Despite knocking for several minutes, the door remained stubbornly unanswered. They exchanged a look - a brief and silent debate as to whether breaking down the door was warranted. Since no one had heard from Zhao Yunlan for the better part of two days, it seemed prudent not to worry about the damage it would do to the locks.
Chu Shuzhi raised a boot, but Zhu Hong waived him off. “One more try, then we’ll kick the door in. We’ll never hear the end of the whining if we break his door down for no reason.” She rolled her eyes to emphasize her point and raised the flat of her hand to hammer on the door.
Something moved inside - a rustling, dragging sound approached the door. It was punctuated by a few wet coughs, a pause, and then it resumed. The door handle jiggled experimentally. After a long, almost pensive silence, they heard the sound of bolts being thrown back, and the door creaked open.
Zhao Yunlan leaned heavily against the doorframe, wrapped in a dark blanket and looking like death warmed over.
“Lao Zhao?” Zhu Hong’s eyes raked across him. Her lips tightened. She’d seen him fake illnesses before and wouldn’t be impressed by a repeat performance.
But another tearing cough had Zhao Yunlan doubled over and speechless for a moment. The blanket adjusted to the new position and threatened to make a rapid descent to the ground. He grabbed at his shoulders and heaved it back up, pulling it tighter around himself. A heavy fold of fabric flopped against the crook of his neck. He lounged in the doorway - in a way that rather suggested that the doorframe was the only thing holding him up - and offered a smile that missed reassuring by a mile. “Of course I can’t have a lazy morning without...” He broke off to sneeze explosively.
“Lazy morning?” Zhu Hong raised an eyebrow. “We haven’t heard from you in two days! What, you decided that since you sent Da Qing to observe the Yashou on the city outskirts that you’d just lounge around waiting to die? You haven’t even answered your phone!”
“M not dying.” Zhao Yunlan swiped a hand that was still mired in the folds of the blanket across his nose. His voice was hoarse and garbled, and his gaze didn’t seem to entirely focus on them. He was shivering. “We got a case? Nevermind. You can fill me in on the way.” He made to step away from the doorframe, swaying precariously and apparently unaware or uncaring that the blanket had come unwrapped enough to expose a bare leg and the bottom edge of his boxers. His feet, similarly bare, hit the hallway floor, and he stopped, staring down at them in confusion. “Oh,” he said. And then, as if they somehow hadn’t noticed, “I’m not wearing shoes.”
“Or pants.” Zhu Hong pointed out, only to have Zhao Yunlan hold his arms out so that he could peer down at his legs. She rolled her eyes towards Chu Shuzhi, only to notice that he was staring fixedly over Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder. Or at his shoulder. He seemed too intent to simply be avoiding the view of their boss’s hairy legs. She followed his gaze and nearly swallowed her tongue.
“Alright,” Zhao Yunlan pointed a decidedly unsteady finger at them. “I’m not wearing pants or shoes but I’m going to go put both of them on, and then you’re going to fill me in on what the case is in the car.”
Zhu Hong barely heard him. She’d pressed her tongue between her teeth and barely past her lips - enough to taste the air that hung around him, but not enough to be noticeable. Wintery frost bit into her senses, coupled with an undercurrent of icy loam and crackling leaves. She knew that smell.
Given the extra fold of fabric lolling over Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder - the one with the black on black intricate embroidery that seemed to be drawing all of Chu Shuzhi’s attention - the smell was less of a surprise and more of a confirmation. She sucked air in between her teeth and pressed her lips into a disapproving scowl nonetheless. “No case.”
Zhao Yunlan gawped at her, coughed, and finally asked, “Why’d you get me up then, huh?”
“Because it’s been two days with no word!”
A devilish spark flickered in Zhao Yunlan’s eyes but failed to fully catch. That, in itself, spoke to how miserable he must have been feeling. “These are words.”
“Good.” He swallowed, seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment, and then bravely rallied enough to get a partial sentence out. “I’m going....bed.”
Zhu Hong slipped her phone from her pocket. “I’m calling Da Qing. He should come home to look after you.”
“Nonsense.” He drew the word out with another unsure smile. “‘S just a cold. Just ask him to bring me some food.”
“You shouldn’t....” Zhao Yunlan swung the door shut in their collective faces, leaving Zhu Hong and Chu Shuzhi on his front step. “Be alone,” Zhu Hong finished. The lacquered wood seemed less than impressed by her stern tone of voice. “Was he wearing....” she trailed off at the frown plastered on Chu Shuzhi’s face that seemed just short of murderous. That, at least confirmed her suspicion, but didn’t answer the question of how Zhao Yunlan had managed to get his hands on the Black-Cloaked Envoy’s eponymous cloak, or why he was wearing it.
48 hours before
The Dixingren sneezed in his face.
Zhao Yunlan reared back, cursing violently. Of all the things he’d expected the suspect to do once he’d grabbed her, that had to be at the very bottom of the list. It probably didn’t even make the list because, honestly, what kind of defense mechanism was that?
He kept his grip on her wrists tight, but she sagged in his hold. The sneeze gave way to coughing that sounded like it started at the absolute bottom of her lungs. He sank to his knees rather than hold her suspended, and she collapsed completely, pressing her forehead to the ground and wheezing.
“Uh.” Zhao Yunlan said eloquently.
The criminal he’d been chasing had uprooted the pylons of a few well-traveled bridges in the city. The resulting detours, frantic construction, and irate press conferences had everyone on edge, especially since the wanton destruction seemed just that - baseless and unprovoked. Zhao Yunlan’s working theory had been that the culprit was a strong Dixingren with an extreme dislike of bridges because they simply hadn’t been able to draw any further connections.
