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Held Fast in Open Hands

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They were dragging him again. The guards always walked just fast enough so that he couldn’t keep up with the fetters between his ankles shortening his stride. It gave them an excuse to beat him and drag his knees and feet over the rough stone. An excuse to wrench at his not quite healed shoulders and press his always oozing wrists into the heavy manacles.

At least they were giving him a warm-up, Chu Shuzhi thought, indulging in the dark humour which had helped keep him in the same room with sanity during the past century. With pain already firing along his nerves, the first blow of the whip wouldn’t be as much of a shock. The pointless questioning had become practically a ritual; he’d endured it before, he would do it again. They weren’t particularly creative and obviously didn’t want him dead, so how much worse could it get.

His first hint was when they didn’t chain him to the usual pillar, but kicked him to his knees in the middle of the throne room. Then he noticed the number of guards. Not the usual handful to provide the Regent with an audience, but a full complement in parade polish. He raised his gaze to the throne dais and his breath caught. He’d heard whisperings during one of his terms in the quarry pit and hadn’t given them any credit, but the power and the presence of the black-cloaked figure were undeniable.

As he met the eyes behind the mask, Chu Shuzhi could see the anger, the fury radiating from Hei Pao Shi, and realized that today might be worse.

He felt his jaw drop as the black cloak billowed, and a splinter of self-preservation stabbed at him as Hei Pao Shi strode down the stairs. He dropped his gaze to a point on the floor about a meter in front of his knees.

“What is this?” Hei Pao Shi’s voice was soft, which startled Chu Shuzhi, but there was steel in the tone and a rumble of the evident anger like a distant eruption, no less dangerous for it not being immediately visible.

“This is the prisoner you requested, my lord,” the Regent said, scurrying behind like a rat.

“I’m talking about his condition.”

The edge of the black cloak came into view as Hei Pao Shi reached him then flared away from the blood seeping out from under his damaged knee as Hei Pao Shi circled behind. Chu Shuzhi shivered as the flowing cloth brushed over the sole of his foot and he wondered if the movement had been noticed when Hei Pao Shi stopped just behind his line of sight. That the anger was not being focused on him was a relief, but he wasn’t sure it was much better for it to be about him.

“The prisoner has a tendency to be recalcitrant, my lord,” the Regent said, with not near enough deference to cover the condescension, at least not to Chu Shuzhi’s ears. “Correction is often required, but there is no permanent damage. With animals, one simply needs the right leash to ensure compliance.”

Chu Shuzhi wasn’t sure if it was the Regent’s words or just the smug tone which had him lunging forward with a snarl. A caged animal was all he was now, the extension of his one-hundred-year sentence to life imprisonment saw to that. He knew he wouldn’t get far with so many soldiers in the room, still Chu Shuzhi was surprised to be stopped—that he could be stopped—by fingertips on his shoulder, although they were pressing hard enough to bruise. As his whole shoulder was enveloped in Hei Pao Shi’s grip, Chu Shuzhi could feel warm energy soothing the deeper damage there, healing him while Hei Pao Shi and the Regent discussed him like he was a piece of second-hand goods.

“I offered to take this prisoner off your hands because a life sentence in Dixing is an exceptional burden on resources,” Hei Pao Shi said. “However, I require more than a beast or a puppet to go to Haixing.”

Between the subtle healing and the squeeze to his shoulder on the word ‘puppet’, Chu Shuzhi was certain he was being sent a message. He had no clue what it was, but it was enough that Hei Pao Shi wanted to keep it from the Regent. The enemy of my enemy and so forth. The day suddenly went from worse to interesting, and after decades of crushing sameness, Chu Shuzhi didn’t know how to feel about that.

“And so you have made a fortuitous choice, my lord,” the Regent said, with an obsequious bow as Hei Pao Shi came to stand in front of him again. “This one has an extraordinary...resilience, which is why we dare not release him in Dixing.”

Chu Shuzhi couldn’t help laughing, a harsh and rusty sound. He felt as brittle, like cheap pottery, ready to fly into shards when pressed at the wrong spot. The butt of the rifle didn’t find that spot, though, just his still damaged shoulder. He turned to glare at the soldier and got another blow to the skull for his trouble. Only one. They only stopped at one when they were actually stopped. He wondered who had waved them off then decided it didn’t matter.

“Recalcitrant. Resilient. You mean stubborn,” Hei Pao Shi commented wryly.

“As you say, my lord.”

There was a long silence, long enough to set nerves working at Chu Shuzhi’s guts as he stared at a tiny chip in the tile in front of him. Had he fucked up his one chance for release? Part of him wanted to prostrate himself, clutch at the edge of Hei Pao Shi’s cloak and beg to get him out of here. Just acknowledging the thought made the impulse stronger, and only the logistics of not being able to raise his arms stopped him from throwing himself face down on the floor. That and the fact that the Regent was watching.

“Get him up,” Hei Pao Shi said quietly.

The rough wrenching of his arms and shoulders, and the pain of peeling his bloody knees off the floor, brought out an instinctive reaction. Chu Shuzhi put all the pain and hate he’d hoarded into the clenched-teeth glare he sent at the Regent. He was going to kill the slimy worm once his hands were free. Then his line of sight was blocked—black, silver, warm brown eyes—and Chu Shuzhi lowered his gaze in horror. He really was a stubborn idiot, he thought, as he closed his eyes to keep the warm blood trickling down his forehead from running into them. Then a different warmth took over, the tickle of blood stopped and the sharp pain at his hairline eased.

