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First Meetings

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For once Zhao Xinci is actually home in time for dinner. Mostly because he got a bit banged up on the job and he'd agreed to go home to rest and recover. It isn't really bad enough that he needs to, but Gao Jingfeng insists and so does the thing inside Zhao Xinci. He really can't take the pestering from both sides and besides there isn't really anything urgent to do anymore.

It seems like Zhang Shi is getting bolder by the day, the way he keeps talking back at Zhao Xinci. He never would have at the beginning. Back then he'd mostly just laid low and not said anything at all. "Your family will probably be happy to see you," Gao Jingfeng adds, the sentiment echoed wordlessly by Zhang Shi.

Zhao Xinci wants to snap out that Zhang Shi is very much part of the reason he stays away from his family as much as he does. But Gao Jingfeng is still right there, and he swallows the words and just thinks them loudly at Zhang Shi instead. He's pretty sure Zhang Shi actually gets the message, judging by the way the feeling of him in Zhao Xinci's head suddenly retreats a bit. The communication between them is still more than a bit hit and miss. Sometimes, it seems like Zhang Shi can hear Zhao Xinci's thoughts and at other times, it's like there's a wall between them and nothing will get through it.

Zhao Xinci is sure they could work on that. If they can communicate so easily sometimes, he doesn't doubt that it would only take some effort and possibly practice to figure out how to do that at will. Zhao Xinci is not particularly inclined to do that. If he had a choice, he'd prefer never hearing from Zhang Shi at all.

But since right now, neither Gao Jingfeng nor Zhang Shi are giving up on the idea that Zhao Xinci needs to recuperate, home he goes to his family.

Shen Xi isn't expecting him. Zhao Xinci feels a twinge of guilt as he sees how she quickly covers for the surprise on her face and welcomes him home with a small smile. He's always been busy with work, he tells himself, and Shen Xi surely knew what she was getting into from the start. But Zhao Xinci knows that ever since his mind got permanently invaded by a Dixingren he's barely been home for anything but sleep. He just doesn't want to take any of that back home, doesn't want to take any chances with his family, not with the thing inside him.

It's only when Zhao Xinci sits down at the table set out for two people that he realises that Yunlan isn't actually there. He can feel the exasperated sigh Zhang Shi can't actually make, and maybe, in this case, the Dixingren isn't entirely wrong. Zhao Xinci should be more observant than this, maybe he's too used to not needing to pay attention to things at home.

"Where is Yunlan?" Zhao Xinci asks as Shen Xi serves him food. She blinks at him like that question is a surprise rather than something entirely reasonable to ask about.

Then she gives a little shake of her head, her mouth tightening slightly. Zhao Xinci has a sneaking suspicion that that reaction is because of him, even if he's not entirely sure what he might have done this time. "He's with Shen Wei," she tells him, in a tone that tells him she's making an effort not to sound upset.

The name says nothing to Zhao Xinci, but by the easy familiarity that Shen Xi refers to him, he thinks he probably should know who that is. He quickly tries to think of any relatives or friends but comes up with nothing. Shen Xi in the meantime has started in on the food and the quiet between them has settled firmly into the awkward.

When did his home life come to this, Zhao Xinci wonders? Should he ask more about who this Shen Wei is, or would that just make Shen Xi more disappointed in him? He feels Zhang Shi stir in his mind a heartbeat before there's a careful, but still kind of exasperated voice in his head, saying, He's Zhao Yunlan's friend, Shen Xi has mentioned him before. Several times.

They've agreed that Zhang Shi will stay as unobtrusive as possible when Zhao Xinci is at home, and he wants to point that out, but at least the information is useful. Still, he doesn't want Zhang Shi to make a habit of this, so he gives a mental shove to the Dixingren, who retreats back to whatever nook of Zhao Xinci's brain that he usually stays in at times like this without any arguments.

"Is he staying out long with his friend?" Zhao Xinci asks since he can't really think of anything else to say in the situation. It feels like he's trying to curry favour with his wife by pointing out that he knows who they're talking about. He feels a sudden flush of embarrassment.

Shen Xi's frown smooths out slightly, and she looks less upset at him at least. "I'm sure Shen Wei will have him back in time," she says, unconcerned.

