qingfang was the only person between him and the threat of more violence.

 

Someone got closer to the bed and he wrapped himself tighter into the blanket.

 

“I need you to answer a few questions, Qinghua. Truthfully,” Yue Qingyuan told him in the deceptively gentle tone he always used.

 

Shang Qinghua had no illusions about the intensity of his gaze at this moment. He was almost tempted to play dead, his fear audible when he made an affirmative noise. The truth would get him nowhere, but it was all he had to offer.

 

“Have you given resources to someone who is not part of this base?” Yue Qingyuan got straight to the point. He was back at the bedside, but at least not touching anything. Still Shang Qinghua needed a bit to gather his thoughts.

 

“Not without permission,” he finally wanted to say, but the words came out as a strained rasp. He was only able to repeat them after a painful coughing fit.

 

To his surprise Yue Qingyuan waited patiently and the next question took a moment to follow up.

 

“Whose permission?”

 

“You, Shen Jiu.” This time it was easier to speak.

 

“Are you working with someone from the outside? Trading information?”

 

“No.”

 

Again no response, the tension in the air too heavy to withstand.

 

Shang Qinghua only wanted to be left alone. He just waited for them to start accusing him of lying again and the first hit to land. With Yue Qingyuan’s enhanced strength it would at least take a shorter time to die.

 

Someone poured liquid into a cup. Probably Mu Qingfang.

 

The pain never came.

 

“How did you know Ming Fan is a traitor?” Yue Qingyuan continued, he started to sound a bit confused which in turn confused Shang Qinghua even more.

 

He wished he could take a deep breath without his own body turning him into a sobbing mess. He settled for a small sigh instead. They would probably label him insane after this.

 

So be it.

 

“I don’t. I just saw him in one of my dreams… His head that is.”

 

“What do you mean by dreams?”

 

The normally so gentle voice turned stern and came closer at the same time. There it was and it made Shang Qinghua shiver and hug the edge of the blanket closer.

 

“Daydreams, visions, I don’t know,” he continued in hope it would not make his situation any worse.

 

It hurt to lay himself bare like that. He had only told Shen Yuan about it and even then just bits and pieces. To acknowledge it as what it was instead of part of his imagination made him feel so much closer to madness, but the words suddenly burst from his mouth like a dam had broken.

 

“I see things. It’s fucking scary. I can’t control it. Sometimes I don’t even know if what I see is real or something that might or might not happen in the future. Everything was on fire with Zombies and people dying all over the place. The base looked like a battlefield, completely blown to bits and… and the gate was just open. Not a scratch. And then there was Ming Fan’s fucking head, chopped off with a blade or something!”

 

Only Shang Qinghua’s ragged breaths disrupted the following silence. He expected them to descend on him like harpies, yelling and jeering until he gave them what they wanted to hear.

 

There was only the rustling of cloths, slow steps and the fragrance of tea after probably Mu Qingfang put the cup on the bedside table. Shang Qinghua was almost tempted to take a peek, but then an unexpected voice said from further away:

 

“Not a single lie.”

 

Wait, when did Meng Yao get here? Had they planned for the psychic to test him from the start?

 

The realization sent a cold shiver through his body and at the same time relief drove the tension out of his muscles. He burrowed his face in the pillow, although the trembling of his body must be all too visible. He could not even muster the strength to be offended at him blatantly reading his thoughts.

 

They knew. They had to believe him now! He was safe!

 

“… mind unstable… needs help…”

 

They few words reached his ears, but did not register until it was too late.

 

A few days later he was sent away to ‘help him with his unknown ability’ and he wished he had died at Shen Jiu’s hands.

 

 

Chapter Text

The plain but fashionable wristwatch showed 01:15 under the faint moonlight.

 

It had been nothing more than decoration, a fashion statement and an almost-relict of the past before everything went to hell. Now Shen Jiu was glad he kept it. With electricity as a rare good the longevity of the battery was invaluable. And with the horrors that came out after sundown it was mandatory to keep track of time in all situations.

 

Right now, though, he wanted to kick his brother’s ass more than when he when he had taught him how to fight back at the base. A-Yuan always half-assed things to the point of being infuriating. He did not even take enough care to evade properly, always looking like he was beaten up by someone, but never as hurt as he seemed to be. If he had managed to get in trouble again-.

 

The sound of twigs breaking and irregular footsteps made him retreat further into the shadow of the ash tree he was waiting under. Another cloud shrouded the moon and it was even harder to make out the person stumbling through the underbrush.

 

Shen Jiu’s ability told him that the other person was breathing and when they stopped not far away the sloppy clothing hiding a slender frame came into view. Since they had parted ways it became more and more embarrassing how little care A-Yuan took of his appearance. The low curse when the person proceeded to shake their foot as if to get something out of their shoe almost provoked a sigh of relief.

 

“You’re late,” Shen Jiu stated impatiently instead, not moving from the trunk he was leaning against, arms crossed in a defensive posture.

 

The other person, his twin, raised his head and Shen Jiu could almost see the little smile that appeared every time he reprimanded his brother. It annoyed him to no end. Prior to their rebirth A-Yuan would have never looked at him like that. When had his useless little brother who aspired to become a teacher of all things started to grow up?

 

It had always been only the two of them after their parent’s death. Qi-Ge had tried to help them at the orphanage against the constant bullying, but after his adoption there had been a few rough years before their uncle found them.

 

The man just took them in because of the inheritance they would receive when they turned eighteen. If Shen Jiu did not snoop in his study he would not have known about it until it had been too late. They would have been kicked out on the streets with nothing but the cloths on their backs, like they have been shoved into a dingy apartment with a joke of an allowance when they were fifteen.

 

He would never regret the accident after he met his uncle’s family by chance a few days into the chaos. Another thing A-Yuan and Qi-Ge would never know. They could not afford dead weight anyway.

 

“I had to shake off Binghe first. He’s becoming stickier by the day,” A-Yuan said after a little sigh.

 

There was another thing that almost drove Shen Jiu to hit him. He scoffed, well aware of the displeasure showing on his face. “You should get rid of this beast already. He is trouble.”

 

Lou Binghe had been a High School sophomore Shen Yuan tutored during college to earn a bit extra. Only a few years later Shen Jiu had found out that the boy was the illegitimate son of a local business tycoon, pushed aside by the legal wife. He had hated the boy’s fake innocent behavior from the start, well aware of the longing expression in his eyes whenever he looked at A-Yuan.

 

At first he had been tempted to drive him out and force his brother to hold the lessons at the boy’s place, but then he relented to let them stay in their apartment. Better to have an eye on things than give the little beast a chance to do something to his awfully naïve brother. Especially after all his warnings fell on deaf ears.

 

The little, innocent sheep would never do something like that. Yeah right! He had been the root of all of their problems and Shen Jiu was still sure Lou Binghe had caused his brother’s death after kidnapping him.

 

Shen Jiu was sure he also had his hands in Qi-Ge’s passing. Another reason to kill him as soon as possible and not let him anywhere near the people Shen Jiu cared for. He had been in half a mind to just shoot him when he appeared in front of them about two months into the apocalypse.

 

It had been too late to keep certain other people out of the group when he had found himself in his past body. But this one he would fight tooth and nail until he left with his tail between his legs or lay a few feet underground.

 

The shock came when A-Yuan decided to leave with him instead of staying at the base.

 

His reason was to gather information on the outside. All things considered it was the best choice, even when everything inside of Shen Jiu screamed to keep the two of them apart. He would settle this account after they prevented the attack that devastated his life the last time around.

 

“Binghe is treating me well and Qingge also has an eye on things,” A-Yuan tried to placate him.

 

There was another unnecessary nuisance grinding his gears from second one. Shen Jiu snorted. “That brute isn’t any better. I still don’t understand why you had to save this useless muscle head. He-.”

 

“-is a valuable companion who saved my life at least four times in the last year,” A-Yuan completed the sentence. Shen Jiu could see him shaking his head. “They are not half as bad as you think, Ge. Really.”

 

They had been through this discussion way too many times without coming to an understanding. At the right time A-Yuan would understand how wrong he was about all of this and until then Shen Jiu could hope for the brainless ex-cop to keep his brother alive and Luo Binghe from doing too much harm to all of them.

 

“Shang Qinghua is gone,” he decided to shift the topic to something more important.

 

The way A-Yuan started and then tried to hide his expression told him he struck a nerve, but A-Yuan’s voice still sounded calm and firm when he asked, “What happened?”

 

“Qi-Ge decided to send him to the Research Center in B City a week ago. Meng Yao persuaded him. Something about an ability he cannot control.”

 

This one had been a miscalculation he now knew. But that was what you got for keeping important information to yourself. If he had known about the visions, he would have handled things differently. No wonder Shang Qinghua survived the attack and was nervous all the time when he knew what would happen. The stupid brat should just have opened his mouth sooner!

 

Thankfully A-Yuan latched onto the other piece of information instead of asking more about the unfortunate kid.

 

“Meng Yao? I thought he left half a year ago.”

 

“He said he went to look for his mother,” Shen Jiu explained with barely hidden disdain. “She is apparently dead and he decided to come back and… help. Qi-Ge believes him, so there is no getting rid of him. First thing he did was reading people’s minds, of course.”

 

A-Yuan cursed and Shen Jiu was relieved that at least their mutual hate for the telepath was still the same. The psychic ability user had been a headache and a half from the start, trying to probe information from everybody and them especially. They both remembered how Meng Yao had suddenly disappeared right before the attack took place and never surfaced again after that.

 

“That happened last time, too, right?” A-Yuan asked and Shen Jiu nodded.

 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “It will be hard to do something about him. He just disappeared in the attack and never surfaced again.”

 

“Need me to come back and help?”

 

The audible concern would have touched another person, but Shen Jiu bristled instead.

 

“Fuck off. If I see you anywhere near Cang Qiong base I kick you out personally,” he snapped. “I have things under control. You go play with your two idiots.”

 

“Three,” A-Yuan correct with a sigh. It looked like he wanted to say more and thought better of it. “Take care, Ge. I’ll do something about Qinghua,” he just promised.

 

The following awkward hug startled Shen Jiu, though he returned it anyway.

 

Halfheartedly he shooed A-Yuan away. “In two months at Jinlan and don’t be late again.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Mobei Jun had never been a bloodthirsty person. Even in computer games he preferred to be efficient and precise, always keeping a cool head on his shoulders. He never understood the carnage other people relished in or the need to make their enemies suffer. Until now.

 

When Shen Yuan came back to camp he had been in a near frenzy that even showed through his usual poker face. Something about a friend being in trouble. Shang Qinghua. Mobei Jun had heard the name before from all three of them in the few months he had been part of their team. It mostly came up with knowledge about monsters and dangerous areas they encountered for the first time. Lifesaving knowledge. They were sure about this person possessing some kind of clairvoyance ability and from all Mobei Jun had seen, he had to agree.

 

Shen Yuan’s plan had been to waltz right in there, fetch their friend, get every captive out that was still able to walk and blow the whole laboratory to kingdom come. The veto had come quickly from the other two. The military held their hand over the research center and Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge did not want to risk any part of the team falling into their hands.

 

The debate on how to save Shang Qinghua without being caught by the tight security had lasted long into the night. In the end Mobei Jun had volunteered to sneak inside and see what he could do. His space ability would at least allow a quick exit via teleportation if needed and to bring some nasty surprises in his personal dimension. He wasn’t one to risk his life without a good reason and if push came to shove he knew how to cut his losses.

 

Right now, though, he regretted not coming to this place sooner.

 

He had encountered several research subjects since he entered the building, all named with numbers and a few letters. Never full names on the display or the records left on some desks. It were children, teens, old and even disabled people, both physically and mentally. People who were not able to protect themselves or survive on their own out there and all of them too far gone to form a coherent sentence, let alone stand on their own two legs.

 

The slogan was exploration of special abilities for the future and betterment of mankind. Yeah right!

 

The first so-called scientist who crossed his path found himself with his lips frozen together and pushed into a closet.

 

Originally Mobei Jun had only planned to immobilize the personnel. However, after what he had already seen this changed and the ice that was meant to lock wrists together and feet to the ground got cold enough to kill tissue in an agonizing rate. The blocks that encased both calves crept up all the way to the hip for good measure. Not enough to kill yet, but enough to give a thorough taste of their own medicine.

 

When he entered the next room he paused. It was an observation room with two glass cells on the back wall. In the left one sat a boy with bandages around his neck, wrists and ankles. He stared at Mobei Jun with big, dark eyes and said something swallowed by the soundproofing of his cage. The right cell held another boy, curled up on the ground. From his angle Mobei Jun could see the bandages around his head that covered one of his eyes. Both of them did not look older than ten, maybe even younger.

 

But the most disturbing thing in the room was the strange sword next to the second boy’s cage, a grey eye embedded right under the hilt. Mobei Jun could have sworn it moved and even blinked at him.

 

Suppressing a shiver he took a look at the consoles in the middle of the room.

 

Subject 817-XL.

 

Subject 808-HC.

 

Subject 000-EM.

 

Again with the numbers, as if refusing to use names would somehow make their actions less vile and depraved.

 

With a keycard stolen from one of the sick assholes along the way he opened the cells. The children did not look aggressive and he would be damned if he left one person in this place who was still sane.

 

A hiss filled the air when the glass screens unsealed themselves and slid to the side. The boy on the ground just pulled his knees closer to his chest while the other one shrank back with a weary look.

 

“Who are you? You’re not a doctor,” he repeated his words. The small voice sounded so utterly exhausted and full of fear.

 

Mobei Jun fought the urge to frown as he slowly approached the cells. Being a man at the 6’5 mark, he was intimidating enough at a distance and his naturally cold expression tended to make most people around him uneasy. He decided to stay outside to not scare the children more than necessary. “You’re right. I’m here to get you out.”

 

The big brown eyes seemed to grow even bigger at that and not in fear this time. “Really?” the boy asked hesitantly.

 

Meanwhile, the other one eyed him through the glass with thinly vailed hostility.

 

Mobei Jun nodded with a straight face. “Really.”

 

After that he moved to bring the sword into the right cell. It was an impulse decision, but it just felt right. To his surprise the boy all but ripped the blade out of his hands when he was about to put it on the ground next to him. The one-eyed glare was more cute than threatening. He still decided to back off for the moment.

 

Pulling some prepacked sandwiches and two apples out of his dimension and putting them in front of the cells, he turned to leave. The boys where already huddled together, the one-eyed one safely tucked into his friend’s arms.

 

“Hey!” A high, hoarse voice called after him before he reached the door. There was a slight hint of panic in the words. “Where are you going?”

 

“Still need to find someone. Wait here.”

 

Without looking back Mobei Jun stepped into the hallway and froze the lock behind him before following the corridor further inside.

 

What he found was more of the same. Babbling, incoherent voices, anguished screams and blank looks. Only when he found the staff’s sleeping quarters did his ever-present scowl change into something more vicious. Doors and windows frozen shut he let the temperature drop to a point that surely would wake the inhabitants. He wanted them to squirm while their time ran out.

 

A few minutes later he was lucky to run into someone useful on the stairs. Not only did he finally know where to find his target, he could also drag the half frozen man along for fingerprints and retina scans.

 

The basement was like a high security prison for the most valuable test subjects. At this time it had only one occupant, the others already dead or brainwashed into military puppets.

 

The doors to the big, white room opened silently. Mobei Jun decided not to pay the devices near the walls any attention for now and walked straight to the bed in the middle. Restraints one would expect in closed wards of a mental institution held a rather small person in place, the pale face illuminated by the constant glare of the big lamp above.

 

At first glance, Shang Qinghua seemed surprisingly young. Eighteen, maybe twenty years old. It was hard to say with the dark circles under his eyes and the blank expression. The thin, almost fragile body looked like instant food and long nights in front of a computer screen. The messy black hair was in desperate need of a wash.

 

Mobei Jun gave him an hour if left alone in the wild. And that was him being generous. But, it made the fact that the young man had managed to survive this long all the more intriguing.

 

When he was next to the bed Mobei Jun looked into the dark, round pupils, blown so wide that it was almost impossible to distinguish the dark grey iris around them. Shang Qinghua blinked at him slowly, his reactions sluggish, gaze unfocussed. Probably pumped full of all kinds of drugs. At least he didn’t look heavy.

 

With these thoughts Mobei Jun got rid of the leather binds and lifted the blanket.

 

Hospital gown. Great.

 

Some sweatpants and a hoody appeared on the bed. They were too big, but better than nothing for the time being. He doubted the youth would appreciate involuntary mooning everyone they met. Not to mention that Mobei Jun would never hear the end of it if he caught a cold right after being rescued.

 

The cloth situation out of the way he proceeded to littler the basement with explosives, like he had done on the floor above. He set the timers to twenty minutes and thanked the gods again for lightning users like Luo Binghe. This would have been a bitch to manage with traditional fuses.

 

Another look around and he decided to add some of the equipment to the physical records and drugs he had collected on the way. If the people in the base knew that he carried a warehouse full of random items and supplies in the back of his head they would probably pester him all day long. Even his team had no knowledge about the full extent of his powers and for the time being he preferred it to stay that way.

 

The dimension would be more convenient if it could hold living beings, though. With the youth like this things could get really ugly if he ran into a fight.

 

One last glare at the terrified ice block on the floor and he picked up his target in a princess carry. At first Mobei Jun had just wanted to throw him over his shoulder, but some strange notion led to a lot more care. He even wrapped him in the blanket for good measure. From the looks of it, this one had endured enough rough treatment for a lifetime.

 

Eleven minutes.

 

Mobei Jun closed his eyes and pictured the room with the two children. A strange tugging in his gut before a gasp told him he had the right place.

 

Both children looked at him in awe, mouths agape. He paid more attention to the empty wrapping and the apple cores on the floor. The latter found their way back into his storage. They would never rot in there and now they had someone who could use all the seeds he had randomly picked up in the last one and a half years.

 

That was, if the youth was still sane after his ordeal. Power growth could always be accommodated.

 

Ten minutes.

 

“We’re leaving,” he told the boys.

 

To his annoyance both just sat there and still stared at him. They had their backs pressed to the wall the sword held protectively in front of them. It was obvious that the one-eyed one would retaliate if he came closer.

 

He suppressed an annoyed groan. “Come here.”

 

This seemed to wake them up and they at least got to their feet.

 

The one-eyed boy leaned heavily on the sword. There was fresh blood on the bandages. “Why should we trust you?” he demanded, eying Mobei Jun warily.

 

Nine minutes.

 

“Nobody is forcing you. You can damn well explode with this building for all I care.” The words were more callous than he meant them to be, his expression deceptively cold and intimidating as always.

 

They were running out of time, for fuck’s sake! Cut the crap already!

 

Thankfully, the boys came closer. Still at a snail’s pace, but all four of them would never fit into the cell.

 

Six minutes.

 

“Hold onto my cloths,” Mobei Jun commanded. A few seconds later they stood in the dark outside the fence. This would be a close call.

 

As fast as possible he pulled his car out. The children again got googly eyes when the modified Hummer appeared next to them without warning.  He just ignored them to put Shang Qinghua into the passenger seat.

 

“Get in there!” he growled, herding them onto the backseat. Only then did he finally get into the driver seat himself. A look in the rearview mirror and he was ready to hit them. “Seatbelts!”

 

Three minutes.

 

This time there was no discussion. Right after he heard the second click he stepped on the gas. The tires left a cloud of dust and small stones behind them and the uneven ground gave the shock absorbers a workout. Mobei Jun did not care.

 

One minute.

 

The complex shrank rapidly behind them, there was no sound of gunfire or cars and he allowed himself a deep breath.

 

Nobody had seen them. They had a good head start away from the road. With all flying vehicles out of the way he just needed to avoid control points. And even those would be hard to manage with ability user fancying themselves as bandits and mutated beasts popping up everywhere.

 

The sound of the explosion was still almost deafening. Tremors shook the earth and for a moment it was hard to keep control over the car.

 

After a quick look at the column of fire in the distance there was the hint of a smile on his face.

 

 

Chapter Text

Realization hit a few hours later when he parked at the roadside to refill the tank. He had made himself a goddamn mass murderer!

 

Mobei Jun had no idea how many people he blew up with the building, let alone the military barracks outside. Most of them never saw it coming and he still wondered how nobody discovered the half-baked manipulation of the security system.

 

The most disturbing thing was, however, that he cared more about the strange absence of pursuit than the proverbial blood on his hands. Even the memory of some of the faces only left him with a slightly bad taste in his mouth. It did not feel like he had committed an unforgivable crime. More like a mercy killing and very satisfying revenge. Something that was, quite frankly, all too common with the world in its current state.

 

Those who were too kind found themselves taken advantage of, trampled on and more often than not dead at the hands of one thug or another. In the end humanity really was a race of savages as soon as the rules were not enforced anymore.

 

Mobei Jun looked through the window at the two children curled up on the backseat. They had fallen asleep in the early morning hours after staring at the sunrise like they could not believe they were able to see daylight again. He still had not asked them for their names.

 

Shang Qinghua was more cause for concern. Shortly after the explosion his breath had evened out and Mobei Jun was relieved to see him sleep without nightmares. He just dreaded the possibility of a mental breakdown when the drugs wore off. A look at the medical records was probably in order, now that he got some time on his hands. Perhaps, the knowledge about what actually happened could help him to avoid the worst case scenario. Knocking Shang Qinghua out again would only postpone the problem and cause more harm than good. And if they potentially had to work with each other later on, violence really was not an option.

 

Half an hour later he heard a groan from the passenger seat and put away the stack of paper in his hands. Most of the academese went over his head anyway. When he looked over he met a pair of big, grey eyes that watched him with visible confusion. Shang Qinghua seemed alert and there was no sign of a freak-out. Promising.

 

A bottle of soymilk and a bowl of congee appeared in Mobei Jun’s hands after a second. He held them under the other’s nose.

 

“Breakfast,” he explained. In the back of his mind he could hear Luo Binghe cursing him for abducting part of his favorite tableware again. Not that there were more than enough options to replace it. He had done it countless times without anyone noticing.

 

Shang Qinghua’s slim eyebrows shot up. He blinked a few times before he took the offered items with a quiet ‘Thank you’ Mobei Jun almost did not catch. The voice sounded so hoarse that Mobei Jun asked himself how much screaming had been involved in exploring this particular set of abilities. Outwardly he simply nodded, watching Shang Qinghua put the warm bowl in his lap. The small hands were shaking so bad that he calmly took the bottle back after a few moments.

 

He saw Shang Qinghua flinch, but only opened the lid to give it back.

 

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, noting that the youth avoided eye contact just as much as being touched.

 

Shang Qinghua’s eyes widened for a second and another ‘Thank you’ followed. This time less terrified and more embarrassed. When he began to drink the milk in small sips, Mobei Jun took a look in the rearview mirror.

 

The one-eyed glare he received had notably less intensity this time, though it could be due to the messy hair and the sleepy expression.

 

A sneeze from the other side of the backseat startled Shang Qinghua so much that he dropped the bottle into his congee with a squawk.

 

Somehow this started to feel more like looking after a bunch of stray kittens. So, no sudden movements and no letting them outside the car…

 

“I need to go to the bathroom,” the two-eyed boy said. Perfect. He really needed to get their names.

 

---

 

After a bit of fresh air and time to stretch their legs for everyone, Mobei Jun got the two children back into the car. Shang Qinghua had been content to stay seated, still looking a bit dazed. But he visibly perked up when Mobei Jun mentioned Shen Yuan.

 

He had learned that the boys were called Hua Cheng and Xie Lian. They used San Lang and Gege when talking to each other though. They did not look like brothers. He decided not to ask for the reason behind that.

 

Xie Lian turned out to be a little ray of sunshine, even getting Shang Qinghua to relax a bit. But the hoodlum that was Hua Cheng had demanded all of his attention again after a few minutes.

 

He was all sweet and smiles when it came to Xie Lian, his behavior around other people on the other hand would have thoroughly tempted the old housekeeper Mobei Jun’s parents employed to wash his mouth out with soap. Blunt honesty with a heavy dose of snark and a thick layer of sarcasm.

 

The frustrating thing was that Mobei Jun still did not know anything about their abilities or backgrounds. The only file he had found was an unreadable mess. Probably encrypted.

 

He also had to find more information about the sword. The eye was definitely alive and watching him and he was not having any more of this without a proper explanation!

 

After a glare at the curved blade he started the car to follow the road in a moderate speed. There was still no sign of pursuit, military or otherwise, and he really started to relax a bit when the first buildings of a village came into view. But then he saw Shang Qinghua freeze in terror.

 

The paragraph about an increased frequency of visions fresh in his mind Mobei Jun stopped again to look at him. “What?” he asked, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice.

 

At a closer look he recognized the slight tremble and vacant eyes. No answer then. This could probably take a while, so he decided to wait and see.

 

“Has he finally lost his marbles?” Hua Cheng asked from the backseat, followed by a mumbled “San Lang” from Xie Lian. “I was just asking, Gege.”

 

Mobei Jun ignored them to focus on the youth next to him instead. For all he knew, Shang Qinghua might hurt himself or choke on his own tongue unsupervised. He growing increasingly pale was worrying enough.

 

Fortunately, it only took a few minutes for Shang Qinghua to gasp for air as if he just emerged from deep water. The whispers from the backseat stopped and all of them waited for him to get his bearings.

 

Mobei Jun was almost tempted to touch his shoulder when the big eyes suddenly stared at him.

 

“Not that way,” the youth said with a shaky voice, his fear palpable. “Dogs. Wolves. I don’t know what they are, but… no. Just no.”

 

Mobei Jun studied him for a moment and after a nod he turned the car around. The other route would only take an hour longer. Better safe than sorry, especially when it came to more than one mutated beast. Most of the smaller ones were easy to kill when there was only one, but a whole pack was a whole other matter and he had exhausted his power more than necessary last night.

 

With a grateful look Shang Qinghua leaned back in his seat to close his eyes to rest. He appeared completely drained.

 

Behind them Hua Cheng seemed ready for another snarky remark when a polyphonic howl came from the direction of the village. The sound was so eerie and unnatural that even this feisty boy could not help but glance out the back window with apprehension.

 

“How did he know that?” Xie Lian asked, shoulders hunched.

 

Mobei Jun just drove a bit faster. “He sees things. Dangers in the future.” When he looked over, the skinny young man had already fallen asleep.

 

“The sister at the orphanage said that all fortunetellers are frauds,” Hua Cheng chimed in without taking his eyes from the road behind them. He was now kneeling on the seat and didn’t seem to notice Mobei Jun scowling at his back. His bare feet bobbed to an unknown rhythm. Only the sword gave Mobei Jun an innocent wink.

 

“Clairvoyance. Not fortunetelling,” he corrected the boy, irritation only showing in his cold, blue eyes. “Sit down.”

 

At first it seemed like Hua Cheng wanted to ignore him, but then he turned around and properly put the seatbelt back on. “Same difference,” the boy responded, only to have his head snap up when another howl came from the direction of the village. It sounded further away this time.

 

Meanwhile Mobei Jun pondered over slamming the brakes if the boy decided to endanger himself again. He had seen the eye-roll and some people just learned better from experience than talk.

 

With the sweltering heat around them he really had no patience for any shenanigans. Especially when he could not risk to exhaust his powers in case of unavoidable trouble. He felt like his body and everything around him was slowly melting.

 

Since the meteoroids had hit the planet and spread this cursed virus the temperature during the warm months had been continually rising until only two seasons without proper transition remained. 30 degrees Celsius were almost counted as cool at this time of the year now and scientist already were sure it would end in draughts and famine everywhere when things continued like this.

 

Many people still preferred the scorching summer to their first merciless winter a few months ago, when the snow piled meters high and the cold turn even minutes away from a proper heat source into a deadly gamble. Mobei Jun was not one of these people.

 

At least the road stayed empty for the next few hours and if there were any inhabitants in the villages they passed, they seemed to keep to themselves instead of practicing wayside robbery. The lack of undead after enough time to clear out the area was not surprising either.

 

The most reliable sign for an uneventful journey appeared to be Shang Qinghua sleeping peacefully through the heat. The two boys also caught up on much needed rest and between two toilet breaks and lunch on the road there was mostly silence in the car.

 

When they finally reached the small gas station it was almost dusk, accompanied by the most welcome drop in temperature outside.

 

Mobei Jun already spotted Liu Qingge’s broad figure behind the truck next to a gas pump and just parked on the other side. The other man seemed apprehensive at first, but when Mobei Jun left the car he nodded.

 

“Shizun!” the whiny, pathetic voice Luo Binghe reserved sorely for Shen Yuan sounded from the parking lot. Mobei Jun refused to speculate about the origin of this behavior. He just watched the two figures come closer.

 

A broad-shouldered man with unruly, dark curls following a slender, only slightly shorter one.

 

As always, Shen Yuan fiddled with a beautifully decorated folding fan. It clashed with the simple T-shirt and jeans he was wearing and even more with the worn-out sneakers on his feet, but it was a better choice than wasting electricity on something more modern to cool down.

 

Mobei Jun, in the meantime, had rounded the car to help the still half-asleep Shang Qinghua on his feet only to feel him go rigid as soon as Shen Yuan greeted them. Slowly, as if facing a horrible monster that was able to rip him apart at the slightest wrong move, Shang Qinghua turned his head. Mobei Jun could hear the labored breath and feel cold sweat on the youth’s skin.

 

The two approaching men halted.

 

“What’s wrong?” Shen Yuan asked coming closer at a faster pace and without warning Shang Qinghua slumped against Mobei Jun’s chest, boneless like a ragdoll.

 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan found it increasingly difficult to keep his facial muscles under control. He was reading through the diagnostic of Shang Qinghua’s state when he was brought to the research center.

 

Three broken ribs, a broken nose, a fractured wrist, signs of a concussion. The list went on and on. All older injuries with an impressive healing rate.

 

The psychological report mentioned severe panic attacks, insomnia and other signs of trauma.

 

Taking the fact into account that he fainted after only a glimpse of Shen Yuan’s face, the conclusion was obvious and it made him feel violently sick.

 

“What the fuck?” he murmured, eyes still glued on the condemning passages.

 

After a glance at the pale figure on the camping mat next to him he closed his eyes. It was a bad idea to be the first person he saw when he woke up. Maybe he should switch with Liu Qingge, since they dropped the two children on him of all people. But Shang Qinghua had always been terrified of him and who could blame him after being shot at their first meeting.

 

Binghe was just as bad. His glares had been the second cause of nervous behavior whenever he had chatted with Qinghua in the past and Mobei Jun needed his own rest after the last two days.

 

How the man with the literal resting murder face had managed to have two children and a traumatized teen sleep peacefully in the same car was still a mystery to Shen Yuan.

 

All in all, the situation was less than suboptimal, but someone needed to watch over Shang Qinghua. The report mentioned that he was prone to hurt himself during visions. No wonder there were always scratches and bruises when Shen Yuan chatted with him in the past.

 

They should have just taken the kid with them when they left, but now he was sure it was still the first reincarnation for his brother. If Shen Jiu remembered anything he would have never laid hands on Shang Qinghua of all people or allowed things to progress as far as they did. Shen Yuan could only hope that his brother was not too far gone to save anyone in his current state.

 

It was exhausting not to know what exactly happened the first time around to make his brother this frantic and ruthless in his attempt to save the people he loved. After the explosion they had been separated, both thinking the other one was probably dead. When Shen Yuan had found out that his brother was still alive and in danger he had rushed to help him only to get himself caught and dissected like a lab rat.

 

The second time Shen Yuan had avoided the research center and everything that involved the army like the plague, but had still been naïve enough to follow his brother’s plans and stick to him as the only person to trust.

 

Everything had been an even bigger disaster. Liu Qingge died a bit later, Mu Qingfang, Shang Qinghua and all other people with healing or useful passive abilities vanished one by one and everything turned into an unreasonable witch hunt after Qi-Ge’s death, ending with Shen Jiu and Luo Binghe at each other’s throats.

 

Granted, there had been no explosion and no zombie attack on the base, but the destruction only turned more subtle. Their home was still gone and they were none the wiser about their real enemies.

 

Even his second death came out of nowhere, leaving Shen Yuan with more questions than answers. Not to mention the knowledge that the visions would drive Shang Qinghua completely insane over time.

 

He now realized the warnings for what they were, but he still had no idea how to keep him from regressing to the point where Shang Qinghua became a sobbing, giggling mess. And traumatizing him to the point where he fainted from just seeing Shen Yuan’s face was not helping GODDAMNIT, GE!

 

“You have no idea what you did wrong, huh?” he murmured, looking at the pale face.

 

At this point he had saved Luo Binghe from becoming a scapegoat, Liu Qingge from dying in a car crash he still refused to acknowledge as an accident and Hua Huan base was willing to listen to requests for help from Cang Qiong base within reason. So, there also had to be a way to keep Shang Qinghua from losing his mind.

 

Something that sounded suspiciously like ‘hamburger’ reached Shen Yuan’s ears and out of habit he hid his amused smile behind his fan. Shortly after, Shang Qinghua’s lashes began to tremble accompanied by a groan.

 

He retreated a bit to the open tent flap, letting cool air inside. For a moment it almost seemed like Shang Qinghua would continue sleeping, but when he rolled onto his side his eyes opened.

 

Face still half hidden behind his fan Shen Yuan observed how the reaction changed from sleepy and dazed to terrified within seconds. Yes, strangling his brother sounded more and more like a very valid idea. But first he had to keep Shang Qinghua from hyperventilating himself into a full blown panic attack.

 

“Long time no see,” he blurted out and wanted to kick himself not a second later. Way to sound like some third-rate movie villain.

 

He did not know the first thing about psychology! How was he supposed to handle this shit?!

 

Shang Qinghua still staring at him like he was some kind of monster did not make things better. He had not moved an inch and looked, in fact, ready to faint again.

 

Fuck!

 

Shen Yuan decided on tactical retreat and he bolted from the tent with the words: “You must be thirsty. I’ll get you something to drink.”

 

The cold night helped to clear his head a little. After a deep breath he closed the windbreaker jacket and made his way over to the cars. They had already looted the small gas station shop and found a surprising amount of still drinkable beverages as well as an abundance of sweet and salty snacks in midst of the rotten smell of spoiled, once frozen food.

 

Maybe some soda and a chocolate bar could help the situation.

 

Judging from the picture next to the campfire Binghe had started in the evening, Liu Qingge had already bought himself into the good graces of the boys with wine gummies and a bag of chips.

 

He found Binghe on the roof of one of Mobei Jun’s cars. Before they met him the three of them had to make due with Shen Yuan’s decrepit SUV which rested in pieces by now after being torn apart by some mutated beast. He still missed that car. After Mobei Jun somehow procured two bulletproof off-road vehicles the pain had dulled quite a bit, though.

 

Shen Yuan still could not make sense of the man, but convenient was one of the best ways to describe having him around.

 

“How is it?” Binghe’s voice pulled him out of his musing, his expression hard to distinguish in the dark. Shen Yuan was still sure of the warmth in the dark eyes that followed his every move.

 

He shook his head and opened the tailgate of the car before answering, “Bad. Whatever Ge did, he went way too far.”

 

The following snort betrayed Binghe’s thoughts on the matter, but thankfully he kept them to himself. Not that Shen Yuan could fault him for the mutual feeling of dislike at this point. His brother and his boyfriends would probably never see eye to eye.

 

“Would Shizun like some help?” Binghe instead ask instead, provoking an exasperated look at the innocent coke bottles.

 

Shen Yuan grabbed two of them and a few chocolate bars. “When will you stop calling me that?” he griped as a big hand closed the car for him, the broad body warm and way too close behind him.

 

Binghe leaned even closer until his soft lips almost touched Shen Yuan’s ear. “Never.” The silky, deep voice sent shivers down Shen Yuan’s spine.

 

What are you trying to do here, Binghe? We are out in the open!

 

“Shameless.” Lacking a free hand Shen Yuan resorted to lightly tapping Binghe’s forehead with a chocolate bar. He was thankful for the darkness around them because from all he could tell his face must be burning scarlet.

 

Binghe retreated after gently biting his earlobe and Shen Yuan was ready to scold him when he heard his next words: “What if he doesn’t come around?”

 

“He will,” Shen Yuan simply answered without looking at his boyfriend. To his surprise, he sounded way more confident than he really felt. “Mobei Jun said he was calm and responsive. He just needs time.”

 

The hum did not sound quite convinced and it came as no surprise that Binghe decided to tag along. Guarding the cars was unnecessary in the first place. They had cleaned out the area during the day and nobody was insane enough to travel the woodlands by foot, so other people would be most likely heard before they were seen.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want me to help?” Binghe asked again, hands in his pockets.

 

Shen Yuan still remembered the slim, shy sixteen-year-old, half a head shorter than himself. A cute little lamb hanging on every word he said. Seeing the huge, broad-shouldered man with the charismatic, cunning smile had almost given him whiplash when they met again after five years of sporadic internet contact.

 

Even now in his third lifetime it was hard to come to terms with the loss of his cute, innocent student. Not that this Binghe was not extremely attractive – and he had always thought of himself as arrow straight before the chaos came for them – but sometimes he longed for the simple time when the biggest problem for the two of them was math homework.

 

“I’m fine,” he answered and stopped in front of the tent flap. Now how to crouch down and move this thing without looking like an idiot?

 

Binghe simply reached past him and solved the problem with an amused look.

 

At least Qinghua was still inside, the sleeping bag half open around him. Shen Yuan could see him tense up within the fraction of a second, face still deathly pale.

 

Well, shit.

 

He still tried to figure out how to make the situation less terrible when Qinghua’s eyes moved to something behind him and then back to his face.

 

“A-Yuan?”

 

“Un.”

 

Inwardly berating himself for acting like an idiot he almost missed how Qinghua’s shoulders sagged, the relief obvious on his face. The tears were even more unexpected. To his horror Shang Qinghua burrowed his face in his hands and just started sobbing.

 

Why did people always decide to cry in his company? Both his lovers even did it occasionally in bed, but that was not the point here!

 

Binghe took his hand back and the tent flap dropped back in place, giving Shen Yuan a chance to pull himself together. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a second. Binghe’s arms around him with his head on Shen Yuan’s shoulder were a welcome comfort.

 

“You were right,” Binghe simply said and pressed a kiss on his jaw before Shen Yuan had a chance to reply.

 

 

Chapter Text

Half an hour later both of them had calmed down to a reasonable degree. Qinghua was still sniffling a bit from time to time and flinched at every sudden movement, but the chocolate bar he was nibbling on seemed to help things a lot. The attempt to hug him had resulted in him attempting to merge with the flysheet, though.

 

“What exactly happened?” Shen Yuan asked, not only to breach the awkward silence that followed. It still hurt him to see his friend like that.

 

Qinghua drooped a bit and began to fiddle with the zipper of the sleeping bag. “I have no fucking clue, bro. One moment I had one of my weird things and the next…“ The following shudder was more telling than words. The poor guy looked ready to cry again.

 

“And the center?” Shen Yuan probed carefully his hand already on his fan again.

 

Qinghua shrunk even further into himself. “Can we not talk about that?”

 

He somehow reminded Shen Yuan of a frightened hamster with both of his hands around the paper wrapping. A hamster in urgent need of a bath, to be honest. And fitting cloths, but for the moment Qinghua seemed content to hide under the hood of his sweater and avoid looking into Shen Yuan’s eyes as much as possible.

 

He allowed himself a sigh. “Okay, but you know you can talk to me.”

 

For the first time since he re-entered the tent, Qinghua deliberately looked at him, even if it was only from the corner of his eye. A nod followed. “I… just want to sleep right now,” he then said and lay down on the sleeping mat again, his back turned.

 

“Okay. Goodnight, Qinghua.” Shen Yuan looked him over once more and left the tent, closing the flap behind him.

 

At the campfire he found Binghe preparing some smores and chatting with one of the two boys, Xie Lian, if Shen Yuan remembered correctly. The child seemed very interested in Binghe’s cooking skills. Liu Qingge sat on the side with a bottle of water in his hand, keeping an eye on Hua Cheng who seemed ready to drop at any moment.

 

The kids were again two wildcards and not for the first time Shen Yuan pondered the question how far he would come with playing things by ear like that. As nice as it was to change people’s lives and prevent horrible fates by accident, without more knowledge about what was going on in the grander scheme of things he could still end up with another clusterfuck at any moment.

 

He knew the remaining officials in every last one of the big cities were trying everything to keep as much power as they could. The capital probably resembled a lion’s den and ability users were recruited everywhere for one cause or another. So, them attacking independent bases was only a matter of time. But he had the ominous feeling that there was more to it. Something he could not put his finger on, nagging in the back of his mind.

 

When he sat down on an upside down bucket next to Liu Qingge, tapping the side of his closed fan against his lips, he was still so lost in thought that he almost missed the inquiring look.

 

“It’s alright,” he answered mechanically, eyes on the fire.

 

Of course Liu Qingge turned even more skeptical at that. “Shang Qinghua?” he asked with slightly raised brows.

 

Shen Yuan shook his head. “Asleep. I was just thinking about what to do in the future. We need to become stronger.”

 

Liu Qingge gave an affirmative hum. “More monster hunting then?”

 

“Yes, but what about Qinghua? He’s not a fighter and in his state all of this might be too much.”

 

“He can stay at the base.”

 

Shen Yuan cringed inwardly and gave Liu Qingge a pointed look. “We’ve seen how that works out.” He could not keep the barb out of his voice, but Liu Qingge just shrugged.

 

“Then we take him with us. The cars are safe.”

 

Pragmatic as always. But it was still a better option than leaving him alone again.

 

“He can be our early-warning system and medic,” Binghe chimed in with a shameless grin. “Just needs to hide and play dead when things turn ugly. And he needs to train his wood ability anyway.”

 

That actually sounded like a good idea. Shen Yuan nodded. “I will ask him tomorrow.”

 

“And what about San Lang and me?” Xie Lian suddenly asked, mouth smeared with the remains of his treat. There was even a bit of marshmallow on the tip of his nose.

 

Shen Yuan felt the sudden urge to hug and protect this child with his life. He reached out to pat the boy’s head with a yielding smile. “You will stay at Hua Huan base. The people there are really nice and I’m sure we will find someone to take care of you.”

 

When he noticed the obvious looks from both sides, he was tempted to roll his eyes. Seriously? Vinegar pot one and two because he was petting a child? How far gone were these two?!

 

In moments like this he was actually glad that there was no possibility of one of them giving birth. A child of either one of them would probably be the death of their relationship or spoiled so rotten that it became a disaster in itself. Not that the possibility of surviving a pregnancy was very high in the first place.

 

“You should go to bed. Tomorrow will be a long day,” he declared after clearing his throat and took Xie Lian’s hand.

 

Hua Cheng did not even react when he picked him up with his free arm to bring them into the tent Shang Qinghua was sleeping in. Xie Lian just followed without complaint, after wishing Binghe and Liu Qingge Good Night.

 

---

 

The next morning was dark, with a heavy, grey layer of clouds in the sky.

 

It was around seven when Shen Yuan decided to leave the tent, but the humid air already hit him like a brick wall. He joined Mobei Jun and Luo Binghe at the fire. The latter already prepared breakfast, despite keeping watch the whole night.

 

“Good morning, Shizun,” Binghe greeted with a way too bright smile. How was he able to look so radiant when Shen Yuan himself was ready to crawl back into his sleeping bag after a bite to eat and nap for a few more hours?

 

Shen Yuan managed something akin to a greeting, though it sounded more like a grunt.

 

Mobei Jun just handed him a much appreciated cup of coffee with a nod.

 

After a few sips Shen Yuan took a dubious look at the gloomy sky. “Acid rain or hail?” he mused, provoking a shrug from Mobei Jun. At least there had been no thunder or any other sign for the inevitable downpour yet.

 

“We need proper shelter for both,” Binghe pointed out, lips pursed with a worried expression. The damaged roof of the gas station would not hold out for another beating. “It looks like it will hold out for a while, but we should break camp soon.”

 

Another nod from Mobei Jun and he got up to wake up Shang Qinghua and the boys. Shen Yuan was handed a bowl before he could offer to get Liu Qingge.

 

“Shizun should eat. I will take care of the rest,” Binghe told him and left Shen Yuan bright red on his bucket after he stole a deep, fiery kiss.

 

He hid behind the bowl, drinking his breakfast slowly. One day this brat would be the cause of his spontaneous combustion. And with Binghe’s fire ability he would probably be able to make sure Shen Yuan survived even that.

 

For the next few minutes he was left with stirring the pot and slowly feeling the caffeine take effect. He was already on his third cup when a disheveled Liu Qingge wordlessly took a full bowl from him. The slightly swollen, red lips told Shen Yuan exactly why Binghe had insisted on being the one to wake him and he hid a smile behind his ever present fan.

 

“Good morning, Qingge,” he just said, mirroring the previous scene when Liu Qingge grunted something that could be called a greeting if one was generous.

 

Shortly after, Mobei Jun herded the last three to get breakfast. All of them looked a lot cleaner than the day before and smelled suspiciously of dry-shampoo. Just for Shang Qinghua it was a bit hard to tell since he again hid under the hood of his sweater. There was also the addition of new looking shoes on their feet.

 

Shen Yuan was almost tempted to ask for another spare, but then his resolution to wear his sneakers until their inevitable demise struck again. He loved these shoes so much that even the fact that he could feel every single stone through the thin soles could not bring him to throw them away.

 

While they were eating Mobei Jun already put the tents away as they were and Binghe extinguished the fire. The cookware was also stored away for cleaning at another time.

 

If Shen Yuan had not seen the effects of Mobei Jun’s space that seemed to stop time for the items put inside, he would be convinced that the man was cultivating mold as a hobby. The way he casually pulled out perishables he - by his own admission - had forgotten for almost a year had been cause for more than a few raised brows. Now it was nothing out of the ordinary anymore. Shen Yuan would not be surprised if he pulled out a full three-course menu including set tables and suitable background music one day.

 

„After we established that Qingge is still not allowed to drive,” Binghe said when they stood on the empty patch of grass near the parking lot, a familiar glare passing between the two of them. “Who’s riding with whom?”

 

“Same as yesterday,” Mobei Jun suggested, but this time Liu Qingge interjected pointing at Qinghua.

 

“I’d rather have him in the first car.”

 

Shen Yuan felt his brows rise at the following scowl. Mobei Jun crossed his arms and took a step forward while Qinghua shrunk behind him. When did this become a thing?

 

“Just let me drive ahead.” The words were matter-of-fact, but with the way the two men sized each other up there was a thinly veiled threat of violence in the air.

 

Before Liu Qingge could say another word Shen Yuan decided to jump between them. “We don’t have time for this right now. Let him take point,” he decided and gave Liu Qingge an apologetic look. He would make it up to him later.

 

“That’s decided then,” Binghe agreed, putting an arm around Shen Yuan’s shoulders to take him to the cars.

 

Liu Qingge looked betrayed for a few seconds, then his face darkened and he followed along. “Fine.”

 

“Yiling?” Mobei Jun only asked and Shen Yuan nodded. There were several big, underground parking garage in the town full of skyscrapers and from here they would only need two to three hours.

 

“We can stock up on water at Lotus Pier.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The first few days after the outbreak reminded him a lot of a game called Dark Souls.

 

Apart from the dark sign, a flaming ring that marked future undead as cursed, the process was disturbingly similar. The victim shriveled up and turned into something grotesque. Something less than human, without a heartbeat to pump the blood that had dried up and turned to dust inside their veins. Every movement was agony, if at all possible. The mind quickly filled with an insatiable thirst after living flesh and blood, humanity, to fill the horrible void inside.

 

Those without purpose lost their reason and became mindless killing machines. Horrors from the darkest nightmares one could imagine. Raging. Jealously trying to claim back what they lost from those who were less unfortunate. Monsters without a soul, without conscious thought, hollowed out from the inside while their flesh rotted from their bones.

 

They were, yes, hollow was the most fitting word to describe it.

 

Fortunately, Luo Binghe had a reason to live. A purpose brighter than the sun, guiding him through the pain with the memory of kind words and gentle hands. A person he needed to find and to protect at all cost.

 

With this light he was able to stay sane. To hide and grow instead of wreaking havoc like all the others. And over time the pain faded.

 

It made him able to hunt the monsters that roamed the vacant streets in search of food they did not need. Their energy made him stronger, smarter. It turned the vicious little animal into a deadly hunter, able to wield fire and lightning as his sword and bow.

 

And one day, after weeks of shrinking away from every real human he encountered, slaughtering their natural enemies in the darkness, the mirror showed a face he had thought lost to him.

 

He could not tell when it had started, but with every day, every hour, every minute, every second, his body returned to how it was before and became better.

 

Yes, he was still dead. He did not need food or water or even sleep. But now he could will his body to show signs of life again. To be warm like a real human’s. And he knew, he would be able to face his Shizun again without the fear of being looked at and shunned like something disgusting and vile.

 

It had been so many months since then. When he had finally found A-Yuan he was already safe. His horrible brother had tried anything and everything to keep Luo Binghe away, sneering at him with the same face he so loved.

 

Every time he called Luo Binghe a little beast and worse it had hurt so much. Even without them knowing what he really was – he would never allow this secret to reach Shizun’s ears – Shen Jiu always struck at his biggest vulnerabilities.

 

He had thought he would have to fight tooth and nail to get his Shizun to follow him when he reached the point of not being able to take the abuse lying down anymore, even with Liu Qingge’s unexpected help.

 

But when he had asked, there was just a gentle smile and the promise that not only Shizun but also Liu Qingge would follow. They even asked Shizun’s only friend at the base to join them. Shang Qinghua turned them down, too afraid to risk leaving the safe walls and Shen Yuan had been sad for a while.

 

Still, he left without regret as they decided to search for Liu Qingge’s family.

 

Luo Binghe could not help the smile on his face that always came with the memories. There were no regrets ever since, but one. And even that one was about to disappear with Shang Qinghua finally joining them.

 

He listened to the squabble further inside the building while watching the entrance. The rain had still surprised them before they could reach their goal and a pack of mutated dogs had attacked out of nowhere, leading to Liu Qingge ruining his shirt and injuring his arm by accident. Of course, he had taken it as a personal affront that his metal ability had failed to shield him properly and was now arguing with A-Yuan about letting Shang Qinghua heal him.

 

“You royally pissed of my father,” Luo Binghe said to Mobei Jun in a low voice who was eying the concrete ramp that lead outside. A few raindrops hissed as they left tiny holes where they touched the ground. Mobei Jun just gave a questioning hum, so Luo Binghe continued, “When you blew up the center his people were busy looting the military supplies. And he always wanted someone with a clairvoyance ability.”

 

Now Mobei Jun gave him an almost bored look out of the corner of his eye. “Am I supposed to care?”

 

Luo Binghe chuckled. “He is an emperor level,” he added only to earn a shrug.

 

“So are you. Again, am I supposed to care?”

 

It still puzzled Luo Binghe how Mobei Jun had managed to rid himself of the influence of the almost hive mind in the zombie hierarchy. Every emperor level was like a queen bee, able to control the ranks below them. They could command an army just by concentrating on it and communicate over long distances if they wanted to.

 

He entertained the possibility that Mobei Jun was on a level with himself, suppressing his true status for whatever reasons. Like Luo Binghe himself most of the time. He still knew he could beat him if he wanted to.

 

“He will not get the kid,” Mobei Jun suddenly said. A fact, not a question. Still, Luo Binghe nodded.

 

“That was never an option. Shizun wants him, so he stays. And maybe…” The withering look from the side provoked a self-satisfied grin on Luo Binghe’s face. He reached out to touch the cool lips with his thumb. “What? The offer for you still stands.”

 

Mobei Jun recoiled and bared the sharp, pointed fangs he kept hidden in front of humans, again moving his eyes to the exit after a staredown that only lasted for a few seconds. “Why does every last part of this family suffer from middle-school-syndrome?” he muttered with a hiss. More words than anyone of them had ever heard him speak at once.

 

Luo Binghe just laughed, sauntering back to the others where Liu Qingge finally relented and sat down to let the visibly overwhelmed Shang Qinghua take a look at his unexpectedly deep acid burn.

 

“I’m still pretty useless. This won’t help much,” Luo Binghe heard. Then a gentle, green light enveloped Shang Qinghua’s hands, barely touching the damaged skin as he let them hover over the wound.

 

Liu Qingge knitted his brows, but after a few seconds he made a surprised noise. The wound had closed completely without leaving even a hint of a scar. Shang Qinghua seemed just as surprised as he was, blinking rapidly in the attempt to understand what just happened.

 

The little smile on Luo Binghe’s face grew a bit wider. Not so useless after all. Not useless at all!

  

“Thanks,” Liu Qingge simply said after moving his arm around a bit.

 

The shaky smile on Shang Qinghua’s face after that was unexpectedly… cute.

 

“N-no problem,” the young man stuttered, both hands hidden in the big pocket at the front of his sweater. He still looked a bit tired, but notably better than the night before.

 

“You could try Hua Cheng next,” A-Yuan suggested, the delighted smile half hidden behind his fan, but Shang Qinghua shook his head.

 

“I did… this morning. It didn’t work. That’s why I thought…”

 

There went the hint of self-esteem and he hunched his shoulders again, as if trying to hide. Another thing they needed to work on over time. But at least now they had a more or less trustworthy healer on their side.

 

Suddenly Hua Cheng’s voice sounded from the other car, “That’s because I already have two eyes. I don’t need a third one.  But it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

 

He sat with crossed legs, shoes on the backseat and the sword on his knees. Behind him Xie Lian looked a bit apprehensive and fiddled with the bandage around his neck.

 

Right, Mobei Jun had mentioned that their circumstances were strange to say the least. Luo Binghe took a look at the sword only to find the eye closed. This was even more curious after it had moved around all evening, even after the boy had fallen asleep.

 

“May I?” Luo Binghe asked and pointed at the blade. It did not take a second for the boy to become hostile again, both hands protectively splayed over his lap.

 

“No! Go away!” Hua Cheng grabbed the sword with both hands and turned his back to the adults.

 

Well, so much for making friends. An insufferable, little ankle biter.

 

Luo Binghe looked at him for a few moments and then turned around to join the other three. He latched onto A-Yuan, placing his chin on the other’s shoulder with an elongated “Shizun…” and got the expected reaction immediately.