“Can you walk?” Hei Pao Shi barely whispered. Chu Shuzhi opened his eyes, gaze focused on a black-cloaked shoulder, and responded with just a hint of a nod. Just this small alliance in keeping communication from the Regent gave him a surge of... He didn’t have a word for it, not anymore, but he knew he had one once. He wanted to find it again.

Hei Pao Shi stepped back. “He’ll have to suffice,” he said to the Regent then walked toward the door. One of the guards gave Chu Shuzhi a shove before he could take a step to follow and the fetters almost had him falling onto his knees again. The clanking of the chains and the snickering of the guards must have been enough to alert Hei Pao Shi to what was happening. The flaring of the cloak was enough to catch Chu Shuzhi’s attention so he saw the snarl before a blast of dark energy hit him. It hit the chains. The chains disintegrated into dust.

The release of the weight was exhilarating.

“Is that wise, my lord?” the Regent said, with perfectly justified alarm.

Chu Shuzhi didn’t turn his head, but he knew his eyes had cut to the side, betraying his thoughts. He also knew that Hei Pao Shi had recognized the intent behind the movement. There was a hint of a question in the tilt of his head, the set of his lips, but the expression smoothed as he seemed to sigh, then turned on his heel. Chu Shuzhi would not be stopped from getting his revenge, not by Hei Pao Shi at least. He was being given a choice.

As Hei Pao Shi took a step toward the door, Chu Shuzhi saw he was being handed the last of Hei Pao Shi’s shards of hope, and as easily as they could cut, he had to stop tossing them aside. He made the choice to follow.

He made the choice to follow, and promptly hit the first obstacle on his new path. Stairs. Why did there have to be more stairs? His knee was more than bloody, there must be some internal damage because lifting it fucking hurt. He didn’t dare put too much weight on it and end up falling flat on his face, so he limped up one stair at a time, dragging his useless leg to the doorway.

Hei Pao Shi was waiting for him out of sight of the audience in the throne room. “Stubborn,” he said again, this time with a hint of amusement. “You won’t thank me if I help you, will you?”

“Not with sincerity,” Chu Shuzhi grumbled, then winced. He needed to watch his mouth.

There was a huff of breath that might have been a laugh. “I think I have a compromise.”

Hei Pao Shi gripped Chu Shuzhi at the elbow with one hand and gestured with the other, opening a black void in the middle of the hallway. He pulled Chu Shuzhi through space which didn’t seem empty but also not completely...there. Then they were in a room, and the support was gone.

At the sudden release of the hold, Chu Shuzhi staggered, the portal’s chaos a bit too much for his hard won composure. A light weight settled over his shoulders and there was a scrape on the floor behind him as the firm, grounding grip enveloped his elbow again.

“My apologies. I forgot some people find that disorienting. Sit,” Hei Pao Shi said, guiding him into the chair.

It was only when his ass didn’t meet the wood directly that Chu Shuzhi realized he was draped in a bath sheet. It was bewildering for a long moment, and only when Hei Pao Shi knelt beside him did he remember to pull it around himself, feeling a modest shame for the first time in a century. Even that confusion was insignificant compared to the horrible feeling of wrongness to see Hei Pao Shi kneeling at his feet. “Daren—”

Hei Pao Shi lifted his head to meet Chu Shuzhi’s gaze, eyes sharp and assessing behind the mask. Then there was a movement, like a brow being lifted, and the slightest curl to his lips. Chu Shuzhi was being dared to voice his complaint as Hei Pao Shi brushed aside the cloth over his knee. Then all words disappeared, and he bit back a moan as the spreading warmth under Hei Pao Shi’s hand eliminated that particular pain. It was easier to close his eyes and breathe through the healing than to risk sobbing with utter relief. The warmth moved to the scrapes on his other knee and his feet and ankles. Then a different warmth covered his hands, a touch. Chu Shuzhi’s eyes flew open as Hei Pao Shi encouraged him to loosen his hold on the sheet.

“Your wrists,” Hei Pao Shi murmured.

It had just the hint of command, enough so that Chu Shuzhi immediately offered his hands. Hei Pao Shi sucked in a breath through his teeth. They looked horrible without the manacles hiding the damage, but they were a duller, familiar pain so Chu Shuzhi could observe the work. Hei Pao Shi held his hand above the open wounds, blood and pus starting to thicken, but Chu Shuzhi could also feel power being fed from the hand which was holding him still. He saw skin knit itself together, felt muscles and tendons untwist, and he gritted his teeth when damaged nerves were restored, sending sparks of pain up his arms. As the sores disappeared, Hei Pao Shi cupped the wrist in both hands, applying direct contact on the affected area for a few moments. Chu Shuzhi looked up to see a faint smile accompany a satisfied nod, only to watch Hei Pao Shi grit his teeth as Chu Shuzhi lifted the other hand. Hei Pao Shi paused for a moment, took a deep inhale, then sighed as he started the process again.