Zhao Xinci frowns, there's something not quite right about that statement, he thinks. But he's not so sure he wants to keep asking about it. He doesn't particularly enjoy having his wife upset at him.

Come to think of it—it's been a while since they argued over Yunlan last. Or well, about Zhao Xinci's relationship with his son, mainly. Shen Xi hasn't brought it up for some time now, and Zhao Xinci hasn't even noticed. There's a dull throb of guilt in his chest.

He's been busy, Zhao Xinci tells himself. He's always busy.

I won't harm them, Zhang Shi's voice whispers quietly in Zhao Xinci's head. I would never. Zhao Xinci grits his teeth, and pushes the voice away.

"So, how is Yunlan doing?" he asks, trying not to sound as awkward as he feels. He's asking his wife about their son, that's not supposed to feel awkward.

Shen Xi looks at him for a moment, and then, finally smiles a bit. Zhao Xinci almost sighs in relief. He's missed her smile, he realises. When did he last see it?

"He's doing better. I think Shen Wei has been a lot of help."

Zhao Xinci looks up from his book at the fully grown man who has just followed his son inside. He quickly looks at Shen Xi, who is smiling at both of them, going over to greet them. So, this is definitely expected, he realises.

Did you know about this? Zhao Xinci asks inside his head, surprised and disgruntled enough to ignore his own rule about Zhang Shi staying under wraps while he's at home.

He feels the presence stir inside him, almost like it might have been asleep or something. At the same moment the stranger—who must be Shen Wei—looks away from Shen Xi and straight at Zhao Xinci. For a second he feels like Shen Wei is looking straight into Zhao Xinci's head at Zhang Shi. Like he can see the thing lurking behind Zhao Xinci's eyes. It's only a coincidence of timing, Zhao Xinci tells himself, and Shen Wei is already looking away, down at Yunlan standing at Shen Wei's side.

Oh, that's Shen Wei? Zhang Shi asks, sounding about as surprised as Zhao Xinci is feeling. And well, at least someone is as uncomfortable with this as him. It's good to at least know that Zhao Xinci hasn't just failed to entirely pay attention, if Zhang Shi didn't know either then surely no one has mentioned the fact that Yunlan's new friend is a grown man! It explains some things Shen Xi said, Zhang Shi points out, much to Zhao Xinci's annoyance.

He shoves at Zhang Shi, though not very effectively. Or then, this time, Zhang Shi just doesn't feel like going anywhere. Zhao Xinci grits his teeth and ignores the voice in his head as he gets up and walks over to meet this man who is apparently a friend of his son's.

He scowls at Shen Wei, who doesn't seem to be paying any attention to Zhao Xinci at the moment, instead listening to something Yunlan is saying with a serious look on his face. Zhao Xinci has been too busy with his own conversation to pay attention to what they're saying.

Before Zhao Xinci can say anything, Yunlan looks up at him and says, "I didn't think you'd be home, dad." Maybe it's the earlier guilt talking, but Zhao Xinci suddenly thinks that what Yunlan had wanted to say is, I wish you weren't home.

"I came home early today," Zhao Xinci says a bit gruffly. Maybe he should be spending more time at home. He should at least know what's been going on in his own home.

The look Yunlan gives him is filled with—Zhao Xinci almost wants to call it suspicion, but that would be ridiculous. Then Yunlan smiles, shutters falling down to hide whatever he's actually feeling. The transition seems too sudden to actually be real. "Well, you finally get to meet Shen Wei then," his son says.

Zhao Xinci feels disturbed suddenly by his own son. This isn't how he remembers Yunlan. He casts a sideways glance at Shen Xi, but nothing about her is telling him that she's seeing anything out of the ordinary. "Yes, it's past time I should," Zhao Xinci agrees. He looks at Shen Wei. "I'm Zhao Xinci, Zhao Yunlan's father."

Shen Wei meets his eyes for a heartbeat in a serious look. For a second Zhao Xinci thinks he sees something in Shen Wei's eyes that— But then Shen Wei bows his head, smiling slightly, and whatever Zhao Xinci thought he might have seen is gone. "Shen Wei," he says. "It's an honour to meet you, sir," he adds ever so politely.