 

The fan went up, hiding all but a slight shade of red right under the beautiful eyes and he was sure A-Yuan felt the need to clear his throat. “Binghe, behave!” he was chided and even with the swift hit of the fan on his head a warm feeling bubbled up in his chest.

 

He hid his smile in the crook of A-Yuan’s neck, breathing in deeply. If they were alone he would have already pulled Liu Qingge into the pile and… Well, that was something for another time.

 

With his best puppy imitation he raised his head and was exactly able to pinpoint when the resistance melted away, but for his future happiness he pulled away a bit and turned to the other two instead. “It looks like we will be stuck for a few hours,” he said, noting the visible signs of discomfort in Shang Qinghua while Liu Qingge looked more impatient.

 

“By the way, did you also manage to learn how to fight while we were away?” he jokingly asked Shang Qinghua who studied his shoes with newfound interest.

 

The young man shuffled his feet a bit before answering, “They gave me something at the laboratory. I don’t know-“

 

He cringed and it was hard to say if it was from his own words or the strange meow that suddenly echoed through the parking lot.

 

Well, it was just a cat…

 

Luo Binghe shot to his feet and heard Liu Qingge curse next to him.

 

It was never just a fucking cat!

 

 

Chapter Text

Within the fraction of a second all hell broke loose.

 

Shang Qinghua jumped forward to tackle Shen Yuan to the ground, a slim shadow cutting through the air only inches from their heads as they fell. At the same time Liu Qingge brandished his sword, cutting a second animal in half that went for his throat. Two more jumped at Luo Binghe, one swiftly pierced by a blade of ice, the other set ablaze with a sidestep so the sharp claws only ripped his shirt instead of slicing his chest open.

 

Luo Binghe saw Mobei Jun flicker twice when he grabbed Shang Qinghua by the collar and threw him unceremoniously inside the car, doors closing with a bang. Part of the steel sheets meant for Liu Qingge almost dropped on his feet, the clatter drowned out by a chorus of growls and hisses rising in the darkness.

 

The urge to just torch the area grew with every second and Luo Binghe cursed himself for only turning on the emergency lights above the cars instead of checking their surroundings. Only, the threat of damaging the supports and the building above crushing them into bloody pancakes bound his hands. They stumbled upon a whole colony!

 

Now, Luo Binghe had liked cats a lot in the past. He even fed a few strays when he had money to spare. They were so much like Shizun that he had thought about adopting a few when he had stable living conditions after college.

 

These things on the other hand… Oh. Oh no. Not a chance in hell!

 

The first time they had encountered a mutated cat it had thankfully only been a loner. But the vicious little beast had proven to be a challenge for all three of them combined. Not only had it been a bitch to hit the small animal, it had also been incredibly fast and seemed to understand what they said to each other.

 

The cat had jumped around like a ball-lightning, using the whole space of the small warehouse, including the shelves right up to the top. Luo Binghe would never forget the sight when it stood still for a few seoncds, staring into his eyes as if challenging him to battle.

 

Frightening intelligence had lain in those big, yellow eyes, distracting only slightly from the fangs that were decidedly too big for such a small animal, the sharp teeth lining powerful jaws, and the thick, scruffy fur. Together with the wicked claws on all four feet the little monster had looked more like a miniature saber-tooth tiger. Not even the smallest hint had been left of the friendly, purring sofa cushions he had gotten used to.

 

He slowly bent down to help Shen Yuan to his feet, Liu Qingge and Mobei Jun on either side. Liu Qingge had already bent the plates into guards on his arms and legs and when the next attack came, he only let it run into his arm. After a satisfying CLONK he sliced the head off the heap on the floor, making sure this one would not rise again.

 

The following silence made the hair on Luo Binghe’s neck stand up and he was just about to send a lightning bolt out at random when a gust of wind rushed under the empty car and slammed three yowling fur balls into a nearby column with a sickening crunch.

 

“Sneaky bastards,” Shen Yuan commented and Luo Binghe knew he was following the movements via airflow.

 

Liu Qingge’s sword shot into the darkness at a wordless pointers, coming back bloody after several inhuman screams pierced the air.

 

Shen Yuan suddenly cursed, but when Luo Binghe turned his head he just saw three cats gloriously collide in midair where Mobei Jun stood a split second before. He casually fried them with another bolt, earning a dark look from Liu Qingge who stood nearby.

 

“Hey!” The beautiful man’s hair stood up in all directions.

 

Oh, right, metal and lightning. Luo Binghe gave him an apologetic grin. No harm done.

 

After that they made quick work out of the remaining few, the last one that tried to get away encased in an ice block and shattered for good measure.

 

When they stood in the middle of the carnage, the scent of blood heavy in the air, Luo Binghe felt unexpected pride. They had come so far in just a few months.

 

Sure, outside he or Mobei Jun could have solved the situation within seconds, but it was never that easy. And with both of them forced to hold back, A-Yuan and Liu Qingge had shown they could perfectly look after themselves and did not lag behind. In due time they might even be able to rival Mobei Jun. He really looked forward to it.

 

Even Shang Qinghua had proven not to be a liability which was more than Luo Binghe had expected in his current mental state.

 

Things were finally looking up.

 

---

 

After getting twenty-five crystals out of the cat’s brains and burning the corpses to not attract something bigger by accident, they still had to wait for the rain to stop.

 

While Shen Yuan doted on the children who were hyper as if they had just seen an awesome action movie instead of being afraid, Luo Binghe sat down next to Shang Qinghua who was nursing a bottle of apple juice.

 

“You knew this would happen,” he stated matter-of-factly. It was not an accusation, but the young man turned even paler and fumbled with his drink. Luo Binghe could feel Mobei Jun’s inquisitive stare behind him. He decided to wait.

 

“Ah,” Shang Qinghua said after a while, eyes flitting everywhere but in Luo Binghe’s direction. “I… I had this one… months ago. A-and I didn’t know if… if… and then they were already there!”

 

Luo Binghe gave him an understanding hum. “I’m not mad. You saved A-Yuan’s life. Again.”

 

At that Shang Qinghua finally looked at him, eyes wide in surprise. What had they done to him to be so… He inwardly shook his head.

 

“You should write a diary about your vision,” he suggested with a smile meant to reassure.

 

Still, Shang Qinghua’s expression fell. “That’s at Cang Qiong base.”

 

Of course, the pricks kept the important stuff. Luo Binghe held back a sneer at the mention of that place. He still maintained his smile. “Then it’s time to start a new one. Just share everything you remember. It helps a lot.”

 

“Huh?” Shang Qinghua blinked at him owlishly.

 

Luo Binghe felt a grin tugging at the corners of his lips. “The stories you told A-Yuan pretty much kept us alive the past year. Don’t tell me you had no idea?”

 

“Most of them never came true. I thought they were just dreams,” Shang Qinghua admitted, his expression doubtful.

 

The grin grew a bit wider and Luo Binghe quirked his brow. “They did. You just decided to not be around for that.”

 

“Even the Dream Ivy?!” Shang Qinghua asked, voice rising and eyes growing wide.

 

It was Shen Yuan who answered, “Yes. But we don’t talk about THAT ONE.” while Luo Binghe cringed. Liu Qingge and Mobei Jun nodded emphatically.

 

“What’s a Dream Ivy?” Xie Lian asked innocently and Shen Yuan hid his face behind his fan.

 

“Something you burn with as much fire as possible whenever you meet it.”

 

At that Shang Qinghua actually had the audacity to snicker and Luo Binghe felt a shiver running down his spin as he vividly remembered the encounter that lead to him passionately making out with a tree stump. Not that the others had fared any better until Mobei Jun had snapped at something and frozen the damnable plant solid.

 

Luo Binghe knew he would never again be able to fully trust someone with psychic powers in his life!

 

Shang Qinghua on the other hand started to look more like he had before they left, the lonely, haunted look gone for the moment. “And the mutated spider li-,“ he cheekily asked to be interrupted by A-Yuan whose blush was about to reach critical levels.

 

“Yes. And now shut up!”

 

Yet he was betrayed by Liu Qingge. “Spider what?”

 

He had been otherwise occupied at the time, but Luo Binghe felt his grin return. He actually liked to remember this one. It had shown him a whole new side of Shizun, not to mention a few hours that had been a lot of fun. It had been one of those rare occasions when A-Yuan had no complains about his unnatural stamina.

 

“Don’t worry about that!” Shen Yuan snapped exasperated. Luo Binghe just gave him an innocent smile.

 

They dropped the subject in favor of lunch and when the rain finally gave way to sunshine they found themselves faced with the problem that the landing for the ferry they had used a few weeks ago did not exist anymore.

 

From the looks of it something big had taken a bite out of the place and made off with whatever it had killed.

 

Liu Qingge kicked the sorry remains of a wooden plank into the water where the piece of wood at least floated and not dissolved. Luo Binghe still felt no desire to even dip a toe in there.

 

“Looks like the long way around,” he commented, brows still slightly raised.

 

Shen Yuan nodded. “Nighttime in the lakescape will be… interesting.”

 

“Fun,” Liu Qingge added.

 

Well, there was one person looking forward to playing with mutated water plants and fish.

 

Mobei Jun just grunted. “Let’s go.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The sunrise gave a beautiful glow to the still slightly wet roof of the ancient mansion and the surrounding buildings.

 

The fortifications against attacks and the raging elements, adorned with small sculptures and other decorations, made Lotus Pier look like an impenetrable fortress from the outside. Inside it was a small but bustling city with people working and trading in a disciplined, daily routine. Many inhabitants had water abilities and flaunted their powers by traversing the lakescape with ease. A fact that had opened trade routes to other bases in a heartbeat with clean, drinkable water as a rare good these days.

 

There were also many people who called on them for their healing powers. Injured travelers were a common sight by now and with their moderate rates the leaders of the base maintained many friendly relations.

 

These leaders were the foster parents of the fourteen-year-old boy sitting on the fortified outside wall of the base, his legs dangling in the breeze.

 

Wei Ying had landed himself nighttime guard duty again after his latest prank, but he had a smile on his face. Madam Yu had been almost kind this time and he actually liked being up all night more than getting up early. The other people on guard were friendly enough, thankful for a lightning user to keep the electric light and air-conditioning going. Most of them were not much older than Wei Ying himself.

 

Because of the rain that started around midnight there had been no possibility of anything coming their way, so they spent their time playing cards and telling stories.

 

A yawn almost dislocated his jaw and when he blinked the tears away he spotted two cars slowly making their way along the battered road. There were parts of plants plastered all over the hoods and the sides. As expected, he could see the remains of lotus flowers when they came closer.

 

The lotus were a common cause of accidents since the mutation started. They actually had to clean the waterside around the estate to make sure nobody got murdered for simply getting too close to the shore. The agitated plants would grab people’s legs and drag them under water to never surface again. Wei Ying had seen them sink a whole boat and only by stunning everything in the water with a timely shock had they been able to save the people involved.

 

By now this had become a common practice to harvest the pods though. And in all honesty, they tasted a lot better than they already had as if to make up for the trouble.

 

He cocked his head when the two jeeps reached the gate. “Shouldn’t you be coming from the other side?” he then called out to the familiar man with the curly hair who got out of one of the cars. What was his name again? Wei Ying clearly remembered his face and that these people went to Yiling the last time they were here. They had visited a few times already and always had something useful to trade.

 

“Good morning. I think, your ferry might be gone,” the man answered with a troubled expression on his face.

 

Wei Ying almost fell from the wall in shock. “Say what?” He scrambled to help open the heavy iron gates. One of the other guards already ran back to the mansion to inform Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan.

 

This was bad. Very bad.

 

That boat was their only safe way to get wares into the western regions and it was big enough to deter most predators. Not only would Madam Yu be furious, it also meant something horrible must have happened.

 

The other guards looked apprehensive when the two cars passed the gate, but Wei Ying was teetering on his toes, the nervous energy visible in his whole body. After months of calm routine there was finally something exciting happening!

 

“I’ll bring you to my uncle,” he offered, ignoring the tension around him. If these people wanted to harm them they would have done so ages ago.  And why should they try it with so few people after bringing them the news?

 

He found the passenger’s seat of the first car empty and just jumped in. The two men on the backseat were also familiar. It was just strange that one of them had his head in the other’s lap.

 

“Hi, I’m Wei Ying. What’s with him?” he introduced himself with a friendly grin.

 

The driver gave him an amused look while the man with the fan answered, “He just exhausted himself. I’m Shen Yuan. That’s Luo Binghe and this one here is Liu Qingge.”

 

Wei Ying followed the pointers and nodded. “I would say nice to meet you, but…” He shrugged apologetically, prompting a slight smile on Shen Yuan’s face.

 

Luo Binghe hummed at that. “We’re not sure if it’s only the landing or the boat, too,” he said while slowly driving through the empty street. Thankfully it was too early for many people, so there was no chance of hitting someone.

 

“Wait. The landing is gone?!” Wei Ying exclaimed after contemplating the words for a moment.

 

“Yep, Like something just bit it off and vanished,” Shen Yuan added.

 

That did not sound right. They had reinforced the pier in Yiling to make sure it would not deteriorate. How enormous and powerful did this monster have to be to just… eat it? Wei Ying shook his head.  “How can this be? If there is something so big out there, how did we miss it?” he muttered, brows pulled together at the base of his nose. “When did you see that?”

 

“Yesterday, maybe two hours after noon,” Shen Yuan answered again and Wei Ying wanted to sigh.

 

The ferry had left two days ago to wait for a contracted trader. The journey only took a few hours so if they were not back yet there was only one harsh conclusion. “This is really bad.”

 

After they parked the cars next to the mansion Wei Ying was surprised to see two children and a young man not much older than himself leave the second one. Those he definitely had not seen before. The young man stuck close to the fourth familiar person Wei Ying found the most intimidating. He still retained his smile as Shen Yuan introduced them.

 

When they entered the house everything was quickly taken over by Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan. Wei Ying found himself on an errand to get tea for their guests from the kitchen while his parents bid their guests to sit down.

 

On the way he ran into Jiang Cheng who looked a bit disheveled, most likely because he had just fallen out of bed with all the ruckus going on.

 

“What did you do this time?!” his brother demanded, an annoyed frown on his face.

 

Wei Ying pouted at him. “It’s not me! There was an incident with the ferry!”

 

Under Jiang Cheng’s scrutinizing gaze he repeated what the travelers had told him. “Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu are talking to them right now.” Wei Ying paused at his own words before he broke into a run for the kitchen. “Ah, the tea!”

 

There almost went his best opportunity to eavesdrop!

 

He let Jiang Cheng tag along, both stealing a few bites for breakfast before they brought the teapot and a tray with cups back to the living room.

 

“This needs more planning,” Jiang Fengmian just said as they entered the room. “We can’t just rush out there without knowing what we’re dealing with.”

 

He gave Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng a nod before looking at Shen Yuan. “My son will see you to the guestrooms. Regarding the trade request someone will seek you out as soon as possible.”

 

“Thank you, we appreciate that. We are also willing to help when need arises,” Shen Yuan answered with a smile as they got up from the couch.

 

Yu Ziyuan regarded him coldly. “If we should need help from outsiders, we will let you know.”

 

She just earned a nod from Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan, as well as a cold glare from the man called Mobei Jun. Chin slightly raised Wei Ying’s stepmother only returned the last look with a thinly veiled challenge of her own. She had not been called the Violet Spider by her attorney colleagues for nothing.

 

“What about the tea,” Wei Ying decided to speak up at this moment. He ignored the half annoyed, half incredulous expression on Jiang Cheng’s face and smiled amicably.

 

“It would be nice if we could take it to our rooms,” Shen Yuan answered and after Jiang Fengmian’s permission Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng made their way up the stairs to the west wing. They were sure that their parents would not take long to start arguing and neither of them wanted to be near them when it began.

 

Even after the negative paternity test that, in fact, showed that Jiang Fangmian had not cheated on his wife, they still had been at each other’s throats at every opportunity. It was a miracle they never spoke about a divorce, but the strain on the family had been palpable since they took Wei Ying in at the tender age of four.

 

His own parents just vanished one day, leaving the small child to fend for himself for more than a week until an employee at a nearby store found him drooling at the fresh baked goods on display. This was followed by half a year at the orphanage Wei Ying was unable to remember clearly anymore.

 

When Jiang Fengmian finally tracked him down and took the child of his ex-employee and his best female friend in Yu Ziyuan had taken it as a personal affront.

 

“Thanks. We will rest for a while,” Shen Yuan said and left the teenagers no chance to question why they chose to only occupy three of the offered rooms.

 

Wei Ying decided to just investigate this later and left together with Jiang Cheng to discuss how they could become part of the monster hunt.

 

 

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge woke in the middle of the night from his own loud moan and the familiar tingling of his scalp.

 

It took him a few moments to fully register the slowly moving fingers inside of him, as well as the smaller hand ghosting over his rock-hard erection. A split second later the feeling of teeth on one of his nipples sent a shiver through his whole body and he felt himself tighten around the three digits that lightly brushed the sensitive bundle of nerves every once in a while.

 

“Good morning, Qingge,” Luo Binghe crooned into his ear, followed by a gentle bite into his lobe. The fingers hit his prostate with well-aimed precision, turning his answer into a mewl as they almost pushed him over the edge. All tension had left his body and he could not help the small whine caused by Shen Yuan drawing back his hand to caress his shoulder and upper arm.

 

Liu Qingge’s eyes snapped open when Luo Binghe, too, suddenly pulled his fingers away, but his complaint was cut short by the deep kiss Shen Yuan pulled him into. Every time their tongues touched was like a small, electric shock, almost drowning out the feeling of the huge cock pressing into him from behind while Luo Binghe held his hips firmly in place.

 

His shaking hand found its way into Shen Yuan’s hair, cupping the back of his head to keep him from breaking the kiss and another moan was caught between their lips. Again Shen Yuan started to play with his nipples, making the feeling even sweeter.

 

His muscles twitched around the scorching length, but he was unable to get what he wanted under Luo Binghe’s firm grip. Why did he not move?!

 

After what seemed like an eternity of sweet torture Shen Yuan ended the kiss, his forehead leaned against Liu Qingge’s, the warm breath still noticeable on his lips. “Would Qingge like to… do what we talked about?” he asked with a husky voice that went right to Liu Qingge’s cock.

 

He blanked. What they talked about?

 

There were seldom discussions about what they wanted in bed. Most things were initiated by Luo Binghe with neither Liu Qingge nor Shen Yuan having to say anything. But there had been this one time a few weeks ago…

 

He felt his face grow even hotter than before.

 

Shen Yuan… they… they really wanted to…

 

His cock twitched at the mere thought and Luo Binghe lightly biting at his nape to finally start moving did not help to clear his mind. Liu Qingge swallowed a moan before managing a nod that brought a gentle smile to Shen Yuan’s face.

 

The next kiss was soft, almost soothing before Shen Yuan moved away. Liu Qingge followed him with hazy eyes, his body vibrating in anticipation, the slow and steady roll of Luo Binghe’s hips driving the last bit of strength out of his body.

 

Shen Yuan shifted before cupping his chin, thumb gently caressing his slightly parted lips and Liu Qingge felt his mouth water. He licked the salty skin, unaware of the pleading look on his face while Shen Yuan guided him to his crotch.

 

A soft, needy sound escaped him at the sight, mouth opening wider as a silent invitation. They had done this so many times, but never like this and he felt both hot and cold when his tongue touched the soft skin, Shen Yuan’s taste flooding his mind.

 

“What a good boy,” Shen Yuan praised, provoking a sharp intake of breath by Luo Binghe, his hips snapping forward in a faster pace, pushing Liu Qingge forward until the tip touched the back of his throat.

 

He heard Shen Yuan’s surprised moan, one hand gripping his hair as he gladly choked on him.  

 

This was more than he had expected and with Luo Binghe fucking him hard and fast, Liu Qingge did not last for long.

 

He came hard a few minutes later, his whole body convulsing as he whited out for a few moments.

 

Shen Yuan took not much longer before coming down his throat and when he pulled Luo Binghe into a kiss, gently stroking his hair the thrusts soon became erratic until he came with a “Shizuuuun” on his lips.

 

---

 

The next morning at breakfast Mobei Jun gave them the annoying knowing look Liu Qingge had come to hate in the last few months. He still gave the impression that he had a good night’s sleep and did not comment on the noises, though.

 

Shang Qinghua on the other hand seemed bleary-eyed and not yet fully awake. He stared more into his bowl than eating the food inside, especially under Shen Yuan’s concerned gaze.

 

“Then we will stay here until this is resolved,” Luo Binghe just said to the female leader of the base who had come to inform them, trade would be halted until they had dealt with the problem.

 

They all knew what this really meant and Liu Qingge could not blame her for not trusting them. Nobody but them had seen the damage. For all the inhabitants of the base knew they could be spies for the people who plundered their goods and stole their property.

 

Still, it was annoying to deal with the mistrust after they already offered to help. One would think staying here for a few times already would warrant some kind of goodwill.

 

Meanwhile, Yu Ziyuan glared at them as if to dare anyone to speak up against her statement. Liu Qingge felt his hackles rise at the nerve of this woman. Only the warnings of both of his boyfriends kept him from provoking a fight right here and now.

 

Just as she was finally about to leave, Shang Qinghua’s head suddenly snapped up, his eyes wide with fear. “It’s coming,” he said quietly but his hand shook so much that he let go of the chopsticks.

 

Good thing the daughter of the house had decided to dote on the children and taken them to play.

 

“What? When?!” Shen Yuan was the first to react. He reached out, only to stop himself halfway and take back his hand.

 

Yu Ziyuan slammed her hand on the table, looking intently at Luo Binghe. “What is the meaning of this?” she snapped, her whole pose that of a predator ready to pounce.

 

Liu Qingge was just about to put the insufferable woman in her place when Mobei Jun glared at them, one hand on Shang Qinghua’s back in support. “Let him speak.”

 

Even Yu Ziyuan was stunned for the moment, giving Shang Qinghua time to draw a shaky breath.

 

“I-… I think it was early afternoon. It attacked the pier without warning. Swallowing everything around the pier.” He paused for a moment, closing his eyes, shoulders shaking more than before. “I don’t know what it is. It looked like a pitch-black maelstrom… like an abyss in the water.”

 

There was silence around the table until Yu Ziyuan again looked at Luo Binghe, silently demanding an explanation.

 

She earned a sigh. “Clairvoyance,” he simply said, a grave expression on his face Liu Qingge had seldom seen. “Do you still not need our help?”

 

---

 

A few hours later Liu Qingge, Luo Binghe, Mobei Jun and Shen Yuan stood at the end of the pier next to Yu Ziyuan and a group of seasoned fighters from the base. They watched the lake glitter in the sunshine. Everything looked peaceful, but a lot emptier than it would normally be.

 

“If this is a trick-,” Yu Ziyuan threatened for the umpteenth time. She had decided to take the lead after the ominous words in the morning and left Jiang Fengmian to deal with fortifications around the waterside. As an earth ability user he could do little to help in an actual fight, but her powerful lightning ability was invaluable.

 

“He’s not been wrong yet,” Shen Yuan answered, lightly fanning himself in an attempt to fight the humid heat. He seemed to ignore the disgruntled demeanor of their host, calm and serene as always when they were faced with danger.

 

The haughty woman just scoffed. The whole time she had not taken her eyes from the water, but even after almost an hour everything still remained calm.

 

Liu Qingge exchanged a look with Luo Binghe and he knew he had the same foreboding feeling that had bothered him for a while now. A sudden impulse made him take a few steps forward to peek over the edge into the water. There were a few fish flitting by under the clear surface. The kind that not made one afraid to lose a limb or two when you were caught in their territory.

 

He frowned. Was this really just a wild goose chase? Maybe they had the wrong day?

 

About to turn around and voice his suspicion he felt a sudden pull from the water that rapidly turned dark around them.

 

“Wha-,” he managed, losing his footing when the first metal-enforced planks were ripped away.

 

He heard Luo Binghe call his name and saw hands franticly reaching out to pull him back. Then there was only suffocating silence and darkness…

 

 

It was so quiet he could hear his own heart beating louder and louder in his ears until it was deafening. A nothingness that could drive a man insane within minutes.

 

He realized he was able to breathe.

 

“Huh?” he said.

 

The sound echoed around him and slowly faded away.

 

What in the world was this place? He had expected some giant monster with teeth and claws. Something to physically fight, not… this.

 

The flash of white startled him back to a higher alertness. It had vanished as quickly as it came.

 

Did he already start to have hallucinations? His sword always came back without hitting anything, regardless how many times he tried to attack.

 

The flash came back time and time again and he had taken to loudly taunting it, just to combat the silence somehow.

 

Then it was there, right before his eyes. The empty eye sockets of the huge, skeletal fish appeared to study him.

 

It made no motion to attack as if waiting for something.

 

Yes, definitively hallucinations!

 

And yet it felt so real. Would he feel the bone if he reached out to touch it?

 

The first fish was joined by a second one after a while. Both of them moved slowly in the water in which Liu Qingge should have drowned long ago. Judging. Waiting…

 

Again he tried to fight them, but they just avoided everything he threw at them, skulls grinning with rows of giant, uneven teeth.

 

He was ready to snap when something else came into view.

 

At first he almost missed the golden eyes with slit pupils like a cat’s glowing in the darkness.

 

They were small like a human’s. As was the figure that slowly drifted closer.

 

Long, black hair flowed around the figure of an emaciated child, not older than nine or ten years. The skin of its face was almost as white as the skeletons that surrounded it like pet dogs.

 

Liu Qingge wanted to say something, but when he tried to speak this time he found his voice drowned by the water. At the same time he realized, he was not able to move anymore. Even the blades he used to attack were uselessly stuck next to him.

 

The child studied him just as calm as the fish had before. It slightly cocked its head, blinking as if seeing something unfamiliar for the first time.

 

When it clicked its tongue in dissatisfaction Liu Qinnge wrinkled his brows. He felt helpless and somehow like the child was dissecting him with its haunting eyes.

 

“You’re one of his,” the child suddenly spoke, the voice smooth and pleasant to the ears. “So be it.”

 

Liu Qingge wanted to ask what it meant by that when the water around him began to surge. He could take one last look at the strange being as he was suddenly thrown into the afternoon air, the broken pier coming closer at a worrying speed.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wei Ying was figuratively sitting on burning coals behind the crown of the dike the earth and metal ability users of the base had built only a few hours prior. His eyes were glued on the horrific scene before them, ready to jump out and help if he could.

 

The water under the pier had become dark as night within seconds and even with over thirty meters between them and the center of the whirlpool, and the rocks and metal as cover, he could feel the pull of the churning water.

 

“Oh, wow!” he exclaimed when the pier started to dismantle itself, pulling the person closest into the water with it. The other people had no time to react, hands grabbing at nothing as the man vanished below the surface.

 

The people around him hunched down, except for the strange young man that had come with the visitors. He watched the scene with an absentminded expression, saying, “They’ll be okay.” in an almost bored tone.

 

Jiang Cheng turned to him and Wei Ying could see the anger in his eyes that came from fear for his mother and friends out there. “They’d better be!” he yelled over the rising wind. “This plan sucks!”

 

Shang Qinghua seemed to just ignore him, against the timid behavior he had shown since he arrived.

 

Seconds ticked by and apart from the remains of the pier being stabilized not much happened. It was like in the eye of a tornado, oddly quiet if it were not for the sound of the water.

 

Suddenly Shang Qinghua recoiled with a squawk. “Holy shit!”

 

He pointed at a figure being ejected from the lake without warning. A colorful curse rang through the air and the man descended in direction of the pier as fast as he had left the water. Thankfully something caught him in midair, slowly lowering him onto the planks.

 

The maelstrom just vanished like a bad dream.

 

Wei Ying blinked a few time and looked at Jiang Cheng who appeared just as stunned by the outcome. Only the slight damage and the people gesturing wildly on the pier were proof that all of this had not only been in their imagination.

 

“How did you know that?” he asked Shang Qinghua with wonder in his eyes.

 

“Err…” was the only answer he got. The young man had paled, visibly shaken. “I’m not sure...?”

 

Wei Ying shared a doubtful look with Jiang Cheng, but when Yu Ziyuan came closer his brother quickly left him to wait for his mother. Since she appeared a bit disgruntled Wei Ying decided to keep his distance for the moment. But his eyes found another person that looked rather annoyed.

 

Liu Qingge was trying to keep Luo Binghe at arm’s length who seemed hell-bent on supporting, if not carrying him. “I’m fine. Stop fussing,” he growled even audible where Wei Ying stood, a light blush showing on his cheeks.

 

That was… weird?

 

Then Wei Ying’s view zeroed in on Shen Yuan who had his face half hidden behind a folding fan. He appeared worried.

 

It was nothing against Mobei Jun’s scowl when he suddenly appeared in front of him on the make-shift platform to grab Shang Qinghua, though. Wei Ying almost made a step backwards into the ten feet of nothing above the ground and was swiftly pulled back by the huge, broad-shouldered man.

 

“Uhm,” Wei Ying managed, but they already vanished to reappear next to Shen Yuan a heartbeat later. The three of them began to speak in low voices, gazes occasionally locking on Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian. Or more like Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua were speaking while Mobei Jun was like a bodyguard beside them.

 

The longer they talked, the more nervous Shang Qinghua became. Wei Ying could read the words “no idea” and “gone” from his lips when he held up both hands in a defensive gesture towards Shen Yuan.

 

Shen Yuan’s sigh was visible, followed by him shaking his head. He said something that brought a lopsided smile on Shang Qinghua’s face.

 

What the hell were they talking about?

 

Someone opened a passage through the dike and Wei Ying decided to slowly make his way down, using the small ledges left as stairs.

 

“… talk! Now!” he caught Madam Yu’s last words before she stomped off in the direction of the mansion. There was a sigh and Jiang Fengmian followed after some quick instructions.

 

Jiang Cheng looked a bit lost after basically being ignored by both his parents. Wei Ying always felt a stab of guilt in these moments. If he had been there uncle Jiang would probably have given a kind word and maybe patted his head. It was nice to be doted on, but he did not understand why Jiang Fengmian was so distant and strict with his own children. Though, Yanli-jie at least got a smile every once in a while.

 

“Wanna find out what’s going on?” Wei Ying asked with a grin when he reached his brother. Jiang Cheng just nodded, his eyes still on the backs of the two adults. He gave Wei Ying an annoyed look when an arm was thrown over his shoulders in an intimate gesture.

 

They followed the big group of men and women that escorted the five visitors with solemn faces. Somehow, he got a bad feeling about this. To him it did not look like they had anything to do with the destruction apart from stumbling upon the aftermath at first. But now he was not so sure and if he came to this conclusion madam Yu and others would certainly, too.

 

Did they work with whatever had been in the water? Were they trying to get their trust and wear them out so their allies could take over Lotus Pier? Or was all of this really just a weird coincidence with them caught in the middle?

 

All of this was strange and dropped him into deeper confusion the more he thought about it. If they were really here to harm them, why would they warn them of the attack? And why would Shang Qinghua give himself away like that when all he had to do was look scared to be believable?

 

Wei Ying chewed on the contradictory information until he stood in the hall in front of the closed living room door. “We need glasses,” he said to Jiang Cheng who raised his brows, but made to follow him to the kitchen.

 

“Why glasses?” Jiang Cheng asked confused.

 

Wei Ying already grinned again. “Because we can sneak into the study and listen through the wall.”

 

---

 

Yu Ziyuan’s voice cut through the room like a knife. “You really expect me to believe the bullshit about him seeing the future? You planned this and you will tell me right now what you’re playing at and who is targeting us or I will get someone to search your brains for me!”

 

Wei Ying cringed at the blatant anger. Now that he thought about it, he had never seen madam Yu seriously mad. Even when he crossed the line she had always been cold and controlled and kept her voice deceptively calm. This sounded like her about to snap at any second. It was good there was a wall between them right now and he was not the target of said anger.

 

“We’re not hiding anything. If this is what it takes for you to believe us, fine,” Shen Yuan answered calmly a few seconds later.

 

There was the sound of an armchair being moved over the hardwood floor. “A-Yuan!” Luo Binghe’s voice said.

 

“Uh-oh,” Wei Ying commented in a whisper.

 

“Big mistake,” Jiang Cheng agreed next to him with a grimace.

 

The crackling of electricity sounded before the words faded and there was a grunt of pain. Curiously it sounded like female voice instead of the expected male one.

 

“We warn you, help you and you dare to attack us?!” Luo Binghe’s voice rose.

 

Wei Ying felt the glass grow warmer in his hand. There was a kind of pressure in the air that made his whole body tremble in fear and he suddenly knew they had woken the real monster in the room.

 

“What the-?” Jiang Cheng began to speak when his father’s voice drowned out everything else.

 

“ENOUGH!” Jiang Fengmian shouted and the noise of the fight ceased immediately. “We apologize for this disgraceful behavior. My wife-“

 

“- needs a muzzle,” Liu Qingge finished the sentence, prompting a snort from someone else.

 

The pressure started to fade and only now Wei Ying became aware of the cold sweat that covered his face and back.

 

“We just want to trade for provisions and be on our way. Your problem should be solved and we don’t want impose on your… hospitality any longer,” Luo Binghe said way calmer than Wei Ying had expected.

 

When he heard uncle Jiang agree and offer them one more night under their roof to get the things they wanted, he felt his shoulders sag in relief. Now he knew what had been bugging him all this time. He had seen Luo Binghe’s lightning ability before when he killed a whole swarm of water monsters with one move.

 

If these people wanted them dead, they had been so long ago.

 

 

Chapter Text

Mu Qingfang sighed.

 

They had just gotten word that someone had attacked and blown up the military compound in which the reach center had resided. The very facility founded by the remaining government to get more information about abilities in order to develop a cure or at least a vaccine for the virus. And now all of the reportedly promising work was gone, together with a patient he had, reluctantly, left in their care.

 

Another fact to be mourned and Shang Qinghua had been quite unlucky to begin with. The timid young man had appeared every few days with one small injury or another, claiming he fell or was careless. Not always as believable as he hoped to be. Sometimes it had almost appeared like he was offering himself up as a victim.

 

Mu Qingfang had offered to listen to his woes many times, always to be rebuffed with reasons like he had enough work on his plate and that Shang Qinghua was fine.

 

It appeared, their understanding of ‘fine’ diverted a lot. But now it was too late and there really had been too much work to properly take action. Action that could have prevented unnecessary violence and an untimely death.

 

With these thoughts in mind he again returned to the herbs he had found during his last outing. They struck him as a variant of plants he knew had healing properties, so he decided to test them for their usability. Most of these experiments ended in failure. It almost appeared as if nature had decided to turn the characteristics of poisonous and useful plants around while they were not looking.

 

Still, it was the best bet he had to refill their rapidly dwindling medicinal supplies.

 

Especially the sedatives were running low which lead to another headache waiting for him. Ming Fan had woken up a few days after Shang Qinghua was taken away.

 

Physically the boy seemed fine, he just refused to talk. This was most likely connected to the trauma Shen Jiu left on him – still unapologetic about the whole incident, the man had even claimed he did everything for the good of the base – and Mu Qingfang could only hope for time and proper care to take effect when he was ready.

 

Perhaps, Ning Yingying constantly fussing over him and trying to cheer him up would do the trick. They were of similar age and Ming Fan had always appeared quite taken with her.

 

Mu Qingfang took a look at one of the petri dishes and wrinkled his brow. Another failure. He grabbed the notebook full of sketches of strange plants and animals to complete his notes on this particular herb. Another one to avoid eating. But it was quite long and sturdy, even when dried. Maybe they could use the fiber for weaving bags or cloths.

 

He only hummed when the door suddenly opened without a warning and quickly put the dish out of harm’s way at the sound of jump boots walking over the tiles.

 

“You’re still holed up in here,” Qi Qingqi complained, one hand landing heavily on the table.

 

“Again,” Mu Qingfang corrected, but he looked up with a calm smile. “May I help you with anything?”

 

Qi Qingqi looked taken aback, only to shrug a second later. Without a second though she planted her butt on the desk, long legs crossed. “I thought this would hit you harder,” she admitted, looking down on Mu Qingfang with slightly raised brows.

 

His smile became sorrowful and Mu Qingfang shook his head. “It does. I just think it’s better to do what I can than lament over things I cannot change anymore.”

 

“Fair enough,” Qi Qingqi commented. “Shen Jiu looked like he’d swallowed a toad when he heard about it.”

 

Mu Qingfang’s eyebrows rose. “I thought he would be rather happy about this after all that happened.” To his understanding Shen Jiu wanted to see the so-called traitor dead as soon as possible.

 

“Nah, he tried to convince Qingyuan to keep the kid here instead of sending him away. After Meng Yao confirmed that he wasn’t lying and the whole seeing-the-future thing came to light he did a full one eighty. He was positively sulking,”

 

“And that’s why Yue Qingyuan…” Mu Qingfang trailed off, eyes growing wide.

 

Qi Qingqi nodded. “Yes, the sky has fallen again and after today it will only get worse. It would be nice if these two idiots finally talked to each other or at least had a decent fuck, so the whole walking on eggshells can finally end.”

 

“Not every personal conflict is caused by sexual tension, my dear Qingqi,” Mu Qingfang retorted, but he could not deny that the thought did not come out of nowhere.

 

Qin Qingqi just dismissively waived her hand. “Come on, we all know it by now. And speaking of conflict caused by sexual tension. You still look like a kicked puppy every time someone mentions Liu Qingge.”

 

This time Mu Qingfang decided not to reply and just looked at his notebook intently. Such baseless accusations were not even worth an answer. He would never!

 

“Hiding behind that thing never works. You’re as red as a lobster,” Qi Qingqi teased him and Mu Qingfang inwardly cursed his fair complexion.

 

He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. “Could you please stop?” The words came out way more pained than he wanted to admit to himself.

 

Qi Qingqi just sighed and gently stroke his hair. “You need to get over it. He doesn’t appreciate you? Then fuck him! It’s his loss and there are so many people out there who would be better for you anyway. You’re cute, kind, incredibly smart-.”

 

“Qingqi,” Mu Qingfang interrupted, his voice muffled because he had buried his face in his hands. “… just don’t, okay? And I am NOT cute.”

 

Her laughter made him peek between his fingers while he begrudgingly let her ruffle his already hard to manage curls.

 

“Yes, you are. You are adorable and we need to find someone to keep you from working yourself to death one day.” There was a lot of mirth but also motherly concern in her voice and Mu Qingfang felt his chest warm.

 

He still shooed his best friend out of the room after they talked a bit more about trivial things.

 

When he finally put his notes down after two more hours of work, he rubbed his tired eyes. The light outside was almost gone and he decided it was time to go to sleep.

 

When the door opened again without someone knocking first, he sighed.

 

“What kind of e-.”

 

He never finished his words. Only a pair of black sneakers came into view as his shoulder hit the floor, then the world went dark.

 

 

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge balled his right hand into a fist a few times, but the numb feeling was still slightly there. Shang Qinghua had had a look at it in the evening, so the burn and the nerve damage should be gone. It was just annoying him.

 

In hindsight, it had been stupid of him to try and shield Shen Yuan with his arm when that woman attacked. Luo Binghe had negated the electric energy only a split second later and it would not have reached Shen Yuan at all. Fortunately, this had also meant the shock hitting him was cut short. He did not want to experience something like that ever again. The urge to hit a woman had never been so strong in him, even after Luo Binghe had given her a taste of her own medicine that left her twitching on the ground.

 

They were both lightning users. She would be fine.

 

Luo Binghe now sat next to him, looking like he was about to say something. After failing to keep Liu Qingge from falling into the water and the injury later, he was watching over him like a hawk. Albeit strangely flattering, it annoyed him to no end, making him feel like the maiden in distress that was constantly protected be the hero. He was damn well capable of looking after himself, thank you very much!

 

“There is nothing wrong with my hand. Stop fussing,” he told Luo Binghe for the third time in ten minutes.

 

The two of them were watching Shen Yuan negotiate the last of their deal with the traders. Mobei Jun gave the man who questioned how they were planning to transport the ten barrels a bored look and the water vanished into thin air, leaving the local gaping for a bit.

 

Liu Qingge knew after encountering quite a few of them that normal space users needed to touch whatever they wanted to put into their dimension. Circumventing this without breaking a sweat meant that Mobei Jun’s powers were way more advanced than he had thought.

 

This guy was a whole other level of dangerous. He itched to have a proper fight with him.

 

Still, it sped things up a lot and Liu Qingge could not wait to leave this place behind. The only people who came close to them, without having to, were the boy who lead them when they arrived and strangely enough the daughter of the two leaders.

 

Jiang Yanli was the complete opposite to her mother with a mild temper, gentle eyes and a wood element ability that seemed a bit underdeveloped. She appeared to have all but adopted Hua Cheng and especially Xie Lian and seemed genuinely sad to see them go. Looking at how she did not even flinch in the presence of Luo Binghe, Liu Qingge had to admit he liked the girl. In his opinion she was a lot stronger than she looked. A bit like his younger sister.

 

He missed Mingyan. She had been the only member of his family back at Hua Huan base to show genuine support when he came clean about his relationship with Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan. Though, he could do without the intimate questions about his sex life.

 

She said it was research for the stories she wrote and Liu Qingge had decided then and there that he did not want to know anything more about his sister’s tastes and hobbies!

 

“We’re ready!” Shen Yuan called after he almost had to pry Xie Lian from Jiang Yanli’s embrace. They might have been tempted before to spare them the journey, but after yesterday the decision to bring the children along had been easy.

 

Liu Qingge got into the passenger’s seat, Shen Yuan lazily sprawled over the backseat. They had taken guard shifts last night and with taking the middle one Shen Yuan still needed some rest.

 

Only after he really got comfortable with them had Liu Qingge discovered that this kind and friendly person could become quite testy and downright petulant if he did not get enough sleep. A fact that was endearing in its own way, but he would rather avoid making it a common occurrence. Luo Binghe seemed to share the sentiment since he got him a sleeping mask from who-knows-where. The exaggerated sewed on comic eyes still made Shen Yuan chuckle every once in a while.

 

When they passed the gate there was only grim silence, but it was just as well. Liu Qingge almost wanted someone to start something. He was itching to vent the frustration of the last two days and nothing helped more than beating something or someone up. Sadly, the natives did not comply and he was left to stare outside the window with a frown.

 

“Are we going straight north?” he asked after they had left Yunmeng behind and heard Luo Binghe hum.

 

“We’ve been away for almost two weeks already. People might get worried and I don’t want the idiots near Bailu Mountain to get any ideas,” he confirmed.

 

Liu Qingge began to play with the hilt of his sword. “I welcome them to try anything.”

 

“They weren’t able to handle the few monsters we left for them in the forest. I don’t think they could even dream of attacking the base in that state,” Shen Yuan chimed in, the mask still over his eyes. “If they’re still alive that is.”

 

Luo Binghe snorted at that. “Weren’t you trying to sleep?”

 

“Yes, mom!” A little pout accompanied the irritated sounding words when Shen Yuan turned around to show them his back.

 

The two men in the front of the car shared a knowing look and decided to keep quiet.

 

---

 

Two days later they had just shared dinner and brought the children to bed. Now the five men were sitting at the campfire in the middle of the woods, Liu Qingge a bit apart from the others while he listened to Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua talk about nerdy things.

 

“Yea, I miss that comic,” Shang Qinghua just said with a wistful look on his face. “They dropped Super Sons when it was just getting good!”

 

Shen Yuan nodded emphatically. “DC always made the worst decisions. Most people never even knew about the really good stuff! If they had advertised it better it would have been a hit for sure!”

 

There was moment of silence in which Luo Binghe took the chance to scoot a bit closer. “How big was Shizun’s collection?” he asked innocently.

 

Shen Yuan opened his mouth to answer when Shang Qinghua interrupted, “I always wanted to ask, what’s up with the Shizun-thing anyway?”

 

Surprised, both of them looked over before Shen Yuan started to laugh. Meanwhile, Liu Qingge perked up a bit. This story was new to him, too.

 

“Ah, that goes back to this trash fire of an MMO I got Binghe into,” Shen Yuan answered, still chuckling a bit. “What was it called again?”

 

“Proud Immortal Demon Way. And It wasn’t that bad,” Luo Binghe helpfully supplied.

 

Shen Yuan nodded again and grinned. “You were cursing at it more as a newby than I was as a veteran player, Binghe. Anyway, it was a title given by the mentor system in the game and it stuck. He refuses to stop calling me that to this day.”

 

“The great Shen Qingqiu deserves this show of respect and always will, especially after his untimely demise,” Luo Binghe declared.

 

They were so immersed in their memories that they only noticed Shang Qinghua’s amazed expression when he spoke again. ”Bro, no way! You are Peerless Cucumber and Heav-?“

 

“Don’t mention that name!” Luo Binghe interrupted. Liu Qingge could not remember having seen him this embarrassed about anything yet. There was even an undeniable blush dusting the chiseled cheekbones. “How do you even know that?!”

 

Shang Qinghua shrank a bit and rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, you probably don’t remember me. My online handle was Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky.”

 

“Wait, you were that godly healer we ran Abyss with three nights in a row? I wanted to recruit you for our guild but you never came online again!” Shen Yuan sounded aggrieved and reached out to grab Shang Qinghua’s shoulder who looked even more uncomfortable. “Where the hell did you run off to?!”

 

“I kinda almost had to repeat a grade and my dad cut my subscription and internet privileges for… indefinitely,” Shang Qinghua explained sheepishly. “Not much say on this when you’re sixteen.”

 

Shen Yuan groaned but let him go. “Seriously? How did you manage to stay up ‘til three in the morning in the middle of the week without him noticing?”

 

“Night shift.” Shang Qinghua shrugged. “And I really thought Heavenly Sky Pillar was younger than me!”

 

Liu Qingge had the privilege to see Luo Binghe splutter and even Mobei Jun looked a little bit smug. Heavenly. Sky. Pillar. Finest taunting material right there. Though, knowing what hid in Luo Binghe’s pants he could not deny that it was quite fitting.

 

Feeling his own face grow hotter Liu Qingge turned his head away.

 

He was still surprised. He would have never taken Luo Binghe for the gamer type. Probably another quirk he picked up to be closer to Shen Yuan. Liu Qingge could not fault him for that and he might have feigned interest in these hobbies, too, had he met Shen Yuan before survival became the main priority.

 

He was almost thankful for the apocalypse in this regard. Boring himself to tears just to follow his crush did not sound as desirable as it might have been under different circumstances.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

With a sigh Gongyi Xiao dropped his pen to massage his throbbing temples.

 

Since he had been forced to take over the lead of Hua Huan base, headaches had almost become the norm for him. The former high security prison may be one of the best bets for survival in the current state of the world, but Lao Gongzhu’s mismanagement left things in a deplorable state.

 

Not only had the man exploited his position to follow his urges as a lecher and pedophile, he had also squandered almost half of their supplies for his and his daughter’s luxury. There had been bribes to ensure loyalty from the people close to him, too. Gongyi Xiao was still unsure if they had cleaned out all the leeches after the man had been thrown out in favor of their new arrivals.

 

Honestly, the four men had been a blessing in disguise for them.

 

At first they had been wary of them, even Liu Qingge who had a tearful reunion with his family. They had been part of the first wave of refugees taken in. Then Lao Gongzhu and Xiao Gongzhu suddenly started to cast shade on him and Shen Yuan, trying to mark them as traitors while luring Luo Binghe away. It went as far as them locking up Shen Yuan in one of the death row cells until details came to light that cast an even bigger shadow onto the father and daughter pair.

 

A certain collection of compromising pictures to condemn Lao Gongzhu and on the other side a stash of certain weapons and other items that showed the peculiar tastes and the propensity for violence of his daughter. When she was literally caught trying to torture Shen Yuan, things had escalated quickly.

 

With only the ability to manipulate gold and no other skills to speak off both of them had already been of less use than the people without supernatural abilities in the base who did their best to pull their own weight. The attempts at acting superior to everyone else only lead to more resentment.

 

They had been chased out within a few hours, given only the cloths on their backs. Some people had even resorted to throwing rocks at Xiao Gongzhu when she still tried to plead her case in the most arrogant way possible.

 

It had been a shame.

 

Gongyi Xiao had not been part of the mob and he still regretted things had not been solved in a more civilized way. But when asked he had taken over the responsibility of managing their survival without hesitation.

 

His biggest problem right now was finding a way to feed the roughly three thousand people for longer than a few months. The greenhouse they had built could only produce so much and the earth and water users had enough work with keeping the toxins out of their crops.

 

People had already started to look for edible animals out there. Some had taken the gamble upon themselves and tried to cook their kills after gathering the nuclei. But, more often than not the results had been disastrous with mild food poisoning as the luckiest outcome. And the ones that could be digested by ability users were always already few in numbers. There were even less, normal people could stomach.

 

On that end the coughs were also getting worse by the day and many of them had difficulties as soon as they got out in the open by now. From what a few of the scientists among them had said it was either exposing them to the virus and risking to create more zombies, or watching them die in the most miserable way.

 

Gongyi Xiao dreaded either option, but judging from the current state it would be a miracle to bring even half of them safely through the coming winter.

 

He looked up when someone put a glass of water next to the documents on the table. Liu Mingyan gave him a friendly nod that brought smile to his face. Even with her ever-present face mask he knew she was smiling in return.

 

They had spent a lot of time together in the past few months and Gonyi Xiao had to admit that he had grown quite fond of her. The prospect of facing her family when it came to acting on more than feelings of friendship made him never toe the line, though. Not to mention that she was still seventeen. But perhaps in a year or two things could be different.

 

“Thank you,” he said.

 

“You should take a break,” Liu Mingyan answered, putting the pen out of reach. “Qin Wanyue said people are worrying about you, because nobody has seen your face in days.”

 

Gongyi Xiao was about to wave her concerns away, but sighed instead. “You’re right.” He made to get up from his office chair. A bit of fresh air might even help with the throbbing behind his forehead. “How about we have a look at what’s for dinner?”

 

Liu Mingyan seemed satisfied with this and followed him outside. When something suddenly rushed past Gongyi Xiao’s shoulder to land on the sandy soil with a strange sound he made a startled step backwards. He looked down and saw a black squirrel tail waving in the air. Its owner’s head seemed stuck to the ground and it struggled fruitlessly to get to its feet again.

 

“Damned pests! How did it get in here?!” someone cursed and with a start he remembered the newest mutation they had stumbled upon.

 

Gongyi Xiao had no idea who had called them death squirrels first, but the name stuck. And with good reason! The strange little animals looked absolutely harmless at first glance, safe for the wicked looking horns on their heads. If one met them on the ground they were easy enough to avoid or hunt down for their tasty, albeit sparse meat. Problems only arose when they had a chance to hide in trees or had other possibilities to stay high above ground. In said situations they engaged in their frightening, but silly hunting behavior, throwing themselves down at their victims head first to impale them on their horns.

 

Why they went for big animals and even humans instead of insects and smaller prey was a mystery to all of them. A mystery that had led to several serious injuries as well as one death by now.

 

He drew his combat knife to make quick work of the pesky rodent while others scanned the roof for more of them. Fortunately they seemed to be loners by nature, so it was unlikely to encounter more than one at a time if it was not a mother with young ones.

 

Liu Mingyan squatted next to him, her eyes scanning him for wounds in an instance. “Are you alright?” she asked warily.

 

“I’m fine. The aim was completely off,” he assured her and picked the animal up by the tail. It was a big one, probably enough for two or three meals if cooked with some sides. “We should start to think about helmets, though."

 

She chuckled, following him from the former employee housing for the guards into the main complex.

 

Gongyi Xiao returned quite a few greetings on the way and when they sat down at one of the tables in the mess hall he felt a bit more alive again. It was good to see smiling faces instead of the depressing numbers once in a while. He should probably go for a walk more often and invest more time in the joined training.

 

“I heard you went on patrol yesterday?” he asked Liu Mingyan while they were eating their plain meal.

 

“Yes, they finally allowed me go on one. My ability has gotten stronger, too, and we were able to kill a boar and a couple of foxes.” Her shining eyes made her even more beautiful. Gongyi Xiao felt himself smile again.

 

“That’s great. Your whole family is a big help for the base.”

 

To his surprise, Liu Mingyan sighed at that. “The biggest help would still be my brother. I wish I knew where they are right now and if he’s okay,” she admitted and Gongyi Xiao had to resist the urge to grab her hand to comfort her.

 

“I’m sure he’s fine and they’ll come back soon.” At least that was what many people here were hoping for in secret. Where he had become something like the backbone of their governing system these men were their strongest and most reliable defense. If something were to happen to them or if they were gone for too long, it would be a disaster for the morale, not to mention that it gave robbers and other enemies more leeway for an attack. And this included possible traitors still inside the base.

 

He really hoped they would show up soon.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua cowered behind a bush, shielding his head with both arms from the chaos around him.

 

There were fire and screams everywhere. Gunfire added to the noise every once in a while and if he were not, quite literally, caught in the middle of it all, he would have run for his life as soon as it started. The heat rushing over his head and the sound of elements colliding in the course of the fight almost overturned his decision to keep hidden a few times already.

 

He did not know how he ended up like this. One moment he went into the underbrush to relieve himself and in the next there was pandemonium around him. Had there always been this narrow path to his left? Had the mountain always been this close? Was this even real?

 

The last question, sadly, had become part of his daily routine by now. It had always been hard to distinguish between vision and reality, but after the scientists had given him a drug that supposedly enhanced his abilities in a short amount of time it only got worse. Everything happened too fast, his body and mind not able to keep up with the changes and at times he just wanted to hide somewhere and scream or bang his head against a wall until he passed out.

 

The times when he was grounded in the here and now got shorter and shorter. It was especially bad when there was nothing to distract him and the lucid nightmare he drifted in and out of began to overlay his senses to the point where he was unable to tell reality and a possible future apart. Even in his sleep he found no respite since they had left Lotus Pier. There were at most two or three hours of rest, then he woke up in a state of panic and confusion. He had taken to fake sleeping in the car to not distract Mobei Jun from driving. At night he fortunately had the option to just hide the tears in his sleeping bag until he calmed down. The red eyes with dark circles under them could conveniently be blamed on the oppressive heat. But the less he slept, the worse things got.

