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on the edge, unseeing

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Zhao Yunlan looks like he’s about to flip his shit.

“The Black-cloaked Envoy said what?” he asks in a biting tone, arms crossed, head tilted forward.

Chu Shuzhi is well aware that it’s a rhetorical question, but he answers it again anyway, because if he’s going to get any semblance of enjoyment from all of this, it might as well be from watching his boss implode.

“He strongly recommends that I take over bodyguarding duties for the Guo family,” Chu Shuzhi says placidly.

Zhao Yunlan throws his hands up in the air. “Why didn’t he just ask me directly? I’m right here. He knows where my office is.” Then he gestures pointedly at Chu Shuzhi. “You’re my most experienced field agent. He can’t just poach you from me.”

“He’s not poaching,” Chu Shuzhi says, slightly irked. “He just recommends that I be reassigned. With my consent. Which is why he talked to me.” He pauses. “Didn’t you read the memo?”

Zhao Yunlan scoffs. “I get a lot of memos.”

Chu Shuzhi squints. “It was a pretty urgent memo.”

“Fine, I didn’t read it. I’m very busy, you know. So what did it say?”

“There was another death threat against Vice Minister Guo. Ever since the interview he did for the Dragon City Journal, the Dixing extremists are putting a target on his back.”

Zhao Yunlan sighs, his expression turning serious. “Again?” He taps his index finger against his leg. “But he isn’t the type to back down or give in to them.”

“No, he isn’t,” Chu Shuzhi says. “But they threatened to kill his family this time. The Vice Minister didn’t know who else to go to.”

“So he asked the Black-cloaked Envoy for help, because of course, you have to fight Dixing fire with Dixing fire,” Zhao Yunlan says, before his tone veers into a slight whine. “But he ended up picking you anyway. My agent! He has a thousand other Dixingians to choose from. It’s like he wants me to do my own field work.”

“I said yes,” Chu Shuzhi says abruptly, if only to prevent his boss from prattling on about— well, his other boss. The tension between the two has been going on for so long that Chu Shuzhi had gone to the cell phone store twice already, staring intensely at the cheapest model and wondering if programming Zhao Yunlan’s phone number into it and teaching the Black-cloaked Envoy to send emojis might put the rest of them out of this misery.

But then he remembers that there’s no cell phone reception in Dixing, and he’s back to square one.

“You said yes,” Zhao Yunlan repeats, in disbelief, “to babysitting?”

“I owe him,” is all Chu Shuzhi says, and Zhao Yunlan wisely refrains from prodding further.

Instead, he asks, “How long?”

“Through the summer for now,” Chu Shuzhi responds, “while the kid is off of school. The plan is to take him to a remote location in the countryside, and lay low there.”

Zhao Yunlan raises an eyebrow. “You’re not bringing the Vice Minister’s wife with you?”

“Based on what the Black-cloaked Envoy told me, she refuses to go. Wants to carry on her duties at the Women’s Association office.” Chu Shuzhi crosses his arms. “Their priority is the safety of their nephew.”

“Then why not just bring him here to the SID office?”

Chu Shuzhi blinks. “What?”

Zhao Yunlan starts pacing back and forth, the way he always does when struck by a new idea. “It’s the perfect solution – you could keep an eye on him while continuing to work here, and it’s the safest spot in the whole city.” He gestures towards the front door. “Totally Dixingren-proof. Other than you, obviously. And the Black-cloaked Envoy.”

Chu Shuzhi is not convinced. “So the kid is supposed to eat, sleep, and live here, twenty-four-seven?”

“We have a couch and a bathroom,” Zhao Yunlan says, like the decision is already final.

“And what eighteen-year-old do you know who would obediently keep their hands off the Hallows? Avoid sneaking out at night? Quietly read a book instead of throwing a secret night rave?”

Zhao Yunlan pauses in thought as he thinks back to nearly two decades ago.

Yeah, his eighteen-year-old self definitely wouldn’t have done any of that.

“Fine,” Zhao Yunlan huffs. “Where are you going to go?”

“Can’t tell you,” Chu Shuzhi says immediately, feeling a bit of satisfaction at Zhao Yunlan’s offended look. “Not even the Black-cloaked Envoy will know.”

“At least tell me the province, so I know where to send my carrier pigeon with a funerary invite, in case – you know – one of us dies because we no longer have a field agent.”

Chu Shuzhi crosses his arms. “The address is 123 Confidential, in the city of Top Secret, which is in the province of Classified.”

“Oh, now he gets a sense of humor,” Zhao Yunlan says drily. “I hope you know that I’ll be telling Wang Zheng to recalculate your Q2 bonus accordingly.”

“So I am getting a bonus, is what you’re saying.”

“What?” Zhao Yunlan calls out, as he walks backwards out the door. “I can’t hear you over the sound of me fighting supernatural crime, all by myself, without your help.”

Chu Shuzhi stares after him with a grimace. “Why Zhu Hong loves you, I have no fucking clue,” he mutters.


Chu Shuzhi thinks he might’ve judged the kid a bit too hastily.

After taking one look at Guo Changcheng’s wide innocent eyes and curled-in shoulders, Chu Shuzhi sees that he’s absolutely the type to keep his hands off the Hallows, avoid sneaking out at night, and quietly read a book (instead of throwing a secret night rave).

Guo Changcheng looks around the SID office with great interest.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” he exclaims, head swiveling this way and that. “I’ve heard so much about you guys.” He clutches the strap of his messenger bag with glee, as he looks back at Chu Shuzhi. “Can I get a tour?”

Chu Shuzhi blinks rapidly in confusion, before settling on his usual glare. “No.”