Zhao Xinci frowns, and for some reason, Zhang Shi squirms uncomfortably inside him and that doesn't exactly make Zhao Xinci feel any better about the situation. He wants to demand an explanation from Zhang Shi, but this isn't the time. He hears Shen Xi clear her throat meaningfully and realises he's been staring, probably rather menacingly, at the young man in front of him. Shen Wei is still keeping his eyes downcast.

"Well, yes," Zhao Xinci says and clears his throat. "It's good to see who my son is spending time with."

Yunlan snorts, and Zhao Xinci looks down at him instead. Yunlan smiles at him, sharp and almost angry. It's not a look that he's used to seeing from his son, who is usually far more shy and less likely to even meet Zhao Xinci's eyes for any great length of time. "I didn't think you'd care," Zhao Yunlan says, with fake cheer.

"Yunlan," Shen Xi admonishes in a low hiss. Zhao Xinci is feeling entirely too surprised to actually say anything. Yunlan doesn't talk back to him. Maybe this is what some colleagues had been warning him about, telling him all about the issues with teenage children.

He's not a teenager yet, Zhang Shi whispers in his mind. Zhao Xinci would tell him to shut up, but Zhang Shi seems to be feeling even more disturbed than Zhao Xinci, and maybe, just this once Zhao Xinci should just let him be.

Yunlan glances at Shen Xi, while Shen Wei looks somewhat uncomfortable to be trapped in this situation that's clearly family business. Yunlan lowers his head, the smile that looks so very unlike him vanishing. "I'm sorry," he says and if Zhao Xinci is any judge the regret sounds sincere enough. "What I meant to say is that father is busy with his work and meeting my friends is not as important," Yunlan says without looking up. Zhao Xinci thinks he should congratulate his son for managing to make that sound sincere, but he's hardly going to believe it just like that. Not after Yunlan's earlier words. When has his son managed to learn deception quite that well?

Shen Wei's hand settles on Yunlan's shoulder, and Zhao Xinci feels a flare of irritation at that. Who does this stranger think he is?

Better acquainted with your son than you, Zhang Shi says petulantly, and Zhao Xinci has had enough. He shoves angrily at the Dixingren stuck in his head, and maybe he can't force Zhang Shi to withdraw completely, at least not without showing any outward signs of distress, but he sure as hell lets Zhang Shi know what he wants him to do.

"Of course meeting your friends is important to your father," Shen Xi says in a mildly admonishing manner while looking at Zhao Xinci. He's almost certain that those words are not just meant for Yunlan.

"I should leave," Shen Wei says into the ensuing silence. Zhao Xinci supposes that it's not surprising that he wants to get away from this whole situation, and he had probably just been there to drop Yunlan off anyway.

"You don't want to stay for tea?" Shen Xi asks, and Zhao Xinci is pretty sure she's actually disappointed.

"No, thank you," Shen Wei says politely, offering Shen Xi a small smile. "I still need to study."

"Oh, of course," Shen Xi answers with a smile of her own.

Zhao Xinci feels very much left out of this conversation, and faintly perturbed by the fact that Shen Xi very clearly likes this man. Well, she would have to to let Yunlan go out with him alone, but still— She could smile a bit less fondly at Shen Wei.

Shen Wei squeezes Yunlan's shoulder. "I'll see you tomorrow, Zhao Yunlan," he says rather solemnly like it's a promise far weightier than it has any reason to be.

Yunlan nods at him, his hand lifting to momentarily cover Shen Wei's over his shoulder. And then moving his hand to tug once at Shen Wei's long braid. Zhao Xinci has to force himself not to show any outward reaction. Yunlan doesn't say anything at all, and from where he's standing Zhao Xinci can't see whatever look is on his son's face when he looks up at Shen Wei.

And then Shen Wei is leaving and Zhao Xinci is left alone with his family. There's an odd feeling of relief in his head. Right, alone with his family and the voice in his head. He needs to talk to Zhang Shi about whatever this was tonight, but not with his family right there.

"So, how often do you see this Shen Wei?" Zhao Xinci asks his son, with a stern look on his face. Shen Xi makes a small disapproving noise but doesn't actually interfere.