 

Still, the others had enough on their plates without him acting up like the idiot he was. No need to annoy them. Especially with the very real possibility of them deciding to get rid of him some way or another hanging over his head. He just had to get it together. Who had ever heard of an ability user who was unable to control their powers? He just needed time to get the hang of it and then everything would be fine! But until then it got harder and harder to keep up the mask he had made for himself…

 

He almost toppled over when someone touched his back. The coolness seeped through his thin sweater like a charm, driving away the noise and chaos to only leave the gentle light of the forest and the rustling of leaves behind. With a sigh he let his arms drop, leaning heavily into the big hand that had pulled him back to reality. For a heartbeat he just wanted to burrow his face in the man’s chest and never let go again. Yet, he only closed his eyes and lowered his head, breathing deep and slow to hold back the building sob.

 

He only realized how badly he was shaking when he felt himself being scooped up into strong arms like a child. Barely swallowing a startled squeak, he looked up at Mobei Jun’s face with wide eyes. His cheeks warmed instantly and his mind was suddenly occupied by a whole other kind of fear and excitement. Not least because he was pressed way too closely against the broad, muscular chest. His hand deciding on its own to grab the plain black T-shirt only added to his embarrassment.

 

As always there was a scowl on the unnaturally handsome face. The deep blue eyes studied him with a mix of annoyance and something he could not quite grasp. “You skipped breakfast again,” Mobei Jun said, carrying him back to the camp like he weighed nothing.

 

“I,” he began, but stopped when something light and small landed on his belly. The granola bar was as simple a message as it could be and his stomach decided to betray him when it growled at the thought of food alone. Thus he was still munching on the remaining honey coated cereal when they reached to others.

 

“Another one?” Luo Binghe asked with raised brows and Mobei Jun simply nodded, leaving Shang Qinghua to explain himself when he put him down. The strong arm stayed behind his back as if Mobei Jun expected him to topple over at any moment. Strangely enough it was the only touch Shang Qinghua could more than barely tolerate right now and he had to admit that his knees still felt a bit weak.

 

A bowl of congee was shoved into his hands by Luo Binghe. “Eat first,” he was ordered instead of the expected questions. None of them seemed to want immediate answers. Shen Yuan was trying to feel Hua Chengs forehead – Xie Lian had come down with a light fever last night and Hua Cheng’s eyes looked a bit glazed, too – while Liu Qingge was busy with his own food.

 

Shang Qinghua felt even more tension drain from his muscles and sat down on the grass with a huff. Then he saw that the bowl was filled to the brim and bit back a groan. It was not that he did not like it. Everything Luo Binghe cooked was delicious! Just, seeing all these things day in and day out had done a real number on his appetite for a while now and he already felt full after a few bites. The granola bar alone was enough to last him until lunch.

 

Only when he heard Luo Binghe clear his throat did he realized, he had been staring at the food like it was his worst enemy for more than a minute now. With a shaky smile he lifted the bowl to his lips and drank.

 

Oh god, he would vomit in a few minutes and they would kill him for it! Nobody was allowed to waste food! He was so fucking dead!

 

The next deep breath left him wheezing and coughing. It was a bad idea to literally inhale the rice and the feeling of liquid in his windpipe only added to the rising panic. Shen Jiu’s snarling face flashed before his eyes, the useless questions ringing in his ears. He was about to give in and stop struggling when a ridiculous thought struck him that almost made him laugh. He was choking on goddamn congee and would end his life right here as a fucking virgin to boot! How pathetic was that?!

 

The sudden pressure on his gut came unexpected and left him gasping for breath. Through the tears in his eyes he could make out Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun in front of him, so whose arms were holding him right now?

 

“You all right?” Liu Qingge’s voice asked behind him and he was lowered onto the ground slowly.

 

Ah, that explained things. Police. First Aid. Right.

 

There were fingers on his left wrist to take his pulse.

 

“Uh-huh,” Shang Qinghua managed rather weakly. His head was still spinning and the earth felt like it moved below him. With one arm covering his eyes he waited for his racing heartbeat to slow down. At least he had managed to hide the unbidden tears, though, he could not help but bite his lower lip to hold back suspicious sounds.

 

He almost dies because of a bowl of congee! The only death he could think of that sounded stupider than that was maybe electrocution via instant ramen or something like that.

 

The laughter came out more like a sob when he finally could not hold it in anymore. “I’m really too stupid to live,” he mumbled and earned a tap by something hard and cool against his elbow.

 

There was a noncommittal hum next to him and the person next to him let go of his wrist.

 

For a while Shang Qinghua just lay there and listened to the noises around him. While he heard the others pack and quietly talk to each other, the one next to him never moved. He just sat there without breaking the silence and this time Shang Qinghua really managed to calm down to the point where he was ready to take his arm away. He squinted at the bright sunlight, after wiping the remaining tears away with his sleeve, still counting the length of his breaths like Mu Qingfang had taught him.

 

Deep and slow. 1… 2… 3… 4…

 

He shot up with a scream. “Fuck! We don’t have time for this! There will be an ambush when we’re close to the mountain and it will cause a forest fire!”

 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan’s left ear still rang a bit from the sudden outcry while he listened to Shang Qinghua’s explanations. His friend looked pale and shaken, but it was obvious that he felt a lot better with the prospect of actually doing something about what he saw. And preventing the disasters at hand instead of stumbling around blindly was the best way to go about things in his humble opinion.

 

There were only a few problems.

 

“Sounds like semi-automatic firearms,” Liu Qingge deduced from the information Shang Qinghua had given them. Being the weapon nerd that he was, he of course picked up on that first. He would be still relying on his old service weapon, if it were a) not this hard to find more ammunition for it and b) completely useless against zombies and most other monsters by now.

 

Against the undead only fragmentation type projectiles or those that left huge exit wounds would do any good at all. Simply piercing the brain did not even slow them down anymore and it had to be severed completely from the body or damaged to the point where no function were possible anymore to effectively kill.

 

Small animals would jump around so quickly that it would either end in a lot of wasted ammunition with almost no hits to speak of or endanger his teammates through ricochet shots. The big ones were even worse, with thick fur or bone plates shielding their vital points. Carapaces were also becoming a common sight. Most bullets would never reach deep enough to do any real damage and only aggravate them further.

 

Only against other humans these weapons were still effective. In the hands of bandits it was clear what the intention was. Not to mention that they appeared to have gathered more people in the time they had been conveniently ignored for bigger threats.

 

“Time to smoke them out for good then,” Binghe commented and Liu Qingge nodded. When it came to a good fight these two were always on the same page and god may help whoever was standing in their way. “Letting them live is too much of a risk for the base. Especially with Lao Gongzhu’s people out there riling them up, if we’re unlucky.”

 

Shen Yuan watched them with a bit of apprehension until Shang Qinghua managed to speak up timidly, “If you use fire it will go out of control and we’ll be caught up in it. It’s dry enough to burn the whole forest down with a cigarette butt.”

 

Well fuck. That ruled out the easy option and Binghe had to twiddle his thumbs. From the sound of it, electricity would be just as dangerous to use.

 

The dark look Qinghua got told Shen Yuan that Binghe understood this as well. And it was not beneficial to their conversation that he seemed ready to run and hide again. Not that he could be blamed in this case with Binghe being extremely intimidating when he was angry. Shen Yuan was glad that he himself had never been on the receiving end of that particular glare in his third life. He tried not to think about the two other tries.

 

“We can help,” a tender voice chimed in. The two children had been listening quietly and from all Shen Yuan saw, Hua Cheng would have liked to keep it that way. His expression turned dark within seconds. Xie Lian continued anyway. “I can tie them up and San Lang can tu-”

 

“Gege don’t,” Hua Cheng interrupted and gripped Xie Lian’s sleeve, trying to pull him away.

 

Shen Yuan sighed when Xie Lian vehemently shook his head. “It’s alright. You don’t need to help. You’re too young to get involved in stuff like that,” he said with what he hoped was a gentle smile. The thought alone, to let children take part in a homicide, simply made his teeth itch. If there were any other way he would go without killing entirely.

 

Hua Cheng gave him a guarded look, still trying to get Xie Lian to leave with him. Especially under Luo Binghe’s curious gaze.

 

“I would like to know how you want to tie them up and what exactly your friend can do,” Binge said. When did he get so close to the children? He was already in reach to grab Hua Cheng, if the boy should try to run for it.

 

“Hua Cheng can-“ Xie Lian started to speak again, but Shen Yuan’s attention was diverted by the strange red fog curling towards Binghe.

 

“Don’t touch that!”

 

Qinghua’s cry came a second too late and all of the sudden a little Daruma doll fell to the ground where Binghe had stood.

 

WHAT THE FUCK?!

 

Liu Qingge and Mobei Jun were already on their feet while Hua Cheng pulled Xie Lian towards himself, arms circled around him in a protective gesture. Hua Cheng all but snarled at them like a trapped animal.

 

“What the hell did you do to him?!” Liu Qingge exclaimed, sword in hand. He looked ready to murder the children and this time Shen Yuan could not blame him. He himself was still trying to process what just happened.

 

With a snap of his wrist he opened his fan and tried to regain his composure, the little voice in the back of his head already screaming and cursing like a sailor. He was just about to say something and try to defuse the situation when Shang Qinghua started cracking up.

 

Great, now they also had to deal with him losing his mind! Though, he did sound genuinely amused and nothing like the pitiful sound half an hour ago.

 

Wait a minute…

 

“You knew he could do that?!” Shen Yuan asked, more accusing Qinghua than anything. There was the sudden urge to hit this shameless little…

 

He earned a nod and through the breathless laughter Shang Qinghua admitted, “I’ve seen it before… in another situation. He’s fine. It fades… after a while. I thought you knew too!” After another look at the toy in the grass he just lost it again, leaving Shen Yuan to shake his head and massage his temple with one hand.

 

“So… it’s not dangerous?” Liu Qingge reaffirmed uncertain, his sword still aimed at Hua Cheng who was shielding Xie Lian by now.

 

Mobei Jun simply picked up, well, Binghe… and threw him over to Shen Yuan. “You better keep that close.” Then he sat down next to Qinghua and gently knocked his knuckles against his head, saying something Shen Yuan did not catch. It only lead to more laughter, so it was probably fine.

 

After a look Shen Yuan had to say, the doll was rather nice. Black, red and white, like the original. And it felt a bit warm in his hands after he caught it, dropping the fan on the ground in the process. He wiped a speck of dirt away with his thumb before he asked Hua Cheng in a conversational tone, “How long will this last?”

 

The boy seemed hesitant to answer at first, but when Liu Qingge also relaxed a bit, he dared to move his attention to Shen Yuan. “Half an hour, maybe.” He still sounded rebellious and not at all apologetic, but it was at least a small sign of cooperation.

 

“And this is what Xie Lian wanted to tell us?”

 

He earned a nod from both boys. Suddenly the bandages on Xie Lian’s wrist started to move like a flat, white snake. “And this is Ruoye. The scimitar is called E-Ming,” Xie Lian added.

 

“Are they both sentient?” Shen Yuan asked, wrinkling his brow when he looked up from Binghe.

 

The answer was another nod and a dark look.

 

Well then. Things got crazier by the day. What was he even surprised for anymore?

 

Liu Qingge appeared to follow the same train of thought and quietly sat down to take a look at the doll. They shared a quick grin and Shen Yuan picked up his fan again. Never a dull moment.

 

“Were they made in the research center?” he probed further when the bandage, Ruoye, came a bit closer and touched his arm. Almost as if it wanted to make friends.

 

The only answer he got was a “No” and this time even Xie Lian shut down at the topic.

 

“Will he be very mad?” Xie Lian asked after a while. Shang Qinghua had calmed down already and by now they all just waited for Binghe to return to normal, Hua Cheng not willing or perhaps unable to speed things up.

 

Shen Yuan really wished he had a wristwatch like his brother or any kind of clock really. But then the time would probably have felt even longer for him. “I don’t think he will. Binghe can take a joke,” he tried to reassure Xie Lian. He patted the painted wood gently when it started to shake on its own.

 

“Is that normal?” Liu Qingge asked, taking the toy from him to inspect it further. A second later he had their boyfriend sitting in his lap with a grumpy expression on his face. Binghe looked a bit disheveled, but overall fine, as promised.

 

Shen Yuan decided to hide the amused smile behind his fan. “Welcome back.”

 

Binghe just got up and silently held middle and forefinger of his left hand in front of his eyes to point them at Hua Cheng with a glare a second later. “We still got a bandit problem to solve,” he said with barely hidden anger.

 

Shen Yuan’s shoulders shook treacherously when he only turned his head away to hide the laughter he still fought to hold back. Binghe would never live this one down.

 

 

Chapter Text

The item that decided the conflict from the get-go was a simple coin

 

What Luo Binghe had planned to relieve his pent-up frustration was more or less a one-sided massacre. They had tried to play nice for long enough and the bandits had shown their will to kill indiscriminately every time refugees tried to get past Bailu Forest. Even young children were not spared in their attacks and it was not like an open fight would have had a different result. But with this he was sure to circumvent Shang Qinghua’s prediction. So, what was a simpler solution than killing their enemies by bringing their own hide-out down on their heads?

 

The description they got of the area had been perfect and once again he began to wonder if there was an eidetic memory hiding in Shang Qinghua’s head. From the looks of it, the young man himself had not realized this, if it really was the case. Again something to explore further in the future. It would certainly explain a few more things he had wondered about.

 

Right now, though, he was standing opposite to the half hidden path that led straight to an old cave inside Bailu Mountain they had found a few months prior. With the broad layout and a clean water source inside it was only natural that the bandits had decided to occupy it. The beautiful underground lake would be the only thing to mourn in Luo Binghe’s opinion. Perhaps they could find a way to salvage it with the help of a few earth users afterwards.

 

He looked back at Mobei Jun who had teleported Liu Qingge and him here. The other zombie was leaning against a tree with a half curious, half wary expression on his face, his eyes on the small piece of metal wedged between Luo Binghe’s curved forefinger and the nail of his bent thumb.

 

Liu Qingge was the same, albeit a bit annoyed after being told to stay behind him. “What exactly are you planning?“ he asked at the sight of the almost feral grin on Luo Binghe’s face.

 

It was good that at least Shizun had decided to stay behind with the other three to guard the cars. Somehow, it became harder and harder to reign in his emotions with what he was about to do. He knew they were being watched, but the guards obviously decided not to give themselves away, yet. Even with a telepathic connection they would be too late now.

 

“You’ll see,” Luo Binghe answered after a few more breaths to calm himself down and suddenly every hair on the bodies of the three men stood up with the rising static electricity in the air. Lightning coiled over his arms and shoulders while he adjusted his aim. The distinct crackling in the air that prompted Liu Qingge to take a step back.

 

A second later the projectile left a thin, scorching white trail behind, akin to how lasers were depicted in movies. The picture was accompanied by a gust of wind and an almost deafening sonic boom.  The following screams when the coin ripped through everything in its wake and set the air itself on fire with the energy he had stored inside only registered as white noise.

 

Bullets shooting out from behind the bushes at the same time changed direction in midair to cause another bout of painful sounds, if any, when they hit the hidden gunmen instead. Some seeking refuge in flight were promptly frozen by Mobei Jun who was already busy smothering the surrounding flames left by the ignited particles in the air with a blanket of ice.

 

The sound of an additional explosion further away signaled the demise of the hidden weapon stash, minimizing the chance of survivors in the cave. A small avalanche crashed down the mountainside soon after.

 

The whole process took no more than a few minutes, leaving Luo Binghe to stretch with a smug expression and a satisfied groan. He ignored Mobei Jun’s scowl, his mood too good to be dampened by anything right now. “You blocked the entrance?” he only asked, already knowing the answer.

 

“Yes,” Mobei Jun confirmed in a tone that conveyed the words ‘Fuck you!’ without having to spell them out.

 

Luo Binghe chuckled. “What? I thought you’re all for efficiency,” he teased, not even bothering to get his curls in order. With the remaining electricity still in the air around them there would be little use to care for proper appearances. “I got the idea from this kid, Wei Ying, at Lotus Pier. He’s not quite there yet, but very creative.”

 

“He gave you the idea to emulate a railgun?!” Liu Qingge asked incredulously a bit of anger in his voice.

 

Mobei Jun just glared at him, his disapproval visible in the light, cold eyes.

 

Not that they did not have a reason for reprimanding him. Luo Binghe’s powers had almost blown up in his own face a few times already. Every time he experimented with more outlandish ideas to be precise. But there had not been a serious injury yet. At least not for him and he made sure to have none of his allies in the line of fire when he did things like this.

 

Well, unnecessary to go into detail about his additional adjustments. “Yes,” he answered Liu Qingge’s question and just grinned, when his boyfriend knocked him upside the head, the scowl deepening. From the feeling of it he had not even used half of his actual strength.

 

Mobei Jun raised his brows a bit, took another look around and grabbed their shoulders when there were not smoke or other signs of hidden fire to be found. “We should go back.”

 

Luo Binghe only had time for a quick nod, then he stood in front of Shen Yuan who made a startled step backwards. Shang Qinghua had flinched at the sudden appearance and knocked over what appeared to be a tower made of small stones.

 

“You lose. Two stories!” Hua Cheng declared without so much as batting an eyelash, prompting Xia Lian to chuckle.

 

Shang Qinghua frowned at him, distracted for the moment. “I never agreed to bet anything,” he grumbled.

 

“The road is clear. Home is waiting,” Luo Binghe announced without paying them any mind.

 

Forestalling the question that was written on Shen Yuan’s face Liu Qingge added, “He blew up the cave.” The following silence spoke volumes, but then Shen Yuan just shook his head with a sigh.

 

 

Chapter Text

Qi Qingqi took a deep breath as she willed herself to lower the fist she wanted to smash into Meng Yao’s face so badly. She had never been quick to anger, but right now she was livid. Only the thought of her best friend and the fact that Mu Qingfang despised violence kept her from beating this scrawny little weasel into a pulp.

 

Mu Qingfang had not appeared at breakfast and after she had not found him in his sleeping quarters or his second bed in the infirmary she had tracked down every last person who could have seen him. It had been to no avail until she stumbled over a tiny bit of information.

 

“Where is he?” she asked for the second time, her other hand flat on the wall next to Meng Yao’s ear. The little bastard still had the gall to look bewildered. “You know exactly who I’m talking about and if I feel only a hint of you screwing with my brain you’ll be out faster than you can say major concussion.”

 

Meng Yao swallowed and then swallowed again when she allowed the thought of testing Mu Qingfang’s experimental painkillers on him to rise to the surface. Not even the doctor himself had been sure how much of the neurotoxins were still in them. This could be an interesting gamble between coma, a quick death or hours of unspeakable agony.

 

She had to give the man credit that he still managed to keep a straight face at this point. “I only went to the infirmary because I had a headache. Ning Yingying can attest to that. She was the one who treated me. I haven’t seen doctor Mu for a few days,” he defended himself and the tension in his body told Qi Qingqi he was not about to run away from the situation. With his feet encased in concrete this would be hard to manage anyway.

 

“You were the last person to go in there. And don’t try to tell me Yingying or Ming Fan could be the culprits. A water and a steel ability user don’t have the capability to be this sneaky. Or are you telling me there were people who managed to hide from you?” Their noses almost touched and in the back of her head Qi Qingqi loved the fact that she was a few centimeters taller, thus able to look down on her prey.

 

“Like I said,” Meng Yao refuted with no visible agitation or fear. “I had a headache, or migraine to be more precise, so the possibility of me missing something or someone is quite high. Do you know what a migraine does to a mental ability user? Or any other person for that matter?”

 

She stared him down for a few more seconds, then Qi Qingqi sighed while taking a step back. “Are you still out of order or can you try to find him?”

 

Meng Yao straightened his shirt and exhaled audibly. “I can try,” he then said, holding up a hand to keep her from responding. With his closed eyes, wrinkled forehead and the other hand on his temple he reminded Qi Qingqi more of one of those scam artists that loved to appear on TV in the past. But it was all she had now, so she waited and crossed her arms in front of her breast with a huff.

 

A few minutes passed in silence before Meng Yao shook his head. “Either unconscious or too far away.”

 

“Great. That means I have to tell Yue Qingyuan,” she concluded. Shen Jiu would be having a field day. She could see the haughty look already and hear his condescending ‘I told you so!’ ring in her ears. With the only tolerable male in this group gone, she would go stir-crazy in no time.

 

After a pause she shot a dark look at Meng Yao and her fist was up again. “You!” Motherfucker! She had been about let him go like this!

 

But before she could do anything a sharp pain in the back of her head forced her to her knees. She was just about to crush the man’s legs in retaliation, the damage to her own psyche be damned, when sudden pressure almost rendered both of them unconscious.

 

“That’s enough,” Yue Qingyuan said calmly, though he was far from his normally friendly and forgiving smile.

 

Qi Qingqi grunted, fighting to get to her feet again. “Qingyuan, be careful. He is –“

 

“He is a government official. Meng Yao is here to negotiate cooperation between us and the Wen Clan,” Yue Qingyuan said and grabbed her elbow to help her up again. “I would appreciate you letting him go now. Mu Qingfang should see to both of you.”

 

Still gaping she loosened her hold on Meng Yao’s legs reluctantly. “Cooperation with the government? What bloody government are you talking about?! We’ve been on our own for over a year!” she argued, shaking her head a second later. “Qingfang can’t treat us. He vanished last night.”

 

“So that’s what this is about?” Narrowing his eyes Yue Qingyuan looked at Meng Yao who carefully lifted his pants from the darkening bruises on his lower legs.

 

“I know nothing about this and I’m unable to find him,” the smaller man answered, only raising his head when had examined the damage to his satisfaction. “Also, why should there be kidnappings from our side when we try to establish friendly relations? Wen Ruohan is an honorable man.”

 

Qi Qingqi nearly spat on the ground, but left it at a snort. “I beg to differ. Using your private army to coerce people into following you and doing your dirty work is anything but.”

 

“The Wen Clan brought peace to the capital with the necessary means.” Meng Yao again had a calm and levelheaded expression, not showing the pain his wounds must cause him. “Before listening to pointless rumors you might want to think about who would benefit from sowing discord amongst the survivors.”

 

Again there was the feeling of being manipulated and Qi Qingqi was unsure if it was just the well-chosen words or something deeper, related to Meng Yao’s power. She opened her mouth to refute him one more time when Yue Qingyuan coughed.

 

“How about you hear him out first without jumping to conclusions. From all I heard it is a good opportunity for all of us.”

 

And suddenly she knew what had been bugging her the whole time since Meng Yao had reappeared at the base. Qi Qingqi grit her teeth. “Sure, that’s why they send someone who can manipulate your thoughts! Do you even hear yourself talk, Qingyuan? Shen Jiu would laugh you out of the room right now!”

 

“Shen Jiu was the first person to say we should trust them.” Yue Qingyuan shook his head. “You’re reading too much into this, Qingqi.”

 

That one, too? That meant, Meng Yao had built himself the perfect little nest when she was not looking. “Yea right. I’m searching for Qingfang myself,” she only said and left to find Nig Yingying. Right now she needed this infernal headache gone and a way to get safely out of this place in time.

 

Their leader had sold them already into slavery and she was not having it. Whoever wanted to follow would be very much appreciated.

 

 

Chapter Text

After four more hours, and Shang Qinghua saving him from having his skull split by a squirrel when they were forced to get a fallen tree out of the way, Mobei Jun was glad to see the gates of the base in front of them. All he wanted for the moment was to hole up in his room and sort a few things out in peace and quiet. So, for him, the hero’s welcome they got instead was anything but welcome.

 

Of course, Luo Binghe basked in it, starved for attention as he was. He wasted no time informing Gongyi Xiao about the bandits and what they had brought back with them, turning Shang Qinghua into an anxious mess in the process as people wanted to get a look at the wood ability user who could hopefully help with their food shortage.

 

A tomato plant growing to full height in less than two minutes with ripe fruits ready for the picking hanging from the vines and a lot of cooing and admiration later he just excused them and led Shang Qinghua with him into the building. There would be enough to do with the water and some other things he had left on the parking lot to be stored away. To his surprise Shen Yuan covered for them, taking the chance to proclaim they were tired from the journey and that the children, too, needed some rest.

 

Mobei Jun did not care what exactly happened afterwards. He maneuvered Shang Qinghua into the small bedroom with a desk on the side and watched him visibly relax when the door closed.

 

“You should sleep,” he said, ignoring the fact that it was at most four o’clock in the afternoon. What he also ignored was the small bed that would force physical contact if none of them wanted to risk landing on the floor at the slightest wrong move.

 

Red like one of the tomatoes he had just grown Shang Qinghua stared at him. “I-I really don’t need…” He trailed off under the stern gaze, Mobei Jun making no secret of knowing how little Shang Qinghua had rested in the last few days.

 

“Sleep,” Mobei Jun said again, the tone this time stricter. He hated to repeat himself with obvious things. The meek nod, though, almost made him cringe. There were again fear in Shang Qinghua’s eyes, which he hated even more. But at least the kid crawled under the blanket and dropped his pants on the floor before he closed his eyes.

 

Even if he only rested his eyes, it was still better than having him half dead on his feet all the time. In Mobei Jun’s opinion it was a miracle that he had not fallen asleep while standing, yet.

 

When he was sure Shang Qinghua did not need anything else, he sat down in the chair, placing his boots on the desk and again tried to make sense of the records he had taken from the research center. Maybe after seeing some of the powers Xie Lian and Hua Cheng had, it would be easier to decipher the gibberish.

 

He had his back to the bed, movements deliberately slow and kept to a minimum. No need to add more pressure by monitoring his reluctant guest. The peaceful silence and occasional page turning was enough to give a sense of security. Soon Shang Qinghua’s breath evened out and got notably deeper, only to give way to a scared little noise about half an hour later.

 

Time to test one of his theories.

 

Mobei Jun got up to sit down on the edge of the bed. At first Shang Qinghua tried to shrink away from him, but when he slowly reached out to stroke his hair the tense shoulders and ragged breath relaxed. The death grip Shang Qinghua had on the blanket with all four limbs also loosened and after a minute he seemed to be fast asleep again.

 

With a hum Mobei Jun continued to read and after a while he did not register anymore how his fingers cooled the overheated skin of Shang Qinghua’s face and neck. If he had turned his head he might have seen the little smile the much needed affection brought to the young man’s face.

 

---

 

The next morning found Mobei Jun stretched out on his back, Shang Qinghua sprawled over his chest, half hidden under the blanket and sleeping peacefully.

 

Being woken up for dinner after a few hours, Shang Qinghua had whined about the heat, so Mobei Jun had decided to accommodate in the easiest way possible. The ten to fifteen minutes of wolfing down one of the dishes Mobei Jun had stored away did not even count as really being awake and by now it had been about fifteen to sixteen hours straight catching up on sleep. If there had been any nightmares, they had not been visible on the outside and with the slight drooling every once in a while faking sleep was out of the question.

 

Mobei Jun did not mind sharing his bed like this to tell the truth. It meant one problem solved for now and it was quite nice to have someone sleeping next to him. Or on top of him in this case.

 

The knock on the door a few minutes later lead to a very surprised Shen Yuan when he poked his head inside. “And here I wanted to ask if you had seen him.” It was a bit comical how he shook his head while quietly closing the door behind himself. “He’s been sleeping since yesterday?”

 

Mobei Jun answered with a hum, the vibration in his chest prompting a content sigh and a smile.

 

Shen Yuan regarded the scene with an amused glint in his eyes. “Wow, he’s really out cold. I’ll tell them to save some breakfast for you two.”

 

Mobei Jun hummed again and cupped the back of Shang Qinghua’s head with one hand as he began to stir a bit.

 

With an apologetic gesture Shen Yuan made to leave the room at that. Still, it did not take long for Shang Qinghua to wake up. He squinted at Mobei Jun with bleary eyes only to hide his face in the crook of his neck a few seconds later. The skin got significantly warmer, a deep blush creeping all the way down the slender neck.

 

Mobei Jun gave him a few minutes, his fingers still burrowed in the messy, black hair. At the feeling of the quick breath calming down again he simply asked, “Hungry?”

 

“U-huh,” came the muffled answer, Shang Qinghua still not willing to lift his head.

 

“You need to get up for breakfast,” Mobei Jun reminded him, but Shang Qinghua gave him a sound of protest and burrowed deeper into his hair. He gently ruffled the young man’s hair still waiting for a response.

 

“Don’t wanna,” Shang Qinghua finally complained like a petulant child. “Can’t I just have another granola bar?”

 

This time Mobei Jun wrinkled his brows at the ceiling. “No. Eat properly.”

 

“Then I’m not hungry.”

 

“Shang Qinghua,” Mobei Jun warned. He felt the young man flinch and rubbed the back of his head soothingly with his thumb.

 

There were a few seconds of apprehension followed by a sigh. “Okay, okay. I’m going.” Shang Qinghua took a deep breath and rolled to the side to almost face plant the floor. Mobei Jun had gripped him by the collar just in time.

 

“Careful,” he said with Shang Qinghua flailing in his grip and croaking a startled excuse that did not really make sense. Mobei Jun just got up and made him sit on the bed. “You okay?” Clumsy and jumpy was a bad mix at the best of times. Better not risk him injuring himself again.

 

Shang Qinghua simply nodded. With red cheeks and his hair standing up in all directions he was a rather pathetic sight. The little pout made him look even more like a child and the word jailbait flashed in the back of Mobei Jun’s mind when he realized that he was only wearing underpants and a shirt that showed most of his collarbone and left shoulder right now. His eyes lingered a bit too long on the slender legs until he gave himself a mental slap.

 

“Get dressed,” he growled, more agitated at his own thoughts, but it still made Shang Qinghua wince and pick up his pants as fast as possible. He nearly fell over his own feet again in the process, giving an even more inappropriate sight.

 

Mobei Jun quickly turned away to sort out his own clothing situation. Even if the kid was of age, he would not take advantage of the situation! He needed security and help, not someone with ulterior motives!

 

When he turned around he looked right into the eyes of a scared kitten begging for love and attention.

 

Oh, for fucks sake!

 

 

Chapter Text

Gongyi Xiao sat at his desk, eyes closed, spoon in one hand and the other supporting his head at temple height. For once he did not care about his posture, nor his elbow leaning on the wood. Not even the fact that he was eating during an important discussion was in any way relevant to him. His brow was creased and his lips pressed into a thin line.

 

He inhaled and exhaled deeply through his nose and when he opened his eyes he was looking at the man in front of him like he was seeing the stupidest person in the world. “So, you’re telling me that these kids have a volatile temper and could probably wipe out the whole base and a few kilometers around us at a whim and you’re still planning to leave them here and have us look after them?”

 

“Hua Cheng has a volatile temper, but as long as you don’t threaten him and treat Xia Lian well, it will be alright,” Luo Binghe corrected, seemingly unfazed by the sheer outrage in Gongyi Xiao’s face. “We will stay here ‘til winter is over and have an eye on them. After that it should be okay. They could even become an asset for protecting the base.”

 

“That means you will stay here for at least eight months and make sure they don’t cause any accidents?” Gonyi Xiao heard his voice slightly rise. It was extremely difficult not to shout in face of the nonchalant reaction.

 

And then came the point where he felt like he might pop a vein or two as Luo Binghe said, “We will go on hunts every once in a while. But only for a day or two. Three at most if things don’t go as planned. Oh, and a short trip to Jinlan in a couple of months.”

 

“Wait. You’re planning to disappear for days, if not one or two weeks and have us just pray that nothing goes wrong? Where did you even find them?!” Gongyi Xiao snapped.

 

This time Luo Binghe just shrugged. “We got them out of the research center before the thing blew up. And they’re children, not monsters. If you-.”

 

Gongyi Xiao lifted a hand to interrupt him and took a deep breath. He proceeded to glower at the other man. “Please don’t tell me you had anything to do with the explosion. Did these children have anything to do with the search for the cure?”

 

“They were not searching for a cure. It was a weapon factory for the military, controlled by the government. Genetic manipulation, brainwashing, you name it. They were mostly going for children and disabled people as guinea pigs. The stronger ones were all turned into well-behaved puppets or taken apart for genetic material. I can give you at least ten scientific reports that prove it,” Luo Binghe deadpanned and Gongyi Xiao felt himself instantly deflate.

 

Many had suspected that there was more to the pretentious announcement and the search for rare and powerful abilities, but it was still hard to swallow. He looked into the dark eyes that held not a hint of malice or deception at this moment and sighed deeply. He was almost ready to curse.

 

After another slow breath that was still unable to calm him down even a tiny bit he ate a bite of his breakfast. So much for the brilliant hope of humanity and trusting anyone from the outside. “And what about the third one? Shang Qinghua?”

 

“An old friend from Cang Qiong base. He’s harmless and willing to help. He could tell you a thing or two about the so-called saviors of mankind, too,” was the answer that made Gongyi Xiao cringe. “Part of the team and our new medic.”

 

No wonder that one looked like a deer in the headlights in front of strangers.

 

“Fine,” he found himself saying. “I guess you expect me to get someone trustworthy to take care of the children and keep this under wraps?” At the nod and the insufferable smirk on Luo Binghe’s face he again glowered at him. “You owe me big time!”

 

“Yea, I know.” Luo Binghe took the hint and got up from the chair he had been lounging in for the last twenty minutes. “By the way, there was a zombie attack at the same time. Nobody will be able to track the explosion back to us.”

 

Gongyi Xiao felt the need to throw a pen after him. With the closing of the door he burrowed his face in his hands, his appetite gone for the moment. “That’s not the goddamn problem…”

 

---

 

Three hours later he read the official looking letter for the tenth time and rotated his pen without realizing it anymore. It was a good thing that they had gotten rid of this so-called delegation from the capital in less than two days. And it was an even better thing he had not made any promises. Even with the bait in form of help for the winter dangling in front of his face. But if they really had a way to turn ability users into their mindless pawns it was only a matter of time until the choice would be ‘Follow us or die’.

 

After thinking about the new information about the research center and the fact that this probably was only one of many hidden laboratories, he wanted to scream. Lao Gongzhu had also sent a few people there under the guise of getting help with mental breakdowns and other problems. Had the man known about what he was doing? It had been mostly people who were rather outspoken against him.

 

The messenger had said, there was an older promise of cooperation made by their former leader. Nothing they could hold them to now, but they had announced another visit to give them time to think things through.

 

Gongyi Xiao had understood the veiled threat as what it was. Alas, he had not been clear what it actually entailed at that point.

 

A wisp of smoke startled him out of his gloom and he watched the tiny flame in the middle of the stack of paper eat its way to the outside. There was nothing left of the oppressive contract attached to the treacherous words but a small pile of ash and a molten stapler. With a swift gesture he wiped it off the unmarked tabletop and grit his teeth. To hell with that! As if these people had done anything for them when everyone was running for their lives! He would not sell anyone out like that!

 

Just… how to break the news without having a potential riot on his hands?

 

“Oh, bad timing?” Liu Mingyan asked from the door and he looked up in surprise. “I’ve knocked three times but there was no answer…”

 

Like a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day she brought a smile to his face. “No, it’s alright. I was just thinking. Anything you need?”

 

“There is something going on at the greenhouse and I thought you might want to have a look,” she explained and Gongyi Xiao could see the excitement in her eyes.

 

He nodded, taking one last look at his empty desk to follow her outside. The question if she knew more details was met with a silent curving of her eyes over the mask. He supposed it was a good thing then.

 

And it was actually amazing what he saw when he entered the well temperature glass building. At the first glance he saw several fields that originally were full of sad looking or even wilting sprouts covered with healthy looking plants. They were not yet ready to bear fruit, but the foundation was made and a sight to behold.

 

“These are-?” he asked, startled by the bright grin Qin Wanrong gave him. She was one of the water users responsible for the place and had looked cast down for months.

 

She spread her arms in absolute delight, almost hitting her older sister who was standing beside her. “Tomatoes, cucumber, green beans, leeks, radish, cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower… Everything we planted thrives! We just added some wood energy to the water two hours ago! If it stays like this we’ll have a full harvest in a week! We could even try to plant grain or rice at this rate! It’s incredible!”

 

Again Gongyi Xiao looked around, trying to take this information in. Suddenly it was like a huge weight had dropped from his shoulders. Judging from the big smiles all around he was by far not the only one who felt this way.

 

“And Shang Qinghua?” he inquired when he realized the young man responsible for this little miracle was nowhere to be seen.

 

Qin Wanrong gave him a sheepish look. “It worked so well that we made some more for the next few days and then he looked really tired. I don’t know where he is, but Mobei Jun looked like he wanted to eat us alive.”

 

“Oh.”

 

The sound made by Liu Mingyan was a mix of curiosity and understanding. Her smile behind the mask was wide enough to show on her cheeks and the slightly curved eyes. When she noticed him looking she cleared he throat. “It’s good that he’s taken care of, isn’t it? It would be bad if he got sick.”

 

Gongyi Xiao nodded at that. “I will thank him later,” he just said, again puzzled by the mystery that was his – hopefully – future girlfriend. In the back of his mind he already planned extra guards for the greenhouse. With this opportunity at hand he was unwilling to risk anything. If they were able to utilize these powers to their full potential it would be no problem to feed even more people without running into problems. They only needed to keep some of the produce to use it as seed material every time.

 

Now he only had to find Luo Binghe, Liu Qingge and Shen Yuan to talk about the other problem. With three of the strongest people in the base on his side he might be able to convince the other inhabitants of his plans to stay independent. Not that he was not able to listen to other opinions or wanted to oppress anyone. It was just an attempt to give them enough security and self-esteem to not panic at the mere thought of an attack anymore.

 

With the bandits gone they had enough time to prepare properly for an eventual fight.

 

Chapter Text

„Any thoughts on how to deal with this?” Gongyi Xiao finished his monologue after he had asked the three of them for a private talk in the afternoon.

 

Shen Yuan could not help but admire his composure with all of this hanging over his head like the fucking sword of Damokles. They had been gone for a bit over three weeks, but it already felt like months had passed, or even years in Gongyi Xiao’s case.

 

He had been a serious and diligent person from the beginning, but still only half a year younger than Binghe. Shen Yuan had wondered if the two of them could be related, since they looked fairly similar. Now they were worlds apart with the playful glint gone from his eyes and lines starting to etch themselves into Gongyi Xiao’s face. The poor guy needed a break and all he got for his efforts were even more work and bigger trouble. With them dumping two wildcards on him out of nowhere the cracks finally started to show.

 

“We need guards or an early warning system along the road,” Liu Qingge added his piece after a moment of silence. Straight forward as always and as far away from the politics as possible. Shen Yuan hid a smile behind his face, refraining from stating the obvious fact that this was not what was meant with the question.

 

Yet, Gongyi Xiao nodded with a thoughtful expression. “We would need to clear out more of the wildlife for that to work, but it’s a good idea. You wanted to go hunting, right? And since you’re also for staying independent, I’ll gladly accept your help when we make the whole thing public. We just need to decide on when and how we break this to three thousand people. ”

 

Now Shen Yuan felt his eyebrows raise. Someone’s gotten crafty. He shared a look with Binghe who seemed just as surprised before he cleared his throat.

 

“Wouldn’t it be a good to do this when we’ve got the first harvest?” he ventured, still hidden behind his fan. “It’s probably easier to swallow when they know we’re self-sufficient and don’t need any help from the outside.”

 

“If we drop a hint that we’d probably have to share the produce if we take the offer it could make this even easier. That was part of the contract, wasn’t it?” Luo Binghe added and Shen Yuan had to commend him on his quick thinking.

 

They looked at Gongyi Xiao expectantly who rubbed his nose with his forefinger. “I had planned to not make a big deal out of the greenhouse,” he admitted. That got him a snort.

 

“Seriously? Half the base already knows what’s going on and the other half can guess with how the workers run around with the biggest grins on their faces. And the tomato plant from yesterday still sits in the flower bed. People will die laughing if you try to tell them nothing’s going on.”

 

Shen Yuan suppressed a sigh. “Binghe.”

 

“It’s only the truth, A-Yuan,” his offending boyfriend tried to defend himself. Liu Qingge gave him a dark look, but Gongyi Xiao unexpectedly started to chuckle.

 

He regarded all three of them with a warm smile. “You have no idea how good it is to have you back here.”

 

Shen Yuan blinked and he was sure the other two looked just as surprised. But then he could not help but grin just as wide as Gongyi Xiao. “It’s good to be back home.”

 

 

One hour and a lot of laughter and friendly banter later they left the small office.

 

Luo Binghe stretched in the decidedly too warm sunshine next to Shen Yuan and he could only shake his head. “I really don’t envy him. Does anyone here ever help the poor guy?” he complained quietly, earning a shrug from Binghe.

 

“If you want things done properly you need to do them yourself. And there are still rats hiding in the complex,” Binghe said, his voice also lowered. “If he trusts the wrong people we’re screwed in a few months tops.”

 

Shen Yuan gave him a dark look. “I know that. Still, if he collapses from overworking himself it helps nobody either.”

 

“That’s why we agreed to be the helpful idiots, isn’t it?” Binghe grinned and stole a kiss behind the fan, his arm around Liu Qingge’s waist. After a whack with said fan and an elbow to the ribs he pouted, his eyes giving the dreaded puppy impression – tears included - that always managed to melt Shen Yuan’s heart.

 

“Not out in the open,” Shen Yuan chided none the less, glad he saw no one looking at them.  

 

“What’s the plan?” Liu Qingge thankfully prevented further slapstick. He still had not removed Binghe’s, Shen Yuan noticed amused.

 

It was a bit ironic that Shen Jiu of all people had been the cause that these two had stopped butting heads. If anything, his brother was surprisingly good at posing as a common enemy for other people. He’d probably be livid if he realized it was his own animosity that made this relationship possible. And yet Shen Yuan had to admit he missed his brother. Not to mention Qi-ge.

 

He really hoped everything was alright over there and his brother had managed to turn things around on some level. The plan to drive away the people unable to defend themselves to keep them from harm never sat right with him. Only Shen Jiu had seen it as the best option after he already gained a reputation in the first few weeks for mercilessly harvesting nuclei from the zombies they killed on their way. He really wished his brother would stop embracing the role of the ruthless monster and try a more level-headed approach. There was always the threat of breaking his own neck in the process with all the resentment he piled on himself. Though, Shen Jiu had never seen much worth in himself from the beginning. Shen Yuan still heard his words that he probably had no right to be happy in any life.

 

A gentle nudge brought him back to reality and he found himself confronted with Binghe’s and Liu Qingge’s concerned faces. “You alright, A-Yuan?”

 

He smiled at Binghe’s question. “Yes, just memories. It’s nothing.”

 

“Oh, okay.” Both of them did not seem wholly convinced. “I asked if we should go do some cleaning along the road tomorrow,” Binghe then explained and Shen Yuan tucked his arm into his.

 

“Sure. I heard the squirrels are really tasty.”

 

---

 

 

Jin Guangshan watched the seven to eight year old child writhe in a pool of what looked suspiciously like blood with barely hidden distaste.

 

Messy, long hair, greenish skin, sharp teeth that reminded him more of a shark than a human and eyes that screamed the madness right into ones face. The creature was contained with all sorts of strange writings and what looked like a chain of talismans encasing its upper body. There was the smell of fresh meat, iron and fear in the air and he was honestly thankful for the dimmed lights that made it impossible to see what exactly lurked in the deeper parts of the chamber.

 

Did nobody ever think to clean this place?

 

But worse than the smell were the screams and mad ramblings since they had entered through the solid steel doors.

 

“FUCK YOU! THIS ANCESTOR WILL RIP YOUR HEADS OFF, FEAST ON YOUR EYEBALLS AND SHIT IN YOUR NECKS! I WILL MAKE YOU FUCKERS REGRET YOU WERE BORN! LET ME OUT OF HERE YOU WITLESS-!”

 

The sudden silence was even more startling than the infernal cursing. Jin Guangshan needed a moment to gather himself before he looked at the man in white beside him who still wore an amicable smile. The scene dyed him, like everything else, in a strange, green light akin to a ghost light.

 

“I’m sorry. Like I said, this one is a defective product. There, of course, will be no charge and we would be thankful for any test data provided. We will also provide personnel to take proper care of it as well as the required fodder.”

 

It was a bit hard to return the smile, but Jing Guangshan would be the last person to let such an opportunity go. “When will it be delivered?” he asked, still keeping watch on the quiet creature from the corner of his eye. He had seen what this so-called guardian deity was capable of, even as a failure. If he could later get his hands on a better one for a discount it was honestly worth it to put up with the foul mouth and other strange habits.

 

“We will set things up within the next month. The testing phase will be one year, as we discussed. Would you like to sign the contract right now?”

 

Jin Guangshan nodded, turning his back to the ominous pool.

 

“That would be perfect.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng looked out of the car window with a frown. Even the view of the ocean a few kilometers away could not lift his spirits while they followed the mountain road to their destination.

 

He knew why his parents wanted him here, but it still made him feel so utterly useless they had decided to rather send him away than let him help with potential monster attacks. What his mother had said about proper education only made it worse. Who needed calculus and geography when your home could be destroyed any day and you had to be strong enough to survive? They made Wei Ying and a few other boys come with him to supposed safety and his mother had assured him it was not because they saw him as a burden, but that did not make anything better.

 

On the contrary. They all knew about the strict rules in the mountain recesses and having his stepbrother there would be a disaster. Admittedly an entertaining disaster, yet he was the person his mother had asked to keep him in check. He could really do without the additional headache.

 

Said headache was humming some stupid travel song for the umpteenth time on the backseat. They liked each other well enough, but after a week of travel and mostly utter boredom the antics were anything but fun.

 

“Can you stop that?” Jiang Cheng snarled with a look over his shoulder. The fact that sleep on the road was not very relaxing was getting to him more and more.

 

Wei Ying gave him a bright smile, his feet on a suitcase placed on the backseat, the back of his head resting on his folded hands against the window. “We’re almost there. Stop being grumpy.” He wiggled his toes, shoes who-knew-where. “Aren’t you excited? They say the base is still one of the most beautiful places left. It’s just a shame the people there all have a stick up their asses, if the rumors are true.”

 

“Then why are you excited? Their punishments are probably worse than my mom’s,” Jiang Cheng countered and turned fully around when he heard Wei Ying snort.

 

“They’d have to catch me first.”

 

Jiang Cheng was just about to make a snarky remark about how many times Wei Ying had been caught by his parents in the last three months when the car stopped.

 

A look outside showed him broad stone steps leading further up the mountain and vanishing behind the ragged stonewall. They were on a big plateau with trees surrounding the road, a flat garage building hidden to the side and a bold cliff reaching up on the left of the steps. To the right was a basin of crystal clear water, fed by a gurgling stream that had its source further above. He suddenly remembered what he had read about this place. It was village that had formed around an old monastery and even long before the catastrophe it had only been possible to reach it by foot.

 

The ancient writings on the cliff had long been wiped away by the elements, but from what the book had said there must have been an impressive list of thousands of rules once. A list that was still partially enforced by the inhabitants. Especially when it came to noise and indecent behavior.

 

Jiang Cheng left the car followed by Wei Ying who eyed the steps for a moment and then looked back at their driver and the group behind them. “Don’t tell me we need to carry all our stuff up there by ourselves.”

 

“Looks like it,” Jiang Cheng answered, just as keen on the idea as the other sounded. He turned back to the car after another look at the cliff. At least they did not have to literally climb.

 

Wei Ying still stood there and apparently tried to figure out how much higher the way went, judging by how he leaned to the right. “We could call for someone. Maybe people will come down and help us,” he suggested and Jiang Cheng was close to rolling his eyes.

 

“Sure, I always wanted to witness an avalanche up close. There’s a reason why loud noises are forbidden.”

 

“Oh.” The ever present grin on Wei Ying’s face looked a bit strained, but he picked himself up again just as fast. “Okay, hiking it is then.”

 

Jiang Cheng always admired him for the ability to see all things in a positive light and envied his cheerful attitude. Being pessimistic and more of an introvert by nature he had a much harder time getting along with people, not to mention finding friends. If Wei Ying had not been there, life would probably be a lot more lonesome. And his brother was one of the few people who did not get close to him because of his parent’s wealth and influence. He just wished others would stop seeing him as Wei Ying’s extra or an inferior version. That they had awakened the same ability bugged him to no end. Not least because Wei Ying was once again better at using and controlling it.

 

Right now, though, he had other problems than always being number two at literally everything. With a backpack and two full suitcases he more or less crawled up the mountain. The others were not better off having taken most of their belongings with them to prevent anything from getting lost in a potential attack. Even the three adults had their hands full with the extra luggage and up here the heat was not significantly less oppressive than at a lower altitude.

 

He was sure there were guards around. His mother had told them about how many of the people here could manipulate sound as their ability. So, if there were no people around the bottom of the increasingly annoying stairs the ones above probably heard everything they said. They just did not bother to come and meet them. It was likely they expected a trap.

 

Wei Ying groaned behind him when finally a wall came into view, still at least twenty meters away. This time Jiang Cheng could not fault him. He felt miserable himself, his whole body drenched in sweat and every step pure torture for his tired legs. With the air being noticeably clearer up here it was easier to breathe, but the incline took a toll none of them had expected.

 

Thankfully the gates were open and they all but fell through it, taking a moment to catch their breaths with luggage all over the path. Who cared for saving face and keeping up appearances? If there should be a next time he would leave all heavy things behind, including the books his parents had forced on him!

 

He heard someone clear his throat not far from them and reluctantly raised his head. What he saw around them then made him gape in awe.

 

It was as if they had been dropped in one of those wuxia novels Wei Ying loved so much. The place looked like to an enormous park, divided by small streams with delicate stone bridges connecting gravel paths. There was no sign of the horrible state the rest of the world was in. Only tranquility and peace.

 

The white wooden houses looked all ancient in style but well-kept and lived in. Jiang Cheng assumed there were vegetable gardens and play areas for children in the backyards. When his gaze followed the winding road further upwards he saw the majestic monastery towering over everything.

 

Only the people following their daily routine in modern cloths broke the illusion. Especially the young man who waited patiently for them to recover, a friendly smile on his face. He was maybe three or four years older than Jiang Cheng himself, but his immaculate appearance and mild temper made him appear more mature than his age suggested.

 

A few others also gathered around. They watched quietly with mild curiosity on their faces, every single one of them with looks that ranked above average. The curious chatter or whispered jokes Jiang Cheng was used to were completely missing, though. The silence almost made him squirm when he got up and brushed the dirt off his pants.

 

“You must be the people from Yunmeng we were told about,” the young man inquired, the glint of gentle amusement in his eyes. He cupped his hands and managed a perfect bow in front of the small group. “My name is Lan Huan. I will show you to your sleeping quarters.”

 


Chapter Text

A few days later they still had not gotten used to the ungodly schedule of their new life.

 

Being one of the few places that could be considered to have proper education these days, there of course were lessons five days a week in the reopened boarding school. That in itself would not be so bad, would they start later than seven o’clock in the morning.

 

The boys in the dorm had to get up as early as five o’clock for breakfast and morning training, which included three rounds around the monastery grounds. And Jiang Cheng, honest to god, did not want to know how many kilometers this added up to. Right now he did not want to know any details Period. He was tired, sweaty and cranky and ready to punt someone off this goddamn mountain at a wrong word.

 

A certain someone in particular who had coaxed him into staying up late with a few of the other teenagers sent here by their families. In the process Wei Ying had just vanished for two hours and came back without saying anything when everyone was about to finally go to bed. His brother had looked a bit worse for wear, but still in a good mood. Something that still bugged him and caused a foreboding feeling in his gut. A feeling that made him want to smack Wei Ying upside the head preemptively.

 

It was not that Jiang Cheng regretted socializing and having fun. He was just angry how hard it had been to get a certain someone out of bed under the threat of punishment for the whole room if one of them was late. He really did not need more on his plate than he already had.

 

What this punishment was? Well… more running and detention after the lessons ended at four in the afternoon and sometimes on weekends. In severe cases there even had been beatings, but those were circumstances nobody would find him in. And these only affected the person responsible for the crime. Again something he had to remind his brother of, if he wanted to avoid being dragged into more trouble.

 

Next to him Wei Ying yawned, feet heavy on the gravel and eyes puffy. A pathetic sight, just as the rest of them. Though, one was still a bit worse of, wheezing and stumbling behind the group more than usual.

 

Most of them were sure Nie Huaisang had only survived thus far because his big brother and the other people from their clan had protected him as the precious baby of the family he was. At one year older he should have been the person to look up to and keep them in line, but he was a complete nerd and whiny to boot. They did not even know what ability he had, only that it probably was nothing physical.

 

The only person who really seemed to enjoy his company from the start was Wei Ying, again without any prejudices or judgement. But soon after, Jiang Cheng had also accepted him into their circle and not only as a good source of comic books and certain prohibited magazines. The guy, under all his cowardice and complaining, never took kindness for granted and never got mad, even when someone accidentally damaged his belongings.

 

When they finally got back to the courtyard most of them were ready to drop. Only a few, him and Wei Ying included, had the energy to keep walking a few steps while stretching their arms over their heads. After their breaths calmed a bit they also sat down on the stairs. If they had to do this in the afternoon they would be fried by the sun for sure. Right now it was still rather cool in comparison, but the possibility of having a shower before class already sounded like heaven.

 

It still baffled Jiang Cheng that this place had natural clean water. This had something to do with the height of the mountain and the particles in the air staying under a certain altitude as far as he had understood. The hail, if there was any, happened not to be as severe, too.

 

The forest at the bottom of the stairs was a whole other story. Mutations ran rampant and the poison covered everything as if an invisible gate had been opened. So, trying to run away and hike to the city down at the sea was a really stupid idea.

 

Speaking of which…

 

“Where were you last night?” he finally managed to ask Wei Ying who had all but draped himself over the cold stone.

 

He turned his head and gave Jiang Cheng a cheeky grin. “You remember the wine I stole out of uncle Jiang’s cabinet?”

 

Of course Jiang Cheng remembered. They hid it in one of the half empty suitcases stored in a shed near the dorm. There was not enough space in their rooms to have all the luggage at hand and with teachers regularly searching the dorms for contraband like alcohol and cigarettes it was the best place for the bottle.

 

“Then what took you so long?” he asked with a frown. “It’s only a few minutes to get out there and back. You didn’t drink all of it by yourself, did you?”

