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The Red Dress

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu paid the cover charge and headed into the nightclub. He took a table near the side wall, ordered a bottle of wine, and settled in as inconspicuously as possible

Looking around, Ghost Valley appeared to be quite luxurious. The decor tended heavily to red, with candles everywhere. The servers were strikingly dressed in drapes of half red and half white.

He decided to spend some time watching the floor show before looking for the man he had come here to find. He didn’t want to do anything to make people suspicious, so he needed to look as if he was enjoying himself.

As he looked at the small stage, though, his attention was captured immediately. The person on stage was wearing a slinky long red dress, accessorised with high red heels. The performer was over six feet tall even without the heels, and was broad shouldered with a slim waist. The dress was tailored to a traditionally male form with no attempt to create cleavage or suggest feminine curves. Long hair was partly tied back and fixed with a pin, with the remainder left to drape freely.

Zhou Zishu’s work brain stumbled and staggered on, tagging observations such as ‘gender markers ambiguous - use “they” for now’, and ‘don’t let the dress make you forget about the muscles’.

The rest of Zhou Zishu was simply captivated, particularly when the performer draped themself over the piano and a slit in the dress revealed a stunning length of leg. The baritone voice was pleasingly sultry, and the performance relied on teasing the audience and flirting with a white fan, concealing and revealing their facial expressions. The brazen confidence was arresting, as was the stunning combination of a strongly muscled chest in feminine clothing. Zhou Zishu had never seen anyone quite like this before and wanted to see more.

He tore his gaze away in an attempt to resume his casual observation of the whole club. He succeeded well enough that the tap of a fan on his shoulder came as a surprise.

The performer slid into the closest chair, and gazed at him over the fan. This close, Zhou Zishu could see that they were wearing red eyeliner, which added to the spectacular effect.

“Well hello, handsome,” they purred. The speaking voice was just as enticing as the singing voice, and still in a baritone register.

Zhou Zishu pulled himself together and reminded himself that he was working tonight. It didn’t help much.

“Hello,” he managed, and cursed himself for his banality.

“I haven’t seen you in the club before,” the performer went on, “and I know I couldn’t forget a beauty such as yourself.”

Zhou Zishu felt sceptical - he scrubbed up well, he knew, but in his nondescript clothing, fake tan, makeup and stubble for undercover work he was hardly at his best. Nothing to compare to the vision he was looking at now.

“What brings you here?” his companion added.

“Oh, just looking for a way to relax,” said Zhou Zishu, “and I’d heard good things about the entertainment here.”

“Oooh, I am flattered!” said the performer, “We must be at our best tonight to ensure you come back again and again. I would hate to lose you now that I’ve found you.”

“I’m nothing special,” said Zhou Zishu. He was aware that attracting attention was not in his brief tonight, but was nevertheless struggling with a growing desire to keep the performer with him as long as possible.

"And what should I call you, Mr Nothing Special?" asked his companion, smirking over the fan.

"Zhou Xu," said Zhou Zishu, managing to recall his alias in the nick of time.

"A-Xu! Here, a bottle of champagne for my new friend A-Xu!" exclaimed the performer loudly, gesturing extravagantly at the nearest server.

Zhou Zishu winced inwardly at how quickly his plan to remain inconspicuous was going off the rails, and at the likely cost of champagne in a club like this. But if he couldn’t stay unnoticed, at least he now had a contact on the inside.

He ignored the part of his brain telling him he was making excuses to focus on this stunning creature, and leaned forward instead. “How long have you worked here?” he asked.

“Such personal questions!” exclaimed his companion, flirting with the fan with transparently faked coyness, “don’t you know you should never ask a performer their age?”

Zhou Zishu realised that this was a challenge, and he was being invited to play. He determined that he was going to measure up. “I apologise for my forwardness. But surely someone as lovely as you couldn’t be worried about such things?”

“You’ll make me blush!” said the performer, hiding their blatant lack of blush behind the fan. This had the effect of calling further attention to the fine flirtatious eyes and the sharp red eyeliner. “What are you doing complimenting me when you yourself are a peerless beauty?”

A manicured hand reached out to brush Zhou Zishu’s cheek, and he managed to catch the wrist in the nick of time, conscious of his disguise.

“So forceful! So quick!” sighed his companion, batting their eyelashes shamelessly. “I do like a man who takes charge.”

Zhou Zishu hid a grin, and remembered his mission. “I would hate to disappoint you.”

"Well I must drag myself away," said the performer, gathering the skirts of the beautiful dress in order to rise, "true art is unfortunately a jealous mistress. But please tell me I will see you again?"

“I could not stay away,” said Zhou Zishu with entirely too much honesty.

Alone at his table, he thanked the server bringing his champagne, and settled in to enjoy the show once more. He suspected that the performer’s glances were directed at him more than chance would account for, and he was not strong enough to look away.

In a break in the performance, though, he remembered his mission enough to ask after the owner of the club, the man he was there to meet.

“Where could I find Wen Kexing?” he asked.

The server looked at him in surprise. “Wen Kexing?” she replied, “but you’ve met him already! He sat at your table to talk.”

Zhou Zishu staggered internally. To cover his surprise he asked to pay the bill for the champagne, which he expected to be a strain on his expenses budget.

"The master paid it!" exclaimed the server. Zhou Zishu stared blankly at her as he realised that his mission was farther off track than he had supposed.

Chapter Text

Almost a week later, Zhou Zishu sat in his office and fumbled at his desk drawer. Exhaustion dragged at him, and his head ached.

He pulled out the bottle of whisky he didn’t even try to keep properly hidden any more, and took a large gulp without bothering with a glass. It did nothing to stop his hands from shaking.

He slumped back in his chair and stared at the wall, reliving his recent meeting with Helian Yi. Could he have handled it differently?

Zhou Zishu had reported to the Minister for many years. His patronage had allowed him to build up the Window of Heaven to a major national power. Immunity from prosecution, political backing, huge budget increases and near-complete freedom to operate had all followed. In return, Zhou Zishu had delivered results.

He had delivered results at any cost, not keeping count of the innocents who died, the people who lost their loved ones, the broken promises and shattered lives.

For years he had believed it was the best choice, believing that Heilan Yi would be a good leader, one willing to make the right choices for the country. He had believed that he could support his leadership behind the scenes, finding and countering enemies from both within and without the borders. The Window of Heaven had been equally successful at taking down criminal gangs, foreign spies, organised crime and internal corruption. They had exposed and brought to justice anyone who threatened the nation.

But that was not all they had done. Sometimes there was not enough evidence for a prosecution, or not enough time, or national secrets to be preserved. At those times the Window of Heaven acted outside the law - killing, abducting, interrogating and blackmailing their targets.

Zhou Zishu swallowed more whisky before reciting their motto, “Shadows without traces. Entry without exit. Know everything. Be everywhere.”

He had believed it was his duty to take on this role. To take on the dirty jobs so that the Minister could keep his hands clean.

But lately he was losing faith. The Minister’s decisions no longer seemed so straightforward, and the targets the Window of Heaven was sent after started to seem less obviously guilty. The evidence for their roles was shaky, and in some cases had not seemed genuine.

Zhou Zishu had also lost too many good operatives, many of whom he had almost counted as friends.

Every agent knew they might die and accepted the risk, but the tradeoff was that they expected their superiors to spend their lives carefully. To throw away their lives thoughtlessly was a breach of their trust.

Qin Jiuxiao’s loss two months ago had been a heavy blow. He had been Zhou Zishu’s protege, trained by him, and the only person Zhou Zishu thought of as a true friend in the organisation. He had died on an unsuccessful mission, when promised backup didn’t arrive.

Zhou Zishu had been the one to carry the news to his partner, as was his duty as superior and friend. He had looked at her face and been quite unable to assure her that Qin Jiuxiao had died in a worthy cause.

Moreover, Helian Yi seemed uninterested. The loss of an operative who had sacrificed and fought for him was apparently not a matter of concern, except for shouting that his mission had failed.

Helian Yi had shown anger at the failure, but no compassion or regret.

Zhou Zishu found it harder and harder to believe that the Minister was making the right choices for the country. In their most recent meeting he had openly expressed doubt about their latest targets and had borne the full force of Helian Yi’s temper. The Minister was increasingly unstable, and his decisions increasingly questionable.

Zhou Zishu sighed and put away the whisky bottle. To distract himself, he thought instead about last week’s nightclub visit, and about Wen Kexing.

The investigation which had led him to the club was concerned with blackmail of senior politicians. Someone had compromising photographs and other evidence, and was using them to threaten Gao Chong and other senior members of the Five Lakes political party.

Normally, Zhou Zishu was far too senior to go on undercover missions himself. But the sensitivity of this matter meant he had been asked to handle it, and it had been good to be active in the field again.

The Entertainment District attracted many rumours of scandalous behaviour and was often the place where the most desperate people in society ended up.

Audiences went to the District to enjoy the entertainment and the sense of scandal, but returned to their beds happy to be safely home and leave that world behind.

The Ghost Valley club was one of the most successful businesses in the District. Zhou Zishu had been given the name of Wen Kexing as a possible informant and had approached the meeting with his normal protocols.

However, nothing about the meeting had gone as he expected. From the stunning beauty of the performer in the red dress, to the insistent and flamboyant flirtation, to the generosity of the free champagne, Zhou Zishu had been entirely thrown off course.

He was still struggling to recover his balance.

He had come away without any progress in uncovering the blackmail, and had been unable to come up with a way to explain his failure to his colleagues.

Zhou Zishu told himself that his day did not have to be a complete loss. He could go back to the club and try to make progress there.

Now that he knew what to expect, he would be able to deal with Wen Kexing and come away with some answers.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu resumed his disguise before going back to Ghost Valley club. He had resisted the temptation to dress up further and show himself off, reminding himself that this was a professional visit.

He was no stranger to using his appearance, his body, and any other tool at his disposal to ensure success. But this was not a seduction mission. He only needed to reestablish contact with Wen Kexing, and find out if the performer had any useful information.

Reiterating this to himself firmly, he paid the cover charge and stepped into the club again. He needed to remain professional and put his own wishes to one side.

He went to another side table and ordered a beer, and looked around to make mental notes of everyone he saw.

Of course Zishu was not looking for anyone in a red dress in particular, but if he had been the club would not have made it easy for him. Red was something of a theme. The servers were still in long drapes of half white and half red, and there were two other staff members in long red dresses. But neither was the performer he so keenly remembered.

One woman wore pure red with white blonde hair in a complicated updo. She stood close to a black haired woman in layers of gold embroidered red over white, who was listening attentively.

They weren’t overt about it, but Zishu saw that they were always watching the club floor and appeared to be discussing the clientele. Several times the servers went to them with questions and received direction, so Zishu mentally tagged them as part of the club management.

The club appeared well run, with few disturbances. The floor show today involved a trio of the red-and-white clad servers singing softly. Every table was full, with some clients stood at the bar or against the walls, but the atmosphere favoured intimate conversation.

However, Zishu saw that the two women he had noted before appeared to be worried about something. He stood to go to the bar, and arranged his steps so that he could pass close to them. He overheard snatches of their conversation.

From the blonde, “I have to leave for a few minutes to check something in the back. Will you be alright?”

Her companion answered, “Yes, Wen Kexing said he was banned.”

“Don’t worry, he takes this sort of thing very seriously. He won’t allow us to be threatened here.”

Zishu continued to the bar thinking this over. Apparently employees referred to Wen Kexing as male. And there was some sort of threat which worried the two women. Was this part of the blackmail Zishu was investigating, or something else altogether? And if Wen Kexing didn’t allow threats, how exactly did he usually stop them?

Having secured a glass of whisky he returned to his table, surprised to see that he had apparently been joined by someone in his absence. It was the performer from before, this time dressed in a slim fitting black suit. A tie was the only trace of red, and the makeup from before was absent. Zishu noted the breadth of shoulder and narrow waist again, and told himself it was for professional reasons.

“A-Xu! You are here again! I knew we were fated to meet! But I didn’t introduce myself before. I am Wen Kexing, the owner of this club.”

“Thank you for the champagne.”

“But of course! Anything for my A-Xu!”

Zishu refrained from rolling his eyes, and reminded himself that he was here to make the connection. If flirtation allowed him to achieve this, where was the harm? “Am I yours?”

“How can such a beauty be so cruel?”

“Forgive me, I am overwhelmed.”

“Forgiven, of course. What brings you back to our humble establishment? Dare I hope it was to see me?”

Zishu produced his best smile, “Indeed it was, although sadly I can’t stay as long as I would like.”

Wen Kexing pouted, but didn’t have time to answer before a disturbance started up.

Zishu, facing the door, was the first to see what was happening. A well dressed man with poorly chosen facial hair was attempting to get into the club, struggling with door staff. He was shouting at the dark haired manager.

“Qianqiao, I love you! Please let me in!”

The woman - Qianqiao - was not answering him, and appeared scared.

“Qianqiao! I’ve left my wife! I love you!” He managed to twist away from the door staff and run further into the club, and Qianqiao flinched backwards.

Zhou Zishu had seen enough, and intercepted him. Much experience with altercations made twisting the man’s arm up behind his back easy, and pushing him back towards the door was no harder. He returned the man to the door staff and assisted them in flinging him out. The man stumbled out and turned to shout, but realised he was in full sight of the queue. He straightened his suit and drew himself up. “You will hear from my lawyers!” he said, and turned away.

Wen Kexing had joined them in the door, looking angry, and answered “I look forward to it.”

Turning to Zhou Zishu he resumed his flirtatious mask, and continued, “So forceful! My dear A-Xu, I am impressed! Where did you learn those techniques?”

Zhou Zishu realised he should not have been displaying his professional skill set so clearly. “Oh, it was nothing. Just some things I picked up.”

Wen Kexing led him back to the table. When they sat the woman Qianqiao approached, still appearing shaken. “Thank you so much!”

Zishu resumed his persona and answered, “Anything to help such a lovely lady.”

Wen Kexing said, “He won’t get back in, Qianqiao, please go back to your work.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, and stepped away. She was joined by the woman with white blonde hair, who put an arm around her, and a number of the servers gathered to support the two.

Wen Kexing leaned in and said, “I do hope you won’t judge us by this incident. Please tell me you won’t be put off coming here?” He batted his eyelashes outrageously. “Is there anything I can do to bring you back?”

Zhou Zishu noted the manipulation but was not immune. He assured Wen Kexing he would not stay away.

Chapter Text

“But A-Xu, where did you learn to manhandle someone like that?”

Zhou Zishu remembered his cover story. “It was for work. I’m a private investigator and security guard.”

“You’re not investigating us, are you?” pouted Wen Kexing, batting his eyes outrageously.

Zishu decided to continue the flirtation for the sake of his mission, and ignored the small voice telling him he was not exactly sad to be doing so. “This is pleasure, not business,” he said, holding Kexing’s gaze.

“The pleasure is all ours, I assure you.”

“What’s the story with that creep? Jealous ex?”

“Yes, exactly. He won’t take no for an answer, and we’re trying to teach him better. Almost everyone learns eventually.” Kexing stared into nothing, looking unusually serious for a moment.

Zishu wondered what the story was here, but didn’t want to push too hard and raise suspicions. Instead, he finished his drink and stood to leave.

“Leaving so soon?” Kexing asked.

“Yes, unfortunately, I have work tomorrow.”

“Please, let me walk you out. Anything for our heroic rescuer.”

Kexing again wouldn’t let him pay, and led them to the door. He checked in with the door team as they passed, and confirmed they were on high alert. The staff reported no further disturbance, other than a car crash a few streets away earlier.

Zishu noted that the number of staff on the door had been increased, and thought to himself about the club’s attitude to security. For an entertainment venue, some things were apparently treated very seriously here.

They passed the queue waiting to get in - still going strong despite the late hour - and Zishu considered how far to take this tonight.

His cover story did have a secure flat where he could take visitors, and Kexing was extremely attractive. But this wasn’t a honey trap mission. He had slept with many people of all genders in the course of missions, and was accustomed to doing whatever was needed to get results.

But this wasn’t that. Zishu genuinely liked Kexing, and Kexing didn’t know who Zishu really was. And although he had met Kexing through a mission, and had to maintain his persona, Zishu himself was equal parts intrigued and baffled by the performer. He found himself reluctant to initiate anything when he was so confused between the personal and the professional.

Kexing seemed equally pensive, glancing at Zishu almost shyly. It seemed neither of them quite knew what to say.

Suddenly Zishu caught an unexpected movement at the other side of the street, and turned to investigate. He saw a teenager, staggering slightly and holding the wall, but apparently struggling to move as fast as possible. The kid had blood dripping down one side of their torso, and was limping heavily, but wasn’t showing any signs of stopping.

Zishu hurried across the road, noting absently that Kexing had followed at his heels. He approached the teenager carefully, with both hands out and clearly visible.

“Hey, are you okay?”

The kid flinched and staggered to a stop. “Please, don’t tell them you’ve seen me.”

Zishu glanced at Kexing, “Don’t worry, we won’t.”

“Shh, they’re coming,” the teenager hissed.

Kexing pointed out an alleyway, full of rubbish and empty boxes. “You can hide in there - we’ll send them away.”

The kid stumbled into the alley and out of the light, not a moment too soon.

Kexing winked at Zishu and pulled his tie loose to hang around his neck. He undid three buttons, untucked his shirt, and threw an arm over Zishu's shoulder, guiding them so that they nearly blocked the alley entrance. He began leaning heavily on him, and started to sing a pop song Zishu vaguely recognised. The singing was nowhere near as competent as in the club.

“With the TASTE of your lips…” Kexing staggered and nearly fell, holding himself up by his grip on Zishu’s shoulders. Zishu reflexively put an arm around his waist and tried to haul him up again, but Kexing was apparently committed to being dead weight.

Two men skidded round the corner and into view. They slowed as they saw Zishu and Kexing, and focused on Zishu as the one more apparently useful.

“Excuse me, have you seen anyone? We’re looking for a teenager, he might be hurt.”

Zishu realised what his role was here. He tried to shrug Kexing up higher, and said, “No, sorry, I haven’t seen anyone.”

Kexing pushed himself upright and stumbled a step towards the two men. He spun back to Zishu to address the next line of the song to him, “I'm aDDICted to you! Don't you KNOW that you're toxic?”

Zishu tried to catch Kexing again, and Kexing eluded him. He stepped further towards the two strangers with a tragic expression.

“Did you say that you’d lost a teenager? That’s so sad.”

“Yes sir, have you seen anyone?”

“Not at all. That’s so sad!”

“Yes sir. His parents are looking for him.”

Zishu recaptured Kexing’s waist and swung him away from the strangers. “Sorry about him. But I’m afraid we truly haven’t seen anyone.”

The strangers looked around but saw nothing, and hurried back the way they had come.

Kexing pivoted towards Zishu, and slung both arms around his neck. He continued singing badly, directly to Zishu’s face, “And I LOVE what you do. Don't you KNOW that you're toxic?”

He then collapsed in giggles, Zishu staggering slightly under his full weight. Zishu guided him to sit on a step.

“Hey kid? It’s safe now.”

The kid didn’t come out immediately, but Zishu heard some small movements.

Kexing, completely sober, said, “Yes, don’t worry. You can come out now, but stay in the mouth of the alleyway so that you’re less visible.”

The kid hobbled back into the light, staying within the alley as instructed. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

“Are you okay?” asked Zishu. “You look like you need a doctor.”

The teenager flinched back. “No! No doctors!”

“OK kid,” said Kexing. “No doctors.”

Zishu knew the kid was trying to stay away from public records, and thought what else he could do to help.

“I have a first aid kit in my flat, would that do?”

“Oh yes, thank you!”

Zishu steered the teenager towards the main road, holding him up from one side. Kexing supported him from the other side, their hands brushing behind the kid’s back.

Zishu left Kexing to support the kid entirely while he flagged a taxi. He noted with approval that Kexing was rearranging the kid’s clothes to hide the blood. This was impressively practical and sensible for a civilian in such unusual circumstances.

As the taxi pulled up, Zishu said goodbye to Kexing, assuming that he would now go back to his club.

Zishu helped the kid into the seat and followed him in, giving the driver the address associated with his cover story.

Before the driver could pull away, the opposite door opened and Kexing joined them in the back of the cab.

“But of course I’m coming, A-Xu! This is terribly exciting!”

Chapter Text

The taxi pulled up outside the secure building for the flat belonging to Zhou Zishu’s cover story, and he paid for himself, Wen Kexing, and the kid.

He winced inwardly, realising he had not thought this through. He now had to fake being at home in the flat, and maintain his cover, and meanwhile handle both of his guests and stop them getting suspicious. Also it was getting late, and the flat only had one bedroom.

He fished out his keys and let them into the flat. It was deliberately somewhat run down looking to fit with the cover identity, with worn furniture and faded walls.

Wen Kexing appeared fascinated but was distracted when the kid staggered and leaned on the back of a chair. He helped the kid sit down, knelt down in front of him, and started asking questions about the injuries. He didn’t seem to be receiving any answers.

Zhou Zishu went to fetch the first aid kit, which was kept in every safe house and regularly refreshed. He brought it out and gave it to Kexing, who immediately hunted through it for disinfectant and bandages.

Zhou Zishu saw the kid’s pale face and fixed expression, and summoned some of his professional skills for dealing with witnesses in shock. He said, “Hey kid, look at me?”

The teenager blinked and turned slightly towards him.

“Hello, I’m Zhou Xu and this is Wen Kexing. What’s your name?”

“I’m Chengling,” the kid said quietly, still staring blankly.

“It’s okay, you’re safe here now. Those men went the other way, and no-one followed the taxi.”

Wen Kexing added, “Where does it hurt? Would you mind if I looked at your wound?”

“I guess,” Chengling replied. “I think I’ve twisted my ankle.”

“And don’t forget the cut on your side!”

While Kexing busied himself looking over the injuries, Zishu continued speaking to distract him.

“Can you tell us anything about what happened? Were you in that car crash?”

At this, Chengling sat up and turned fully towards Zishu. “It wasn’t a crash! I mean it was, but it wasn’t an accident. My Dad…”

He stopped and started again. “My Dad… he said a car was following us, and he tried to get away. He said we were being targeted and had to run, and he was looking for a way to escape. But then this other car slammed into us out of a side street. Dad… he was… the car hit… I was on the other side so I was okay.

“I saw men getting out of the car that had been following us and the car that had hit us, and talking to each other, and I didn’t want them to find me, so I got out and I ran.”

Zishu awkwardly patted him on the shoulder.

“Well done kid,” said Kexing, “that doesn’t sound good at all.”

Zishu glanced at him and saw that Kexing seemed entirely serious for once, applying a pressure bandage to Chengling’s ankle.

“There, you’re all done. Just don’t get your side wet for a few days, and keep your ankle raised whenever you can. Is there anything to ice it with?” he asked Zishu.

Zishu blinked and went to look in the freezer compartment of the elderly fridge, where luckily he found some frozen chips. He found a tea towel to wrap them in and handed them to Kexing.

“20 minutes every two hours,” Kexing said to Chengling, who was visibly slumping in his seat. He appeared to be trying not to yawn.

“Hey kid,” said Zishu, “It’s getting late. You’d best stay here tonight. I’ll set the bed up for you.”

Kexing and Zishu helped Chengling hobble to the bedroom, where Kexing looked around with interest. They got Chengling settled and set him up with extra pillows supporting his foot.

They returned to the living room, and Zishu fetched some whisky and two glasses. They sat in the two armchairs opposite each other.

Kexing drank his whisky in one swallow and held the glass out for more. He said, “What are you going to do with him?”

“I don’t know,” said Zishu, “but I can’t send him back. There’s something badly wrong here.”

“Yes,” said Kexing. “Those men had guns, and that car chase raises a lot of questions.”

Zishu was surprised that Kexing had noticed the guns, as they had been holstered and covered with jackets, and only visible as a slight shadow in the men’s armpits. He himself had noted this automatically but he hadn’t expected as much from a civilian.

He was also very worried about the car crash, particularly as he thought he recognised the tactics. Still, there was time to decide what to do tomorrow.

He threw back his own whisky and sighed.

“So A-Xu, here I am in your house, and you’re plying me with alcohol,” said Kexing, batting his eyelashes outrageously.

Zishu glared half heartedly, “Don’t get used to it.”

“So cruel. So heartless.”

“So tired.”

“And there’s only one bed!”

“But as you know, neither of us can sleep in it. Resign yourself to disappointment.”

Kexing stretched out his long legs. He had taken off his suit jacket at some point, but still had the loose tie and unbuttoned shirt from his impromptu performance earlier.

Xishu caught himself staring. Kexing in a dress had been devastating, but Kexing in a suit was no better. He shook himself, and tried to focus. Could anything be salvaged from his mission to learn more about Ghost Valley and its owner?

“So, Wen Kexing.”

“So, A-Xu. We’re going through such a lot together, I feel this could be the start of something special.”

“Tell me about yourself.”

“A fascinating subject. I am modest, gentle, sophisticated, even-tempered, and successful.”

“I heard your employees use male pronouns for you, is that right?”

“Yes, he & him.”

“Cool. So can I ask about the dress?”

“Of course, A-Xu can ask me anything,” Wen Kexing replied dreamily.

“The dress?”

“There’s no mystery there. I just like wearing dresses sometimes. They’re so comfortable, and I look amazing.”

Zishu could not disagree.

“And anyway, sod anyone who has a problem with it. I don’t see why just because I’m a man I can’t wear dresses. Who came up with that rule anyway?

“And I love seeing people lose their shit over it. I figure if they’re so easily shocked it’ll do them good to expand their horizons.

“And it’s great for the club. People come because they’re looking for thrills, so we give them thrills. They come to see us, they get a shock, they get to feel daring for the night, they see beautiful people displayed for them, and they tell each other how titillating it is. They go back to their boring little conventional lives feeling that they’ve had an adventure, and they recommend the club to their friends. Sometimes they make me sick with their complacency and their limited horizons and the way they judge anyone who looks different.

“But I do enjoy spending their money.”

“Beautiful people?” Zhou Zishu asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Don’t you think I’m pretty?” Wen Kexing said, stroking a hand down his own chest, “I saw the way you looked at me in that dress, and I see the way you’re looking at me now.”

“You are gorgeous, but you know that.”

“A-Xu, you’ll make me blush,” said Wen Kexing, blatantly not blushing. “And you, my mysterious beauty, are more intriguing by the minute. Why exactly does a PI and security guard have such a professional first aid kit?”

“It’s a violent job.”

“Okay, let’s pretend I believe you.”

Zishu decided that this was a fight he couldn’t win. “Whatever. You can stay here if you want, but there’s only the armchairs to sleep in. Or go, I don’t care.

“Don’t worry, my A-Xu, I won’t abandon you and our Chengling.”