Yunlan looks up at him, and there's a hint of defiance in his eyes when he says, "As often as Shen Wei is free."

They stare at each other for a moment, before Yunlan looks away. Zhao Xinci feels vaguely unbalanced by everything tonight, and he's not even sure what he's supposed to say to his son.

"Did Shen Wei feed you, Yunlan?" Shen Xi asks before Zhao Xinci can say anything more.

Yunlan looks at his mother with a small laugh. "Of course, mom. It's Shen Wei," he answers like Shen Xi will definitely share in whatever knowledge this is about the man. Shen Xi nods, with a small laugh of her own. "Oh, mom. There was something from school I should show you..." Yunlan says as he walks toward his room.

"What is it?" Shen Xi asks as she follows after him. Neither of them spares a glance for Zhao Xinci.

Maybe he really should be spending more time with his family.

Being left alone gives Zhao Xinci some time to try to find out what the hell is wrong with Zhang Shi. He hesitates a moment before he pulls on a jacket and steps outside. It makes him feel marginally better not to actually be inside the house while planning to talk to the Dixingren.

He walks over into the shadow of a tree, before he asks, "What the fuck was all of that?" Zhao Xinci doesn't even try to not talk out loud this time. He really isn't in the mood.

Zhang Shi rushes forward like he's been waiting to be given permission. Suddenly Zhao Xinci's limbs aren't quite under his own control anymore, as he takes a few steps before turning back again, pacing restlessly beneath the tree. This wasn't what Zhao Xinci had in mind, but instead of pushing back, he lets Zhang Shi do what he wants. Zhao Xinci isn't exactly feeling any less restless and the movement—well, it helps a bit at least.

I don't know, Zhang Shi's voice echoes in his head. At least he hasn't taken over Zhao Xinci's speech, that usually feels even more unnerving than moving around without quite deciding to. Shen Wei makes me… nervous, Zhang Shi hesitates over the last word, and Zhao Xinci can tell he's not quite sure if that's the right word to use.

Zhao Xinci stops in his tracks, the sudden rush of anger and—something that isn't quite surprise overriding Zhang Shi's control. "He's from Dixing," Zhao Xinci states, his voice going stiff and cold. He knew there was something wrong with Shen Wei, what grown man would befriend a kid just like that?

Zhang Shi squirms uncomfortably. I don't know, he admits. Zhang Shi is feeling embarrassed enough that Zhao Xinci can feel it, a faint echo of a feeling inside him that doesn't belong to him.

"But he's not Haixingren," Zhao Xinci demands.

I don't know, Zhang Shi says again, a bit more firmly this time. Are you that eager for him to be something you can get rid of? Zhang Shi asks a few moments later. He's almost angry, but he usually is when they're talking about Dixingren.

"I'm not—" Zhao Xinci starts to say, but then cuts himself off. He doesn't owe Zhang Shi any explanations. Zhao Xinci just wants to keep his family safe, that's all. "Is there anything you can tell me, other than that he makes you nervous for some reason?" Zhao Xinci asks instead.

No, Zhang Shi answers shortly before retreating to a faint presence in the back of Zhao Xinci's mind, like some kind of petulant child. Zhao Xinci sighs in frustration.

Shen Xi doesn't mind answering questions about Shen Wei. If it wasn't already, it becomes very clear that Shen Xi quite likes this new friend of Yunlan's. When Zhao Xinci tells her she shouldn't let Yunlan see Shen Wei anymore Shen Xi is anything but amused.

She glares at him and then says with a sort of steely calmness Zhao Xinci can't help but admire, "Do you really think I'd let Yunlan out with just anyone? You've made it very clear, husband, that there's reason to be suspicious of everyone."

"I know you wouldn't," Zhao Xinci hastens to assure her. He doesn't want this to turn into another argument. "But from what you've told me so far..." Zhao Xinci makes a small gesture with one hand. "You don't really know that much about him." Well, she knew quite a lot about some things apparently, but nothing at all about where he comes from.

Shen Xi looks angrily at him. "I've seen Shen Wei with our son," she says, not relenting in the least. "If you were home more, you would have too." This time the accusation is written loud and clear on her face, and Zhao Xinci cringes. She's not—wrong.