The vague image that had formed in his mind was at odds with the ill and shaking woman who he had apprehended, but he didn’t have time to consider it. Cold wind wrapped around his legs and ruffled the woman’s hair.
“Hei Lao-ge.” Zhao Yunlan looked up from where he knelt. “Just in time.”
“Who is this?”
“Well, I was really hoping that you could tell me.”
“You believe her to be the culprit behind the recent damages to the city?”
“Yes?” It came out as more of a question than he’d intended, but he wasn’t so sure himself anymore.
“I believe that is unlikely.”
“Why? Because she has sinus powers?”
The Envoy frowned at him. The mask may have covered his eyebrows, but Zhao Yunlan could make out the subtle downturn of his mouth and tightening of his eyes that spoke of intense confusion. “No. She does have a form of telekinesis. But although she can move objects, her dark energy greatly limits the mass she can affect. I do not believe she could have accomplished the crimes you are describing.”
“Great.” So he got sneezed on for nothing.
“Ah.” Zhao Yunlan attempted to laugh off the awkwardness. “No reason. Just hazarding a guess.”
The coughing and wheezing had changed alarmingly while they were talking. She seemed to be hyperventilating, her knees curled up against her chest while she drew in each desperate breath. A shadow of pain laced each inhale.
The Envoy’s hand had been outstretched, perhaps to summon a portal, but he snatched it back as if scalded. He knelt beside her, peering up into her lowered face. The hood of his cloak obscured most of his expression, but Zhao Yunlan could hear him speaking quietly, could see the tightness around his mouth that could have been anger but spoke of something else. Empathy? Or regret?
A few questions. A nod here and there from the woman. Words seemed difficult to squeeze out between pained breaths, but she finally managed. “It hurts.”
“I know.” This time the slight frown on the Envoy’s face was easier to interpret. This was sympathy, without any doubt. “You will have to endure it.”
“How...” She paused to grit her teeth. “How bad?”
“There is no way to tell. Death is rare, of course, but the complications...” He paused, waited through another coughing fit, and seemed to be gathering his words. “We have no means of predicting the complications.”
She laughed then, a broken little sound. “I want to go home.”
“You must realize that I cannot take you.”
“What?” Zhao Yunlan had been watching from the side, feeling like he was missing half of the conversation and trying to fill in the gaps.
“Chief Zhao.” The Envoy rose and turned towards him in one smooth movement. “I’m afraid I must impose on you.”
“Impose away, Hei Lao-ge. You so rarely ask anything of us, it would be churlish to refuse you.”
“She is suffering from a Dixing illness that I do not wish to spread. If the SID could keep her in isolation until she is no longer contagious, I would then be able to return her to Dixing safely.”
“And how nervous should Xiao Guo be about bringing her food?”
That earned him a whisper of a smile. “It is a Dixing virus. Unless Guo Changcheng has successfully hidden a massive secret from both of us, he has nothing to worry about.”
“Fair enough.” Zhao Yunlan hooked his thumbs into his pockets. “And the actual Dixingren I have on staff?”
“Chief Zhao, this is not a common illness in Dixing, but it is well-known. As are the precautions.” He stepped closer, into Zhao Yunlan’s space, as if the closeness would somehow better convey his assurances. He needn’t have bothered - his earnest eyes were doing just fine. “I would not knowingly put the SID in danger.”
Several hours later, Lin Jing had repurposed the interrogation room, and Xiao Guo and Lao Li were almost certainly spoiling her rotten. Because he trusted the Envoy but was also certain that he was decidedly less omniscient than everyone believed, Zhao Yunlan had them take the same precautions they would for a contagious Haixing disease - masks, limited contact, the works. Lin Jing had held forth for the better part of an hour about the negative pressure system he rigged up that would keep any and all viruses contained. The rest of the SID scattered on assorted missions that would keep them mainly out of the building.
36 hours before
The fact that Dixing viruses might actually be contagious across the races - despite assurances to the contrary - occurred to Zhao Yunlan when he woke to a deep throbbing pain behind his eyes. He pried his eyes open, attempted to swallow, and immediately regretted it. The violent coughing fit that followed felt like it was trying to bring up bits of his lungs. He rolled onto his side, gasping until it subsided, and made a valiant attempt to sit up. He only made it partway before the room swam hazily around him.
He let himself collapse back down, throwing an arm over his eyes to block the nauseating swirling of the walls. Against the cool skin of his forearm, his face was on fire.
Zhao Yunlan groaned. He hated being sick and powered through whenever he could. For scientific completeness, he tried to sit up again, hoping that this illness would quail at his force of will.
The next second found him flat on his back. A few deep coughs and he could breathe again, but sitting up was clearly not in the cards. He should call someone. They needed to know that he was out of commission. He fumbled for his phone, almost knocking it to the ground before his got his fingers around it. The bright screen made him flinch away in pain. He squinted at it, turning the brightness down before pulling up the list of contacts.
Da Qing? But no, he’d sent Da Qing away to gather information from his fellow Yashou. He could call the other SID members, but he couldn’t quite face the level of judgmental fussing (Zhu Hong) or experimental drugs (Lin Jing) that he would be forced to accept.
Shen Wei, however, was a real possibility. The judgmental fussing would not be particularly less judgmental or less fussy, but it seemed easier to accept coming from him.