Zishu rolled his eyes again and set himself to sleep sitting up.

Chapter Text

The two men slept the night in the armchairs. Zishu slept fitfully, and was woken up early by loud and sustained ringing of his intercom.

When he went to answer it, he didn’t even manage to say hello before he was berated by an irate young woman.

“Where is he? Let me in! I know you’ve got him in there!”

“Who?”

“Wen Kexing! I know he’s there, let me in immediately!”

At this point Wen Kexing padded up to stand behind Zishu, standing entirely too close. “It’s okay A-Xu, you can let her in.”

“But who is she, and how did she know to come here?”

“She’s my sister. I texted her the address and asked her to bring a few essentials.”

Zishu sighed and hit the door release button. “You really should have told me you’d invited someone over. Until we work out how to help Chengling, the fewer people who know where he is the better.”

“Relax. She’s my sister, she knows how to keep a secret.”

Zishu wondered how exactly those two points were connected but didn’t have time to ask before someone was pounding on the door.

He opened it and let in what turned out to be a very small whirlwind dressed in purple. She ignored him completely to throw herself at Wen Kexing and start prodding him in the chest while scolding him:

“Ge! Where were you? Why didn’t you say anything? We were worried sick! And you didn’t take any food or clothes or anything!

“Calm down, A-Xiang! It’s alright, and you can see I’m fine.”

“You’re not, you’re an idiot. I have no idea how you managed to look after yourself before I came along.”

Kexing took her by the shoulders and pulled her in for a hug. “Shh. Everything’s alright, see? Calm down, Chengling’s still asleep.”

“Who the hell is Chengling? And why do we suddenly care if he’s asleep?”

“Long story,” he turned her round to face Zhou Zishu. “A-Xiang, this is my good friend Zhou Xu. This is his flat.”

“Hmmph. Doesn’t look like much.” Zishu wasn't sure whether she meant him, or the flat, or both.

“Be polite! A-Xu, this little hellion is my baby sister Gu Xiang. Sorry about her.”

“Hello,” said Zishu faintly.

At this point they were interrupted by Chengling, who pulled open the bedroom door and staggered out towards them. He looked half awake, had several bruises and scrapes on his face, and was clearly hobbling.

Gu Xiang immediately changed tack and pushed him towards a chair.

“Idiot boy! Sit down right away! I suppose you must be this Chengling? Don’t you have sense enough to keep the weight off your leg?”

Chengling went where he was pushed, looking dazed.

Gu Xiang suddenly swung round to Zishu. “You! This is your flat! Brother texted me that you didn’t have any real food, I bet you didn’t feed them last night. Sit down and I’ll make breakfast for all you idiots.”

She started pulling a huge variety of foodstuffs from her bag and put them in the kitchen. She broke off berating Zishu to swing round to Kexing again. She pushed a bundle of clothes and toiletries into his arms and pushed him towards the bathroom. “Go! Wash and change!”

Chengling was given a similar bundle, and she helped him up and supported him in hopping towards the bedroom to change. Although Chengling was bigger than her, she was apparently very strong for her size.

She then turned her glare towards Zishu, and informed him that she assumed (despite the evidence) that he was capable of washing and dressing himself. Zishu turned obediently to wait his turn for the bathroom.

By the time he had freshened up and returned to the kitchen, he found a miraculous transformation.

Chengling was sat at the table, dressed in what looked like new clothes in exactly the right size, with a very dazed expression. Gu Xiang was in the middle of dishing up huge portions of food for him, bread and butter, scrambled eggs and fruit salad.

Wen Kexing was stood at the kitchen counter apparently making tea. He was dressed more informally than Zishu had seen him before, in tight fitting black jeans and a teal coloured sweater.

Zishu found this no less distracting than any of Kexing’s previous outfits, and was stuck in place. It took Gu Xiang’s unsubtle cough for him to realise that he had been staring.

“Sit down, you! Rude! Stop staring at my brother.”

“It’s okay, A-Xiang. A-Xu is welcome to stare at me whenever he wants.” Kexing put a cup of tea in front of Zishu and sat next to him. He put his chin in his hands and smiled dreamily at Zishu.

“Ugh,” said Gu Xiang with feeling. “Chengling! Ignore them and eat up.”

Chengling jumped, and started eating his eggs.

“So what’s the story here, ge? Who are these guys and why are we here?”

“A-Xu and I rescued him, it was very heroic. And we couldn’t just abandon him, could we?”

Zishu pulled himself together and decided it was time to take part in the conversation. He leaned forwards.

“Chengling, could you tell us anything more about what happened last night? Do you know why those guys would be after you and your Dad?”

Chengling looked at his plate and spoke quietly, “I don’t know, I’ve been trying to think. The only thing I can think of is that Dad’s a politician, he’s in the Five Lakes party.”

“Five Lakes?” started Gu Xiang loudly, before being shushed by Kexing.

“Go on, Chengling. Anything you can tell us might be useful.”

“That’s it, really. He’s a politician, sometimes he gets... “ Chengling choked, “I mean… he got… hate messages and blackmail, but he never told me much about it. He said I was too young to be burdened with that.”

“Do you know where we should take you to now?” Zishu asked. “Where would you like to go?”

“Dad’s closest friends were all the other guys from the political party,” said Chengling.

“Excellent,” said Kexing, “We’ll take you there then.”

“But!” said Gu Xiang.

“Shh,” said Kexing. “Why shouldn’t a successful local businessman such as myself drop in on them?”

“Where do you think they are now?” asked Zishu.

“I don’t know,” said Chengling, “but we can probably look on the news and find out.”

Zishu pulled out his phone and brought up the local news webpage. Indeed, the top headline was “Politician Zhang Yu Sen dead, and son missing.” It had a picture of the politician, and a picture of Chengling next to him.

Chengling choked and put his hands over his mouth.

Chapter Text

“Chengling, are you okay?” asked Zhou Zishu.

Chengling sniffed, and said, “I guess… I was hoping… Dad might still be alive.”

Zishu patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. “That’s rough, kid.”

Wen Kexing asked, “Are you okay if we keep looking at the news, or do you need a little time?”

“I’ll be okay,” said Chengling, “and anyway I want to know what’s going on.”

Gu Xiang put more breakfast in front of him, and prodded him to eat up.

Zishu turned back to the web page and clicked on the story. He decided to summarise it for Chengling rather than asking him to read it himself.

“Okay, the article says... Well, I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid it does say your father is dead.”

Chengling choked, and Kexing put an arm around his shoulders.

“It doesn’t say anything about a chase by multiple cars, it just says that your father was a prominent politician, sometimes the target of blackmail and death threats. Someone called Gao Chong has made a statement about getting threats himself?”

“Yes, he’s the head of the Five Lakes party,” said Chengling. “He and my Dad used to be close a long time back I think. But Dad didn’t spend much time with the rest of the party lately.

“I think he had an argument with the rest of them a few years back. He used to say that politics required spending time with people he wouldn’t have chosen himself.”

“Well that’s true enough,” said Zishu, remembering some of the people he’d worked with on Heilan Yi’s behalf.

Kexing said, “The Five Lakes party campaigns on family values. I would hate to think any of them had been so hypocritical as to leave themselves open to blackmail.”

Zishu looked sharply at him to see if this had been sarcastic, but Kexing’s expression was extremely bland and hard to read.

When he saw Zishu looking at him, his face immediately switched to mischief. “A-Xu! Surely you can’t be thinking that respectable politicians have secrets to hide? I’m scandalised.”

Chengling bit back a sob, and Kexing switched seamlessly to seriousness again.

“Sorry kid, I didn’t mean anything about your Dad.”

“It’s okay,” mumbled Chengling.

Zishu said, “This Gao Chong has made a statement, and there’s a clip on the website. Would you like me to play it?”

“Yes please,” said Chengling.

The clip showed Gao Chong on a podium, smartly dressed, and looking angry.

He said, “I am deeply saddened by the death of Zhang Yu Sen, who was my brother in politics for many years. He was a great man, committed to serving the people and making the city the best it could be. We worked together to crack down on crime and bring safety back to our streets.

“However, this tragic death shows that the cleanup hasn’t gone far enough. There are still criminals out there who feel that they can attack decent people. But rest assured, the Five Lakes party will protect us all. We will redouble our efforts to get rid of undesirable elements and make the streets safe for everybody. Our zero tolerance policies will put criminals behind bars where they belong.”

This speech was greeted with restrained applause from the others of his party gathered around him. Another man stepped up to the microphone, even more smartly dressed and appearing very sad.

[“Who’s that?” hissed Gu Xiang.

“Zhao Jing, another of the party leaders,” replied Chengling.]

He said, “And please, if anyone knows where our friend’s son Chengling is, we implore you to get in touch. Crime scene evidence shows that he was in the car, but he hasn’t been found.

“Chengling, if you can hear us, please come to us at the Party headquarters. We are worried about you, and we’ll look after you as your father would have wanted. But above all, we want to know that you’re safe.”

Gao Chong stepped back to the microphone and said, “Yes, Chengling, if you can hear this come to us. The Party needs you.”

“We’ll look after you as your father would have wanted,” added Zhao Jing.

Gao Chong added, “And to the criminals who did this, we are coming for you. You will not be safe anywhere. The Five Lakes party does not tolerate crime in our city, and we will bring you to justice.”

Zhou Zishu shut off the video and turned to Chengling.

“Well, Chengling, what would you like to do?”

Chengling shrugged. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I don’t know either of those men well. It’s been years since I’ve seen them.”

Zishu reflected to himself that his mission was probably unsalvageable at this point. He had made a connection with Wen Kexing as planned, but nothing like these circumstances had been anticipated in the mission plan. Instead of a chat with a potential informant he was now responsible for a bereaved teenager. And it looked more and more as if the blackmail he was investigating had something to do with the politician’s death. He needed to disentangle himself and restore his professional objectivity. Then he could work out what to do next.

“Can’t I stay with you?” asked Chengling. “You’ve saved me once already, and I don’t know those men from the Party.”

“I can take you to them, but then I’ll need to get back to work,” Zishu replied. He stifled his guilt. Chengling had powerful people looking out for him, he would be okay. And Zishu didn’t need the complications. Work was enough to worry about without taking on strays.

Gu Xiang sniffed angrily, “Wow!” she said.

Kexing soothed her, “I’m sure A-Xu has his reasons. But come on, Chengling, you don’t have to decide immediately. Finish your breakfast and think about it.”

Gu Xiang huffed and turned her back on Zishu. She fussed around Chengling, offering him more toast.

Zishu tried to stifle his guilt. He didn’t owe Chengling anything, and the kid would be fine. Wouldn’t he?

Chengling drooped in his seat, looking tiny and helpless. He didn’t seem to have an appetite.

Kexing stood behind his seat resting a hand on his shoulder. He raised an eyebrow at Zishu over the teenagers’ heads.

“Come on, A-Xu,” he said. “What harm can it do to give him more time?”

Zishu stared back.

“I’ll help,” said Kexing. “Please?”

“Oh hell,” said Zishu. “Okay, kid, you can stay here for one day. Then tomorrow we’ll take you back.”

Chapter Text

Chengling brightened and said, “Really? I mean, thank you. I mean, thank you sir.”

Gu Xiang huffed at him, “I suppose a day is better than nothing!”

“But we need to work out what’s going on,” said Zhou Zishu. “Do you think you could write down everything you remember about last night? And the men who chased you?”

“I guess,” said Chengling, “but how would that help?”

“A-Xu is a private investigator,” said Wen Kexing, looking sardonically at Zishu. “And I’m sure he’s a very good one.” He batted his eyelashes.

Zishu rolled his eyes. He knew that Kexing suspected more than he was letting on, but was grateful that he had not voiced his suspicions.

“A PI?” said Chengling. “And you can find out what happened?”

“No promises, kid,” said Zishu, “but we’ll see. Make sure you write down anything which might be relevant, about last night, and also from before, anything about the threats and blackmail your dad got. Anything he said about the party or his work, how he was behaving in the last few weeks.”

“OK sir, I’ll try.”

Gu Xiang said, “Come on, silly kid, finish your breakfast first! Drink your tea!”

Zishu sighed inwardly at the additional complication a further day and night looking after Chengling would represent. He still had to find a way to report in to work. And what should he even tell them?

Was the attack on Chengling’s family part of the blackmail plot he was investigating? If so it was his duty to use Chengling to help uncover the plot, whatever it took.

He had exploited many people in the course of his work, using them and their pain where it was convenient to his mission, and dropping them afterwards. Why should Chengling be different?

Was Chengling’s situation irrelevant to the investigation? If so he should hand the kid over to someone else as quickly as possible to avoid the distraction. He clearly came from a rich family, and had powerful connections. He would be fine.

Either way, he was not Zishu’s problem. Sheltering him and acting on his behalf was completely unnecessary, and a distraction from his mission.

And his trip to establish whether or not Wen Kexing was a suitable informant had certainly gone off the rails.

Kexing was disconcertingly attractive, spectacularly flirtatious, and clever and observant enough that Zishu had to be on guard around him. He was also definitely hiding something, and playing his own game, although Zishu had no idea what and why as yet.

At least Zishu had succeeded in establishing a connection with him, although he had not exactly planned to do so through rescuing a teenager together.

If Zishu had met him in another context he would definitely have pursued the relationship. Their mutual attraction was clear, and he was intrigued by everything about Kexing. His disregard for convention was refreshing, and his spectacular beauty shone out no matter whether he wore a dress or a suit or jeans. His love of performance and mischievous sense of humour were attractive, even when Zishu was the target. He was a challenge, and he made Zishu want to meet him on equal terms, to fight back and see how he reacted.

He wanted to push back, to give as good as he got, to challenge Kexing in return.

But Kexing didn’t know Zishu, just his cover story. He had never seen Zishu’s real face. He clearly suspected that something more was going on, but they were still not meeting on solid ground.

Zishu was used to sleeping with informants where it was necessary for work. But he found himself disinclined to relate to Kexing on that basis. He wanted something genuine, if that was at all possible.

Or if he couldn’t have that, he’d have nothing. He could at least avoid another relationship based on lies.

He decided to go out, to get some time to think and to make his report. He needed to let headquarters know to stay away from the safe house, and to come up with an excuse for not reporting back the previous night. He needed to reapply his disguise, and check in with his subordinates.

“Okay, Chengling,” he said, “you write everything down. I’ll head out and have a look around.”

“Okay sir,” said Chengling, “but please… don’t leave me alone.”

“I won’t,” said Zishu. “Wen Kexing and his sister will stay with you.”

“But I’m coming with you!” protested Kexing. “I said I would help. I can be very helpful!”

“What about Chengling?” asked Zishu.

“My sister will look after him.”

“I will?” asked Gu Xiang. She encountered a glare from Kexing.

“Or you can come home and do your revision,” he said.

She sighed. “Okay, I will look after this silly boy!” She smiled brightly and started clearing the table.

Kexing said, “He needs food and rest, and he needs to keep his ankle iced and elevated. And look around you, this place needs fixing up.”

“Brother! Don’t make me regret adopting you!”

“I adopted you, and don’t you forget it.”

“As if!”

“Thank you, A-Xiang.”

Zishu decided to ignore this and head out. He fetched his jacket and went to the door.

“A-Xu! Wait for me!”

“Come on then if you’re coming.”

Zishu ushered Kexing ahead of him out of the door, trying to resist staring at his arse as he went past.

“A-Xu! You can look if you want, I don’t mind!”

Zishu sighed.

Chapter Text

“So where are we going, A-Xu?”

“Well, I’m going to hang out in pubs and teahouses and try to figure out what’s going on. I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

“But I’ll come with you of course!”

“OK, but you have to follow my lead and try not to be conspicuous.”

Zhou Zishu led them to an uptown pub near the Town Hall, where he knew that politicians’ aides and assistants tended to hang out.

He tried to take them to a table in a dark corner, but Wen Kexing grabbed his hand and dragged him to a pair of bar stools at the near end of the bar, right under the downlights.

“Wen Kexing!” Zhou Zishu tried to glare at the man without doing anything which would seem odd to the woman behind the bar.

“Oh, but you must call me A-Xing!”

He turned to the bartender. “My A-Xu is so shy! It’s really cute! It’s our first date but he insists on being so formal.”

“Lao Wen!”

Kexing pouted, “Well I suppose that’s better. It can be your pet name for me!”

Zishu rolled his eyes and asked the bartender for two glasses of wine.

“And bring the bottle!” added the nuisance.

Kexing then insisted on paying, again on the grounds that it was their first date, which gave Zishu a little time to send a text message to Han Ying. It was brief, but should at least stop anyone at headquarters from worrying unduly: Complications. Stand by for update tomorrow.

The chief complication turned round to see him using his phone. “A-Xu! Surely you’re not texting another man while you’re with me?”

“Just a colleague,” replied Zishu.

“Okay, I trust you!”

Zishu felt increasingly unable to pay attention to anything other than this infuriating man, but he forced himself to remember his mission and turn to the bartender.

“Excuse me miss, have you worked here long?”

“Actually, I bought the bar almost ten years ago.”

“You must know everyone who comes in here?”

“Yes, at least the regulars,” she replied.

“Oh dear,” said Kexing, “You must have been terribly sad to hear the news about Zhang Yu Sen’s death.”

“Well, I didn’t know him well. He used to be in here all the time, but not for about eight years now,” she replied. “I remember his little boy though, I do hope he’s okay.”

“Do you get other people from the Five Lakes party coming in here?” Zishu asked.

“Yes, they come here for staff parties and such. I wouldn’t want to spread tales out of school though.”

“Oooh, what are they like?” asked Kexing. “I saw that Gao Chong on telly, he looked terribly strict.” He passed the bartender a folded note as a tip.

She pocketed the money quickly. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. He is quite dignified though. He comes to the parties and pays for rounds for his staff, but he doesn’t let his hair down much. He’s very concerned about their public image.”

“Are they all like that?” asked Zishu.

“Not all of them. Shen Shen is the youngest of the main party members, he wears his heart on his sleeve a lot and can get a bit loud at parties. Zhao Jing is the quietest of them though, and very generous to me and my staff.”

“Are there any young people around? If the kid is found, would they know how to look after him?” asked Zishu.

“Oh yes, of course,” she said. “There are lots of teenagers in the junior wing of the party, and lots of young staffers.”

“Any juicy gossip you can tell us?” asked Kexing.

The bartender appeared to realise that she had been gossiping about what must have been good regular customers, and she pursed her lips. “I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you more. I need to get back to work.”

Zishu could tell she wouldn’t tell them any more, and they needed to re-establish their cover story. “Come over here to a quieter table,” he said to Kexing, pulling him towards a private booth.

Kexing picked up the wine bottle and glasses, and grinned at the bartender, “See, so cute! He can’t wait to get me alone.”

Zishu sighed as he settled into the booth. Kexing slid in next to him, pressing his thigh against Zishu’s.

“I thought I said not to be conspicuous,” Zishu said.

“Don’t worry, she’ll just remember us as a cute couple.”

“Cute?”

“I’m very pretty, as we already agreed, and I know you must be gorgeous under all that stubble. I do hope you’ll let me see your real face sometime.”

“What makes you think this isn’t my real face?”

“Oh please. Your bone structure is too elegant, and you move so gracefully. And don’t think you’re fooling me, you’re not just a PI.”

“No comment.”

“Okay, keep your secrets, but I’m onto you.”

Zishu shook his head at the irritating man, who did not seem to be notably cast down by this. He swallowed the remainder of his glass of wine and poured out more for each of them.

“Just hypothetically, suppose I wasn’t just what I seem, would that bother you?”

“Not at all, A-Xu! You fascinate me, disguised or not. And don’t worry, my sister won’t talk about my business.”

Zishu found this a relief. He might not be able to tell Kexing the whole truth, but at least he didn’t have to actively lie to him. But why were the siblings so practiced in keeping secrets? And why was Kexing so invested in finding out about the Five Lakes party?

“What do you think we should do with Chengling?” he asked. “At least it sounds like the Party are used to teenagers.”

“Used to them? I suppose. But I dread to think what the junior wing of the Party is like.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well think about it,” replied Kexing. “Five Lakes campaigns on family values and zero tolerance policies. What sort of teenagers are into that? They can’t be any fun to spend time with.”

“Life’s not all about fun,” said Zishu, trying to remember when he’d last had any.

“Says who?” replied Kexing indignantly. “If you’re not having fun, what’s the point?”

Zishu thought this was a very good question.

Chapter Text

Zishu tried not to get distracted by the warmth of Kexing’s thigh where it was pressed against his.

“So what’s your interest in the Five Lakes Party?” he asked.

“Ugh I hate those sanctimonious bastards,” said Kexing.

Zishu had not really thought about it. To him, all politicians were largely the same. His job meant he had to work with them, but he tended to ignore their policies and just focus on anything which was a security vulnerability.

“Why?” he asked.

“Such hypocrites. Talking about family values in the media all the time - which is code for intolerance of anyone who wants a different lifestyle - but they’re the first in line at the clubs.”

“So? Don’t you like having customers?”

“Customers, sure, but not ones who drool over the boys and girls at night and preach about immorality the next day.

“And they’re not even good customers. They don’t tip, and half of them are creeps. I shut that shit down at my club now, but when I was younger I didn’t have the power to do that. I had to watch Luo Fumeng get harassed over and over.”

“Who’s that?”

“You would have seen her at the club,” said Kexing. “Beautiful woman with white blonde hair, wearing red. She was the one who took me in when she found me on the streets.”

Zishu flinched inwardly, knowing how hard life could be for street kids, and hating to think that this intriguing man had ever been so vulnerable.

“How old were you?”

“We don’t know, but maybe around six or seven when she found me.”

“Do you know how you came to be living on the street?”

“No. I have vague memories of people I think were my parents, but nothing concrete.”

“So she took you in?”

“Yes. She’s my club manager now, but back then she was just a dancer and hostess. She was living from paycheck to paycheck, and having a kid around made things even harder for her, but she never even considered giving me up.

“And then later I found Gu Xiang and brought her home as well, and Luo Fumeng just worked harder to look after both of us.

“We grew up around the clubs, hanging out backstage waiting for her to finish. So many creeps. The customers, and the owners and managers, and the bouncers and bartenders. All of them thought the dancers were public property, just because they shook their arses on stage.

“She couldn’t tell them to fuck off because she needed the jobs and the money, and even more money once we came along. She had to nod and smile and dodge the pinches, or endure them, and take long routes home when they tried to follow her. And she had men promise her the world and offer to support her, and her trust was betrayed.

“And the same for all the other dancers, male and female. I heard so many stories growing up, and saw lots of it for myself.

“And then I grew up and started performing myself. Aunt Luo wasn’t keen, but we needed the money back then and I insisted. So I experienced it first hand. Especially as I was experimenting with wearing dresses. And of course, as you will have guessed, A-Xu,I was a very pretty teenager. I found I got better tips in a dress, but I also got far more harassment and nasty comments. The old owner was a bastard and she and I had to put up with him for years. We eventually worked out how to get rid of him and took over the club, but it was a struggle. We earned that place, and we’ve worked to make it safe for everyone now.

“How about Five Lakes, though?” Zishu asked.

“Ugh those bastards. They campaign on family values, and on shutting the entertainment district, even though they can’t stay away themselves. I can’t stand the hypocrisy.

“Everyone who comes to the club is a consenting adult, and so is everyone dancing, and if everyone has a good night and the dancers make some money, who does it hurt?

“But these fuckwits want to shut us down just to win votes. They make it out that we’re evil just for showing skin. Even though they like to look just as much.

“And they’re so judgmental about anything which is outside of what they see as the norm. Boys in dresses, girls in trousers, polyam relationships, anything other than marriage and two children in a boring house in the suburbs.

“And I’m damned if I’ll let them shut the club down. We suffered for it, we worked for it, and we’ve made it safe for everyone. We’re by far the best employer around, dancers know we’ll treat them well and protect them. Fuck anyone who thinks they can take it away.

“And don’t get me started on what some of those bastards do in private. They preach family values, but that doesn’t mean they treat their own families well or that they’re faithful to their partners. They make me sick.”

Zishu listened to this flood of words, occasionally ducking to avoid a wild gesticulation. Part of him was caught up in admiring the animation in Kexing’s face, and the clear commitment he had to his employees and colleagues.

But his professional brain was never completely absent. He couldn’t help tracking the possible connections to his blackmail case.

Kexing was both clever and angry, and had access to good sources of gossip through his club. And no doubt his employees and fellow club proprietors had even more.

Zishu could not lose sight of his original mission.

Chapter Text

Zishu sighed, and focussed on what he needed to do for the sake of his investigation. Personal feelings couldn’t come into it, and it didn’t matter if Chengling was unhappy. Or if Kexing was angry with Zishu. The investigation came first, and he needed to find out more about Five Lakes and their blackmail case.

Chengling’s care gave him a natural way into that circle, and so he would use that opening.

He said, “Okay, we have to decide what to do with Chengling.”

“Poor kid,” said Kexing.

“I know I let him stay today, but that can’t carry on. My life isn’t set up to care for a teenager, and I don’t have the right to keep him from his father’s friends.”

“But you know he’ll be miserable with those arseholes.”

“I don’t know that, actually. I don’t know what they’re like, but I do know they have money and connections and can offer Chengling the lifestyle he would be accustomed to. They can buy him everything he needs and get him into the best schools.”

“Ugh, how dull. I grew up without money or the best schools, and look how well I turned out.”

“Nevertheless.”

“So cruel, A-Xu!”

“If you want to help me, then help me persuade him it’s for the best.”

“So unfeeling!”

Zishu rolled his eyes and carried on. “As you know, I can’t tell you everything about me. But I have my reasons.”

“Oooh, intriguing. My man of mystery.” Kexing batted his eyelids ostentatiously.

He still seemed angered by the previous conversation, but Zishu was reassured by the return of the flirtation. He also didn’t want to admit how much he’d missed it.

“So, I will take Chengling to their headquarters tomorrow, and drop him off. Of course you don’t have to come with us, if they bother you.”

“Since you’re so insistent on my company I will come. A wealthy local businessman such as myself should cultivate political connections, don’t you think?”

Zishu regretted this immediately, but didn’t care to argue. “Very well. Let’s take today to get ready, and to reassure Chengling. And I need smarter clothes.”

“My A-Xu looks amazing already!”

“I will head home and get them, and meet you back at the flat.”

“Aha! I knew that wasn’t your real flat, you’re much too elegant for a hole like that.”

Zishu didn’t bother to respond, but waved to the bar owner before heading out. Kexing scrambled after him.

“A-Xu! Wait for me!”

“You’re not coming with me.”