 

Wei Ying shook his head, regret visible on his face. “I wish… Nah, Lan Zhan surprised me. Something about curfew and then he smashed the bottle. ‘Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses’.” For the last sentence he imitated the young master’s stoic tone of voice and expression.

 

“You got caught in flagrante delicto by Mister star pupil, ‘I skipped two grades and all my teachers love me’ Lan Zhan?” Nie Huaisang spluttered next to them.

 

Jiang Cheng facepalmed and stifled a groan. “When he comes after you, you’re on your own,” he growled, but Wei Ying just laughed it off with a confirmation for Nie Huaisang, ignoring his brother’s dark look.

 

“What can he do? He destroyed the evidence himself and it’s not like I drank anything or smell of it. The worst they can do is punish me for going outside at night. And it’s not like he can have me under constant surveillance.”

 

This time Jiang Cheng only raised his eyebrows and said nothing.

 

---

 

The error of Wei Ying’s assumption became apparent when they entered the classroom half an hour later. In the once empty seat in front of Wei Ying’s sat a stiff, pale figure with a finely chiseled face and light brown eyes. From the corner of said eyes Lan Zhan gave them a quick look that had Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang move to their seats without another word.

 

Wei Ying just stood there, visibly stunned, before he made his way to his desk and got his book out. Jiang Cheng almost felt sorry for him. But, his brother has made his own bed he now had to lay in. Perhaps the second young master could keep him from running wild for a while. If not, it would at least be funny to see him try where Jiang Cheng had talked to a wall time and time again.

 

He only hoped Wei Ying would not come whining to him later.

 

His thoughts were interrupted when Lan Qiren entered the classroom. By far the strictest teacher here, nobody was willing to test his patience. Well, again nobody but Wei Ying.

 

As soon as the man turned his back to the class after the greeting, to write something on the blackboard, a piece of folded paper hit Jiang Cheng’s desk.

 

You think the old fuddy-duddy knows?

 

He did not even look over, but watched with growing horror as the lines on the blackboard rapidly increased in number.

 

“It seems like some people still don’t understand our rules, so we will take this lesson to go over each and every one of them. This way ignorance will be no excuse in the future,” Land Qiren’s voice cut through the pregnant silence. He just had to turn around again when another small, white ball landed next to Jiang Cheng’s hand. With the hope, he had pushed it to the ground and stepped on it fast enough Jiang Cheng met his eyes apprehensively. The stern gaze sent a shiver down his spine.

 

Of course he knew! And from the way his eyes wandered over to the pointedly innocent looking boy behind his nephew, he regarded the last action alone as an act of war.

 

Jiang Cheng could only watch the train wreck that was the game of questions and answers between the teacher and his brother, until they reached the point on how to deal with zombies if one had to fight them.

 

“You have to destroy the brain or chop of the head to be sure they are unable to rise again,” Lan Zhan supplied after Wein Ying had taken too long to answer on this topic.

 

Yet, he raised his hand, prompting Jiang Cheng to once again cover his eyes with his own. Not this theory again! The man who told him this nonsense had clearly been insane and Jiang Cheng’s mother had almost strangled him for the suggestion alone once already!

 

“Teacher, I have a question,” the gleeful, but sincere sound of his brother’s voice made him cringe while he peeked through his fingers. Wei Ying got permission to go on with the wave of Lan Qiren’s hand. “What if we tried to talk to them instead? Some people say the zombies might not actually be dead and they’re just as intelligent as we are. We could work together and use their strength to survive.”

 

Every last person in the room stared at him with a dropped jaw, except for Lan Zhan’s cold demeanor and Lan Qiren’s slowly reddening face. “And how do you plan to survive long enough to have this conversation? They are monsters that will kill you on sight! They don’t even understand human speech anymore!”

 

“They do understand! I know someone who talked to one and he’s still alive. They’re not monster, just different.”

 

“OUT!” Lan Qiren’s scream made the shocked students around him flinch and to all their surprise Wei Ying complied without another word.

 

 

Chapter Text

The library was hot, stuffy and inherently boring. It had been for the last two weeks and would probably be so for the remainder of the three months of detention.

 

Wei Ying knew exactly how he had found himself here, punished with copying rules and old texts that threatened to melt his brain after a few minutes. He was also very clear why Lan Zhan as honor student and part of something that could be called the disciplinary committee sat on the other side of the table to supervise the detention. The only thing he could not wrap his mind around was how he again had managed to sit in an invisible bubble that swallowed every sound he made.

 

It was not like he was cut off from the outside. The sound of Lan Zhan’s pen scribbling away as well as the occasional rustling of fabric even seemed to magnify in his own silence. But whatever Wei Ying tried to do, he was unable to produce a sound.

 

Yell and scream? The result was nothing but a sore throat and being out of breath after a while.

 

Tap nails or fingertips on the table? The same result as trying to scratch it or playing with the paper sheets. Nada.

 

Hitting the ground or table with your fist? Nothing more than a ‘Pathetic’ if Lan Zhan was interrupted by the vibration of the wood.

 

Rolling on the ground in a fit and pouting? The full force of stoic ignorance after a reminder that the punishment would be prolonged if he did not reach his daily quota.

 

He had tested it all within the first few days and was still not sure how Lan Zhan managed to keep this thing up for an extended timespan. Sound users were more terrifying than he had ever thought and this revelation came long after he had seen one of the other boys rip a wooden dummy apart with his voice alone.

 

Only, this time he really had not aimed at getting himself in trouble again. He had done his work, kept his head down and for once not even tried to start a conversation with his prison guard. The perfect example of obedience, really, if it had not been for this song he still was unable to get out of his head.

 

Lightly tapping the rhythm on the table had led to absentminded humming and ended in sudden silence again. The only indication that Lan Zhan gave him any attention at all was a stern look before he vanished into his own work again. A translation of sorts from what Wei Ying could deduce after a few glimpses.

 

He scowled at the neat pile of yet again pushed away notes in which he had tried to apologize and explain himself. No mercy at all. He was really not used to one of his peers hating him instead of stuck-up adults.

 

And the worst thing was that he really found himself drawn to this silent one. He wanted to be friends with Lan Zhan, unable to explain the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ behind it. He only knew he wanted to laugh with him and make him smile, if this was in any way possible. The constant rejection only fueled this desire and made him double his efforts every time.

 

Jiang Cheng had joked about him having a crush a few days ago prompted by the weirder parts of Nie Huaisang’s collection. Namely boys love content he was still unsure how to feel about.

 

It was honestly a strange thought, to have developed romantic feelings for someone of the same sex. Not that Wei Ying had any experience with girls either. There had never been any reason to think about this stuff before. He rather put his efforts into sports or read comics and fantasy novels.

 

All he knew was that he did not want a relationship like the one Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu had to deal with. The kind of cold war one wanted to stay away from as far as possible.

 

He wanted what his parents had before their deaths. Something he did not remember clearly, but he knew the household had been full of warmth and love.

 

It had been the same feeling he got when he observed how this strange group of men treated each other. The three who shared a room in particular. Perhaps it was not so bad thinking about another boy in this way. If only he knew what Lan Zhan thought about stuff like that. And if he was really hated by his… maybe crush? With the other’s monstrous strength he really did not want to risk being beaten up.

 

Wei Ying groaned silently and picked up his pen again to occupy his mind with something else. It would be so easy to just make a photocopy of all of this. They even had a copy machine sitting near the counter! Carpal tunnel was a thing! Alas, apart from electricity it needed other parts to work that had been used up months ago. They were really already back in medieval times, weren’t they?

 

Half an hour later he suddenly heard himself sigh heavily and looked up in surprise. Lan Zhan studied his face with an unreadable expression. “We’re done for to today. Same time tomorrow.”

 

With that he got up and started to put his books back in the shelves. The same routine as every day and Wei Ying was just about to leave when his mouth once again worked faster than his brain.

 

“Say, Lan Zhan, do you think it is wrong when men love other men instead of women?”

 

It was an honest question and after having said it out loud Wei Ying did not feel any shame for asking it. He just stood there and watched the other boy who still had his back to him.

 

“Pathetic,” Lan Zhan answered after a pause, his shoulders stiff while he still faced the lowest shelf in a crouch.

 

For a moment Wei Ying stared at him, then he rubbed his neck in embarrassment. “Right. I’ll be going then.”

 

If he had not been this worked up, he would have spotted the red tips of Lan Zhan’s ears and the fact that the other boy had not moved an inch in over a minute. But right now he needed fresh air and only felt rejected yet again.

 

The fact that Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang were outside, waiting to go to dinner together, brought the smile back to his face. With a grin he hooked his arms around both of their necks and just laughed at Jiang Cheng’s expected complaints.

 

“What’s gotten into you now?” the annoyed voice rang next to his ear, but Wei Ying just shook his head with a grin.

 

“Let’s go eat.”

 

---

 

The next morning, after an evening of whining to Jiang Cheng about how cold and unreasonable Lan Zhan was to him, the seat in front of his own was empty again. There was no sign of Lan Zhan all morning and he found it increasingly difficult to follow his normal routine of sleeping, not paying attention and trading messages with his friends. He knew all this stuff already anyway and he would probably attend a much higher grade if he were not too lazy to put any real effort into his schoolwork. This not least came from not wanting to outshine Jiang Cheng too much.  His brother’s temper was bad enough being close behind, so it would probably be a huge blow if he came to realize how far apart they really were.

 

Also, playing the clown was much more fun than reading dusty books all the time. The things he really wanted to learn took place outside of the classroom and involved their survival instead of useless knowledge from the past.

 

This was one of the reasons he had sabotaged Lan Qiren’s latest history test with cheat sheets after promising Nie Huaisang to help him pass. His poor friend was utterly useless when it came to learning dates and numbers by heart. Lan Zhan of all people had caught him what resulted in a flurry of flying paper until the whole room was in an uproar. And thus he had ended up in the not so dreaded detention that awaited him once again this afternoon.

 

Only now the test was once again planned after the lunch break and he had no idea how to get anyone of them out of it. Who needed this stuff anyway? In a few decades, if not years, they could count their lucky stars if they were still alive.

 

Chewing on a grass stalk he lay on the ground with both hands behind his head. Legs crossed, his right foot bobbed to an unknown rhythm that was taken up by a quiet melody a few feet away. The boys who originally lived here had become friendlier to the newcomers with time and most of them were fun to talk to. But they still kept their distance from him as soon as any teacher could see them.

 

If Wei Ying could get them on his side to actually learn something useful, like real fighting or how to find the weak points of certain monsters, boring lessons and old, useless subjects could really become a thing of the past.

 

Right now, though, a familiar face took all of his attention and he waved at Lan Zhan with an excited call, while the other seemingly did his best to ignore him.

 

“Why do you always have to taunt him like that?” Jiang Cheng asked exasperated out of the shadow under a nearby tree.

 

“I’m not,” Wei Ying retorted with a little pout. “I just want him to be my friend.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Jinlan was a strange city.

 

Not strange in terms of architecture or people. Not even strange when it came to the landscape around it. It was just that this city had been the only bigger settlement in the country that had not experienced a virus outbreak at all.

 

At first this had been a blessing and they had resumed life like normal with the rich farmland around them providing for everyone. But by now the weather phenomena and the heavily polluted air, water and soil were all present. Supplies became sparse or too laden with poison to be consumed by a normal person at any level.

 

They still had no zombies or mutations. Not even a strange looking leaf anywhere. And on the other side, surprisingly, also no ability users. And that meant, even with power supply as well as the local sewage work still going, the people were starving or slowly rotting away from the inside without any help in sight. It gave the term ‘walking dead’ a whole new morbid meaning.

 

Still, the citizens refused to give up and had decided to close the inner parts of the city off to everyone and everything from the outside. By now they were so paranoid about the virus somehow finding its way amongst them that even people who offered to give them food and medicine were chased away. With all this Shen Yuan started to ask himself how long they might survive on cans and frozen food, if there were still any to find in the city.

 

That his brother had chosen this place to meet up still made him antsy.

 

He knew exactly where in the outskirts they were supposed to meet and already had told the others he needed to leave for a few hours. But he also knew that somewhere around this time something big happened to Jinlan that wiped the remaining survivors clean off the face of the planet with no proper clues on what exactly happened.

 

There had been no corpses, starved or otherwise, no signs of carrion eaters that could have destroyed the evidence and no signs of a big fight in his last life. They were just gone. Over two hundred thousand people vanished as if they never existed in the first place.

 

He turned around when he heard Liu Qingge grunt on the backseat. His boyfriend had been the only one sleeping after a long night, but now Qinghua’s head leaned on his shoulder. Both of them rested peacefully, even with Qinghua jammed between the two broad-shouldered men. If Mobei Jun minded the fact that his charge was finally able to relax in the presence of someone else, it only showed in his familiar icy presence.

 

Right now he looked out of the window, seemingly detached from the situation as always. Only his right hand that slightly touched Qinghua’s fingers was an indication he acknowledged them at all.

 

Shen Yuan shared a small grin with Binghe before he concentrated on the map they had taken from another abandoned gas station again. “Next one left,” he said, his voice lowered to not disturb the others. “There should be a safe house where we can stay for a few days.”

 

He kind of had come clean with his boyfriends months ago about knowing more than he should. -Telling them this was his third attempt at things in this hellhole was out of the question, of course. Things like that got you marked as a lunatic faster than you could say ‘don’t shoot me’.- But his gut feelings and the stories or rumors he had heard were taken seriously enough to follow the lead. Part of it probably came down to them thinking it was another of Qinghua’s visions back from Cang Qiong. Some of those had been oddly specific.

 

They followed a run-down street in the suburbs. The once white houses with neat lawns around them mostly ruins by now. It was hard to say if vandalism or the weather had gotten to them first. He was only sure that the roofs had been smashed in and burned both at some point. He was just unsure in which order.

 

Finally the sight of broken walls, windows and doors gave way to a high iron fence surrounding a fortified building. The gate hung battered in its hinges, but the house itself looked mostly intact, apart from a few scratches here and there. A good sign. He just hoped the unexpected changes in details that came up more and more often did not entail someone hostile already living here. After what had happened at Lotus Pier the butterfly effect could go jump off a cliff for all he cared!

 

Thankfully, there was no sign of life when Binghe opened the garage door and let them into the house. At first glance everything looked peaceful in here, too. It did not appear like anyone had broken in or attempted looting either. From all he saw it seemed like the rumors were true that no riots had taken place and life just trickled on until the people realized something was wrong.

 

If the town were not this insignificant and out of the way, all of this would raise the question why nobody had tried to claim it as a stronghold in the past. As things stood now it was not worth the effort anymore.

 

With a sigh Shen Yuan occupied one of the armchairs and found himself confronted with Liu Qingge who remained as the only other person in the living room. Binghe had probably gone to inspect the kitchen and the other two kept to themselves anyway most of these days.

 

Mobei Jun was about to become the same kind of sticky guard dog to Qinghua that Binghe was to him. He marked this down as a good thing, even when it cut his time with his friend shorter than he would have liked. Qinghua had put on some weight and looked a lot happier and healthier in the last few weeks. Whatever it would develop into, he was sure Mobei Jun would take good care of him.

 

Not to mention that he had his own close family to occupy him.

 

Part of this family just leaned down for a kiss when he stretched out his free hand to cup Liu Qingge’s cheek. He was really spoiled with his two men, wasn’t he?

 

“Hey! What about me?” Binghe made himself heard a few seconds later. Being crowded by both of them made Shen Yuan laugh and after a few minutes they decided to take things to one of the bedrooms.

 

---

 

A few hours and two obnoxious hickeys on both sides of his neck later Shen Yuan was on his way to a nearby playground. Yet again he had told the others only that he had to meet someone alone and this time there had been no debate anymore. Just a concerned look from Binghe and Liu Qingge telling him to be careful.

 

The overprotective boyfriends made progress! Shen Yuan just hoped he could rely on them actually staying away or all hell would break loose if they accidentally met his brother. With all that had happened it would probably end in a bloodbath he wanted to avoid at any cost.

 

A moment later he almost thought the bloodbath had already happened before he realized that the red on the ground was too bright and stiff. The sorry remains of melted plastic and singed steel bars made the former playground look like a massacre. Even what was left of the metal parts of the benches on the side was deformed into a mockery of its former self.

 

Shen Yuan shook his head and let his eyes trail over the streets around. From the looks of it there must have been trees and shrubs to obstruct the view not too long ago. Those had not left any traces apart from earth instead of gravel where they once grew.

 

Now that he thought about it, it was odd that there were still so many plants around that survived against the odds. As if everything was molded to fit the new circumstances perfectly. And only this place was the exception.

 

But what was more important right now was his brother’s conspicuous absence. It was the date and time they had agreed on. In the past Shen Jiu had never been late, always reprimanding him for being late. So how come there was no sign of him at all? Did something happen to him?

 

Shen Yuan stepped out on the street, listening for the noise of a car or steps on the pavement or anything at all. The silence and the light of the red moon around him were eerie. Not even insects made themselves known.

 

The air gradually became too cold for the thin cloths he was wearing without even the slightest breeze to aid it.

 

There was no movement, no breath, nothing really.

 

And then he heard the call of an owl and the flapping of large wings out of nowhere.

 

FUCK!

 

He ran.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Where is he? He said two hours at most!”

 

Liu Qingge observed Luo Binghe running a groove into the carpet. He had been at it for half an hour already. Exactly the half hour Shen Yuan was late.

 

How did Liu Qingge know that?

 

They had gotten a clock in the house to work and Luo Binghe stared at it every few minutes like it was his mortal enemy. Not that Liu Qingge himself had been any better.

 

All four of them sat in the living room and with every time Luo Binghe bugged Shang Qinghua if he had seen anything that indicated Shen Yuan could be in trouble the boy shrunk more into himself. Right now Luo Binghe turned to him for the seventh time, but before he could open his mouth Shang Qinghua finally snapped.

 

“I’m not a fucking magic 8 ball! Stop asking me every few minutes!” he yelled, stomping out of the room a second later.

 

Luo Binghe cursed again and while he and Mobei Jun glared at each other, Liu Qingge followed the noise of a zipper out into the hall.

 

“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” he asked Shang Qinghua who had just donned a windbreaker, ready to leave the house.

 

The boy stared at him in surprise for a second before he shut down again. “I need fresh air.”

 

Liu Qingge just nodded, grabbed his own coat and followed him outside in silence.

 

He was acknowledged with a startled look after Shang Qinghua just sat down on the stairs at the front door. Without raising his head he let Liu Qingge pass him to lean against the wall and cross his arms in front of his chest.

 

“I really have no idea,” Shang Qinghua said after a while when they heard no suspicious noises through the open window.

 

Liu Qingge gave him a nod. “I know.” What else could he say? He had never been good at keeping conversations alive, but to his surprise the boy continued.

 

“I wish I knew what’s up. Or that he just shows up in a minute or two and tells us he got lost for a bit. He’s my best friend, you know? My first one really… man, that sounds so weird. I’m really that pathetic, huh? If I could just control this stupid thing in my head…”

 

Unsure what to make of Shang Qinghua’s words he nodded again. He really was the wrong person to listen to such things and the more he did the more awkward it felt. But, it was strangely gratifying to have someone open up to him like that. Not to mention someone he had accidentally wounded in the past.

 

“You think we should search for him?” Shang Qinghua asked and looked up to him with a strange expression. “He really might be in trouble.”

 

This time Liu Qingge pushed himself off the wall and breathed out audibly. “We search. You wait here in case he comes back.”

 

From the dejected expression he got, it had been the wrong thing to say.

 

Shang Qinghua got up with a sigh. “Yea, I’m too useless for anything else anyway,” he mumbled to himself and this time Liu Qingge understood why Shen Yuan sometimes followed the urge to smack him with his fan.

 

Liu Qingge struggled with the words Shen Yuan or Luo Binghe would use, but decided to simply say what was on his mind: “Not useless, just the right person for the job. We need to know where to find you when we’re injured.”

 

Shang Qinghua paused in his step and he just looked at the small back for a moment. When he was just about to write the situation off as unsalvageable and move on like he always did the boy turned around and gave him an unexpectedly honest smile.

 

Perhaps, he was not that bad with words after all.

 

They entered the house again with the fear of stumbling over the bloody aftermath of a fight, but unexpectedly there seemed to be a truth when they entered the living room again. Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun were sitting over a map of the city – Liu Qingge had long given up on understanding where all these things suddenly came from. Having them at hand when needed was good enough for him. – and apparently tried to figure out where exactly Shen Yuan could have gone to.

 

“Any ideas?” Liu Qingge just asked, after he had shaken his head at Luo Binghe’s hopeful look to the door.

 

While Luo Binghe deflated Mobei Jun shrugged. “He went in this direction,” he said and traced the road with his finger.

 

“The best place to meet someone would be…” Luo Binghe did not finish the sentence, but three fingers all landed on different places on the map. He huffed with slight amusement. “Okay, we have at least three places to search. Shang Qinghua waits here as suggested.”

 

Good, their voices had been heard loud and clear as it seemed. Liu Qingge only registered the boy’s red face in passing. Why was he flustered again?

 

There was a short discussion and they decided to systematically search the area starting with the nearest mark on the map.

 

Ready to go Mobei Jun just handed the kid a flare to alert them in case of an emergency and Shang Qinghua looked at him as if he had gone insane.

 

“With my luck I’ll burn the house down,” he said, eying the bulky pistol like someone would look at a particularly dangerous snake.

 

Luo Binghe laugh at that. “As long as you don’t kill yourself, that’s fine.”

 

Mobei Jun just patted Shang Qinghua’s head twice while the kid now stared at Luo Binghe incredulously. They left, followed by soft muttering and the sound of the front door being shut.

 

“The school first, then playground and supermarket,” Luo Binghe repeated what they had agreed on and got a nod from the other two. Yet, Liu Qingge could not help but look up at the unnerving blood moon that hung over them in the night sky.

 

Shen Yuan had told him about this phenomenon once. It was not that the moon itself or the light reflected by it changed color. It was actually a sign for how polluted the atmosphere was. With the deep, saturated red Liu Qingge was surprised they were still able to breathe properly in this place.

 

He brought up the rear, ready to kill anything that might jump them from the shadows, but the longer they went, the clearer it got that there could hardly be an ambush. The place was just empty. Void of even the smallest sign of life, really.

 

“Looks like how they imagined post nuclear war ruins in movies, doesn’t it?” Luo Binghe’s musing broke the silence. He still seemed on edge, but more wary than aggressive. Liu Qingge returned the questioning look when he turned around to make sure he was still there and okay.

 

Before one of them could say anything Mobei Jun crouched down next to the remains of a garden wall and gingerly picket something up. He gave a thoughtful hum when Liu Qingge went over to see what he had found.

 

“We got company,” Mobei Jun stated. He held up a black feather. Liu Qingge was just about to ask which bird when the caw of a crow sounded from a ruin on the other side of the street. Two birds perched on the broken roof, cautiously following their movements.

 

When there were one or two a whole murder was not close behind most of the time. On reflex alone Liu Qingge had his sword already out of its sheet and scanned the other buildings. He only saw from the corner of his eye how something white fell from one of the bird’s beaks. It landed next to the house and Mobei Jun picked it up the moment both crows took flight to vanish further down the road.

 

For a moment there was only the sound of shoes on pavement, then Mobei Jun gave them a small note with only two sentences on it:

 

Found something that’s yours.

Meet me at the flower shop.

 

They looked at each other in alarm. “Where-?” Liu Qingge voiced and Luo Binghe pointed in the direction the crows had flown off to. They were sitting on the road as if waiting for them.

 

“We’re probably supposed to follow them.”

 

Under normal circumstances there might have been teasing for stating the obvious, but right now the three men just chased after what became more birds after every time they flew out of reach. It was an obvious trap. They all knew it. But right now they had no other lead to follow.

 

After the fourth corner Liu Qingge was not sure which road they were on anymore. He just knew they had been led on a merry chase for more than ten minutes. He was just about to voice his doubts when a sign on the sidewalk came into view. A wooden sign with bright colors and flowers painted on it. A wooden sign that could not have survived for over a year under normal circumstance.

 

He stopped dead in his tracks. “What the hell?”

 

The crows settled on the roofs around them and did not make a sound after that. They just watched, too far away to cause any harm, but too close and to numerous for comfort.

 

Liu Qingge felt like he was about to explode, the memory of a certain lake still fresh in his mind. He hated being played with and this was so obvious he could not even laugh. Only Luo Binghe’s hand on his shoulder kept him from directly attacking with everything at his disposal.

 

“You made it! Congratulations!” a cheerful female voice unexpectedly broke the silence. The owner of said voice immerged only a second later from what was once the flower shop in question.

 

A slender young woman with a bright, cheeky smile on bright red lips. Her hair was arranged in countless little braids and her cloths… did not really cover anything up and amplified her big breasts and swinging hips. To Liu Qingge it felt like she was advertising herself in the most shameless way possible. He had the urge to lend her his coat to satisfy his sense of modesty.

 

Luo Binghe crossed his arms, his expression one of distaste as well. “And you are?”

 

“Sha Hualing,” Mobei Jun supplied, his brows raised in mild surprise.

 

The prompt made the woman freeze and gawk at him in horror. “What are you doing here?!” She made two steps back and Mobei Jun just looked at her with a cold expression on his face.

 

“I don’t care what your problem is. Where is Shizun?!” Luo Binghe interrupted, obviously at the end of his patience. His fingers started to burrow painfully into Liu Qingge’s shoulder, but eased up after being nudged in the ribs.

 

Around them the crows began to stir and Sha Hualing fought visible to regain her composure. “Shizun? You mean that pathetic wind user? Really?” She chuckled and now Liu Qingge could feel the air crackle around him. “Not here. But you just have to give us the clairvoyant to get him back without a scratch.”

 

The same moment Liu Qingge’s sword was at her throat, Mobei Jun had grabbed her arm from behind, threatening to break it. Luo Binghe played with a growing fireball in his hand, his pupils contracted to small dots.

 

Just as they were about to question her for the last time Sha Hualing began to laugh, her voice like delicate silver bells in the night.

 

Not a second later all three men found themselves on their knees, clutching their heads in indescribable pain.

 

“Fine. We didn’t want to play nice anyway. When Junshang is done with them they won’t even remember your names.”

 

She stepped forward and the crows charged.

 

 

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua looked at the car jack in his hands and then the person who had just crumpled to the floor.

 

He was not completely sure how he got here. He just remembered a siren-like voice in his head that wanted him to leave the house and come to her. In the back of his mind he had known it was a terrible idea to heed it, but apart from grabbing the next thing on his way that could be used as a weapon he had done nothing to resist. Good thing he had been in the garage to get something to drink at that time.

 

From what felt like a lucid dream, he knew he had gone to a house two streets over. There also were other voices, one of them a woman, the others familiar male ones. The latter had been the reason for him to lash out as soon as the control on his mind let up. He felt no remorse, even with the wheelchair in plain sight. That’s what they got for targeting them like this.

 

When he looked out of the window he could see a swarm of black birds being shredded as two of the three men got to their feet again. Liu Qingge was still out cold.

 

Especially Mobei Jun looked harried and after another glare at the elderly man Shang Qinghua was ready to run down the stairs and help. Only the angry voice of the woman kept him from leaving quite yet.

 

“Meng Mo! What’s going on?” she called, followed by a curse, quick steps and the sound of something breaking shortly after.

 

Now Shang Qinghua peeked downstairs to find himself almost skewered with a blade of ice. “Wrong target!” he squeaked, making a few steps back on reflex. The last one ended on nothing and a second later he found himself crashing hard into a pile of half decaying debris on the first floor. Stupid holes everywhere!

 

“Qinghua?” he heard Mobei Jun’s apprehensive call.

 

Footsteps came closer while he tried to get up from the moldy wood. “Ow… I’m okay! I think…” The answer led to strong arms fishing him out of the pile and putting him on his feet again. The blue eyes scanned him for injuries before Mobei Jun let go of him and breathed out audibly.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

Shang Qinghua made a face. “Psychic up there. He’s knocked out.”

 

To that Mobei Jun raised his brows, but only went up the stairs to get the sorry figure and return outside where Luo Binghe was guarding Liu Qingge’s still figure. He wrinkled his brows when he saw the two additional people with Mobei Jun, but made room for Shang Qinghua to tend to his unconscious lover. Luo Binghe even relaxed slightly when Shang Qinghua told them that Shen Yuan was not in immediate danger right now.

 

“He’ll be fine. Just fainted,” Shang Qinghua announced a few seconds later. He felt as relieved as Luo Binghe looked. “But you two need to be healed and I don’t care if you think you’re not alive anymore. Just because they call you zombies does not mean you’re really undead.”

 

The words had just left his mouth when Shang Qinghua realized what he had said. He saw Mobei Jun and Luo Binghe stare at him with wide eyes and gulped.

 

Oh shit!

 

But instead of an attack or angry questions the stunned silence dragged on for minutes. Finally Shang Qinghua felt his shoulders relax and he sighed.

 

“Come on, it’s not that surprising. I see things, remember?”

 

He grabbed the hands of the two unusually docile men to get to work. For once his inner turmoil did not show on the outside and he felt kind of powerful with them helplessly confused like that.

 

When the cuts on Luo Binghe’s face had faded Shang Qinghua heard him take a deep breath. “Since when?” he just asked. Thankfully, there was still no hostility.

 

“I’ve known before Dawang got me out of the lab. You never tried to eat anyone, it wasn’t important. Why make a big deal out of it?” Shang Qinghua shrugged as he let go of them. Mobei Jun still needed a little more work, but was looking a lot better already.

 

Luo Binghe scrunched his face while he visibly tried to process the information. “Dawang?” he began and shook his head right after. “Never mind. What did you mean when you said we’re not dead? Wasn’t that scientifically proven?”

 

Shang Qinghua snorted. “Sure. That’s what they told people to make them feel better about killing off their friends and family. I only know bits and pieces, but the virus does not kill. It just… changes things. You’re basically mutants. We all are. It has something to do with the crystals in our heads.”

 

“You mean, normal humans have those, too?” Mobei Jun interjected and Shang Qinghua shook his head.

 

“Ability users have them. That’s where all this stuff comes from. It’s the only way to adjust to the changes and the reason why everything else can’t survive for long.”

 

Luo Binghe breathed out a long sigh. “Then why don’t we all turn into the same thing? Why the deviation?”

 

“I have no idea. Genetics? State of mind? Environment? You tell me.” Shang Qinghua shrugged and let go of Mobei Jun’s hand, feeling a bit dizzy. Slowly the cold also caught up to him and he gladly took the jacket Mobei Jun offered him when he started to shiver. A cool but gentle hand landed on his head.

 

Luo Binghe just shook his head in disbelief. “That’s… Wow. How can you be so calm about this?”

 

“Bro, I’m positively freaking out every second and can’t deal with my fucking life right now. You just stop screaming after a while when everything’s constantly spinning out of control around you. And right now I’m more concerned about that one waking up than anything else.” He motioned to Meng Mo still lying on the ground next to them.

 

Luo Binghe gave the old man a cold look. “Who is that anyway? We could just kill him, if he’s that dangerous.”

 

“Eh.” Shang Qinghua took a moment to get over the fact that he had just been pulled into Mobei Jun’s lap, the man’s chin resting on his shoulder. After a deep breath he melted into the embrace and closed his eyes for a moment. It felt surprisingly good to get all this stuff off his chest. “He works with that woman. And we need him to teach you about your psychic ability. Something about controlling dreams.”

 

This prompted Luo Binghe to glare even more at the man. He still had Liu Qingge’s head in his lap and Shang Qinghua was sure he would have at least kicked Meng Mo under normal circumstances. “That means he knows where Shizun is. Who is this Sha Hualing anyway?” After being very vocal about hating psychic abilities it was no wonder that he decided to ignore this fact for now.

 

“She’s my ex-fiancé,” Mobei Jun answered unexpectedly. “Our parents decided it. The hate’s mutual.”

 

Shang Qinghua blinked while Luo Binghe snorted. “My condolences. And whose young master were you to get an arranged marriage?”

 

“Mo Industries.” The scowl was visible in the corner of Shang Qinghua’s eye. “We should go back to the house.”

 

This time Shang Qinghua chuckled and Luo Binghe’s eyes grew wide. “Wait, THAT tech empire Mo Industries? The guys who had their hands in every new development since…”

 

“Whatever it was, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Mobei Jun deadpanned and lifted Shang Qinghua from his lap to get up himself. He threw Meng Mo over his shoulder, waiting for Luo Binghe to pick up his still unconscious boyfriend.

 

They had to wait a few more minutes when Shang Qinghua remembered something. “Be right back,” he said and vanished into the house to come back with the car jack over his shoulder and the wheelchair in tow. The other two gave him amused looks. He pouted. “What? We need those?”

 

With this he led the way, only to make Mobei Jun and Luo Binghe realize they had been running in circles the whole time they were chasing Sha Hualing’s birds.

 

“By the way. The zombie thing…”Luo Binghe said after they were back in the house.

 

Shang Qinghua just shrugged. “You talk about that when you’re ready. But I think you should have more faith in these two.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan awoke to a string of curses even he would refuse to repeat to anyone he knew.

 

He chose not to open his eyes for the time being and just listened to the woman who came closer with every word. The last thing he remembered was an enormous eagle owl chasing him into a house and then everything went black. The headache still throbbed lightly in his temples, but much less oppressive than it had been before he fainted.

 

His hands were a bit numb and when he tried to move he found his wrists bound with something that felt like plastic. Zip ties from how they cut into his skin. The same applied to his ankles, but at least there was no blindfold or gag. A big mistake. He certainly would not point that out to her, though.

 

Peeking through his lashes he found a pair of sandals only a few inches from his face. Slender feet, an ankle tattoo consisting of colorful flowers and vines and toenails painted with intricate designs. Why someone would put this much effort into their foot care at this point was beyond him. It had been beyond him long before the outbreak, so, as a certified slob whenever the situation allowed it, he really had no right to judge.

 

“Damnit, where is that useless geezer?” the owner of said well-maintained feet complained and turned away. The rustling of feathers together with a subdued hoot came from what Shen Yuan assumed to be a window. “I know, Ai. But if we don’t give Junshang what he wants, he will not let us leave. We both don’t want to be part of his little experiment,” the woman answered the bird as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

 

Again the owl hooted, prompting a sigh. “His control is too strong to run away and he does not care for the others. He just wants the one that can see the future.” Suddenly her voice turned a lot angrier. “If Meng Mo double crossed me over this I’ll make sure he needs more than a wheelchair to move around! When the incubation period is over I’ll make them regret everything!“ There was a soft chirp and the woman chuckled. “Yes, that one in particular. I’ll keep his head as a souvenir for all the shit he put me through. Not interested in this my ass. The arrogant fuck embarrassed me in front of two hundred people. His idiotic uncle, too. Killed the whole family. Yeah right!” She clicked her tongue and left the room. From the sound of it, the bird followed along the side of the building.

 

Finally Shen Yuan was able to take a look, though, what he saw made him frown. Flickering electric light, a concrete floor, bare white walls and a metal door. The window was too small to get through and high enough that he had to stand on tiptoe to see what was outside.

 

Yep, a cellar room it was. A small one at that. The only company he had was an old boiler that was absolutely useless in his current situation. Great. And since he had no clue how long he had been out the darkness outside either meant it had at most been a few hours or he had missed more than a day. Either way his boyfriends were probably going berserk by now.

 

“’What to do?’ Zeus said. ‘The gods are wasted and throwing up all over Olympus.’” [*] he mumbled under his breath after cutting his feet free. Right now he regretted not being more flexible. Without seeing his hands there was nothing he could do about the binding there. Why was there never a mirror when you really needed one?

 

There were not tools or anything sharp either. The door was most likely locked. Breaking it down was not difficult, but it would be loud enough to alert people and without knowing what exactly he was dealing with, this was a stupid idea. The fact that the woman was apparently had the ability to talk to animals was worrying enough. A twisted Disney Princess came to mind and Shen Yuan cringed.

 

This Meng Mo sounded even worse. A person who managed to stay alive and independent in this world despite sitting in a wheelchair was a whole other level of terrifying.

 

He crossed his legs and tried to ignore his strained shoulders. There was no real hunger or thirst yet, so he began to assume it was still the same night.

 

On another note he started to figure out what had happened the last time with Jinlan. From the looks of it this Junshang had sent people to somehow spread the virus in the inner city… and then what? It had almost sounded like there was a way to control the resulting zombies. Had they really created a horde of a couple hundred thousand monsters and made them move somewhere else? How was that even possible without anyone noticing? This bordered on mass migration and the only way to conceal it would be psychic powers or illusions.

 

Where would you even move them to?

 

Granted, it was easy to hide with a few people. Even a small village could go undiscovered for a while. But two hundred thousand? This was an army! Coupled with the experiments of any kind this made Shen Yuan not want to go further down the rabbit hole.

 

If these people were hostile they were fucked either way.

 

The whole situation made him want to channel his brother’s temperament and give his captors a piece of his mind to with a taste of how it felt to suffocate out of nowhere. Where was Shen Jiu anyway? If he was anywhere nearby Shen Yuan needed to find and help him. And after that he would beat him up for all the shit he put innocent people through, not to mention leaving him hanging like that!

 

Another hoot sounded from outside, followed by wings flapping. Shortly after someone opened the door.

 

Since it was too late to lay back down and play dead, Shen Yuan decided to glower at whoever came to take a look. His brother looked intimidating enough when he did this. Might as well.

 

“You’re awake,” the woman assessed after a short moment of surprise, but seemingly unfazed. She gave Shen Yuan a smile instead that made him tense up even more. “Perfect. You can tell me a bit more about your friends then.”

 

She was met with ice silence and the air around her noticeably thinned. But the smile only deepened and started to remind him more and more of a shark.

 

Oh no.

 

“Cute. You know, the rats Ling-er brought along are not only for feeding Ai.” She pointed at the window where the bird sounds had come from. “They really like eating human flesh and nobody would miss a few fingers and toes on you. So… if you keep this up we’ll just get the blindfold.” She sighed theatrically.  “Ling-er is not a monster. It’s entirely your choice, sweetie.”

 

For a split second Shen Yuan felt his eyes grow wide before he bit back a curse of his own. Should the sentient zombies not appear much later? If this were one of the games he used to play he would be ready to flip the table. How unfair was that?!

 

Still unwilling to admit defeat he stopped his attempt and slowly got to his feet. From the looks of it she was alone at the moment and the door was still wide open. The real problem was the fucking owl outside. And since she obviously controlled all animals in the vicinity…

 

“Good boy,” she praised him, making every hair on his body stand on end with the patronizing tone. “I knew you’re not that stupid.”

 

Did he look like a dog?! He was not one to hit woman, but this little shit made him want to strangle her. Under all the makeup she was at most a year older than Liu Qingge’s sister and even that one was more mature! He had had enough of bratty teenagers during his internship and this one needed her ass whooped!

 

“Now tell me whe…“ She had reached out with one hand to touch his face when her claw-like nails clattered on the ground. There was a moment of stunned silence before rage contorted her features. “YOU!”

 

Shen Yuan prided himself in the fact that neither his anger nor satisfaction showed on his face and sidestepped the other hand that got the same treatment in passing. “I heard, pet rodents need their nails clipped or they might injure themselves,” he quipped. One of the spaghetti straps of her top snapped. “You should really put some clothes on. That outfit wouldn’t even fly for a twelve-year-old dressing on her own.”

 

There was a mad glint in her eyes when the girl lunged forward. Again Shen Yuan avoided her and this time he added a little shove via airflow. The following scream initiated a flurry of movement. There were at least twenty to thirty greyish-brown rats filling the room, all of them significantly bigger than what normally lurked in sewers and dumps. He took one look and, when the first two animals jumped at him, decided this was the best moment to run for it.

 

Two heavy gusts of wind cleared his way, the last one enough to squash a few rodents in the metal door. He took the steps two stairs at a time and slammed another door shut behind him on the first floor. A silent, dark school corridor greeted him. That meant he was closer to the others than first assumed. Great.

 

The glass pane of a damaged cabinet together with the last rays of moonlight solved his other problem shortly after. With his hands finally free he began to reassess the situation. Leaving the building was a no unless he got the girl under his control. But that meant he had to get rid of the rats first.

 

“You’re dead!” he heard a female voice holler after him just when he found the stairs to the second floor. Time to give the bitch and her pets a little work-out. He almost hope the owl would crash through one of the huge windows to complete the chaos. Strangely enough, there was no sign of the beast being around at all.

 

Aided by his own wind he jumped complete over the second flight of stairs to wait behind wall right next to the landing. The animals jumped into the invisible meat grinder with abandon, obviously mindless under the control of their master. A yelp followed by something audibly falling down the stairs finally brought a grin to his face. Blood really was slippery.

 

After a quick breath he swiped the dead animals away while taking his beloved fan out of his pocket. He made sure it was undamaged, before hiding his face behind it and stepping onto the landing. The girl really cut a sorry figure down there. It looked like she had hit her head and was still trying to get her bearings. But she was still feisty enough to glare up at him.

 

“Now we can talk,” Shen Yuan declared and leaned lightly against the stair-rail. “By the way, I would advise you to take strangers more seriously in the future.”

 

 

Chapter Text

„Where is my brother?“

 

Sha Hualing blinked at the man at the top of the stairs in confusion. “Who?”

 

The fan moved slowly in front of his face as he drew his brows closer together. With the worn-out jeans, sneakers that looked likely to fall apart at any moment and the green t-shirt that was at least one size too big for him he looked ridiculous. Was that some kind of Donghua or Anime print on his chest? With a proper haircut and at least a vague resemblance of a sense of style he might have been handsome, but right now… This was just sad.

 

“The guy that looks like me, but with shorter hair and designer clothes. A lot grumpier,” he interrupted her assessment. The blinking got more rapid as she fought to keep her expression neutral.

 

There were two of them? Oh, hell no!

 

Instead of voicing these thoughts she leaned against the wall and shot a suspicious look upwards. “Do I look like the lost and found office? Why do you think I’d know? The only other people I’ve seen here are you guys and the pricks guarding the city center.” And that useless piece of shit, Meng Mo, whom she would pummel into next week as soon as she found him!

 

When the fashion disaster raised his brows she realized how much she had played herself right now. He had offered her a free hostage situation to get out of this mess and she had to open her damn mouth without thinking. Stupid! She must have hit her head harder than she first thought.

 

“Ge really didn’t come then,” he just mused, completely ignoring her blanching face. For a moment he seemed immersed in his own world before he looked at her again. “Can you see through your animal’s eyes or is it just control and communication?”

 

“I… what?”

 

Incoherence was a concussion symptom, right? Sha Hualing wanted to kick herself right now. How did this guy manage to catch her off guard every time? And how did they arrive at something that felt like a friendly chat? Was the script not interrogation and threatening to kill her?

 

But he just looked at her, the amusement visible in the shape of his eyes above the fan. “Your ability. How does it work? I’ve never seen something like that.”

 

Still no threat. Just genuine interest. What the hell?

 

He even patiently waited for her to gather her thoughts. The whole demeanor reminded her of her Biology teacher in eighth grade. Sweet, understanding and willing to explain as many times and in as many ways as it took for everyone to understand the lesson.

 

“Hold on there, mister crazy professor. Why should I help you?” she asked with a lot less bite than intended.

 

The guy had the audacity to smile at that. “That’s Shen Laoshi or Shen Yuan for you. And I’m just curious. The more you know about abilities the easier it is to find new and more efficient uses for them.”

 

“Uhm,” she made unsure of how to reply to something like that. But the longer she looked at him, the more she inwardly relaxed. There was a strange urge to be open and honest with him that she did not quite understand. She decided to listen to it and answered, “It’s a mix of sound and mind control. Only works on intelligence below human levels, though. They… share impressions with me more than real words.”

 

He nodded, closing his fan to tap the guard against his lips. “And the owl? You called her Ai, right?”

 

“Ai is different. She is bound to me,” Sha Hualing answered without thinking about it anymore. “We share the same powers.”

 

The man paused. “What do you mean by bound?”

 

“It’s kinda like a pact. She listens to me, we protect each other and make each other stronger. There is also some strange telepathy and empathy thing going on. I’m not sure how that works, though.”

 

For some reason he seemed really excited by that. “Wait. You can turn mutated animals into pets? Like in roleplaying games or MMOs?”

 

“Err… I don’t know about the game thing and it’s not every random beast, but yes. Like Ai some of them have human intelligence and their own abilities. If it matches and you do it right, they can become loyal to you.”

 

He tapped the fan a few more times against his mouth, clearly pondering what has been said. “This is amazing! And absolutely crazy,” he finally exclaimed with shining eyes. “Do you know if there are any categories, like which races get which abilities? Or is it just up to luck to find one that fits?”

 

“I’m… not sure?” Sha Hualing began and suddenly the detached feeling she had the whole time grew into something that resembled an out-of-body experience. She was unable to move or speak and could only feel herself get up from the ground. There was also a yielding smile on her face that had no business being there.

 

“There are some already recorded cases. Plant monsters for example only seem to respond favorably to the wood element, regardless of secondary abilities. Tigers and other wildcats have shown mostly fire or lightning affinities. Fish and ephebic creatures are prone to be of the water variety … You probably get the gist.”

 

There was a conversational tone to her voice, almost as if she were talking to a friend or relative.

 

From the apprehensive reaction Shen Yuan had also picked up on the change. He stood up straight, the fan spreading out again. “That means, it’s a matter of temperament and habitat?”

 

“You could say that, yes.” Sha Hualing wanted to scream when her head bobbed. “I would have thought you already figured that out. Especially with two of the strongest monsters in this country as part of your group. Disappointing. They have to be smarter than that and more observant. Missing the most important and entertaining parts in all of this. What a shame.” Sha Hualing could do nothing against it when she spread her arms in a helpless gesture. “Alas, listening was never his strong suit.”

 

In the meantime Shen Yuan had made a step back, brows again knitted tightly. “Monsters? What are you talking about? There are no-“

 

“But they are,” he was interrupted, followed by a little sigh. “There he runs all over the place with two pet zombies on his heels and still doesn’t realize. And you even claim to love one of them. You should really try to understand your partners a little better. Father in law is disappointed.”

 

With a little pout the body shook its head. Sha Hualing was not sure if it was meant as a warning for her or just her master using one of his puppets as means to communicate. Either way, she hated it! She hated it so much that she wanted to claw at her own face to get rid of these unfamiliar expressions.

 

In her near frenzy she almost missed the man’s small gesture before white, hot pain flashed through her head and the world went dark. 

 

---

 

When she came to she felt something blunt digging into her stomach accompanied by steady, uncomfortable movement. Her first reaction was a groan that somehow multiplied the pain in her head. The dizziness and urge to vomit were almost overwhelming. She had no idea if she had ever felt this miserable in her life.

 

“Vomit on my back and I’ll drop you,” a male voice informed her matter-of-factly.

 

She covered her mouth with one hand as fast as she was able to. That alone seemed like a herculean feat. Opening her eyes was an impossible task for now. Her head hurt too much to even think about calling Ai for help. Could this get any worse?

 

There was only the school in here memory and… Oh, right. There was that asshole and it felt like he had thrown her over his shoulder like a sack of radishes. Neat.

 

Right after she had somehow calmed her stomach a loud call ripped through her brain like a hot blade.

 

“SHIZUN!”

 

She braced herself for the impact, but there was only a light whack and the other man give a whine. “No Shizun! I’m so mad at you right now!” The loud voice right next to her ears was another jolt of pain a second later. Her tormentor stomped forward with renewed vigor.

 

There was another concerned voice asking if Shen Yuan was alright and offering to take over carrying her – Yes please! –, but he was rebuffed in an only slightly more civil way. “Just… don’t talk to me right now, okay?” Shen Yuan cut him off and the sound of his steps changed. A wooden floor?

 

“A-Yuan, I don’t know what…?” The whiny voice tried again and the quick turn made Sha Hualing even more dizzy.

 

“You’ll know soon enough!”

 

“Oh shit!” a fourth, more timid voice joined in. She felt herself rudely thrown onto something soft she identified as a couch after a careful peek, then the noise resumed.

 

“Get me that fucking block of ice here! I’ll rip both of you IDIOTS a new one!”

 

Someone left the room in a hurry. He was a bit smaller than the others from what she was able to make out. Was that not her target? Then what happened to Meng Mo?

 

 

Chapter Text

Mobei Jun had just checked up on the old man when he heard the commotion downstairs. With an uneasy feeling he put the blindfold back in place, in hopes it would hold the man’s powers in check. The rules for psychic powers were still a mystery to most people, himself included.

 

The abilities with physical manifestations were prone to turn on themselves and hurt the user instead if there was no opportunity to see their environment. You needed to be able to target at least something or this something became most likely your own body. Inconvenient, but not hard to predict.

 

With mindreading and control over others it was not that simple. He had a guess that the target had to be seen in person at least once and to be in sight to cause damage to them. On everything else he drew a blank. At least they knew that trying to control someone and attacking at the same time weakened one if not both of the action. And when in doubt they could always knock him out again.

 

The moment he turned to the door it opened by itself to give way to a pale and frightened looking Shang Qinghua. That was not good. But before he could ask, he was already given the missing information already, “Shen Yuan is back. Wants to talk to you. I just… need a moment.”

 

Gnashing his teeth he forced the kid to sit down on the bed and gave him with some chocolate and a blanket before he left him in the dark room. Time to face the idiot who still had no awareness on being a potential trigger for panic attacks, if not mental breakdowns. The angry voice was loud enough to understand every word on the stairs and what he saw when he entered the living room let Mobei Jun imagine why everyone hated Shen Yuan’s brother so much. Though, from what he had been told, that prick would not be caught dead in a Chikorita shirt.

 

He decided to just watch for the time being after entering the living room. Luo Binghe all but groveled in front of the fuming Shen Yuan, Liu Qingge stood next to the couch and… Oh, Sha Hualing looked pretty beaten up. He could almost feel sympathy for her. Emphasis on almost.

 

Suddenly Shen Yuan turned at him with an outstretched index finger. “You! Both of you! What the fuck were you thinking?!”

 

Mobei Jun raised his brows to exchange a questioning look with Luo Binghe. He could not think of anything both of them had done that would send Shen Yuan into a frenzy like this. “Please elaborate,” he then said after Luo Binghe seemed just as clueless.

 

“Alright.” The gnashing of teeth was an improvement to having a finger poked in his face, but the deep breath Shen Yuan took was awfully foreboding. Luo Binghe cringed and even Liu Qingge took a small step back from the radiating anger.

 

“When were you two jackasses planning on telling us that you are freaking zombies?  And why do I have to hear it from your fucking father through her?! YOU PROMISED ME NO MORE SECRETS, BINGHE!” Shen Yuan gestured impatiently at Sha Hualing at the same time.

 

Luo Binghe already looked close to tears when Mobei Jun joined them, now this was furthered by Liu Qingge’s sharp intake of breath. “A-Yuan… I…”

 

“I’m not done yet!” he was cut of mercilessly and in the next second his chest was poked with the offending index finger. “Have your tiny, rotting brains ever thought about how dangerous it is for you to two enter ANY BASE AT ALL!  If anyone had the slightest hunch there would be a freaking witch hunt and I don’t care how strong you are, because there are tons of ability users who can work together and turn you into minced meat in fucking seconds!! What if you got seriously hurt and I took you to a fucking doctor to fucking find out that you have no fucking heartbeat?! DID YOU THINK YOU CAN KEEP THIS BULLSHIT UP FOREVER?!!”

 

Only Shen Yuan’s ragged breath could be heard after that for a few second. He still glared, alternating between Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun. Though, the latter looked rather unimpressed.

 

“Are you done?” Mobei Jun simply asked when he was sure the yelling was over for the time being. He had his arms folded and watched Shen Yuan with deceptively calm eyes.

 

There was another pause and the glare focused solely on him. “How dare you?” The finger was back and Mobei Jun was one stab short of pummeling its owner into the wall. Thankfully, he only pointed and did not touch him. “Do you even care what this will do to Qinghua? He trusts you more than anyone. What do you think will happen when he finds out the person he’s crushing on hard has been dead for over a year?”

 

“He already knew before we met,” Mobei Jun decided to drop the next bombshell without caring anymore. Right now he was thankful for his pale complexion, though. He had suspected for a while that the kid had feelings that went beyond normal friendship, but hearing it spoken out loud made things a lot more difficult.

 

On the other side Shen Yuan’s eyes widened and Liu Qingge took the opportunity to take part in the conversation. “You three played us for fools the whole time?” His tone was dangerously low, shoulders tensed like a predator ready to attack.

 

Luo Binghe was still no help at all. By now he just stood there, his face as white as the wall behind him, with an expression as if his soul had already left his body. The fear coming from him was as palpable as the pure wrath of his two partners.

 

Mobei Jun wanted to take their heads and bash them together. The little grin he noticed on Sha Hualing’s face did not improve his mode. He decided to make an example and froze her mouth shut while the temperature in the room noticeably dropped.

 

“Qinghua told us when you were unconscious,” he told Liu Qingge as calm as possible after that. “Contrary to you two he decided not to make a big deal out of this.” He rather withheld the fact that Shang Qinghua knew even more in the current atmosphere and just proceeded to return the two glares.

 

Finally Shen Yuan breathed out heavily through his nose and shook his head. “This is so fucking stupid. We’re doing exactly what he wanted, aren’t we?” With him relaxing a little Liu Qingge also seemed to calm down again. He still eyed Mobei Jun with obvious suspicion. Luo Binghe seemed to be completely under his radar. Speaking of irrational fears.

 

“If you don’t need me anymore I need to look after a possible mental breakdown up there. You should take care of your own meltdown over there,” Mobei Jun said after a nod in Luo Binghe’s direction. When he moved up the stairs the temperature returned to a normal level. He was relieved to hear Shen Yuan call out to Luo Binghe in a gentle tone before he braced himself for the mess he had to deal with upstairs.

 

---

 

There were always good and bad nights. If the first night Mobei Jun had slept in the same bed with him was one of the best, this could be considered the worst one yet.

 

Shang Qinghua tossed and turned in his sleep. Where it was possible to calm him down by stroking his hair or pulling him into a hug under normal circumstances, he now tried to get as far away as possible. Every touch caused a shiver, sometimes followed by a small, terrified noise in his throat. Like a frightened animal he had curled himself into a ball until only a few strands of hair peeked out under the blanket.