This time, Chu Shuzhi risked watching Hei Pao Shi as he focused on the damage. The obvious tension in his mouth and jaw slowly relaxed as the worst of the surface wounds healed. The mask did an excellent job at hiding his features but his lips were expressive, a slight curve of satisfaction, a grimace in sympathy when Chu Shuzhi’s arm jerked as a tendon slid back into place, a tight press to contain anger. This angle didn’t let Chu Shuzhi see the brown eyes he’d glimpsed in the throne room, but it showed that they were fringed by long, thick eyelashes, which likely added to the lingering impression of warmth and care. It was probably a handsome face under the mask, or at least a kind one. Chu Shuzhi frowned at the direction his mind was taking; cataloging details was one thing but there was no reason for speculation. He was clearly desperate for a diversion after years of nothing but the same stone wall to look at. By the time Hei Pao Shi finished, Chu Shuzhi’s gaze was fixed safely on his healed hands.

With another last enveloping touch to the damaged flesh, Hei Pao Shi rose to his feet. He took a breath as if to say something, but it caught in his throat, and he took a couple of steps to stand behind the chair. The bath sheet had fallen from Chu Shuzhi’s shoulders to pool around his waist, so the darkening bruise left by the rifle butt must have been easily visible. Chu Shuzhi closed his eyes again as warmth sank into his shoulder along with Hei Pao Shi’s touch. The new damage gave it the edge of intense relief he’d felt with his knees, but for the most part it simply felt good, so good it was exhilarating. Part way through the process Hei Pao Shi put his hand on the other shoulder as well, finishing the work he’d started in the throne room, possibly comparing the two. As he slowly slid his hands together along Chu Shuzhi’s shoulders toward his spine, Hei Pao Shi said, “You are quite a mess.” His voice filled with wry amusement.

Chu Shuzhi nodded in agreement, in more ways than one, and breathed a chuckle at how easy the movement was. Hei Pao Shi continued to pour energy into the muscles of his back and up into his neck. Tension released that he didn’t even know had been there—his jaw, his face, his scalp for fuck’s sake. The persistent headache—simply part of his existence—flowed away, and Chu Shuzhi wanted to cry.

“Is there any other damage which needs healing?” Hei Pao Shi said softly when he seemed to have finished.

“No,” Chu Shuzhi said. At least he didn’t think so. It had been so long since he had been without some kind of pain that he was having trouble figuring out what he was feeling. The hand still resting on the back of his neck wasn’t helping to clarify things.

“Daren, what am I doing here?” He winced at the sound of his own voice, uncertain and lost, like a child.

“I need an agent in Haixing. Someone who can be my eyes and ears, and act as a liaison with the appropriate authorities.” Hei Pao Shi gave a light squeeze to Chu Shuzhi’s neck and then let go completely as he stepped away. “And you need a bath.”

Chu Shuzhi couldn’t argue with that. He knew there had to be more to the endeavour, but Hei Pao Shi had given him enough to think about while he scrubbed off countless weeks of sweat, blood, and other unspeakable grime. He held the bath sheet around his waist and stood up, again surprised at the lack of pain in his feet, his knees—everywhere—and needed a few moments to orient himself. He glanced over to see Hei Pao Shi watching him carefully, assessingly, so he didn’t hold the gaze, but moved decisively across the room.

The bath was impossible to miss, a hip-high, round tub full of gently steaming water, but there were other items hidden by its bulk. There was a bench which held various towels, likely the origin of his current garb, and soap. A low stool sat against the side of the tub over a convenient drain. There was a large bucket of cold water and an ample sized dipper which would still be easy to lift even full. The variety of items available to him seemed an abundance of riches, but what made him hesitate in a moment of confusion was the realization that Hei Pao Shi was unfolding a screen between them.

Privacy, like modesty, was another concept he’d almost forgotten.

The guards had thrown a few buckets of water at him an hour before dragging him out of the cell so he wasn’t too disgusting. Still, the amount of skin and dirt that sloughed off with just a damp cloth convinced him that it was a good first step. He added soap to a new cloth for the second pass, scrubbing his hair first—it had been shaved with his face once a month—then working his way down. Rubbing the soapy cloth over his skin was bliss, removing not just the grime but the stench of the last century. He felt a fresh wave of embarrassment that Hei Pao Shi had been near him, had touched him, when he was in this state. The herbal aroma coming from the tub reinforced the idea until the scent found a connection in a memory from his childhood. They were the herbs used in the medicinal baths for soothing skin and easing sore muscles. He finished his scrub with renewed purpose and poured a fresh dipper of the cold water over his head for a final invigorating rinse before swinging his legs over the edge of the tub and settling into the hot water.

His enjoyment must have been louder than he thought, because Hei Pao Shi had a clear smile in his voice as he said, “Relax and soak. I need to clarify a few things.”

There was the sound of a chair being moved closer to the barrier and Hei Pao Shi taking the seat, then a surprisingly long pause before he began, “I do not dispute the seriousness of your crimes nor the requirement of suitable consequences. However, I understand your motivation. I understand it very well.” The last phrase was said softly, almost under his breath, and there was another silence for a few heartbeats before he continued in his previous authoritative manner. “I also consider the revision of your sentence to be unreasonable, although beyond my authority to amend except through the course of action which I chose to take.”

“And I am grateful, Daren,” Chu Shuzhi couldn’t help saying.

Hei Pao Shi made an acknowledging sound, and as he continued, seemed a little more relaxed. “Haixing has established an organization which locates and—,” he huffed a harsh breath, “removes anyone they discover from Dixing. You would be investigating anything from suspicious activity to outright crimes under the guidance of a newly appointed head of the Special Investigations Division. Is this something you think you could contribute to?”