Kexing pouted, but Zishu managed to remain firm.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Zishu took the opportunity of time to himself to make a fuller report to his superiors. He didn’t mention Kexing in any detail or Gu Xiang at all, as it didn’t seem fair to bring them to official attention when he didn’t know they were involved. He did tell them that he had found and rescued Chengling and would be using him as a way into the Five Lakes party’s circles.

He also took the time at home to remove his disguise, shave, and dress up smartly. He took care to look his best, and told himself this was entirely to help him fit in with the politicians, no other reason. He packed several changes of clothes in case he ended up spending a lot of time with Five Lakes party, but selected them more carefully than he usually would, using many of his favourite clothes from his personal wardrobe rather than one of his disguises.

On returning to the flat, he walked straight into an argument between brother and sister.

Gu Xiang shrieked, “But I hate it!”

“I don’t care,” Kexing replied. “You need to study.”

He had seemingly also dressed up for visiting Five Lakes, and had gone for an ostentatiously wealthy look. He was in a new slim fitting navy suit, with a red brocade waistcoat, which Zishu very much enjoyed looking at. However, for the moment Kexing was
entirely focussed on his sister.

“But why?” she asked obstinately. “I don’t want to go to University or do anything boring like Business Studies. You like that stuff, I don’t.”

“Dancing isn’t a career.”

“You perform, why can’t I?”

“I’m not having you out there with those creeps.”

“It’s not up to you! I’m seventeen, I’m nearly an adult.”

“You’re not dancing at the club and that’s final. And while I pay your bills you’ll do your homework.”

The two stared at each other angrily for a few seconds before Gu Xiang pouted and capitulated. “Okay, I’ll study. But there’s no way I’m going into business. I would hate it.”

“Do your homework now and we’ll discuss it later.”

Gu Xiang switched to a sunny smile before suddenly noticing Zishu, but didn’t seem to recognise him. “Who are you?”

Kexing said, “Look closer!”

Gu Xiang crowded close to Zishu and peered intensely at his face. “Wow! It’s sick dude!”

Kexing said, “Don’t call him that! And didn’t I tell you he was beautiful?” He walked up to Zishu and said softly, “Stunning. All this just for me?”

Zishu decided to give him some of his own medicine back. He looked Kexing up and down, lingering on the slim waist and broad shoulders highlighted by his suit. “All this just for me?” he asked, and held Kexing’s gaze.

Kexing blushed and looked away and seemed temporarily wordless.

Zishu smirked inwardly and looked around for Chengling. He found him in the living room with his foot up on the coffee table, with a pile of notes next to him.

“Hey kid, how’s it going?”

Chengling sat up straight and said, “Sir! Your investigation? How did it go? Did you find out anything about who killed my Dad?”

“Not yet. I need to do a lot of background work first. Did you think of anything when you wrote your notes?”

Chengling handed him the notes. “I wrote it all down like you asked, but I can’t think of anything that’s particularly important.”

“That’s okay kid, investigations take time, and you never know which will be the key detail.”

Zishu took a deep breath before broaching the next topic.

“So, kid, I know you don’t want to go to Five Lakes. But I think it would help if you did.”

“How do you mean?”

“We need to find out more about them, and the easiest way to do that is if I go to visit them and take you back. That should mean that they’re grateful enough to let me stay for a while and I can observe them.”

“I guess”

“And you know that staying here can’t be permanent. My life isn’t set up for a teenager, and I have no right to keep you from your father’s friends.”

Chengling sighed, “I really can’t stay here?”

“No, kid, sorry. It wouldn’t be right.”

“Can I help with the investigation?”

“No! It wouldn’t be safe.”

“But what if something goes wrong and I find out about it? Shouldn’t I tell you? And how will you tell me what you find?”

Chengling was trying hard to be brave, but was really too pathetic to abandon. Zishu resigned himself to further entanglements. “Okay kid, if you need to you can ring me.”

He gave the kid his personal phone number, and told himself it was simpler than keeping track of which phone went with which alias.

Chapter Text

Wen Kexing helped Chengling rebandage his wounds, and get ready for the trip to the Five Lakes party headquarters.

Gu Xiang was sulking as Kexing had refused to bring her with them. She slammed her textbooks shut as she packed her bags, and stormed angrily up to Zhou Zishu.

“You! Sick Dude!”

Zishu sighed.

“You! I’m watching you! You’d better look after my brother.”

Zishu replied, “I’m sure your brother can look after himself.”

“He can, but he doesn’t,” she replied. “If you’re dragging him to Five Lakes without me you’d better take responsibility.”

“I’m not dragging him,” protested Zishu. “He insisted.”

“That’s worse,” she said darkly.

Kexing came bustling up, apparently preventing her from saying more. He had Chengling with him, clean and presentable but seeming to droop where he stood.

“Kid! Stand up straight!” said Zishu.

“Yes sir,” Chengling replied, and apparently made something intended as an attempt at straightening.

“A-Xu, so strict,” said Kexing. “Go easy on him, he’s had a hard time. Anyway, our taxi’s here so let’s go.”

Kexing slung an arm around Zishu’s shoulders and herded all four of them out of the door.

Zishu glared half-heartedly, and shrugged the arm off as he turned to lock the door. He ushered the group downstairs and out of the building, listening to the ongoing bickering between the two siblings.

“Go to the club, and that’s final. Tell Aunt Luo I’m fine, and I’ll see her when I can. She knows what to do, anyway.”

Gu Xiang was suddenly all smiles as she agreed to go to the club.

“And, missy, no performing. You’re not allowed out from backstage under any circumstances.”

She pouted, but headed off for the nearest bus stop.

Zishu got into the back of the taxi first, and was not entirely displeased when Kexing dived in after him and pushed up against his side.

“Awfully snug, these back seats.”

Chengling took the third seat, and Zishu gave the address to the driver.

As the taxi pulled out, Zishu said, “Okay, we’d better agree on our stories. Chengling, you can’t let on that I’m a PI.”

“Of course not, sir, you can trust me! But, um, what should we say?”

Kexing said, “I’m a local businessman and well known philanthropist, and I’m thinking of making a donation to the party. A-Xu is my darling husband.”

“No I’m not!”

“So harsh! Okay, you’re my ‘friend’. What should we say you do for work?”

“I’m an aspiring author researching my book.”

“Not a best seller?”

“Not at all. The role of hopeful author is much more useful as a cover. People will actively avoid the risk of having to listen to the whole plot of the book, which gives me a lot more freedom. And I can claim to be researching anything at all.”

Chengling appeared to be making careful mental notes on this strategy.

Kexing protested, “But A-Xu! How will you explain your obvious wealth and beauty?”

“Hush, you. But I’ll imply I recently stepped down from some sort of lucrative but boring job, as a chartered accountant perhaps.”

Zishu switched to the persona which went with this cover, and blinked mildly at the other two.

When the taxi arrived at the Five Lakes Party headquarters, Wen Kexing took the lead. He stepped up to the doorman and made extravagant gestures as he introduced Chengling and claimed he had rescued him and brought him back.

The doorman phoned up to the offices, and the group was shortly shown up to the leaders’ offices.

Zishu looked around. It was all heavy opulence, mahogany and leather and brass. A deliberate display of wealth.

Some of the men they had seen on the news stepped out into the lobby to meet them. Zishu recognised Gao Chong, Zhao Jing and Shen Shen.

Wen Kexing swept up expansively to meet them, with Zishu and Chengling following more quietly behind. “Gentlemen!” he said.

Gao Chong stepped forward to greet him, with a slight bow. “Mr Wen? I understand I have you to thank for rescuing Chengling?”

Kexing bowed in return, with a bland smile which Zishu immediately distrusted. “Mr Gao? It was nothing,” he protested.

Meanwhile the others hurried to meet Chengling and Zishu.

“Chengling! I’m Shen Shen. Where have you been?” said the first abruptly.

Chengling looked nervous and said nothing. Zishu hovered behind him, telling himself that his role demanded he look protective of the boy.

The other man spoke more gently, “Chengling? Are you okay?” He offered Chengling his hand, and said, “You might not remember me, I think. I’m Zhao Jing. Your father and I were friends once.”

As the groups converged, Zishu heard the end of Gao Chong’s thanks to Kexing.

“Really, it’s just what anyone would have done,” Kexing replied. “My friend and I were just happy to be able to help. We have bandaged his injuries, but you may want your own doctors to look at him.”

“We can’t thank you enough,” said Zhao Jing.

Gao Chong called his daughter in, from where she had been acting as hostess to some of the junior party members. Gao Xiaolian was a quiet young woman of around eighteen years old. She smiled gently at Chengling when she was asked to look after him, and ushered him away to look for food and bandages.

Zhao Jing continued, “You simply must stay for dinner with us! We insist.”

Chapter Text

“But of course, gentlemen,” said Wen Kexing, and bowed politely. He had a bland smile on his face.

Zhou Zishu eyed him sceptically, wondering what he was up to. He had known Kexing long enough to know not to trust that expression. He braced himself for unspecified mischief.

But to be honest it didn’t matter much what it was, as long as it didn’t get in the way of the investigation. Kexing’s normal level of high drama meant that he naturally served as an excellent ongoing diversion, attracting all eyes and allowing Zishu to pass unnoticed.

Zishu followed in his wake, turning his chartered accountant/aspiring author persona up to 11. With any luck he could allow Kexing to carry the conversation and divert attention, and turn his own thoughts to pursuing his investigations.

Gao Chong and his retinue ushered them into a large hall which had clearly been set up for a banquet for over a hundred people. Kexing, and Zishu with him, were led to the top table, to places of honour. (Zishu wondered who had been hastily displaced to make space.)

Kexing was seated next to Gao Chong, with Zishu slightly further down the table next to Shen Shen and opposite Zhao Jing.

Zishu saw Chengling being brought in by Gao Xiaolian and seated at a lower table, one which seemed to have been reserved for the teenage members of Five Lakes. The poor kid was surrounded by teenage boys in suit jackets and bow ties, and looked incredibly shy and awkward. Xiaolian was clearly asking him what food he wanted and trying to set him at ease, but the other teenagers were ignoring him and talking over him.

However, the kid was clearly safe for now, even if he was uncomfortable. Zishu sighed and turned his attention back to his own table.

He seemed to be listening in on the end of an exchange of compliments:

“But really, it was so kind of you to look after Chengling and bring him here,” Zhao Jing said.

“Not at all,” said Kexing. “My friend and I were happy to be able to help.” As he emphasised the word ‘friend’ he glanced under his lashes at Zishu.

Zishu cursed him inwardly but nodded along. “Really, it was nothing,” he said quietly.

Shen Shen asked, “But how did you come to be in the area where the crash happened? It’s not the most salubrious part of town.”

“Oh, well, my friend Ah-Xu and I had popped out for dinner. One of my business investments had paid off nicely, and I offered to take him out to celebrate.”

“But why in the Entertainment District?” asked Shen Shen.

“Well…” said Kexing.

Zhou Zishu decided to help him out. “I’m afraid that’s my fault,” he said, inwardly grateful for his ability to blush on cue. “I’m redrafting my novel and wanted to spice it up a bit, and I suggested we go somewhere which would count as research.”

“Yes,” said Kexing, “but I don’t think you were expecting quite that much spice! I was shocked!”

“Yes indeed,” said Zishu with a straight face, “my curiosity was more than satisfied.”

Kexing choked slightly, “So anyway, we were walking home together - we wanted to get some fresh air - when we heard the crash. We hurried towards it straight away and found poor Chengling, and the rest you know.”

“And indeed we are grateful,” said Gao Chong ponderously.

“And I’m very glad you made it out of the Entertainment District safely,” put in Zhao Jing. “I’m not sure I would dare go there myself.”

“Quite,” said Gao Chong. “I’m not sure how familiar you gentlemen are with our party’s policies, but you may be pleased to hear that we would like to introduce tighter regulation.”

“No, I hadn’t heard,” said Kexing. “But as a businessman myself I would like to know more.”

“Of course we don’t want to regulate legitimate business,” said Zhao Jing, “but as you’ve seen, many of the businesses in that district are not at all legitimate.”

“Indeed!” said Kexing, “but how will you know which businesses are legitimate? Who will make that decision?”

“We intend to introduce a licencing scheme,” said Shen Shen. “Any business which can satisfy the licencing requirements would be totally free to operate safely.”

“I see,” said Kexing, smiling expansively, “of course, that’s exactly what I should have expected from such thoughtful people as yourselves.”

Zishu glanced at him sharply, as he thought he had detected an undertone of danger to that last comment.

He decided to jump in to redirect the conversation. “Please, could you tell us what will happen to Chengling now? We only looked after him for a day, but the poor kid has been through a lot.”

Gao Chong answered seriously, “Of course. You can depend on us to make sure Chengling has everything he needs. Zhang Yu Shen and I were as close as brothers at one time, and I’ll take care to bring his son up with our party’s values.”

Zhao Jing broke in gently, “And of course the child will need time to recover. We’ll make sure he’s not put under too much pressure.”

Gao Chong rumbled, “We’ll make sure he learns everything he needs to know to continue his father’s legacy. My daughter is a good girl, she’ll look after him.”

Shen Shen said, “And as you see, our party has a good many young people. They can cheer him up and show him everything around here. Good kids.”

The group looked over at the teenagers’ table where one teenage boy was pushing another. Chengling was staring down at his plate uncomfortably.

“Perhaps a little boisterous,” added Shen Shen jovially, “but Chengling will soon learn to join in! The Youth League was the best time of my life!”

Many other men round the table nodded along with this. Zishu thought inwardly that it was a bit of a sad reflection on their adult lives, if so.

Chapter Text

As the night wore on, the number of toasts and compliments exchanged increased. Wen Kexing was often the lead in this, toasting the various politicians around him - Gao Chong in particular - and graciously accepting toasts and thanks on the subject of Chengling’s rescue in return.

Zhou Zishu watched him carefully, purely to monitor the success of his cover story. He noted that although Kexing appeared to drink at least as much as anyone else, and as he seemed increasingly expansive in his behaviour, he didn’t once slip out of character or reveal more than he meant to.

Instead he seemed to be focussed on ingratiating himself with Five Lakes, portraying himself as an independently wealthy businessman in the restaurant trade. He never explicitly committed himself to donating to the Party but he dangled the possibility in front of the men (they were all men) and watched them fall over themselves for his approval.

Zishu was reluctantly impressed, wondering where exactly Kexing had picked up this skill.

The aura of danger remained, however, although Zishu thought he might be the only one who could see it. Kexing’s eyes glittered as he watched the men, and as he listened to their increasingly wild denunciations of immorality in the city.

Zishu had to admit that some of the denunciations seemed impressively specific for respectable politicians who would never go near such a place.

At this point, Zishu’s quiet observation was interrupted by the sense that someone was watching him in return. He looked around to find Zhao Jing’s eyes on him, and maintained his accountant persona with a reserved smile.

“So, Mr Xu,” Zhao Jing said, “you and your - friend? - have done us a great service.”

“Not at all,” murmured Zishu, cursing Kexing inwardly. “We were happy to be able to help Chengling. He definitely needed the help, and we were privileged to be able to offer it.”

“Still, we are very grateful,” Zhao Jing replied. “Please consider yourselves our guests for as long as you like. Would you like one room or two?”

“Two, please,” said Zishu hurriedly. “We really are just friends!”

Kexing overheard this and turned to join in the conversation:

“Ah, that’s what you’re telling yourself!” he said. “But don’t worry, Ah-Xu, as it says in the song, your lonesome nights are almost over. And you’re definitely the cutest that I’ve ever seen!”

Zishu wished that it would be in character for him to slap some sense into the annoying man. Instead, he had to play along with Kexing’s game. He settled for blushing and looking away, making a note to get even when he could.

Zhao Jing said jovially, “Well, it’s not for an old outsider like myself to comment on matters of the heart!”

“Believe me, the heart doesn’t come into it,” Zishu muttered.

He was watching Kexing as he spoke, but wasn’t sure if he had imagined a flash of genuine hurt at this, before he covered it with a laugh. “Ah-Xu, such a tease!”

“Gentlemen, please allow me to change the subject!” laughed Zhao Jing. “As I was saying, please feel free to stay as long as you would like, and assure yourselves that Chengling will be well looked after”.

“I’m sure you’ll do everything you can,” murmured Zishu, reserving judgment about whether a group of politicians doing everything they could was actually sufficient for a traumatised teenager.

“That reminds me,” said Kexing, turning to bring Shen Shen into the conversation as well. “Chengling told us that his father had received some threatening letters before his death. I do hope that none of you gentlemen have suffered the same?”

“Unfortunately,” Zhao Jing replied, “being public servants means that we are necessarily in the public eye. One of the prices we have to pay for that is increased exposure to the more unfortunate members of the public, and their various preoccupations.”

Zishu noted that the man was dressed even more expensively than the rest of the politicians, and privately thought that he hadn’t been hurting much.

“Has there been anything specific?” he asked. “I don’t want poor Chengling to be at the mercy of these criminals again, given what he’s been through.”

Shen Shen broke in, “Of course, we have the highest levels of security! We will look after Chengling as our own son!” He bristled and seemed offended that this might be in doubt.

Zhao Jing hastily added, “Please don’t worry! We have good security here, and we wouldn’t risk Chengling, he’s too important to us, as both the child of our friend and as part of the future of the party.”

“Is there anything you can tell me about the letters?” asked Zishu.

Shen Shen said, “We can’t talk about it.”

“Oh of course, I appreciate that you need to be discreet. BuIt would be terribly helpful to the research for my novel if you can tell me any details I might be able to use.”

“Goodness, your novel must be terribly exciting!” said Zhao Jing. “You must tell me when it comes out. So far we know it involves the licentiousness of the Entertainment District, and now threatening letters and blackmail.”

“Well, I’ve always wondered what it must be like to live such an exciting life,” replied Zishu, repressing his own exhaustion and disillusionment with his spying career. “I have spent so much of my life wrestling spreadsheets and dreaming of adventure. As you know, writers are magpies, picking up little pieces wherever they go. Any insights you can give me into your experiences would be gratefully received.”

Shen Shen answered, “Well, the latest batch of letters has been different, I suppose. Much better informed. We have been wondering where the writers got their information.”

Kexing responded, “I’m sure such gentlemen as yourselves have no discreditable secrets in any case. Can’t you just tell the blackmailers to publish and be damned?”

Shen Shen blustered, “Well of course I have nothing to hide!”

Zhao Jing broke in, “But even politicians have the right to privacy! And sometimes it’s necessary, to protect our families and friends from undesirable publicity.”

“I see,” said Kexing, “Thank you for explaining.”

Zishu eyed him warily.

Chapter Text

As the evening drew to a close, Shen Shen drank more and more and became increasingly loud and belligerent. Zhao Jing and Gao Chong eventually insisted he should leave the table and go to bed.

Zhao Jing then escorted Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing to their guest accommodation. This was on the top floor of the building, apparently reserved for senior members of the party and their guests. The two men were shown to rooms in a shared suite, apparently Zhao Jing’s attempt to reconcile Zishu’s wish for separate rooms with Kexing’s desire for closeness.

Zishu closed his door behind himself and sighed before sitting on the bed. The work had been important, and they had learned more about the inner workings of the party and about its leadership, but he was exhausted by the pretence. More and more he found the deception required by his job to be wearing him down.

But he had to see this through. Heilan Yi had requested he look into it personally, which meant it must be important. Chengling needed resolution. And something about the setup here was tweaking his instincts. He was certain there was more going on than he had yet seen.

At this point Zishu heard a knock on his door. He gathered himself to answer it, but before he could even stand up from the bed, Kexing burst into the room.

“A-Xu!” he cried, “Thank fuck you’re here with me! These people are so horrible.”

Kexing strode straight to the room’s single chair and sat down without invitation, stretching out his long legs. Zishu noted that Kexing was still as elegantly dressed as he had been at the beginning of the evening. He showed no signs of drunkenness, and still seemed as energetic as ever.

Zishu attempted to pull himself together. “No worse than other politicians, I’m sure.”

“They are, though! These hypocritical fuckers, pretending they’d never go anywhere near a floor show or drag revue. And yet they know all about how scandalous we supposedly are.”

“Like I said.”

“But they set themselves up as moral authorities, thinking that it’s up to them to decide my business should close. Not because of any harm we actually do, but because it doesn’t fit their public image.

“And there are several faces here tonight I’ve seen applauding in the club. Which is fine, I’m always glad we can show customers a good time. But if they enjoyed themselves they should be willing to admit it, and be willing for others to benefit from our shows in the future.

“And of course not all of them stopped at applauding. I’ve seen men from here hang around the dressing rooms harassing the dancers. Now that I run my club I’ve put a stop to that, but I saw enough growing up. And I’ve heard the stories people bring with them from before they danced for me. With enough money on the line, not every club will protect its dancers.

“Sometimes a dancer does want to earn more on the side and will go off with a patron, and that’s their choice as long as they’re safe and everyone’s happy.

“But the dancers should always be the ones to choose how far they want to go. Some clubs pressure them to put out, if the punter spends enough and lays out enough tips.

“And some punters won’t take no for an answer. Particularly the rich bastards like these. They think having money is all they need to do, and that if they throw it around enough the dancers shouldn’t get to say no.

“And as well, there’s the promises. A lot of the clubs only pay dancers enough to live from week to week, which makes them vulnerable to a rich man (and it is usually a man) offering them more. It starts with tips and presents, and promises, and often someone is naive or desperate enough to believe them. And then of course it turns out the man is married, or doesn’t mean what he says. Or he just disappears.

“The dancers get left to pick up the pieces. They gradually lose hope or belief in anything better, and usually the only support they have is each other.

“To be honest I’m surprised these hypocrites haven’t been exposed before this. If the blackmailer gets them I won’t be crying over it.”

Zishu struggled to articulate disagreement with this, which worried him. He still had a job to do, and Kexing’s behaviour was not helping rule him out as a suspect.

“I’m afraid blackmail is still illegal,” he said drily.

“Oh who cares?” asked Kexing. “The law is never on my side, so why should I care what it says? I just want to run my club in peace and look after my dancers.”

“Nevertheless.”

“Oh, A-Xu, you’re no fun! Loosen up a bit, it won’t kill you.”

Zishu wondered about that. Who would he be, if he didn’t enforce the government’s will? What was left of him outside of the demands of his job?

He sighed.

“A-Xu, you look so serious! Why don’t you let me help you relax?”

Zishu glared half heartedly. “I told you I wanted separate bedrooms! Don’t push it, Lao Wen, I’m not in the mood.”

“I’m sorry, I’m just teasing you. I would never want to make you truly uncomfortable, you know that.”

“Yes, I do know that,” Zishu replied. “And you know you’re gorgeous, and you know I’m interested. But not now, and not like this. You know I’m playing a role, and you know I’m not free to be honest with you. And if I want you at all I want more than something dishonest.

“Are you being fully honest with me, I wonder?”

“Oh, A-Xu, you don’t know how devastating you are. Very well. I will be your friend.”

Wen Kexing looked unaccustomedly serious. Zishu appreciated this, however much he missed the flirtatious smiles.

“OK, A-Xu. Purely as friends - now that we’re in the private section of the Party headquarters, don’t you wonder what else we could find here?”

He seized Zishu by the wrist and dragged him to the door.

Chapter Text

Wen Kexing continued to drag Zhou Zishu into the corridor.

Zishu decided he was going to go along with this and make the most of the opportunity to scout around. He got his feet under him and recovered his wrist from Kexing’s grasp. Kexing pouted but did not protest.

Zishu felt himself slipping automatically into some of his professional skills. He moved lightly on the balls of his feet, alert to his surroundings. He noted absently that Kexing was moving just as quietly.

In unspoken agreement they headed towards the private offices of the party. Zishu produced his lockpicks and opened the door of the main office, which was labelled ‘Party Headquarters’.

Zishu drew the door closed behind them and re-locked it to avert suspicion. He turned around to see Kexing watching him with gleaming eyes.
“A-Xu, so talented!”

“A key skill for PIs,” Zishu protested. This was in fact true, for once.

The two men looked around at the opulent suite of offices. They were furnished in a heavy style with no expense spared, full of dark wood, leather, and polished brass.

“Not hurting for money, these bastards,” said Kexing. “There’s obviously plenty to be made from hypocrisy and authoritarianism.”

Zishu rolled his eyes and moved further into the offices. Gao Chong’s office was in the middle, labelled ‘Party Chairman’, with Zhao Jing’s to one side labelled ‘Deputy Chairman’. The rest of the space was more open plan, full of desks and storage and apparently used by administrative staff.

Kexing moved straight to Gao Chong’s office and started poking at the computer. Zishu therefore went into Zhao Jing’s office and started opening filing cabinets with his lockpicks. He found some promising financial files and settled down to skim read them.

Zhao Jing’s decor was if anything even more ostentatiously wealthy than the main suite, full of ceramic vases and other antiques on display. Zishu wondered where the funds came from for all of this. He didn’t have the accountancy skills of his cover story so he used a phone app to take scans of some key financial pages to show to his office’s specialist researchers. He also photographed a number of deeds and contracts for further investigation.

Zishu was interrupted by Kexing calling him next door, and took care to re-lock the filing cabinets first.

Kexing asked, “Can you please show me your impressive skills again? On these desk drawers perhaps?”

Zishu wondered what he was up to, but decided that as long as it didn’t hurt his investigation he didn’t much care.

When Zishu opened the drawers for him, Kexing took a small package out of an inner pocket and taped it to the bottom of the second lowest drawer.

Zishu raised an eyebrow at him in question.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kexing replied. “Just seeing justice done.”

Zishu considered making a fuss, but before he could do so the two men were interrupted by the sound of a key in the outer lock.

Zishu pushed the drawers shut - no time to re-lock them - and dragged Kexing with him into the shadow of one of the heavy cupboards. He pressed Kexing into the far corner, and then crammed himself in after him.
They were just in time, as the inner door to Gao Chong’s office opened and the new arrival approached the desk.

Zishu’s hiding place meant he couldn’t see who it was, just hear their movements, as they sat themself at the desk and turned on the computer.

Zishu pressed himself further into the corner, up against the larger man. He couldn’t help noting that Kexing’s body seemed uncharacteristically to tense up at the contact, in contrast to his earlier flirtatious ease.

The two men waited in silence for what felt like a very long time, although Zishu’s professional experience led him to peg it at more like ten minutes.

They eventually heard the new visitor turn off the computer and get up to leave.

Zishu knew that the visitor would be facing away from their hiding place towards the office door, so took the chance at edging forwards to try to catch a glimpse of them. He felt Kexing shuffle up behind him, keeping a careful distance.

Zishu was able to catch a glimpse of the visitor in the light from the corridor as he left, and found himself momentarily frozen in shock at the face of the young man he saw.

Zishu and Kexing waited awkwardly for a further five minutes for the corridor to be clear. Zishu spent the time checking that everything was as they had found it, with the papers replaced and cabinets relocked. He also worried about Kexing, who appeared unusually subdued and unhappy.