Zhao Xinci takes a breath and lets it out in a deep sigh. He doesn't want to argue, he reminds himself. "What do you mean?" he asks.

Shen Xi looks away for a moment. "Xinci," she says with a sigh like she too might have reminded herself not to start any arguments. "Shen Wei adores our son, if he's faking any of that he's the best actor you could ever imagine. And if you tell Yunlan that he can't see him—" She hesitates for a moment, looking at him like she's pleading with him to understand. "I worry about Yunlan," she says quietly in the end.

Maybe it's the way she's looking at him, maybe it's his own worry for their son, Zhao Xinci isn't quite sure, but he ends up nodding at her. "I will look into his background," Zhao Xinci tells her sternly.

Shen Xi nods like she didn't expect anything less. Then she smiles at him and Zhao Xinci's heart flutters erratically in his chest. He really has missed her.

What Zhao Xinci doesn't expect is for the Black Cloaked Envoy to come see him the very next day. He simply strides into Zhao Xinci's office like he owns the place. The same way he always walks everywhere. He looks at Zhao Xinci, jaw firmly set the way it always is, the mask hiding everything else.

"Lord Envoy," Zhao Xinci says in a questioning tone, rising up from his chair, but leaving the desk between them. Zhang Shi has squeezed himself into the back of Zhao Xinci's mind, neither of them is eager for the Envoy to notice him there. "Is there something you need?"

The Envoy isn't all that fond of Zhao Xinci or the SID, and it's very unlikely that he'd be here if there wasn't a good reason. Zhao Xinci very much doesn't like the fact that while he himself isn't under the Black Cloaked Envoy's authority, the cases the SID handles are, and in those instances the Black Cloaked Envoy's word is law. Quite literally.

If the Ministry is happy enough to renegotiate some parts of the Treaty, they damned well could have made sure to do something about that. But apparently, that wasn't a priority, and the Ministry is happy enough to leave Dixingren under Dixing authority, even when they're in Haixing.

"No. There's something you need to know," the Envoy intones.

Zhao Xinci frowns. That's not what he was expecting. There's a moment of uncomfortable silence, and Zhao Xinci wonders if he's supposed to ask.

"Shen Wei will never harm your son," the Envoy says gravely. Zhao Xinci gasps, feeling a bit like he's been slapped in the face.

"You know him?" Zhao Xinci demands, forgetting entirely about being polite to the Envoy. "He's one of you!" It comes out sounding like an accusation.

The Envoy inclines his head slightly. "He is. He will keep your son safe."

Zhao Xinci feels anger roiling inside him. He clenches his fists and tries to control himself. But this is his family and he sure as hell doesn't like the Envoy going behind his back to—to what, exactly?

"Is there a reason why you'd send someone to protect my son?" Zhao Xinci asks between clenched jaws.

"Yes. But there's no current threat for you to worry about," the Envoy tells him, still in that same tone he always uses, like none of this matters any more than—than all of the other cases Zhao Xinci has worked.

Zhao Xinci squeezes his fists tighter, his nails digging into his palms. More demands for answers are on his tongue, but he swallows them reluctantly. He knows very well that demanding things from the Envoy will lead nowhere.

He glares at the Envoy. He's not going to thank him for this. He's not.

"One other thing, before I leave, Chief Zhao," the Envoy says, entirely unaffected. "The being inside you. The two of you need to—reconcile your differences. The constant struggle is damaging to your health. I wouldn't wish for your family to be left without a husband and a father."

Zhao Xinci stares at the Envoy, anger and shock warring inside him. He almost tells the Envoy to mind his own business. The Envoy looks at him for a moment, like he's expecting Zhao Xinci to say something. Then when nothing is forthcoming, he simply nods and takes his leave.

Zhao Xinci leans forward, planting his palms against his desk. He feels shaky all of a sudden. "What the hell?" he asks quietly, not quite sure who the question is for.

I… don't know, Zhang Shi whispers, sounding as shaky as Zhao Xinci feels.

Well, what use are you then? Zhao Xinci thinks and isn't quite sure if Zhang Shi hears him or not.