Chu Shuzhi answered without hesitation, “Yes, Daren.” It sounded interesting, something both active and mentally engaging.

“Good,” Hei Pao Shi said, again with the sound of a smile in his voice. “Aside from your official role, your purpose there is two-fold. Primarily it is to allow me to keep a distance from the organization. I have other tasks where maintaining the cover as a normal Haixing person is paramount. The other is to give me an accurate picture of the work of the organization. When I liaised directly with the previous chief, it was clear that my presence kept him and the organization on guard. I would like to know what this new chief is really like and how Haixing truly views Dixing.” Hei Pao Shi paused, and then added, “It may be difficult for you.”

“I’m sure I’ve dealt with worse, Daren,” Chu Shuzhi said wryly.

Hei Pao Shi hummed an agreement. “There is one last aspect which I’d prefer to discuss face to face.”

It was a subtle command, but a command nonetheless, so Chu Shuzhi didn’t linger. He did take a moment to duck under the water to ensure all the soap and grime had been washed away. Breaking the surface felt like rebirth. There was a whole new world stretching out before him, strange and potentially hostile, but containing something he hadn’t seen in this one for a long time—hope.

The towels were luxurious, although that impression may have been simply a comparison to his recent experiences, a pattern he was starting to recognize now. And under the towels, a pair of loose, black trousers. He hesitated, wondering if it was a trick, an illusion, a dream. Then he mentally slapped himself because he was being ridiculous. He had worn clothes in the pit, they simply didn’t bother replacing them in the dungeon and he wasn’t in the dungeon now. Still, as he slipped them on, he had to brace himself against the emotional onslaught of being treated like a person again.

When he came around the screen, Hei Pao Shi was still in the chair. The mask hid enough of his expression that Chu Shuzhi couldn’t read anything from the neutral hold of his mouth even as he obviously raked his eyes over Chu Shuzhi in inspection. “Is there any other damage which requires healing?” Hei Pao Shi said carefully.

“No,” Chu Shuzhi said, puzzled at the repetition, then he suddenly realized what Hei Pao Shi was really asking. “No! That was not— They were profoundly unimaginative. Although I’m starting to think boredom may have been one of my prescribed torture methods.” Now he sounded like he was complaining about not being raped. He really needed to learn to shut the fuck up.

Hei Pao Shi seemed to take the comment as intended, however, and he flashed a small smile before he rose from the chair. “I think it is safe to say boredom will not be one of your trials if you accept this role,” he said.

“If?” Chu Shuzhi scoffed. “My other option is to go back to the dungeon and the pit.”

“You may consider what I’m about to ask of you to be just as torturous as prison,” Hei Pao Shi warned, then took the tone of a commander conveying strategy. “The most efficient way to give you the ability to fulfil all of the tasks required of you is to make you an extension of myself. There is a spell which would provide you with the proxy powers of my position as Hei Pao Shi. If needed, this could be your selling point to the SID as you would have the ability to act in my name, including returning criminals to Haixing. You would also gain knowledge of and have access to all the physical pathways and communication channels between Dixing and Haixing, which may be something better kept to yourself. Most importantly, is the capability of instant, reliable communication between us which absolutely would need to be kept secret. The SID chief will likely suspect you of being a spy anyway, confirming it would be unwise.”

Hei Pao Shi paused, and Chu Shuzhi nodded, the reasoning seemed sound. Hei Pao Shi gave an answering nod, then continued, “The spell is difficult for the caster and extremely painful for the subject. The binding is written on the subject’s skin.” He grimaced as he indicated Chu Shuzhi’s bare torso. “For our purposes, there are only four symbols. I think it would be best to put them on your back, arranged like a seal. That’s what you would become, in essence, a symbol of my authority.”

On the surface, this didn’t seem like such a bad deal. It actually seemed too good to be true in many ways, and Hei Pao Shi’s increasing disquiet seemed to confirm it was. Chu Shuzhi knew there was going to be some kind of leash kept on him, and if part of its power was him not knowing exactly how long it was, he’d dealt with worse. “Are you telling me everything?” Chu Shuzhi asked, just to see what the answer would be.

Hei Pao Shi paused for a beat, providing as clear an answer as Chu Shuzhi needed, but he found a measure of comfort in hearing Hei Pao Shi’s quiet, confirming, “No.”

At least he could rely on answers to direct questions, so he asked another, because he needed to hear the truth of it out loud. “If I refuse?”

This pause drained away a good portion of Hei Pao Shi’s underlying tension, and the softening of his visible features left Chu Shuzhi completely trusting his words. “I would continue my search to find someone suitable while we establish you with the SID. It would require us maintaining closer contact than is prudent, making my other obligations difficult, and you would not have the access and resources which I feel you deserve while on this assignment. However, those issues would be resolved once there was someone at the SID with the connection.”

Chu Shuzhi was surprised that there was no relief in finding out he would not automatically be returned to the dungeons, but that he would simply be made...less. “Not back to the pit?” he asked, reaching for blunt confirmation in lieu of a more intelligent question.

Perhaps Hei Pao Shi could read his thoughts, because he wore the hint of a smile as he said, “Not unless you wish to.”