 

When he woke up after at most half an hour he was distraught and disoriented. And every time he would bury his face in Mobei Jun’s chest to cry himself to sleep again within minutes. An unsettling cycle, repeated over and over again. And with every time the dreams appeared to get worse.

 

While he watched over the frightened bundle of misery Mobei Jun felt himself strangely reminded of his mother. Back then he had not known why she cried so much and always looked sad an exhausted. The word depression had been unknown to him at the time. With his twelve years he had only known that she should not be lonely, so he had snuck into her bed every night while his father was out on one of his countless business trips.

 

He remembered a doctor coming into the house every few days. The man had talked to his mother for at least an hour and left medicine that made her sick for days. Mobei Jun had been praised for being a good son and the doctor told him, if he wanted to talk about his fears and woes, he could always come to him or tell his mother to call him in.

 

One morning, after a few weeks, he had found his mother lifeless in her bed with strange foam dripping out of her mouth. The cry for help had been too late and after the funeral the doctor was called for him instead. During his countless therapy sessions he had learned more about mental illness than he had ever wanted to know.

 

He tried to shake off the memories when Shang Qinghua let out a little whine. Only now did he realize how hard he had clutched him in his arms and pressed him as close as possible. He loosened his hold to gently stroke his back in apology.

 

“You’ll be okay,” he whispered again and again into the dark hair until the first rays of sunlight snuck through the curtains.

 

 

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge looked at the sorry figure with his head in Shen Yuan’s lap. He had calmed down only a few minutes ago, after endless crying and apologies to both of them. Even now Luo Binghe had his hand in an iron grip as if holding on to a lifeline.

 

Seeing him this terrified had been baffling to say the least. Liu Qingge was used to the cheeky, sometimes ridiculously embarrassing, sometimes downright brutal front. Nothing had prepared him for the picture of an overgrown child so terrified of rejection that he had difficulties to string a coherent sentence together. And what they had gotten out of him had been even more unsettling.

 

The sheer obsession and dependence on them needed to keep himself sane was a whole other type of insanity in itself. When he thought about how Luo Binghe, his partner, a person he loved and cared for, had been in a constant state of fear to make even the smallest misstep and lose it all, he realized how little he really knew about both of them.

 

And he, quite frankly, could not blame anyone but himself for that. It was his nature to take things as they were and not think too much about anything that did not pose an immediate problem. This in itself had now become the very problem. Or more, it had always been a problem he just had not seen the whole time. He had no idea how to deal with all of this and how much it had undermined his trust in these two people.

 

Interacting with Mobei Jun would be even harder, though, he already had to thank him for keeping Sha Hualing from talking. The expression in her eyes was obvious enough. She would have made things a thousand times worse on principle if it were not for the ice covering half of her face.

 

Could he just try to trust Binghe and through that have faith in his trust in Mobei Jun? Thinking about it, the man also cared deeply from how he treated Shang Qinghua. Not to mention that he had stuck his neck out for them without needing to and would have had countless opportunities to betray them. He even carried most of Liu Qingge’s own arsenal without complaint and never failed to arm him instantly in critical situations. In short, he could be considered a reliable and valuable ally, if not friend.

 

Why did things always have to be so complicated when it came to human interaction that went beyond fighting? Or was he just about to make them unnecessarily complicated by giving this matter way too much weight? His thoughts went back to the statement that Shang Qinghua had known about their differences from the start and decided not to make a big deal out of it. If the kid that had been mistreated and abused until he was an unstable mess could shrug it off why could he not do the same?

 

And then it suddenly hit him how many presumably mindless undead he had slaughtered without a second thought. Sure, it had been self-defense. He had just kept himself and the people around him alive. But what if there had been another way? Not to mention that the practice of digging out the cores in their brains and using them to strengthen their own powers had been nothing short of cannibalism.

 

He took a deep breath and stared at the ceiling. “Damn…”

 

“Hu?” Shen Yuan turned to him, but he just shook his head.

 

“This night was way too long.”

 

Shen Yuan answered with a nod and a yawn. One of his hands was still in Binghe’s hair, the other one gripped just as tightly as Liu Qingge’s.

 

“I hope everything’s alright up there,” Shen Yuan said after a few more moments of silence.

 

Instantly Liu Qingge’s eyes moved in the direction of the stairs. “We would probably know by now if anything went wrong with the psychic up there,” he mused only to be stared at by Shen Yuan.

 

“Psychic? You mean that Meng Mo guy?” he asked and Liu Qingge shrugged.

 

“No idea what he’s called. He was still unconscious when the others told me we have a captive.”

 

This gave Shen Yuan pause, his eye growing wide all of the sudden. “Shit, I forgot about the people in the city!”

 

---

 

Half an hour later they sat around the coffee table. All of them looked pale and tired, Luo Binghe and Shang Qinghua even more so. The latter had dark circles under his eyes and appeared as if he had not slept at all.

 

They had Sha Hualing and Meng Mo bundled up on the floor. The former still had some blood clinging to the hair on the back of her head while the latter seemed completely disoriented.

 

In the back of his mind Liu Qingge filed the information that taking out mental abilities worked best by inflicting head injuries. Well, he too would not want to mess with anyone else’s thoughts if he had to deal with his own crippling headache. The only threat right now was the huge owl that had perched on their roof for the last few hours. After Shen Yuan’s short explanation regarding its connection to Sha Hualing he would watch the girl even more closely.

 

Right now, though, they had to deal with an even bigger problem.

 

“Those who have reached a certain level of power can control others of our… kind at a whim,” Luo Binghe just said. He still sounded a bit hoarse. “If it were anyone else, either of us could probably jump in there and sort things out, but my father has always been stronger than me. With things as they are we can’t even control the two we have right here. Like A-Yuan said, he could just take them over or watch us through their eyes. The injuries would not bother him much. It’s not like he feels what they feel. And I don’t think he would even consider their body’s and mind’s limitation when he wants something done. He never had any scruples when it comes to breaking people.”

 

“And since he’s probably working with my uncle, we have to deal with a sociopath and a homicidal nutjob,” Mobei Jun concluded.

 

Shen Yuan let out a long, deep sigh. “Here I thought my family was messed up.” There was a wry smile on his face Luo Binghe mirrored. Shang Qinghua just cringed and even Liu Qingge joined in, knowing full well whom they were thinking about.

 

“Now, what can you two tell us before we decided you’re too dangerous to keep around?” Shen Yuan turned to the two captives. Both of them had not said a word the whole time. Sha Hualing just sported an annoying pout after she had popped her jaw a few times, probably trying to get some feeling back.

 

She watched all of them defiantly.

 

“I could freeze and shatter her head,” Mobei Jun offered in a conversational tone. “Would solve the annoying owl screeches.”

 

Her answer was an obvious insult but so slurred nobody was able to make out the meaning of the words. After a few moments of surprise the tension dissolved in a fit of laughter and for a short time nobody cared about the danger looming over them or the petulant stare full of bloodlust.

 

 

Chapter Text

Ning Yingying suppressed a groan and massaged the space between her eyebrows with two fingers.

 

Everything was a mess. Not only had Qi Qingqi gone with a bigger band of survivors behind her than anyone expected, the ones left behind also were restless and ready to bolt. Ning Yingying herself had been pestered by Qi Qingqi to also follow them to search for Mu Qingfang and a new place to live in the process.

 

The latter she could understand after Shen Jiu had acted up several times and word got out about Meng Yao’s real purpose here. She still wanted to kick the Wen official who had put that idiot in charge of their diplomatic relations with Cang Qiong base. He had pulled Yue Qingyuan and Shen Jiu on his side in a way that looked awfully shady. Many suspected his mental powers at work. And when he had made himself as suspicious as possible he still was not usable as a proper scapegoat.

 

It would have been so easy to have him take the fall for the doctor’s disappearance. A few pieces of evidence planted here and there, A bit of information about the real experiments in the research facilities. She could have covered her tracks perfectly and make a villain of this so-called new government in the process. Easy-peasy, with no one the wiser.

 

Not only had he put forward an alibi in form of a headache she herself had treated, he also tried to help them find the insufferable goody two-shoes. It had been a blessing that Qi Qingqi was dense and gullible enough to outright dismiss the fact that she had been the last healthy person in the infirmary that night. And who would suspect the sweet, innocent nurse anyway. But it had led to a level of vigilance that made it impossible for her to get near the other targets on the list.

 

She was not even able to follow the plan to bolster her own powers with resources the medical team rightly deserved for keeping all these idiots alive day in and day out. Doctor Mu had never asked for an appropriate share and proceeded to run around outside, leaving her with the lion’s share of the work. New sources for vaccines and pain medication. What a joke! If they were just given the opportunity to become stronger without jumping through countless hoops they would have been able to treat sickness and injuries within seconds.

 

But no, it would undermine their integrity to charge more for medical treatment of those with offensive powers. The selfish bastards who had more nuclei from their missions than they would ever need could not be made to give up more than the share the base took from them to distribute between all workers, with only an equal small share for those with healing powers. Even now she wanted to strangle him whenever that gentle smile and those oh so innocent eyes popped up in her memory. Good riddance!

 

Now she only had to make sure that her employer did not decided to take her as a replacement for the manpower she had been unable to provide. She was sure she had never seen his real face, but he was probably ugly as a mud fence under his stupid mask or the guises he preferred to use.

 

The only good things were the drugs he provided. They might not be able to strengthen her ability, but they filled up her internal reservoir within seconds and let her appear much more powerful that she really was. The feeling of being drained had become almost foreign to her. It was just, with her underperforming in her duties there had been no more payments for quite a while and she had grown so dependent on the little pick-me-ups that the thought of going without them for even one day was unbearable.

 

And that meant she had to deliver that other water user and the lightning user requested as fast as possible to restock her supply.

 

She just had to figure out how to reliably pin it on someone else. And if it had to be Ming Fan who by now ran after her like a mute, lonely puppy.

 

---

 

At the same time Shen Jiu had just left Yue Qingyuan’s office, slamming the door behind him.

 

People were leaving the base in droves which was good and according to plan. Not good was that Qi-ge had first refused to let him leave for Jinlan and now panicked at the prospect of having Cang Qiong disband right under his nose.

 

That was the fucking point!

 

First of all it would prevent people from being hurt in possible attacks or abducted by the Wen clan or any suspicious third party out there. And secondly would it free Qi-ge from his responsibility and give Shen Jiu the chance to get this blockhead out of here and to safety.

 

And for safety he needed information from the outside, hopefully provided by his useless brother who by now should have figured out that something went wrong on this end. They had made a list with meeting places and dates in advance, so he could only hope Shen Yuan would show up at the next one in a few weeks. It would be their last chance to meet up before winter made any kind of traveling impossible.

 

The worst case scenario right now would be Shen Yuan and his two idiots showing up on their doorstep. He had enough difficulties with keeping his own mind as blank as possible in front of Meng Yao. Additional risks were not appreciated.

 

The only reason why a tiny part of him wished for this to happen anyhow was to confirm if Shen Yuan’s group had anything to do with the explosion and if a certain someone was still alive. He had no doubt that his brother was still alive and unharmed. Probably.

 

If not he would find Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge to show them what real pain looked like!

 

He bit back the uncharacteristic growl at the thought of something happening to his brother and stomped in direction of the warehouses. Time to check the books and their remaining provisions. It would not do if they were left with nothing to live off and bargain their way into another base when everything was said and done.

 

He would make sure that at least a certain mind reader would not be able to track them down again at this point. His usefulness was already mostly inexistent after he had served as a sufficient bogeyman with Shen Jiu’s questionable support behind him.

 

Sometimes it was pretty useful to have the reputation of a monster.

 

 

Chapter Text

Carefully Hua Cheng observed the people coming and going in the dining hall. One of the cooks had ultimately taken him and Xie Lian under her wing, waving the concerns away that came with their peculiar powers. She was a less powerful fire user which made her predestined for her job as she said herself. Sometimes several times a day if she felt like it.

 

Right now she had given both of them a carrot to munch on and proceeded to give out food with a smile. It was not bad to live with her, but her bedtime stories were not half as good as those of a certain other person. And even while he loathed to admit it, he somehow missed the five men. Not, that he wanted to stay with them instead. It was just that Xie Lian liked them a lot and they treated them like normal people despite knowing how dangerous they could become.

 

This for him had honestly taken some getting used to. Since long before the virus he had been able to tell when something bad was about to happen. Someone had told him it was called intuition or gut feeling. But, whenever it appeared it had ended up with people around him getting hurt or having bad luck and he alone was left unscathed.

 

He had tried to warn people, even without knowing what exactly it was they should try to avoid. It had always ended with the bad thing happening anyway and over time others had started blaming him for his pranks or treated him like he was cursed. The people closest to him were the worst off. His father had left them when he was six so everything fell on his mother, making her lose job after job until she had difficulties to pay the rent, let alone bring a decent meal to the table. In the end she had given her children up to public services and also vanished without a trace.

 

After his eldest brother had been caught cursing and beating him up, he had been separated from his siblings. There had been three, no, four foster families, but all of them had capitulated within the first few weeks, the most determined holding on for not even two months. The social workers had been baffled and could only put him in an orphanage where he learned to obediently shut his mouth and just watch things happen. The elderly nun had been very convincing in her threats to squelch his misdeeds and nonsense once and for all.

 

He had mostly avoided the other children and kept to himself after that. His odd eyes with the left so dark it was almost black and the right one red like an albino’s in the light had frightened most of them off anyway. Ugly was the kindest description he had gotten for them. The other insults were quickly suppressed by the promise of washing out the children’s mouths if a curse word was heard. It had done wonders in terms of keeping things civil.

 

He still had attempted to hide his face whenever possible.

 

With the outbreak everything changed. There had been soldiers and strange men and woman in white lab coats who took them away after talking to the caretakers in private for a while. The older children had presumed they had been sold to someone while they sat in the van on their way to an unknown destination. An assumption that appeared even more accurate when they reached the huge complex in the middle of nowhere.

 

Here they had been forced to wash themselves and change their cloth into the same white as really everything was painted in. Afterwards they were sorted into age groups and brought to closed off rooms full of toys and books that held six beds each.

 

In his room there had been Shi QingXuan, a girl with way too much energy who instantly clung to the second girl, He Xuan, a gloomy, pale one who seemed to barely tolerate the constant pestering and questions after her elder brother Shi WuDu and another best friend called Ming Yi. Hua Cheng had tried to give them a wide berth from the start, only marking He Xuan down as someone he might get along with if it were not for the extra.

 

The other three were a stiff, girly looking boy with light hair, who tried to play meek but seemed tempted to role his eyes at every second word the loud one next to him said. That one would have had a hard time in the orphanage with his foul mouth and bad temper. Mu Qing and Feng Xin. Hua Cheng had marked the latter one down for a kick in the shin if he ever dared to gripe at him like that.

 

Only the last one, the beautiful boy who sat next to them with the look of helpless exasperation on his face, instantly caught his attention. He seemed so gentle and soft and the smile he had given Hua Cheng in passing had been full of so much warmth.

 

He longed to be his friend and to protect him from whatever was going to happen to them. The only problem were his two self-proclaimed bodyguards who tried to keep him away as much as possible. And especially Mu Qing was surprisingly strong for his appearance.

 

Not, that they had much time to get to know each other and be friends. They were only given a few days to settle in and get used to their new environment. During this time there were already several medical examinations which involved being stripped completely naked and taking blood samples. The doctors and scientists left no doubt that they were looking at them as test subjects instead of human beings.

 

Within the first week he was twice taken to a dark chamber with circles and strange markings on the floor. He still remembered how the air had been heavy with smoke and strange scents. Incense was a word that came to mind afterwards. They had given him a red shirt and black pants to wear and forced him to sit in the middle of the circle surrounded by candle light. Then the monotone chant started. It had made him feel dizzy until he closed his eyes.

 

Memories had flooded his brain that were not his own. Towns that looked nothing like the modern city he had grown up in. People in traditional clothes. Swordfights and something that looked like a war. It was all jumbled and made no sense to him. As did the strange voice that followed him around and spoke in a language he had never heard before. Though, judging from the tone it tried to convey something urgent and important.

 

By the fourth time he found that he was losing ability to write properly. By the seventh the faces of his family had vanished completely. After the twelfth time he was unable to remember his own name and every time he tried to remember it was replaced by Honghong-er, Hua Cheng or San Lang. And with it the names of the other children around him also changed.

 

At first calling the beautiful boy by the name Xie Lian or the title Dianxia had been strange. He knew, all of them were named different before. But whenever he tried to use their old names during the brief times they were allowed to play in a big group on the strange playground outside they became a blur or static in his ears. And over time it just did not matter anymore. They were who they were. The strange voices had merged with their thoughts and memories speaking clearly of who they had been in a time long past.

 

The scientists seemed satisfied with the progress. Unlike other rooms they had not a single failure, mostly resulting in a violent death somewhere along the road. And with that the visits to the dark room ended, only to turn into other experiments instead, leaving them aching and exhausted to the bone.

 

These he refused to remember. He only knew all of them dreaded the moment they were called out again. Especially Xie Lian looked hardly able to hang on, a haunted look in his eyes and plagued by nightmares. Thus, when someone came into their room late at night, offering to get them out, there had been no hesitation.

 

Shi QingXuan, Mu Qing and Feng Xin had been caught on the way out. He had no idea if they were still alive or not. He Xuan vanished on the road without a trace. Hua Cheng wished the pale girl had taken them along when he woke up in the next research facility soon after. And then, after several weeks or months of being a lab rat again, Mobei Jun had come along and taken them with him.

 

So, yes, life right now was good. In fact better than anything he had known before and he intended to keep it that way. If not for himself then at least for Xie Lian who had finally found his smile again. After all that happened there was much more of the child left in him than in Hua Cheng himself, though, his petulant nature could not be denied.

 

A little grin tugged at the corners of his mouth while he observed Xie Lian trying to carry an empty food tray that was much too big for him. He slid off his seat to help him and ignored the praise of the woman, what little gentlemen they had turned into. The only thing that gave him a warm feeling was the thankful smile Xie Lian gave him.

 

---

 

After a long day full of being allowed to simply act like children, something that sounded like an explosion interrupted one of the best dream he had in a while. Xie Lian stirred in his arms, just as startled as he felt, and a quick look at the darkness outside their window told them it was still in the middle of the night.

 

There were no screams yet or the smell of something burning, so a fire it was not. The two boys shared a look and when they got up from the bed another loud bang ripped through the silence.

 

Now the yelling started and when Hua Cheng stuck his head out of the door he saw people running in direction of the northern barrier closest to the forest. Xie Lian took his hand and together they followed the crowd. His friend went, he knew, in hopes he would be able to help. Hua Cheng himself just wanted to know what was going on before doing anything. The only thing he could tell right now was that it looked more like an attack than an accident.

 

The hunch reaffirmed itself when the lights some people had brought along revealed two holes in the thick wall. A high squeal was the only thing that warned Hua Cheng and he managed to pull Xie Lian out of the way of a giant wild boar just in time. A few others caught in its path had not been so lucky. One lay motionless on his back with a gaping hole in his side just a few feet away.

 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian murmured and Ruoye began to uncurl itself from his arm. But Hua Cheng refused to loosen the grip on his arm, shaking his head. He knew what Xie Lian was planning to do and he refused to let him endanger and reveal himself like this at the same time. He just had to find another way to stop the boar who had turned around and was facing them with beady, bloodshot eyes. Both of them could take these beasts down, but it would result in what Shen Yuan and later Gongyi Xiao had warned them time and time not to do.

 

He grit his teeth, still hoping that the stupid pig would look for another target as another squeal sounded behind them. This time there was more pain than anger and the jolt of fear over a second attacker turned into grim satisfaction. That meant, if they managed to avoid this one, they could just leave it to the adults.

 

The boar appeared to have other plans, one hoof pawing the ground as it got ready to charge again.

 

When it did, Xie Lian jumped in front of Hua Cheng, arms outstretched to brace the impact. Ruoye also slipped forward, but did not manage to bind the animal’s legs in time. Instead, heat brushed their faces and two naked feet engulfed in blazing flames crashed violently into the boar’s side.

 

The noise it made came close to a whine and after a punch to its head all movement ceased.

 

Gongyi Xiao was still in pajamas and sported a bedhead, but in the light of his own fire he still looked like a hero. When he turned around to them he brushed a few strands of hair out of his face and gave them a friendly smile.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

 

Chapter Text

There had been even more beast to clean up before someone had managed to properly close the holes in the wall again. The efficiency was honestly impressive on some level and for once Hua Cheng realized that the strongest people might have gone on one of their trips again, but the remaining people also were nothing to scoff at.

 

The way Gongyi Xiao had organized the chaos in a calm manner showed that he knew exactly what he was doing, despite his only 20 years of age. Quick reaction times due to the tight chain of command had prevented any casualties beyond injuries and even those had been handled to the point that nobody would be absent for more than a few days.

 

It was like a safety net every member of the base could rely on. And it was structured in a way that prevented anyone from slacking off because they did not feel as important or underappreciated. Everyone had their place and was useful in their own way. Even the people without special powers were integrated to the best of their abilities.

 

While Hua Cheng pointedly ignore the tongue lashing of their surrogate mother he still marveled about how different two well organized places could be, just because one treated human life as disposable and the other cherished and protected it at all cost. He could not help but feel good about becoming part of the latter. Not the fuzzy ‘I love the people around me and want to protect them’ kind Xie Lian tended to show, of course. But still good in a way that made him want to stay for a while longer.

 

“This really is out home now, isn’t it?” Xie Lian asked when they were tugged under the blanket again with an unnecessary kiss on the forehead. Hua Cheng was barely able to make out his eyes in the darkness. He still nodded to see white teeth flash with an obvious smile. “Home…”

 

Xie Lian repeated the word a few times, almost too quiet to hear, and burrowed himself in Hua Cheng’s arms with a satisfied sigh. This alone also brought a smile to the younger boy’s face. “Gege,” he murmured.

 

Xie Lian was eleven now. There had been a small celebration when he casually mentioned it. Just because the last one was anything but an occasion to be happy about. His tenth birthday had not been mentioned. Not even at the promise of a belated present. When he calculated back it really had been enough that it was the day they were rescued. Rescued… Yes, that was really the right expression in more than one way, as strange as the word felt on his tongue.

 

He hugged Xie Lian a bit tighter and burrowed his face in the other’s hair. Home started to feel like a very, very good thing. He could get used to this.

 

---

 

The punishment of helping out in the greenhouse relativized this statement within the next few days. He had no problem helping anyone out when asked. Or more precise when Xie Lian asked him. No problem at all. But now he was forced to lug around buckets of water and dirt for a few hours a day and already lamented the fact not to have Xie Lian’s physical strength and stamina. Child labor was illegal for a reason! As should sore muscles be for that matter…

 

He grimaced at Qin Wanrong who rubbed some dirt from his cheek unasked. “My sister is right. You’re so cute,” she cooed, almost prompting him to break his promise.

 

This Supreme was anything but cute, thank you very much. Xie Lian’s smile when another worker rubbed his head could be considered exactly that on the other hand. He felt a pat on his crown and looked up with a scowl only to earn another adoring noise. He did not pout, regardless of what the girl squealed before calling everyone for lunch.

 

In a heartbeat he grabbed Xie Lian’s hand and pulled him outside as fast as possible to just get away from the ensuing madness. Since the first day he knew that the female workers only waited for the opportunity to drop their work and shower them with affection. This was even more exhausting than the work itself. Not to mention extremely annoying, since it cut even more into his time alone with Xie Lian. The novelty of this should have worn out on day the at most in his opinion.

 

“They just like you, San Lang,” Xie Lian had said when he complained about it on the evening of the first day. Right now he just chuckled and followed Hua Cheng obediently, casually swatting one of those annoying squirrels out of the air when nobody was looking. Those also seemed to multiply by the day much to the cooks’ delight and healers’ frustration.

 

There had already been the order to check the roofs, walls and towers three times a day and some of those little bastards still managed to slip through. Though, by now most people almost appeared to develop a sixth sense when it came to unexpected things falling onto their heads. As long as nothing started to assault their feet next they should be able to get this somehow under control with time. Looking up while leaving a building was already a reflex engrained in almost every member of the base.

 

He was just about to switch his attention to the topic of food and ask Xie Lian what he was hoping for when the sound of a car came from the main gate. Both of them looked over at once and as soon as they spotted the familiar jeep Hua Cheng was the one pulled in a different direction until they were both running.

 

The only strange thing was that there were two cars instead of one again and when the men got out both Liu Qingge and Mobei Jun carried an unconscious person wrapped in ropes over their shoulder. The huge bird perching on a tree near the gate made the situation even weirder.

 

“Sorry, later,” Shen Yuan just said and sprinted off in the direction of Gongyi Xiao’s office while the others marched off to the old maximum security unit.

 

Only Shang Qinghua stood a bit lost next to the second jeep before he spotted them. Despite his haggard appearance that reminded Hua Cheng of the first day they had met, he gave them an honest smile. “Hey, good to see you. How have you been?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Was there a huge crime in his past life he did not remember? Had he offended some mischievous deity out there who now took revenge on him in the worst way possible?

 

Whatever it was, Meng Yao was done with all of this. He was supposed to collect information about the Wen Clan for his father. He was supposed to be in the capital to find ways to undermine Wen Ruohan’s plans and search for possible allies. This was only made out to be a small test to show his loyalty, though the logic behind sending him alone still eluded him. Not that he expected any logic behind Wen Chao’s decisions after all he had seen of the young man. Calling him not the sharpest tool in the shed would be insulting to the real tools in there.

 

The only problem was, he had decided to go through the insufferable peacock to get to his father.

 

Flattering had worked at first. It had been easy to learn his likes and dislikes, organize food, drink, women… Even his probably illiterate girlfriend had started to like and rely on the efficient and humble servant who jumped at her every whim. Slowly he had started to show other talents, climbed the ranks until he was closer to the idiot than anyone else.

 

A few hints dropped. Unassuming questions about the higher chain of command. Some interest shown in meeting Wen Chao’s esteemed father. He had been careful and allowed his achievements to be taken advantage of, as much as he hated it. The possibility to take the next step had been right within his grasp. So easy and clean.

 

Then this stupid idea had popped up after he had unfortunately mentioned his brief stay in Cang Qiong base. Wen Chao had obsessed over presenting a new vassal to his father. There was no talking to him after he had made up his mind and a few days later Meng Yao found himself on his way to meet his old friends.

 

At this point he had thought it would be easy to get back to the partnership of convenience they had agreed on. The first step had been to find Yue Qingyuan and get into his good graces again. His mother’s death had been enough to garner some sympathy, after he had told them before, he wanted to look for her whereabouts.

 

He had still believed these were smart, reasonable people back then. Now he knew he had been a complete fool.

 

The first cracks had shown themselves when he agreed to help interrogating a potential spy to find a rare, valuable ability instead. Idiots. He had delivered the person to Wen Ruohan’s doorstep to hopefully garner some goodwill. At the same time he informed his father to give him the chance of snatching the young man back with some luck and good planning.

 

A week later the very same research facility, the apple of Wen Ruohan’s eye and deliverer of new, powerful soldiers for his private army, had gone up in flames. And with it the clairvoyance ability vanished that could have been an immeasurable advantage for any faction out there.

 

There was no real clue on who had done it. With only a crater and no witnesses left, it might have been a horrible accident for all they knew.

 

The Wen Clan, of course, had taken the opportunity to throw shade on some of their rivals, claiming it had been sabotaged and the complex blown up by people who wanted to see the world burn. That there had never been a cure for the virus was secondary. Nobody needed to know those details.

 

It also meant that all his work in this direction had been worthless. His father was unnecessarily aggrieved about the loss and the higher ups of the Wen Clan probably chalked it up as another casualty. Their seat of power was steady enough to not rely on one flimsy ability that could not be controlled properly.

 

It had been back to square one again. No, less than that after he got Shen Jiu on his side, too.

 

People had started to mistrust his motives, claimed he would read and manipulate minds without a second thought. And when someone vanished in the dead of night it was automatically him who had become suspect number one.

 

Yue Qingyuan and Shen Jiu were his puppets, the Wen Clan pure evil – well, they were not completely wrong about that one – and now people left the base like rats a sinking ship. Weeks wasted on useless nonsense and false promises. If he would still be prone to read other people’s minds at a whim he would search for information on if and how he had been played. But this he would never risk again without being able to guide said thoughts.

 

Back in the beginning he had once made the mistake to try and read one of the Shen twin’s minds. The result had scarred him indefinitely. The picture of Luo Binghe’s naked backside and enormous manhood had haunted him for weeks! Not an option! Never again!

 

Sadly it was still guilty until proven innocent when it came to things he could not provide convincing evidence for.

 

And with this he was trapped in this place he had dubbed his personal hellhole, to present an empty place instead of a signed contract to his would-be master, if things went on like this. He had no way to prevent it and obviously lost all credibility for reasons he could not completely grasp.

 

Was it Qi Qingqi? Shen Jiu? Someone from the outside? Or perhaps an unobtrusive member of the base who held strings like the web of a spider in their hands? He could not tell and it frustrated him to no end. He only knew there would be three crosses behind the date he would be able to leave this chaos behind, his spy work be damned!

 

There were certainly other ways to get out of Wen Chao’s reach and into the good graces of his father without subjecting him to… this. Death was still too good for these insufferable people and their stupid little games!

 

 

Chapter Text

„I hate to speak in memes, but… Am I a joke to you?“

 

The edge in Gongyi Xiao’s voice had been building with every discussion they had and right now Luo Binghe was sure he was ready to strangle him. When he thought about how he had just told the other man that the two captives they had declared as ‘Must not escape at all cost and stay under surveillance 24/7’ dangerous were supposed to stay in custody in this very base, he really could not blame him.

 

There was a sigh from Shen Yuan, steering Gongyi Xiao’s attention in his direction. “I know it’s hard to stomach and if there were any other way they would not be here right now. Things are… very complicated. You really don’t want to know more.”

 

“Try me.”

 

There was an unexpected stubbornness to how Gongyi Xiao lifted his chin. Luo Binghe was almost tempted to let him in on the whole mess. He had proven a loyal and trustworthy friend time and time again.

 

And a mess it was indeed.

 

Not only had the city already been deserted when they made their way through the road barriers, his father had also payed him a visit in his fragile state of mind. Tianlang Jun had not been able to get what he wanted, but for Luo Binghe it had been ample warning on how brittle his defenses were right now. And when the old bastard was just about to be kicked out again he had the gall to complain about how was unable to do the same to Mobei Jun. After that he had declared Sha Hualing and Meng Mo as a belated engagement gift and vanished without a trace. Those two had been unconscious since then and even Shang Qinghua could not find any reason for that. They were physically fine with just a few minutes of his attention, the injuries not that severe in the first place.

 

Their state was an unexpected convenience for the way home, an invitation to deal with them at a later date, but Luo Binghe still had been ready to tear down the place. The worst thing about all of this was the knowledge that he was still too weak to do anything about his father’s actions. Apart from the ominous forbearance about a deeper level to his plans he was yet unable to grasp.

 

A deep breath from his boyfriend brought him back to the presence. A-Yuan looked almost as weary as he felt. “Fine. But first of all let me say that we know of over thirty different possibilities how this conversation can end. According to Shang Qinghua there is only one that does not lead to a situation where we will curse our decisions for the rest of our short and sorry lives. He’s given us word for word, actually. And before you stomp out of here to demand answers, he has been running on almost no sleep for about a week now and you probably won’t get anything coherent out of him. So… Yeah.”

 

“Are you kidding me right now?”

 

Mobei Jun’s deep voice overlapped with Gongyi Xiao’s, even matching the angry tone perfectly. While the latter fell into stunned silence, Mobei Jun continued without batting an eyelash, “That’s the worst excuse yet. You’ve been hiding things from me for months now and I’m seriously done with this. I want at least one very good reason for why I should tolerate two people in my home who could potentially make us kill each other and recruit the wildlife around us to finish of what’s left after the slaughter.”

 

When the short rant ended Gongyi Xiao opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again without a word coming out a few second later. With a mix of disbelief and helpless anger he stared at Mobei Jun who had crossed his arms in front of his chest.

 

“Oh, and Shang Qinghua is not here because he knew you would rip into him and make everything escalate over that.”

 

Luo Binghe had to fight a small grin at the nonchalant tone. They all knew what could happen, but had no time to discuss in detail how exactly they would get Gongyi Xiao to listen. When he saw the others speechless like this, he was glad the most unexpected person had taken the initiative. To be fair, he was also the one who had heard the most about what could potentially happen and how to steer things in the right direction. But for him to learn the words by heart…

 

He was about to follow the same line when Gongyi Xiao suddenly spoke up, his hands raised in a defensive gesture.

 

“Okay, stop. Seriously. I’m not sure what freaks me out the most right now.” He took a look at Shen Yuan first. “The fact that all of you knew how I would react before I entered the room.” Then at Luo Binghe. “Having my thoughts ripped right out of my head and thrown back in my face. Or hearing him-” With this he finally pointed at Mobei Jun before he continued, “speak more than two short sentences at a time. Not to mention that you’re having way too much fun with this.”

 

Mobei Jun simply cocked his head and answered with a shrug that prompted a chuckle from Shen Yuan and a snort from Liu Qingge. Now Luo Binghe really could not help but let the grin spreading over his face.

 

“I swear to god,” he said to Gongyi Xiao. “We didn’t plan it like that.”

 

The talk became much easier after that and they shared almost all the information they had, apart from their little zombie problem. This included Meng Mo’s and Sha Hualing’s identities. For the time being they would be known as traitors rather than vicious undead. They only needed to be convinced of that when they woke up.

 

Not to mention their new roles as Luo Binghe’s teacher, though, he still did not know how to feel about that, and a help to get the animal problem of Huan Hua base under control. It would be fun to break the news to Sha Hualing as soon as she woke up. He suspected it would result in some bones breaking with it if he included Mobei Jun in this endeavor.

 

There were still a few things he wanted to ask about the matters between him and the girl. And more importantly why he father claimed the other powerful zombie was like a black hole to him whenever he tried to reach his thoughts. Whatever Mobei Jun had done, it sounded like something he could use to get rid of unwanted voices in his head.

 

Over half an hour later they left with the promise to take care of all necessary measures regarding their new… guests. Liu Qingge agreed to take the first guard shift and reluctantly accepted his sister as company, who had been eavesdropping the whole time anyway.

 

With the promise that Luo Binghe would take over during the night, they went to get something to eat and settled in their room after the children had pestered them enough. He knew where A-Yuan would spend most of his free time again, but right now he wanted him all to himself. They had settled on the bed, his head in his lover’s lap while gentle hands combed through his unruly hair.

 

With a sigh he closed his eyes, a content smile on his lips. “Shizun?”

 

A hum answered him as the fingertips began to massage his skull. His smile deepened.

 

“Shizun.”

 

Another hum, just as calm and yielding. A good mood today.

 

“Shizun.”

 

The third time earned him a warning tap on the forehead. Then the fingers followed the bridge of his nose and his eyebrows in a slow motion. It was so familiar he almost felt like crying. Even with the knowledge about everything he was still not the tiniest bit afraid.

 

“You know I don’t like that name.”

 

His smile deepened after another content sigh escaped as the fingers traced his cheeks and lips. He pressed a small kiss on the lingering index finger.

 

“A-Yuan?”

 

“What is it?”

 

“I love you.”

 

For a heartbeat the fingers stopped only to resume as if nothing had happened.

 

The room was quiet, save for the distant noises outside the window. Busy inhabitants did their work and slowly got ready for the night. It was a welcome silence that made him feel at home.

 

Luo Binghe sunk deeper into the soft sheets as he relaxed more and more and after a few minutes the soft voice almost sounded like a dream.

 

“I love you too.”

 

 

Chapter Text

There was a spider in the bathroom.

 

Now, don’t get things wrong. Nie Huaisang was not a coward nor did he suffer from arachnophobia. If it were a normal spider he would probably not even care and at most try not to come too close to it in case it was venomous. Most of the time he would just get a glass and a piece of paper to chuck it out of the window.

 

But this particular eight-legged insect was anything but normal. This black, hairy monstrosity had the size of a medium sized dog and with no offensive powers to call his own he could do nothing but return the stare of the way too many eyes. In the back of his mind the thought that the spider was probably just as startled as him surfaced amongst panicked screaming, although reality provided no evidence for this assumption.

 

If this beast decided to attack him, he could only try to run faster. Two abilities and all they amounted to were a 25m² space to carry inanimate objects around and a strange mix of air and water powers. Mist. What was up with that? The best he could do was cloak his surroundings in fog for a solid minute and make the heat even more unbearable in the process due to the following humidity. The cloud was not big enough to fool anyone, nor dense enough to hide the silhouettes within and vanished in the sunlight faster than a snowball in hell.

 

At night it was a bit more useful but still deplorable in comparison to what the others could do.

 

Sometimes he really wanted to cry. If this were one of his novels his ability would be one of the most impressive out there. An impenetrable disguise to sneak around even without the cover of darkness. A key to get into every sealed room and to make it impossible to hit him with normal weapons by just turning his corporeal body into mist itself. Or a poison cloud to catch his enemies off guard, given the right golden thigh and the opportunity to absorb the right energies. He could be an invincible badass. A real main character who ground his rivals into the dust. But right now he was just a hapless cannon fodder who could not even keep up with the daily training.

 

And speaking of his novels. His brother still yelled at him from time to time for carrying three shelves full of books around instead of using the space for important things. He was glad he never mentioned his various paper fans, art prints and other parts of the collection he had also secured in there. It was his personal space to begin with. Why did he have to justify how he used it?

 

Not to mention that he could not safely tell anyone about it, lest he might become a prime suspect if anything went missing in school or the village over all.

 

Many space ability users had acted like magpies in the beginning or still did and were giving all the honest ones a bad reputation by proxy. They had been extremely bold, especially after people found out that killing the owner of a personal dimension only ended in the disappearance of everything he kept inside. Now they were watched wherever they went and many bases had set up restrictions to prevent anyone from robbing them.

 

For those who still refused to play by these rules… There were fates worse than death and you did not need your legs or a fully functioning brain to serve as a portable storage unit.

 

This possibility frightened Nie Huaisang and thus he just conveniently forgot about this ability most of the time to avoid trouble.

 

But back to the problem at hand.

 

There was still a big-ass spider in the bathroom of the dormitory, staring at him in a way that sent chills down his spine and he really needed to go or there would be an unfortunate accident in a few minutes.

 

The option of just going outside had already crossed his mind, but with it came the possibility of being discovered by the person on guard duty tonight with his pants down. Not desirable. Especially when he had to explain why he did not use the designated place.

 

He could go and wake one of the teachers to help him, but getting to the other building alone would take way too long. So his options were limited and his time even more so.

 

When suddenly one of the long, creepy legs moved, he turned around with a decisive “NOPE!” on his tongue and shut the door tightly. The word alone made this strange situation a lot more real, so he finally decided to look for help.

 

He only knew two people he could bother at this time of night without rightfully being yelled at. Well, one, since Jiang Cheng could display quite a temper when someone interrupted his sleep. But Nie Huaisang was sure he would still help, contrary to his own roommate who probably would just tell him to suck it up and go back to sleep.

 

With these thoughts in mind he rushed down the hall to knock at a certain door.

 

Silence.

 

Not the tiniest sign that someone was awake inside.

 

“Wei Ying! Jiang Cheng!” he called and knocked again while he was restlessly shifting on his feet. The pressure was painful by now and he really felt close to crying. “Help!”

 

There was the sound of something falling, followed by muffled voices. When Wei Ying opened the door a few moments later he was still bleary-eyed and rubbed his hip with a grimace. “Eh?” he made the moment he spotted Nie Huaisang. “Whassema’er?” A yawn swallowed most of his question.

 

Jiang Cheng said something that did not sound flattering in the background and shoved him to the side a second later. “What happened?” He asked his eyes wandered over Nie Huaisang’s appearance and for a moment he wanted the earth to swallow him.

 

“Bathroom. Big spider,” he managed, his cheeks tinged with red. Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened when he pulled his hands apart to show the size he was talking about and even Wei Ying seemed to sober up.

 

Without much talk both of them followed him to where he came from and when they turned on the light… Oh joy! There was a happy family now, counting six beasts in varying sizes all over the floor and walls. Two were even a bit bigger than the one he had seen before. At the sight of them the insects quickly came closer.

 

Nie Huaisang let out an undignified yelp while he made a few steps backwards. At the same time lightning bolts filled the air and with a few pops and the additional sound of glass breaking the light went out again.

 

The disgusting smell of burned chitin paired with ozone filled the air, soon followed by calls and loud footsteps.

 

From what Nie Huaisang was able to make out in the darkness they had woken up every last person in the building. People were yelling all over each other, demanding to be told what had happened and if anyone was injured. They all surrounded the three of them, him in the front, the other two exhausted behind him. When he felt something warm trickle down his leg inside his pajama pants, he wanted to die.

 

---

 

The next morning came with a lot less yelling and punishment than he expected.

 

They were exempt from running to give a report on what exactly caused the incident at two o’clock in the morning. When all of them had said their piece, Lan Qiren looked at the trio with a complicated expression.

 

“Were there any markings on the backs of these spiders?” he asked them calmly. Since the corpses all somehow exploded there was no way he could look for himself. The bathroom was still out of order, all covered in burn marks and the slimy entrails that had been cooked to mush within seconds. The though alone made Nie Huaisang uneasy.

 

“They were just black. No markings,” he answered while Jiang Cheng confirmed with a nod.

 

Wei Ying had taken a pen and a piece of paper out of his pocket and drew something, before he showed it to their teacher. “They looked like this.”

 

Lan Qiren took the picture with a nod.

 

“It’s time for breakfast. I expect you in class at seven,” he dismissed them and with a sigh of relief they made their way to the dining hall.

 

When they met some of the boys who still slept at their families’ homes in the village it became clearer why they had not been scolded for their actions. Apparently, there had been numerous attacks during the night and some of the houses were still completely covered in cobwebs. A few people had been injured and two young children died to venom.

 

The atmosphere was subdued, far from the lighthearted talk and laughter that tended to fill the room on normal days.

 

To Nie Huaisang it was hard to fathom how this safe haven had become another battlefield within a single night.

 

Chapter Text

“It’s a frequency that should not affect the human body. We can’t even perceive it,” one of the boys who had been in Gusu for more than a year said. His name was Su She, another sound user and he appeared to be among the most arrogant people from their year.

 

Nie Huaisang removed the tissue under his nose to show him the growing red stain. “I beg to differ,” he twanged before putting it back.

 

It had been three days since the elders had decided to use this method to keep animals away. It had worked surprisingly well, especially on the aggressive insects that came up from the forest. But it also had been the second morning several people in the dorms had woken up with headaches and a nosebleed that was hard to stop.

 

It was not that he was complaining. He knew that the people who had to stay up all night and exhausted themselves for their safety were just as malcontent with the situation. But hearing it brushed off like that after several of the others voiced their concerns ground his gears.

 

Right now he almost looked forward to the winter that was still around three months away. Messages had already been sent to their families, but with the situation as it was and the time it would take for the letters to reach them, they probably were stuck here until the snow melted around March. That was if things stayed the same as the year before. It could also happen that the snow came earlier than late November or stayed longer. Three months of paralyzing cold were bad enough and he still remembered how they had been forced to clear off the roofs daily to prevent them from caving in. One of the workers had almost lost his nose because he strayed too far away from the electric heaters they had used to not freeze to death.

 

The cold should be enough to kill off most of the monster insects, right?

 

He ignored Su She’s bared teeth and got up for another trip to the infirmary before he could become the target of his venom. It was Jiang Cheng who surprisingly steadied him when he found his knees a bit weak.

 

“Say something before you faint on us,” the boy from Yunmeng nagged und helped him unasked while Wei Ying promised to excuse them at morning practice.

 

Nie Huaisang just sighed. Another checkmark on the wimp list, but he gave both of them a shaky smile under his tissue. This sucked even more than the running. He at least had started to become used to that.

 

The woman in the white coat gave them a weary look when they entered her workplace a few minutes later. “You’re the fourth today,” she let them know and ordered Nie Huaisang to lie down after she had taken care of the damaged blood vessels with the help of a small ball or water that rinsed his sinuses while she was at it. “Huaisang, right? I’ll get you something to eat and then you’re going back to bed. What are they thinking, keeping this up for days? They could just keep it at the borders.” The last words were mumbled to herself while she was busy writing a sick note. Both teenagers shared a wry look.

 

“What about Jiang Cheng?” Nie Huaisang asked, still with a nasal voice, and the woman looked up again. She gave him a quick once-over.

 

“Stays with you. You’ve lost too much blood to be left alone and with this nonsense still going I refuse to take chances.”

 

With this it was settled and after both of them had their breakfast delivered, they were chased off to Nie Huaisang’s room. He blushed at the sight of the half painted paper fan still on his desk and apologized for the overall chaos, but Jiang Cheng just waved it off. “You’ve seen our room. This is nothing against Wei Ying.”

 

The snort was still a bit painful, but he had to grin at the thought of the organized chaos, as Wei Ying had called it once. According to him, a man named Albert Einstein once said that only stupid people needed order and a genius just reigned over the chaos. “True. Sorry you’re stuck with me the whole day.”

 

“Are you kidding? This is way better than math and history,” came the unexpected retort. Jiang Cheng had taken a chair to sit beside his bed while Nie Huaisang crossed his legs. “Wanna play cards?”

 

For the next few hours Nie Huaisang discovered that Jiang Cheng was very pleasant company on his own. They spent the time playing games, talking about books and comics or quietly reading next to each other. It was fun, despite the lingering pain behind his forehead and when his roommate came back in the afternoon his guest still decided to stay a bit longer. Wei Ying was stuck in detention anyhow.

 

This was the best decision this day, since Nie Huaisang had the suspicion, his roommate would have chalked up his lack of reaction as sleeping when he almost fainted from the pain. Jiang Cheng was quick to send him for help and tried to keep Nie Huaisang awake until it arrived. He only remembered the anxious voice through the haze and the infernal beeping in his ears.

 

---

 

When he woke up again, the first thing he saw was a white ceiling. At least he supposed it was white under the colors dancing in front of his eyes for the first half minute. He only slowly got used to the twilight around him, a dull ache still behind his forehead and the bridge of his nose. There also was a coppery taste in his mouth he really could do without.

 

The only good thing was the silence. Complete and utter silence that made him suspect his ears might be damaged. Yet, when he let out a sigh he could hear it just fine.

 

“Back among the living?” a gentle female voice asked from somewhere and when he turned his head with much difficulty he saw the doctor from before sitting at her desk. She smiled. “You really frightened us there. How are you feeling?”

 

“Ow,” was the only answer that came to his mind. He did not have the energy to be concerned over his hoarse voice and decided to just close his eyes again. What he felt was beyond exhausted or tired.

 

A few seconds later he heard a chair roll over the linoleum floor and there was a warm hand on his face. “Sorry, I need to check your reaction. You were out for three days.” Why could she not just leave him alone?

 

He wanted to growl and get away from the nuisance, but after a gentle tug below his eyelid he obediently opened his eyes for the small flashlight in her hand. Now he slowly realized the strange feeling on his left arm. An IV drip, he discovered with a quick look. Another sigh escaped him. His brother would go berserk if he ever found out about this.

 

“You’ll have to stay here for a while longer,” the doctor informed him as she gently patted his shoulder. She had put the ugly device away whose sole function seemed to be more pain drilling itself inside his brain. “When you feel up to it, I’m sure your friends would love to visit you tomorrow.”

 

He squinted at her in confusion. Friends?

 

There was a light chuckle. “The one who brought you on the second day, his roommate and… maybe eight or nine others. They came here every day to see how you’re doing.” She pointed at a book left on a small table next to the bed. “One said he borrowed that from you.”

 

Nie Huaisang’s eyes went wide, but he closed them with a groan only a heartbeat later. He did not think they would actually care that much. They had only known each other for a few weeks and were already closer than the teenagers from his own base with whom he had gone to school before. Perhaps the invitation to visit Lotus Pier had really been heartfelt and not just an answer out of curtesy. The thought gave him a warm feeling.

 

“I’d love visitors,” he managed and the doctor again patted his should.

 

“That’s the spirit. We’ll see how you are tomorrow.” There was prick in his neck and then she rolled away from the bed again. “You must be exhausted. When you wake up again we’ll get you something to eat.”

 

He wanted to ask what she had done while the pain slowly faded. When he felt his body relax, he decided to save it for later. Right now he only wanted to sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

A small figure watched at the shore as the sun slowly sank into the ocean with a glorious spectacle of vibrant colors. The deep red made him think of a certain person and he wondered where both of them had ended up by now.

 

She, a small voice inside demanded stubbornly.

 

Right, this body was a girl and there were still so many parts left that made life difficult. Tired of the endless debate, He Xuan settled for ‘they’. It had a strange ring to it, but if it served to keep their mind from rebelling, so be it.

 

Their thoughts went back to the two companions left behind. Of course they had tried to find them after getting away in a lucky break. But it had been no use at the time and when they saw the two of them the next time it did not appear as if they needed any help. More likely, Hua Cheng’s luck had gotten them out of harm’s way for the time being.

 

That it had taken the signs of Xie Lian’s presence on one of the men to notice them was even more reassuring. They had hidden themselves among these people, who might discover the art of cultivation again, perfectly. Some of them were already strong enough to rival the minor officials from the middle court back then.

 

An old memory showed its ugly head at this thought. Two brothers who had robbed him of his right. A severed head and a broken, mortal soul left to spend his remaining days in exile.

 

They had both payed the price. There was nothing left to claim and sometimes He Xuan had felt regret at how things played out. It was true that revenge only left an empty feeling behind. Yet, as an entity born from hate and resentment there had been no other way for them. Even the choices they had given the one who claimed to be their best friend all led in the same direction. In the end they had been unable to bear it anymore and did the deed instead.

 

They knew from the looks Shi Wudu had given them that the other also remembered. As did the innocent younger sister who always seemed torn between seeking their company and hiding in fear. She had called out for them during their escape and He Xuan had been willing to help and take her with them this time. The guards had just given them no choice but to run on their own. They had not been strong enough to do anything and even now would it be a fool’s errand to return.

 

That was another reason why the power inside the crystals called to them. Every so-called ability hidden inside the core in the heads of beasts and humans alike resonated with their very soul like the scent of blood in the water would with the instincts of a shark. It was to fight the hunger and fill the emptiness as much as the fastest way to become stronger.

 

And strength was what they needed the most. Never again would they play the Pierrot to hide amongst the mighty. They refused to dance to anyone’s tune, be it Hua Cheng or the person who had orchestrated this monstrosity. In this life it was necessary to pull the filth out by the roots as fast as possible. There was no time for subtlety or grand schemes that lasted for decades. With everything these people had already achieved they would soon become untouchable.

 

They took a deep breath to calm themselves.

 

Breathing. Another thing they were not used to anymore. Just as the real need to eat and drink in suitable amounts, though the latter could be accommodated easily at this point.

 

The most unfamiliar thing, they tried to ignore most of the time. Despite their affinity, water had been their element of choice the last time around. This time there was also air following along if they willed it.

 

Strange how the fate from the past now intertwined with what this life had in store for them. If only it were not this hard to control the second element. Sometimes it felt as if their own mind rebelled against to notion of claiming their right. And not only the element, their very thoughts ran rampant without tight control on them.

 

Dread of what they had done, how many they had killed. Fear for Shi QingXuan and their other… friends they had left behind. Strange how they had started to get along with former heavenly officials of all people. Hardship really formed the unlikeliest alliances.

 

And now it all crashed over them like a gale, again and again.

 

They ran down the dike and into the waves to drift further away from the land. Deeper and deeper into the water until a normal person’s lunges would burst and the pressure would shatter the fragile body. The darkness was a welcome friend. Silence. Solitude.

 

Out here nobody would see the churning current or the winding storm above as their emotions took control. Without prying eyes they let go, curled into a ball while the tears flowed as the child inside demanded.

 

---

 

A few days later they still followed the road by the sea in search of prey of any kind. There had been a few animals but no humans for days. Perhaps they should try their luck out at sea. Would the core of a whale be bigger and yield more?

 

They pondered the thought for a while and almost missed the sound of several cars in the distance. Prey or foe was the question and they decided to lay low and take a look first. There was too strange a feeling in the air to take any chances.

 

They hid behind shrubs that allowed a clear view of the road. Three smaller cars and a truck. The cars were all black, but the truck had a sign on the side that was all too familiar. Now they could tell where the feeling had come from. There was one of their own inside the huge vehicle. It was hard to make out whom they had come across, although the other one screamed their power into the void like a mad man. This was a cry for help if they had ever seen one and one less in the madman’s hands was one more piece in their favor.

 

So, after a few seconds of contemplation, three of the truck’s tires burst.

 

It uprooted a tree after fishtailing into the ditch on the roadside. The driver looked lifeless with blood on his face, the man beside him still fought with the airbag. Though looking at his flailing he was certainly not unharmed himself.

 

The other men were fast to stop their cars and got out with drawn weapons. He Xuan was sure they were ability users. Not strong enough to pose a threat but still bothersome. Especially if they used sedative darts instead of normal bullets.

 

They waited until all of them had left the cars before they took a deep breath to unleash all the fear and anxiety accumulated in the back of their head. A widespread blast of air littered with countless tiny drops of water pelted the men with what felt like thousands of needles on their skin. There were screams and curses, cut short by the pain when another round shredded tongues, eyes and ears.

 

He Xuan did not hold back their resentment for these men, as for the people in white, still left inside the cars. Only after silence reigned once again and the pavement was coated with blood did they allow themselves to relax their tense shoulders. They would harvest later. Now it was time to see who was hiding inside the dented steel box.

 

With slight surprise they studied the seal on the door. So the old arrays did in fact work. Perhaps they could use the one to shorten distances, too. Right now, though, they had enough work with breaking this one and after they did, they just stood inside the open door and wanted to curse for the remainder of the day.

 

Why did it have to be that one?

 

The boy in green stared at them with obvious resentment in his eyes. He had been thrown around inside his prison and lay on his side, legs against the back wall. Thankfully he was gagged and wrapped in what looked like restraining talismans, but the sight alone made He Xuan want to go back to old times and stomp him into the ground. Green Goblin Qi Rong. A creature as pathetic and disgusting as they got. If there was one child in the facility they never planned on helping it was this one.