Another bout of shivers rattled his teeth. He felt like garbage, but he remembered the deep rasping gasps that had shaken the woman’s frame. Maybe the effects were lessened in him? The Envoy certainly hadn’t seemed concerned about the human members of the SID. And if the Envoy, in all of his power, had refused to take her, could Zhao Yunlan risk exposing Shen Wei?
Shen Wei, who would smile and lie about being Dixingren and would take care of Zhao Yunlan whilst breathing in Zhao Yunlan’s contaminated air. He thought about the woman struggling to breathe and his feverish mind all to easily filled in Shen Wei’s form and face, doubled over and gasping for air.
He dropped his head back on the pillow and burrowed deeper under the blankets.
He’d sleep it off.
28 hours before
When Zhao Yunlan woke this time, he could barely remember where he was. The obnoxious squeaking of his bed brought him somewhat back to reality. His apartment. He almost called out for Da Qing, and then, after a moment of hesitation for Shen Wei. He’d been planning to call them, hadn’t he? But then the fog of sleep and illness retreated just enough. Right. He was sick, they should stay away.
The room swayed when he tried to sit up but stayed more or less upright. He made it to the bathroom by clinging to the edge of the bed, Da Qing’s tire, and then the wall. When he reached the door, he had to pause for several long minutes to catch his breath. His mouth was dry. His lips cracked as he tried to wet them with his tongue. He was vaguely aware that he should be trying to drink some water - maybe take some medicine - but he couldn’t remember where he had left it.
A Dixing illness, his feverish brain pondered, needed a Dixing expert. One unlikely to catch it, or at least probably safe from being affected.
And so he found himself fumbling to light the incense cone without scorching his fingers. His fingers did not come away unscathed, but the incense was burning and he could lay back down on the bed and wait.
The chill that blew into the room with the Envoy’s arrival felt like utter bliss on his burning skin.
“Chief Zhao, what....?” But the Envoy’s words fell away to be replaced by cool fingers across Zhao Yunlan’s brow.
He leaned into the touch.
He tried to force his face into a winning smile, to tease the Envoy about his concern, but the cool pressure on his forehead was bliss. The smile was more relieved than anything else. He turned his face into the Envoy’s palm and could feel the heat bleeding away into his skin.
There was something deeply entertaining about the Envoy being frigid and icy. Zhao Yunlan tried to get the words arranged in his head but could only manage to chuckle - weakly and just this side of hysterically.
“Zhao Yunlan?” The Envoy’s voice was tight. The bed dipped under the Envoy’s weight, and his fingers slipped from Zhao Yunlan’s forehead to press in under his chin. Checking his pulse? His lymph nodes? Did Dixingren have lymph nodes? Or run fevers?
“I think I’m sick.” Zhao Yunlan paused to take in the slight noise of exasperation the Envoy made. He pried his eyes open, frowned to match the expression on the Envoy’s face, and amended his statement. “I know I’m sick. I think I got it from that woman earlier.”
“That is not possible. The illness she carried is transmitted by dark energy. Dixingren who use their powers around someone who is infected are susceptible to infection themselves.”
“Well, she sneezed in my face, and I feel like I’m dying now, so...” Zhao Yunlan tried to wave his hand. It got partway off the blankets before he realized that the effort wasn’t worth it, and he dropped it back down. “Cause and effect.”
“Dying?” The tightness in his voice sounded less like a multicultural ambassador irritated by being irreverently summoned and more like genuine concern. He leaned forward, his eyes meeting Zhao Yunlan’s unfocused gaze. Now - even with the mask, even with the Envoy’s shuttered expressions - the concern was impossible to miss.
“No.” This time, it was worth it to lift his hand and aim a disarming shove against the Envoy’s shoulder. Irritation was easier to deal with. Righteous indignation would have been even better. The shove did absolutely nothing to the Envoy’s upright, tense posture. He’d have better luck trying to shift a brick wall, even if he wasn’t weak and shivering. He shut his eyes. “I just feel like crap.”
Fingers pried his eyes back open, one after the other. After studying whatever he needed to see in Zhao Yunlan’s eyes, the Envoy laid the cool back of his hand across his forehead. “Can you be more specific about how you feel?”
“‘Like crap’ doesn’t cover it?” The long stare that greeted that statement made Zhao Yunlan laugh, which turned into a deep, barking cough. He rolled over onto his side, curling up around himself until the fit passed. When he could finally catch his breath, he pressed his face into the pillow and groaned. The steady pressure of a hand on his shoulder helped to ground him. “Okay, fine. Sore throat, fever, coughing. Feel like I’m gonna pass out if I sit up for more than a couple of minutes.”
The Envoy futzed around for a moment more, tilting Zhao Yunlan’s head this way and that and prodding at the pulse at his wrist. “The symptoms are consistent,” he said after a moment.
“I’ve got the Dixing flu?”
“Something like that.”
“Thought you said it had something to do with dark energy?” After a moment’s struggle, Zhao Yunlan managed to slit one eye open. “Do I have some long-lost Dixing ancestor?”
But the Envoy shook his head. “Not to my knowledge. This must be some mutation of the original strain - one viable in humans and likely contracted through your mucus membranes.”
It wasn’t a foreign language, but Zhao Yunlan could make neither heads nor tails of it. “And?”
“The virus must be carried by bodily fluids - blood, saliva. In principle, you could infect another human the same way you were infected, by sneezing or coughing and getting droplets of saliva into their nose or eyes.”
“I’ll resist the urge to kiss you, then”
The Envoy went very still. For a moment, Zhao Yunlan wondered if he’d actually managed to find the limits to how far he could push, but then the Envoy’s lips tightened briefly into something wickedly teasing. The expression passed so quickly that Zhao Yunlan could almost chalk it up to the fever. “I shall endeavor not to tempt you.”