He did not wish to. There was no point in even pretending. Chu Shuzhi also did not wish to be subject to the authority of a go-between. A Haixing leader of a Haixing organization he could bear, but to always be one step removed from… It would be intolerable. He could feel his teeth clenching at just the thought of someone else being tied to Hei Pao Shi this way. Someone else when it could have been him. When Hei Pao Shi had chosen him. “I accept,” he said before he realized he’d decided. Hei Pao Shi tilted his head, a request for clarification, and Chu Shuzhi nodded once. “Everything,” he said. “I accept everything, Daren. What do I do?”

Hei Pao Shi seemed to stand even straighter, then made an elegant gesture toward the chair. “Sit here. Face the back and brace yourself. You will need to remain as still as you can.”

Chu Shuzhi straddled the seat and crossed his arms over the back of the chair. It was a good height and he tested the comfort of resting his forehead on his braced arms.

“Good,” Hei Pao Shi said, possibly brushing a hand over the back of Chu Shuzhi’s head. It was so light, Chu Shuzhi knew it could have been his imagination. “The last time I saw this done, the recipient passed out before the first symbol was finished.” There was a flash and a crackle through the air, and Chu Shuzhi startled, head up and all senses alert. Now there was no mistaking the fingertips on the nape of his neck.

“Sound dampener,” Hei Pao Shi explained. “You can scream as much as you need to and it won’t leave this room.”

Chu Shuzhi was tempted to turn, to see if Hei Pao Shi was kidding, but was afraid to confirm that he wasn’t. The soft touch slid down between his shoulder blades and stopped right over his thudding heart. “You can still refuse,” Hei Pao Shi said.

Now Chu Shuzhi turned. Even with the mask, it was obvious from Hei Pao Shi’s expression that he was not relishing this process. It was possible he was looking for an excuse to avoid it. That alone told Chu Shuzhi how important it was. He was still amazed that there was someone who didn’t welcome his pain but if he was going to take a chance at trusting anyone with it, it was going to be this man. “I am in your hands, Daren.”

Hei Pao Shi set his jaw and took a deep breath through his nose. “Then I need the use of one of yours. Hold out your dominant hand.”

Chu Shuzhi did as he was bid and a small, heavy bowl was placed in his palm, dark liquid swirling in the bottom. Hei Pao Shi sliced the edge of his own hand and let a small stream of blood add to the contents. It wasn’t a lot, and when Hei Pao Shi shook off the last drop the wound had already healed.

“Your other hand, please,” Hei Pao Shi said.

Chu Shuzhi knew what was coming, but the knife was so sharp he barely felt it until he squeezed his fist to encourage the blood to flow as more than an embarrassing trickle into the dark liquid. He watched the thin red ribbon, mesmerised, until Hei Pao Shi caught his wrist; the wound healed before he opened his hand.

Hei Pao Shi had avoided his eyes through the whole process. After the connection they seemed to have established, it made Chu Shuzhi nervous. And talkative. “I’d never heard of any power that needed blood to work.”

“Some aspects of the past are best left forgotten,” Hei Pao Shi said ruefully, again taking possession of the heavy bowl.

Chu Shuzhi turned his head toward the sound of furniture scraping across the stone and a table slid into his field of view. It held a standard writing set, brush and ink which could have come from any desk. There was a larger brush on a stand; Hei Pao Shi placed the bowl of blood in front of it. Chu Shuzhi knew what it was for. He couldn’t look away, amazed that such an innocuous looking object filled him with such dread. Then there was movement at the edge of his awareness. Swaths of black draped over the far end of the table and the sound of the mask joining them pulled Chu Shuzhi’s focus from the accoutrements for the spell. All he needed to do was turn his head, move his eyes, and the man behind the mask would be within sight.

It was a gift. A reciprocation of trust. But Chu Shuzhi didn’t deserve it. Not yet. He resettled himself to face the back of the chair—back straight, head bowed, eyes closed.

“Relax while you can,” Hei Pao Shi said. “I need to map certain energy points. It will be just my hands and regular ink for now.”

Hei Pao Shi started with fingertips again, but it was just a warning before he ran both of his hands down the full length of Chu Shuzhi’s back. It was done slowly, deliberately and with power which was different from the healing warmth. It felt really good, and Chu Shuzhi bit his cheek to keep in the sounds of enjoyment which sat in the back of his throat. A random thought flitted through his mind that he’d been touched more today than in the last century, but that wasn’t true. He’d been touched a lot—hit, shoved, dragged—just never with the care and attention he was being shown today. Even if at the moment it was simply as a canvas.

The sweeping touch seemed to have been an inspection because Hei Pao Shi made an approving sound then went back to using only fingertips, starting at Chu Shuzhi’s right shoulder blade. The brush was barely a tickle, sometimes a dot, sometimes a short line. It gave him an idea of the size of the symbols, each probably about the size of a hand. The one on his lower back seemed to give Hei Pao Shi difficulty as he brushed his fingers over the same sections of skin numerous times before deciding on where to place the brush.

When he moved to Chu Shuzhi’s left shoulder he said, “You have scars.”

“Will that be a problem, Daren?” The lines were silvery and smooth, very old scars slowly fading when Chu Shuzhi had the energy to spare for them, but some trace would likely always remain.

“No. Not at all. I was simply surprised to see them. I thought there were healers available to tend to wounds, even if simply to avoid infection and illness.”

“Yes, avoiding infection is such a high priority,” Chu Shuzhi said acerbically, and Hei Pao Shi made a rueful conceding sound.