They headed silently back to their suite, Kexing seeming much less energetic than he had earlier.

Once they were inside again safely, and able to speak privately, Zishu turned to his companion and asked, “Okay, Lao Wen, what’s up with you?”

Kexing looked frantic for a second, and then visibly pulled himself together and bowed his head.

“Zhou Xu, I am so sorry.”

“For what? What have you done?”

“Only an hour ago we agreed that this wasn’t the right time to explore any potential between us. I promised I wouldn’t push you. I meant it. I want to take this thing between us seriously, and I don’t want to spoil it by putting you under pressure.”

Zishu was confused, “And?”

“And not an hour later we end up pushed against each other in a corner.”

“I pushed you into that corner, not you!” protested Zishu.

“Yes, but it was me who set up the whole situation, and dragged you with me. But that wasn’t what I meant to happen! It wasn’t an excuse to put you in that position.”

“Yes?”

“Please believe me. I wouldn’t do that to you. I meant what I said about being your friend.”

Zishu saw that Kexing was really upset, and was truly worried that Zishu thought he had somehow forced him into proximity.

“Lao Wen! Listen to me.”

Kexing looked at him miserably.

“It’s okay, Lao Wen. I trust you. I know you wouldn’t set me up like that.”

Kexing took a deep breath. “You mean it?”

“I do. I trust you.”

Another of those lightning mood changes came over the man’s face, and Zishu was very relieved to see the mischief return.

“A-Zu! You won’t regret it, I promise you.”

Chapter Text

The two men went to their separate beds for the night.

The next morning, Zhou Zishu forced himself out of bed, wishing for coffee. He dressed in more casual but still expensive clothes. Flashiness was never in his nature, he reflected, but he did like to look his best when work allowed. And if he was dressing up for anyone in particular that was no-one else’s business.

Speaking of flash, he heard Wen Kexing talking in the shared living area of their suite and went out to see what the man was up to now.

He came out to find Kexing - looking suspiciously calm, formal and collected - thanking one of the party’s administrative staff. He was dressed today in well-fitting jeans with a blood red shirt. Zishu couldn’t help letting his eyes linger.

“A-Xu! You’re awake!” Kexing said, as the staffer left. “It turns out we can go back out to the public areas for breakfast any time we want.”

“Thank fuck for that,” muttered Zishu.
“Not a morning person?”

“Not if I can help it. Coffee would be good.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you from the horrible daylight. Come with me and we’ll find the coffee together.”

Kexing led them both downstairs to the shared areas, and got Zishu into a seat. Shortly thereafter black coffee miraculously appeared in front of him and he started the process of getting himself online and ready for the day, vaguely aware that Kexing had sat down next to him.

When he was able to focus better he heard Kexing talking energetically to Shen Shen.

“Seeing more of the Five Lakes party has certainly been fascinating!”

Shen Shen seemed to be taking this at face value but Zishu was more suspicious. However it was none of his business for now.

Kexing went on, “Thank you so much for your hospitality. However, I’m afraid A-Xu and I need to leave shortly.”

Zishu shook himself awake. “Is there any way we could say goodbye to Chengling before we go?”

“I suppose so,” said Shen Shen, and signalled one of the staffers.

Chengling promptly arrived at their table, looking subdued but walking steadily. He was followed by Gao Xiaolian. Zishu had wanted to speak to Chengling privately but decided at least he could take the opportunity to observe her more closely.

Kexing asked, “Chengling, how are you doing? How’s your ankle?”

“And the cut on your side?” asked Zishu.

Chengling seemed slightly surprised at their concern, but answered, “I’m doing alright.”

“Just alright?” asked Kexing. “You need to be careful with your injuries!”

Gao Xiaolian broke in gently. “Don’t worry, we have a medic here. She checked Chengling over last night and again this morning. His wounds have been cleaned and rebandaged and he’s okay to walk on his ankle as long as he’s sensible about it.”

“Thank you for looking after him,” said Zishu.

“It’s not a problem,” she replied. “Father asked me to look after Chengling and treat him as a member of the family. I know he has high hopes for him.”

“Will he be able to get therapy?” asked Kexing.

“I’m not sure,” she answered, “but I’ll ask my father.”

“Chengling, come here,” Zishu said. “We need to go now, but I’m sure you’re in good hands here with your father’s friends. Be good and make sure you study hard.”

Chengling nodded in silence.

“A-Xu, he needs more than that!” cried Kexing. “Chengling! Look after yourself, go to therapy, and remember that you’re still a kid. You’re still learning, and you’ve got plenty of time to grow into yourself.”

Shen Shen broke in loudly, “But buck up, and remember the Party needs you to be at your best.”

Chengling looked small as the focus of all of this attention. Zishu reflected that it wasn’t surprising that he was overwhelmed by all this. He had been targeted by criminals, bereaved, and thrown into a new world without his father or anyone he knew.

However, the kid had known what he was getting into going into Five Lakes, and he wanted Zishu to unravel the mystery. And at least he had Zishu’s phone number if he got into trouble.

Zishu reminded himself that the kid was not his responsibility, and by all appearances was being left to a life of luxury many would envy. He pulled himself together and said goodbye to everyone.

Chengling, Xiaolian and Shen Shen escorted Zishu and Kexing to the main entrance, and got someone to call a taxi for them.

“Thank fuck for that!” said Kexing as the taxi pulled away. He directed the driver to head back to an address Zishu didn’t recognise. Zishu decided internally to go along with this to see what more he could learn of the man.

“You okay, Lao Wen?”

“I am so sick of those moral majority hypocrites.”

“Yes, you expressed yourself quite clearly on the subject,” said Zishu drily.

“Ugh, it’s such a strain pretending to be one of them!”

“You did it well, though, Lao Wen. I’m sure they thought you were persuaded to support their crusade.”

“I feel like I’m covered in slime. They’re so selfish. You heard, they’re already thinking of Chengling in terms of what he can do for them, not in terms of what he needs. He’s only a kid!”
“Yes, that bothered me too,” Zishu said. “But at least he’s safe for now.”

“I suppose at least those gits will look after him for fear of bad publicity if they don’t.”

“Yes, and if they think he’s useful to them that means he’s valuable to them.”

“I guess,” said Kexing grumpily.

“Are you feeling better now, Lao Wen?”

“Better for being away from that nest of vipers, at least.”

“Where are we going, then?” Zishu asked.

Chapter Text

Wen Kexing refused to tell Zhou Zishu where they were going.

The taxi eventually pulled up in a quiet residential neighbourhood full of old redbrick houses. Kexing paid the driver and invited Zishu in.

Zishu’s immediate impression was of warmth. The interior of the house was warmly and richly decorated, with deep tones on the walls, full of jewel coloured carpets and ceramics and characterful furniture, with plants in every window.

The sound of raised voices reached his ears. Kexing put a finger to his lips and led them both through to a light-filled kitchen with even more plants. They waited at the corner to observe.

The woman from the club with long blonde hair was sitting at the kitchen table. Zishu remembered that her name was Luo Fumeng. Kexing had said she had taken him in when he was a child, despite the costs to herself, and was now his club manager. She was staring at Gu Xiang and listening to her complain.

Gu Xiang was pacing from side to side in the kitchen, wearing purple jeans and a rainbow t-shirt. She was clearly upset.

“But why can’t I?” she asked. “I love dancing! I hate studying, and there’s no way I want to go into debt to do more of it at university.”

“But you don’t know what it’s like,” Luo Fumeng replied. “Don’t go thinking all clubs are like Ghost Valley. By the time you came along Kexing and I had done a lot to clean it up. We never let you see the worst, and I never want to.”

“I’m nearly an adult!” said Gu Xiang. “I need to make my own choices!”

“But however old you get we’ll still love you and want to protect you,” Luo Fumeng replied gently.

“Ugh!”

At this point Kexing swept into the kitchen, dragging Zishu behind him.

“Yes, how terrible it must be to have people love you,” Kexing said.

“You don’t understand!” Gu Xiang said.

“I know I don’t, and it must be awful for you,” said Kexing, “but nevertheless you cannot dance at Ghost Valley. Or any other club. You know we’d hear about it if you tried it, so don’t even bother.”

Gu Xiang switched instantly to one of her sunny smiles, and agreed. She then appeared to notice Zishu for the first time.

“Sick dude! What are you doing here? What’s he doing here?” she asked Kexing.

“Don’t be rude!” he replied. “A-Xu is my friend and my guest.”

Gu Xiang rolled her eyes and sighed.

Kexing walked to stand behind Luo Fumeng where she sat at the table and introduced her to Zishu. “This is my aunt and saviour, and club manager, I told you about her! Aunt, this is my good friend, the lovely Zhou Xu. He and I have been having adventures, rescuing teenagers and venturing into the belly of the dragon.”

“Yes, A-Xiang told me,” she smiled. “Welcome, dear. I’m Luo Fumeng.”

“Thank you,” said Zishu. “It’s good to finally meet you.”

“And thank you for rescuing my friend Lui Qianqiao. That creep has been harassing her for weeks, and he just won’t take no for an answer.”

“Not a problem,” said Zishu. “It was nothing.”

“A-Xu is a private investigator!” said Kexing. “Isn’t that exciting! He has all these fascinating professional skills.”

“Yes dear,” she said.

“But poor Lui Qianqiao, to just call her your friend!” Kexing continued. “You know how she feels about you.”

“Yes auntie!” said Gu Xiang, “She loves you, and you know it!”

Luo Fumeng replied, “While she may have some affection for me, it’s just a rebound thing for her. It’s just a reaction as I’m able to keep her safe.”

“You don’t know that!” said Gu Xiang indignantly.

“And anyway I’m her boss,” said Luo Fumeng. “It wouldn’t possibly be ethical for me to act on anything between us”

“But I don’t hear you saying you don’t want to,” Kexing put in mischievously.

Luo Fumeng didn’t react outwardly but Zishu thought he detected a faint blush. “Alright, children, enough. Aren’t you going to offer our guest any hospitality?”

Gu Xiang encountered a half-playful glare from Kexing and offered Zishu some tea, which he accepted.

He was coming to realise that Kexing had invited him into the home he shared with his small family. This was a display of trust and openness he had not expected, and he resolved to learn as much as he could about the real man underneath all the posturing.

There was clearly real familial affection between him and the two women, which lent support to the life story he had shared before.

Zishu was under no illusion that he understood all of Kexing’s clearly complex motivations. But it was good to know that the man was being honest with him where he could.

He sipped his tea and sat back in his chair, relaxing slightly for the first time in what felt like forever.

Kexing sat down opposite them with his own tea, and Luo Fumeng leaned forward in concern.

“So, A-Xing, you went to Five Lakes headquarters?”

“Yes auntie. Those fucking hypocrites haven’t changed at all. Except to get richer, I guess.”

“Were you safe?”

“Yes, they had no idea who I am. They just thought I was a rich local businessman, which isn’t even a lie.”

“Please, be careful.”

“I will, auntie. And anyway, A-Xu will look after me!”

Zishu felt torn. He had his work duties, and couldn’t drop them to look after one annoyingly beautiful provocative little bastard.

He tried not to let this conflict show on his face, but felt he had to say something. “I do have work, remember, Lao Wen.”

“Ah, don’t be boring. Anyway I thought this was your work? You agreed to help poor Chengling.”

“I suppose I did,” sighed Zishu. Given what he’d seen at Five Lakes he really wasn’t sure where his loyalties lay any more.

He needed to get away and report back, and clear his head. He needed his professional focus back.

Chapter Text

Zishu finished his tea with a sigh, and forced himself to make his excuses to leave. He had relaxed in Wen Kexing’s home, perhaps too much, and he needed to get his professional distance back.

He thanked Luo Fumeng first as his hostess. She pressed his hands warmly and urged him to come back to see her again.

Kexing looked genuinely disappointed for a minute before forcing a smile. “A-Xu! You’re leaving already?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I must.”

“You’ll stay in touch?”

“If I can.”

“Please let me know how the investigation went, at least? I couldn’t live without the news,” Kexing said, deploying weapons grade puppy eyes.

Zishu, as before, was powerless to resist. And he was increasingly realising that he didn’t want to. He agreed to exchange numbers with the menace, inwardly relieved to have the excuse. He gave out his real number, just as he had with Chengling, and told himself it was more convenient that way.

Gu Xiang also seemed sad to see him go, in her own way. “Mr Zhou, you promised Chengling!”

“Yes I know.”

“Don’t let him down. And don’t let Ge down either. Remember I know where you live.”

Zishu spared a moment to be grateful that she didn’t know where he really lived. She was small but fierce and he had no doubt she would find a way to make him regret any failings.

Kexing fortunately came up to rescue him at that point. “A-Xiang, leave A-Xu alone! I’m sure he won’t forget his promises.”

He showed Zishu to the door, and stood in the doorstep to watch him go.

Zishu tore himself away, forcing himself not to look back.

He reflected as he walked that Kexing was right, he would not forget his promises. There was no chance that he would ever forget Kexing, or Chengling, or Gu Xiang.

When he was far enough away he called a lift to take him to the office. He wanted to sleep for a week but it was still only mid-morning and he had no excuse for not reporting back.

He spent the car ride staring out of the window without seeing anything. He tried to force his thoughts into some sort of order. So much had happened over the last few days and he needed time to think.

Back in his office he tried to focus on a backlog of work but couldn’t stop himself worrying about everything he had seen at Five Lakes.

He gave up and called in Han Ying, one of his subordinates who he had previously felt he could trust fully.

The young man reported to his office promptly and braced to attention.

“Never mind all that, have a seat,” said Zishu grumpily. “But tell me, what on earth were you doing at Five Lakes headquarters last night?”

“...How did you know about that?” said Han Ying, looking incredibly uncomfortable.

“Never mind how I know!” snapped Zishu. “You report to me, not me to you. I don’t need to tell you anything. But I know I didn’t sanction that mission. Explain yourself!”

“Sir! I can’t, sir! I was ordered-” he broke off.

Zishu stared. Han Ying reported to him. Who else had the authority to give him orders?

He felt sick as the answer came to him. There was only one other person who Han Ying would have trusted without question.

“Did Helian Yi send you?” he asked sharply.

“Sir! I can’t, sir!”

Zishu stood up and walked closer to the young man, looking down at him sternly. “Han Ying. You report to me. Who are you loyal to?”

Han Ying swallowed and sat up straighter. He visibly made up his mind, and squared his shoulders. “I’m loyal to you, sir. I’m sorry. I thought the Minister had informed you he was sending me.”

Zishu needed to be sure. “Minister Helian Yi?”

“Yes sir. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Zishu relented, knowing that the Minister was hard to resist, and would have had no trouble persuading someone as young and straightforward as Han Ying still was. For a secret agent he was still somehow very naive.

“It’s okay. I understand. Just remember you report to me, not to the Minister. Now, what was it he asked you to do?”

The more Zishu listened to Han Ying’s story, the more concerned he became.

Han Ying himself hadn’t been asked to do much with respect to Five Lakes. He had just been a go-between, receiving personal gossip and salacious details from someone within the building.

When Zishu had seen him in Gao Chong’s office he had been retrieving copies of confidential files. He had passed them to the Minister but knew no more about what had been done after that.

However, he also reported that Duan Peng Ju had also been meeting privately with the Minister, and might also have been sent on additional missions.

Zishu reflected that Han Ying was hardly the person anyone would send to do anything really underhand or vicious. The kid meant well and was loyal, but had far too many morals for a spy. Zishu should really find him some other line of work before he lost all his illusions.

Duan Peng Ju, however, was a veteran of dark ops and wouldn’t have hesitated to carry out any orders. Especially if there was something in it for him. He would have jumped at the chance to earn the Minister’s favour, and wouldn’t care what it took to get there. That sort of person was useful in the service but had to be kept under careful check.

He lectured Han Ying sternly about remembering his loyalties and his chain of command, and let him go.

This required serious thought. What might the Minister have ordered Duan Peng Ju to do?

Zishu realised he didn’t trust Helian Yi and hadn’t for some time. He had blindly followed the Minister for too long.

But the Minister was his patron, and had given him his current role. He was also an incredibly dangerous man to cross.

Chapter Text

Zishu opened his desk drawer and stared at the bottle of whisky.

He felt the weight of exhaustion crushing him down, and wondered at how strange it seemed. He had been so tired for so long that he had stopped noticing, so why was he noticing now?

He realised that it had been days since he had last felt like this. Something about his time with Wen Kexing had refreshed him, despite - or because of - the chaos it had brought.

Now he was alone again he felt tired to his bones.

He also felt lonely.

Solitude was part of his life as a spy. The nature of the work meant that no-one could fully trust another, and no-one could be fully trusted.

Zishu had always been happy to pay that cost. He had always known that his work was valuable and that he was one of the few who could do it. He had always been happy to operate in the shadows, and for the Minister to get the credit.

But if he couldn’t believe any longer that the Minister was acting for the best, where did that leave him?

Also Zishu knew that Kexing had a point in his diatribes against moralistic politicians. Zishu knew better than most that no-one in the public eye was squeaky clean. He had investigated enough politicians to be sure of that, as well as arranging temptations for those with no previous weaknesses.

He had never thought much about this, or about the lack of justice in people campaigning in public against the same things they enjoyed in private. Now he could not ignore it.

And Kexing was right, too, that the sort of consensual thrills he and his team sold in the Entertainment District were much more moral than the threats and coercion of entitled men of power.

Helian Yi had proved himself willing to ignore any transgression on the part of his allies, while viciously exploiting any weaknesses from his political enemies. At first it had all been in pursuit of a larger goal. But Zishu no longer believed the Minister had any goals beyond his own power.

So Zishu was no longer willing to follow Helian Yi wherever he led. He would need to start making his own choices.

But he would need to be extremely careful. Helian Yi was an extremely dangerous man, and if he realised Zishu was no longer his to command he would be ruthless in reveng.

Zishu was undoubtedly not the only tool the Minister had to his hand. The service was full of people with no moral compass, and Duan Peng Ju was only the closest. Zishu would need to watch his back.

He closed the drawer reluctantly, leaving the whisky untouched. He could not afford to make mistakes at this point.

Right. It was time to go home to his own flat, not just the one belonging to his cover story. It was time to start pulling himself together.

On arriving back at his flat, Zishu looked around and realised how much he disliked it.

He had plenty of money from his job, both as an inheritance from his family and from the Minister’s very generous rewards for success. But he never had spare time.

The security needs for senior members of the Service meant they could only live in certain places which had been pre-vetted. He had not thought much about what sort of place to buy, just picked the first place his agent recommended.

The furnishings had all come via a high-end interior designer recommended by a colleague. Everything was new and shiny, with white carpets and walls and chrome detailing. It was cleaned regularly by a security-cleared firm, and Zishu was never there long enough to get it dirty in any case.

Zishu took his shoes off and left them by the door. He padded forward through the thick carpets, and looked at the stunning view of the skyline. He looked at the expensive appliances in the kitchen he never had time to cook in, and at the bland meaningless art on the walls. He looked at the total lack of colour.

He looked around and couldn’t see anything which marked the flat as his.

He could not help thinking back to his glimpse of Kexing’s house. The warm colours, the art, the soft brightly coloured textiles, the plants everywhere.

The evidence that the house had been loved, and that the people in it loved each other.

The family Kexing had, despite the lack of genetic links.

Kexing was an orphan just as Zishu was, or Gu Xiang for that matter. But Kexing’s aunt Luo Fumeng had given him a home, and they had taken in Gu Xiang. And despite the arguments their love for each other was clear.

Who did Zishu have? Who even knew him fully, when his job required him to lie?

If he was doubting the Minister, and realising he could no longer live for his job, what did he have left in his life?

Having no family had made him the ideal operative and had meant he could focus on his job and achieve success. It had made him valuable to his superiors at first, and then to Helian Ye himself.

But here he was at 38, still with no family, but also no friends, no hobbies, and no-one he fully trusted.

And a flat he hated.

He still had his job, but he had to face that it could no longer be everything to him.

It was time to make a change. Time to build connections. Time to make his own moral choices, not leave them to others.

Kexing didn’t know everything about him, but he knew that Zishu had been hiding things. He had been open about wanting Zishu anyway.

He had been pushy and flirtatious, but he had respected Zishu’s boundaries and stopped pushing.

He had been honest himself, both in his outspoken opinions and in opening his house and family to Zishu. He was infuriating, and infuriatingly beautiful.

If Zishu was building himself a new life he would start by asking Kexing on a proper date. One which wasn’t also cover for an investigation.

But first there was another orphan who needed his help.

He got out his phone to call Chengling, to see how he was doing.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu only had to wait for a couple of rings before Chengling answered the phone.

“Mr Zhou!”

“Chengling. How are you?”

No response came, although Zishu could hear Chengling’s breathing.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you free to talk?”
“Not really. Everyone here has been great!” Zishu could hear a degree of strain in Chengling’s voice.

“Hmm. Let me see what sort of questions I can ask to help.” Zishu was familiar with debriefing agents in difficult conditions, but of course Chengling had not been trained to report in those ways.

“Firstly, and most importantly: are you in any danger? If you are in danger please mention your education in your next answer, and if you’re not please mention a leisure activity.”

“Oh yes, everyone here has been great! We all watched a film last night - the new Marvel one, Shang-Chi.”

“Well done kid. If at any time you don’t feel safe, send me a text which mentions education and I’ll know what you mean.”

“Yes Mr Zhou!”

“Now, if you’re okay to stay and don’t need anything just keep telling me about the film in all of the next answers, but if the answer is yes to any of my questions or you need any help, start talking about food.”

“Yes it was great, there was this one fight scene on a bus which was so cool!”

“Do you need someone to talk to?”

“Yeah, the main character’s sister was a martial artist too, and she beat him in a cage fight! Then they had to fight off the bad guys together while they ran away down some scaffolding on the outside of the building.”

“Good. And have you found out anything which might help the investigation?”

“And at the end there was this amazing fight between dragons! And his friend Katy learned to fight with a bow!”

“Okay kid, never mind. Remember to keep yourself safe and not to put yourself in any danger looking for information. We have plenty of time and your safety is more important.”

“Thanks Mr Zhou! And Michelle Yeoh’s character was really cool too!”

“Well done kid. Now remember the code - mention education if you’re in danger, mention food if you have something to tell me or if you need to talk to someone, mention films and TV if you’re okay.”

“Yes Mr Zhou! I won’t forget.”

“I know you won’t, Chengling. I’ll tell Wen Kexing and his family the code too. You’ve got my number, and I’ll ring every few days. You’re not alone.”
“Yes, everyone here’s been really kind,” said Chengling.

“Good kid, keep it up! Goodbye.”

“Goodbye Mr Zhou!”

Zhou Zishu ended the call and sat back, relieved that Chengling was okay, and happy that he’d picked up the rudimentary code so well. The kid was clearly eager to learn and eager to help, and he was safe enough for now.

So, time to act on his other resolution and call Wen Kexing to ask for a date.

He had only been away from the man for a day, but already he missed him. No-one else in his life challenged him in quite the same way, and as infuriating as he could be, life felt quite dull without him.

Zishu picked up the phone to call Kexing, bracing himself for whatever ridiculousness would ensue. It would undoubtedly be worth it.

However, it wasn’t Kexing who answered the phone, but Gu Xiang.

“Sick dude! I’m sorry, Mr Zhou!”

“Gu Xiang. Is Wen Kexing alright?”

“Oh, yes, he’s fine, he’s just having a bath right now.”

Zishu tried to suppress the mental image this conjured up.

“I guess you’ll just have to talk to me then won’t you?” said Gu Xiang with slightly worrying enthusiasm.

“Or I could phone off now and call back later.”

“Don’t do that! He’ll be out soon. And I’m sure he’ll want to talk to you, he’s not subtle.”

Zishu rolled his eyes at the thought of Kexing’s usual approach to subtlety.

“Have you heard from Chengling?” Gu Xiang asked. “I’m worried about him, with all those dodgy politicians.”

“Yes, I spoke to him earlier, he’s fine. We set up a code for messages. If he talks about film and TV he’s fine, if he talks about food he needs to talk to someone, if he talks about education he’s in danger.”

“Mr Xhou! Maybe you’re not so dull after all.”

At this point Zishu heard a disturbance behind her, and caught Kexing’s voice. “Who’s that? Is it Ah-Xu?”

“Oh no, it’s no-one important,” said Gu Xiang, with clear mischief in her tone.

“It is Ah-Xu! Give it here!”

Zishu heard a brief scuffle, followed by Wen Kexing’s familiar voice.

“Sorry about her, she’s not house-trained yet.”

“Ah, never mind. It’s clear she cares about you, and she should.”

“Yes, but she’s so nosy.”

“She told me you were in the bath, Lao Wen. Was that true?”

“It was! Were you enjoying the mental images? Were you imagining me pouring water over my chest, and soaping up my arms?”

“Yes. Yes I was.”

“Ah-Xu!”

Zishu made a mental note that responding to flirtation with flirtation apparently rendered Kexing speechless. He had the impression that this might be useful knowledge in future.

“Ah-Xu, you’re making me blush!”

Well, apparently it didn’t render him speechless for long. Still, even a slight advantage was useful.

“Lao Wen. It’s good to hear your voice again.”

“Did you miss me, my dear?”

“I did.” Zishu remembered his purpose in calling. “Would you like to go on a date with me?”

“Ah-Xu, so direct!”

“And?”

“Yes, of course I would. But you knew that.”

“Very well. Are you free tomorrow?”

“For you I am. Let’s get some wine and enjoy the weather somewhere.”

“Yes. It’s a date.”

When Zishu phoned off, his flat didn’t seem quite so lonely and cold after all.

Chapter Text

The next day Zishu dressed carefully for his date with Wen Kexing. He wanted to dress as himself, not as one or another of his professional roles. He also wanted to make it clear to Kexing that he was taking this date seriously.

But dressing showily was not in his nature.

He settled for what he hoped was an elegant amount of understatement, with a soft grey shirt and darker grey trousers, but took a great deal of care to present himself smartly.

When he met Kexing at the riverside pub they had chosen, he was happy to see that the other man had also clearly taken care with his appearance, although in his case with a great deal more flair. He had on smart black jeans and a dark green silk shirt scattered with white floral embroidery. His long hair was tied partly back with a white hairpin, with the rest flowing free.

His face lit up when he saw Zishu, and Zishu took a moment just to look at him. He marvelled at how much his life had changed since first meeting this man, and how much he hoped it would change further.

“Ah-Xu! You came!”

“Of course I came, Lao Wen. I couldn’t stay away.”

As before, Zishu noted that Kexing didn’t deal well with direct compliments. He seemed taken aback by anything he couldn’t play off as a joke. Zishu decided to give him a little time to recover by buying them some wine.