“Hei Lao-ge.” Zhao Yunlan peered up at him through heavy eyelids. “You have a sense of humor. No one told me you have a sense of humor.”
“Did you ever ask?” This time, he was definitely smiling - a small private thing with his lips pressed tight together and curled up at the corners. He startled after a moment, the smile fading as if he had only just then remembered himself. “You needn’t worry, Chief Zhao. The virus is only passed to Dixingren via dark energy. As long as I do not use any power on you, I won’t risk contracting it from you.”
Zhao Yunlan had a fuzzy grin on his face, an after effect of both the quick banter that felt so oddly familiar and the reassurance. The rising fever might also have had something to do with it. He could barely keep his eyes open. “I’m going to sleep. I think...I need to sleep.”
“I’ll get you some water.”
He must have drifted off. Surely the Envoy couldn’t navigate his apartment so easily. But he took the proffered glass and propped himself up on his elbow enough that he could drink without spilling it down his front.
“Chief Zhao.” He paused at the slight hum of acknowledgement. “I am afraid this might get worse before it gets better. I hesitate to bring your human or Yashou colleagues in. I do not know what the effects might be to the Yashou, and your human colleagues could contract this virus as you have. You have a Dixingren colleague...”
Zhao Yunlan waved him off with a raised hand. He would rather suffer alone than have Chu Shuzhi playing nursemaid. An order from the Envoy would get him to Zhao Yunlan’s side, but he’d resent every moment of it. He needed rest and quiet. “Not gonna risk infecting him. This is just the flu, yeah? I’ll just sleep and get up when I’m better.”
He rolled over, dragging the blankets up over his shoulder and expecting the bed to shift at the sudden lack of the Envoy’s weight. But the Envoy didn’t budge, and Zhao Yunlan slipped into a fitful slumber with the knowledge that the Envoy sat beside him and feeling the weight of the his regard.
18 hours before
The blankets were scalding on his skin. He kicked them off weakly. His hands were shaking; his arms were shaking. He rolled to his side, curling up and gritting his teeth against a wave of nausea.
Someone was speaking near him, voice tight with worry. He couldn’t hear it over the ringing in his ears, but the blankets were suddenly back on him. Hands patted along his shoulder and arm, pressing the blankets tight.
He thrashed. He was boiling over. He couldn’t stand the feel of the blankets on his skin.
Now the hands were on his forehead - cool, stabilizing - and then were replaced by something hard. A rapid beeping was followed by a tight mutter. “Chief Zhao.” A pause, and then, “Zhao Yunlan. Your fever is dangerously high. The hospital....”
“No!” The hospital was a bad idea. He couldn’t quite figure out why. Something about blood draws and lab tests. Something about the doctors having their hands on a Dixing virus. “There’s meds. I think I...” he tried to sit up as if he was going to get the medication himself. The room swam. The whole front of his face hurt, and he swallowed down a cough, afraid that his head might split open if he didn’t.
“I gave you the recommended dose earlier and cannot give you any more for a couple of hours.”
He vaguely remembered hands coaxing him into a sitting position and encouraging him to take something. It was indistinct, hard to hold on to. It felt like days ago - surely he could take another dose? “Just give me....”
The Envoy cut him off. “No.” Something in the tone suggested that he knew - down to the second - how long Zhao Yunlan needed to wait and would not risk an overdose on top of everything else.
Summoning the Envoy had been a good move. Zhao Yunlan mused that he really should thank him. Laying flat had helped to calm the pounding in his head, but he didn’t dare sit up. He swung his arm towards the side of the bed where the Envoy had been perched, but met only empty air. A chill ran through him, the fever wreaking havoc on his body temperature. The blankets were palatable for a moment, but he soon kicked them off again.
He tried to fall asleep - he must have fallen asleep, because he woke to find the Envoy back beside him. He tossed, unable to find a comfortable spot in the sweltering sheets. A cool cloth across his forehead and pressed to his cheeks lulled him back down.
He slept fitfully, his body fighting the urge to rest even as it fought with the virus. An hour passed. Maybe two. The clock by his bedside was too far for him to focus, and he couldn’t remember what it had read before, anyway.
Strong arms pulled him into a sitting position. He opened his mouth to point out that he had less than no desire to stand up, but the Envoy simply scooped him up with one arm under his knees and the other behind his back. He pressed his face into the Envoy’s shoulder. The black fabric blocked out the dim lights, and not being able to see the walls helped to restore some balance.
“Where we goin’?”
“We have to get your fever down.” His voice was anxious. “You can take more medicine now, but it will take time to work. I’ve run a cold bath. It will help your body to regulate its temperature.”
“‘Kay.” A deep hacking cough started from the bottom of his lungs, and he tightened his arms around the Envoy’s neck, clinging until the spasms passed. “Don’t let me drown.”
The arms around his back and legs tightened in response. “Never.”
And that was...something. If his mind wasn’t so fuzzy, he would chase that answer down. As it was, he fell back on sarcastic humor and hoped that he would remember when this was all over. “Hei Lao-ge, I didn’t know you cared.”
He got no response. Instead, the world tipped underneath him. His feet settled on the icy bathroom tiles. A strong grip on his shoulders helped to balance him.
“The counter is right behind you. I need you to stand up on your own for a moment.”