“There are palace healers to close most wounds,” Chu Shuzhi continued. “I’m certain my wrists were left deliberately. However, in the quarry pit, they are only called for cases which would debilitate, and even then they are not the most skilled. I was an angry child. I spent much of my time there.” Chu Shuzhi could acknowledge it probably saved him. The work was dangerous, brutal, and monotonous, but they were fed enough to do it. It had allowed him to maintain a reasonable level of health and even practice some aspects of his powers.

Lost in his musings, he missed the sketching of the fourth symbol, but the sound of the bowl being moved to the nearest corner of the table rang like an alarm bell.

“You’re sure?” Hei Pao Shi asked again, placing his finger where he was likely to start.

Chu Shuzhi wasn’t sure what was causing Hei Pao Shi’s hesitation, but he could be resolute for both of them. “I’ve made my choice, Daren.”

The first stroke was reminiscent of the whip. The pain only hit when Hei Pao Shi finished the stroke, a burning wave following the path of the brush. Hei Pao Shi didn’t hesitate with the rest of them, completing the symbol quickly, as Chu Shuzhi fought to remain still for him. And to remain quiet for his pride. It was when the worst of it ended that he broke, a harsh gasp escaping when Hei Pao Shi put his hand on Chu Shuzhi’s shoulder and offered him a cup. Chu Shuzhi shook his head.

“You can rest between them,” Hei Pao Shi said.

“I’ll drink after it’s done,” Chu Shuzhi managed. Three more of these. His stomach was sure to rebel if there was anything in it.

The cup disappeared from his view and then there was a scrape of wood on the floor. He looked around enough to see that Hei Pao Shi had settled on a low stool. He realized that Hei Pao Shi was making these sounds deliberately to let Chu Shuzhi know what was happening behind him. Fighting the pain of the first symbol must have left some emotional tenderness behind because that small kindness shouldn’t have produced the rise of moisture in his eyes. Chu Shuzhi resettled himself in the chair. This next symbol sat lower down his back; it was going to be harder to hold steady. Hei Pao Shi placed his left hand on Chu Shuzhi’s ribs, warm and solid. It was a warning and an anchor and a sign that Hei Pao Shi was waiting. Chu Shuzhi took a deep breath, nodded once, then said, “Ready.”

He was prepared for more fire; this stroke of the brush brought ice, but it burned into him just as effectively. He didn’t get the urge to scream, though, and stillness wasn’t a problem. This pain stopped him completely. What made it even worse was that there was more than the physical torment ripping at him. It added an additional layer of pain, one he hadn’t felt with this much sharpness for a century. He could only take it. His only recourse was the tears he could feel running down his face.

Perhaps this symbol was simpler, or maybe Chu Shuzhi had simply lost track of time, because he didn’t notice the pain wasn’t still increasing until Hei Pao Shi asked, sounding hopeful, “You didn’t even twitch. Was that one easier?”

“No,” Chu Shuzhi said in a sob, catching himself before more could escape.

It was a surprising comfort to realize that Hei Pao Shi didn’t know what he was doing—what the spell was doing—other than the vague idea of pain. This one had ripped at the tenderest parts of him and he was relieved to know that Hei Pao Shi hadn’t chosen to use the wound left by his brother’s death to torture him.

He felt warmth and weight, Hei Pao Shi’s hand on his back again, over his heart. “You are doing so well,” Hei Pao Shi said quietly.

That shook another couple of sobs loose. Chu Shuzhi hid his face in his arms to keep them silent at least and eventually could focus on the comforting heat of the touch on his back. The touch left as his breathing eased and he heard the sound of pouring water. It was irritating that Hei Pao Shi hadn’t taken him at his word about not wanting water, but then he felt a damp cloth brush against his fingertips. That he took gratefully. He sat up and scrubbed his face.

“I can take that,” Hei Pao Shi said when Chu Shuzhi had finished cleaning up.

“Thank you, no. I’ll likely need it again,” Chu Shuzhi replied, folding the cloth into a pad to clench in his fist. The tears would come easier now that they’d started.

“Then I guess I shouldn’t insult you by asking if you want to stop,” Hei Pao Shi said.

Chu Shuzhi huffed a laugh. It wasn’t funny, but he appreciated the thought; although he was now certain that the inquiries were more wishes on Hei Pao Shi’s part than a doubt of Chu Shuzhi’s commitment. It brought home the importance of this connection they were building and Chu Shuzhi warmed with pride. Then Hei Pao Shi made a quiet inquiring sound and asked, “Does the first still hurt?”

He shifted his shoulder and was surprised to find it didn’t. There wasn’t even a residual soreness. The newest still felt like it was sinking icy claws into his flesh, but that wasn’t what he’d been asked. He shook his head. “At least there’s that. Half-way, Daren,” he said, determined.

Hei Pao Shi took a firm grip on his shoulder. “The recipient who passed out during the first symbol, awakened during this one. It will be bad,” he said. “Remember, there are wards. Don’t use your energy to feed your pride.”

“Save it for keeping still,” Chu Shuzhi said out loud, to remind himself, and braced his forehead on his arms this time.

The ice had turned sharp as it sank into him, this pain was edged from the beginning. Chu Shuzhi was being sliced into. Flayed. Each stroke of the brush felt like it was peeling away his flesh, leaving him exposed, and each dot stabbing into him like a knife reaching his bones. There seemed to be a lot of those in this symbol, so he let himself howl by the fourth one. As Hei Pao Shi said, there was no point in feeding his pride.