When he returned they settled on a table close to the river. Zishu was pleased to note that they both seemed to share the desire to sit close together, angled towards each other.

“So, Ah-Xu, I heard about this clever code you’ve set up with Chengling. Entertainment for everything’s fine, food for needing to talk, education for needing to get out. Gu Xiang told me, she was very impressed.”

“I’m flattered,” said Zishu drily.

“You should be! She’s hard to impress these days.”

“She clearly cares for you a lot, however loud her way of showing it.”

“I hope so! But she’s not happy we’ve forbidden her to dance in the club. And now she’s started disappearing too. She went out today again without telling me where she was going.”

Zishu had no direct experience parenting teenagers, but he had observed a lot of families in his time. “She’s at that age, I guess,” he said. “And she seems pretty streetwise and smart. I’m sure you’ve taught her lots of useful things.”

“I know, but I can’t help worrying,” Kexing said. “I spent my own teenage years fighting off harassers who were after me, or after Luo Fumeng. I’ve taught her plenty of dirty tricks if anyone tries something, but there’s no way I want the same experiences for her that I went through.”

“You’ve built a much better life for her,” said Zishu. “It’s impressive how much you’ve built, for yourself and for your family.”

Wen Kexing looked unusually serious as he replied with thanks.

“Anyway, let’s enjoy ourselves today,” said Zishu.

“Yes, Ah-Xu! It’s not every day I get taken on a date by such a gentleman.”

Zishu was selfishly pleased to hear it. “But why not, Lao Wen? I’m sure you get plenty of opportunities.”

“Yes, but you’re different. The minute I saw you I knew you were hiding your true self, and that intrigued me. And I know you still can’t tell me everything, but you clearly have a high level of professional skills. Whatever your profession turns out to be. You went out of your way to rescue Chengling when you didn’t have to, and you’ve checked up on him. You had no trouble disguising yourself differently for me and for Five Lakes, and carried off both roles. You rescued Lui Qianqiao from her dodgy ex who was harassing her, the first time we met. And as you know I think you’re gorgeous.

“How is it that someone like you is single and asking me out?”

“Ah, Lao Wen, I’ve been working very hard for many years too. My work has unpredictable hours, and very rarely lets me be fully honest with anyone.”

“How much can you tell me?”

“Not much, I’m afraid, not yet. There’s something I need to sort out first, plus of course Chengling’s family stuff too.”

“That’s okay, Ah-Xu. I can wait.”

“One thing you do need to know, though, is that many of my previous relationships have not been entirely my personal choice. It’s an unfortunate necessity in my line of work to use any available means to manipulate a target. And for me that has included going to bed with them, or faking a relationship or an affair, in order to get information or leverage.”

Zishu held his breath. He had never previously shared this much of himself with an actual or potential partner, and he did not know what to expect.

Kexing took his hand. “Ah-Zu, please don’t worry yourself over that on my account. As I mentioned before I grew up around many people who had sex for professional reasons, and I’m the last person to be shocked by it.”

“Yes, I suppose you are!” said Zishu with relief.

“Any other embarrassing confessions while we’re on the subject?”

“Nothing that comes to mind, but I’ll let you know,” said Zishu wryly.

“I think you’ve heard most of my life story by now,” said Kexing.

“I don’t know, have I? I admit I’m intrigued by how you recognised the guns on Chengling’s friends.”

“Ah, that’s just from growing up in the Entertainment District,” Kexing replied. “It’s actually a lot less rough now than it used to be, believe it or not. My previous boss, the old owner of Ghost Valley, was a hard man, and he employed hard men. Guns were not uncommon as part of property disputes. And I was involved in a few of those in my day.”

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu poured more wine, and leaned back on his elbows to enjoy looking at Wen Kexing. It wasn’t often that he got to spend his leisure time with someone so attractive. Kexing also looked much more relaxed than usual, losing some of his usual edge of performance.

He also seemed very happy to be looked at. He tilted his head back to drink the wine, exposing a long and elegant neck, and then raised an eyebrow at Zishu with a slight smile.

“Yes, yes, you’re very pretty and you know you are,” grumbled Zishu.

“And I know you like it,” Kexing responded.

Zishu couldn’t credibly refute that, so didn’t try. Instead he summoned the waiter and asked for the bill.

“I trust you’re paying, since you invited me?” asked Kexing. “A gentleman like you wouldn’t expect his date to pay.”

“Certainly I am paying,” replied Zishu.

He took advantage of Kexing’s momentary surprised silence and suggested a walk along the river.

As they strolled off, Zishu noted again with appreciation that Kexing was slightly taller than him. This was something he previously hadn’t thought about much in selecting his occasional partners, but he found that he enjoyed it.

They came to a small market by the riverside. Kexing rushed up with excitement, selecting a snack from the first stall and bantering with the stallholder.

Zishu followed him in time to hear Kexing inform the stallkeeper that “My good friend Ah-Xu will be paying”. Zishu sighed inwardly, realising that he had rather set himself up for this one, and paid without argument.

He followed Kexing from stall to stall paying for all of his impulse buys. He rolled his eyes for Kexing’s benefit, but rather enjoyed watching him in motion and the easy way he formed a connection with each stallholder. The money was a triviality in the end as Zishu earned more than he ever had time to spend, and if it made Kexing happy to tease in this way Zishu was not going to object.

At the last stall Kexing extended his hand for Zishu’s wallet. Zishu handed it over without flinching. It was hardly his only money stash, and he trusted Kexing not to overstep the bounds of the game.

Kexing did eventually hand back the wallet, not too much lighter, and walked on, tilting his face to the sunlight.

“Ah, this is nice,” Kexing said.

“Yes,” said Zishu.

“It’s been too long since I took time for myself. And I bet the same is true for you.”

“Too much so. I’ve put so much time into my career over the year, but now I’m starting to realise that there’s more to life than work.”

Kexing looked down with a small smile. Zishu was pleased to see it as it seemed much more private and genuine than his normal performative gestures.

“What’re your plans for the next few days?” he asked.

“Ah, you know I have some secrets of my own,” Kexing replied.

“Of course. I can hardly complain about that.”

“Quite. But I have a project I’m working on which I’m quite excited about.

“It actually has something to do with our new friends at Five Lakes, and that overprivileged bastard Gao Chong.”

“What about him?”

“I don’t want to spoil the surprise! But I’m sure you’ll enjoy it when you see it.”

“What is it about Gao Chong in particular that irritates you?” Zishu asked. “I mean, I know your general feelings about politicians and about Five Lakes, but the man himself seemed fine when we met him. Pretty stiff and formal, and a bit pleased with his status, but lots of men in his position are like that.”

“Yes they are, the smug bastards. But no, it’s not just that. And not just that Family Values rubbish he goes on about.”

“And his threat to close down the Entertainment District?”

“Well yes, that I do take personally. That place represents a lot of my work, and Luo Fumeng’s, and all of our team. It’s my livelihood, and my home from home. It’s my friends and colleagues, and it’s a place lots of people use as a refuge. For our punters it’s only a refuge from boredom for a day, but for the performers it can be a refuge from all sorts of horrors - from abusive partners or family, from the constraints of conformity, from all of the pressures of the mundane world. The stories can break your heart.”

Zishu didn’t doubt it. “But still, what is it about Gao Chong, rather than about the rest of his party? They’d still be reactionary bores whoever was leading them.”

“I can’t tell you all of that,” replied Kexing. “It’s not just my story to tell. But I know a lot more about him than just his public persona. The face he puts on in public is nothing like the real man. I know things about him which would turn your stomach.”

Zishu doubted this, as his career as an agent had exposed him to all of the worst of human behaviour. Almost nothing surprised or horrified him any more. But that was beside the point.

“Is Chengling safe with him?” he asked urgently.

“Yes of course,” Kexing replied quickly. “He’s a smug git and a hypocrite, but I don’t have any reason to think he would harm a child. I wouldn’t have let Chengling in the door if I thought otherwise.

“And anyway, Chengling’s a public relations asset to him. The bereaved son of his ‘dear friend’? A tragic sad orphan living with him and his family, and appearing on podiums, and acting as a living illustration of why of course no one could possibly object to a crackdown on crime? That’s an asset no politician would waste.

“It’s in his interests to look after Chengling, and to show off how well he’s looked after, and how generous the party and the family are to take him in.”

“But Chengling will hate all that.”

“You and I know that, but it’s hardly fatal. And he’s getting a life of luxury most people would envy.”

“I suppose.”

“We both know how much worse it could be.”

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu took the date with him as a warm memory as he went back to work that week.

He didn’t make much progress on unravelling the blackmail plot, but he was at least able to rule out some leads.

He also started very carefully investigating what Duan Peng Ju had been up to lately. He knew that the man was dangerous and completely amoral, and knew that he would go along with any plan from the Minister as long as it benefited him.

However, Zishu was not entirely without allies in the department.

He got in touch with an old contact, Bi Chang Feng. The old man had served with Zishu’s father and with himself before taking a desk job. He was unquestionably loyal to Zishu and knew all the secrets of the service. But he lacked ambition for himself and was on the verge of retirement. He was no longer an agent, and didn’t play power games, and so it was likely the Minister, and Duan Peng Ju, would have overlooked him entirely.

But the man was experienced and cunning, and completely immune to political bullshit. He had maintained his security clearance.

Bi Chang Feng rolled his eyes when Duan Peng Ju was mentioned, but happily agreed to take the job. He said he had been suspicious of the younger man for some time. He shared Zishu’s opinion that the agent cared far more for himself than for the needs of the department, and looked forward to putting him in his place.

Zishu also spoke more carefully with Han Ying. The kid was undoubtedly loyal, but hardly subtle, and would be outclassed easily by the Minister or by Duan Peng Ju. Zishu therefore only told him to keep his head down and keep Zishu informed of anything unusual.

Later in the week, Zishu received a text from Chengling, who wrote very enthusiastically about the food at Five Lakes and how well everyone there was looking after him.

Zishu knew (from the code arranged previously) that he wanted someone to talk to. He therefore wrote back to recommend a particular bookshop in the shopping district, and advised Chengling he would need at least an hour to look at everything.

When the day arrived, Chengling was accompanied by several loud teenagers from the Five Lakes Youth League. They were crowding around him and pushing him, and slapping him on the back. They made nasty jokes at Chengling’s expense, and at the expense of the bookshop’s staff, and a number of other customers left to avoid them. However, as Zishu had planned, they soon got bored in the bookshop and wandered off to more interestingly expensive shops.

Zishu came out from the quiet corner where he had been pretending to read and passed a large tip to the woman behind the counter. She nodded and smiled, and promised to warn them if anyone else came towards the shop entrance.

“Mr Zhou!” cried Chengling, hurrying towards him. He flung himself at Zishu for a hug, which Zishu returned uncertainly by patting him on the head.

“You came! How did you know that would work!”

“I knew they wouldn’t let you out alone, but idiots like that were never going to spend much time in a bookshop with so much else they could do instead.”

“That’s so clever!”

“And now we can talk freely - the staff here have done discreet favours for me before. How are you, Chengling?”

The boy looked at his feet. “Oh, Mr Zhou. It’s so awful.”

“What sort of awful, kid? If we’re going to get to the bottom of this I need a full report. Now stand up straight and focus.”

“Yessir. It’s just. I hate those boys.”

“Yes, that seems sensible.”

“Mr Gao and Mr Zhao say I have to spend time with them and make friends. But all they do is push me and punch me and laugh at me. I don’t care about computer games or sports like they do, and they’re really creepy with girls.”

“Yes, I bet they are.”

“When I told them how rude they were being they just laughed more.”

“Who were they trying this with?”

“Everyone, but particularly waitresses and servants. At least they leave Gao Xiaolian alone, they’re too scared of her Dad.”

“And how does she treat you?”

“Very well actually, I think they told her she had to look after me. I’m safe when I’m with her, but she’s not around all the time. She’s got a boyfriend. He’s a bit older than that lot outside, one of her father’s proteges.”

“And how are Gao Chong and Zhao Ying and Shen Shen treating you?”

Chengling looked down again. “They’re… nice. I suppose.”

“You suppose? Focus, kid!”

“Mr Gao tries to be gentle, but he’s really strict. He wants me to go to media training classes so I can go on television with him. But when I said I didn’t want to, he got really angry.”

“And Zhao Ying?”

“He tries to protect me from Mr Gao but he gets shouted at as well. And Mr Shen just says I need to buck up and join in with the Youth League, and that I’ll enjoy it if I try.”

“Are you?”

“No! They’re nasty.”

“Have you heard anything which might be useful to the investigation?”

“Not much. Sorry Mr Zhou!”

“Has anyone talked about the blackmail at all?”

“Not really, just to say that they’ve had threatening messages. They do sound a bit like the ones my Dad got, but I haven’t heard much. They go quiet if they see me coming.”

“Okay, kid. Can you stick it out there for now, and keep listening for clues?”

“...I guess. They want to send me to the same school as those bullies, though. I know I’ll hate it.”

“Stick it out for now, and keep using the code I gave you. Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang know it as well.”

“Gu Xiang! Was it you who sent her to make friends with Gao Xiaolian?”

Zishu stared at Chengling. “She’s doing what?”

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu wanted to see Wen Kexing again, and relaying Chengling’s news gave him the perfect excuse to get in touch.

To his delight, Wen Kexing invited him back to his home. He rang the doorbell, and was greeted by the man himself.

“A-Xu! I wasted away without seeing your beautiful face!”

Zishu looked him up and down. “Yes, I can tell.”

This was a new version of Kexing, one he hadn’t seen before. He had gone back to a femme presentation, but in a more relaxed style. Instead of the high glamour of the club he was wearing a cream coloured woollen tunic dress with leggings, and his hair in a messy bun. His feet were bare.

Zishu found this look in some ways even more appealing than the formal put-together styles he was more familiar with. The dress looked touchably soft, and he enjoyed seeing Kexing without his usual sharp edges.

He stepped closer to Kexing and let the appreciation show in his face. “Even more gorgeous today.”

As before Kexing proved unable to cope with genuine praise. He stuttered slightly and showed a hint of a blush, before recovering himself and inviting Zishu into the house.

Zishu looked around with pleasure, enjoying the rich jewel tones and comfortable furnishings he remembered. The house was largely tidy but far from being a perfect show home. He could see Kexing’s tailored jackets next to Gu Xiang’s purple coat, and the long red coat too small for Kexing must belong to Luo Fumeng.

Kexing let him back to the kitchen, which was clearly the warm heart of the house. Zishu sat on the upholstered bench seating next to the kitchen table, overshadowed by a tangle of plant life, and enjoyed watching Kexing as he padded around fetching things.

“Would you like wine? Or tea?”

“Wine, I think.”

Kexing brought a bottle and two glasses to the table, and a bag of nuts, with a bowl for the shells.

Zishu took his glass, and enjoyed allowing his hand to slide along Kexing’s as he did so. The other man had recovered his poise and smirked slightly as he joined Zishu on the bench.

“Fun as this is, first tell me what those teenage idiots have been up to. You actually met with Chengling?”

“Yes, I suggested a bookshop run by people I know. The young thugs hanging around with him got bored and wandered off, so we were able to talk privately.”

“Is he okay?”

“Yes, he’s fine for now. The Youth League rabble are giving him a bit of a hard time, but he’s hanging in there. He’ll toughen up.”
“Toughen up?”

“Yeah, they’re just shoving him and stuff. If he doesn’t back down they’ll learn to respect him.”

Kexing drew back in surprise and dawning upset.

“Is that what you said to him?”

“Yes? I mean not in so many words, but.”

“The poor kid!”

“How so?”

“He’s lost his dad! And been in an accident, and he’s in a strange place full of the sort of teenagers who voluntarily join a moral majority youth league. And they’re bullying him. And then he turns to one of the few other adults he knows, and you tell him to toughen up?”

“You and I both had to.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean he has to if he doesn’t want to. Seriously, I don’t know all of your background but you’ve clearly been through some things to learn the skills you have. Do you really want Chengling to have to go through the same things?”

“I hope he can learn without having the same struggles, yes.”

“But you just left him there?”

“Yes? He’s investigating and trying to find clues. And anyway, I’ve got no right to take him away. He’s with his father’s friends and colleagues, and if I took him they’d come looking for him immediately. Probably with lots of police backing them up, and lots of journalists looking for a juicy story.”

Kexing sighed. “Yes, okay, that wouldn’t have been easy. But still you could have shown him more sympathy!”

“I was worried if I went soft he’d burst into tears or something.”

“Honestly, so what if he did? Nothing wrong with crying. I thought you were more broad-minded about gender roles,” Kexing said, gesturing at his own femme clothing.

“Yes, of course! But no-one knew we were meeting, and him rejoining those teenage thugs covered in tears would only have made things harder for him, as well as raising suspicions.”

“Ugh I guess. But we can’t leave him there. I bet that’s not the only thing those nasty brats are up to.”

“You’re right. Apparently they’re harassing girls and women as well, particularly the ones who can’t fight back.”

“Damnit. The so-called moral majority are always the worst like that. I see it all the time in the club. Poor Chengling isn’t like that, and he shouldn’t be learning to be.”

“Yes, and he said Gao Chong and the others want to send him to the same school as them as well.”

“That settles it, we can’t leave him there.”

“But what can we do?”

“I don’t know yet, but we need to think of something.” Kexing took a deep breath and poured out more wine for both of them. “In the meantime, exactly what did Chengling say about my little Gu Xiang?”

“He said that she’d been there, at Five Lakes headquarters. Apparently she’s made friends with Gao Xiaolian, and was having tea with her there. He said neither of them let on that they knew each other before, and Xiaolian introduced them.”

“That’s good at least. Hanging out with the Chairman’s daughter gives them both some protection from the thugs, and means she won’t be exposed to the worst of them.”

“And it’s good for the investigation as well. There’s no easy way to explain how they know each other.”

“Never mind the damn investigation. But at least now I know where Gu Xiang has been disappearing to. She was being entirely too secretive for my liking.”

“Is she here now?”

“Not yet, but she’s due back soon. And she doesn’t know I know, yet.”

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu looked more closely at Wen Kexing - never a hardship - and saw hints of strain in the corners of his eyes. He shifted along the bench, closer to the other man, and put a hand on his forearm.

“Hey, it’ll be okay.”

Kexing blinked hard and looked at him. “How so?”

“We’ll find a way to make it okay.”

“You and me? Against all of that bunch of fuckers?”

“Yep.”

“Well okay. But you’ve got to be nicer to Chengling. He’s a kid, and he’s been bereaved, and he’s being bullied.”

“Alright. But you’ve got to help me work out how to help him. You’ve got more experience with teenagers than I have.”

“True. Although I’m not sure that anything about Gu Xiang can be generalised to other teenagers.”

“Yeah, but she’s healthy and confident.”

Kexing’s face was starting to lose some of its tension. At the thought of his adopted sister he rolled his eyes.

“Ah, she’s a menace. Can’t have been my fault, of course.”

“Of course not,” said Zishu dryly. “Have you decided what you want to say to her about Chengling and Gao Xiaolian?”

“Not yet!”

Anything further Kexing had been going to say was cut off by the sound of the front door. First it slammed open and clearly rebounded off the wall. This was succeeded by the sound of keys being dropped, picked up again, and thrown against something, and then what sounded like boots being kicked off and bashing into the furniture.

Kexing grinned slightly and raised his voice, “Through here!”

The slamming noises continued until Gu Xiang arrived in the kitchen. Her socks were purple. “Ge! You’ll never…”

She broke off as she caught sight of Zishu.

“Sick dude! I mean, Mr Zhou!” She had clearly spotted Kexing’s raised eyebrow and corrected herself.

“Meimei! Stop slamming around and get yourself a snack.”

She came over to the kitchen table, sat on a stool, and took some of the nuts.

“Ge! You invited Mr Zhou around again!” She smiled sunnily as she looked between the two men, her earlier frustration apparently forgotten.

“Clearly,” said Kexing. “Now, what was it you were going to say?”

“Nothing! Mr Zhou, how nice to see you again!”

“It’s clearly not nothing,” Kexing broke in. “Ah-Xu was just telling me something very interesting.”

“Well, I’ll go away and leave you to it,” she said, starting to stand up.

“Sit down! Ah-Xu’s very interesting story will interest you too.”

She sat on the edge of the stool and attempted to fold her hands demurely. She blinked innocently up at Kexing.

“Don’t give me that! Ah-Xu has met Chengling, and heard all about your little trips to Five Lakes.”

She gave a slightly artificial laugh. “Oh. Oh those. Didn’t I tell you?”

“No. No you didn’t. Why don’t you tell us exactly what you were thinking?”

“I don’t want to bother Mr Zhou.”

“It’s a bit late to worry about that, now that you’ve jumped in the middle of his investigation.”

“Oh, but I can help!”

“Tell us exactly what you’ve been doing, and what you were thinking.”

She clasped her hands together, widened her eyes, and blinked several times. “Well, I really did want to help. And you won’t let me dance at the club, and college is so boring!”

“Oh poor baby. Clearly it’s all my fault. How exactly did that lead to you getting into Five Lakes’ headquarters?”

“Well, I saw Gao Xiaolian on TV behind her father, and heard you telling Luo Fumeng about her. And I thought she can’t be having much fun surrounded by those Youth League idiots! And if she avoids them she’s left with just her father’s friends, which is no better.”

“So what did you do?”

“Well, I looked up where the Five Lakes headquarters was. And then I got dressed up in my smartest clothes and went to sit in a coffee shop opposite. I sat and worked on my homework, you would be proud of me!”

“And then what happened?”

“Once I saw her come in, with one of the men from the party, I started acting frustrated, and pushed my books around. And I sniffed, just a little bit! I didn’t want to be too obvious.”

“No, of course not,” murmured Zishu.

“Anyway, she came over and asked why I was upset. And I didn’t have to lie! I told her all about how I hated college and how I struggled with the homework, and how strict my brother is. And she offered to help! I didn’t ask her for anything.”

“I’m sure,” said Kexing skeptically.

“I didn’t! She offered all by herself. She introduced me to her boyfriend as well - he’s really quiet - and then she started telling me about herself. I don’t think she has many female friends. Her boyfriend had to leave, and she stayed on and kept talking to me. She’s worried about her Dad and her uncles.”

“Worried about what?” Zishu broke in.

“About the death threats of course! And apparently they’ve been working really hard and had no time for her. They just want her to act as a hostess for Party members, they don’t want her to do anything for herself.”

“Yeah that figures,” said Kexing. “Family values types are all the same.”

“Anyway, like I said, I don’t think she has female friends. I told her about my strict brother and she was really sympathetic. And then we swapped phone numbers. And then she started inviting me round.”

“And you went, of course,” said Kexing.

“Yes of course! I want to help, and it was interesting! And I wanted to make sure Chengling was okay!”

“And you didn’t tell me or Luo Fumeng where you were going?”

“No, of course not! You would have stopped me!” She broke off and looked guilty.

“Yes, of course we would have! They could be dangerous.”

“But that’s why I made friends with Xiaolian! Honestly she’s really nice, and she’s the top man’s daughter. Being friends with her helps keep me safe, no-one there is going to want to upset her.”

“Still, it was incredibly reckless.”

“But I can help!”

“How exactly can you help?”

Chapter Text

The ensuing argument got pretty loud. Zhou Zishu stayed well out of it, sitting back to enjoy watching Wen Kexing’s passionate gestures and clear affection for his sister.

After much negotiation and impassioned debate, agreement was reached that Gu Xiang was allowed to keep up her friendship with Gao Xiaolian, but only on condition that Kexing, Zishu and Luo Fumeng were all fully informed of her plans at all times.

Zishu wasn’t sure how he had acquired responsibility for a teenager, but found he wasn’t sorry. He was flattered to be treated as, at the least, a family friend. Although he couldn’t tell them his real job, or his current role and investigation, he had better resources to keep Xiang safe, and he found he cared for her safety. And her vibrant and loud behaviour was at least not the grey drabness he had become accustomed to.

But his chief motivation was the appreciation from Kexing when he agreed, and the warmth of his smile.

Brother and sister’s argument had been forgotten. They had moved on to exuberantly debating the merits of the colour purple when they were interrupted by the doorbell.

The visitor turned out to be Liu Qianqiao, who Zishu vaguely remembered from his second visit to the Ghost Valley club where she was the assistant manager. .

Kexing had brought her back to the kitchen, which apparently was the room in the house where all important conversations happened. She was wearing the same combination of red and gold as that night, but appeared rather distraught.

Kexing waved at Zishu to introduce him. “You don’t mind if my dear Ah-Xu hears what you have to say?”

Zishu was expecting Liu Qianqiao to object, but she did not. “Of course not, I remember that he helped throw Yu Qiufeng out of the club that night.”

“Ugh that creep!” Gu Xiang interjected.

Qianqiao ignored this and spoke to Zishu directly, “Thanks again for your assistance.”

“Don’t worry about it, I was happy to help.”

Kexing broke in, “Has he turned up again?”

“Yes! The staff kept him out of the club of course, but he was hanging out round the corner waiting for me to leave. That’s why I came here. I didn’t want to go home in case he managed to follow me and find out where I live, so I went back into the club and called a taxi to come here.”

Kexing said, “Yes, you were absolutely right. And tell me how much you spent on the taxi and we’ll pay it back as a work expense.”

Qianqiao sagged with relief, and thanked him with tears in her eyes.

Kexing continued, “I am so sorry that you’re having to deal with him. None of our team should have to put up with these creeps.”

“Do you want to stay here tonight?” asked Gu Xiang.

“Yes, good idea!” said Kexing.

“Well, if you’re sure?” said Qianqiao. “But would Luo Fumeng mind? It’s her house too.”

“No, why would she mind?” said Kexing. “She’s very fond of you, you know, and she’d want you to be safe.”

“Yes, she’s very kind to me.”

Behind her back, Gu Xiang sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, very kind,” she said when Qianqiao turned around. “Would you like me to show you to a room? I can give you the one next to hers!”

Left alone, Zishu turned to Kexing, “So I take it they’re pining for each other?”

“Yes, and it would be irritating if it wasn’t so cute. They’ve both had a hard time in different ways so I really hope they can work it out.”

“What’s holding them back?”

“On Luo Fumeng’s side, she is Qianqiao’s boss at the club. She’s worried that if she approaches her she’ll just be another creep.”

“And Qianqiao?”

“Lack of confidence largely. She’s had a bad relationship history and she’s being stalked, which would throw anyone off. But she’s doing great as assistant manager, which I’m hoping will build up her confidence a bit. And at least we can keep her away from that creep.”

“Does this sort of thing happen a lot?”

“Yes. It makes me angry. But we’re known in the business as one of the safest places for dancers to work. It means a lot of them have come to us for refuge. And we do what we can for them.”

“That’s very admirable.”