Guo Changcheng doesn’t even budge. “Why?”

Chu Shuzhi refuses to acknowledge Zhao Yunlan’s poorly-stifled cackling in the background. “You don’t work here. You’re not staying here. We’re only here to finalize my paperwork, then we’re leaving.”

“Miss Zhu, oh my gosh,” Guo Changcheng says, with an enthusiastic wave. “Hi, so nice to meet you. I’m a huge fan. Snakes are so incredible. Oh well, I guess you know that already, since you’re from the Snake Tribe, obviously—”

Zhu Hong, who’s been organizing the latest case files in the back corner of the office, looks up and stares at Guo Changcheng. “You sure know a lot about us,” she says quietly, with a hint of distrust.

Guo Changcheng barrels onward, his joy not one whit dampened. “Oh, I’ve read everything I could find online!” (“Damn, I thought we scrubbed all that,” Zhao Yunlan mutters to Wang Zheng, who merely shrugs.) “The history course at school was terribly one-sided, and I thought, why aren’t we all working together? Wouldn’t that be better than fighting? And then I found out about the SID, which is like the dream team, and I was so excited when my aunt and uncle told me I’d be coming here to—”

“Wang Zheng,” Chu Shuzhi hisses, “why is the paperwork taking so long?”

Wang Zheng points at the screen. “System update. It’s only 48% done.”

Chu Shuzhi groans and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“—and when this is all over,” Guo Changcheng continues, “I would be so honored to put my application in as an intern. Do you accept interns? I’m okay with anything, really, I can make coffee, take meeting minutes, maybe eventually guard the Hallows—”

“Kid,” Chu Shuzhi interrupts sharply, with mounting irritation. “You are not understanding the severity of your situation. This is not a game. This is not a vacation. You are here because your life is in danger. So act like it, or we’re done here.”

The office falls into an awkward silence, as Guo Changcheng visibly deflates, his gaze dropping dejectedly.

“I know. I just— want to help,” he says, voice shaking slightly, then more softly, “I’m not a kid.”

Zhao Yunlan hops off the file cabinet he was perched upon, and grins sympathetically. “It’s good to look towards the future, Xiao Guo. Don’t mind Lao Chu. He’s so old, he doesn’t remember what it’s like to be young.”

“Hm, that’s true,” Zhu Hong says with a raised eyebrow.

“Look who’s talking—” Chu Shuzhi retorts, voice rising.

“System update completed!” Wang Zheng says a little too loudly, with a nervous smile. “Here’s a copy of your paystub and transfer form. Our emergency line will remain the same, should you ever need to reach us. Good luck and safe travels!”

Without another word, Chu Shuzhi sets his badge and cell phone on her desk, and turns to leave.

Lao Chu,” Zhao Yunlan calls out. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Chu Shuzhi whips around, insulted, but then he catches the undercurrent of love and care beneath Zhao Yunlan’s joking mien, and knows that he’ll be here, that all of SID will be here, no matter what. And it gives him strength to know he’s not alone, even as he’s preparing to whisk the Guo boy away to a distant place.

He nods curtly, and feels the familiar hum of energy passing through his body as he walks out the door, past the barrier.

He hears Guo Changcheng stumbling down the stairs after him, and holds up a hand to stop him, his other hand sweeping over his nondescript rental car to check for any residual Dixing energy. After ensuring that there’s none (a car bomb would definitely be his least favorite way to go), Chu Shuzhi motions for Guo Changcheng to get in the car.

Guo Changcheng manages to pull open the passenger door, tilting his head at the sight of Chu Shuzhi’s puppet sitting up and buckled in, before Chu Shuzhi barks at him, “Backseat. Now.”

“O—kay,” Guo Changcheng mutters, as he clambers in, attempting to pull the seat belt over the strap of his messenger bag.

Chu Shuzhi hits the ignition, and turns to glower at him. “What are you doing?”

“Safety first…?” Guo Changcheng mumbles, pointing at his seat belt in annoyance.

“Do you possess any common sense? Anyone can see you through the windows, dumbass,” Chu Shuzhi snaps. “Lie flat and stay down until we’re out of the city.”

Guo Changcheng reluctantly does so. “You are not a nice person,” he complains under his breath.

“Nice will get you killed,” Chu Shuzhi huffs, suppressing a sharp ache that surfaces at the memory of his brother.

Guo Changcheng doesn’t say anything to that, as he curls up his long legs and closes his eyes, not a trace of worry across his features.

Chu Shuzhi releases a deep exhale. There is no bringing his brother back. There is no turning back time and undoing the terrible deed he committed afterwards. The one he paid for with a hundred years of painful isolation and permanent scars across his back.

When they seared the soulmark between his shoulder blades as a final punishment, he almost felt relief. No one should have to suffer the burden of his past, forced to accept that fate had chosen someone like Chu Shuzhi as their soulmate. With his soulmark burned beyond all recognition, whoever his soulmate is is completely free, unbound, and able to live a peaceful life.

Chu Shuzhi ignores the itch that’s beginning to surface where his scar is. He looks in the rearview mirror, at the reflection of Guo Changcheng mumbling about food in his sleep. A boy who doesn’t possess a single scrap of self-preservation. Who doesn’t yet see the world for how it really is.

Someone with a future, who needs to be protected by someone who has none.

It’s enough that he can serve the Black-cloaked Envoy, and help him face down threats that few others can.

It’s more than he deserves.

The car jolts as the pavement grows rougher outside the edge of the city. Chu Shuzhi stares at the lonely stretch of road ahead, and forces himself to think of nothing at all.