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Reality Made Me Do It

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Each time Zhao Xinci meets the Black Cloaked Envoy, Zhang Shi hides as deep inside Zhao Xinci as he can, huddles down and pretends very hard that he isn't there at all. Usually, even when he's staying out of the way, Zhang Shi is still watching everything Zhao Xinci does, listening to the people he talks to. But with the Black Cloaked Envoy it's different.

Every time, Zhang Shi misses a lot of what the Envoy says to Zhao Xinci. He catches some of it, and knows it usually leaves Zhao Xinci in a bad mood, but Zhang Shi just doesn't dare take the risk of paying too much attention. He knows even the Black Cloaked Envoy has limits, and Zhang Shi is hoping very much that as long as he doesn't give any reason for the Envoy to pay attention then he can keep escaping the Envoy's notice.

Zhao Xinci has never asked Zhang Shi why he's so afraid of the Black Cloaked Envoy. Zhao Xinci has his own reasons for not wanting the Envoy to find out about Zhang Shi. Neither of them has pried too deeply into the other's motivation, content with the fact that at least this one goal they share.

Zhang Shi's reasons are really very simple. It's the same reason he's inside Zhao Xinci. He tries to tell himself that Zhao Xinci only has himself to blame for being so quick to pull the trigger. Zhang Shi hates him for that, for how easily he resorts to deadly force, instead of even trying to do anything else, when there are Dixingren involved. And at the same time, he's been inside Zhao Xinci long enough now to know that it isn't really that easy, that Zhao Xinci sees some of those faces in his dreams over and over.

But no matter, Zhang Shi's host had died and Zhao Xinci had been his only option. Or at least that's what Zhang Shi tells himself. That's what he told Zhao Xinci too, back then. That he didn't have a choice. But that's not entirely true, is it? The truth is that Zhang Shi is a coward. The truth is that after so many years, Zhang Shi is afraid to die.

And that's why he hides from the Black Cloaked Envoy. That's why he's terrified of the Black Cloaked Envoy. What Zhang Shi has done— Invading Zhao Xinci without consent, for that alone, the Envoy is well within his rights to execute Zhang Shi. There's no defence for what Zhang Shi has done.

Zhang Shi doesn't know the Envoy, had never met him until he's in Zhao Xinci. But if he is the same Black Cloaked Envoy that Ma Gui had talked about back then—and who else would dare to make that claim—then mercy and understanding is not things the Envoy was known for. Oh, there were a lot of good things Zhang Shi had heard of the Envoy, about his bravery and sense of justice, and that's the problem, isn't it? Letting Zhang Shi get away is certainly not justice.

Now, the Black Cloaked Envoy has made it clear that he knows about Zhang Shi. Zhao Xinci's shock had been enough to penetrate even into the dark recesses of his mind where Zhang Shi was hiding at the time. Ever since then Zhang Shi has been huddled into a tiny ball inside Zhao Xinci, trying to keep out of the way. The Black Cloaked Envoy knows about him, and if he hadn't also made it clear that he doesn't want Zhao Xinci to die, Zhang Shi would expect him to show up to rip Zhang Shi out of Zhao Xinci at any moment and scatter his essence to the winds. But that would very likely kill Zhao Xinci as well.

Zhao Xinci should be happy about how quiet Zhang Shi has been for the last few weeks. It's what he always wants, for Zhang Shi to shut up and pretend he isn't there. But Zhao Xinci isn't happy, Zhang Shi can tell that much even hiding as he's been. And to be fair, with what the Black Cloaked Envoy had said, maybe Zhao Xinci is justified in his bad mood.

The Black Cloaked Envoy isn't wrong either. About what he said about Zhang Shi and Zhao Xinci that is. The struggle between them is putting strain on Zhao Xinci's body. Zhang Shi had tried to tell him—but Zhao Xinci has always ever listened to the things he wants to hear. Maybe he'll listen to the Black Cloaked Envoy, maybe something good will come of this, but Zhang Shi isn't going to get his hopes up.