Kexing blushed again and looked away, still uncomfortable with genuine praise. “It’s the least we can do. And both Aunt Fumeng and I know what those creeps can be like from personal experience.

“Yu Qiufeng is another family values politician, of course,” he added indignantly, regaining his poise.

“Is he part of Five Lakes?”

“He’s not, but he hangs out with them and often votes with them.”

Kexing visibly perked up as he remembered something. “Ah-Xu! I think I can offer you a really good date night next time around!”

Zishu smiled at that, pleased that the other man was already planning their next date. “How on earth does Five Lakes remind you of a plan for a date?”

“Aha, that would be telling! Dress up smart and come out with me next weekend - I’ll text you the place and time. Then we can watch all the fun together.”

“And are you going to dress up for me too?”

“Of course! Only the best for you! But I’ll be dressed far more conservatively than this, I’m afraid,” Kexing said, gesturing at his dress and bare feet.

“You look gorgeous whatever you wear,” said Zishu honestly.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu spent most of the next week in anticipation of the date Wen Kexing was arranging. Nevertheless, he did have to work.

Bi Chang Feng reported back, discreetly, on his investigation of Heilan Yi and Duan Peng Ju. He was able to confirm that Heilan Yi had been meeting clandestinely with someone high up at Five Lakes, but had not managed to get close enough to find out who, or to plant a bug.

Likewise, he had confirmed that Duan Peng Ju had been unusually pleased with himself, and appeared to be celebrating success at something, but didn’t know at what.

Zishu thanked him and warned him again to be careful. These were very dangerous men.

Bi Chang Feng waved him off with a laugh, pointing out that he had spent a long time at these espionage games.

When the day of the date arrived Zishu was relieved to have something out of work to focus on. Remembering Kexing’s instructions, he dressed carefully and formally in a soft grey suit with a blue tie. He set off for their meeting-place full of pleased anticipation.

Kexing was waiting for him, immaculately dressed in a formal black suit with a red tie. He was carrying a white fan, and seemed extremely excited by whatever he had planned.

“Ah-Xu! You came!”

“Of course I came,” said Zishu. “I can’t stay away from you.”

He put his hand up to touch Kexing’s cheek, and revelled in the small genuine smile this produced. He enjoyed Kexing in all his moods, from the performer to the angry rebel to the loving family man, but particularly valued the sense that he saw more of the man’s quieter side than most people were permitted. He hoped that they were both learning to be open with each other.

“Come on, we can’t be late!” said Kexing, grabbing Zishu’s arm to hurry him along. “Remember your accountant/writer persona?”

“What? Why?” said Zishu. “I thought we were on a date?”

“Yes! I’m very excited, I’ve been working hard to set it up.”

“Where are we going?”

“Back to Five Lakes of course! And remember we’re just friends.” Kexing dropped his hold on Zishu’s arm.

“Five Lakes? Why?” asked Zishu. He had been anticipating flirtation over dinner, or perhaps a boat trip, and had not expected anything of the sort.

“Yes, isn’t it great? Some very exciting things are going to happen!”

“How can we be just friends and be on a date?” Zishu asked, feeling bereft at the loss of the evening he had been imagining, with gentle touches and intimate conversation.

“Oh but this is so much better!,” said Kexing. He was bubbling with joy, bouncing along the pavement.

Zishu rolled his eyes and decided to play along. He didn’t want to spoil the man’s fun, after all, and at least he might see Chengling at Five Lakes.

When they arrived at the Party headquarters, the door security let them in immediately.

Zhao Jing met them at the door and bowed, smiling. “Mr Wen! And friend,” he added, nodding at Zishu, who assumed his writer persona and bowed slightly in return. “So glad you were able to make it. We have some exciting policy announcements which I know will be of interest.”

“We’re very glad to be here,” replied Kexing. “But I know you must be very busy setting up for the press conference, so I don’t want to get in the way.”

“Not at all,” smiled Zhao Jing, “but I know you must want to see Chengling and hear how he’s been recovering from his adventures. He’s right over there.”

The two men headed off past the crowds of staffers, the catering staff, and the TV camera crews. They went to the corner Zhao Jing had indicated, where Chengling rose to greet them from where he had been sitting with Shen Shen and with an older man dressed all in white. Chengling was wearing a teenager-sized grey suit and looked somewhat uncomfortable in it.

Zishu was pleased to see that Chengling didn’t run to them or act as if he knew them well. Instead he bowed as he would to any older visitors, and welcomed them in the name of the Party, ushering them to join Shen Shen and the man in white.

“Mr Wen, Mr Zhou,” said Shen Shen, “Glad you could make it here today. Our press conference is going to be great.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” smiled Kexing, fanning himself gently.

“We did want Chengling to take part, but he didn’t feel quite ready,” said Shen Shen gruffly. “So we’re letting him sit this one out. But next time you’ll be up on stage, won’t you, lad?”

Chengling blushed and didn’t answer.

“Poor kid, he’s shy,” said Kexing. “How have you been, Chengling?”

“Alright, thankyou, sir,” he replied. “The Party have been looking after me.”

“Of course!” said Shen Shen

“The food here is great,” Chengling added, looking straight at Zishu. Zishu nodded slightly to show that he had understood the request to talk, in the code they had agreed. However, it would have to wait for a good opportunity.

Shen Shen broke in again to introduce his companion, the man dressed all in white.

“And please let me introduce Mr Wen, a local businessman, and his friend Mr Zhou, a writer. Gentlemen, this is Ye Baiyi, the famous political consultant. He has kindly agreed to lend Five Lakes his expertise, and has come to observe this press conference as part of his work.”

Ye Baiyi looked up and stared hard at Kexing and Zishu in turn, before returning his attention to his plate of appetisers.

“Anyway, look, the speeches are about to start!”

Shen Shen waved at the other end of the hall. Gao Chong was preparing to step up to the microphone, with TV crews setting up their shots, and journalists preparing to take notes.

Zishu glimpsed Zhao Jing behind him, with Gao Xiaolian off to the side talking to Gu Xiang in a smarter version of her signature purple.

Chapter Text

Staffers quickly hushed the hall at Five Lakes as Gao Chong stepped forwards. The camera crews started filming, and senior party members gathered around to make sure they could be seen to be nodding supportively. Zhao Jing was at the edge of the group, appearing reluctant to push himself forwards.

Zhou Zishu braced himself for boredom and looked towards Wen Kexing to share a resigned smile with him.

However, Kexing didn’t notice this at all. He was entirely focussed on the speech, his eyes glittering as he observed the crowd closely.

Zishu found himself disappointed, again, at the loss of the date he had been anticipating, and confused about why Kexing was so interested. For lack of anything else to do he looked back at the stage himself.

“Friends,” Gao Chong was saying into the microphone, “as you know, we live in dangerous times.

“Criminals run rampant in our cities. Nowhere is safe. Even we at Five Lakes have been the target of threats and blackmail.

“Of course, as public figures, we cannot expect to be above criticism, and none of us is perfect.”

Some of the politicians around Gao Chong looked slightly affronted by this, and Zishu was pleased to see at least one camera re-focussed to catch their reactions.

“However, when someone retires from politics and steps back from private life they should be safe. But as you know my great friend and former colleague Zhang Yu Sen was killed by these criminals only days ago.”

Zishu looked over to Chengling with concern, to find him hunching his shoulders miserably. He looked even smaller inside the suit, and was staring at the floor rather than meeting anyone’s eyes.

Gao continued, “And please, let’s take a moment in sympathy for Zhang Yu Sen’s son, Zhang Chengling. He’s here with us today.”

Gao waved at the cameras and directed them to where Chengling was sitting. Shen Shen had obviously been expecting this, as he stood up promptly, pulled Chengling to his feet, and urged him into a bow. Chengling flinched away but complied, his hair slipping forward to cover his face. He sat again quickly without saying anything, and Shen Shen stood awkwardly for a second before returning to his seat.

Gao hesitated slightly before continuing, “Chengling didn’t feel ready to speak to the cameras as yet, but I am honoured to be able to speak for him, and I know that he shares our outrage at the state of the city.”

The political consultant in white, Ye Baiyi, sneered slightly at this, and muttered under his breath, “Fucking amateur move.”

Gao went on, “As you know, Five Lakes is dedicated to eradicating crime and immorality. To making a better world for you and your families. To letting children like Chengling grow up safely rather than facing tragedy.

“To this end, we are bringing forward the next stage of our plans to make the city safer.

“Firstly, of course, there will be additional police presence on the streets. This will be supplemented with our new volunteer force, who will be empowered to prevent crime. We will be accepting applications from concerned citizens immediately, subject to references from respectable members of our community.”

Zishu winced inwardly at this. As a professional he hated to have amateurs all over the place, and he couldn’t imagine the police felt any differently. Plus what sort of person would volunteer?

“Secondly, we will be introducing licences for business owners. Anyone whose business is legitimate and moral will have nothing to fear. Many upstanding businesses have been issued with licences already. But we will close down those in the Entertainment District who don’t meet strict moral standards. They have been abusing our liberty for too long.”

Zishu looked to Kexing with concern. Surely the man would be outraged at this threat to his club?

However, Kexing remained calm, other than the predatory gleam in his eyes. Kexing did return Zishu’s glance this time, but just whispered, “Wait for it,” and returned his attention to the stage.

Gao added, “We will show zero tolerance for those who do not respect our society. For those who threaten our families, and our way of life.”

Just then there was a stir to one side of the hall, and a roughly dressed man pushed forward to the front of the audience. He was followed by two women, one dressed in black and one in white.

“Here we go,” said Kexing gleefully.

The man pushed his way to one of the TV cameras, and raised his voice to address Gao Chong on the stage.

“I’m Wu Chang Gui,” he said. “I have a business in the entertainment district, The Hanging Ghost, which I assure you meets the highest standards of entertainment.”

Gao appeared to take this in stride. “We are not here to provide a free advertisement for you, Mr Wu,” he said. “Now-”

The man broke in again, “But, Mr Gao, you would know all about the Entertainment District, wouldn’t you? You visited often enough.”

This prompted some gasps from the journalists, and even a few from the group of senior politicians behind Gao.

“Go on, Mr Wu,” said Gao. “Make your point.”

Zishu felt a degree of respect at this. Instead of blustering, Gao was meeting the accuser head on.

Wu replied, “Mr Gao, you visited the Entertainment District very regularly yourself, for many years. There are several dancers who received visits from you. And not just visits!”

“Your point?”

“Isn’t it hypocritical of you to try to shut down somewhere where you visited so often? And so clearly enjoyed visiting? Both of these ladies would be happy to tell the press all sorts of things about you!” He gestured at his companions in black and in white, both of whom pushed forward, nodding eagerly.

Zishu asked Kexing in shock, “Surely Luo Fumeng wouldn’t want to speak to the press?”

Kexing replied under his breath, “No, she didn’t want to be involved with this. Don’t worry, we paid lots of other women to speak up instead.”

Gao Chong was now surrounded by outraged faces. Even the senior members of his party had lost their professional presentation and were gaping at him. He took a deep breath and stepped up to the microphone again.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu watched Gao Chong as he addressed the allegations. He was impressed that the man chose to meet them head on rather than blustering or attacking the accusers.

“It’s absolutely true,” Gao was saying. “I did once visit the Entertainment District regularly, and I did form relationships with some of the women there.”

Some of the audience gasped. Gao went on, “It was at a time in my life when I was desperately lonely, following the death of my wife. I sought out companionship amongst the bars and clubs there. I found people who would listen to me, for a price. I formed intimate relationships with some of the performers, and in exchange supported them financially.

“However, I came to recognise that I had not been acting in accord with my personal values and withdrew from these relationships.

“In fact these experiences have been a big influence on the development of my political platform. I believe that the comforts of the Entertainment District are a distraction from true healing, and a false promise of comfort and intimacy which can lead people astray from their core values. Just as happened to me.

“I want to close the District in part to save others from making these same mistakes.”

Zishu heard murmurs of agreement and sympathy from the crowd, and saw a number of the senior politicians nod, and start to gather round Gao Chong on the platform again.

Looking to his companions, Chengling mostly looked confused and miserable. Ye Baiyi was nodding along with Gao Chong’s defence, murmuring, “Not bad, idiot.”

Wen Kexing, by contrast, appeared angry. Zishu leaned a little closer to him (no-one would notice, given the political events onstage), and asked him what was up.

Kexing replied in an undertone, but with clear frustration, “They’re just going to let him weasel out of it! Oh come on you fucking hypocrites, you can’t let him get away with that.”

On stage, Zhao Jing stepped out of the crowd of politicians and joined his colleague at the microphone. Gao Chong stepped back to allow him space.

“Thank you, Gao Chong, for that brave and principled confession. I’m sure we at Five Lakes would never want to condemn someone for showing a moment’s weakness.”

“Brave and principled my arse,” muttered Ye Baiyi. “He was forced into it!”

“Is that it?” asked Kexing, a fraction too loudly. Zishu saw faces start to turn towards them and hushed him quickly.

Zhao Jing went on, “Five Lakes will absolutely support people in leaving their former dependency on these forms of ‘entertainment’. Please join with me in a round of applause for our courageous brother.”

Under cover of the applause Zishu asked Kexing why he was so agitated.

Kexing glanced at him briefly before returning his glare to the stage. “This was meant to be our date! I wanted to be able to show you one of these bastards getting his come-uppance!”

Zishu reflected that at least that explained the strange choice of date night activity. But what on earth had Kexing been thinking? Why did he think that stitching one of these guys up at a press conference was going to solve anything? Politicians always rose to the top. And if one did fall there was always another one behind to take over.

And why did Kexing think it constituted a date? What was wrong with dinner and drinks?

“But it’s not over yet!” added Kexing.

He brightened as another disturbance at the front of the room revealed a second man pushing to the front and speaking to the cameras.

“I’m Kai Xin Gui, also from the Entertainment District.”

Zhao Jing said, “Yes, Mr Kai?”

“I have pictures of Gao Chong and his ‘friends’ in the District.”

This created a further stir amongst the politicians, but Gao Chong stepped forward to the microphone again.

“Yes, no doubt you do have pictures. But I hope you, and the media, will respect my privacy. That was a difficult time in my life, where I made bad choices that I very much regret. I ask you to respect me, and particularly my daughter who is innocent in all of this.”

The cameras all swung to Gao Xiaolian to catch her reaction. She didn’t say anything but stood straight, enduring their scrutiny. A large young man from the back of the group of politicians stepped up to stand at her shoulder and support her.

Zhao Jing returned to the microphone and added, “Yes, please do respect his privacy and his family’s. They have already suffered enough from this error of judgment.”

“Suffered what?” muttered Kexing angrily.

Zishu rolled his eyes.

Gao Chong said, “Thank you, everyone, for your consideration at this difficult time. Now if we might perhaps move on?”

One of the TV journalists stepped forwards. She was wearing a very short dress, in bright swirls of purple, red, blue and yellow. Her camera crew followed her as she approached Gao Chong.

“Mr Gao?” She smirked as she confronted him. “I’m Du Pusa, from Scorpion Media.”

“Yes?”

“Our team recently came into evidence that your involvement with the Entertainment District is much greater than you’ve claimed today.”

Gao Chong appeared baffled. “In what way?”

“We’ve received a substantial portfolio showing that you are in fact the investor behind many of the Entertainment District’s key properties. An interesting choice for someone of your fine moral character, I’m sure.”

Gao blustered, “But - that’s not true!”

“Isn’t it?” Du Pusa purred. “After everything we’ve heard tonight? You’ve admitted to visiting the District regularly, and to your ‘friendships’ there. Why are you lying about this?”

Gao now looked truly off balance. “I didn’t! That’s a lie!”

Zishu glanced back at Kexing, who now looked as shocked as anyone else. But he was a good actor, could Zishu trust that?

Zhao Jing slid in front of Gao at the microphone.

“My dear young lady, did you say you had a dossier of evidence?”

“Indeed,” she smiled, one hand tracing her low cut neckline.

“Would you be able to share copies with us for investigation? These allegations must be looked into carefully. If our colleague’s weakness has led to ongoing association with this depravity, and profit from it, that is something the Five Lakes party would take very seriously.”

Gao Chong pushed his way back to the microphone, now appearing truly angry. His hair was dishevelled, and his composure had disappeared.

“These are lies!” he shouted, and then flinched at loud feedback. “Lies! But if my Party believes them, and even my Deputy believes them, then I have no choice! I must resign as Party Leader.”

Chapter Text

Gao Chong’s resignation caused an uproar. Politicians surged forward, divided between yelling at him and at each other. Zhao Jing was the centre of another knot of politicians, rather quieter, with their heads close together. Gao Xiaolian was unable to reach her father in the crush, and seemed to be in tears. The large young man was standing in front of her, attempting to shield her from the cameras.

The two club owners and their colleagues who had raised the first sets of allegations had melted away somewhere.

By contrast, Du Pusa, the miniskirted TV journalist, had gathered her crew and was doing a gleeful voiceover to camera. She appeared to be preening and congratulating herself as she gesticulated excitedly.

Zhou Zishu didn’t care either way about Gao Chong so he was at liberty to look around at his companions.

From the mismatched group which had been sat together - Zishu and Wen Kexing, young Chengling, the politician Shen Shen, and the elderly strategist Ye Baiyi - the reactions were very different.

Shen Shen had left them without a glance, rushing to the stage to join the crowd around Gao Chong. Ye Baiyi was watching the stage and the TV cameras with avid interest, nodding and shaking his head, and appearing to be counting points.

Wen Kexing’s eyes gleamed with angry satisfaction, seeming to be only just restraining himself from bouncing in his seat with glee. His gaze had not left Gao Chong, staring at him with fascination.

And Chengling --

Zishu jumped to his feet and rushed to Chengling’s side. With all the disturbance going on there was not much chance of being observed, but honestly that was the last thing on his mind once he saw Chengling’s pale face.

Chengling’s eyes were once again on the floor in front of him. He was white to his hairline, biting his lip fiercely, and gripping the arms of his chair as tightly as he could.

Zishu stood in front of him, feeling at a loss for how to help but unwilling to do nothing.

He said, “Hey kid. Look at me.”

Chengling looked up slowly.

Zishu held his eyes and said, “Chin up, kid. You’re better than this. You can’t let people see they’ve hurt you.”

Chengling blinked at him with huge eyes.

“You can do it,” Zishu continued. “You don’t need to show them your pain. Deep breaths now.”

Chengling followed this advice, and his hands relaxed somewhat. Still, this meeting was chaotic and was clearly no place to hang around.

And the date he had hoped for with Wen Kexing was clearly a write-off. The man had been playing games with politics at the expense of spending time with Zishu, and now he was gloating at the expense of spending time with Chengling. But they didn’t have to sit through his games.

“Come on, Chengling, let’s get out of here,” he said.

“Really? You mean it?” said Chengling, scrambling up.

“Come on. Goodbye, Wen Kexing,” Zishu added coldly, not sure if the man would even register their leaving.

He turned and walked away briskly, Chengling hurrying behind him. He pushed through the chaos remaining of the political meeting, automatically taking note of the main movements as he left.

Gao Chong had left the stage, as had his daughter, presumably to get away from the press. Shen Shen was shouting angrily at the journalists. Zhao Jing was appealing for calm.

He steered Chengling through the edges of the crowd and towards the main doors. The security team were distracted and clearly had no wish to prevent people leaving, so they were nodded through quickly.

Once in the open air Zishu turned quickly and marched briskly off, wanting to get as much distance from that circus as he could.

A couple of hundred yards away he heard Wen Kexing’s voice from behind him. “Ah-Xu! Wait for me!”

He huffed and sped up, grabbing Chengling’s arm to hurry him along.

“Ah-Xu!”

Zishu didn’t stop or look back, but had to stop when Kexing ran ahead of him and spread out his arms to block the pavement, grinning at them.

“Where are you going?” Kexing asked, half laughing, appearing genuinely baffled.

“Away.”

“Awww, why? Didn’t you want to stay and enjoy it?”

“Enjoy it? Seriously?”

“Don’t you want to finish our date?” Kexing pouted and batted his eyelashes, still half laughing.

“That wasn’t a date,” snapped Zishu. “Now get out of my way.”

“But I set that up just for you!” protested Kexing. He at least now appeared more serious, although puzzled by Zishu’s reaction.

“No you didn’t, you set it up for you.”

“What? Didn’t you enjoy seeing that smug hypocrite get hung out to dry?”

Zishu was too angry to hold back. “Why would I care? He’s a politician! Another one will be along in a minute, just the same. Why bother putting any effort into taking him down? And why did you think I’d care either way?”

“But he was trying to get the Entertainment District closed down! And pretending he was better than us!”

“That’s all about you, not me!”

“I thought you cared about me!” yelled Kexing.

“Yes, so did I,” said Zishu with resignation. “And I thought you cared about me and wanted to spend time with me, not drag me into political games.”

“I do!”

“And I thought you cared about Chengling, but you must not, or you wouldn’t have put him in that position.”

“I do care! You don’t mind, do you, Chengling?” Kexing reached out towards the kid.

Chengling flinched away, staring at the floor again, and didn’t reply. Zishu stepped up to him and put a hand on his shoulder, and he stepped back half a step until he was pressed to Zishu’s side.

“Clearly you don’t care enough about either of us to care what we want. Now get out of my way.”

Kexing stared at them blankly as they walked away. Zishu hurried to get out of sight before flagging down a taxi.

Chapter Text

Once Zhou Zishu and Chengling were in the taxi, Zishu realised he didn’t have a plan, and didn’t have the energy to maintain a complex cover. And Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang knew where his cover’s persona lived, anyway.

So he gave the taxi-driver his real address and decided to deal with any consequences later.

Chengling seemed not to notice anything unusual. He spent the taxi ride pressed into a corner, staring at his feet again, not even looking out of the window.

When they reached Zishu’s apartment building, and his high spec soulless flat, Chengling did rouse somewhat, enough to look around in confusion. Zishu ushered him to one of the expensive but awkwardly shaped sofas, and then wondered what on earth to do with him.

“Do you want something to drink?”

“No thanks.” Chengling looked around listlessly, and then stirred himself to ask, “Where are we?”

“Well. This is my real flat.”

“Your real… You don’t live in that place we were in before?”

“No.”

Chengling was starting to look nervous. “But - who are you?”

“My real name is Zhou Zishu. I work for the government. I was undercover when I met you, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you much more than that.”

“Undercover?” Chengling sat up straight. “But then you must be investigating!”

“I’m sorry, kid, but I really can’t tell you. I’m sorry.” Zishu scrubbed a hand down his face, wishing he had thought this through at all.

“Was everything you said to me just for the case?”

Chengling looked even more lost, and Zishu realised he had to try harder. He sat down with a thump.

“Hey kid, no! Exactly the opposite, really,” he sighed. “I was on a case, more or less, up until I met you, but since then life has got really complicated. My bosses don’t know I’ve been helping you, and they wouldn’t be impressed if they knew.”

“Really? You’ve been going against your work? For me?”

“Yes, but don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it.”

Chengling looked somewhat reassured but also very confused. “So what about everything with Wen Kexing? And Gu Xiang? Are you getting close to them for your case?” He looked worried, and added, “Are you faking everything with Wen Kexing?”

Zishu sighed again. “Hah! No, my bosses don’t know about them either. And no, I wasn’t acting with Kexing. It would have been easier if I was.”

He didn’t want to talk about this more, and didn’t want to put more pressure on Chengling, who had enough to worry about, so Zishu changed the subject by ordering takeaway for the two of them. There was, of course, nothing edible in the ridiculous flat, as Zishu saw no point in keeping it stocked, but he did manage to find tableware in the neglected kitchen.

After the meal Chengling was yawning so Zishu sent him to bed. His guest room had never previously been used, but had been left fully made up by the cleaning service, so he didn’t have to worry where to look for bedlinens. The service had also provided spare toothbrushes and towels so there was almost nothing for Zishu to do.

Once the kid was in bed Zishu had no reason not to get out some of his whisky, which was nearly the only thing he knew how to find in the kitchen. He settled back in the least uncomfortable armchair with a tumbler, and the bottle easily to hand.

He thought about the state his life was in.

His life’s work was a mess. He couldn’t trust Heilan Yi any more, or half the department, and his investigations there hadn’t yielded anything concrete as yet. And he didn’t believe in the department’s mission any more.

Zishu drained the glass and poured again.

He had compromised his role and his cover with Chengling, but without thinking anything through or making any real plans. The kid is only a teenager, still a minor, and bereaved, and Zishu has taken him away from his new adoptive home without any legal right to do so. His father’s political role and death has made him a media target, and both Five Lakes and the media will believe him to be missing.

Chengling’s life has been blown up many times over. Zishu knows he wasn’t happy at Five Lakes, but that doesn’t mean Zishu can just take him away. He has no legal right, any moral right is questionable, and it’s a terrible idea from a practical point of view anyway. The Party and the media would never stop looking for him, and unless the kid was locked up with no school or friends they would find him easily.

Zishu slammed another shot of whisky and poured again immediately.

What would he do with a teenager? He couldn’t offer the kid anything. His work life was too unstable, and his home was often empty, and he had no idea of what to do with teenagers anyway. Presumably they needed feeding, but what else?

Zishu gave up on the glass and started drinking directly from the bottle.

Wen Kexing. Zishu didn’t even know how to think about him any more. Zishu had spent so long living only for his work, with no companionship other than the occasional people he had to seduce.

He had hardly been looking for more, but somehow he had thought he’d found it anyway. Kexing was beautiful, and clever, and interesting, and clearly interested in Zishu. His home life had the warmth and richness to it which Zishu had been missing in his own without even realising it.

Zishu had relaxed his normal guarded behaviour, and allowed himself to be tempted. He had stopped protecting himself and started believing the fantasy.

But clearly it had only been a fantasy. Kexing the real man had not been able to live up to it.

Zishu had believed they were heading the same way together. He had known neither of them were being entirely forthcoming, given both of them had secrets to protect, but had thought they had been able to connect anyway.

Clearly he had been mistaken.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu woke the next morning slumped in the least uncomfortable armchair, still wearing the grey suit he’d put on to anticipate his ‘date’ with Wen Kexing.

The empty whisky bottle was next to him, and Chengling was staring at him anxiously from the chair opposite.

“How long have you been there, kid?”

“Um.”

“Never mind, don’t answer that. I’m going for a shower, okay?”

He handed Chengling a menu and told him to order breakfast for delivery, and charge it to his account, before staggering to the shower.

The least uncomfortable chair wasn’t actually comfortable.

After uncounted time staring at the wall of the shower waiting for his muscles to unknot, Zishu got dressed in something more relaxed and much cleaner.

He pulled himself together and went out to join Chengling for breakfast. The kid had been sensible enough to order lots of carbs, in the form of congee, and also a large amount of coffee.