The Envoy’s hands were brisk and impersonal as he stripped off Zhao Yunlan’s sweat-soaked t-shirt. He touched the band of his boxers and then drew back - perhaps realizing that Zhao Yunlan lacked the coordination to get back into them if removed and that diplomatic relations would be irrevocably changed if he had to dress Zhao Yunlan from the nude. Then the Envoy’s hands turned soft, holding his upper arm as he stepped into the tub and lowering him gently into it.
The water was frigid - only slightly warmer than the coldest setting on the taps. Zhao Yunlan had never felt anything so good. He sank into it, feeling the burning that had suffused him start to ebb. After several moments, his head felt a bit clearer. A couple of coughing fits forced him to sit up and lean over the edge of the bath, half afraid that he was going to bring up the medicine and the water that the Envoy had given him.
After one particularly bad bout, he rested his cheek on the cool edge of the bath and peered up at the Envoy through the curtain of his hair. He was sitting beside the bath, looking incongruous in his heavy black cloak with the hood still pulled up and the mask firmly in place. He was watching Zhao Yunlan intently. “How is your breathing?”
“Coughing sucks.” He wiped drips of water from his face and hair. “Seems okay other than that.”
“Do you feel like you are struggling to breathe?”
“Something akin to pneumonia is a common complication for this illness. If we can catch it early, your hospitals can treat you before it becomes too dangerous.”
“Can’t you just....” Zhao Yunlan waved his hand in what he thought was a mystical gesture.
The Envoy’s hands clenched into fists against his thighs. His jaw clenched to match. “I can’t,” he ground out. “Using dark energy near you could infect me. Even if I could heal or suppress the symptoms, I couldn’t use my powers around any Dixingren until I was no longer contagious. I would be useless to Dixing and the SID alike for an unknown period of time. It would be foolish for me to take that risk - possibly a lethal mistake if I was unable to protect...” The Envoy coughed out a sardonic laugh. “I can’t heal you. I can’t check your symptoms. If this virus threatens your life, I would take the risk, but I have no way of knowing just how far it has progressed. I am stuck with these basic treatments.” He raised the medicine bottle, gripped tightly in one hand. If he squeezed it any farther, he’d probably flatten it. His voice was laced with anger. “Which are barely adequate.”
Right. The cold water was helping his body come down to a more normal temperature, but his brain still wasn’t working at full capacity. He’d forgotten about the dark energy component. He wondered if he’d remember any of this once he was better, or if it would slip from his grasp the same way his conversations of a less than a day ago had.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. I probably would have died of dehydration hours ago if it weren’t for you.” Zhao Yunlan felt a giggle building at the back of his throat. “Do you think they’ll believe me? If I tell them that the Black-Cloaked Envoy made me drink water and take my medicine? Helped my naked ass into the tub?”
“You’re not naked.”
“You’ll have to correct the details. I’m sure my memories will be a bit fuzzy.”
“I can only hope.”
Getting out of the tub once he started shivering uncontrollably was only slightly more awkward than getting in. In the end, he wound up clinging to the Envoy’s arm and shoulder in order to balance long enough on one foot to step out. His teeth were chattering, but at least he didn’t feel like he was burning from the inside out anymore. He felt, blindly and unsuccessfully, for the towels behind the Envoy’s back before the Envoy propped him up against the wall and proceeded to dry him off.
It was just as impersonal as the undressing had been. Zhao Yunlan was frankly just grateful that he didn’t have to try to reach his feet because he would definitely have fallen over. Left to his own devices, he would have just crawled back into bed soaking wet. Assuming he didn’t just collapse on the bathroom floor.
“You need dry clothes. I-” His voice broke off abruptly.
Another spasm of shivers wracked him. “Yeah, ok. Can I....can I sit down maybe?”
With the Envoy’s help, Zhao Yunlan managed a moderately controlled descent to the floor. He was vaguely aware of the Envoy retreating to the main room, and took the opportunity to shimmy - gracelessly and with many pauses to catch his breath - out of his sodden boxers. Thankfully, dry towels were in reach, and he managed to pull one down over his lap before the Envoy returned with a handful of dry clothes.
Zhao Yunlan took the offered boxers, grateful for the cold water that restored some of his fine motor control, grateful that the Envoy didn’t insist on helping to get him dressed, and even more grateful when the Envoy turned his back to give him a modicum of privacy. Not that the rest of the SID hadn’t seen him naked at one point or another, but the Envoy was in a slightly different category. He managed to get the boxers up over his hips before the Envoy turned back around.
It took more effort than he cared to admit. He doubled over and tried to cough up one, or both, of his lungs.
The Envoy waited for him to catch his breath with one hand laid across his shaking shoulders.
“Hei Lao-ge, this is definitely not in your job description.”
“I have treated numerous injuries and sicknesses on the battlefield. As your internal organs are still inside your body, this is not even in the top ten of the most uncomfortable things I have had to put my hands on.”
Zhao Yunlan laughed, and then coughed, wheezing weakly into the into the back of his hand.
“This would nothing if I was one of your colleagues.”
“Are you saying that I should treat the most powerful figure in Dixing society like one of my hapless employees? Be careful what you ask for, Hei Lao-ge, I might remember that and try to dock your pay.”
Hands bracketed Zhao Yunlan’s head, tipping it forward slowly, and then a towel settled around his shoulders. The Envoy mopped up the back of his neck and proceeded to gently towel his hair until it was no longer dripping. He eased a soft shirt over Zhao Yunlan’s head. “I am saying that we are working towards the same goals. If I did not care for your safety, I would have walked away after you summoned me.”
“Guess it’s in your best interest to keep the SID healthy, huh?”