 

“Wrong door,” they simply said and shut the truck behind them. Just when they bent down to start gathering their loot the container exploded in a string of swearwords.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Lan Zhan looked at his brother with worry in his eyes.

 

For the past few days Huan had pushed himself like no other. As the next village head and one of the strongest ability users present the people looked at him for protection. A steady figure in a crisis that had not such a simple solution as the elders had hoped.

 

The system they had thought up had proven itself as too flawed to be left as is. Though, just blanketing the whole area to drive out the insects that tried to overrun them and get to their food storage had proven effective at first, it had also taken a toll on by now almost fifteen percent of the population. With not even a thousand people living here that was still too much for the people with healing abilities to keep up. About a third had been hit so badly, they had fallen into a coma for a few hours to days.

 

The doctor had claimed it was the phenomenon of more sensitive brain functions in a small part of the population. Things like it had been present before the changes started, with some people complaining about a high-pitched sound and sometimes even nosebleeds when faced with alarm systems that used ultrasonic sound. This had been a problem in some shopping malls or districts for a while.

 

As it seemed now, this condition had expanded and made the people in question react a lot more severe. After successfully driving out the last remaining straggles that had not left the vicinity with the droves they had slaughtered on their run in the first few hours, the system needed to be changed. And while the eggs were routed out they had settled on the solution to keep a barrier at the border and shield the village at the same time from the sound and occasional echoes.

 

This was twice the strain, with the people on guard having to meticulously control their power instead of just letting it run wild around them and others negating whatever still slipped through. With it, of course, came complaints by several people. Especially with the prospect of keeping this up for the months until most animals would go into hibernation. They already had problems keeping up after five days.

 

In these five days Lan Huan as well as Lan Zhan himself had tried to take up as much responsibility as they could. Both had developed exceptional control and power with the sound and their enhanced physical strength over the last year. And yet, even they had no idea how long it would take for them to falter. Not to mention that the increasingly aggressive beasts still lurking in the woods below turned the hunt for further supplies from dangerous into a deadly endeavor.

 

Getting through the winter with what they had would be a bitter experience for all of them. They could not even be sure that the messengers they had sent out on the first day made it through alive or would be able to bring the answers back.

 

He pushed the thought away that there might not be anyone here anymore when people came to check on them in spring and straightened his shoulders. It was time for the routine he had gotten used to in the last few months. A glimpse of warm sunlight five afternoons a week, as annoying as this particular person could get.

 

He was still unsure what drew him to Wei Ying exactly. At first he had seen a troublemaker he needed to keep in check. His uncle was still very adamant about him being a bad influence on everyone around him. His theories about the zombies not being what they seemed were also highly disturbing.

 

But there was more to it and as much as the boy from Yunmeng pushed his buttons, there was something nostalgic and endearing about his open smile and quick wit. The latter had mostly taken form in the scribbles thrown at him during the detention when he had enforced silence once again. There were almost two hundred notes by now and he still asked himself why he even kept them. But, he could not find it in himself to throw the pile he kept in one of the drawers of his desk away.

 

His uncle would be furious if he ever found out about it. And even more about the dreams Lan Zhan had to deal with for a while now. He knew from listening to others that such dreams were normal, when they entailed beautiful, faceless women or perhaps a girl one fancied. The stains on underwear or sheets were embarrassing enough, but in his dreams there was always just one boy together with scenes from books his uncle had banned. He had accidentally seen the pictures and they never interested him enough to further think about them. Until now.

 

Do you think it’s wrong when men love other men instead of women? The question still haunted him and even more his own response to it. He had been so caught off guard that he had been unable to stand up for another five minutes. Of course it was wrong. His uncle had told him how homosexuality was an abomination and should not be tolerated. He was wrong by feeling attracted to someone of the same sex. But what did Wei Ying mean by asking him such a question?

 

It was impossible that he knew about the dreams. It was also impossible for him to have caught one of the quick looks at his face, when he worked on his punishment. Did Wei Ying try to tell him something with that? Was this something he would ask someone just to mess with them? Was it just to get a reaction out of him like all the other times he had pestered him? Was there more to this or was he just overthinking things?

 

The thoughts went on and on in his mind. At some point he just wished he were better at voicing them and could simply ask. But he knew, whenever he tried, the words got stuck in his throat or were so heavy on his tongue that it refused to move. And what if it did for once? Could he just let out all the words and emotions? Would that not be shameful, as his uncle always preached?

 

His mother had gone to jail, because she lost control over herself and broken his father’s heart with her actions to the point where he just drowned himself in his work. He still saw him hardly every few days for a couple of minutes. With his mother’s death during the outbreak he looked more haggard and torn every day and nobody wanted to think about how long he had left like this. So, Lan Zhan was sure if he did not control himself and acted on his feelings instead, it too would only end in pain and disaster.

 

He swallowed a sigh as he entered the library. For a moment all he was able to see was the slender figure bathed in sunlight, a smile on the beautiful face that rivaled the blinding beams while Wei Ying looked out of the window.

 

“Don’t come crying to me afterwards!” the voice of his brother sounded through the open window and Lan Zhan felt his breath hitch at the open laughter that filled the air. He made a step forward, only to have the dazzling smile directed at himself.

 

“Hi, Lan Zhan.”

 

This would be another long afternoon.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

But, it turned out that whatever Wei Ying was planning was not directed at him after all. The next one and a half hours were positively peaceful and quiet. The longer they just sat there over their books, the more Lan Zhan felt himself relax. Only when the time was up and they began to pack up again did Wei Ying attempt to talk to him.

 

“Lan Zhan, what do you think about sending people into the forest to find out what’s making the animals attack us?” he asked a question that had come up a few times in the discussion about the incident already.

 

For a moment Lan Zhan thought about it before he simply shook his head. “Would not work.”

 

“Why?” As short as the question was, it was loaded with curiosity.

 

Again he realized how little maliciousness there was to Wei Ying’s words and actions. Apart from malicious compliance that was. Even now the other boy just waited patiently while Lan Zhan searched for the right words. Words the honest eyes watching him made all the harder to say.

 

“Change of climate makes them more aggressive,” Lan Zhan tried to explain, after almost two minutes of awkward silence. Right now he would give a lot to have the internet back, so he could just show Wei Ying the articles he was talking about. There had been reported cases during the first serious signs of global warming where colonies of hundreds of spiders lived peacefully together in a cave and suddenly turned hostile against each other out of nowhere. It only left the strongest ones that were able to adept in time and got rid of weak genes in the pool. But how to explain this? “It’s survival of the fittest.”

 

“But… Wouldn’t that mean they would go for the forest first? Like, hunting the weaker animals?” Right after he said the words, understanding bloomed in Wei Ying’s face and his lips formed a silent ‘Oh’. “Wait, we are the weaker animals now? Then have they killed everything else or are the things in the forest even worse and have driven them out? What the heck? Or are these just the weak ones looking for another place to live?”

 

 “Weaker spiders,” Lan Zhan answered, which only seemed to spur Wei Ying on more. The other option also sounded viable, if there had been an indication of other species declining in the forest. There had never been any indication for that, though.

 

“That means, if we keep them away long enough, they’ll just look for another place to stay or be killed by the strong ones and natural enemies. So, just avoiding the ones in the forest would be enough after that. It’s not as bad as it looks, right?”

 

This logic would be feasible, if it were not for one little thing.

 

“Spiders hatch by the hundreds.”

 

He could see the dread slowly cloud the beautiful eyes followed by a colorful curse. This time Lan Zhan did not have the heart to reprimand him.

 

---

 

That night Lan Zhan had taken over the duty to shield the village when again something strange happened.

 

Of course they had been complacent to think the spiders would be all that was coming for them. Where there was an abundance of insects, birds were never far behind. And these did not seem inclined to discriminate between picking off the menaces down below and the guards up above. It was an utter mess with some trying to erect some kind of shields while others attacked whatever came near them.

 

Lan Zhan himself had sent out several shock waves with the Guqin he had taken to support his powers. The deep notes ripped through the chaos and created a few seconds of respite every time they hit and knocked a few monsters out of the sky. Who needed physical attacks when you could directly affect the brain through their hearing?

 

His brother was trying to organize the defenses in the meantime and within not even ten minutes reinforcement from the village and school arrived. Things seemed to turn around and there had not been any serious casualties, yet. But as soon as the sigh of relief was breathed out, it got even worse.

 

While the swarm seemed to consist of smaller birds, mostly those who were not considered birds of prey, there now rose bigger ones among them. They still had the plumage of songbirds, as disturbing as the thought was. Yet, their whole appearance was a lot more vicious and feral with beaks and claws that rivaled those of hawks and eagles.

 

And as if this was not bad enough, heavy gusts of wind brought defenders to their knees within seconds, followed by shrieks that made eardrums burst where they hit. Suddenly the soundwaves made to easily defeat the smaller ones were useless, as if they were shielded by something and Lan Zhan felt his blood run cold. They were being defeated with their own powers!

 

He was just about to take a few steps back when a huge one in the colors of a light-vented bulbul dived directly at him. Another shriek left him too dazed to avoid in time, but as he could almost feel the claws rip through his shoulder something bumped into him, throwing him to the side.

 

His vision was still blurred when he watched the bird clutch the other person and plummet down the cliff after the distinct crackle of electricity. It was accompanied by a yelled curse from a voice he knew far too well.

 

“Wei Ying!” he called and reached out a hand towards nothing. Even his voice vanished in the pandemonium around him. It left the faint aftertaste of a bad dream.

 

There were the words I’m fine ringing in his ears, but it could as well be his imagination, while he was being pulled away from the cliff by someone. He struggled to acknowledge anything around him as reality, even with the pain pounding in his head and Jiang Cheng yelling a few feet away. Nobody could have survived that fall. He was gone and all of them were doomed if no miracle happened.

 

With trembling hands he grabbed at the battered instrument next to him and shook off the person who was trying to pull him to safety. A few of the strings were snapped and his fingers hurt as much as the rest of his body, but when he did nothing now, the sacrifice would have been in vain.

 

He had to fight to get back on his feet, only faintly aware how strange and faint the voices around him sounded or how the ground moved below his feet. Right now he had to do something. Anything. If only he did not feel so empty and weak.

 

Before he knew it there were again beak and claws in front of his face, aiming for his head. The Guqin slipped from his fingers, his knees buckled. Yet, before either could hit the ground a pillar of fire shot up from below, engulfing the swarm with the faint roar of a bear.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Wei Ying still felt the cold on his face even with the warm fur below him. He had already seen himself as a bloody heap on the old road when his fall slowed significantly and he had landed on the enormous moon bear that did not even flinch at the impact. It also made no attempt to eat him, which was an added plus to the situation.

 

“I’m fine!” he called, Lan Zhan’s desperate voice still fresh in his ears and he just hoped the others could hear him. Then the handsome face of a man around forty appeared above him, framed by dark, unruly curls. There was an amused smile on his face.

 

“Are you now? That’s good then.”

 

Wei Ying could not help the grin spreading over his face. “Old Su! Hi! Thanks for the lift. What are you doing here?”

 

The man chortled and helped him up into a sitting position. “Passing through. Could you attempt the impossible in a less dramatic way next time?” he chided and patted Wei Ying’s head gently.

 

It had been almost half a year since they had seen each other for the last time. Su Tian was the only loner ever to visit Lotus Pier. Back then he still had a car and quite a lot of useful information to trade, as well as his powers to offer. During the winter his enormous fire power had been invaluable to keep the place going and he had also given uncle Jiang pointers on how to use his earth ability more effective.

 

With spring he had set off to find his wife and son, claiming that both probably did not need his help, but he wanted to see them anyway. He had always sounded very proud of his family when asked, yet on other topics he had proven to be an oddball to say the least. His claims that zombies may not be the mindless killing machines they appeared as at first glance had driven Madam Yu up the wall more than a few times.

 

Wei Ying had always admired him and right now he was in absolute awe.

 

The cone of flames shooting up into the sky from the man’s hands and the bear’s mouth alike was bigger than anything he had seen in regards to the regular use of abilities. The countless birds falling out of the sky only seconds later added to the carnage already around them. A few animals that still moved were pierced by stone needles coming up from the ground or slashed in two by the air itself, yet from another direction.

 

“Are you done showing of?” a female voice deadpanned from below and a second later a woman in her mid-thirties landed next to Wei Ying on the bear’s back. She was undeniably beautiful in a haughty and cold kind of way.

 

Su Tian turned to her with a warm smile on his face and appeared to ignore the giant falcon that proceeded to pick stragglers out of the air. “Xiyan, dear, you said to be efficient.”

 

“I also said to be low profile.” She frowned but still gave him a kiss. Then she stored two hooded and bound birds in what looked like giant saddlebags on either side of the bear. Wait, were those things still alive? And what did they need them for? One of the birds jerked in a futile bid for freedom, only to be shocked into submission a split-second later. No wonder Su Tian was not worried when this was his wife. People should light incense for the people who crossed her instead!

 

Wei Ying winced as lightning branched out from the falcon’s wings, sniping the last few song birds in the night sky that did not flee fast enough. Did it look like this when he went all out? Probably not. Even Madam Yu was not this terrifying when let loose.

 

He suddenly felt a bit timid. Especially when the woman took a closer look at him. “So you’re that one,” she said cryptically and nodded to herself as she settled down on the wiry fur. “Let’s tell your friends that you’re still alive and the party is over, shall we?”

 

There was no time to say anything before the bear started to climb the stone steps in a leisurely pace. The falcon cut through the air above them as if looking for more prey. It never got too close to the cliff. Wei Ying eyed it carefully. “Is that…?”

 

“His name is Cheng Ying. Don’t worry, he’s mine. He won’t attack anyone without good reason,” Su Xiyan answered with an indulgent smile.

 

“And this is Mengmeng. She’s a very good girl,” Su Tian added. The bear rumble beneath them as if saying hello while Su Xiyan rolled her eyes. Her reaction was relatable, seeing the sheer size of the animal. Cute would not have been Wei Ying’s first choice to name her either.

 

Judging from the panicked yells in the distance, Mengmeng was the last thing the poor inhabitants of the village wanted to see right now. And neither the falcon still looming over them at a safe distance.

 

“Good evening. I think we found something you accidentally dropped!” Su Tian called with barely hidden amusement as they got close enough to see the stonewall. And suddenly there was silence. If there were still cicadas around this would be the perfect time to listen to them.

 

Mengmeng came to a halt at the gate. Wei Ying risked a look over her head. Yep, if he got on his knees he was able to peek over the 16 feet wall.

 

“Uhm, hi?” he greeted the disheveled looking Lan Qiren who just stared at them with his jaw dropped. So there really was a way to shut the old fuddy-duddy up. Although, he looked close to a heart attack right now.

 

Su Xiyan unceremoniously grabbed his collar and Su Tian’s hand to lift them over the wall in a fluid motion. “Pardon the intrusion,” she said indicating a bow in the direction of the little crowd that had gathered around them. “We thought it prudent to help out a little. You also might want to send someone down to get the edible parts before the scavengers come out.”

 

“Nice place,” her husband meanwhile commented. He also pushed Wei Ying forward a bit and when the shock wound down there were question and amazed exclamations all over the place. It was a miracle that the ruckus had not cause an avalanche yet.

 

Wei Ying just stood there not quite sure what to do until he was pulled into a hug by Jiang Cheng he had never expected while being berated as an idiot and suicidal maniac at the same. He had never seen his brother this emotional in his life, even when it only lasted for a few seconds until he was hit upside the head instead.

 

Half an hour later, when everything had calmed down a bit and the Su couple had left with Lan Qiren to discuss things in private, he sat at Lan Zhan’s sickbed, waiting for the other boy to wake up again. The damage had already been healed, but with how much he had drained himself, it was no wonder that he simply collapsed as soon as there were no more enemies to fight. There was still a tiny bit of blood on his nose and ears and with his jade like skin being even paler than usual he looked disturbingly fragile. Even while knowing he just needed sleep it was a heart wrenching sight.

 

“I never realized how much he pushes himself,” Wei Ying said calmly. He earned a sad smile from Lan Huan who sat on the other side of the bed.

 

“He has always been like this. It’s hard for him to rely on others, so he tries to do everything alone.” There was little sigh, but then the smile directed at Wei Ying turned a bit lighter. “Thank you for saving my brother. Just… don’t scare us like that ever again.”

 

Wei Ying could not help his chuckle. “No promises.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Su Tian. She still wanted to hit this idiot of a man. Could you be any more obvious? But, since most people had no idea what happened behind their backs or even right in front of their eyes it was probably fine anyway.

 

There had been a lot of changes in both of them, from being two teenagers in the high society who fell hopelessly in love to meeting again after over twenty years as the world had turned into, well, this parody of an environmentalist’s wet dream.

 

Back then he had been sweet, gentle and naïve. She not so much with already a sharp tongue and quick wit at her disposal. That was probably why she had fallen for the romantic dreamer who read poetry and played guitar under the starlit sky. A part that was still somehow there, hidden under a twisted, cutthroat attitude or a trembling masochist depending on the situation. Though, she was still not sure how much of his current behavior was himself and how much he faked in front of her or his subordinates.

 

Yet, he had taken in their son after finding out that the child exists. Not that she could ever forgive him for turning away under his parent’s pressure or being a shitty father when he finally had the chance to spend time with him. But with an attempted abortion and later giving him up for adoption; curtesy of her own family; she had no leg to stand on in an argument. They had both done the child too much wrong to not be resented and avoided like the plague. From what her husband had told her the boy still had no idea who she was and for a while she would like it to stay that way. Back then with sixteen and seventeen years they had both been much too young for the responsibility.

 

Their fresh start now was already overshadowed by lies and machinations. Those were all present for good reasons, yes. Still, the road to hell was paved with good intentions and she had the feeling she did not even know half of what her husband was up to. The latter did not really matter to her. He had told her the most important things from the start. About having lived through the things to come already and how he could not be called human anymore.

 

At first she had not believed him and tried to get away from the lunatic, but after a while there had been so much proof that she had to believe him. It had been a good decision and even better to give their relationship another chance. It gave her some kind of security in this mess.

 

Still, the word husband had a strange ring to it. With the stain on her record she had refused to marry and rather taken part in the business side of things, impressing her father until she was given the position as heir instead of her younger brother. Cold and calculated. The horror of many men when it came to important negotiations. There had been countless nicknames for her she never ought to know and each one spoke of bravado and hidden fears that made her chuckle.

 

She had taken to her new circumstances with similar unrelenting energy. The powers had been an opportunity and with her uncle at Huan Hua base proving to be a lecherous idiot once again, she had taken things into her own hands and left before she committed a murder she would not have been able to cover up.

 

It was fascinating to know that the base still existed and actually thrived, but after she had heard that the prick and his daughter had been chased away it was not as unlikely anymore. Especially with their son and their two sons in law watching over the place.

 

She had still not completely gotten over the fact. Not because they were men. She personally had no problem with swinging both ways. But two? That had to be a handful. Though, looking at the father who had almost blinded her with his smile when he delivered the news, it was probably less complicated than she assumed. From all she had heard, Binghe was in better hands than he had ever been before.

 

Right now, though, they had other things to concentrate on. Things that were quite delicate, but worth the hassle in the long run.

 

She lightly squeezed Su Tian’s arm and sat down when they were offered a seat. “We are not here to cause trouble,” she opened, preventing any of the older men in the room to speak first. “We also don’t need supplies and looking at how things are run here you probably have nothing to spare anyway.”

 

The barb alone earned her a few dark looks. Good. The old farts should realize how they were doing everything wrong by not taking the initiative. Their help now was a short term fix. With things left alone like this, the problem would only return in a few months and get worse every time. Their obstinacy would only lead the younger generation to their doom like this and nobody could afford to lose more lives than they already had.

 

“This is a matter of the village,” the guy with the long anchor beard said. Lan Qiren, if she remembered correctly. He probably hid a baby face under that. “The intention of bringing you here was to thank you for your help tonight.”

 

“And probe for our intentions and alliances while trying to find out if we can provide more of said help. Don’t bother, we know the drill. Also, yes, it is possible to get monsters like the ones we brought with us on your side. It’s a matter of your own power level and compatibility. We would be willing to show selected people how to do it. But, those could be nobody in this room, given how underdeveloped everyone’s abilities are.” She dismissively waved her hand, prompting a few offended coughs.

 

“Underdeveloped?” one of the so-called elders asked in a tone as if talking to an impertinent child.

 

Su Xiyan gave him the elevator with a pitying expression. “How much did you train your actual abilities? How many crystals did you harvest and digested? I mean, we could try to find a beast that fits your abilities, but don’t blame us if the person in question gets ripped apart in the process. These animals possess very high intelligence and a strong will, not to mention immense power that needs to be controlled. It will take a lot out of the ability user to get them to submit.”

 

The man shrunk back and from the movement of his jaw she could see he was gritting his teeth.

 

“Then, what do you suggest?” Lan Qiren asked with a frown. At least he had the brains to not charge forward at the obvious challenge.

 

“We would need to take a look to find proper candidates. The stronger the better. You should be in the know about that?” There were more dark looks directed at her and she had a hard time not to grin openly. “Oh, on the topic of thanking us for our help… Quarter for a few nights and the promise to work with us should we call upon you should be enough. Nothing that would endanger one of the inhabitants, of course.”

 

There was the mental image of several men in the room coughing up blood when she took a look around, but it ended in reluctant nods. With things progressing as they were, most of the opposed would not be here anymore when the time came to call on this arrangement.

 

Only Lan Qiren looked her straight in the eye. There was something inquiringly in his gaze. “That sounds reasonable.”

 

---

 

About an hour later Su Xiyan stretched out on the lavish silk sheets in her husband’s dream palace. It was still baffling to her how real and vivid the place appeared that was only in his mind. It was also the perfect place for them to talk without being overheard. Though, right now the enormous bed and the very light clothing suggested something else entirely.

 

She absentmindedly ran her fingers through the dark curls while his face was burrowed in her bosom. It was awfully cute how a creature with his kind of power just snuggled up to her to claim much needed tender love and care. Regardless of how easily he could control or coerce her, he chose to be trusting and vulnerable instead.

 

“How thin is the ice this time?” she asked after a while and got an undignified rumble in return. If Linguang Jun were around he would probably ridicule her for this choice of words, but she did not care for perceived puns right now.

 

Nor did the man who refused to lift his head and rather answered with his voice muffled in her lingerie, “Safe. They know they need us now. They’ll just grumble for a while and plot as old men do.”

 

“If they knew who they’re dealing with they’d probably be running for it. Do we really need to do things in such a convoluted way?” Her fingers went behind his ears to lightly scratch the sensitive skin.

 

There was a little sigh and finally one of his eyes opened again. “They would not believe us and how can I be the emperor of the known world if there is no one left to oppress? We need to nudge them gently onto the right path.”

 

“Yeah right,” Su Xiyan snorted. “You’re too much of a philanthropist to play the evil overlord. Just admit already that you want to keep humanity from dying out at all cost. Also, you would get bored of being the controlling ruler within a week, run off and drop everything on Zhuzhi Lang and that bleached clown you keep around you for no good reason.”

 

“That bleached clown is one of my most trusted subordinates, thank you very much,” he huffed and gently bit into the fabric over her right chest.

 

She chuckled. “That’s why you keep him in the dark about almost everything you’re doing? Right.” Then she turned serious, while her hands again played with his luscious hair. “That reminds me, why have you given up on the clairvoyant boy and left him with his nephew of all people? You were so fixated on having him around for more information and to prevent what happened last time.”

 

“Unforeseen circumstances. The original plan was to keep him from going insane, since there is no use in an incoherent oracle. Too high maintenance and unreliable. When I had a look at them through Meng Mo it appeared that my interference is not needed this time. The Mo boy has found a way to keep him grounded, so separating them would be counterproductive to say the least.” He rolled off and stretched out beside her. “Right now I have three possible channels to monitor them. Two if Binghe finally gets a grip. He is still too unstable to be properly involved.”

 

“Not to mention that he hates you and would do anything to sabotage your plans,” Su Xiyan added with a wry smile. “That boy has inherited too much of my thick skull, I suppose.”

 

„How are you so sure that he hates me?” he asked, sounding a bit amused.

 

“Because you told me, time and time again. You gave me the whole litany on how our son does not want you in his life after you’ve been a shitty, absent parent. Not that you exposing him to his partners and probing his mind for information made things better in any way, shape or form.”

 

“It was necessary. Your son was impossible with how he tried to sneak around the issue,” he complained, looking at the ceiling with eyes wide open.

 

“Oh, now he is my son again?” Su Xiyan propped herself up on her elbows only to see a little grin on her husband’s face.

 

“When he makes your mistakes, yes. But I have to say, I like the people he surrounds himself with more and more. Smart, strong, resourceful and tolerant. And they keep drama to a minimum. I could work with that.”

 

“One of them is the nephew and worst enemy of one of your most valuable subordinates,” Su Xiyan quipped, driving the same point home again as if calling him an idiot. “I’m sure he’d be thrilled to change sides and bring people with him who can be used against him.”

 

He pulled a face at her. “Another can of worms I wish had not been opened. This whole family feud business has to go.”

 

“Says the man who started one with his own son on basis of ‘the end justifies the means’.”

 

A pillow almost hit her squared in the face, if not for her quick reflexes. Even in a dream she did not appreciate being attacked and frowned.

 

He huffed. “I’m just trying to help him. There are worse things out there, so he has to work on his vulnerability. It would be bad if he cut himself off like the Mo boy. However he managed that. And please stop blaming me for the marriage contract that hung over my head.”

 

“It was about time spent with your son, not money,” Su Xiyan griped, now sitting upright with the pillow still in her hand. She watched her husband gesture dismissively with one hand in the air.

 

“My schedule was too full to even breathe. My ex-wife; may she rest in pieces together with my mother in law in the jaws of her annoying lap-dogs; tried to control my life as much as possible. As I already told you a few dozen times. And I chose a great tutor, now turned husband for him, didn’t I?”

 

The smug words just left his mouth when the pillow smothered his face mercilessly. “Oh shut up, will you!”

 

 

Chapter Text

The waking call came when the sky outside was still pitch-black.

 

Su Xiyan answered with something akin to a growl and retaliated on her husband’s suppressed laughter with a bite in his shoulder. She knew it would have been a mistake if they had planned to be punctual, but when she faced the breakfast over an hour later she was at least relaxed enough to let this atrocity slide. This food had never seen salt, sugar or any other kind of proper seasoning. Vegetarian did not mean bland by default for crying out loud!

 

“I’m not hungry anymore,” she told Su Tian who had watched her shoving the pieces on her plate from one side to the other with badly veiled amusement. It was way too unfair how he was able to just turn off senses like smell and taste at will and she was stuck with the horrible experience. And the name still sounded weird to her. If he did not insist on it, she would have reverted to the old one long ago. There really was no getting used to it.

 

“Would you like me to get some soy sauce from the store?”

 

She stomped on his food for the sarcastic undertone. “Are you saying I’m spoiled?” The slight widening of his pupils at the action was pointedly ignored. As was the low laughter.

 

“Yes, pretty much. But that is most likely my fault, too,” was the answer that could as well be the challenge to a brawl from his posture alone. Sometimes she really hated that trait. Especially when she was already grouchy from too little sleep.

 

His left arm jolted from the small shock with which she punctuated her dark look. “Behave. We have no time for games.” Their strange behavior already earned them strange looks. Nobody else in the room knew how every last one of her action were no more than a little tickle to this impudent prick. When they were alone he did not even have the decency to play along anymore. Though, things would probably look very different if she used more than a tiny fraction of her power.

 

A level of power she owed mostly to this very man and he gave it with pleasure. It seemed almost normal to groom the important people around them for entities like her husband. A need to not only protect but bring their loved ones to a point where they were able to stand on equal footing. She was still far off from reaching this point. The thought and effort behind it were appreciated, still.

 

“Any plans on today?” she asked after a few moments of standoffish silence.

 

Su Tian nodded. “After the meeting. We not stay much longer.”

 

---

 

That was what he had said. Yet, when they sat in Lan Qiren’s office the most obvious of problems threw a wrench in the gear. She should have seen it coming.

 

“Two of our strongest, if not the strongest right now, are my two nephews. Lan Zhan and Lan Huan. The elders agreed on giving this chance to them, but right now both are exhausted and Lan Zhan is still recovering from his injuries caused last night,” Lan Qiren gave them the news.

 

The good part was that they did not have to argue over the choice, since these were who they had wanted to begin with. The bad…

 

“From what you told us about the strain it might be best to wait at least a few days until they can take part. Until then you might want to have a look if there are others you could considers?”

 

Not to mention they could accidentally spread the information to have people come knocking down their door to get said chance. Su Xiyan bit back a groan. “We will think about it,” she answered with a strained smile. The only two other hopefuls were already known to her, but Suiban and Sandu would not be found in this area. That meant even more useless discussions to come.

 

“There is a way to have them recover faster. It’s only that repeated use of this newly developed drug might lead to a mental dependency. We could offer one does for each of them to speed things up,” Su Tian chimed in to her surprise.

 

“Mental dependency?” Lan Qiren asked with apprehension in his voice.

 

Su Xiyan sighed. “What he means is, repeated use can lead to addiction. The drug replenishes the person’s power which causes a pleasant rush for a certain amount of time. Used once the effect on a mentally stable person shouldn’t be very strong, but after a few times there will be cravings and sometimes withdrawal symptoms. That means, when we give it to them there have to be at least months between the doses, if there ever should be a second one.”

 

She shot her husband a dark look who only shrugged. They would have to talk about this in detail later. The idea to use this stuff on minors did not sit right with her, but it was a good opportunity to inform more people over the trump card of this certain faction. They still only knew about one of the middle men.

 

Or had known before he tried to rope in more people and needed to be eliminated. Whoever wanted it circulated played a dangerous game with unknown stakes.

 

“I don’t think this will be necessary,” Lan Qiren thankfully said with obvious distaste, only to have Su Tian sigh.

 

“As you wish. But my bear needs feeding and might either drain your resources or stir up more trouble in the forest. As does the falcon.”

 

That got him Lan Qiren’s full attention. “I… will discuss this with the elders,” he reworded his response and bid them to leave soon after. He suddenly looked a bit paler and left the office with them.

 

Su Xiyan watched him leave the building in a hurry, cracking her knuckles audibly. “Did you have to force it on them? They’re not even eighteen yet,” she complained in a still casual tone that did not fit the threat in her posture.

 

“It’s unavoidable. We need to be somewhere else, remember?”

 

And with this she could only follow him to the village border where Mengmeng still unnerved the guards by sitting innocently on the stairs. She blocked the whole staircase and was munching on something at a closer look. Something that left a lot of blood on her paws and muzzle. Something bigger and with more fur than a human would have.

 

“Did you order Cheng Ying to catch her something?” Su Tian asked with a creased brow.

 

She shook her head, just as puzzled. “No. He is still searching the area for potential threats.”

 

The closer they got after simply jumping over the wall, the more pungent the smell became. Mengmeng turned around and greeted them with a low noise only to let them see the mangled corpse of what looked to have been a dog.

 

“They did not clean up the corpses,” Su Tian deduced and earned a snort. This time Su Xiyan did not point out the obvious on how they had no safe way to get past the huge, furry butt that sat in their way. And behind that butt lay at least two more dead animals with broken necks.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

There was a weird atmosphere in the whole village. A bit of relief about the averted danger paired with apprehension regarding their strange visitors. Last night Wei Ying had said they could be trusted, but the bear alone was a threat that had everybody on edge. Especially after knowing how the owner and this beast had annihilated at least half of the attacking swarm in one attack.

 

And now the two newcomers offered to show them how to get companions like this for themselves. Together with the vague condition this seemed too good to be true and perhaps it was, looking at the medicine his uncle had told him about. Though, it sounded more like an offer born from a lack of time than malice. Not with how they brought it up and explained the involved risks.

 

On one hand Lan Huan was really tempted to take everything without a second thought. The replenishment drug and the additional fighter were an insurance against imminent threats that could not be underestimated. It were all the potential pitfalls that made him hesitate and he had always rejected to poison his body with anything that could cause an addiction.

 

“What’s your opinion?” he asked his brother who sat in his bed with a thoughtful expression. Lan Zhan’s wounds were mostly healed, but he still claimed to feel weak and woozy which meant it had to be exceptionally bad. He had always been the person to rather walk off an injury than complain about it. With the doctor’s estimation that he would have lost most of his hearing if it were not for the effect of the water ability Lan Huan was sure the last thing his brother needed were more danger and probably untested chemicals in his body. But he was also aware that all this would not keep Lan Zhan from pushing himself further.

 

The answering hum to his question sounded a bit hoarse. “Best to try it now. We need to be stronger,” Lan Zhan then answered and looked at him. There was so much vulnerability in his eyes.

 

“It still sounds dangerous. You don’t have to force yourself just because of yesterday. Wei Ying is fine, too.” The flat expression on his brother’s face gave him pause. Then he gave him an indulgent smile. “I know you, A-Zhan. And I’ve seen how you look at him when you think no one is watching.”

 

He saw the pale eyes grow wide for a second, but they still stayed downcast. “I don’t…” The hesitation and the fact that Lan Zhan refused to meet his eyes said everything.

 

“You know you can talk to me. I will not judge or blame you, okay?” He folded his hands in his lap and patiently watched the conflicting emotions in his brother’s face.

 

“Uncle said…” was the next sentence started and abandoned helplessly. Lan Zhan still stared at his hands and the urge to just hug him grew more and more. But Lan Huan knew how much his brother disliked to be touched, so he just sighed.

 

“Uncle knows a lot and is very rarely wrong. But, do you really think he is right in telling you how to feel? Is this really what you want to believe?”

 

“There is no redemption for people like that. It’s wrong.” The blanket squeezed in Lan Zhan’s hands told another tale.

 

“Then why did other countries allow same sex marriage and nothing bad happened?”

 

This gentle probing had Lan Zhan finally look at him. His brother appeared so utterly lost, but there was a fragile bit of hope. Lan Huan again waited patiently for him to find the words he was searching for. The information was something to chew on for sure.

 

“… don’t want to drag him down,” Lan Zhan finally said and Lan Huan had to keep himself from shaking his head.

 

He reached out to pour his brother another glass full of water only to keep his hand busy. “Wei Ying asked you what you think about homosexuality, right? I would like to question who’s dragging whom here. Whenever you meet, he is the one calling after you and trying to get your attention. He did not hesitate a second to risk his life for you.” Lan Huan’s smile was a bit lopsided when he looked at his brother again whose ears showed a very telling shade of red. Again there were a few minutes of silence between them. This time it was a lot more awkward than before.

 

It was evident that Lan Zhan fought with himself. He had always been a person who took words to heart and not question his elders. Lan Qiren’s approval was what he strived for the most, trying to be good in the eyes of his father figure. Especially the tendency to blindly follow the rules and be overly hard on himself had worried Lan Huan for years. He did not want to see his brother retreat again at this when there was finally someone to make him rethink and come out of his shell. Yet, he could understand the tendency to reject this sudden change.

 

Lan Zhan suddenly straightened and looked him in the eyes. “More reason to do this,” he brought the topic unexpectedly back to the beginning with his own conclusion. He appeared a lot more determined.

 

It was for Lan Huan to be speechless now, but it did not last long. “How so?” he asked puzzled. The mental leap had caught him completely off guard.

 

“To keep him from being stupid,” was the simple answer, delivered in a tone so matter-of-factly that Lan Huan really had no words this time.

 

Laughter filled the room after a few moments.

 

---

 

When they made their way outside they both were a lot more relaxed about the whole situation. Lan Huan supported his brother as much as Lan Zhan could tolerate the closeness and after a few short questions they found the Su couple still on the stone steps.

 

Su Tian’s hand were bloody and he was reprimanded by his wife for something they could not catch yet. But from the man’s relaxed manner it had to be something minor. He put what looked like crystals into one of the saddle bags while Su Xiyan handled something behind the bear. At least Lan Huan assumed it was her by the female voice until she jumped up on the animal’s back with two bound and hooded birds in her hands. Both of them had the plumage of the Red-flanked Bluetail and reached from her shoulders almost all the way down to her hip. They did not move, which was reassuring.

 

“I would have to knock them out with my bare hands and risk injuring or killing them. You can just stun them with a shock. And there’s nothing bad about a little blood on my hands. There’s enough clean water around to wash it off,” Su Tian answered to the accusations that had been obscured by the distance. Under normal circumstances Lan Huan would have been able to listen in from behind the wall and it made him feel a bit handicapped after he had gotten used to this kind of power. But now he understood why the guards at the gate had looked positively amused.

 

“Great, I married a dirty, wasteful philosopher. You can just…” Su Xiyan trailed off when she spotted them and nodded in Lan Huan’s direction. “You made your decision, I see?”

 

Lan Zhan let go of his arm to walk on his own while Lan Huan returned the nod. “What do you need us to do?” He hesitated to get any closer to the also bloody bear, no matter how docile the animal appeared at the moment.

 

Without warning two small bottles dirtied with a few specks of blood flew at them, accompanied by a call. “Catch!”

 

It was fortunate that they were made of plastic, because both landed on the ground in front of the teenagers who were too startled to react. Su Tian snorted, wiped his hands on some kind of fabric and proceeded to rummage some more in the saddle bag. Su Xiyan simply rolled her eyes at him.

 

“Sorry about that,” she said. “I suppose your uncle told you about the drug?”

 

Lan Huan hesitatingly picked it up and nodded. There was a strange blue liquid inside the translucent bottle that looked even less safe than certain energy drinks he had seen before. He squinted a bit at the vibrant color.

 

“Yes, it glows in the dark,” Su Xiyan confirmed his suspicions. His doubt must have been very visible on his face. And after that Lan Huan felt even less inclined to play along.

 

Lan Zhan was the one to open the top first and sniff at it. The sudden eagerness was still strange to behold. When his brother looked at him Lan Huan could see his confusion. “Smells like nothing.”

 

This time there was no further comment from the two adults and again the hesitation grew further. What if there were more side effects nobody knew about, yet? Or they were not told about, because it was a trap after all. Lan Huan swallowed. “Would it not be better to have the doctor-“

 

“It’s safe. We’re here in case of an emergency and taking this once will not hurt you,” Su Tian interrupted his concerns. Curiously he had two falconry gauntlets in his hands. He came over to give one to each of them. “You will need those. Once bonded they will not hurt you deliberately, but they are too strong to not cause potential accidents in the beginning. All of you will have to adjust to a new situation.”

 

“Ah,” was all Lan Huan managed, only to hear his brother hum in confirmation that he had understood before he chugged the content of his bottle.

 

A few seconds later Lan Zhan’s eyes grew wide. There was more emotion on his face than Lan Huan had seen in years and all of it appeared pleasant. Almost spaced out.

 

“Are you-?“ he began to be interrupted by his brother this time.

 

 “I’m fine. Better than fine.”

 

Was that a smile or did he see wrong?

 

Lan Huan grit his teeth and again studied the liquid. Then he just knocked his head back. No time to be a coward.

 

There was a rush of heat in his stomach, akin to strong alcohol, though, there was no burn in his throat. The feeling slowly spread through his whole body, warming him to the tips of his fingers and toes. It stayed there while another wave of pleasantness turned back inwards to gather in his belly. He felt strong, powerful even, paired with the comfort of gentle summer sun allover his skin. Concentrating for less than a second let him hear the heartbeat of every living being around, the people in the village included. But the noise was not overwhelming. He had perfect control. Nothing he did not want to reach him got through and he wanted to revel in this amazing experience forever. If he were to try and rip out a tree, he was sure it would succeed with as much ease as toppling over a thimble.

 

“Wow,” he exclaimed, looking at Su Tian with wide eyes. No wonder people got addicted to this!

 

There was a hum from the older man and Su Xiyan brought the animals instructing both boys to put on the thick leather gauntlets. His was much lighter than Land Huan had expected and after she had placed the still dazed birds on their hands everything seemed so easy. A small touch with his free hand was enough to let him feel naturally what she said about reaching out with their mind and feel the connection in their powers. Naked skin on beautiful, soft feathers that shifted slightly under his fingers.

 

When the bird stirred and spread its now free wings a smile spread over Lan Huan’s face. The wing feathers touched his cheek as if caressing it, before the animal calmed down again. Gentle chirping mixed with his own voice and only now he noticed the tone he had been humming the whole time. No fight or any kind of resistance was to be felt. It was as if they were made for each other. Two sides of the same coin. What subduing? What danger? This was all he could ever have wanted for. They were one.

 

“Liebing,” he called quietly, feeling another kind of warmth spread in his chest, connected to the same sensation in the bird’s body. If he closed his eyes he might just be able to let his soul take flight with her.

 

 

Chapter Text

As the unnatural warmth subsided Lan Zhan had a short moment of regret and longing. It was strange how his mind had gotten used to the feeling within a couple of minutes. Worryingly so. But with it gone also came clarity and the realization that it had been the wrong kind of comfort and power.

 

A rational part of him just wanted to agree that this tonic should be avoided rather than sought when he noticed something disturbing. The energy which was almost overflowing inside of him seemed to slowly leak out and vanish. It was as if the vessel holding it inside of him was littered with tiny holes that made it impossible to keep more than half of what he was used to. He only stayed calm because he somehow was aware, the damage was not permanent. Like an overused muscle that had to heal before it could be used at full force again.

 

So there had been hidden consequences. Though, the omittance to tell them did not appear to have happened with malicious intent. It was more as if this experience really should be a warning to heed in the future.

 

He looked at the startlingly blue bird on his arm and his suspicion again dampened. Wangji was the name he had given him. With it had come a connection more real and comforting than the quick rush of power. The feeling of being whole, almost. Paired with the warmth it had been more intense. Now it was ever present, gentle and by far not the overwhelming experience it had been in the first few seconds. An understanding without the need of touch or words.

 

His brother still seemed almost enthralled by the light brown one on his arm. The affectionate nibble at one ear was strange to behold. Yet, Lan Huan did not seem to mind it. It took a few more moments for his smile to fade and make room for confusion and then visible apprehension.

 

“Congratulations,” Su Tian said before one of them could voice their questions. His expression reminded them of a benevolent teacher. “I see you have noticed the slight setback that comes with this so-called replenishment potion. A nice name for something so dangerous, isn’t it?”

 

Both brothers watched in silence while he winced under the hit to the back of his head and the stern look of his wife. “Stop being a dick.”

 

“Yes, yes. And you call yourself my wife.” He made an attempt to look pitiful with a small sigh before getting serious again. “What you are experiencing is the result of a forceful expansion in your core. The amount of energy within the drug is too much if you have not reached a certain level. That means, the amount in the bottles was a small overdose, which at this point can hardly be avoided. The good thing is, used once this way you will experience an influx after the tears have healed and be able to hold a bigger reserve inside of you. Repeated use can corrode your core and destroy any progress you made in the past. At a certain level of damage it might even leave you as a waste, hardly more than a normal person with the implied drawbacks to your health. A tiny vessel with a slight incontinence problem, you could say.”

 

“That sounds awful,” Lan Huan said and Lan Zhan hummed his assent to this statement.

 

“It is. And now you know what to avoid if someone tries to trick you with it in the future,” Su Xiyan said before her husband was able to start another monologue.

 

“So, you’ve really came here to warn us?” Lan Huan asked, but Su Xiyan just shrugged.

 

They were each handed on of the hoods Liebing and Wangji had worn before. “Several reasons. You should go back and use these to calm them down in stressful situations. Let them hunt daily on their own or go with them for training. They need to eat, too. We’ll be on our way then.” Su Tian and Su Xiyan turned around and made to mount the bear that was still blocking the way down.

 

“What about Wei Ying?”

 

It did not sit right with Lan Zhan to let them go without saying goodbye, but there was only a grin when Su Tian looked over his shoulder.

 

“Keep him and his brother from seriously injuring or killing themselves. Everything else will come with time.”

 

---

 

“Can you stop playing the idiot now and talk to me?” Su Xiyan asked after they had followed the road for over an hour in complete silence.

 

Tianlang Jun did not even raise his head and continued to stare at the top of Mengmeng’s ears. “I’m fine. It’s just strange,” he answered, a self-deprecating smile on his lips. But even his own partner betrayed him and gave an annoyed huff.

 

“What is strange?” his wife pushed further without any regard for his mood. She leaned against his back, head supported on his shoulder.

 

There was a sigh building in his chest. “Sometimes I just feel too old for this shit.”

 

“Stop avoiding the topic,” came the expected complaint with a jab in the rips.

 

He had the decency to wince. “It’s just that I have killed those kids with my own hands the last time. Now I’m the one helping them get stronger faster, avoid pitfalls… One of them is helplessly in love with the maniac who could become the biggest threat for us. And even that kid is actually likable and has a smart head on his shoulders. It makes me feel worse about how much I’ve done wrong. I feel like a bully,” he murmured and suddenly felt a gentle hand in his hair.

 

“You’re trying to do it right this time, aren’t you? There are already so many things you and now we have changed. It will be alright.”

 

Tianlang Jun let the sigh finally escape his lips and leaned into the soothing fingertips. “Right. But from now on it will only get harder. If things really develop into a completely new direction we’ll be flying blind in a few months.”

 

“And that’s why you have me with you. Improvisation and intimidation, remember?” Su Xiyan chuckled and he could not help to join in.

 

Through his laughter he quipped, “Right. You are a real people person.”

 

“Hey, you have no right to talk here, mister ‘if violence doesn’t solve the problem you did not apply enough violence. By the way, what was the next target again?”

 

Tianlang Jun made an affronted noise before answering, “Two wayward menaces. Or more a menace and a calamity on their way to rough up the Jin clan. They’re seven and nine.”

 

“What the hell?” Su Xiyan leaned to the side to stare at him incredulously and Tianlang Jun gave her a wide grin.

 

“I told you about the occult business.”

 

“And I never hated anything more, yes.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Only a few rays of moonlight illuminated Yue Qingyuan’s bedroom.

 

He still had to get used to how bright the stars shone during the whole night with the lights of humanity’s big cities mostly gone from the world. It was beautiful and disturbing all at once in the same way that nature took back what had been thought of as conquered and tamed land. One new organism that did not belong in their habitat and everything changed to a point where extinction was a real possibility. Humans had done this countless times to other species in their thoughtlessness. Now the universe apparently struck back at them.

 

In all of the chaos he had just wanted to protect and make life easier for the people close and dear to him. Now even this humble aspiration was too much to ask as it seemed. He still had no idea where exactly everything had started to go wrong and why the people around him had lost their trust in him. Only the fact that a mere fraction of the original inhabitants were left remained to lament about.

 

In the beginning there had been a few who wanted to search for friends and family. Then A-Yuan had left with Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge. After that it had been quiet. A few complaints here and there but nothing they were not able to handle within a few hours, a day at most. Even the incident with Shang Qinghua and Ming Fan had not caused much trouble. Xiao Jiu had calmed down and reevaluated his own actions to the point where he mostly opted to take a step back from everything after Meng Yao cleared things up. Yue Qingyuan had always thought things mostly under control with that.

 

And then suddenly there had been news about the explosion, Mu Qingfang disappeared and people like Qi Qingqi, whom he had thought of as a friend and ally in all of this, accused him of being under Meng Yao’s influence.

 

Nobody had wanted to listen to the offer of the Wen clan, apart from Xiao Jiu who was the only person left on his side, as things appeared. Meng Yao had already implicated to forget about the contract at this stage and made preparations to leave the base, too. Yue Qingyuan was almost ready to pack it all in and follow Xiao Jiu’s wish to go and find another place to stay where the responsibility was not on their shoulders. Just disband the few who still held on and take who was willing and able to follow.

 

Footsteps in front of his door brought him back to the present. He listened for a few seconds, as did the person on the other side. Then he just closed his eyes and calmed his breath to pretend to be asleep again.

 

After the count of five the door opened.

 

It always did. By now this had become a nightly routine and while both knew he was not really sleeping, Xiao Jiu seemed to take it as an invitation to come inside.

 

Like a stray cat trying to steal some warmth he slipped under the covers. As always his back was turned to Yue Qingyuan and he curled up at the edge of the bed, not ready to touch, yet. The wish to hear the old nickname out of his mouth was bigger than ever in these moments, but it never came.

 

Not even when he sometimes found himself straddled by slender thighs somewhere between midnight and dawn. In a dreamlike haze their clothes would be gone before they knew it. Cute moans and panting would fill the night. One time a sweat soaked figure would bounce on his lap, fingers leaving claw marks on arms and chest. Another would end with the beautiful man biting back his screams of pleasure with tears in the corners of his eyes while he writhed under him.

 

The sex was always as perfect as it was fulfilling to have his Xiao Jiu sleeping boneless in his arms afterwards. With the sunrise he would be gone. Vanished like a thief in the night to give way to biting cold and punishing stares that kept Yue Qingyuan at arm’s length.

 

It was still more than he thought he would ever have. Xiao Jiu had every right to hate him after his broken promises every time they met. He had not even been able to support him and A-Yuan during their education while their uncle fleeced and abused them whenever he could. If the catastrophe had not happened Xiao Jiu would have surely had to abandon his dream of becoming a restorer.

 

Everybody had expected such a whimsical choice of career from A-Yuan who was the more sentimental one by far. But, the more Yue Qingyuan had thought about it, the more the choice made him smile. Somehow it fit. The urge to repair broken and faded things and to preserve beauty and important knowledge. Inside of that prickly, sometimes pretentious shell was still a kind heart hidden away. It had given him hope things between them still could be fixed with time.

 

An assumption that had made the cold and brutal efficiency even more shocking when they had to fight for survival. The others had labeled him as a monster fast and Yue Qingyuan’s own faith had been shaken, though, not yet broken.

 

It came back with the fear, no, panic whenever A-Yuan or him were in danger. Xiao Jiu had lashed out at everything and everyone out to hurt them in word and in action. He went so far that he completely drained himself several times and got injured in their stead. His constant arguments with people around them also came down to this protective streak. Sometimes Yue Qingyuan suspected there was a lot more going on in the background. Especially since Xiao Jiu only had him left as his family. He had decided not to investigate if possible. He did not want to dwell on possible wrongs that might have the best intentions behind them, though, never explained. It had been the right choice. Time already had proven that he too had only one person left to trust.

 

Yue Qingyuan watched the dark hair peeking out under the blanket for a few more moments and finally rolled over to embrace the slim figure. One hand came to rest on Xiao Jiu’s belly under the thin shirt. The answer was half a purr, half a warning growl, but otherwise their came no retaliation for now. Yue Qingyuan allowed himself a little sigh and buried his face in the messy, black hair. It smelled like home.

 

“Let’s leave tomorrow,” he said on a sudden impulse, pulling the warm body closer.

 

Xiao Jiu tensed up for only the fraction of a second, before he almost melted into the embrace. “Just the two of us?” he asked, his voice unexpectedly small.

 

“If that is what Xiao Jiu wants.” He pressed a kiss on the beautiful nape in front of him and felt a little shudder.

 

“I… would love that… Qi-ge.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jiang Yanli looked at the woodland below with what she knew was a sad expression.

 

They were too far from the sea to see any big bodies of water and too high up for her to feel safe on the ground. Only a river and a small lake could be spotted when the sun shone from the right angle. On the other side of the grounds she would be able to see the town that lay empty at the base of the plateau. Once it had been beautiful, full of old buildings that were now reduce to mere ruins by rain and storms.

 

The ancient castle called Koi tower made her miss home more than anything, as pretty as it was with its sprawling side buildings and the huge main building in the style of a pagoda that gave the place its name. Just as her home it had been reinforced to withstand the elements, partly clad in metal. But that was all the base had in common with Lotus Pier.

 

The inhabitants were a mix of metal and air users, either unbending and stubborn or fickle and fleeting in nature they gave her an alien feeling. The worst were those who possessed both powers. Stubborn and fickle at once.

 

Their changing attitudes towards her also gave her a headache. Either they were overly respectful under orders from Madam Jin or avoided her with visible hints of disdain when they were close to her son.

 

It had been their mothers’ favorite topic for a long time that Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli should marry to bring their families closer. While Jiang Fengmian and Jin Guangshan never saw eye to eye, their wives had been friends since their youth and even gone to school together for a while. But, their children obviously inherited the animosity rather than friendship and it was not kept silent as their father’s preferred it.

 

Or at least Jiang Cheng, Wei Ying and Jin Zixuan did it this way. Jiang Yanli would have rather liked to talk to her reluctant would-be betrothed to tell him how this really was not her idea. It was not like she completely rejected the thought, but she knew her shortcomings well and would never force anyone to be close to her.

 

Alas, she was never given a chance to explain herself and all she could do now was endure and hope her parents would fetch her home before winter came. Sending her here for her own safety might have been a nice thought. Right now, though, it proved a mental endurance test more than anything.

 

The worst thing about it was, having Jin Zixuan and her stuck here together had never been the plan at all. Originally his parents had wanted him and a few of his peers to visit the Cloud Recesses for their education. It was only after two messengers did not come home for over a month that they deemed the area too dangerous right now.

 

Another blow to Jiang Yanli’s mood. She dearly hoped her brothers were safe and sound. With A-Ying’s impulsive behavior, he was a magnet for trouble. A-Cheng had never been god at holding him in check and let himself be dragged along more often than not.

 

She closed her eyes for a few seconds and took a deep breath. They were fine. There was no need to fret. They were fine!

 

She breathed out audibly through her nose and made her way to the little garden she had been given for training. Her improvement rate might be slower than most, but she did not plan on giving up. Especially after she had heard about the immense healing powers the young man called Shang Qinghua supposedly displayed with his wood ability. She knew how long it took to heal serious burns with water powers and Xie Lian had no reason to lie to her when he spoke of seconds with not a hint of a scar remaining.

 

The last time someone let her try she had difficulties with a scraped knee. The vegetables she grew also were on the smaller side without much taste to speak of. Not to mention the long time they needed to ripen. It was not enough to be a real help for anybody and that was what she ultimately wanted to be. Someone who could help her friends and family when they were injured or hungry. She did not need a place on the front lines. Fighting was never something that appealed to her and she would rather take the role of the support others needed to keep going.