He also didn’t feel the need to talk over breakfast. Zishu noted to himself that the kid certainly wasn’t stupid, although he also worried about the effects of the trauma he had been through in the last few weeks. Bereavement, rescue, bullying by the Five Lakes teenagers, clearly a lot of pressure from the party leadership for public television appearances. But none of that changed the fact that Zishu had no legal right to keep him.

And still no idea what to actually do with a teenager anyway.

After breakfast Zishu took a deep breath.

“Okay. We need to talk about what happens next.”

Chengling was staring at the table, but raised his eyes briefly. “Okay.” He looked miserable as he went on, “I know I can’t stay here.”

Zishu closed his eyes. “No. I’m sorry, but you can’t. There would be too many people looking for you, it wouldn’t be safe.”

“And if they found me it would blow your cover.”

Zishu started upright. “Hey, kid, don’t worry about that. Let me worry about that! No, I’m worried what would happen to you. Five Lakes would get the police and the media involved, and unless you stayed indoors here for the rest of your life, they’d find you. And I don’t think you want that sort of attention.”

Chengling’s expression lifted slightly before falling again.

“So I need to go back.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so, at least for now. It’s still the best place for you - they can give you a good education and everything else you should have had.”

“But I hate it there.”

“Yes, I know. But things may have changed, now. Let me see what I can do. And you’ve got my phone number. Just please remember that I need to keep my cover as far as Five Lakes is concerned.”

 

When they reached Five Lakes Zishu and Chengling found a scene of great confusion. Security on the door was tight but they recognised Chengling. Zishu - in his accountant/writer persona - was able to accompany Chengling inside, particularly as Chengling insisted that he should.

Inside the building, a number of staff were still clearing up the auditorium, as well as taking down any posters featuring Gao Chong’s face.

They eventually found someone who could direct them to the remaining party leadership. Shen Shen and Zhao Jing were apparently meeting with the elderly political consultant, Ye Baiyi, but came bustling out to meet Chengling as soon as they heard he had returned. Ye Baiyi followed them and leaned on the door, watching everything closely.

“Chengling!” shouted Shen Shen as soon as he saw him, grabbing him by the shoulders. “Where have you been! Why did you leave without telling us?”

“Um…”

“Chengling! I hope you’re alright?” asked Zhao Jing more quietly. He helped Chengling step out of Shen Shen’s grasp, and squatted down in front of him.

“Yes I’m fine,” Chengling mumbled, staring at the floor again.

“Since you’re with Mr Zhou now, I assume you were with him last night?” asked Zhao Jing, looking piercingly at Zishu.

Zishu answered, in character, “Yes, Mr Jing. Sorry to have worried you, but I was in the audience yesterday. I could tell Chengling was upset, and that everyone was very distracted, so I thought the most helpful thing I could do was to give him some peace and quiet while you restored order.”

“I see!” said Zhao Jing, twinkling. “That explains it! But still, please tell us if anything like that happens again.”

“Yes of course. But I do feel a responsibility for Chengling, since I first met him in such terrible circumstances. I would hope to stay in touch, and to give him someone to talk to.”

“Of course,” smiled Zhao Jing, “And you rescued him, after all, so we know you’ll keep him safe.”

Shen Shen looked as if he was about to protest, but Zhao Jing glared at him briefly.

Zishu drew Zhao Jing slightly to one side, leaving Shen Shen looking Chengling over to check he was okay. Ye Baiyi was still leaning on the door and watching.

“Mr Jing?” Zishu asked, maintaining his mild mannered persona. “I am a little worried about Chengling.”

Zhao Jing looked concerned. “How so?”

Zishu used the opportunity to suggest that Chengling shouldn’t be sent away to the same school as the other Five Lakes teens, to avoid disrupting his life further. This had two advantages - to keep Chengling close at hand, and to keep him away from the bullies - although Zishu only mentioned the first point.

He also suggested that Chengling perhaps wasn’t ready yet for TV appearances, and mentioned that he was very shy.

Happily, Zhao Jing agreed readily. Apparently he shared Zishu’s reservations, and had no desire to pressure Chengling beyond what he was comfortable with.

Zishu therefore felt that he could leave Chengling there with at least some short term improvements in his circumstances.

They returned to the others, and Zishu said goodbye to Chengling, reminding him that he had Zishu’s number and shouldn’t hesitate to use it.

To his surprise, as he set off to leave, the political consultant Ye Baiyi asked to walk with him.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu walked alongside Ye Baiyi as they exited the Five Lakes Party headquarters and turned into the street.

The elderly political strategist hadn’t said anything of note since asking to accompany Zishu, just talked of the weather. But Zishu didn’t imagine that that was all the man wanted. Zishu had never met him before this week, but he knew he had the reputation of being a fixer, the sort of man you went to to make political problems go away.

Once they were a couple of turns away from the headquarters building, Ye Baiyi grasped him by the elbow and pulled him into a quiet local cafe. He pushed Zishu into a chair, bought them two coffees, and sat back and stared at him.

Zishu was not in the mood for guessing games, and was rather too tired for power plays, so he just returned the man’s gaze evenly.

Ye Baiyi rolled his eyes and sat up. “Yeah, okay kid, let’s not fuck around. I bet you’re wondering why we’re here?”

Zishu’s day job sometimes involved causing political problems for other people, but he himself was not in the public eye, and he would not have expected a political fixer to know him at all. So he nodded, warily.

“What did you think of that shit-show last night?”

Zishu maintained his writer-accountant character: “Well, politics isn’t really my area of expertise, but it was all very sudden. I thought Chengling looked upset so I took him away quickly.”

Ye Baiyi said, “The man you were with, Wen Kexing. He seemed very interested in everything going on?”

“Yes, he’s a local businessman, so I guess he’s got more reason to be interested in politics than I have.”

“You’re not interested in politics?”

“No, I’m afraid it goes over my head rather. Except of course everything helps inspire my writing.”

Ye Baiyi laughed slightly and leaned forwards. “Give it up, kid, I know who you are.”

Zishu stalled for time, trying to figure out what was going on. “Who I am? What do you mean?”

“I mean, I was a friend of Qin Huaizhang. So quit pretending.”

Zishu sat back, his thoughts spinning. Qin Huaizhang had been his mentor when he was building up Window of Heaven - an older veteran of the secret services, who had taught Zishu many of his tricks and techniques he used in the field. He had also helped him understand the intra-agency politics, and how to work effectively behind the scenes.

Zishu owed him a lot. But the old man had died many years ago, cut down by one of his targets. Zishu had continued working as he had been taught and had locked away any signs of mourning. But how did Ye Baiyi know Qin Huaizhang? And what was going on?

Zishu decided to stop pretending.

“Okay, that’s enough. Who are you and what do you want?”

“I repeat, kid, I know who you are. I might be able to help. Qin Huaizhang was a friend for many years, and he told me about his protege.”

“Don’t call me kid.”

“Relax, I’m old enough to be your grandfather. Show some respect.”

“Respect should be earned, old man. Who are you and what do you want?”

Ye Baiyi sighed. “Okay, I’ve been out of the game for a long time. I just work as a political consultant to keep my eye in, and to keep from being bored. People pay me a lot of money for me to tell them they’re fucking idiots, which is always entertaining.

“But Five Lakes are a bunch of hopeless amateurs, far worse than most of the politicians I work with. Their Family Values schtick is dull and cliched, and it lends itself to being easily undermined the minute someone like Gao Chong turns out not to be squeaky clean. As indeed we saw in that fiasco yesterday.

“They’re not even clever enough to play the game well. Putting that teenager on the spot like that, when anyone could see he was unhappy - total amateur hour.

“So anyway I was going to resign out of boredom, when suddenly you show up. And that ‘friend’ of yours, and his games. I have enough connections to know he’s not just a businessman. So then I got curious.”

Zishu might have been deeply disappointed by Wen Kexing, but he still felt a surge of protectiveness despite himself. “What about him?”

“Come on, we both know you’re not just friends!”

“I don’t know what we are,” Zishu said, sighing.

“Lover’s tiff?” Ye Baiyi asked, with a raised eyebrow.

Zishu said flatly, “None of your business.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll leave your precious feelings out of it. But seriously, what on earth is that boy playing at? Yesterday’s events were far too pat not to have been orchestrated.”

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I wasn’t expecting any of that yesterday, and I don’t care about it.”

Ye Baiyi said, “I don’t give a shit what people get up to in their personal lives, as long as they don’t scare the horses, but it’s not much of a leap to think that the proprietor of popular businesses in the Entertainment District might not be terribly keen on Family Values politicians. And given that last night was a blatant set-up, he’s certainly in the frame for being the one behind it.”

“I’m not confirming or denying anything, and I don’t know anyway.”

Ye Baiyi rolled his eyes again. “Yes, don’t teach your grandfather to suck eggs. I understand plausible deniability, and I’m not interested in selling either of you out.”

Zishu was bored of this. “What do you want? And stop yanking me around.”

“I’m bored, and I’m fed up of those sanctimonious idiots anyway. They aren’t even competent at running a press conference.

“You and him are much more interesting, whatever you’re up to. So I’m joining your team.”

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu wasn’t about to ignore a potential resource, so he exchanged numbers with Ye Baiyi. But he also wasn’t about to share secrets with him, and cut off his protestations at being left behind. He left the man behind in the cafe (where he was apparently consoling himself with a large food order) and headed home, deep in thought.

His apartment felt more sterile and pointless than ever, but Zishu barely noticed as he paced the living room.

What should he do now?

He had a strong suspicion of who had been behind the blackmail of Five Lakes politicians. Wen Kexing had hardly been subtle in his hatred for them, and was clearly willing to use lies and manipulation to disgrace them. But Zishu had no proof.

And even if he had had proof, he could not bring himself to think that turning Kexing in would be the right thing to do.

Kexing was loved and needed by at least two innocent people, Gu Xiang and Luo Fumeng. He was an employer of many, and clearly ran his club as a sanctuary for some. They would all be harmed if he was arrested or convicted.

Also, the case was not fully solved. Even if Kexing had been behind the blackmail, Zishu could not imagine him being the source of the death threats, and still less behind the attack on Chengling and his father, and the attempted abduction of Chengling.

Kexing was angry, unscrupulous, and took joy in disrupting the comfortable. But Zishu could not imagine him targeting a teenager for the sins of his elders, or wishing to abduct him at all. Kexing’s concern for Chengling’s injury, and anger at his treatment, had been completely genuine. Zishu might doubt his judgment, or his common sense, but not his heart.

At this point, Zishu’s thoughts were interrupted by the chime of a text message.

A-Xu?

He ignored it, set the phone to silent, and went back to pacing.

There was a huge gap between believing someone not to be a murderer and wishing to talk to him. Kexing hardly deserved an answer. It would do him good to be ignored.

After all, what had Kexing been thinking, to tell Zishu they were going on a date? Leading him to look forward to more time getting to know a potential lover, and explore their shared interest and compatibility?

Clearly building a relationship with him was not a priority for Kexing, not when he could get his pointless revenge instead.

And not caring how his actions would affect Chengling showed startling thoughtlessness or callousness.

And all for what? To replace one family values politician with another one? Why would anyone care which of that lot was on top?

Clearly Kexing cared, but why? His anger might be valid, at the threat to his business and way of life, and his family’s livelihood. But why put so much effort into something so trivial?

And why such disregard for Chengling or Zishu?

Zishu went back to check for more text messages, in case they held a clue:

A-Xu????

Zhou Xu? It’s me, your Lao Wen

(づ ̄ ³ ̄)づ

(⊃。•́‿•̀。)⊃

(つ . •́ _ʖ •̀ .)つ

Are you there? Please talk to me

How is Chengling?

Please?

Please, A-Xu

I went to your flat and you’re not there. It doesn’t look like anyone’s been there in a while

Please tell me you’re both okay

(╥_╥)

(╥_╥)

(╥_╥)

Please?

Zishu replied: I’m alive. Chengling’s alive. Now fuck off.

He put the phone down again and flung himself into an armchair to stare at the wall.

Okay, apparently Kexing either did care about them at least a bit, or wanted to look like he did.

Kexing was not entirely the man Zishu had thought he was. So who was he? He was a performer and a very good actor. He had presented an alternate version of himself, smiling at politicians at Five Lakes, and had succeeded in convincing the people there.

How much of his time with Zishu had been an act?

But the thing was, surely not everything could have been an act? His close relationships with Gu Xiang and Luo Fumeng, in the house they clearly shared, could hardly have been faked. The familial warmth was all too clear, and Zishu had felt its loss when he left.

The man’s cleverness and humour couldn’t have been faked - even within an act, the underlying quality had to be there to make the portrayal convincing.

Likewise, his care for his employees had to be real, and the safety they clearly felt at the club. That had to have been in place long before Kexing had had any idea that Zishu even existed.

Also his passionate political opinions didn’t seem faked.

So was it just his judgment which had failed? Had he genuinely expected Zishu, and maybe even Chengling, to enjoy themselves that night? Or had it been his sense of priorities which had failed, leading him to prioritise political chaos above a gentler, quieter time with Zishu?

Zishu had always known Kexing to be infuriating, chaotic, attention seeking, and of course infuriatingly pretty.

Maybe Zishu had just got too far ahead of himself, imagining a shared set of values and priorities where in fact the two of them didn’t actually know each other well yet.

He went back to the phone:

You’re alive!

Thank you

I’m sorry I upset you

<(_ _)>

<(_ _)>

<(_ _)>

Please let me explain

Zishu ignored his phone again and carried on with his evening. He arranged a food delivery for himself, put out the rubbish, and carried out various other chores.

He watched something pointless on TV, still successfully ignoring his phone.

But before he went to bed he found himself checking the phone again. From an unknown number:

hi mr Zhou! Gu Xiang here!

i got your number from Kexing’s phone, he doesn’t know

please talk to him

yes, my gege is an idiot, we all know that

but he’s really upset

he’s gone all quiet since yesterday

i don’t recognise him

aunt Luo and i are worried about him

you don’t have to be friends with him again

but at least let him explain

meeting you made him so happy

Zishu sighed, realising he would get no peace if he ignored her. He wrote back to Gu Xiang: Ok

And then he switched back to Wen Kexing’s texts to reply to him: OK, idiot, what have you got to say to me? This had better be good.

Chapter Text

After texting back and forth a little that night, Zhou Zishu allowed himself to be persuaded to meet Kexing face to face once again. He wanted to see him at least one more time, whatever the outcome.

This time he deliberately declined to put special effort into his appearance. He remembered too well the anticipation with which he had dressed for the disastrous not-a-date, and didn’t want to repeat it.

They had agreed to meet in a quiet coffee shop, for neutral territory. Zishu ensured he arrived exactly on time, and was pleased to see through the shop window that Wen Kexing was there before him. That at least indicated that the other man was taking the meeting seriously.

Zishu also couldn’t help noticing that Kexing had taken the time to dress up with care. He wasn’t in the sharp black suit he had worn for the fake date, but instead an open necked shirt in deep blue, and fitted black trousers. His hair was tidily styled, half tied back. He was looking down and fidgeting with his phone, and seemed a lot less animated than usual.

Zishu turned away from the window before Kexing could catch him looking, and went into the shop to greet him.

Kexing stood up, tried to pull out a chair for Zishu (who rolled his eyes and seated himself), and insisted on buying their coffees.

When the two men were seated across from each other, Zishu stayed silent and waited for Kexing to speak. He had no intention of making this easy for him.

Kexing stared at his clasped hands before taking a deep breath and looking up to meet Zishu’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Okay. Sorry for what exactly?”

Kexing smiled wryly and went on, “I fucked up. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“Go on.”

“I really wanted to get those fuckwits at Five Lakes, and show them up for the corrupt hypocrites they are. But I got carried away.”

Zishu thought this was a reasonable start but hardly enough, so he stayed silent, waiting.

“I invited you, telling you it was a date, and I didn’t think how everything would seem to you. You had no way of knowing I was planning anything other than a standard date, so you had good reason to be shocked and disappointed when it wasn’t.”

“True.”

“And you haven’t got the reasons I have to want to take them down. That sort of thing wouldn’t be fun for you even without being let down.”

“Also true.”

Kexing sighed. “And I dropped you in a complex situation and expected you to play a part, with no notice or consultation.”

“True.”

Kexing started to look frustrated. “Please say something other than ‘true’?”

Zishu raised an eyebrow and sat up straight. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Yes! Please talk to me.”

Zishu said, “Okay, I have some questions. Firstly, how much of that was what Luo Fumeng or Gu Xiang told you to say?”

Kexing huffed slightly. “Okay, yes, fair enough. All of it.”

“How much of it do you really believe and understand yourself?”

Kexing looked indignant. “All of it!” He slumped a bit and added, “At least I do now, they spent long enough beating me over the head with it yesterday.”

“Do you think you would have got there for yourself?” Zishu asked.

“Probably, eventually. I got carried away with my plans but I would have thought it through eventually.”

“And have you worked out the other reason why I’m angry?”

Kexing looked startled and concerned. “Um. No? Unless you mean Chengling?”

“What about Chengling?”

“I wasn’t thinking about his feelings either.”

Zishu felt his anger rise. He had been pushing it down for too long, and it felt good to let it out. “Yes, too right, you weren’t. That kid has been through some terrible things in the last few weeks - the attack on his family car, the death of his father, moving to a new home with people he doesn’t know, and bullying by those gits at Five Lakes.

“And you know, or you should know, that he would hate any type of public spectacle like that. He doesn’t want to be involved in publicity at all. It was bad enough that Five Lakes was forcing him to be there at all, and turning the camera on him, but you made it exponentially worse by causing a scandal, meaning that the press conference would be much bigger news than it needed to be.

“And, however much you don’t like Five Lakes, they’re the closest thing Chengling’s got to a home, and their leadership are his acting guardians. He needs them to be stable, not to be disrupted for your entertainment.”

By this time Zishu was leaning on the table, glaring at Kexing. He wasn’t shouting, exactly, but he was speaking very emphatically. He remembered he was in a coffee shop and sat back slightly.

Kexing was looking extremely shaken. He stammered, “I… yes.”

“Do you get it now?”

“Okay, yes, I get it. I hurt both you and him, by not thinking of how you would be affected.”

“Yes. And did you even get what you wanted out of all of this? Do you think Five Lakes is going to be any different now?” Zishu went on. “I understand that you want to protect your business and all of your employees.”

Kexing looked up desperately. “Yes. I couldn’t let those bastards get away with it.”

“That’s the only bit here that I really do understand, and which means I’m less angry than I might have been. Your loyalty and concern for your family is admirable.”

Zishu smiled at the other man slightly. “I do understand what you were trying to do. But your planning is terrible. In future you’re not allowed to make the plans.”

Kexing stared at him and slowly started to smile back. “In future?” he asked.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu nodded, but reminded himself to stop smiling. There were still a lot of questions which needed to be addressed.

“Yes, I did say ‘in future’, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Wen Kexing’s face had relaxed from his unaccustomed tension into something like the usual expressiveness. “Yes, A-Xu, whatever you say.” Zishu glared and he appeared to try to look serious.

Zishu went on, “We have a lot of questions to answer.”

“Yes, A-Xu.” Really, those puppy eyes were unfair.

“Stop it! We need to talk about this and agree how to handle the situation.

“Firstly, as you know, I can’t tell you everything about my job or my life. But I got into this mess in the first place because I was investigating blackmail and death threats against Five Lakes.

“Given everything I saw at that press conference, can I assume you were behind the blackmail?”

Wen Kexing ran a hand through his hair, rumpling it slightly. He answered seriously, “Yes, I was trying to blackmail them. They shouldn’t be using the services of the Entertainment District while also trying to shut it down. I want to keep Ghost Valley open, of course, but also they make me angry.”

Zishu continued, “And were the death threats you as well?”

Kexing looked genuinely shocked. “No, of course not!” he said immediately. “That’s really not something I would do.” He looked at Zishu with wide-eyed sincerity.

Zishu nodded. “No, I didn’t think so. And if the person behind the threats took it further, to send people to attack Chengling and his father, I didn’t think that could be you either.”

“No, of course not! Even if I do hate the party, Chengling is completely innocent of anything they’ve done, and his father had been out for several years. It wouldn’t make sense to go after either of them, and I wouldn’t do that anyway.”

Zishu said, “Well, yes, that’s what I thought. But what that means is that there’s at least one more group out there, maybe two. Either one person or group behind the death threats and the actual attack, or two groups working separately.”

Kexing sat up straight. “Yes, and not everything from that press conference was set up by me. I arranged for Wu Chang Gui and Kai Xin Gui to come forward with stories and photos, and I paid the women to tell their stories about Gao Chong. But I didn’t do anything to contact the journalist, Du Pusa, and I don’t know anything about the evidence she said she had.

“And in fact, as far as I know, it’s not true that Gao Chong has invested in the District. He used to visit, and he had women there he funded, and I’m pretty sure he was the one I mentioned who made promises to Luo Fumeng and let her down. But he stopped coming to visit so regularly a couple of years ago, and hasn’t been involved in the business, at least that I know of.”

“Would you know, do you think?” Zishu asked.

“Yes, I think so,” said Kexing. “The District sticks pretty closely together and we all know at least a bit about each other. None of the other clubs have had any big new investments in the last couple of years, either.”

“Okay,” said Zishu thoughtfully. “But that means we’ve definitely got something very strange going on. Someone making death threats, someone arranging for Chengling and his father to be attacked, someone who’s not you also arranging for Gao Chong’s scandals. They could all be the same person, but I don’t want to assume that.”

“Wow. Yes,” said Kexing. “So if I’m not allowed to make the plans, what’s your plan? And please, where is Chengling, and how is he?”

“He was pretty shaken up,” said Zishu, “And I took him home with me.”

Kexing looked confused. “Where, though? Your flat was one of the first places I looked.”

Zishu felt slightly pleased with himself when he replied, “Of course, that’s not actually my flat.”

Kexing appeared torn between indignation and pride. “It’s not? Well, I always did think that you were classier than that hovel. But that was very unfair to leave me to worry about both of you.”

“I had no reason to think you cared about either of us,” said Zishu sharply.

Kexing deflated. “Okay, fair,” he said. “But where is Chengling?”

Zishu explained his fears about keeping Chengling away from Five Lakes, and his reasons for sending him back. Kexing wasn’t pleased to hear that Chengling was back there, but he also couldn’t think of an alternative. He was pleased, at least, to hear that Zishu had been able to make recommendations which might protect Chengling a little from the bullies.

The men agreed that they would both stay in touch with Chengling via text message, and Zishu would look for further ways to meet up with him when he could.

Kexing was also able to give Zishu a bit of news in return. Gu Xiang had been staying in touch with her new friend Gao Xiaolian, and of course had been hearing all about her worry and upset about her father. Apparently, Gao Chong had completely resigned from everything, leaving his former deputy Zhao Jing in charge, and intended to stay out of politics in future. He had apologised to his daughter for the embarrassment she had suffered, and promised that he wouldn’t do anything to bring her back into the public eye. He had also sworn to her that the stories of his investments in the Entertainment District were false.

In turn, Zishu told Kexing about the political consultant Ye Baiyi. He couldn’t explain how the man was connected to his mentor, but undeniably he would be a useful connection.

Zishu and Kexing agreed to carry on quietly looking for more information, and to keep each other informed.

Before they left the cafe, Kexing asked, “And, A-Xu, can I take you on a date again? I promise I’ve learned from my mistakes.”

Zishu answered regretfully, “Sorry, but no. I need more time.”

They both left together, but headed in different directions.

Chapter Text

Three weeks later, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing were meeting in a local cafe, doing the work of trying to reconnect with each other. They were also combining this with the excuse of updating each other on their work to discover what was going on with the attacks and death threats on Five Lakes.

Zishu was the last to arrive at the cafe, and was surprised to find Gu Xiang sitting with Wen Kexing. She was wearing a bright purple midi dress with a pattern of pink flowers, and shocking pink boots, in contrast with her brother’s skinny black jeans and teal shirt with red highlights. She was leaning forward to lecture him about something, and he was watching her with what looked like strained tolerance.

Zishu paused in the doorway to look at them (okay, at Kexing in particular) before walking up to join them at their table.

“Ah-Xu!” said Kexing brightly. “Sorry about her, she insisted on coming along for some reason.”

“Mr Zhou!” said Gu Xiang. “Tell him I just want to dance!”

“She just wants to dance,” said Zishu, deadpan.

“I don’t care what you want,” said Wen Kexing to her bluntly. “You’re underage and I’m not having you dance at the club. It’s not the right place for a kid.”

“Ugh, I’m not a kid. You’re so unfair!” She leaned forwards and stuck her tongue out at her brother.

Kexing stuck out his tongue in return, leaving Zishu to marvel at the speed at which their sibling relationship switched from fights to playfulness.

“Ah, whatever, you two are boring. I’ll be over there,” she said, gesturing at the upper balcony of the cafe. She stomped off upstairs, seeming to lose her anger and revert to smiles as she left.

Zishu sat down opposite Kexing and raised an eyebrow at him.

“Ah-Xu! Don’t worry, she doesn’t really know what she wants, she’s a teenager.”

“What were you like at that age?” asked Zishu.

“Ah, I was much worse, of course. Much more angry at the world.”

“You did well with her, you know. She’s less angry because you’ve kept her safe from some of the things you went through.”

Kexing blushed and looked down, as he always did at a genuine compliment. It made Zishu want to compliment him more often, either to watch the blush, or to watch him learn to accept compliments more easily.

Still, Kexing recovered quickly, as he always did. He smiled at Zishu, one of the small genuine smiles Zishu was growing to treasure.

“How is Chengling?” he asked.

“Still alright, I think. I was able to meet up with him briefly. He’s not exactly happy, of course, but it’s a bit better now those horrible kids are back at school and he’s been allowed to stay behind.”

“That’s good. I still wish we could do more to help him, though.”

“It’s still the best place for him in a practical sense. They can give him security and connections. And there’s no way we could take him away without setting off a huge row.”

Kexing said, “I know. But it can’t be good for kids to grow up around hypocritical politicians.”

“You say that like there are any other sorts.”

“How can someone as beautiful as you be so cynical?” Kexing asked, batting his eyelashes outrageously.

Zishu sighed and rolled his eyes.

Kexing sat up straight, looking more serious. “You were right, though.”

“Oh really? Tell me more,” said Zishu.

“Getting rid of Gao Chong did nothing. Zhao Jing is at least as bad. He’s even worse in some ways, because he’s so plausible. He’s still pushing their policies of shutting down our District, but he’s framing it as out of concern. He wants to take away our businesses and livelihoods because he cares so much about us!

“We’re just poor vulnerable fools who have been led astray, not adults making rational choices about our own lives without hurting anyone.”

Zishu valiantly refrained from saying anything to indicate that this should hardly be a surprise. “Have they done anything concrete yet to close the District?”