He felt almost...good when it was clear that Hei Pao Shi wasn’t going to place the brush again. He knew this pain of flesh torn open, he could sit with it. And the icy wrenching tug at his soul was gone. Well, the sharpness of it was gone, the particular pain it had torn at never really was, but it was back to its more familiar levels. He embraced it as well, grateful that this lingering remnant of his other half hadn’t been taken from him.

Chu Shuzhi heard a tortured breath behind him and twisted around before thinking twice. Hei Pao Shi had his back turned this time, but it was clear by the set of his shoulders that Chu Shuzhi’s reaction had shaken him.

“Daren,” Chu Shuzhi said, holding out the damp cloth. “It barely compared to the worst whippings. And you were right, making a bunch of noise made it easier to let it go.”

Hei Pao Shi’s huff of laughter contained as much humour as Chu Shuzhi’s had, but he could hear the relief underneath it. He averted his eyes again as Hei Pao Shi turned.

“Keep it,” Hei Pao Shi said, the appreciation in his voice very clear. “You might still need it. The last one...” Hei Pao Shi paused as he dragged the stool back into position. “It was the only one I was told anything about and only that everyone experiences it differently. Although I now suspect that is true for the others as well.”

Chu Shuzhi settled himself in the chair, again resting his head on his arms. He felt more nervous for this one than he had for the first. Maybe it was in anticipation of it being over. Maybe it was because once this was over, there was so much more to follow. This morning he had woken up facing a lifetime of sameness, and now everything was different. He had a reason again. There was someone who needed him.

“I know I didn’t ask last time, but may I?” Hei Pao Shi said. Chu Shuzhi could feel the heat of Hei Pao Shi’s hand hovering over his ribs.

“Yes. It helped,” Chu Shuzhi said, alleviating whatever guilt he could. And it was true, at least until the touch of the brush and then he had felt nothing but the icy pain. He braced himself for the next one, but then let that go. There was no preparing for the unknown beyond knowing that there would always be something new. He took a deep breath, and at the bottom of his exhale, the ink flowed over his skin.

Intense—that was all Chu Shuzhi could pin down. He kept trying to figure out the nature of this pain so he would know what was about to follow but he couldn’t. The stroke of the brush felt like too much in the moment, but when it lifted, he immediately wanted another one. Another one so he could figure it out, he told himself, but that wasn’t it. It felt good. Really good. So good that he had more trouble not moving through this application than he had through the other three. He could feel himself shaking with the strain, tremors running along his bones, his muscles wanting to press into the touch.

“It’s half done. Take a deep breath,” Hei Pao Shi said, moving both his hand and the brush from Chu Shuzhi’s skin. Chu Shuzhi did as he was told, stretching his ribcage and filling his lungs. It eased the shaking under his skin and let him settle back into stillness. Hei Pao Shi pressed his hand back against Chu Shuzhi’s ribs in warning, then placed the brush again. “We’ve moved through this faster than I expected. You are doing a very good job keeping still,” he said, running it over Chu Shuzhi’s skin.

The praise combined with the pleasurable strokes of the brush acted like the ice to pull at a deeper part of him than just the sensation alone had been able to. Chu Shuzhi wasn’t sure what to do with the feeling, but his body had a strong opinion on the matter, filling and hardening in a way that hadn’t happened in decades. Surprisingly, the involuntary reaction also provided him with a measure of peace. He was the canvas; the spell would do what the spell would do. He let the pleasure flow through him.

Chu Shuzhi knew the moment the brush lifted from his skin for the last time. There was a sense of completeness, of closure, of everything falling into its appropriate place. Nothing lingered of any of the sensations he’d endured, even his erection already seemed to be easing, and he let out a long sighing breath. There was a scrape of wooden legs on the floor as Hei Pao Shi rose from his seat and he had a smile in his voice as he said, “It seems I don’t need to tell you that it is done.” He stepped toward the table, his voice coming from over Chu Shuzhi’s shoulder as he added, “Now to find out if it worked.”

As Hei Pao Shi returned the brush to the holder, Chu Shuzhi glanced over his far shoulder to catch sight of the other end of the table. The mask was still on its bed of black, the silver glittering in the candle light. He felt the urge to turn around completely and look at Hei Pao Shi, but he could tell the impulse wasn’t his. Was this what Hei Pao Shi meant by it working? He faced the back of the chair again and shook his head, braced for at least an echo of the earlier trials. He waited until his lungs demanded air, then he grinned. It seemed there was no punishment for disobedience. At least not from the spell.

“What do you feel?” Hei Pao Shi asked, sounding worried and a little breathless as he moved closer. He may have been holding his breath as well.

“I only felt the message.” Chu Shuzhi said. “Not words, but the desire? Impulse? I could tell it was yours, Daren. Nothing felt different for refusing it. It just stopped.”

“I think I felt something, faintly,” Hei Pao Shi mused. “Refuse it more deliberately. Send it back to me.”

Chu Shuzhi felt a stronger message, more of a command this time. He responded silently, just as strongly, but respectfully. He hoped.

“Ah! Emotions come through, that’s good to know,” Hei Pao Shi said. “And it looks like the ink has sunk right into your skin.” He ran his finger along the first stroke he made and they both gasped, Chu Shuzhi’s easing erection surging back to full force. That had felt like the brush strokes from the last symbol, but without him being braced for it, it rolled relentlessly through his whole body.