Instead of answering, the Envoy draped Zhao Yunlan’s arm over his shoulder and hauled him to his feet. The trip back to the bed involved a great deal of stumbling but the Envoy let him get there at least partly under his own steam. Once Zhao Yunlan was settled, the Envoy stood looking down at him, an indiscernible frown on his face. He looked like he wanted to say something, but Zhao Yunlan couldn’t keep his eyes open long enough to wait for the answer.
12 hours before
Something hard was pressed against his forehead. Zhao Yunlan lashed out, trying to struggle into a sitting position. The world tipped sideways. Someone grabbed his wrists, tightly enough to keep him from hurting himself but loosely enough that he could break their grip if he wanted to.
“Zhao Yunlan!” The grip on one hand loosened and he instead felt a gentle squeeze on his shoulder. “Please.”
He sucked in a breath, felt a scratch deep in his throat, and doubled over coughing. Right. Sick. His body was still fighting the virus off. The ice bath and medicine had suppressed the fever, but not broken it, if the heat behind his eyes and the dryness at the back of his mouth was anything to go by. “Water,” He croaked.
The hands stabilizing him fell away and returned to press a glass into his hands. He swayed dangerously without the support. He tried to keep himself upright, but the effort seemed too much. After he’d finished the water, he let himself tip into the person sitting beside him. It earned him a startled noise and sudden motions that tried to either prop him back upright or tilt him back into the covers. Lying down sounded excellent, but the duvet still pooled around his waist was steaming from his own body heat.
The cloth under his cheek, however, was heavy but cool. He burrowed against it, feeling it wick away the heat from his skin. When the hands became more insistent in returning him to the mattress, he wrapped his arms around the torso. A cold metal buckle pressed against his cheek. He smelled leather and incense and wintery frost but couldn’t quite place the combination. Forcing his eyes open helped - the black robes were rather unmistakable after all - but his sluggish brain couldn’t quite fit the pieces together: why the Envoy was here, why he was sitting on Zhao Yunlan’s bed, why he’d been taking his temperature with one of those forehead contact thermometers that Zhu Hong had bought for him after he’d shown up to work running a fever that should have sent him to the hospital.
Why the Envoy hadn’t resorted to breaking his fingers to free himself from Zhao Yunlan’s grasp. Why his arm settled around Zhao Yunlan’s back and almost seemed to scoop him in closer.
Then he straightened, fingers going to clasp at his throat.
“What...?” Zhao Yunlan let out a half hearted protest at the motion. Any additional protests died in his throat when the cloak settled around his shoulders. He released his hold on the Envoy’s waist himself in favor of grabbing the fabric and pulling it possessively up around his shoulders.
“How is your breathing?”
He vaguely remembered a similar question from earlier, but despite being exhausted and feeling like he was boiling from the inside out, he wasn’t struggling to breathe. He nuzzled his face into the hood of the cloak and managed a weak smile. “Fine.”
The Envoy let out a breath that Zhao Yunlan hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Good.” He pushed Zhao Yunlan’s shoulders until he was a bit more balanced. “Can you stay upright for a moment? I’ll get more water.”
He made what he hoped was a noise of agreement. When the Envoy stood, his outline was strange without the cloak. Zhao Yunlan tipped his head back, wondering what his face looked like when it wasn’t buried in the hood.
His vision swam at the motion. The Envoy’s features were blurred until Zhao Yunlan ducked his head and scrubbed his hands across his eyes. When he looked again, the Envoy sported long hair pulled back into a braid that ran along the top of his head. Smaller braids on the sides of his head curved back to meet the main one, and the rest of his thick hair cascaded loosely down his back. He looked like he’d stepped out of a novel.
Which, of course, made perfectly good sense when combined with the robes and weapon of choice and the fact that the Envoy had the better part of 10,000 years on him. Zhao Yunlan pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes again. His vision really must have been struggling because he could have sworn he’d seen a modern haircut - coiffed and elegant - for the briefest of moments.
With a bit more water in his stomach and the Envoy’s cloak wrapped tight around his frame, Zhao Yunlan was almost comfortable for the first time in nearly a day. He collapsed onto the mattress and tucked his toes into the heavy folds of the cloak. He half expected the Envoy to snatch it back, but he felt the fabric being rearranged to cover him more completely.
“Yeah, that sounds good.” He was drifting already and had no desire to argue. “Hey, Hei Lao-ge?”
“Yes, Zhao Yunlan?”
The Envoy was silent for a long time, his gaze lowered and hands fisted on the edge of his cloak. After long enough that Zhao Yunlan had nearly fallen asleep, he tucked the cloak more tightly around Zhao Yunlan’s shoulders. He patted the pillows, Zhao Yunlan’s arm, and the folds of fabric nestled against the back of Zhao Yunlan’s neck. “Thank you for calling me. I would never want you to suffer alone.”
Zhao Yunlan let out a weak laugh. “Don’t talk to Da Qing. He’ll give you an earful about how insufferable I am.”
“An accurate assessment, but he would still be here in a heartbeat if you asked him.”
“What, no lecture on the definitions of suffer and insufferable?” He couldn’t be sure why he expected that reaction from the Envoy, but he could tell from the slight smile at the edges of the Envoy’s lips that he was fighting the urge to do exactly that.
“I will not be baited by you, Zhao Yunlan.”
“Of course not. I’m sick! That would be,” he paused to yawn hugely, “Incredibly irresponsible of you.” Even through his heavy eyes, he could see the Envy duck his head to hide a real smile. The motion was horribly familiar, but although many late nights of drinking had trained his brain to banter wittingly even with limited functionality, he wasn’t quite so practiced at drunken deductions. With the virus rampaging through his brain, his cognitive faculties seemed equally impaired.