“No changes in the laws yet, just a lot of chatter. But there are some worrying things happening on the ground.”

“Like what?”

“Nothing I can put my finger on yet, but there are definitely more people hanging out who don’t blend in, and don’t seem like they’re there to have fun. They look like undercover security, to be honest, but I don’t know who they’re working for. I’m worried about what they’re planning - maybe to kick off some sort of violence that Five Lakes can use as an excuse?”

Zishu, being intimately familiar with running this sort of sting operation, could hardly disagree. He hoped his own men had been more professional on their missions, and less easy to spot, but he didn’t want Kexing to hear that side of him.

Instead, he limited himself to asking Kexing to be careful.

“Ah, you’re worried about me,” smiled Kexing. “Don’t worry, I know how to look after myself. This isn’t the first time the District has seen people try to take our turf.”

Zishu did not find this reassuring.

However, he was distracted by hearing loud voices coming from the cafe balcony. He looked up to see a group of rowdy men in their 30s who were talking to a young waitress. Zishu couldn’t hear what she was saying, but from her body language she appeared to be uncomfortable with them, and trying to find a polite way to leave. The men were crowding into her personal space, and he could hear them insisting she should sit down and talk to all of them.

He was about to start up the stairs to intervene when he saw Gu Xiang get there first. She said, loudly, “I’ll sit with you!”

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu felt concern at seeing Gu Xiang step in to protect the young woman who was being harassed, but he looked first to Wen Kexing for his reaction. Kexing glanced at him and smirked, and didn’t seem worried at all, so Zishu decided to wait before getting involved.

Gu Xiang had joined the men on the balcony and was smiling up at them, as the waitress she was protecting seized the chance to get away.

“I’ll sit with you!” she repeated.

The group of four men glanced at each other, and looked her up and down. She smiled brightly and put one of her booted feet up on the low table between them.

The loudest of the men said, “Sure, babe, you can sit with us!” He pushed the next man over to make room, and patted the seat between them.

Gu Xiang smiled even more broadly and sat.

“Now, what shall we talk about?” she asked loudly. “What was it you were saying to the waitress exactly?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the first man. “I’m sure you’re much more interesting.”

Gu Xiang said, even more loudly, “But I want to talk about the waitress! I’m sure your conversation with her was fascinating!

“I mean, I only heard part of it, but it sounded like you were giving her lots of compliments?”

The four men looked at each other in confusion but nodded.

Gu Xiang continued, still at high volume, “And I’m sure you checked that she was comfortable with that?”

The second man said, “Yes, and she was smiling!”

“Yes, I saw that,” said Gu Xiang. “You realise she’s at work and can’t be rude to customers?”

The first man said, “But she liked it! Dressing up like that, of course she wanted compliments!”

“Dressing in her work uniform, you mean?” asked Gu Xiang, still loudly. “Her boss chose the uniforms, not her.”

“Waitresses always like flirting with us!” said the man.

“And how do you know that exactly?” asked Gu Xiang.

“They know they’ll get good tips if they do!”

“Oh, you mean, you won’t give them tips unless they pretend they like flirting with you? That’s a nasty thing to do to someone who’s working on minimum wage and probably dependent on tips to get by - to make her pretend she likes you!”

Gu Xiang looked around at the other cafe patrons. Zishu could tell that many of them were clearly enjoying the show and laughing at the men she was berating.

One young man caught his eye in particular - the boy was clearly from a wealthy background, and he was staring at Gu Xiang, appearing to be hypnotised by her.

“Isn’t that terrible?” she asked the cafe at large. “These men try to make women smile at them by withholding tips!”

“Nobody makes them do anything!” protested a third man who hadn’t spoken until then.

“No, you just threaten to withhold money?” Gu Xiang said, still at high volume. “I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t enjoy being treated like that.

“And I bet you all get off on your little power trip, don’t you?” she added loudly. “You like being the big men with the money, who can choose whether or not a woman gets to take enough pay home at the end of the day. But of course she likes it, you think! Why on earth would someone dislike being treated like that?”

“She can always choose to walk away if she doesn’t like it,” said the first man.

“Ah, interesting you should say that!” said Gu Xiang, still playing to her audience. “Because, do you know what I heard these lovely gentlemen saying to that poor girl?”

The men looked at each other nervously, but clearly none of them could think of a way to put an end to the conversation.

“I heard,” said Gu Xiang, “I heard you gentlemen saying to that waitress that if she walked away, or if she wasn’t ‘nice’ to you, that you’d report her to her boss and get her fired.”

Several people in the audience stopped laughing at this, looking shocked.

“Yes, that’s what you said, isn’t it?” Gu Xiang repeated.

“So what if we did?” blustered the man. “The boss would want to know if one of their waitresses was being rude to customers!”

Gu Xiang stood up and addressed the whole room, with a dangerously wide smile. “So, let’s recap: These charming gentlemen made sexual remarks to a woman at her place of employment. They thought they could get away with this because waiting staff are often dependent on money from tips.

“But that wasn’t enough for them, and they wanted to pressure her to sit with them, presumably so that they could harass her further.

“And to get what they wanted, they threatened to tell her boss and get her fired!

“What do you think should happen to men like that?” Gu Xiang asked the cafe patrons. “Personally, I think they should pay for their meals, with a good tip, and then leave!”

Zishu saw several of the other patrons nodding along with this, and an older woman near the men said “You should all be ashamed!” The young man who admired Gu Xiang also spoke up to say, “Disgusting!”, and then looked nervous until she smiled at him.

Other cafe patrons started to speak up, shouting insults at the men, or laughing at them. The men clearly couldn’t think what else to do, so shuffled around and stood up to leave.

“Remember to pay!” said Gu Xiang loudly. “You need to pay for your meals, and your drinks, and leave a really good tip in apology.”

As other patrons shouted agreement, the men left a pile of notes on the table and hurried out, followed by final shouts from Gu Xiang.

She took the pile of money and handed it to the waitress, who appeared to be thanking her tearfully.

Zishu turned back to Wen Kexing, who had watched the whole show with great amusement.

Kexing was grinning widely, and said, “Don’t worry, I know the owner here. I’ll make sure no-one gets the waitress in trouble.”

Zishu nodded, and said, “Did you know what she was going to do?”

“Yes of course!” said Kexing. “She grew up with service industry workers and entertainment professionals, she knows all about bad customers.”

Gu Xiang had said goodbye to the waitress at this point, and was heading back downstairs to rejoin her brother.

Before she could reach them, the wealthy young man stood up and approached her shyly. “Excuse me, miss?” he said.

Chapter Text

The posh young man had made an initial approach to talk to Gu Xiang, but seemed hardly to know what to say to her.

“I - I hope you don’t mind me saying,” he stammered, “but that was amazing!”

Gu Xiang seemed a little taken aback, possibly surprised at his general style of both wealth and diffidence, but recovered quickly. She smiled brightly, but asked sternly, “I hope you wouldn’t ever behave like one of those horrible customers?”

The young man looked horrified at the very idea of being a bad customer, and protested, “Not at all!”

Gu Xiang looked sceptically at him, visibly tallying all of his signs of wealth in his clothes, accessories and aura of privilege. “Well, I hope you never do!” She turned away from him, starting towards the table with Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing again.

Before she could move far, he said, “I, um, I was wondering if I could ask you to dinner?”

Zishu was happy watching the show but not intervening, but apparently Kexing saw the opportunity to make mischief. He spoke up, “Here, young man, not so fast! Why don’t you join us?”

The man smiled nervously and hurried to their table. Gu Xiang rolled her eyes and followed more slowly.

“Now, sit down! And introduce yourself, and then tell us why you think you’re suitable to date her.”

“Um, excuse me, but I don’t know who you are?”

Kexing looked comically affronted at this, so Zishu broke in quietly to give their names. He introduced himself as a writer, and Kexing as a local businessman.

“Back off!” Gu Xiang interjected to Kexing. “You’re my brother, not my owner!”

“Oh, your brother! Of course, sir, I completely understand your concerns.” He extended his hand to Kexing to shake. “I’m Cao Weining.”

Kexing shook his hand but didn’t reply except by raising an eyebrow. Cao Weining hesitated, then moved on to shaking hands with Zishu before offering his hand to Gu Xiang. She giggled in surprise but Zishu thought she also blushed slightly.

Kexing smiled blandly and said, “So, young man, please tell us all about yourself.”

“Um. Yes. Well, my name is Cao Weining, as I said.”

“Yes.”

“Um. I’m 19 years old, and I’m a student at the University here.”

“What subject?”

“Business studies. And I take art and literature courses when I can.”

“Ah, so are you the ruthless business type, or the struggling artist type?”

Gu Xiang had listened to this with increasing outrage, and now broke in: “Gege, I said back off! Why are you suddenly interrogating him?”

“I need to know if he’s worthy of you, my dear,” said Kexing demurely.

“Perfectly understandable, sir!” Cao Weining said.

“No it’s not, he’s an interfering arse!” said Gu Xiang crossly. “Tell me, brother dearest, do you want me to interfere in your love life?”

She turned pointedly towards Zishu with a combative light in her eyes, but before she could say anything, Kexing quickly said, “No! Thank you.”

Zishu was pleased that she assumed her brother’s love life necessarily involved him, but was somewhat disappointed not to hear what she would have asked.

“That’s what I thought, brother,” said Gu Xiang, sticking her tongue out at him. Kexing gave up on his pose of dignity and returned the gesture, which Cao Weining politely pretended not to see.

Gu Xiang turned to him again. “So, are you the ruthless business type or the struggling artist type?” she asked with a bright smile.

“Well, I’d like to think I’m not either, really. I try to be more of the ethical business type. There’s lots of scope for setting up socially responsible enterprises to improve people’s lives.”

“So more of the bleeding heart type?” asked Kexing.

“Shut up, gege! And anyway isn’t that what you do?” asked Gu Xiang.

“Of course, I am a great philanthropist! Isn’t that right, Ah-Xu?”

“Oh yes, famous for it,” Zishu agreed blandly.

“Really sir? Please, tell me more!” asked Cao Weining.

“Oh, I hate to talk about myself.”

“Please! You love to talk about yourself!” Gu Xiang interjected.

“Enough!” Kexing said, finally looking stern. Gu Xiang subsided, clearly realising that the time for teasing her big brother was over.

Cao Weining fidgeted slightly in the ensuing silence, and then took a deep breath and turned to her.

“So, Miss, could you tell me what sort of thing you enjoy doing?”

She brightened and replied, “I’m a dancer!”

“Wow, really? That makes sense, you’re so pretty, and you seem so energetic. Where do you perform?”

“Ha! My brother won’t let me perform yet, I’m just studying dance. And he makes me study for my school exams as well, the big bully.”

“That makes sense though, it’s always sensible to keep your options open.”

Kexing looked mollified by this, although Gu Xiang pouted slightly. However she cheered up at Cao Weining’s next comment.

“Miss - I mean - could I? - Would you let me take you to see a ballet?” He turned hurriedly to Kexing to add, “I would be sure to bring her home safely, sir!”

“Oh please!” Gu Xiang asked.

“Hmm. Where were you thinking of going?”

Cao Weining named the most prestigious theatre in the city, and Gu Xiang’s eyes became even more pleading as she stared at Kexing.

“And maybe dinner beforehand?” the young man added. “I’d love to show you one of my favourite restaurants here.”

“Yes! I accept!” said Gu Xiang, and then turned to her brother to add, “You can’t actually stop me, you know!”

“But of course he wants to keep you safe!” protested Cao Weining.

Kexing sighed, “Yes, fine, I do know I can't stop you. But you can’t stop me caring about you.”

“Oh, fine, I guess I can’t!” Gu Xiang smiled sunnily.

Chapter Text

A week later, Zhou Zishu found himself back at Wen Kexing’s family house, at something of a council of war.

Luo Fumeng and Gu Xiang were there of course, but also several others. Gu Xiang had brought Cao Weining, who seemed confused but amiable. Liu Qianqiao, the Ghost Valley assistant manager, was seated at the big kitchen table next to Luo Fumeng.

Zishu had managed to get permission from Five Lakes to borrow Chengling for the afternoon, so he was there as well, looking delighted to see Kexing and Gu Xiang again, but sticking close to Zishu’s side.

When he had arrived to collect Chengling, the political consultant Ye Baiyi had also been there and had insisted on coming along too. Zishu wasn’t totally sure of his motivation, but was willing to have him there to exploit his knowledge and connections. He briefly introduced him to Kexing and explained his presence.

Ye Baiyi sat himself at the head of the table and said, “What have you got for food around here, kid?”

“Who are you calling kid, old man?” said Kexing, but nonetheless provided him with a bowl of nuts for snacking.

Gu Xiang passed out cups of tea to everyone, and then snuggled in next to Cao Weining, who looked delighted. Zishu sat down next to Kexing and Chengling hastily took the chair remaining between him and Gu Xiang.

“So, thanks everyone for coming!” said Kexing. “Even those of you I wasn’t expecting!” he added with half a glare at Ye Baiyi, who appeared supremely unconcerned.

“My dear A-Xu has informed me forcefully that I’m not allowed to make the plans myself any more, so instead here we all are to make plans together.”

“Um, thanks for that,” said Zishu. “Maybe we should talk first about why the plans are needed?”

Luo Fumeng spoke up, looking grave but composed. “As most of you know, Liu Qianqiao and I manage a club in the Entertainment District. The publicity from Five Lakes has been annoying but so far hasn’t really affected us - it’s just been talk at the moment. But there have been lots of weird things going on in the District.”

Liu Qianqiao looked extremely nervous as she explained, “There have been a lot of strange men hanging around. I mean, that’s not unusual in the trade, but these guys are different. Lots of them are posing as customers, but they’re not acting right. They’re asking lots of questions, but not spending any money. They’re watching everything, but not in the usual way. They’re not buying drinks or tipping the dancers, but they are making loud and rude remarks and driving away other customers. And it looks deliberate.

“And I honestly think they’re armed, at least with knives. They seem far too alert in the wrong ways, and I’ve seen some of them checking out the security cameras and the locks.”

Luo Fumeng added, “Lots of my colleagues who manage other clubs have reported similar things. As well, we’ve had lots of last minute ‘inspections’ and ‘audits’ - these seem to be led by genuine city staff, but with a lot of political consultants and other hangers-on. And they’re very clearly looking for ways to find fault. Some of their threats have been subtle, but some haven’t been subtle at all.”

Kexing broke in, “Are you two and the rest of the staff okay?”

The two women exchanged a glance, and Luo Fumeng replied, “Yes, we’re fine for the moment. We knew you’d authorise extra security so we went ahead and set that up, and in particular we’ve been careful to make sure no-one leaves alone or in small groups when they get off work. And luckily all our licences and documentation are in order and the paperwork is immaculate.”

“Good!” barked Ye Baiyi. “No point in giving bastards like that an easy win. But you know that won’t be enough, don’t you?”

Cao Weining looked confused. “But if they’re not doing anything illegal, why isn’t that enough?”

“Aww, poor little rich kid,” said Kexing. “Reality not living up to your expectations?”

“It’s not fair!” said Gu Xiang hotly.

“Yeah, I know it’s not fair, little girl,” said Ye Baiyi. “But we have to live in reality.”

“What do you think is going to happen?” asked Chengling shyly. He blushed as everyone looked at him, but didn’t look down

Zishu was pleased to see his growth in confidence. He supposed it was as good a time as any to continue his education. “What we’re all worried about is that this is only the start. We think they’re planning something - a raid, or arson, or staging a riot.”

“Something they can use to prove that the Entertainment District is dangerous,” said Kexing grimly.

“That’s what I’d do,” agreed Ye Baiyi. When Kexing glared at him, he said, “Don’t worry, kid, I’m retired.”

“Don’t call me kid, old man.”

Chengling added, “Five Lakes is always talking about how immoral the District is, and how there needs to be a crack-down. Zhao Jing talks about it to journalists all the time.”

“But what can we do?” asked Luo Fumeng worriedly.

Zishu spoke up, “The first thing is to improve your security. I can get you some better, smaller cameras, ones that aren’t on the open market - just don’t ask me where they come from!

“And we should get more friendly faces in the club.”

“We need to make sure there are always witnesses to anything they try, and lots of evidence that can’t be twisted,” said Ye Baiyi grimly.

“I - I could go,” said Cao Weining. “I’m no good in a fight, but I can be a good witness.”

“Yeah, that works,” said Kexing.

Gu Xiang beamed up at Cao Weining and squeezed his arm. “I can come too!”

Zishu wasn’t surprised that Kexing, Luo Fumeng and Cao Weining protested immediately at that, but he was somewhat surprised to find himself joining the chorus. Gu Xiang pouted but subsided.

Kexing still looked worried, but he had a tinge of mischief as he suggested, “It’s been a while since I performed! Care to come and watch me, Ah-Xu?”

“Always.”

“Stop flirting, you two,” ordered Ye Baiyi. “You know none of this will be enough?”

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu and Ye Baiyi both made discreet visits to the Ghost Valley club to improve security, and Zishu provided some tiny cameras and other professional equipment.

Nevertheless, over the next two weeks, Luo Fumeng and Liu Qianqiao reported seeing an increase in the number of fake customers, and had stories of performers being harassed and asked too many questions about how the club was run. Other Entertainment District businesses reported similar things.

Chengling had overheard some conversations at Five Lakes headquarters about a crackdown and had managed to let Zishu know the date, which he had passed on to Kexing.

With this warning, Kexing, Luo Fumeng, and Liu Qianqiao had been able to prepare a little.

Their best strategy was to ensure that they had done nothing illegal, and that any illegal actions against the club and its workers were well documented and could be proved. They had trained all of the security staff to remain calm no matter the provocation, to obey all legal authority, to defuse violence where they could, and only to use minimal force to restore order.

The performers and waitstaff were similarly instructed to keep themselves safe, to remove themselves from confrontations, and to remain calm and not react.

On the evening when the crackdown was expected Zhou Zishu dressed up smartly. He wanted to look like a wealthy businessman in case that gave the club any greater degree of protection, so he wore one of his most expensive suits. He went to the club early, avoided acknowledging Luo Fumeng or any of her staff, and took a table where he had a clear view of the entire room. He ordered a beer for the sake of appearances but didn’t drink more than a few sips, and watched a trio of women in black as they sang on stage.

Glancing around, he was able to see Cao Weining at a central table, looking hilariously nervous and out of place. He had apparently brought some of his rich kid friends with him as cover, and they also looked as if it was their first time visiting such a scandalous club. They were talking loudly to each other and staring at the servers but seemed essentially harmless and well meaning, and ready to tip well.

Farther back, almost hidden by a pillar, was Ye Baiyi. The old man’s white hair stood out in the gloom and he had clearly ordered a large meal to enjoy despite the high prices. He looked perfectly comfortable in these surroundings, and appeared to be bantering with the waitstaff, judging by their laughing reactions.

Zishu could see the club’s original security systems and cameras, which had been retained as a decoy, but even knowing that they were there he couldn’t see any sign of the professional grade security he had provided, or any of the hidden cameras.

He settled in to watch the floor and was impressed to see that none of the staff showed visible signs of nerves. He supposed that they had to be skilled in presenting unflustered faces to the public, but still none of the additional stress they must be feeling was showing.

Luo Fumeng and Liu Qianqiao were both on the floor. Neither had agreed to stay safely away, but had insisted on being present to make sure they could be there for any support they could give to their staff.

Luo Fumeng appeared completely calm. However, Liu Qianqiao was visibly nervous, pacing from side to side and wringing her hands. Luo Fumeng was acting to calm her down, apparently speaking to her soothingly with an arm around her shoulders. As Zishu watched, Liu Qianqiao took a deep breath and straightened up, looking back around the club with new determination and composure.

Zishu was easily able to identify several groups which must be the worrying fake customers he had heard about. He immediately categorised them mentally as undercover private security. He didn’t have a high opinion of their training or funding as many were wearing tactical boots, and several seemed to have poorly fitting body armour clumsily hidden under layers of jackets. They were also far too obvious about paying far more attention to the club’s doors than to the spectacularly dressed performers on stage or wandering the audience.

As that thought crossed his mind, Zishu turned his own attention back to the stage. The trio of women were finishing up, and Zishu thought he knew what to expect next.

Nevertheless his mouth went dry as Wen Kexing stepped onto the stage.

Kexing was wearing another of his spectacular long dresses, precisely tailored to his body without any padding to give the appearance of curves. This dress was a deep shade of teal, with flashes of red at the deep neckline. A red underskirt was revealed by the thigh-length slits in the overdress. The underskirt was likewise slit to thigh level, and the outfit was completed with bright red high heels.

Kexing smirked at the audience and perched on a high stool at the microphone, flashing a startling length of shapely leg.

“Welcome, friends old and new!” he said. “It’s lovely to see so many new faces here with us at Ghost Valley, and we hope that you leave completely satisfied.”

He winked at Zishu, who choked slightly and glared back at him.

Kexing cued the band to start playing, and Zishu knew that he recognised the music but couldn’t place it immediately.

When Kexing started to sing, however, it was immediately clear that he had mischief in mind, as he asked the audience, in song, whether they wished their girlfriends were hot like him.

He took his microphone with him and wandered between the club tables, singing to various patrons but mercifully ignoring Cao Weining and Ye Baiyi.

He somehow managed to make his way to Zishu’s table and address a verse to him:

“I know you like me
I know you do
That's why whenever I come around, she's all over you
And I know you want it
It's easy to see…”

Zishu glared at him throughout the verse, knowing he was imperfectly hiding his amusement, and was almost relieved when loud shouts and commotion from the entranceway interrupted the verse.

Chapter Text

Despite his attempt to look unmoved, Zhou Zishu hadn’t been able to look away from Wen Kexing throughout the song. The mischievous provocation in his eyes was captivating, and his appearance in the teal and red dress was stunning.

Zishu was still looking at him when the noise of the disturbance reached them. As the music faltered he saw Kexing brace himself not to react aggressively. He caught Zishu’s eye for a long moment before turning away. He assumed his club owner persona, all mischief hidden for the moment.

Zishu reminded himself to stay in character. For the sake of their plan, he could not reveal that he had any connection to the club workers except as a patron, and he certainly couldn’t reveal his professional skills. He put on a mask of confusion as he turned to see what was going on.

Two members of the security staff were backing into the main hall, with their hands up, clearly obeying the instructions they had been given not to start any confrontations. They were followed by several police officers loudly shouting instructions.

As soon as the police entered, the plain clothes security officers Zishu had seen earlier hurried to block the exits, yelling angrily and waving ID cards around.

Many of the club patrons immediately jumped up, looking guilty or terrified or angry. Some of the guilty or terrified ones appeared to be looking for ways out, perhaps worried that their families or employers would hear how they had been spending their time. They were shoved back into the room by the private security. Zishu stayed behind one of these groups, keeping his head down, and ended up against one of the side walls in a cluster of worried businessmen.

He noted that Ye Baiyi had not moved at all, and continued to sit at the same table regarding the police with amusement. Cao Weining’s group of rich young men had stayed together but were talking to each other nervously.

Zishu turned his attention to the club staff, and saw that Liu Qianqiao had gathered a group of worried serving staff and performers behind her. She was attempting to shield them from the private security staff. Some of the men were leering inappropriately and looked as if they were trying to corner a few of the younger women, and Liu Qianqiao was standing in front of them looking fiercely determined.

Meanwhile Kexing and Luo Fumeng had gone to meet the police officers in the middle of the room.

Zishu froze as he recognised one of the faces in the group of police. Duan Peng Ju - who was definitely not a police officer - was wearing the uniform of a senior officer, and pushed his way to the front of the group. Zishu sank further back into his group of businessmen and tried to stay in shadow.

Duan Peng Ju shouted for quiet, and the police and security echoed him. The room slowly quieted, and he turned to Wen Kexing and Luo Fumeng.

“Are you in charge here?”

“Yes, I’m the manager,” said Luo Fumeng.

“And I’m the owner,” said Kexing. “Is something wrong, officer?”

“We’ve received reports of serious immorality at this location.”

“Is that a matter for the police?” asked Kexing, who was evidently having trouble maintaining his intention to avoid provocation.

Zishu was pleased to see that Luo Fumeng recognised the danger and broke in immediately: “I’m sorry to hear that, officer. We always aim to provide high quality entertainment here.”

“We never want any of our patrons to feel unsatisfied,” added Kexing. Luo Fumeng trod on his foot.

Duan Peng Ju continued smugly, “I’m afraid we will have to carry out a full investigation. In the meantime we will be suspending your licence.”

Wen Kexing went red, and protested, “How long will that take?”

“It takes as long as it takes. But I hope you and your people are co-operative. We’re investigating the whole District, and the more you help us the quicker we can be. Anyone we clear can then re-open.”

“And until then we just wait around with no income?”

Another officer stepped forwards, and said loudly, “Firstly, we’ll need the full names and addresses of everyone here. Please don’t bother lying to us, it will just make it worse for you.”

This caused another stir among all the patrons, as well as amongst the staff. The women behind Liu Qianqiao crowded closer together and whispered nervously.

Duan Peng Ju added, “And if you have any evidence to give regarding immoral behaviour, please let us know and it will be taken into account.”

Zishu was very glad he had several backup identities, some of which Duan Peng Ju wouldn’t know. As the police and the private security started spreading out to collect details, he manoeuvred himself to be as far as possible from anyone who might recognise him.

His attention was drawn to Ye Baiyi, who was cheerfully giving his full name and address to the police. “Don’t bother trying to embarrass me, kid, I’m much too old for that. Everyone I work with knows I like the finer things in life, and no-one will be surprised that I came to the best club in the Entertainment District.”

Cao Weining also gave his name, at the head of his group, and stammered, “I - I’m not ashamed to be here either, and neither should anyone else.”

“We’ll see if all your parents agree, boy,” said one of the private security guards.

Wen Kexing started to intervene, to ask on what grounds their parents would be informed, and whether that was a breach of their right to privacy. Zishu suppressed his frustrated reactions as he could do nothing to help his friend.

He saw Luo Fumeng’s attention drawn by shouts coming from the younger female performers. A number of the security guards were pushing them around and leering at them, and ignoring Liu Qianqiao’s protests. Qianqiao pushed forwards, still attempting to protect the women.

Two of the guards turned on Qianqiao and started to push her into a wall, shouting in her face, “Lady, back off! Do you want trouble? We can give you trouble!”

A police officer added, “You’re impeding an active investigation. If you continue we can put you under arrest.”

He started turning Qianqiao to the wall and pulling out handcuffs, before Luo Fumeng ran across the room to him and pulled on his arm.

“Leave her alone! I’m the manager here, if you’re going to arrest anyone, arrest me!”

“Well, if you insist,” said Duan Peng Ju.