“That wasn’t pain,” Hei Pao Shi said, taking a couple of staggering steps back.

Even though it wasn’t a question, Chu Shuzhi confirmed, “No,” with an edge of hysterical laughter in his voice. What did it say about him that he could handle all kinds of pain with equanimity, but a bit of pleasure would undo him. He dropped his forehead onto the back of the chair, very relieved that he had kept himself turned away from Hei Pao Shi.

“Do you think a shirt is going to cause...difficulties?” Hei Pao Shi asked.

“Only one way to find out,” Chu Shuzhi said.

Again, Hei Pao Shi made deliberate noise as he moved through the room out of Chu Shuzhi’s line of sight, making sure his boots landed heavy or scuffed at the stone under his feet. While he was gone, Chu Shuzhi brushed his own fingers over the same spot. He could tell where it was, the echo of the sensation still reverberating, but his own touch didn’t cause any unusual reaction and he couldn’t feel anything under his fingertips other than his own skin.

It didn’t surprise him then, when the cloth fell across his shoulders and it felt like nothing but cloth. He slipped his arms into the sleeves without comment and rose to fasten it, relieved to see it was practically tunic length, brushing the tops of his thighs. He turned to face Hei Pao Shi, it seemed rude to keep his back turned, but he kept his eyes on the floor like he had done in the throne room.

“I was told that the marks will fade, but I’ve come to suspect that there are no certainties with this spell,” Hei Pao Shi said. “I hope they will not be a hindrance. We will be meeting with the Haixing Inspectorate in a few days. In the meantime, there is a room prepared for you with some background material for you to read and we will refine our strategy. I will also make sure you are sent some food. Something light to start?”

The cup appeared in his line of sight and he took it this time. He honestly couldn’t tell how his stomach would react, but the thoughtfulness was enough. “Thank you, Daren.”

Chu Shuzhi felt the nudge to look up again as he was taking a sip. It was more coaxing this time, but he could see that the mask was still on the table, so he again shook his head, sending back his deep sense of gratitude through the connection rather than the refusal. He considered sending the feeling which seemed to underpin the alliance they were forging, but the thought of it made him nervous the way looking into the future did, like it was too big. Also, he still hadn’t found the word for it.

“Chu Shuzhi,” Hei Pao Shi said, sounding exasperated, but Chu Shuzhi was struck by the fondness in it.

“Yes, Daren.”

“Look at me.”

“With all due respect, no, Daren.” Chu Shuzhi heard a bark of real laughter as Hei Pao Shi turned toward the table.

“Stubborn,” Hei Pao Shi said as he lifted the mask.

 

*****

 

“They did fade,” Hei Pao Shi said from the shower room doorway.

Chu Shuzhi had known from the first time he’d heard the professor’s voice that the glasses and vests and sleeve garters were just as much of a disguise as the mask and cloak. He tried to keep his distance from the persona Hei Pao Shi used to fulfil his other obligations. That’s what Chu Shuzhi was here for after all, to allow Professor Shen to exist. The separation had become more difficult with the increasing amount of time Hei Pao Shi spent at the SID. That he’d followed after Chu Shuzhi finished his workout suggested the need for secrecy might be coming to an end.

He nodded and shrugged in reply to the comment, then said, “In a fashion.”

He had control over them, in a fashion. He knew which thoughts and emotions would trigger their appearance; those he didn’t always have complete control over. As he brought the black characters into view on the bare skin of his back, he looked over his shoulder to watch Hei Pao Shi’s face, clear of masks, the way he hadn’t dared the day they were put there. The way the brown eyes widened and the expressive mouth fell open only aided the process.

“What didn’t you tell me?” Chu Shuzhi asked quietly. “That day in the palace.”

Hei Pao Shi seemed to have a moment of confusion then nodded as he stepped over the threshold, letting the door close behind him. “The fourth character is the key,” he said. He was looking everywhere but at Chu Shuzhi. Chu Shuzhi half-smothered a smile as the word ‘stubborn’ echoed through his memory.

“If the conditions for that one hadn’t been met,” Hei Pao Shi continued, “then the pain of the rest would have been moot.”

“The conditions?” Chu Shuzhi didn’t remember any conditions other than to survive it.

“You.” Hei Pao Shi smiled as he stepped closer, angling toward Chu Shuzhi’s shoulder as his gaze also settled there. “Your willingness, your trust. Your honesty, loyalty. These are yours,” he said, gesturing to Chu Shuzhi’s back. “You can be rid of them whenever you wish. You don’t need to remain tied to me.” He reached out to the first stroke he had made, but fisted his hand before making contact and met Chu Shuzhi’s gaze. “That’s what I didn’t tell you,” he whispered.

Hei Pao Shi hadn’t told Chu Shuzhi that the door to his cage was unlocked, but all he would have had to do was push on it to discover the fact for himself. He never even considered the option.

Maybe he’d always known that the whole cage was an illusion because he had built the foundation himself from each respectful phrase, each careful touch. They were mortared with the feeling he’d finally found the word for; a word which was powerful and terrifying but also as delicate as spun glass. He knew it could be just as sharp, too. Illusion or not, he had no intention of rattling the door and shattering it.

Chu Shuzhi took in Hei Pao Shi’s worried look and clenched fist, and he let the foundation strengthen as he said the only thing he could say, “I am still in your hands, Daren.”