“Go to sleep.”
As he slipped under, the Envoy’s fingers were on his face again, pressing gently against his temples. But the touch felt good and pulled him down, and he dreamed of someone brushing their hands gently against his cheek, smoothing his hair back from his face, and - because it was Zhao Yunlan and his dreams rarely stayed so domestic - leaning forward to press a brief kiss to his forehead. He turned his head, chasing the lips, but firm hands pressed him back to the mattress and tucked the blanket tighter around his shoulders.
When he woke, someone was hammering at his door.
36 hours after
Zhao Yunlan was feeling infinitely more human, but he was left with a decided problem.
“Lao Zhao, you have to clean it.” Da Qing threw himself onto the arm of the couch. “You spent the better part of two days sweating in that thing and you blew your nose on it. You can’t just give it back to him without causing an international incident.”
“You weren’t even here!”
“I can smell it.” Da Qing sniffed theatrically and made a face. “And there’s no way you can’t smell it.”
“Pray tell then, oh wise cat, how I’m supposed to clean a cloak that was probably handwoven at the dawn of time? You expect me to clean this and not cause an international incident? I don’t think the Black-Cloaked Envoy will be forgiving if I destroy his namesake.”
“Go find someone who knows more about washing clothes than you do. That can’t be hard.”
Zhao Yunlan planted a foot against his butt and shoved him off the couch.
Five minutes - and one spectacularly bad plan for a cover story - later, he was standing in front of Shen Wei’s door with the miles of black cloth bundled into his arms. He paused to glare over his shoulder at Da Qing, who had pretended indifference but was lounging in the open door to their apartment nevertheless, and knocked.
“Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei’s gaze flickered briefly over his shoulder, and he added, “Da Qing. It’s good to see you both. Can I help with something?”
“Professor Shen.” He took a moment to study the gray suit Shen Wei was wearing. Surely he’d spilled things on it. Surely he - or his favorite dry cleaner - could manage to get the rank stench out of the Envoy’s cloak. Maybe dry cleaning was his power? That would certainly explain the array of perfectly laundered and pressed clothing. He grinned winningly. “I’m afraid I have a favor to ask of you.”
“I’m happy to help, of course, if I can.”
“Excellent. Excellent. You see, I have a friend who is deeply invested in cosplay and LARPing. You know the deal - conventions, contests. He’s actually won a couple of awards, but that’s only made him up his game.”
“...LARPing...?” Shen Wei interrupted faintly.
“You see, he’s now become incredibly dedicated to authenticity. He’s even learning to make his own cloth, but that apparently takes a long time. In the meantime, he bought a highly authentic recreation piece.” Zhao Yunlan paused to brandish the armload of cloth at Shen Wei. “But the weather was terrible during their last event - hot, muggy, you know.” It wasn’t really a question. He plowed on through Shen Wei’s confused noise of agreement. Stories like this worked best if you didn’t pause and give the audience a chance to poke holes in the narrative. He raised the cloak to his nose and gave an exaggerated wince. “Everyone around him has begged him to clean it before wearing it again, but he’s understandably afraid of just throwing it in the washing machine.”
“He begged me to help, but I’m no more use than he is. I would have just thrown it in the laundry and not thought twice. I told him, though, that my neighbor has definite sartorial interests and might be better equipped to return his outfit to its former glory. So, Professor Shen, Shen Wei? Can you help me?”
Shen Wei blinked, as if struggling to catch up with Zhao Yunlan’s intricate load of bullshit. “I believe I can get it cleaned.”
“My savior! I shudder to think what would have happened if I’d had to clean it.” Zhao Yunlan leaned in conspiratorially. “I can’t tell you how much this cloak means to him. He’d be devastated if it was even slightly damaged.”
This startled a genuine smile out of Shen Wei that he quickly hid behind the armful of fabric. “I will be extremely careful, Chief Zhao. Please trust me, your friend will have no complaints.”
Zhao Yunlan, on the other hand, made no effort to hide his smile. He winked before brightly saying, “Thanks!”
“I’ll bring it by when it’s done.”
Shen Wei curled the dark cloak against his chest. It smelled overwhelmingly of Zhao Yunlan and the Dixingren sickness that had rampaged through him. He poured a wave of dark energy through it, driving away the stench and the sweat stains alike. It was not the first time that he had cleaned his cloak, nor would it be the last.
This was nothing compared to the bloody, rended mess it had been on more than a few occasions. He bent his head to stifle a laugh at Zhao Yunlan’s insistence that the Envoy would be devastated if something happened to his cloak. He had never seen the Envoy injured - not yet - and it probably hadn’t even occurred to him that the Envoy might have already needed to repair or replace his cloak.
Shen Wei pressed his forehead to the folded cloth. He would keep the Envoy impervious as long as he possibly could.
Two days later - after he had returned the cloak to Zhao Yunlan in pristine condition and received accolades for such an exceptional job - Shen Wei had the dubious honor of having his own clothes presented back to him. He’d debated about summoning an illusory cloak to hide his hair, but Zhao Yunlan had already seen him without. That had been a near miss - he’d only just managed to pull illusions over himself to hide his hair when he’d noticed Zhao Yunlan looking. He wasn’t even sure if Zhao Yunlan remembered. Just in case, he dredged up the same style - the way he’d worn it when he was young, the way he’d worn it with Kunlun.