 

Her mother had always looked down on this mindset. She had tried to push her to strive for more than the traditional gender roles, as she phrased it. But, what was so bad about having a family and raising children instead of a great career? Money and fame were never a guaranty for a warm, loving home. Jiang Yanli knew this better than anyone as she strove to bring harmony to a dysfunctional family. She would rather stick to a humble dream and be happy with what she had.

 

And this included a husband who wanted her for who she was, not someone who was forced to settle because his parents decided for him.

 

She sat down in front of the radishes she was working with and greeted them quietly. These plants had heard a lot of her woes and experiences over the last few weeks.

 

Just about to pour some more of her power into them, she heard calls from the inner courtyard. Had something happened? Worried she got up again and decided to take a look.

 

“Where is the base leader?” was the first thing she clearly heard through the cacophony of voices. “They demand to speak to Jin Guangshan!”

 

“Who demands what?” Madam Jin interrupted from behind Jiang Yanli. There was a friendly nod before the older woman stepped outside. Her presence alone brought some order to the chaotic situation and had the people calm down.

 

“There are people outside who claim to come from the laboratory the base leader visited a few weeks ago. They wish to speak to him directly,” the burly teenager who had called out answered. Jiang Yanli recognized him as Jin Zixun, a loud and opinionated cousin, as far as she had gathered.

 

Right now he had puffed out his chest, clearly enjoying the attention.

 

Madam Jin gave him a stern look. “Then what are you yelling here for instead of going to his office or his private rooms. Your uncle is not a dog and if these people wish a private conversation, they will most likely not appreciate you informing the whole base about it.”

 

“I…” Scolded like a child Jin Zixun took a step back.

 

“Well? What are you waiting for? And since you rather start an unneeded uproar I suppose they have not been let in yet.”

 

He seemed to shrink more under every word. Unable to refute he just bowed out and sought refuge in flight.

 

Madam Jin allowed herself a sigh. “This child,” she said exasperated before gifting Jiang Yanli with a smile. “It is nothing to be frightened of, dear. I know what this is probably about.” With this she turned to the entrance, determined to deal with things herself.

 

Jiang Yanli followed, curious on what this was about. And perhaps these people had even new about what was happening in Gusu.

 

What she then saw when the men entered were three harried looking persons who left their battered car in the care of the inhabitants. They were very grateful for the offer of food and drink when they followed Madam Jin inside and shortly after they vanished into a private room with both of them when Jin Guangshan finally appeared.

 

At first Jiang Yanli had planned to ask afterwards what had happened. But, after the car literally broke down and one of the tires rolled lonesome over the ground when someone just closed the door with a bit of force, she decided to take a page out of A-Ying’s book.

 

A short visit to the kitchen later she snuck into a side room with an empty water glass, feeling like a thief.

 

“It is what?!” she heard Jin Guangshan’s voice and closed her eyes to with a finger in her other ear to better catch everything that was said.

 

Someone else coughed and there was a pause as if the men did not quite know how to answer. “It looks like there was help from the outside. It would have never been able to free itself alone,” one of them finally said. “We were sent for damage control as soon as the satellite signal vanished and we’re sure it moves in this direction.”

 

“What does that mean for us?” Madam Jin chimed in, sounding worried.

 

“It… is a powerful entity, able to control its victims and kill them without physical contact. And it has high cannibalistic tendencies.”

 

There was a sharp intake of breath behind Jiang Yanli and she forewent the answer inside the room to turn around in fear she had been caught. Yet, Jin Zixuan’s eyes were just as wide as her own, his ear still on the glass he had brought for himself. He lifted his index finger to his lips, signaling she should stay quiet and if the situation had not been this frightening, Jiang Yanli would have probably smiled at that.

 

Now she simply changed hands and used her other ear to listen, a little blush dusting her cheeks.

 

“- expect us to do? Your boss promised for it to be completely safe!” Jin Guangshan apparently just finished berating the men. Jiang Yanli hat never heard the ever smiling man this angry.

 

“We need someone to recharge our equipment. After we contacted our employer it should at most take a month to clear the situation. That of course includes the second entity we suspect to be involved.”

 

The loud noise that followed made both teenagers jolt. “You lost two of them and they are both in our area now! How can we trust you to take care of this situation properly?!” Jin Guangshan yelled. “This is a disaster! My people need to be able to leave the base to find further supplies! Do you think we can survive the next winter living off of nothing?!”

 

“That is the only option we have. We barely escaped with our lives to deliver this information,” someone else answered who just sounded tired by now.

 

“Two weeks. After two weeks we will throw you out as useless mouths to feed and until then we are only willing to give the bare minimum. There will also be no repairs.”

 

Silence followed until the door opened and closed.

 

“We’re dead either way if they really come here.”

 

“Shut the fuck up!”

 

When nothing more came after a few minutes, Jiang Yanli took down the glass and forced herself to breath slowly. She saw her own wide-eyed expression mirrored in Jin Zixuan’s face.

 

 

Chapter Text

It had taken them a few minutes to get up and leave the room. Neither of them spoke while Jin Zixuan followed her into the kitchen. He was still pale and judging from the expression on his face he had a hard time digesting what they had heard.

 

Out of habit Jiang Yanli put a kettle on and searched the cupboards for tealeaves. It was the second best option to cooking for her brothers when she wanted to calm herself down and find a bit of comfort. Right now she did not really care about rationing and the little bit of water could be counted as part of their daily allowance.

 

After the teapot and two cups stood ready on the counter she turned around to find Jin Zixuan sitting at the kitchen table. He was watching her intently and she was suddenly unsure how to feel about his attention. She had expected to find herself alone in the room right now, but something obviously had changed.

 

In the past she had been more of a wallflower, concentrated on her schoolwork and the few female friends who she had to pick carefully since there were enough people who just looked at her as a walking moneybag. She had never aspired to be one of the cool or popular kids and tried to stay away from smoking and alcohol altogether. She had found her own niche to be happy in and that also meant, the only two good-looking boys wanting to be around her were A-Ying and A-Cheng. Those two did not really count, being her younger brothers.

 

“It’s a bit like when Lotus Pier was attacked,” she broke the awkward silence and voiced the thoughts that had been on her mind for a while now. “Travelers told us our ferry was eaten by something big and the next day there was this…strange phenomenon. The only thing people saw was a dark maelstrom in the water with lots of wind around it.”

 

Jin Zixuan blinked, clearly confused at the sudden wealth of information. “Is that why you’re here?” he then asked, sitting up a bit straighter.

 

Jiang Yanli nodded. “My parents wanted me to be safe.” They shared a wry look at that and Jin Zixuan sighed.

 

“That sounds bad. Did you… lose many people?”

 

This time Jiang Yanli shook her head. “Nobody, as strange as it sounds. One of the people who warned us got sucked in and spit out a few seconds later. He claimed it was a child in there. We just lost a few planks from the pier and it vanished without a trace.”

 

“Weird.” Jin Zixuan knit his brow. He appeared about to say something, but the just moved his gaze to the tabletop. He looked surprisingly helpless right now.

 

Jiang Yanli could not blame him. For her it would also be too much to swallow. “Very,” she only agreed at his assessment. “But if that was the one they lost before it might not come here. Not enough water.”

 

Jin Zixuan’s eyes wandered to the window and the pond outside, now devoid of the Koi that had made this place a tourist trap before. “Mh, fighting one alone sounds bad enough. We could use these people here. Or someone like them at least.”

 

“You mean the travelers? That would be great. They’re really strong,” Jiang Yanli mused. “But I don’t think they’ll come even close to here. They said there home is much farther to the west.”

 

She jumped when the teakettle went off and scrambled to pour the boiling water in. The little swirl of leaves reminded her of what she had seen from the balcony with Xie Lian and Hua Cheng. Suddenly she really wanted to know how all of them were doing, but information from the north away from the coast was even harder to come by than news from her home.

 

“What is Lotus Pier like?” Jin Zixuan interrupted her thoughts and she was surprised he kept the conversation going. With a sudden smile she began to tell him about how everything had changed since his family had visited the last time and felt her homesickness lift a little.

 

It ended with both of them talking about music and fun pastimes they had enjoyed before and changed to anything and everything they could think of. Or more Jin Zixuan talked and she got to listen, which helped her to get to know him better in turn. A few times he got a genuine laugh out of Jiang Yanli and when they were chased out by the people assigned to cook dinner, both were surprised how much time had passed.

 

Jin Zixuan even followed her to her garden to spend the time before they could eat and asked a few more questions here and there as he watched her work. When she was later alone in her room she felt a lot better about her stay and perhaps the looming danger would just pass them by like the last time.

 

---

 

The next morning then was very different from what she had expected.

 

Not only had Jin Zixuan switched from aggressively ignoring her to active avoidance, his friends also looked at her like a big riddle they had to solve. They vanished from the breakfast table just as fast, leaving Jiang Yanli alone with mostly adults.

 

And here she had thought she made a new friend yesterday. Though, the encouraging smile Madam Jin gave her made things even stranger. The lady of the house seemed almost amused with the development instead of her normal exasperation when her son showed the cold shoulder.

 

Jiang Yanli was unable to make heads or tail out of all of this and decided to focus on the bigger problems at hand instead. There was just a little spark of annoyance that began to follow her through the day, while she tried to find out more about the actions of the three men who were hiding in their designated rooms for all she knew.

 

But, here she also ran into a wall of silence.

 

The only information she got was accidentally spotting two men she knew were lightning users carrying a strange box and making their way up to the second floor. Probably the equipment that had been mentioned yesterday. The box look surprisingly small and reminded her vaguely of a telephone with satellite connection she had seen in a nature documentary once.

 

Now that she thought about it, had it not been spread by official sources that there was only wreckage left and no connections via this technology could be established? It really made one question how much of the information they had gotten was fake and meant to cut off communication.

 

The one that there was no dangerous human experimentation going on in the background had also proven false more than once.

 

She still remembered the warning Shen Yuan had given her parents, about not trusting the government or military. A good call, now that she knew how they bread the worst dangers themselves. Yet, she could not help but worry about her family even more. Should these people come knocking with this kind of power behind them, there was no opposing them. And even cooperation was precarious since they were unable to reliably control their creations.

 

Again her thoughts went back to the five men and two little boys and she wanted to ask how much more they knew about what was going on. Not for the first time she wished to be able to see the future or at least more of what happened in the present.

 

Right now she felt left alone with a giant jigsaw puzzle that was missing over half of its pieces.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“What in the world?”

 

Su Xiyan stared at the remainder of two cars with wide eyes while Tianlang Jun wrinkled his brows behind her. The car bodies were ripped apart and littered across the road without care. There were still traces of spilled fuel which thankfully had not caught fire. Some of the cuts almost appeared like claw marks while others had smoothed edges, strangely enough.

 

“Heishui,” he commented after a closer look. “And stronger than last time.”

 

These children had mostly run under his radar in his past life, which had proven another fatal mistake he now rectified. Not only had they been a hindrance to his initial plans every once in a while, when the laboratory lost control over the bunch of them, they had descended like a plague. Or more like a swarm of wrathful gods and demons that they were. They had taken revenge for the undignified treatment and more than anything their internal quarrels had been taken out on the world around them without batting an eyelash.

 

The fights had become bigger and fiercer over time, laying waste to everything that was left. First they slaughtered the people in close proximity or just destroyed their livelihood, even under the guise of wanting to help and protect the survivors. Then their personal wars had widened over the original borders to the countries around.

 

When Crimson Rain Reaching toward a Flower had finally popped up in all of this and joined hands with Black Water Submerging Boats everything had completely spiraled out of control. Nobody could say why these two went berserk as they did. There were only rumors about two others who were missing amongst these godlike monsters. Names or a confirmation for this assumption had not been able to reach him before he found his own demise in unfortunate circumstances.

 

He spotted footsteps, leading away from the road towards the sea and squatted down to take a closer look at a skeletal arm with a few pieces of flesh still stuck to it. Not older than one or two days.

 

“And the Night-Touring Green Lantern in all his disgusting glory.”

 

Su Xiyan grimaced next to him at the sight. “At least the blood makes it easier to track them down.” Her whole demeanor screamed she would rather not encounter any of them. She gave the trees that blocked the view of the ocean another look and proved his assumption as she said, “Are you sure this is a good idea? What kind of monster can rip a bulletproof vehicle into tiny pieces?”

 

“Something very old, extremely powerful and very angry, because it’s trapped inside the body of a little girl,” Tianlang Jun answered her and shrugged. He got up again, gesturing Mengmeng to come closer. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve and those two aren’t on the best of terms. From what I know about them, I’m surprised the little cannibal is still alive.”

 

“That’s not reassuring at all.” A fist hit his upper arm.

 

Tianlang Jun simply grinned as he threw the bones back into the ditch on the roadside. Before mounting Mengmeng again he wiped both hands on his jeans. “We will be fine,” he declared carefree, back on the thick coat of fur and pulled his fretting wife into his arms.

 

“That’s what you said about the strange flowers, too. And yes, I’ve still not forgiven you for that one,” she griped, only to earn a laugh.

 

He could not help his grin growing a bit wider at that. “I was under the impression you enjoyed it very much.”

 

Only when his hands were slapped and Su Xiyan scooted a bit away from him did he realize how wrong this answer had been. It made his heart ache to see the sudden vulnerable expression on her face.

 

“I was drugged and you knew that. This is never okay and never funny. Never. You hear me?”

 

“I’m sorry.” He reached out with a sigh, relieved that she allowed him to cup her cheek with one hand. “And I swear, I didn’t know about it beforehand. If I had I would have warned you.”

 

For a moment she leaned into his touch and closed her eyes. “Still too easy to manipulate,” she murmured more to herself. This time he was unsure who she was talking about, but it did not matter. Not with her snuggling into his embrace again.

 

With his thoughts now back to the bigger problem, he was still surprised how fresh everything on the road had looked, perhaps a day or two old. But the small bay they were about to pass was close to fit into the estimated timespan. It was only strange that they did not appear to plan moving inland right now. Could he have misjudged things here?

 

He remembered one of the children was known for eating its fill and disappearing for a while. The other gathered some prey and fed on it, before looking for trouble again. Mostly in a rather cowardly way and not open attacks.

 

Could someone have framed the two of them with the attack on Koi tower? The possibility alone sounded strange, yet, from their current progress it was impossible for them to reach the place in less than two days.

 

“I think, we found another rabbit hole,” he told Su Xiyan when they reach a spot on the beach that was splattered with blood as well as small body parts and had two rather deep imprints of the same child’s face in the already dried sand.

 

She snorted next to him. “Really?”

 

“I was not talking about that.” A gesture at the unsettling sight followed while it was his turn to grimace. “I think, our wayward monsters here are not the ones we’re really looking for right now. Not to mention that they’re already fighting with each other, as expected.”

 

“Ah…” Su Xiyan did not sound happy about this discovery. “What are you planning to do about this then?”

 

He pulled air through his teeth with a little hiss to release it audibly. “Still thinking. We could try to get one on our side and restrain the other. For the base we’re probably too late anyway. Although there is something or more someone who is important and should be kept alive at all cost. She will be needed to keep the two Yunmeng brats under control in the future.”

 

“That means Koi tower first and later we’ll search here again?”

 

“I suppose.” Tianlang Jun ran the fingers of his left hand through his hair. “This really is a bigger mess than expected.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Jin Zixuan had been sitting on his chair for half an hour, his elbows propped up on the writing desk in front of him, face cupped in his hands. He stared at the wall, not even moving his eyes when the door opened and closed behind him.

 

“I am the biggest idiot on this planet,” he proclaimed at the person that audibly fell onto one of the beds in the room, only to get a questioning hum in return.

 

By now he knew from the sound of the footsteps who had come in. The other boy’s name was Yang Yixuan and he originally came from Jinlan. An online friend who had visited during the time the apocalypse began.

 

Since then he had been Jin Zixuan’s constant roommate and his most valued sparring partner.

 

It was amazing how Yang Yixuan used his water powers rather for attacks than healing and support. Not that he refused should someone ask for the latter. One of the people who kept their supply of drinkable water going.

 

He also was Jin Zixuan’s private opportunity for regular baths, but that stayed between them.

 

“Still that girl?” Yang Yixuan asked into the persisting silence and Jin Zixuan finally straightened up to look at him with obvious annoyance.

 

“It’s not that girl. Her name is Jiang Yanli.”

 

With a grin Yang Yixuan proceeded to repeatedly bounce a tennis ball off the ceiling. “Yes, yes, the pure and gentle goddess you wronged to the point where you’re afraid to talk to her again. You’ve only been mentioning her every five minutes for the last two days.”

 

“Shut up! What do you know?!” A hint of red found its way on Jin Zixuan’s cheeks. Was his friend not supposed to be on his side?

 

Now Yang Yixuan started to chuckle. “I know that I believed what you told me about her and her horrible family. And I know she never bothered you or made any attempts to get close to you, because you complained about that, too. She just keeps to herself and is helpful where people let her while your mother keeps trying to pamper and spoil her. I also remember telling you about how she rejected to spend time with the yes-men around your mom and rather trained some more in the garden. So… is it okay to make friends now or not, oh flip-flopping leader?”

 

The eraser Jin Zixuan threw at the bed turned the amusement in his voice into full on laughter.

 

“When did you become such an annoying smartass?” Jin Zixuan growled with a dark look.

 

Yang Yixuan just snorted. “Since I have to spend time with your idiotic cousin and some of the prisses who think they’re the crown of creation on daily basis. But seriously, I’d rather be friends with someone more down to earth.”

 

“Wait. Are they bullying you?” Jin Zixuan asked incredulously.  He had told his clique to treat Yang Yixuan like one of them and did not even mention that his new friend came basically out of the sticks. The thought that he was ignored like that and they started shit behind his back did not sit right with him.

 

There was another hum from Yang Yixuan. “Not anymore. Remember Zixun’s black eye?”

 

“Yes, he said it was an accident,” Jin Zixuan answered visibly irritated.

 

Yang Yixuan turn his head to look at him. The tennis ball still hit the ceiling in a slow rhythm. “Yea, he accidentally ran into my fist, all right, after he tried to pester me into giving two of those girls daily showers.”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me? I would have helped you,” Jin Zixuan said. He could not help but feel aggrieved. Was he this untrustworthy?

 

“Because-“ Yang Yixuan caught the ball in his fist and squeezed it. “He’s your cousin and I’m just an outsider. And I wanted to fight my own battle.” ‘I didn’t want to make things difficult for you,’ hung in the air without being spoken.

 

You’re not an outsider, you’re my friend,’ was on Jin Zixuan’s tongue, but he just frowned and got up. “Fine. I feel like sparring. You’re coming?”

 

Yang Yixuan blinked, before he sat up and nodded. “Always with the mood swings,” he mumbled into his inexistent beard and followed outside, hands in his pockets.

 

But, just when they had left the building the footsteps behind Jin Zixuan came to a sudden halt.

 

“What’s that?” Yang Yixuan asked, one hand pointing at two small figures in blue and light green clothes who perched on the outer wall as if waiting for something.

 

Jin Zixuan followed the pointer after a short moment of confusion. “Are those children?” There also was the voice of his father coming from somewhere, though he was unable to understand the words that were yelled at someone. The answer came from someone Jin Zixuan did not recognize. He only made out the words “make sure this secret is kept.”

 

A second later the children stood up and his eyes went wide. He gripped Yang Yixuan’s arm to pull him back inside only to see a steel plate fly in their direction out of nowhere. His strength was almost not enough to change the direction before it crashed into the wall beside them only a heartbeat later.

 

They slammed the door shut to hear countless small objects pelt the reinforced wood. A few feet away a window shattered under the onslaught of half frozen raindrops that left imprints on the inner wall of the corridor.

 

“Holy shit,” Yang Yixuan yelped, but it sounded more like a whisper under the sheer volume of the storm. Even the screams of the people caught outside were almost drowned out. The voices were hauntingly familiar, yet, he could do nothing but cower behind the wall in hopes not to become the next victim.

 

Jiang Yanli had been right. She had warned him. He had just never thought reality would be this terrifying.

 

He was able to control air and metal without thinking twice. Yang Yixuan was able to control water in the most amazing ways he had ever seen and even produce it out of nowhere. However, what hit them now was so many times stronger than what they could ever hope to achieve. They would be ripped apart at the slightest wrong move, like mice in front of a giant tiger.

 

Only when Yang Yixuan’s hand touched his shoulder did he snap out of his daze. “We need to get out of here,” he heard his friend say and was pulled into the big hall in the middle of the tower. Even here the damp air and the howls of the wind followed them.

 

“What the fuck is happening?” Yan Yixuan spoke again and only now did Jin Zixuan detect the tremble in his voice.

 

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. “This has something to do with the men that wanted to see my father,” he then said. “We need to find Jiang Yanli.”

 

“Why her?” Yang Yixuan asked visibly confused at that. There was a small stripe of blood on his cheek.

 

Jin Zixuan had to take another deep breath. Was he really insane enough to go out there and try to find one person he barely knew? The answer was simple.

 

“Because she has already survived something like this at Lotus Pier.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Yang Yixuan gaped at him for a few seconds before he blew a raspberry. “You’ve got some explaining to do.”

 

Something big hit the building with a loud noise just as Jin Zixuan wanted to say something. They both winced at the sound of debris being crushed further a few seconds later. If this went on, staying would be even more suicidal than going back outside. He bit back a curse.

 

“We go out the backdoor in the kitchen,” he decided and earned a simple nod.

 

The doorknob in hand he peered out into the hall in a crouch. A steel plate blocked him from opening it further. It had been rammed through the front door and also taken a piece out of the outer wall in the process. It would provide as the perfect shield for them, if he found a way to move it without exposing himself to danger. At least the rain came at them in an angle, instead of straight horizontal.

 

He was about to turn around and ask Yang Yixuan for help when a gust of wind almost smashed the door in his face. His hand smarted from the impact, not to mention the strain of holding it open in the first place. He was not sure if anything could be broken and cursed. A fracture would take too much power to heal, if the other boy could even manage it in a short amount of time. The fact he was still able to move his fingers without too much pain was already a plus.

 

“You alright?” Yang Yixuan asked behind him, concern clear in his tone.

 

Jin Zixuan took half a step back. “I’m fine. When I push the door open, I need you to divert the water from us, okay?” He shook his right hand a bit to relax it and put it back on the handle without looking back.

 

“Okay. On three?” he heard from behind.

 

With a nod Jin Zixuan agreed and began to count slowly.

 

After the initial difficulty it was easier than expected to make their way through the building. Sometimes they had to crouch behind the more and more dented plate when they passed a window, but otherwise not much happened. As if the attack here was only an afterthought and the two little monsters were occupied somewhere else. If that was the case he certainly did not plan on complaining. It also gave him the opportunity to convey loosely what Jiang Yanli had told him about the attack a few days before.

 

“Means we need to hope for a superhero intervention? Neat.” Yang Yixuan risked a quick look around the side of their shield only to stumble against the wall from the force of the wind alone. “With our luck, we’re doomed.”

 

Jin Zixuan cringed and decided to forgo the annoyed reply. He still hoped to find more material to work with, but the moment they stumbled into the kitchen they found everything in pieces. The smell of blood and fear was thick in the air and the floor painted with puddles of light red liquid, diluted by the still falling rain.

 

It had belonged to the three people who had been on their way to the door as it seemed. Arms outstretched they lay on the floor with their flesh partially stripped from their bones. Jin Zixuan felt himself shiver before the stair of wide, empty eyes and the mangled faces full of horror. They had been working here not even half an hour ago. One of them was a cook who had made the meals for his family for decades.

 

Yang Yixuan swallowed audibly behind him. His hand landed on Jin Zixuan’s shoulder as if he was searching for something to hold onto in this surreal situation. The feeling alone brought him to his knees with the realization of how hopeless their situation was.

 

“My father was outside.”  Something in him cramped up until he tasted bile in his throat. A single eye stared at him out of half a woman’s face, the other a bloody skull with a toothless grin that made his stomach churn. About what flowed out through the small holes in forehead and cheekbone he did not even want to speculate.

 

On all four he left the little he had eaten for breakfast on the kitchen floor. This was worse than the day when everything began. His parents had mostly shielded him from the zombie attacks and all he had hunted and killed since then were mutated monsters, but never anything remotely human. And even then the threat of death had never felt real.

 

He just wanted to drop and never move again, but a warm hand on his back gave him the strength to sit up and wipe his mouth.

 

He found Yang Yixuan on his knees next to himself, jaw set with determination. ”We need to move or we’re dead meat,” the other boy said and Jin Zixuan felt himself nod.

 

They awkwardly made their way through what was left of the cupboards and counters with shaky knees.  The room looked as if thousands of tiny bullets had shredded wood and stone to leave only a few splinters on the nails in the walls. A few cooking utensils and pieces left over from pots and pans made their way into Jin Zixuan’s arsenal while they dragged their improvised shield along.

 

Everything did not take more than a few minutes, yet Jin Zixuan felt as if he had aged a few years in this room alone. He felt numb. Everything was too much. The small, mangled pulp of flesh and bone on the outside was already only another part of the expected carnival of horrors.

 

“… Zixuan! Hey!”

 

He blinked and only now registered the concerned expression on Yang Yixuan’s faces. “I…” All words that came to mind sounded empty and meaningless all of the sudden.

 

His friend simply pushed his head down and a split-second later a piece of the plate broke off to crash into a window a few feet away. Jin Zixuan stared at it in a mix of surprise and horror. How had he missed that?

 

“Stop spacing out!” Yan Yixuan growled. “We have no time for breaks!”

 

Was it his imagination or had the storm around them lessened significantly?

 

“I know!” he snapped back and bent the plate a bit more. They already saw the supports of the glass building. Perhaps his mother would also be there. She liked to keep Jiang Yanli company when she had nothing important to do. If she was still alive, that was.

 

His hopes were greatly dampened when they came closer. The shards of the shattered panels had been scattered all over the place. What had been able to hold back countless hailstorms was destroyed like it was nothing. There had been no shelter to speak of in the place, the patches dark with a few green dots that would wilt as soon as the moisture disappeared.

 

However, in a corner, behind what once had been a beautiful wooden bench, was a strange, green structure. It looked like a dense bush, or more like a ball of leaves and tendrils, big enough to hide one or two humans within. Jin Zixuan was strangely reminded of a cocoon and shared a puzzled look with Yang Yixuan before inching closer.

 

By now the rain had lessened to normal water pouring from the sky. Whatever the little monsters were doing, he hoped they would be distracted for a while longer. Under other circumstances this could have been a blessing for all of them. The sheer amount could have lasted the base for weeks, if not months.

 

“Jiang Yanli?” Jin Zixuan called out next to the leaves. After a few heartbeats they moved, but what he saw was the face of a little girl, not older than four. Big, white eyes looked at him. Or they would have, since the color suggested the child was blind.

 

“Who’s there?” she asked. Her tiny hands trembled visibly.

 

“We’re friends,” Yang Yixuan answered and leaned over while Jin Zixuan was glad to back off a bit. “Are you alone in there?”

 

The little girl shook her head no and sniffed. “Yanli-jie is here. She doesn’t wake up.”

 

“What’s your name?” Yang Yixuan continued to talk. “I’m Yixuan and my friend is called Zixuan.”

 

The latter was ready to just carve an opening into the foliage, but the other boy gestured to him to wait. With a frown he lowered the cooking knife again and decided to look out for potential threats.

 

Meanwhile the ball of leaves rustled again as the little girl sat down. “Mommy called me A-Qing.”

 

“Okay, A-Qing, we need to get you out of there. Can you tell us where Jiang Yanli is, so she won’t get hurt?”

 

This time A-Qing nodded, but even with her help it was hard to cut the strange plant open. It was strong enough to withstand the horrible storm and falling glass, so the knives from the kitchen, as sharp as they were, were possibly the slowest way to go about it.

 

Still, both boys did not give up and after a while there came a groan from inside the leaves.

 

“Jie woke up!” A-Qing reported excitedly, open relief on the pale face that still peered through the green.

 

The pained noise became a bit louder, followed by more rustling. “What happened?” Jiang Yanli’s voice asked and Jin Zixuan felt his heart beating faster. Amitabha, she was alive!

 

“The base was attacked. Can you open this thing? We really need to go before anything comes looking for us,” Yang Yixuan answered her, still sawing on one of the thick vines.

 

By now A-Qing had retreated and was not to be seen. Instead slender fingers tried to pull the construct apart from the inside. “No, it won’t listen to me,” came the answer after a few moments and the hands vanished again.

 

“What do you mean, it won’t listen? You made this thing, didn’t you?” Jin Zixuan snapped, his knife mostly blunt from the effort of cutting the dense foliage. This was insane. What was this stuff made of?

 

“I don’t know what happened. There is nothing when I try to use my powers,” Jiang Yanli answered softly. “Not like I drained myself. It feels like it’s gone!”

 

Jin Zixuan sat back and stared at a dangling leaf. It bobbed in a mocking fashion in front of his eyes. “What? How?”

 

“I don’t know. My head hurts.” There was a little whine to Jiang Yanli’s voice. Something he had never expected to hear from her. Speechless he stared at the leaves.

 

Next to him Yang Yixuan also lowered his hand and looked at him with wide eyes.

 

And then it hit him. The knife dropped to the ground as he felt his body grow cold. There had been cases in the beginning when people had just developed their abilities and overused them in dangerous situations. Some had become stronger afterwards, but another part had lost the power they had just gained and complained about headaches or migraines only to die a few weeks - months at best - later from aneurisms that could not be healed by anyone. Nor had any healer found a way to stop the torturous process in which they regularly bled out of their orifices.

 

He was about to tell the two girls to hold on when he heard the sound of someone stepping onto the glass behind them.

 

It was another little girl about nine years old. She was still clad in the light green clothes Jin Zixuan had seen on the wall, a folding fan with the word Wind on it in her hand. She watched the boys for a moment and turned her attention to the ball of leaves.

 

“You met his highness.” The words were not a question and the second she came closer the two boys got out of her way by instinct alone. The small, slender frame radiated a frightening power.

 

“W-who are you talking about?” Yang Yixuan still asked, while the leaves rustled again. He slowly moved until he was as close as possible to the cocoon.

 

 “Xie Lian. And Hua Cheng. And you met He-jie!” the girl exclaimed, her eyes bright and full of happiness. “Where are they? Are they okay?”

 

There was a confused pause until Jiang Yanli answered, “Xie Lian and Hua Cheng were safe when I met them. They are with friends. But I don’t know who He-jie is.”

 

From his position Jin Zixuan saw some movement in the back while she spoke. A-Qing fell on her butt and stared at the cocoon as if she was about to cry. Thankfully the noise was covered up by the strange girl’s next words.

 

“But you met He-jie! I know you did! Tell me where she is! I need to find her!” she cried a lot less friendly, hands reaching for the vines.

 

There was something strange in the girl’s eyes. Jin Zixuan almost wanted to call it insanity. The moment she came closer Jiang Yanli hissed, “RUN!” at the three of them and he could only watch in horror as a heavy gust of wind threw A-Qing, Yang Yixuan and him into the open air. The hidden roots underneath held what had now become Jiang Yanli’s prison in place.

 

“Where is she?! I’m not allowed to die without her! She promised when I find her! TELL ME!”

 

Again and again the girl used her fan to batter the green, drowning out Jin Zixuan’s call to the person inside. There was no getting near it and when the young teenager in blue joined in, his eyes hauntingly empty, he let himself finally be dragged away by Yang Yixuan. The rain had already become stronger again.

 

---

 

A lonely figure made his way through the ruins in the dead of night, followed by the sound of water whenever his feet hit one of the countless puddles on the ground.

 

With only death and debris around him he did not spare a second glance at anything. Nor did he trip over the wreckage with the light of stars and moon hidden behind heavy clouds. Head held high and shoulders straight he moved forward as if he knew exactly where to find what he was looking for. His speed suggested quiet urgency.

 

At the sight of a broken body, slumped against the remains of a wall, he allowed himself a sigh and crouched down. Only a few slivers of life remained in the battered shell of the girl, but it was enough. She was still fighting.

 

Two fingertips were pressed against the space between her eyebrows with a faint glow. “Just cracked, not broken. Good,” he commented and pulled a small bottle out of his pocket.

 

Gently he manhandled her into a more comfortable position and pulled her head against his chest to pour the glowing red liquid down her throat. Then he waited.

 

Ten seconds. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds.

 

A small groan and the ragged breath became calmer, easier. He smiled.

 

“Good girl. Rest. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Mu Qingfang did not know where he was, but he knew exactly why he was here.

 

The last few weeks he had been moving through the strange facility without any real control over his body and healed countless of wounds inflicted on the children trapped here like dangerous animals. For some reason unbeknownst to him he had been included in their telepathic way of communication by the girl named Ling Wen. She had let him know there would be a backlash if he ever dared inform their captors and he appreciated the honesty. Though, he could do without the constant chatter and screaming in the back of his head sometimes.

 

For the power hidden in their tiny bodies, some of them were remarkably unstable and flooded what they referred to as a communication array with very dark thoughts on every possible occasion.

 

Over time he had learned all their names and strange habits and he appreciated the quiet ones. The ones like the boy in the holding cell right in front of him for example. Yizhen he was called by the older boy in the same room, who was not much of a talker himself. At his first visit Mu Qingfang would have missed his presence completely, if it were not for the constant calls after shixiong and the burns on the poor child’s body.

 

And yet again he had been ordered here because of a bleeding wound on the boy’s arm. Stoic silence greeted him from Yin Yu’s side. His friend looked more anxious every time on the other hand. The wavy hair was even fluffier from the electric current running through the child’s body. His whole demeanor reminded Mu Qingfang of a very loyal cocker spaniel and he seemed ready to jump out and kill whomever dared to hurt his shixiong.

 

Mu Qingfang sent some reassuring words to Yizhen and entered the other cell to heal the cut within seconds. It was strange, but since he came here his powers had grown in leaps and bounds. By now he was sure his captors gave him some kind of strange medicine with his food. Nothing with a big impact on his daily routine, yet after a while he had noticed his reserves as well as the efficiency growing. Whatever they had done to him, it had somehow awakened a second ability that worked in perfect harmony with the first one. He was pretty sure it had to be wood element, since it was known as the only other power with healing abilities. He just had no chance to confirm at this point.

 

Thankfully, nobody else had noticed there were small strands of another kind of energy lacing the water he used. Only the faster results had been noted which led to more cases where they chose to bring him instead of one of the other healers. This was just as well. He would not want to see the mistreated children suffer more because of insufficient care.

 

As he saw the boy relax under his hands and close his eyes with a little sigh, he was again amazed how much trust he had garnered already. From the way they were treated there would be no blaming these kids for not trusting an adult ever again. But here he was, not doing much at all and some of them even fell asleep during the treatment. How exhausted did they have to be to drop like that whenever they felt a hint of safety?

 

‘He will be fine,’ was the message he sent, and, in an instant, the Quan Yizhen also relaxed to the point of slumping against the back wall of his own cell.

 

Mu Qingfang just wished he could do more to help them.

 

“Move it. There’s more work for you,” one of the self-proclaimed scientists called him in the same way he would order a slave.

 

He had no choice but to get up and follow the command, accompanied by a new string of threats and curses in the back of his head. They were not aimed at him, he knew that. But they still startled him. As did the desperation behind them to reach the men they were meant for.

 

In the hall he found the answer to why the boy who was mostly of the more composed sort hurled insults at their captors as a thinly veiled cry for help. Shi Wudu’s eyes were blank as always, the collar restraining him several times stronger than the one Mu Qingfang had to deal with. He followed the white-clad figure who was known at the head of this strange laboratory. His subordinates only called him Sir.

 

Said man already gestured for the security guards to bring the young girl into her cell. He told Shi Wudu to go into his own while his sister was manhandled like a ragdoll and thrown to the ground thoughtlessly.

 

“We need one of the stronger devices for the Wind Master. And check all the older ones. The integrated talismans appear to fail after a while.” The man just looked at the two children for a second. “Heal them,” he then ordered Mu Qingfang and left the room, his thoughts visibly already elsewhere.

 

There was a moment of silence in the room and in the back of Mu Qingfang’s mind when he entered the cell of the girl. He almost suspected they had shut him out when a juvenile voice spoke to him, ‘If you dare hurt her, I will kill you.’ It was a lot calmer now, but just as hostile as a few minutes ago.

 

Mu Qingfang wished he were able to look over to the boy and give him some kind of reaction. As things stood, he could only handle the girl a lot more carefully than the guards had to show his intentions. With her head in his lap he began the treatment. The amount of injuries, especially to her head, shocked him more than he wanted to admit.

 

‘What happened?’ he asked after a minute or two, the green shimmer in the water covering the girl’s skin more prominent than usual.

 

He expected to be told to shut up, but it appeared more as if the peanut gallery waited for the same answer with bated breath. Yet, Shi Wudu did not react at all. He just stared at Mu Qingfang’s hands with the same empty expression and sat down at the call of another man in the room.

 

‘Qingxuan snapped, because they met someone who had encountered Black Water outside. They were subdued by the guards, but Qingxuan refused to yield and completely lost it. As it seems, the three Calamities and his highness Xian Le are free and safe,’ Ling Wen answered matter-of-factly for him. In an instant there was a wild cacophony of voices ringing in his head and Mu Qingfang did not know if he should laugh or cry.

 

He had heard the names a few times already. There were no faces to add to them, only a mix of obvious grudges and some friendships. The chatter now also was a mix of incredulity, anger and open relief about the news.

 

One of the voices that spoke in favor of said highness began to openly curse people for badmouthing him after a few minutes. The boy cursed a lot in general to be honest. He was backed by another one that added biting snark where sheer volume and anger did not do the trick.

 

‘Will they help us, though? They have been gone for months now and there was never a word if they were still alive.’ A new voice brought again thoughtful silence. ‘And the Night Touring Green Lantern will only add to our troubles.’

 

There was a rumble of agreement and Mu Qingfang dearly wished he had the freedom to sigh. Again, he was reminded why there had hardly been traces of these so-called gods left in the modern world. They really bickered like little children all the time, entities with hundreds of years under their belts or not. And he was still inclined not to believe even half of the strange tales.

 

‘Xie Lian would never abandon us,’ the loud, feisty boy spoke up. Feng Xin, if Mu Qingfang remembered correctly. He was surprised at the lack of voices shouting him down this time. ‘He said he’ll come to help us and where he goes Hua Cheng will follow.’

 

This claim was met with some excitement while Mu Qingfang bedded the still unconscious Shi Qingxuan as comfortable as possible. Then he turned his attention to Shi Wudu. This time there was no threat when he began to examine the wounds. There were more than he had expected, though.

 

‘You are aware you will be enemies as long as the people here control you?’ he decided to join the speculations on what elaborate scheme their allies outside would think up to rescue them. ‘You claim you were once gods, right? Shouldn’t you try to find a way to save yourselves then?’

 

The shoulder of the boy under Mu Qingfang’s hands twitched at that, his voice now curious, if a bit condescending, ‘And what do you suggest we do?’

 

That brought a little to Mu Qingfang’s lips. ‘Well…’ 

 

 

Chapter Text

Qi Rong was angry, cranky, dirty and most of all hungry.

 

If it were not for the fact that He Xuan was the only source of clean water for miles, he would have bolted at the first opportunity. But as things stood the former supreme could only endure after his other provisions had been splatter along the beach within seconds.

 

There were still cuts and bruises on his face from the girl’s answer to his complaints. It had been a long time since he had been literally stomped into the ground. Another reason for revenge, as soon as he got strong enough.

 

Right now, though, he could only stay huddled against the cave wall and lament his fate of being reincarnated into a young boy with no way out. His stomach was still cramping from the nuts and berries he had eaten the day before. They had looked ripe and smelled edible, but in the end his stomach had reacted the same way as it did to the raw meat and blood. The only upside was seeing He Xuan struggle with the same problem while he tried to stay as far away as possible from the flimsy fire.

 

To him there was something terrifying in the sight of open flames, he could not quite grasp. He also missed something other than his hideouts and subordinates. Something with no connection to the invincibility he felt in his old life. Regardless how long he thought about it, he was unable to put a name to it.

 

“AAAAAHHHHH! WHY DOES HONORABLE ME HAVE TO BE STUCK LIKE THIS?! FUCK YOU, HE XUAN THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!” he screamed out his annoyance as the wave of nausea ebbed away.

 

The beginning tirade was interrupted by the head of a squirrel bouncing off his forehead to land in his lap. He already felt the painful bump forming. Ready to yell even louder he took a deep breath.

 

“Shut up or I’ll make you.” He Xuan sent him a glare from the other side of the fire.

 

The menacing tone in the calm and tender voice had Qi Rong sealing his lips. He knew there were no empty threats in this person’s vocabulary and right now he felt no desire to be chocked or drowned. It was unfair how much stronger He Xuan was even in this life. He could only find some grim satisfaction in the fact he at least was in a body with the right sex.

 

They stayed quiet for two whole minutes before Qi Rong started to fidget again. Small drops of water had begun to fall from the ceiling at the position he sat and hit his head and neck in a steady rhythm. At first, he thought He Xuan had something to do with it, only to find the girl hugging her own legs, the pale face hidden behind her knees. She tended to get awfully emotional for no reason every once in a while. Something Qi Rong could relate to on some level.

 

Everything was a mess.

 

“Fuck this,” he cursed under his breath, getting on his feet to follow the call of nature.

 

Being alive was much more inconvenient than he remembered. You needed to breathe, drink, eat and all the other disgusting bodily functions coming with the package. Though, dying and becoming a ghost again did not sound as appealing to him as he expected. Somehow he knew with an awful certainty there would be no eternal existence waiting for him if he left this body.

 

The sunshine pierced his eyes like little daggers and made him squint owlishly. Judging from the placement of the sun it was already afternoon.

 

The reflection on the water in the small bay hit him with full force until something big suddenly blocked his view. Qi Rong had wanted to complain about the ensuing headache, but now he rather blinked a few times to get rid of the black spots in his vision.

 

The picture in front of him still stayed the same. Tall front legs covered in black fur that ended in paws bigger than his head and above that the face of a giant bear. It was already close enough to touch him. This was awful! He was absolutely dead!

 

With a belated yelp he landed on his backside. The muzzle inched even closer and he abandoned the urge to flee for not moving at all.

 

“Don’t eat me…” he squeaked, his eyes wide and unblinking. Too worn out to concentrate, he could not even form a clear thought, let alone use his powers.

 

The sudden laughter sounded a cruel in his ears. “Don’t worry, you’re the only one with an appetite for human flesh here,” the male voice stated.

 

There was some movement on the side, but he rather fixated on the giant animal than chance a look.

 

A huff blew a gust of hot air into his face, prompting him to squeak again and close his eyes. The fear was pathetic. In the back of his mind he wanted to curse and protest against this dishonorable treatment. Yet, the words stuck in his throat and he had to gather all his willpower just to keep his stomach and bladder in check. One bite to have him end up as a teatime snack.

 

“Where’s the other one?” a female voice asked in a more conversational tone. She also praised someone called Mengmeng.

 

Qi Rong was still too afraid to make a sound, but from the steps he heard there was no need for an answer anyway. The two people just left him alone with this monster, a giant tongue lapping over his whole body followed by a deep noise.

 

How fast could a child’s heart beat before it burst? Or was he bound to choke on his own tears and the snot building up in his nose?

 

His high-pitched shriek was a pure reflex and thankfully it did the trick. The bear snorted again at him to back off a bit.

 

Qi Rong just kept lying on his back, his chest heaving from the effort.

 

Slowly the world around him descended into darkness.

 

 

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua was hiding on one of the sentry platforms of the wall around Huan Hua base.

 

Not the stealthy kind where he would duck whenever someone went past or wall himself off. He just hoped none of his friends would think of looking for him up here. Though, dangling his legs on the outer side was not exactly productive in this regard. If anyone came back from the forest, they would probably spot him first. So, in all honesty, he was just waiting for someone to find him on his own terms.

 

With Mobei Jun still guarding Meng Mo and Sha Hualing, who had woken up a few days prior, he had already missed lunch. That meant, Shen Yuan was probably already trying to find and give him a piece of his mind. Or something to eat, if there was still a portion left.

 

Not that Shang Qinghua’s appetite was with him today anyway. Another kind after what had happened in the morning, but certainly not for food. How did the saying go? Living on air and love alone?

 

He touched his bottom lip with a wistful sigh. It was still tingling and a bit swollen. After a moment his hand moved to the left side of his neck to cover the bruise right under his ear. It had gotten him a few strange looks, as did the fact that he probably had used up way too much energy in the greenhouse today. The whole morning was hardly more than a blur to him. He only remembered the private breakfast and how Mobei Jun had promised him they would talk in the evening.

 

You’re mine.

 

The words still made him shiver. They had been spoken right before Mobei Jun left his mark on him for everyone to see. And all that had been needed was this strange and oddly stimulating vision in the early morning hours.

 

If he had not experienced it himself Shang Qinghua would have laughed every person out of the room who claimed this man could be jealous and passionate. At first he had thought it was just another dream when he was gently kissed awake on Mobei Jun’s chest. A little bite had taught him better and led to a second kiss in which he was rolled on his back and all but devoured.

 

He was just about to sigh for the umpteenth time when someone sat down next to him. One glance at the person made him blush furiously. How was he supposed to face Shen Yuan right now?! Or any of those three really, after what he knew could happen at some point in time!

 

Not that he wanted to have any other person than Mobei Jun in his bed or had ever thought about his other friends in this way. But the possibility had been too vivid and real to shrug it off. It meant they wanted him to join. Or would want this in the future.

 

His poor, fragile mind was not built to deal with this pressure, okay? What did this mean? Even more disturbing, why had Mobei Jun not been there, too?

 

“Hey, you okay?” Shen Yuan’s question interrupted his racing thoughts. There was honest concern on his face and suddenly Shang Qinghua wanted to slap himself.

 

Stop overthinking.

 

“Just a bit out of it,” he answered with a smile that felt not as forced as he had thought it would.

 

Shen Yuan still tilted his head, his brows slightly raised at what he saw on Shang Qinghua’s neck. “Is that the only one? He’s almost as bad as Binghe.”

 

The blush was back with a vengeance at that. The implication of there being more hickeys in unseen places had Shang Qinghua’s mind right back at square one. “Uhm, it’s the only one. But now I finally know what people are talking about when they tell everyone how great kissing is.”

 

Shen Yuan blinked, fiddling with his fan as always when he got embarrassed. “Oh, I thought…”

 

“What?” Shang Qinghua asked into the awkward silence. He had a bad feeling about this, his thoughts already going through all the knowing expressions he had seen today.

 

Hiding behind his damn fan again, Shen Yuan cleared his throat. “Well, we all thought you were a lot further than that. Even Qingge knew there was something going on after the first two weeks. It seemed pretty obvious with how sticky he is.”

 

“Bro~” Shang Qinghua wailed. “What the fuck? You all thought I… he… we… god dammit! Was I the only one who thought he just sees me as a little brother or something?!”

 

Shen Yuan’s snort said everything. “Seriously? Then why did you give him a pet name? Or what is that Dawang business about?”

 

“That’s just to annoy him. I’m trying to get him to tell me his real name, because I’m sick and tired of using the title he stole from my short story.”

 

Shen Yuan stared at him blankly. “Short story? I knew it’s a fake name, but what story? You told me you never published anything on major sites.”

 

“I didn’t and you probably haven’t read it. I wrote it for the contest for PIDW’s new northern expansion.” Shang Qinghua shrugged. “Got a lot of votes, but people started to call the character I had as the faction chief Elsa... Because ice demon and seclusion…”

 

“Mobei Jun… Oh, that one! I never thought about that!” Shen Yuan’s eyes grew wide. “You wrote it? I absolutely loved that story! Even the guy who made the Elsa OP said he really liked it, after his thread blew up. In the end there were six or seven threads, because the old ones were automatically closed at the reply limit! People were clamoring for the cool monster ideas you mentioned! I still want that mount!”

 

This time it was Shang Qinghua’s turn to be speechless. He had expected to be ripped apart in a second, as Shen Yuan was prone to do when he did not like a piece of online content. Whenever the topic came to online novels or fanfiction he found a way to lambast the bad ones he had stumbled across. There was a high possibility he had a blog, doing exactly that all day long instead of focusing on his studies.

 

And exactly this fact made the reaction high praise. Shang Qinghua felt himself tearing up. “Wow, I didn’t even follow the votes after that post. Are you serious?”

 

“Absolutely! Our Mobei Jun was also a fan, right?” Shen Yuan’s grinned, his fan shut without him even noticing in his excitement.

 

“Err…” made Shang Qinghua with a little look to the side. “He was the heir of the Mo family. You know, the clan that owned all those tech companies? The whole thing was his idea and the remodeling of the game after he took over for his uncle. He told me they wanted to use my ideas and he was looking forward to meeting me back then.”

 

Shen Yuan blinked with a startled expression. “How did you get this out of him? The guy never talks.”

 

“He does. I just asked him. We talk a lot, actually.” Under the scrutinizing gaze Shang Qinghua squirmed a bit. “Okay, alright. I mostly talk, but he always answers when I ask him something. Even stupid stuff.”

 

Was that a pout on Shen Yuan’s face? And why did he lean closer? “You, my friend, are a very privileged person.”

 

In an instant his ears felt like they were burning again. Shang Qinghua gulped. Unable to look Shen Yuan in the eyes any longer he started to stare at his own hands instead and almost jumped off the wall when a different hand landed on his shoulder.

 

“Come on, you still haven’t eaten anything. There’s still some hotpot left for you.”

 

 

Chapter Text

There were few things Meng Mo hated more than being confined stronger than he already had been.

 

It was a proven fact among the so-called zombies that the mutation would enhance their bodies and minds. It would smooth out minor flaws and with enough power gained, a scrawny nerd could turn into a beautiful Adonis. Exhibit A the young man currently guarding him and the annoying girl in the other cell, who probably had been a pimply mess with lank hair before the change.

 

At least that was what he had gathered from both their memories, before he was forbidden from openly snooping. Junshang had called it that in his orders and Meng Mo still felt indignant about the implication. He did not snoop! He gathered information!

 

Anyway, as it turned out the healing process did not implicate major disabilities and effects of age that existed prior to the meteorite impact. He was still paralyzed from below the waist and thus bound to a wheelchair. Not to mention the minor ailments all over his body.

 

A travesty, since he probably was the only person who could really appreciate these new possibilities. Only his ability allowed him the freedom he was craving for when he dived into the dream scape to move about freely and unburdened.

 

An ability his master now wanted him also to share with his ungrateful wretch of a son.

 

Meng Mo had offered freely at the first mention of this agreement only to be met with open distrust and rejection on the part of Luo Binghe. Even his own friends and… spouses had a hard time to persuade the bumbling idiot.

 

How could he be willing to throw a chance like this away? With his aversion to psychic powers as a whole he was crippling a vital part of himself! Had nobody ever told this kid that there was only so much one could achieve with brute force in any world or reality?

 

As things stood now, Luo Binghe had reluctantly agreed and spent every night training his new found ability. Though, as his teacher Meng Mo already did not approve of the direction he took for his attempts. All he did was to create a love nest for this infernal threesome and spoil his husbands in the most distasteful of ways. More than once Meng Mo had felt like a voyeur during the interactions.

 

There was the impression brewing it was just another ruse to have him volunteer to leave after the shortest amount of time. It was insulting how little his student thought of the guidance he was willing to give. He was treated like a nuisance and only spoke to when there was something he had yet to explain.

 

Alas, Luo Binghe’s progress was still so much quicker than anyone had expected. Four days and he knew more than Meng Mo had learned in three months! It was infuriating how fast he understood the workings of things without any interest in ever using this power in a productive way.

 

But back to the more pressing matters at hand. Namely the ice creeping closer ever so slightly with every minute the one who called himself Mobei Jun and Sha Hualing glared at each other.

 

The girl left no chance unused to get under the young man’s skin. One of her options was the boy called Shang Qinghua they were originally in charge of capturing. He had not shown his face since they had been locked away here and Meng Mo had the sneaking suspicion it had something to do with the grudge he had relieved before they left Jinlan.

 

But, with Junshang urging him to get every bit of vital information out of the boy’s memory the temptation had been too big. How could he not have taken a little revenge for his throbbing head?

 

He might have overdone it a bit, though, judging from the complete breakdown he had witnessed before he was put to sleep.

 

Another reason why he withheld as much information as possible, apart from the nightly lessons.

 

“I bet there will be enough cocks for your little slut to suck and bounce on when Junshang takes this place over. He’ll have no time to miss you. And your uncle has such interesting plans for what kind trophy he’s going to make out of your head,” Sha Hualing taunted. Once again Meng Mo thought to himself that her understanding of ‘stay put and don’t cause trouble’ was severely lacking.

 

There was the distinct sound of crystals breaking and through the bars he saw ice encasing Sha Hualing’s feet and legs up to the middle of her calves. At the same time Mobei Jun’s hand hit the metal hard, causing hoarfrost to fill the air and cling to their upper bodies.

 

“You need neither your legs nor your wind pipe and the lower half of your face to be useful. Think before you speak.”

 

The agitation he had seen all day reached its peak and Meng Mo decided to retreat as far against the wall as possible.

 

Whatever had happened in the morning, he did not plan on provoking further anger. Especially, in light of Sha Hualing’s muffled sounds of rage under the ice that sealed her mouth. This time it were only her lips frozen together instead of something akin to a facemask. Though, trying to break it by force should be very painful.

 

He wanted to curse Junshang to hell. In their current state he could get either of them under his control with ease, if he just had permission. The pure strength behind their powers would never save them with their mental defenses this low. Sha Hualing was not even aware how unstable she was since that Liu girl had brought their food and water yesterday. Like she had found what she had been searching for all the time.

 

Meng Mo was sure they knew each other from before, but somehow Liu Mingyan did not recognize Sha Hualing. Or she chose not to show it.

 

There also had been her older brother who watched them like a hawk. As if that one stood any chance in case Meng Mo chose to attack him. Laughable. They seemed to perceive him as weak due to what happened with Shang Qinghua. To some extend Meng Mo welcomed to be underestimated.

 

It would be a shock when they were either pitted against each other again or forced to work together. A chance to laugh last, really, and he was itching to show these youngins who the real power in this house was.

 

He also wanted to find out badly how the seer had slipped from his control to never have it happen again.