Zhang Shi is a bit too wrapped up in himself to really pay much attention to what's going on around him, but he does notice when Shen Xi shows up in the middle of their workday. Zhang Shi has always liked Shen Xi, far more than he likes Zhao Xinci really, and of course, he's going to notice her. He'll always notice her. There's no Yunlan with her this time, of course not, Yunlan would be at school at this time. Zhao Xinci is talking to a few of his colleagues—Zhang Shi hasn't been paying attention to what they're talking about—when everyone goes quiet and he's suddenly looking at Shen Xi.

The surprised, "A-Xi," slips out inadvertently. And it takes a moment before Zhang Shi realises that that was him, not Zhao Xinci. He hadn't meant to push himself forward. He really isn't paying attention these days if he'll do that by accident. Quickly, he pulls back, before Zhao Xinci even has time to react.

Zhang Shi wants to apologise, but it's probably better to just stay quiet.

"Husband," Shen Xi says in a distinctly cool voice, nodding slightly at him. "You haven't been home lately, and there's something we need to talk about," she announces very calmly and then just waits.

Zhang Shi has retreated a bit too far to be able to tell what exactly Zhao Xinci is feeling, but he's bound not to be happy about Shen Xi showing up at the SID like this. Zhang Shi understands why she would, they're never home. Zhang Shi had thought for a moment that that might change, but then after the Black Cloaked Envoy's revelations, they'd been home even less than usual. But Zhang Shi hasn't been paying enough attention to know why that is.

Zhao Xinci looks at his colleagues and even Zhang Shi can feel the sigh trapped in their throat. "We'll finish this later," Zhao Xinci tells them. And then wordlessly leads Shen Xi to Zhao Xinci's office. No, Zhang Shi is pretty sure Zhao Xinci is not in a good mood at all, even if he can't actually feel much of it.

Zhao Xinci closes the door after them and then, despite the fact that Shen Xi had specifically come here to talk, they all just stand there quietly looking at each other. Zhang Shi can't tell what that look on Shen Xi's face is as she looks intently at them. It's like she's expecting something.

"Why are you here, A-Xi?" Zhao Xinci asks eventually. It's not angry, Zhang Shi realises. Carefully, Zhang Shi dares to rise a bit closer to the surface and to his surprise he realises Zhao Xinci seems more tired than anything else. A small sliver of guilt lodges somewhere in Zhang Shi's mind, as he wonders if he's somehow made that worse. Has Zhang Shi's panic over the last few weeks managed to seep into Zhao Xinci's mind too?

Shen Xi smiles at them, but the expression seems brittle. "You're never home, Xinci. So, I realised if I want to talk to you, and want you to pay attention, I should come here." Zhang Shi wants to surge forward, to stop Zhao Xinci from saying anything—stupid. Shen Xi's words sound fragile and hurt. And yet they still feel like an accusation, even when that's not how she says them.

Suddenly, Zhang Shi isn't even sure if that's his or Zhao Xinci's feeling. It hurts anyway. It's Zhang Shi's fault that Zhao Xinci is absent, but that's still Zhao Xinci's own choice and Zhang Shi can't— He doesn't want to hurt Shen Xi.

Zhang Shi manages to keep himself back, he has no right to get involved in this. Zhao Xinci must have seen the hurt on Shen Xi's face too because he just sighs, and then says tiredly, "Then what's so important that you had to come here?"

Shen Xi draws herself up, determination settling on her face. "Our marriage," she says.

Zhang Shi can feel the cold in their chest, the shock that statement sends through Zhao Xinci. It echoes all the way into Zhang Shi. No, Zhang Shi thinks. She won't… She can't…

But can they really blame Shen Xi, if she's fed up with all of this? With a husband she barely sees? Who doesn't talk to her, or pay attention when she's talking to him. Is it really that much of a surprise?

Shut the fuck up! Zhao Xinci's mental voice suddenly yells out at him, anger barely covering the hurt beneath. Zhang Shi hadn't realised that Zhao Xinci could hear him. But maybe Zhao Xinci needed to hear all of that. Still, Zhang Shi tries to quiet his own thoughts, but he won't apologise for what Zhao Xinci heard already.