He appeared beside the main table in SID headquarters and braced himself. The rest of the SID would almost certainly recognize him, cloak or no. Since the line that carried the teleportation powers he used had died out generations ago, the portal was almost better than a fingerprint. But he felt exposed without the hood - as if a better view of the back of his head and shoulders would somehow magically allow them to connect Professor Shen with the Envoy. He didn’t want them to recognize him in anything other than his official capacity.
“Lord Envoy!” Guo Changcheng clutched a haphazard stack of papers to his chest. Several more scattered across the table in even more haphazard piles. He’d almost certainly jumped and upset the organization when Shen Wei had appeared. He gaped for a moment and then seemed to remember himself long enough to stammer out. “Welcome back.” The papers crumpled under his clenched hands.
Scaring the pants off the kid had never been his intention. He turned to face him and inclined his head slightly, hoping the lack of cloak would at least make him less imposing. “Thank you for your help.”
“Oh! Oh no, it was nothing, Lord Envoy. I mean, I could at least bring her food, but she looked pretty miserable and I couldn’t really help with that. But Lin Jing-ge got her some oxygen to help her breathe and was able to change the temperature in the room so that she could be comfortable even when she had a fever.” He trailed off, frowning down at the table, still unwilling to meet Shen Wei’s eyes.
Which was a good thing. In the wake of Zhao Yunlan’s illness, Shen Wei had been unable to tear himself away. But he wasn’t supposed to be taking care of Zhao Yunlan, he was supposed to be taking care of his people.
The complications from the illness could have taken her powers. They could have taken her life. Shen Wei had belonged here. He had at least owed the SID an update on Zhao Yunlan’s infection, but he had convinced himself that Zhao Yunlan must have told them when he started feeling sick and that the SID would contact him if they had any further concerns. And then Zhao Yunlan’s fever had swung wildly and his consciousness had followed. Shen Wei had feared what might happen if he left and Zhao Yunlan awoke.
Or worse, if he didn’t. In Dixingren, the virus could turn in less than an hour. The effects of Haixingren were unknown. He should have been at the SID, but he never could have made himself leave Zhao Yunlan’s side.
Contagion vector or no, he would have turned his powers on Zhao Yunlan the moment the virus had slid from debilitating to fatal. It could have killed him. It could have stripped him of his powers, and he wouldn’t have cared. Regardless of where he was supposed to be - regardless of the guilt he felt for being somewhere else - Shen Wei wouldn’t have changed his decision.
He had torn himself away once the fever started to ease, once Zhao Yunlan’s restless slumber turned into that of exhausted recovery. He had visited the SID briefly to speak with Lin Jing, verify that both he and Guo Changcheng were healthy, and to check on the Dixingren patient. Both had been shocked to hear about Zhao Yunlan’s illness, and a sinking sensation had settled in Shen Wei’s gut.
When he had returned to the apartment, Zhao Yunlan had been flopped sideways across the bed, still wrapped in Shen Wei’s cloak. There had been a post-it stuck to the unlocked door that simply read: charge your damn phone.
Given how often he heard his students complaining about dead batteries, he really should have remembered that a cell phone wouldn’t last for several days on end.
He wouldn’t have done anything differently, but he still swallowed around the guilt and was grateful that Guo Changcheng seemed interested in looking everywhere but at him. “You were able to ease her suffering where I could not. So thank you.”
“Chief Zhao.” Seeing him on his feet and effectively back to normal helped to ease the tightness in his chest.
“Ah.” Zhao Yunlan breathed out a noise and grinned at him. “I only saw it for a moment last time, but I do love what you’ve done with your hair. Very fetching! Makes me consider growing mine out.”
He had to swallow around a different lump in his throat this time. “While I am sure that a longer style would suit you, perhaps it would be inconvenient.”
“Does it inconvenience you? Short haircuts are all the rage nowadays. Honestly, it’s what I expected you to have, and I bet you wouldn’t find all that hair getting in your way if you chopped it off.” Zhao Yunlan rocked back on his heels and tilted his head to one side as if that would help him better study Shen Wei. “Not that I’m complaining, but I do wonder what you’d look like with short hair.”
Without his cloak to shadow his face, Shen Wei felt horribly exposed. No matter that Zhao Yunlan had seen his face more closely and spoken with him more in the last few days. Under the bright lights and without the virus muting his sharp mind, Zhao Yunlan’s inquisitiveness was dangerous.
“Ah, but I suppose you’re used to it. Would probably throw off your balance when fighting if you got rid of it all.”
“I came to check the status of...”
“Of course!” Zhao Yunlan cut across him. “Lin Jing assures me that she is symptom free and has a clean bill of health as far as he can tell. You’re welcome to take her home, but don’t forget this!” He held out a familiar bundle of black fabric, less carefully folded than it had been when Shen Wei turned it over to him. The story Zhao Yunlan told him involved Yashou magic and Lin Jing’s technological prowess and omitted any mention of a next door neighbor.
But they both knew that wasn’t the truth, even if Zhao Yunlan didn’t know that he knew. Zhao Yunlan had collected the cloak himself, gushing over the job Shen Wei had done. “Wow. It looks better than new. What magic did you use to clean it?”
Shen Wei had pushed his glasses up and mumbled something about Woolite and hand washing and had hoped that Zhao Yunlan was ignorant enough of laundry that it would be believable.
Hearing himself left out, when Zhao Yunlan’s reality of a neighbor who happens to be good at laundry was so much more plausible than the tale he spun, Shen Wei realized that he was being protected.
The irony almost made him laugh.