 

There was the constant opportunity to just wait until the humans slept, trap them in a dream realm and have the other two follow his every word. Perhaps, he should include the girl, too. Sha Hualing had also become far too arrogant around him to just let it slide.

 

She tended to forget they were of equal station with him as senior in age and allegiance to their faction.

 

He shifted his gaze as the door opened. Of course it was Luo Binghe to make the mentally fragile trio complete, the typical smile on his face. But, neither Meng Mo nor the arrogant youngster had apparently expected the angry glare from Mobei Jun.

 

“What?” Luo Binghe asked, brows drawing together slightly, but Mobei Jun just shook his head and faced the cells again. His whole demeanor radiated even more anger than before.

 

Meng Mo was sure his teeth would chatter if he decided to feel the cold.

 

With a grunt Luo Binghe crossed his arms as he came closer to his ally. “What is your problem?”

 

Mobei Jun looked back, the fingers of his right hand clenching and unclenching in an uncertain way.

 

Suddenly, Meng Mo felt a little concern for his own safety. There was a fight in the air, this building would not survive. He felt awfully tempted to go against his master’s will to just calm them down a tiny bit.

 

“None, if you keep your hands off what’s mine,” Mobei Jun said after a pause that had been way too long for Meng Mo’s taste.

 

Luo Binghe’s expression turned from annoyance to surprise, a bit inquiring perhaps. “I thought that was a given. I haven’t done anything since Yiling.”

 

It was hard to tell, but something in Mobei Jun’s face seemed to soften at that.

 

“Never mind. Hasn’t happened, yet.”

 

The answer was accepted with a nod and a look that made Meng Mo cringe inwardly. “Fine. We’ll talk about that later.”

 

As if all their secrets were not an open book to anyone who knew how to read it.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Okay… When were you going to tell us about this particular part of the plan?” Shen Yuan asked with raised brows.

 

They sat in a corner of the mostly empty dining hall and he had finally got Qinghua to actually eat his lunch instead of stalling and stirring the contents with his spoon. He himself nursed a cup of cold tea, refusing to let his friend off the hook. They both knew there would be at least half a portion left if he did not babysit the process. Even Binghe’s cooking skills could hardly keep Qinghua from giving up midway and he refused to let the problem drag on like this.

 

Between bites Qinghua himself had brought up the topic of information from his visions he might have not mentioned for varying reasons. If it led to him mindlessly emptying the bowl Shen Yuan was all for it, but right now the result was his own agitation and a hint of hostility in the air.

 

How could this little gremlin have forgotten to tell them something vital like that?! And from the looks of it, Qinghua had just blurted it out by accident right now. He had not even planned to warn him in case something got wrong and he had admitted that not even Mobei Jun was privy to this particular piece of knowledge.

 

Shen Yuan watched his friend flail, the soup all but forgotten. “It’s not part of any plan! It’s something that’s bound to happen and needs to happen, if we all want to get through the next few years alive. If I had told you, don’t you think your husband would’ve tried to prevent them from meeting at all cost? Also, I’d like a running start when he finds out that I knew about this for a long time, bro.”

 

“As if you could outrun him. We should all beat you up for keeping this from us! Qingge is already trying to keep them apart. Don’t you think telling him would help…” His tirade trailed off when he remembered how stubborn and protective Liu Qingge was when it came to his family. No, he would double his efforts to prevent it, devil-may-care.

 

Cheeks stuffed with vegetables Qinghua gave him a knowing look and kept chewing as if his life depended on it.

 

Well, that was one way to keep himself from digging his own grave further. At least he was eating with enthusiasm now.

 

It did not help with the cursing little voice in the back of Shen Yuan’s mind, though. The thought that his sister in law was a) lesbian and b) needed to become friends with Sha Hualing if not more – Qinghua had thankfully not been specific about that – had his mind reeling.

 

He had no problem with the first part. That had just come as a surprise with her spending so much time with Gongyi Xiao and all the boys interested in her. But, seeing her in any positive relationship with the hooligan of a girl they had brought back was a real stretch. It was more likely for Mingyan to channel her inner big brother and create a bloodbath, if they were left alone in the same room for too long. And now he knew the survival of this base, and with that their future survival, depended on this unlikely friendship.

 

Well, fuck…

 

As sweet as Liu Qingge’s sister was, she had a vicious side and was an admirable fighter. Shen Yuan intended to never get on her bad side, so he probably should just wash his hands of the whole affair and let things run their course. Everything would be fine without interference. That was why Qinghua had decided to not mention the fact, right? He just needed to not do anything, right?

 

Shen Yuan studied the person on the other side of the table, who reminded him more and more of a hamster in his efforts to keep his mouth full. He wanted to slap himself for his mistrust.

 

None of the predictions and routes Qinghua had given them had been a wrong choice. Following his advice and heeding his warnings had already changed the course of many people’s lives completely and made his own life much better in particular.

 

So, why was he still itching to do something about this situation? Had he really meddled so much that it had become an unbreakable habit to stick his nose into everything?

 

“Bro, it’s really fine. This will just sort itself out, okay?” Qinghua said and Shen Yuan was surprised to find the bowl empty. “And while we’re at it, meeting your brother next month is a real shitty idea. They’ll be fine without you and you don’t want Luo Binghe to go berserk over your little secret.”

 

He blinked. “How…?” began the redundant question he abandoned half way to grab his fan and stare daggers into Qinghua again. “Don’t you dare tell anyone!”

 

Qinghua leaned back, his shoulders drawn up and hands lifted in a defensive gesture. “Not planning on it. I just wanted to warn you. He will find out if we go to Qinghe, regardless of what I do or not do. So… yeah.”

 

It took Shen Yuan a moment to dissect the information, but suddenly there was relief flooding his system.

 

“What you’re saying is, Ge is alive and well and he does not need my help?” He reaffirmed and got a nod in response. He could not help his deep sigh. “Okay. Would have been hard to justify the journey anyway with everything going on. But he will be pissed he has to travel the whole country twice for nothing.”

 

“Once. Cang Qiong doesn’t exist anymore.”

 

Shen Yuan felt the color drain from his face again. “What did you just say? How? Were they attacked?”

 

“Nah, I think, he told you everyone just left one after another. Shen Jiu is on the road with Yue Qingyuan and the remaining people should have gone to Qishan. Dunno why the Wen Clan would want normal folks, but they followed Meng Yao if I understood correctly. Your conversation was very vague.” Shang Qinghua shrugged. “Anyway, it’s best if we don’t have anything to do with them. Would be a bad time for everyone when your family starts to argue again.”

 

What the fuck? So Ge’s stupid plan actually worked?

 

Blinking a few times Shen Yuan was swayed between laughing and crying about this development. “Okay,” he just said and slowly it started to sink in that Qinghua probably had no idea about the vital part in all of this. He only knew about the fact they were meeting up every once in a while.

 

“But you should really come clean with them. You know how pissed you were when you found out about the thing with Binghe and Mobei Jun,” came the next stab.

 

This time Shen Yuan just nodded. “When things are less crazy,” he said and found himself confronted with a judgmental look he would have never expected from Qinghua of all people. “What?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

The smile was as fake as they got and Shen Yuan just hit Qinghua on the forehead with the guard of his fan. They really were two secretive peas in a pod, were they not?

 

 

Chapter Text

In the early evening Liu Mingyan balanced a tray with three full plates and a pot of tea on her way to the high security tract.

 

It was strange how easily she could now lift everything. She had never been the work-out type, but since she had gotten her powers her body seemed to grow stronger and more resilient, as if to accommodate for the strain of the foreign energy. And she ranged only slightly above average in this regard, too sheltered by her family in the beginning.

 

People like Gongyi Xiao had no difficulties getting an average car off the ground, which led to interesting situations whenever he underestimated his own strength. Though, in his case there had been an ability ascertained that enhanced his physical strength. This also meant there was the potential for enhanced speed, resilience…

 

Sometimes she wondered when the first person would just start to fly in this wild mix of xianxia novel and X-Men. And it begged the question how far things could still develop.

 

Force of nature and weapon of mass destruction were not simple figures of speech anymore. There was the exciting, but also frightening reality of super humans running rampant in this world. Not to mention the animals with similar powers. The fauna of the forest around them alone was becoming deadlier by the day.

 

What appeared to be diminished in the last winter had just been biding its time to catch them unaware and turn every calm minute into a treasure. The inhabitants of the forest had become way too smart in their approaches for comfort. Luckily her brother’s party had come back soon enough and found a way to get things a bit under control.

 

Speaking of which, the giant owl, still roaming the area around the base, also did their part in getting rid of the pests. The presence of the beast had at first unnerved Liu Mingyan, but now she was more curious on how she could get something like this on her side, too.

 

That was the biggest reason why she wanted to get closer to the girl who was supposedly the owl’s master. Another one was, she appeared strangely familiar. Not in a friends or family kind of way. More like a person she had seen a few times, but she could not put her finger on it. The way her brother tried to keep them from even exchanging a few words indicated she was not the best influence around.

 

That was also exactly why she had waited for Shen Yuan to be on guard, since he was arguably the most agreeable among her brother’s chosen family. Apart from their little healer perhaps, but that one never came close to this place anyway. Shang Qinghua had been one of the subjects of her daily writing session this afternoon, though. It might be a cliché dynamic between the taciturn ice block and his cute little boyfriend, but she lived for certain tropes. The student-teacher-thing with her brother’s two husbands was another favorite of hers.

 

She opened the door with her powers, a good test for her accuracy, and instantly heard Shen Yuan’s voice:

 

“I don’t think you can generalize a topic as broad as this. There have been enough supposedly inferior cultures and races in history and most recordings are written by the winning powers. Colonial nations, if driven back, might have become the evil aggressors in the world’s eyes right at this point instead of centuries later when people started to wake up and think about consequences. On the other hand, Hitler might’ve been hailed as a savior and prophet instead of the insane ideologue and mass murderer he was. Everything depends on the point of view and the information given, as frustrating as it sometimes may be. In our case it was a matter of initial survival and misinformation.”

 

“Fine. That does still not excuse-” Sha Hualing snapped her mouth shut when Liu Mingyan entered and eyed her with a mix of mistrust and annoyance.

 

How she had earned either Liu Mingyan could not say. She just put the tray on the table next to Shen Yuan and smiled behind her facemask. “I thought you might be hungry. The others all seemed busy,” she explained and earned a friendly nod.

 

“Thank you, Mingyan, that’s very thoughtful of… whoops.” She Yuan grimaced as he knocked one of the mugs he had tried to grab off the tray. “Oh dear. I’ll get another one and something to clean this up. Take over for me for a minute, won’t you?”

 

There was no time to answer before he left the room. Liu Mingyan could only watch the door fall closed again and blinked. That was weird. More than weird actually. Shen Yuan was not the clumsy type and as her brother’s husband he should do anything to keep her away from the captives. Did she miss something?

 

From Sha Hualing’s cell came a cackle. “Wow, seriously? How big is your harem now, princess?”

 

The strange girl was lounging on her small bed, eying Liu Mingyan in a way that was somewhere between condescending and amazed. Long, slender legs peeked out under a white shirt that was far too big and bunched together around the slim waist by a make-shift belt made of the remains of her original top. She knew Sha Hualing was wearing booty shorts underneath, but that did not lessen the impact. Her bra on the other hand was slightly visible through the thin fabric. For whatever reason, she was basically advertising herself.

 

In this moment Liu Mingyan was thankful for her habit of always concealing most of her face. She raised her brows. “He is my brother-in-law. And what do you mean by harem? Do I know you?” Good, her voice sounded as normal as possible.

 

“Oh, come on! Seriously?! You snobbed me the whole first year, made every half-decent guy in school fall for you and you don’t even remember? I was sitting behind you the whole time! And you’re still playing the role of the cute prep girl everyone’s waiting for to take her mask off. Tell me, how can you continue being a weirdo and everybody still likes you? That’s so messed up!”

 

Speechless Liu Mingyan looked her over again, but there was still no connection. Not that she would have been allowed to wear clothes like this at school or a hairstyle like this. “I really have no idea what you’re talking about,” she admitted after half a minute of silence. “I don’t even like guys that way.”

 

There came a cough from the other cell and this time it was Sha Hualing’s turn to stare.

 

“WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

With a cup of tea in her hands Sha Hualing seemed at least a little pacified. She sat on her bed while Liu Mingyan had taken one of the chairs in front of her cell.

 

“Okay, let me get this straight. All the boys running after you never had a chance and were just making idiots out themselves?”

 

Liu Mingyan nodded, albeit a bit helpless. “It appears so. I mean, there was never something like a real confession. The only people who talked to me were my female friends.”

 

“Cowards,” Sha Hualing declared and took another sip of the cold liquid. “But you always went home with the most popular guy in school!  Everybody thought you two were an item.”

 

“Oh, you mean Jiu Ye? He was our neighbor and is best friends with my third brother. They went to the same martial arts school as my Dage since they were little.” And Liu Mingyan was still hoping they would get together someday.

 

Sha Hualing groaned. “Are you kidding me? How many brothers do you even have? I only ever heard about Liu Qingge, the former school idle from ten years ago!”

 

“Well, three. Tianheng went to music school and Zhanghao had a sport stipend. We were lucky they came home for summer holiday. It would have been difficult to get them later,” Liu Mingyan answered. It had been hard enough to stay alive as it was and she had never before been thankful for her father’s weapon obsession. Something her eldest brother had inherited, as well as the jock interests. Having all three sports fans at the table had always been a plague for everyone else. Yet, when her Dage moved to another city she had missed him so much.

 

While she spaced out for a moment Sha Hualing had again started to glare at her. “Don’t tell me your whole family is here,” she all but growled and Liu Mingyan suddenly had no idea how to answer that without drawing her ire even more.

 

“Anyway, that’s a cool owl. Does it really listen to you?” she tried to change the topic.

 

Sha Hualing’s expression changed from angry to suspicious, but she still answered, “It’s not It it’s She. And yes, she listens to me. She would also rip you apart at my command.”

 

That did not go down well. Liu Mingyan folded her hands in her lap and tried to calm herself down. There had already been something akin to a threat on the tip of her tongue.

 

“You know, I’m not your enemy and I’m not here to argue with you,” she finally tried to calm the waves. “I would appreciate, if you could stop lashing out over nothing.”

 

“Fuck you, prep girl. I don’t care what you think and I want you to fuck off.”

 

So much for civilized conversations. Great. Liu Mingyan simply nodded, got up and brought the chair back right the moment when Shen Yuan opened the door again.

 

He apologized, but she just wished him a nice night and left. No wonder she had not talked to this girl back then. Mean girls were something she had always avoided like nothing else. However, this one appeared very lonely behind all the snarls and snark. And she still did not get the information she wanted.

 

When stood outside the building her gaze was drawn in the direction of the sunset and the silhouette of the owl. Head and wings drooped a little the way she perched on a tree. Ai… A strange name to choose for someone so full of rage, ill will and bad attitude.

 

Perhaps there was a lot more to all this than it first appeared and Liu Mingyan had just to get through that wall full of spikes and barbwire.

 

If nothing else, she was up for the challenge.

 

---

 

Ning Yingying burrowed further into the gentle arms that had been holding her for hours in the small tent.

 

Her whole body felt like an exposed nerve, her throat raw from screams she desperately kept inside. Every muscle hurt, but it was still better than the emptiness she had felt before. She was healing now, she knew that. It just took so horribly long and there was the certainty she had to start developing her ability from scratch.

 

It was still nothing against the torment, going on for weeks with no relief in sight. Her powers had become so weak they were almost useless and her mind craved for the quick fix that never came. Nobody came for her or wanted to claim the workers they had their sight on. It had been complete radio silence and by now she was thankful for that.

 

With Ming Fan to keep her company, even when she was raging and insulting him, she slowly woke up from what now felt like a horribly nightmare. Who would have thought the person she regarded as the most fragile around could become the rock she clung to. The fact that he still did not speak was another comfort for her.

 

No useless words or platitudes. No promises or pretty words. He was just there, stroking her back and holding her when she needed it most. What he gained from this nightmare she could not say. She was just thankful he stuck with her and gave no sign he wanted to leave anytime soon. He was so different from the peers she had regarded as allies back in school. The triplets who had claimed to be her best friends forever had not spared a second thought and pushed her down the stairs to distract the monsters following them.

 

They had still died while Ning Yingying hid with her broken leg in a locker, praying for a miracle.

 

It came in the form of Liu Qingge. The police officer had saved her life on the second day and brought her to the group of people who later would form the base they had left not so long ago. She knew things for her had begun to go wrong with the farewell of this man. Nothing had felt safe anymore.

 

It was strange how Ming Fan now gave her the same feeling of security. Without him she would still be stuck in the empty base, unable to get a grip or even move. She still felt weaker than she should, but a lot better than she would have on her own. Good enough to fight for a chance to live through all this and start from fresh, given the chance.

 

Meng Yao had promised the Wen Clan would not drive anyone away who was willing to pull their weight, so this was exactly what every left was looking for after Yue Qingyuan had given up on everything. They had to come on their own, though, and Qishan was not exactly around the corner.

 

Yes, they had cars, the fuel still had been mostly taken by those who went first. Before long it would be inevitable to travel on foot which meant every forest or empty village could become a deathtrap.

 

Most of their travel companions had not developed an ability. They were already sickly and frail from radiation and poison. How should they make a journey like that on their own?

 

The answer was simple, they would not. Natural selection would do the dirty work the so-called government officials refused to partake in.

 

It was still their only chance.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The bug lay helpless on its back in the palm of his hand. Held by an unseen force it only twitched occasionally, when he let it. This was mostly the case when wanted to see the reaction to another leg or wing torn out in the slowest way possible. There were still two legs and one wing left until he would start dismantling the shell bit by bit.

 

Or he would have, if he were not so utterly bored with this game already after half an hour.

 

The small, poisonous animal was tossed in the air and crushed before it hit the ground without anyone touching it. Even this violent display only provoked a yawn from Xue Yang. Being on standby sucked. It had sucked for all the months he had played nice in Cang Qiong base to keep Junshang informed and it sucked even more on the way to his new home in the Nightless City where he would become a spy yet again, but not the only one this time.

 

Infect the ones who are not mutated yet and leave the rest to Linguang Jun. Great. Fuck you too! Why did others get the fun parts while he had to play house with these random jackasses? If it were up to him, he would have brought carnage to the old base long ago. Who needed two kinds of humans on this doomed planet anyway?

 

It would be so easy to break and turn the useful ones and obliterate what was left over. But no! They needed to play the long game and be nice. The big boss wanted to keep the oblivious idiots alive who still thought themselves the only intelligent race on this planet. Arrogant idiots. There was no way he would care about unions between two of the same kind being barren by default. Fine, so they needed two kinds of genepools to merge and ultimately create a new species to reproduce. Xue Yang still hated children and would be happy to see them gone for good.

 

Why was this whole thing such a big deal?

 

If worse came to worst, they could always keep a few of the self-proclaimed real humans as pets or freeze the important parts to get this glorified new generation. They already were strong enough to control the whole country at the drop of a hat. Expanding outside would be even more fun. Let the world burn. It had never been kind to him, so why should he be?

 

He looked over at the sound of a female voice.

 

It came from the smallest and probably most uncomfortable tent in the camp. The two people inside were better off sleeping in one of the cars, but they let themselves be shoved around. And that as the only two in the whole group who had the slightest chance of reaching their goal. Idiots. How did being kind to those who were already dead help anyone?

 

Yet, it was kind of interesting to watch them struggle after the real adults who could fend for themselves had abandoned these two kids. The drug addict and the traumatized mute. If Xue Yang had been aware of the girl’s antics earlier, he would have done everything to sabotage her. But instead he had lost doctor Mu to the exact people Junshang wanted out of the picture as soon as possible. Damn, had that one been a bitch to deal with.

 

He had managed to take the messenger out when they tried to contact the girl again, drugs and all. That did not help with folks running away even faster, though. The people Junshang wanted him to keep an eye on scattered all over the place and there was no way to predict who would survive anymore or where they would find their new homes. And who had taken the full brunt of the fury the information caused? Right, this guy.

 

He had had the chance to go with Qi Qingqi’s bunch, his air ability – yea right, who needed that when you had telekinesis and a personal dimension? But, what people did not know…- a known asset to many in the community. Junshang still preferred having his son-in-law’s brother monitored who had now pressured some timid space ability user into following him and his lover to who-knew-where while Xue Yang was stuck with this lot.

 

And here he was, lamenting his horrible fate with only bugs and time to kill. He had made sure the convoy would run out of gas tomorrow, so he could make off with the pathetic couple before the others began to change.

 

Of course, they would supposedly go ahead and scout the area. When they came back the dead weight would have miraculously disappeared, as long as Linguang Jun did his job properly. Then they would have the good fortune to find petrol somewhere and he would have to babysit until they reached Qishan.

 

With another yawn he stretched and poked the campfire with a stick. Having only two pests around to annoy him would be so very relaxing. He doubted there would be any trouble, seeing how meek these two were. With a bit of food and a working car all the way they would probably not even question their good luck.

 

A scream from the other side of the camp almost had him falling off the tree stump he had claimed as his seat. It was followed by another yell and familiar, guttural groaning.

 

Fuck, did he misjudge the incubation time? His calculations had never been off! What was going on here?

 

With a curse and a few long strides, he was at the small tent.

 

Junshang had said all three of them needed to be in Qishan for some unmentioned reason and he refused to be punished again. It was also an unspoken rule that the kids still needed to be oblivious for things to work out.

 

He ripped the tent flap open and began to just drag the boy with him who conveniently held the girl in his arms. There were startled looks, but they followed without questions when he simply said, “We need to leave! Now!”

 

Good, they still had their priorities right and knew how to listen. Xue Yang would just feign ignorance if there came any questions later. Now, he chose the old SUV that was the best car they had left and ushered his charges into the backseat. Time to leg it.

 

In the back of his mind he kept the newly awakened zombies under control and drove the car onto the street. Where was that fucker Linguang Jun? Driving and having to prevent these feral idiots from being killed or going to town on the other survivors did not work well together! He really had no desire to wrap his car around a tree at the next turn!

 

Still so weak. Your timing also is the absolute worst.

 

The arrogant voice in his head together with the control being ripped from him in a violent manner gave him whiplash. Of course he had to make his appearance dramatic as fuck, the bleached prick!

 

Xue Yang heard the voice from the backseat, but did not understand a word said, while he still tried to get his bearings. Before he could do anything, let alone give an answer, he felt a lurch in his stomach as if airborne. A second later his nose engaged in a violent relationship with the steering wheel, setting of the car horn in the process. Just perfect.

 

When he raised his head to peek outside he found some shrubbery far too close to the windshield. Judging from the angle he had moved them straight into a nearby ditch, the only good thing being that the car was still on its wheels and the motor seemed to work. With a growl he wiped the blood from his upper lip. The kids gave no sound for the moment. He just hoped they had not broken their necks.

 

“Fuck!”

 

 

Chapter Text

Xue Yang was so close to losing it and going to town on every breathing thing in the area with a smile on his face. Fuck the plan! Fuck the assholes who forced him into this mess! Fuck playing nice! And fuck Linguang Jun in particular!

 

Calm down or do you need me to help you with that, too.

 

The bored drawl in the back of his mind provoked a low growl in his throat. Answering that prick was like screaming at a wall or a rabid dog, depending on mood and time of day. He was not yet strong enough to punch through without getting bitten hard. The day he could see eye to eye with these territorial bastards who proclaimed themselves lords was the day he waited for. They would not see the ambush coming until it was too late. There would be hell to pay and he would take his sweet time to take them apart. Perhaps, he would not even kill them. Turning them into his thralls and making them finally listen sounded like a far better option.

 

He would lord over them as the final winner and tear everything they worked for to pieces.

 

A lot calmer he looked in the mirror and saw his nose still a bit dented. The bleeding had already stopped, but his shirt was very much ruined. There were enough to change later, though.

 

He finished taking stock of himself, a small canine showing in his annoyed smirk, and moved the mirror to take a look at the backseat.

 

The girl sat upright, eyes closed and held by her seatbelt, with a red bump growing on her forehead. The boy met his eyes with a slightly dazed expression, but no visible signs of any injuries apart from a thin, red mark on his collarbone. Good, so they were safe to go as soon as he got the goddamn car back on the road. As long as the two of them were still breathing they would survive.

 

There were a few deliberate jolts as he lifted the tires up to make things easier, then they were upright again, the little hill that sent them flying right in front.

 

The boy grimaced at Xue Yang through the mirror and he gave him a little grin. “Who were you again? Ming something?”

 

The visible affront was quite entertaining. As was the fact that the boy was unable to talk back. He really should take the girl’s tongue to have both shut up. But that was some fun for later. For the time when he would get his due for all the trouble she had caused him.

 

After a laugh that held no real mirth they were again on their way. He drove slower this time. It had been enough accidents for the night and the car still had a long way to go.

 

---

 

At the same time Shang Qinghua sat on the bed in Mobei Jun’s room, or more their room by now, and tried to read a book he had borrowed. The emphasis sadly was on tried.

 

It was not that the book was bad in any way. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had always managed to make him laugh. He was just so distracted, he read the part about the whale and the bowl of petunias thrice without getting the joke. Or any information at all for that matter.

 

Mobei Jun had promised they would talk. Now, though, he was late for dinner with Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan also nowhere to be found.

 

Had he perhaps misinterpreted something? Was he being avoided deliberately to avoid an awkward situation? What if Mobei Jun had been half asleep and mistaken him for someone else? He was by far not the most attractive person around and he knew how badly dreams could fool someone. Everybody could make a mistake like that and he had no right to complain about it.

 

But, did Mobei Jun even sleep? He did not need to.

 

Shang Qinghua groaned and read the “Oh, no! Not again!” for the fourth time, only to close the book and fall back onto the blanket. Not again, indeed. “I hate you too, brain,” he mumbled, one arm over his eyes when a scene from his second year in high school resurfaced from all the repressed memories.

 

Wow, you really are an idiot. Who would want a loser like you?

 

He had really liked that girl. So much so, he did not have it in him to hate her even now or after the two hours in the rain before he got the text message as a reply. There had only been a lot of pain and humiliation. Especially when his classmates rubbed the bet behind it in his face.

 

Was this the same? “Psych, your first kiss was as much of a joke as you are, sucker!” Or even worse, the dreaded “Let’s stay friends” talk, because it really was a mistake.

 

He did not hear the door opening or the steps coming closer to the bed. Only when the mattress dipped next to him did he realize he was not alone anymore.

 

“Did something happen?”

 

The question also brought cool fingers in his hair with it and he relaxed his tense shoulders with a sigh. Eyes still closed he shook his head, a little smile on his lips. He had needed this so much.

 

The press of soft lips on his arm after a low hum startled him at first. They moved down to his wrist, brushed his fingertips and when they finally covered his mouth he felt something in his chest melt, he had not realized suffocated him for the past few hours.

 

The kiss was not wild and devouring as the one in the morning. There were no tongue or teeth. Just a soft touch, made to coax him out of hiding and it was over way too soon.

 

Shang Qinghua could not help the little pout when he lifted his arm while Mobei Jun pulled back. His eyes were probably still red and puffy from his stupid self-torment. They instantly drew attention as well as the gentle touch, meant to cool the blotchy and swollen skin around them.

 

“Really nothing?” Mobei Jun asked again, a hint of concern visible on his face.

 

It made Shang Qinghua smile as he leaned into the touch. “I was just being stupid. I’m fine,” he said without thinking about it. The answer to that were the knuckles of Mobei Jun’s other hand rapping his temple and he creased his brow with a whine. “Ow, Dawang! Mercy!”

 

It only earned him an annoyed snort. “Talk to me.  We agreed that sentence is banned.”

 

“But I’m really okay! It’s just a bit much and… things in the past.” He sat up, prompting a scowl he had not seen in weeks when he hugged his knee. “You know, I always overthink things.”

 

“Overthink what exactly?”

 

Of course, he could not leave it at that. “Well, this morning. That thing between us. I don’t know…”

 

He wanted to say more, but Mobei Jun’s scowl deepened, and Shang Qinghua felt almost dissected under his gaze.

 

“We don’t have to, if you don’t like it.” That sounded so offended. Why did he have to stumble over his own words now, when he was able to blab like a waterfall in the most inappropriate situations? How to fix this?

 

Shang Qinghua’s eyes went wide when Mobei Jun made to get up from the bed. As fast as he could he clung to the muscular arm. “No! Dawang! That’s not what I mean!” With his whole bodyweight he tried to pull his, well, boyfriend back down.

 

To his relief Mobei Jun complied. However, the thought of this man being probably able to lift him from the bed like he weighed nothing while he hung at him like a koala was pretty hot. Not that he wanted to be ignored and carried around as an annoying accessory, but it made several exciting sex positions a real possibility.

 

His cheeks felt suddenly very hot and he had to clear his throat, well aware there was this god of a man sitting next to him, waiting for him to explain himself. This was not the time for him to vanish into kinky fantasies and get a hard-on!

 

“Interesting train of thought,” Mobei Jun commented. Shang Qinghua was sure there must be smoke coming out of his ears from how hot his head felt all the sudden. He let go of the arm in his grasp as fast as possible. Why did his brain love to betray him like that?

 

“Did I really say that out loud?”

 

Mobei Jun’s hand landing on his head was surprisingly calming. There was the hint of a smile that made Shang Qinghua’s heart beat even faster than it already had. “I guess, you’re a lot further with our relationship than I thought. I like where this is going.”

 

The furious blush was back in an instant. He must be red as a lobster by now! How had his other extremities not withered and died with all his blood gathering in two particular spots?

 

“Can we still take it slow? I mean, I’m kinda open to everything, but… I never… kissed someone before, so…” he managed, although his brain was screaming to shamelessly throw himself at the unspoken offer. Here was the chance to get all he had been dreaming of for weeks if not months right now! The topic had even started because his stupid self could not keep his most embarrassing thoughts from spilling out. That also meant Mobei Jun would be probably informed about all his kinks and hidden fetishes before they had seen each other naked. But Mobei Jun had already seen him naked, did he not?

 

Before Shang Qinghua was able to jump into the next rabbit hole his chin was caught by a big hand, to pull him into another slow and gentle kiss.

 

“Okay, baby steps,” Mobei Jun promised when he had successfully focused Shang Qinghua’s attention. “You tell me how far you want to go.”

 

He felt himself nod, but his mind was already in turmoil again. That meant, he would either stay a virgin forever, or things would get embarrassing fast.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Mobei Jun watched his nervous mess of a boyfriend with a mix of amusement and concern.

 

Shang Qinghua had been fidgeting on the edge of the bed for the whole evening, visibly unsure if he wanted to come closer or avoid body contact. It was strange how people’s behavior changed from just giving a different name to something. Had they not set clear boundaries already? It was not like they had no experience with cuddling and a certain level of intimacy already. Though, for all he knew there were still the fantasies from before running wild in Shang Qinghua’s head.

 

The moment he could not watch idly any longer came when the plate with Shang Qinghua’s dinner almost slid from his lap. He first saved the food in a swift motion and then pulled the smaller man on his lap to keep him from moving too much. The action caused him to almost be punched in the nose after an undignified yelp.

 

With a grunt he caught the slim wrists and pulled Shang Qinghua closer to his chest, thus ending the panicked chattering. He would never understand why this little gremlin defaulted to rapid fire spouting apologies and nonsense whenever he was overwhelmed. It was endearing, but counterproductive to their current situation.

 

“Calm down. Nobody’s going to eat you.” His words were followed by him nuzzling at the pale nape that turned pink within seconds. The same color he saw on the noticeably rounder cheeks as Shang Qinghua turned his head to watch him from the corner of his eye.

 

There was the impulse to go against his words and bite them. To ravish the slim body until he lay panting and moaning in his arms. The picture from this morning resurfaced in his memory. Shang Qinghua under him with misty eyes, lips parted slightly. If that was the sight after only a kiss and a hickey, Mobei Jun itched to see more.

 

Instead he pressed a chaste kiss on the hot temple and put the plate back in the other’s hands.

 

“Sorry,” Shang Qinghua mumbled, turning away again and began to shovel the fried rice into his mouth under well-meaning supervision.

 

While he observed Mobei Jun kept his mind off by taking inventory of his space. There were over thousand portions of Luo Binghe’s various cooking endeavors. How these three had trusted him with precious resources like food from the get-go was still baffling to him. All he had done was offer them a car ride and fresh clothes and he had somehow been annexed as extended family. But, that had also been the reason why he stayed.

 

The questions about his background had always turned out as simple curiosity. They had made countless efforts to include him and not make him feel like an outsider. There had never been bickering about the distribution of loot or chores. No blame game ever took place regardless of what went wrong, and even occasional distrust had never been bad more than Liu Qingge’s warranted caution.

 

Being on the road with them had felt more like home than anything Mobei Jun had ever experienced. Shang Qinghua’s appearance then had only added to it. As did the genuine support and acceptance when the biggest secret came to light.

 

Right now, he had everything he wanted, including his slowly recovering boyfriend in his arms. So, why did he feel restless and agitated? Why was there this nagging feeling he had forgotten something vital? Something he needed to accomplish, or he would never have peace of mind anywhere.

 

The conversation with Luo Binghe earlier had brought him clarity on the reason for him being so possessive and jealous when it came to his human. The term still felt strange on his tongue. It was just that this had not be his raison d’être from the start. What kept him sane was something completely different from Luo Binghe’s case.

 

Right. That was it. The original problem was still not solved. His dear uncle he had vowed to outlive in the hell they had been thrown into. This was something he had to do alone, though.

 

“Dawang? Are you listening to me?” Shang Qinghua’s voice cut through his thoughts.

 

Mobei Jun could not say when he had moved but the smaller man now sat sideways on his lap and watched him with concern. He reached out to gentle stroke the soft hair, a noncommittal hum leaving his throat.

 

The following glare was more of a pout in his opinion. Shen Yuan had been right, with enough TLC the hamster analogy would be very fitting.

 

“That means you don’t care about the problem that we’re still sharing a bed?” Shang Qinghua complained and tried to shrink back when Mobei Jun kissed his forehead. Definitively pouting.

 

Mobei Jun allowed himself a little smile. “What problem?”

 

“It’s got a different connotation now. We’re not just friends sleeping together. Things could happen. Things will happen! I mean, we’re together now. They should be happening. But not that fast and I know it won’t happen if I don’t want to, but I don’t know what I want and how am I supposed to sleep when I’m constantly thinking about-.”

 

The tirade ended with Mobei Jun’s index finger on his lips. Time to nip the problem in the bud. “You’re overthinking again.”

 

“Oh.” Shang Qinghua blinked while the dishware vanished from the bed.

 

With a swift motion Mobei Jun leaned back, the other pressed against his chest. His own eyes closed he began to cool Shang Qinghua’s head while playing with his hair and messaging his scalp. They had done this so many times he exactly knew what he had to do. And as always after not even a minute he could feel tense muscles relax as if melting under his fingertips.

 

There was a sigh after a while. Shang Qinghua had also closed his eyes when he said, “I’m horrible, aren’t I?”

 

Mobei Jun simply pinched his waist with the hand that had been rubbing soothing circles into his back and gave snort. It cause a light flinch, followed by quiet laughter. No further attempt at apologies was made. Progress.

 

“You’re not horrible, you’re not stupid and it’s okay for you to be overwhelmed. Just stop running,” Mobei Jun said when Shang Qinghua’s breath really had started to even out. Satisfied with the sleepy noise answering him he continued his ministrations deep into the night.

 

 

Chapter Text

“What you’re saying is, he could turn against us?”

 

Luo Binghe shook his head at his husband’s question, but the beautiful, dark eyes still narrowed in suspicion. Liu Qingge leaned against the wall next to the door of their room, arms crossed over his chest. Since Jinlan there had always been a slight undertone of insecurity in his behavior whenever the topic came to what Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun really were. And to the implications behind this fact, which were quite a lot all things considering.

 

“I don’t think so,” Luo Binghe said, after a little pause. “It’s more that he might become more territorial and easier to anger when it comes to what is his.”

 

Liu Qingge snorted. “Since when is the kid his property?”

 

“Did you and A-Yuan not also vow to be mine for the rest of your life?” There was a spike of agitation Luo Binghe had to hold back with all his willpower to prevent it from turning his words poisonous. He could not keep the possessiveness out of his gaze that came with it, though. Six years apart and he was able to make Liu Qingge blush like a virgin. Funnily enough, he had been exactly that before they got closer to each other.

 

There was an uncomfortable shift in Liu Qingge’s posture, but as always he did not shrink away from the perceived challenge. “As partners, not… Why do you bring up that marriage vow?!”

 

“Because, I would crush anyone who tries to take either of you away from me,” Luo Binghe answered as he got up from the bed and moved closer with slow, long strides.

 

Liu Qingge stayed where he was, his eyes following every movement intently. “I can defend myself!”

 

The statement was almost a growl. But, when Luo Binghe trapped the smaller man between his arms, both hands braced against the wall, he could see and smell the hidden excitement all too well. He leaned forward until their chests almost touched, his lips only millimeters away from his husband’s ear. “You know that’s not what I mean.” The unspoken truth of Liu Qingge being one of his enemies if things had turned out different was emphasized with a bite in his lobe.

 

There was a smirk on Luo Binghe’s lips when he felt the telltale signs in form of a shudder and goosebumps as his tongue followed the sensitive skin above the artery. If he brought a leg forward he would surely find his husband half hard already. It was as much a given as the blush on this beautiful man’s face. His effect on this man filled him with pride every time.

 

“You!” was spat out through gritted teeth. It would never not be adorable how fast Liu Qingge got flustered. If he really were angry there would have been a physical attack before things got this far. Still, he would most likely be angry at the deflection of the topic at hand after things progressed further.

 

Luo Binghe sighed and pulled away with a gentle kiss. “You know what you mean to me and how much I need both of you. A year ago I had a hard time to not lash out at every person who came close to you or A-Yuan. I told you in Jinlan, having both of you by my side was the only thing that kept me sane back then,” he said under the scrutinizing gaze. “It’s still an obsession, just a lot better now. I want you to be strong enough to protect yourself. I want both of you as equal partners. I trust both of you more than ever to stay by my side and be there for me.”

 

“What does this have to do with Mobei Jun then?” asked Liu Qingge after a few moments he needed to regain his composure. It was enough to transfix Luo Binghe on the strands of moonlight catching on the high cheekbones. Their reflection made the dark eyes shine so much brighter.

 

He had to move his gaze away and looked at the window. “He’s at the start of this experience. What kept him from losing himself in the beginning was… different. That’s why he always kept some distance between us and himself. Something that might also change, given enough time.”

 

“Can’t you just say what you mean? Stop beating around the bush!”

 

Right, Luo Binghe had almost forgotten how much subtleties were lost on this man. He chuckled. “I mean, he will act like a possessive, jealous teenager for a while and hopefully eventually open up to the rest of us. For the time being it’s better to handle everything regarding those two with care, since Shang Qinghua had a dream or a vision that made things even more awkward.”

 

The big question mark in front of Liu Qingge’s face was almost visible and Luo Binghe shrugged. “He might or might not end up in our bed in the future.”

 

“Now you really lost me.”

 

“The thing that set Mobei Jun off and led to the bite mark on Shang Qinghua’s neck was… Well, he moaned A-Yuan’s and my name in his sleep.” Luo Binghe could not help the smug grin on his face and the amused tone. It got broader when Liu Qingge just speechlessly stared at him in a mix of incredulity and anger.

 

“Why?” he just said.

 

Luo Binghe spread his arms in a fake helpless gesture. “Beats me. And just to be clear, I have left both of them alone for months now. Though, I don’t have anything against three becoming five at some point.”

 

This time Liu Qingge just shook his head.

 

The missing complaints about such a plan were duly noted in the back of Luo Binghe’s had. In translation this meant his husband must have warmed up a lot to both of their companions. Enough to actually consider such an arrangement.

 

---

 

Half an hour later he stood behind the silk curtains of a lavish bedroom, his husband lazily sprawled out on the sheets of the huge bed just behind the drapery. The little unseen ministrations had startled Liu Qingge at first but now he enjoyed them just as much as Luo Binghe’s hands on his skin when he wore a blindfold.

 

Luo Binghe would have loved to pull A-Yuan in here, too, and make the night even more exciting for all of them. But that would leave Sha Hualing unguarded. And quite frankly some alone time for them was needed after everything that had happened.

 

“Why are you still wasting your powers like that? You could bring everyone here under your control and rule wherever you go! This is ridiculous!” Meng Mo griped next to him, quiet enough to not alert the dozing person in the room.

 

He would be gone in a few minutes anyway, as always, so Luo Binghe chose to ignore him and just dimmed the light a bit. He could not help the glare when the old man began to complain about his student’s peculiar tastes, though. Homosexuality did not seem to be something his self-proclaimed teacher could stomach easily.

 

“I think we’re done here,” Luo Binghe said firmly after an unmistakable jab at their bedroom activities. There were a few seconds of standoffish posing, then he was finally alone.

 

If the old nag still thought he could order him around he was in for a nasty surprise as soon as he tried. Only the first few times had there been any kind of dominance on Meng Mo’s part before Luo Binghe figured out how to navigate and manipulate his and other people’s dreamscapes. If he had wanted to, he could have thrown him out in the second night already.

 

Now, though, he had better things to do than waste time and energy on someone insignificant.

 

With slow, almost lazy movements he pushed the curtains aside to climb into the bed. Liu Qingge looked at him, his naked body relaxed and inviting. With a purr he began to explore the muscular chest once more, the little noises like a melody around them.

 

If there should ever come the day when his two loves wanted to leave, he had the perfect prison to lock them away. They had sworn to be with him forever and he would make sure this vow was kept at all cost.

 

 

Chapter Text

Yang Yixuan looked at the forest to their right with apprehension. They had been on the road south for almost two weeks now, after the car convoy left up north. Originally, the plan had been to go north, too. Qinghe sounded better than Gusu after all that had happened. But he would be damned if he chanced to run into something like these children again.

 

He still remembered one of the men saying their base would have been the perfect feeding ground for their lost subject. Jin Zixuan had almost rushed out of their hiding spot and lost his head at that.

 

Yang Yixuan could understand him on some level, since it meant his father had been played from the start. One way or another these people would have created a massacre here.

 

One that cost his best friend his family as things stood. The carnage had been too unbearable to search properly for other survivors and even if they found badly wounded people they had not much of a chance to keep them alive anyway.

 

Exactly because of that he did not have it in him to tell Jin Zixuan to pull himself together. How could he? Yet, with only the clothes on their back it had been hard enough to make the trip on foot. The apathetic behavior after the outburst only made it worse.

 

For the first three days Yang Yixuan had felt like he was looking out for two small children instead of one. A-Qing was on his shoulders most of the time to not slow them down further. Now Jin Zixuan at least responded when spoken to and helped with to find food when they made camp. He was still a far cry from his usual self, though, and Yang Yixuan was thankful nothing tried to attack them. It helped him to conserve his powers, keeping them at least properly hydrated.

 

That was one of the reasons why he was glad they had not encountered other survivors. As heartless as it sounded, even the best fighter would have been nothing more than an additional burden. There were hardly enough things to eat for the three of them. Roots, berries, occasionally a small animal. The lessons they got on survival during the regular outings with small hunting parties paid off tenfold now.

 

If only he knew how long they still had to go. The incline of the winding mountain road they had been on for the last few hours took its toll and the trees did not look like they could give them proper shelter in a rain- or hailstorm. Speaking of which, they had been incredibly lucky with the weather until now. Though, it was pointless to also think about that. There would be nothing left of them if they were unlucky even once.

 

The cry of a bird interrupted his thoughts. When he looked up he saw blue wings, a blue tail and a white belly pass over them. Both boys tensed for a second, but when the animal gave no sign for an attack they heaved a sigh of relief at the same time. There would be no way to survive a swarm of something that big, songbird or not.

 

“Should we really follow that thing?” Jin Zixuan asked. His eyes were less dull now. It was just the feverish sheen that made Yang Yixuan worried. The heat was getting to them more and more and he had no way to do anything about it.

 

He could only answer the question with a shrug, too. “Best bet we have. Or do you want to climb down again?”

 

That earned a snort and they continued on their way until they saw a bold cliff looming over the road in the distance. It was still quite a bit to go, but Yang Yixuan remembered the description he had been given.

 

“That it?” he asked, looking at Jin Zixuan. There was a nod and the other boy’s expression was suddenly a lot grimmer. It made him remember that Jiang Yanli’s brothers studied here and how someone had told him there was a lot of mutual hate due to the marriage thing.

 

They would probably blame them for losing her and that would be a fun conversation to have.

 

Hey, we’re not completely sure, but I think your sister sacrificed herself for us. She is probably dead.

 

He cringed at his own disjointed thought process. Yet, they had no other place to go to and the way A-Qing was slumped under the afternoon sun she needed more than a little healing on her sunburn to make it for longer than a few days.

 

The fabric shielding their heads could only help so much, as could a bit of cool water. His own head had felt hot and heavy for far too long now. He was a bit dizzy, too.

 

Strangely enough, as they came closer there was a group of at least ten people waiting at the bottom of the stone steps. A boy around their age had the bird they had seen before perched on his arm. He showed a serious expression, while a younger one obviously was out to annoy him. There was another one, a bit older, with a more brown bird who gave them a friendly smile, but Jin Zixuan’s eyes were locked on the one who just scooped some water out of the pool next to them. Was that one of them?

 

There were also a few dead animals on the ground. Most of them, Yang Yixuan knew, had edible flesh if prepare properly. A successful hunting party then. That meant they should be safe now. If they were not torn apart because of the news they brought with them.

 

Strange, why was the ground suddenly coming closer?

 

“Jin Zixuan? What are you doing here?!” was the last thing he heard. The voice sounded angry.

 

---

 

“They should be fine after some rest and a few good meals. No need to worry.”

 

The female voice was like small needles pricking Yang Yixuan’s temples and forehead. It was a bad combination with the dull ache in the back of his head and his dry throat. He just wanted to fall asleep again, but when he frowned and let out a small groan the rest of his face also started to hurt.

 

“Back among the living, I see,” the woman spoke again. This time she was next to him and he tried to hide under the blanket in protest. The following chuckle also did not help. ”You need to eat and drink something before you’re allowed to sleep again.”

 

Yang Yixuan wanted to shoo her away, but he had only enough energy to glare. In his state he was probably not at all intimidating, judging from the indulgent smile he received. There was no mercy for him, was there?

 

For any other person the mild soup with some bread and a big glass of water on the overbed table should have been a welcome sight. They only made him more nauseous, though. While the spoon shook in his hand he wondered if all of this would be wasted in a few minutes.

 

The woman watched him struggle for a while before she sighed. “Take your time,” she advised as she left him alone with this offering. He had not even eaten half of the bread and already thought about giving up. From the way the woman acted that would probably mean for him to be force-fed. He decided to to try some more with this unspoken threat hanging over his head.

 

Trying to distract himself he began to wonder how long he had been asleep. Judging from the light that fell through the window it was either early morning or late afternoon. Were A-Qing and Jin Zixuan alright? Were they also here? The curtains around his bed only had a small gap that let in some daylight. If he leaned back far enough he was able to see a windowsill.

 

“My sister is at Koi Tower! I need to-!” a new voice suddenly cut through the silence only to be interrupted by the woman from before. Was that not the one who had called out to Jin Zixuan?

 

“You need to let him rest. It’s not a joke to collapse from heat exhaustion and he just woke up,” the demand was put off.

 

There were two more people, but Yang Yixuan could not make out what they were saying. One sounded urgent while the other had a calm tone to it and only spoke in short sentences. Could they not just go away?

 

He put his spoon down to burrow his face in his hands. Now he felt the Band-Aid over his nose. He must have face planted it on the pavement after all. So his body had decided to pull the break on him the moment he began to relax. He wanted it to happen again. Never waking up again sounded far too good to him.

 

The continued bickering, taking probably place outside in the corridor, made him want to hurl allover. Not only because of the rising volume, the memories it brought up were also sickening. From everything he heard, Jin Zixuan had either collapsed with him and not woken up, yet, or refused to speak again. Yang Yixuan really did not want to be the bringer of bad news. He hated this, as he hated everything since he left his home for this stupid visit.

 

The curse from his own mouth must have been heard by someone, because there was suddenly eerie silence. Inwardly begging for them to just leave him alone he curled in on himself.

 

Don’t come in! Don’t come in! Don’t ask questions! Please don’t make me think about it!

 

The steps on the linoleum still came closer and when he heard the curtain move it felt like a death sentence.

 

His shoulders shook, no, his whole body shook, slowly working itself up to a violent fit. Something warm and wet spilled over his stomach the moment he tried to pull his knees against his chest and met solid wood. The warm, gentle hand on his shoulder was already too much.

 

“There is no Koi Tower. She’s dead. They’re all dead,” spilled from his lips, interrupted by the sobs he had bottled up for so long.

 

 

Chapter Text

For the last day he had been asleep, staring at the ceiling or eating under the watchful eye of doctor Wang. In all honesty, Yang Yixuan felt not up to more anyway.

 

During his breakdown he had told the people present everything he had heard and seen. Nobody from the village but the doctor had visited since then, so it seemed to be enough for them to leave him alone and don’t ask more questions.

 

Now that he thought about it, there was the slight feeling he was being treated with kid gloves. Doctor Wang had been nothing but gentle and kind to both of them, even when she was adamant about them eating their meals. She had only once lamented there were no sedatives left in her arsenal.

 

That had been when Jin Zixuan woke up in the middle of the night after.

 

His friend had taken even worse to food and drink from what he had heard through the curtains. It was also the reason why there stood an IV-drip next to the bed to his left.

 

The occupant in it still looked pale and haggard in the gloomy twilight falling through the window. Only his healing black eye brought a bit of color to his face and Yang Yixuan still had no idea where it came from. He had not asked either during the few hours they both had been awake together. Neither of them felt a lot like talking.

 

But, in this moment he had a whole other problem than lack of conversations. For once doctor Wang was absent when he woke up and his stomach took this as the queue to announce ravenous hunger. He felt like rioting if his next meal was this horribly bland soup again. It was more of a clear vegetable broth that maybe had seen salt wave from afar once. The stale bread on the side only made it worse.

 

Right now, he would kill for a simple chocolate bar or some roasted meat.

 

The next growl of his stomach was enough for desperate measures. After another look at the sleeping figure in the other bed he lifted the covers and got up.

 

Nobody cared about the sound of naked feet making their way through the sickroom. A quick look out the window showed the setting sun. It bathed the empty area outside in beautiful colors that for once did not summon the dread before another sleepless night.

 

The magical sight did not hold him for long, though. After one last look he made his way out into the corridor and only found identical doors to both sides in the flickering lights. There came no sound from either and after a few seconds of debating he opted for turning left.

 

The color on the wall and the signs next to the doors reminded him vaguely of his former middle school. Which was rather strange the more he thought about it.

 

He was sure there could not be a hospital in this remote mountain village, but were they not supposed to be in some doctor’s office or something? The whole place looked deserted, too. Only empty classrooms could be found behind the closed doors, apart from a small janitor’s closet he stumbled upon.

 

He only hoped there would still be people around when he finally found an exit. Jumping out the window would have probably been the smarter idea. They already were on the ground floor anyway.

 

Moving at a snail’s pace, he reached a flight of stairs to the first floor after a few minutes. So, he went the wrong way. Great. At least he had found the toilet in the meantime. Just about to look inside he heard a sound behind him and a young voice said, “Shouldn’t you stay in bed?”

 

He knew he had turned too fast when the world started to spin. To his surprise he was caught by strong arms and before he knew it he sat on the stairs with two worried people in front of him. Seeing their faces made him want to crawl into a hole. Though, they were probably used to him being pathetic, since this was the third time already.

 

“You’re not going to faint on us, are you?” the younger one asked. His friend got up from his crouch after an intent look.

 

Yang Yixuan first wanted to shake his head but thought better of it. “Just dizzy,” he croaked, startled by how hoarse his voice sounded. He just hoped he would not get sick in addition to his exhaustion.

 

“Ah,” the boy nodded and appeared like he wanted to say more when his friend turned around to the washroom. “Lan Zhan? Where are you going?” he asked visibly confused.

 

Lan Zhan turned to him, his face still calm and neutral. “I will get something to drink.”

 

“No need.” Why had he not thought of that first? Yang Yixuan raised a hand to summon a small ball of water over his palm. While he brought it closer to his lips to suck in the liquid the one called Lan Zhan raised his brows just a tiny bit.

 

His friend grinned. “You’re a water user. Cool! I’m Wei Ying by the way.”

 

Yang Yixuan nodded at that and gave them his own name. “What are you doing here?” he then asked, feeling a bit better already.

 

“He has detention,” Lan Zhan answered matter-of-factly and got a pout from Wei Ying for that.

 

“Just because your uncle can’t stand me.”

 

Still straightfaced Lan Zhan simply stated, “Speaking ill of others is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”

 

Yang Yixuan could not help but grin when he saw Wei Ying cringe at that. He could get along with people like that.

 

His stomach betrayed him only a second later with a loud reminder of why he left his bed in the first place. The unholy noise switched expressions around faster than he could think and he was again faced with Wei Ying’s sunny expression. It might have been a little cheekier.

 

“Ah, right, dinner time. The dining hall is in another building.” He reached out to help Yang Yixuan to his feet. “Over here is only the library. You don’t wanna go in there. It’s boring and stuffy.”

 

On his other side Lan Zhan gave them a look and Yan Yixuan was thankful he did not also try to support him. In fact, after the initial catch it seemed like he avoided bodily contact as much as possible.

 

“Doctor Wang?” was another question that flew in Yang Yixuan’s direction instead.

 

“She was not there when I woke up.”

 

A nod followed this information. “She helps with all injuries and sicknesses around the school. Sometimes also in the village.”

 

“I’ll bring you something to eat,” Wei Ying chimed in cheerfully and Lan Zhan gave an approving hum.

 

Yang Yixuan found himself smiling. “Two portions would be great.” At the sight of a grimace on Wei Ying’s face he added, “Cut Jin Zixuan some slack. He really wanted to save your sister and just lost his whole family.”

 

For that he only earned silence, but when Wei Ying returned a bit later he had Lan Zhan and two others in tow and enough to eat for everyone.