"You don't need to look at me like that, I'm not divorcing you. Not yet anyway," Shen Xi says with a huff. There's a rush of relief through their body that leaves them dizzy. She's not leaving. "But I think it's time I was introduced to the third person in my marriage, don't you?" Shen Xi asks, with a raised brow.

Zhao Xinci's jaw drops open. Zhang Shi is—he's— She knows, someone thinks, and Zhang Shi can't tell which of them it is. Zhang Shi takes advantage of the shock and confusion in Zhao Xinci's mind and pushes himself forward. Any moment now Zhao Xinci will think of some way to deny it, to act confused, to lie. Zhang Shi is sure of it.

Zhang Shi also thinks that lying to Shen Xi will mean losing her. And he doesn't want that. Zhao Xinci doesn't want that. Zhang Shi is doing this for everyone's benefit.

"A-Xi," he says, and can't quite help the way their lips curl up in a small smile. "I'm sorry, I…" Zhang Shi falters, words failing him suddenly. He's thought about speaking to Shen Xi so many times, listened to her talk to Zhao Xinci and wished he could answer her. Now that the moment's here he doesn't know what to say at all. "I don't know what to say," he admits quietly.

He can feel Zhao Xinci pushing back. He's not happy about Zhang Shi taking over, not in the least. But for this moment at least, Zhang Shi is firmly in control. He knows it won't last for long though. Please, Zhao Xinci...

"You're not my husband," Shen Xi states. She sounds so very sure of that fact.

"No," he admits. "I'm… Zhang Shi," he breathes out his own name quietly. He almost can't believe he's actually saying it. When's the last time he's said that to anyone? And that fragile moment is enough for Zhang Shi's control to slip, and when he realises it he doesn't try to fight Zhao Xinci. They'll only hurt themselves like that, Zhang Shi reminds himself. But he wants to, wants to fight back to the surface, wants to talk to Shen Xi again.

Shen Xi makes a noise that's almost a laugh and then quickly covers her mouth with her hand. She stares at them for a while. Zhao Xinci doesn't say anything, maybe he's out of things to say too. "I think—I didn't quite believe it until just now," Shen Xi says, somewhat faintly, after a while. Then she nods.

"A-Xi, I'm not going to let him—" Zhao Xinci starts to say but gets abruptly cut off by Shen Xi.

"Zhao Xinci," she says, and this time she does sound angry. "You will listen. I'm not going to lose you too, not—" she cuts herself off suddenly and swallows. Zhang Shi doesn't know what she means. Who else would she have—? But she goes on before he has time to finish that thought. "We're going to try. The two of you will learn to get along because I will not sit by and watch you land in an early grave because of your own stubbornness!" Shen Xi takes an angry breath and looks like she's about to continue, but then she just breaths in again and seems to forcefully calm herself down.

Zhao Xinci still doesn't say anything, and Zhang Shi can't really blame him. Zhang Shi is at a loss for words too.

"I expect both of you home for dinner," Shen Xi says firmly. Zhang Shi thinks that they probably don't have a choice in the matter. And of course Zhang Shi will be there if Zhao Xinci is, but he's pretty sure that's not what she means.

She wants me to… She doesn't want me to hide? Zhang Shi's mental voice is a bewildered little whisper. He doesn't think Zhao Xinci will answer him. He can almost hear the thoughts going round in circles in Zhao Xinci's head. I can explain. It's not what you think. I…

None of those are what Zhao Xinci should say. "I… I'll be there," Zhao Xinci says. Zhang Shi feels ridiculously relieved.

Shen Xi hesitates for a moment and then takes a step closer to them, she reaches out to take their hand. She just holds their hand lightly for a moment, looking at them and doesn't say anything. Zhao Xinci looks back at her, just as wordlessly. And then she lets go and walks out of Zhao Xinci's office.

Zhao Xinci turns to watch her go. She's amazing, Zhang Shi finds himself whispering inside their mind.

"I know," Zhao Xinci says.

Well, they can agree on something at least. Maybe that's a step in the right direction. Now they just need to figure out how Shen Xi found out and—probably talk to her about Yunlan and what the Black Cloaked Envoy had said. They should have done that weeks ago.