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“Zhao Yunlan,” the Black Cloaked Envoy says, voice heavy and eyes noticeably dark even in the night. He is lit only by the glint of reflected streetlights — just the hint of silvery details on his mask, the angles of his chin visible beneath it. How does he know my name? A voice wonders in the back of Zhao Yunlan’s head, but it is easy to ignore.

“How can I help you, Hei-laoge?” Zhao Yunlan teases instead, puts every ounce of cocky intention he has behind the words and winks. There isn’t much room to maneuver, trapped as he is between the concrete wall behind him and the equally unyielding line of black robes in front, but Zhao Yunlan tries his best to shift his posture into a slouch that looks laidback and enticing. Hopefully it does, at least.

“Zhao Yunlan,” the Envoy repeats, his voice lowering even further into a rumble that travels from Zhao Yunlan’s chest all the way down.

Zhao Yunlan shivers involuntarily, and the Envoy’s eyes gleam in a way that says he catches the movement. He steps in close, close enough that Zhao Yunlan feels the heat radiating from his body, but not so close that they are touching. Zhao Yunlan can feel himself trembling, but he doesn’t move forward to close the distance. There’s something electric in the mere millimetres of space between them, something thrilling in the anticipation. It has him holding still and waiting to see what happens next.

The Black Cloaked Envoy raises his arm, moves it slowly towards Zhao Yunlan’s face. Finally, he thinks, and tilts his head upwards, just a little. He has been waiting for this ever since the moment he had first seen the Envoy, leaping into the deserted antique shop in a flash of lightning and thunder, whirls of dark energy sailing towards the monster and knocking it off its feet. Zhao Yunlan had been so dazzled it had taken him a solid minute (and Da Qing screaming maniacally in the background) before he had come back to his senses and finished the monster off with his Guardian Whip.

Zhao Yunlan’s heart, already thumping rapidly in his chest, misses a beat as he remembers the grace and surety of the Envoy’s steps as he had swooped in, that first time and every time since. The sharpness in his gaze, the easy way he pulled Zhao Yunlan out of the path of an incoming attack, his sheer power.

Now, Zhao Yunlan watches as the Envoy’s hand reaches towards him, towards his cheeks and then — past it, palm thudding heavily on the wall beside his head. He leans in, a tight little smile at the edge of his lips, and Zhao Yunlan feels caught. So completely, gloriously caught.

“Hei-laoge,” he whispers, knows the Envoy must feel his breath on his lips with how close they are. “Are you going to kiss me or what?”

And then suddenly, the Envoy does. There are tough, demanding lips on his. They push firmly at him, then part, and Zhao Yunlan gets a taste of hot breath and hotter tongue. It is nothing like the meek, furtive kisses he had stolen with ex-girlfriends before their parents got home from work. Zhao Yunlan feels like he is being held up by his lips, like the Envoy’s mouth on his is the only thing keeping him floating above water. He chases after it, sucks it in desperately like air. The thin layer of space between them has completed disappeared, and Zhao Yunlan feels the heat of the other’s body all over him. He is surrounded.

There’s the blaring of an alarm then, and Zhao Yunlan groans. A fire alarm, he thinks, remembering then that they are huddled on a darkened rooftop.

“Ignore it,” the Envoy says, barely bothering to break apart to do so. Zhao Yunlan feels the shape of his words and pushes forward to swallow them again. The alarm continues on in the background, but it sounds muted now. Zhao Yunlan is much more focused on the feel of the Envoy pressed against him, on his own hands reaching underneath the cloak.

Then there are hands pushing at his waist, and a tug. There’s a rush of air that draws a whine out of him, protesting at the loss of contact, before he realizes what the Envoy has pulled away to do. The Envoy pulls out the tie of his robes, then peels apart the fabric underneath with precision, all without breaking the kiss or losing an ounce of intensity. Holy shit, Zhao Yunlan thinks, it’s happening, it’s actually happening. His heart pounds even faster somehow, makes him feel as if it is about to leap out of his chest.

And then abruptly, there is a painful thud on it that has nothing to do with his racing heart. Zhao Yunlan opens his eyes, and any remnants of the vision of the Black Cloaked Envoy disappears at the sight of his mother’s murderous glare.

“ZHAO YUNLAN!” She yells, arm still raised from when she had thrown the backpack that is now poking into Zhao Yunlan’s stomach. “You slept through your alarm again!”

“Ma! You can’t just run in here without knocking!” Zhao Yunlan shouts back. He pushes himself up to a sitting position and tries to subtly push the backpack down to his hips. However unpleasant it is to be hit by it first thing in the morning, at least it helps to hide a very obvious problem. Thankfully, if there is anything awkward about the motion, his mother is too busy yelling at him — “I am your mother and this is my house!” — to notice.

The movement does, however, dislodge Da Qing from where he has stuck his nose into the side of Zhao Yunlan’s leg. The cat pokes his head out and adds a grumpy yowl to the early morning cacophony.

“And that cat!” Da Qing meows loudly, as if in acknowledgement. “Didn’t I tell you not to let it in bed with you? You don’t know where it’s been!"

Zhao Yunlan does unfortunately know where Da Qing has been — the alleyway behind the fishmonger’s, looking for a treat — and silently admits she is probably right on that one. But that assumes he can get the cat to do anything, rather than the other way around.

“Alright, alright, just get up already,” his mother grumbles, “you’re going to be late for school.”

“I’m not going to be late.” Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes before throwing a disparaging look at the clock.

His mother scoffs. “No son of mine is going to stroll in just before the bell like a delinquent. You’re in senior high now, you need to get off your lazy butt! If you get in early, you can spend some time preparing for class like the good students.”

Zhao Yunlan lets out as big of a sigh as he can manage, knowing that this is an argument he will never win. “Fine, fine, I’m getting up,” he grumbles, raising one hand and waving it in a shooing motion. “Now go!”

“You better be at the dining table in ten minutes.” She threatens, and gives him one last warning glare before stepping out the door.

As soon as the door closes behind her, Zhao Yunlan lets himself flop back onto the bed, his head hitting the pillow with a thump. His eyes close of their own accord, strained from only a few hours of sleep after the battle last night. And his interrupted dream, of course, is a tempting siren call. Before he can have more than a few seconds of peace, however, sharp pins prick into Zhao Yunlan’s thigh. He lets out a scream in surprise and jerks.

“You heard her, get up!”

Zhao Yunlan glares at Da Qing, who is staring at him with beady eyes. “Shut up, Damn Cat, let me sleep.” He tries to pull the duvet back up to his chin, but the stupid cat is not having it, sinking his claws in further. “Ow ow ow, fuck! Stop that!” Da Qing finally retracts his paw, and Zhao Yunlan winces as he rubs his abused leg. “What’s it to you if I sleep for ten more minutes anyway? It’s not like you don’t sleep until noon and then laze around for the rest of the day.”

Da Qing throws him a look that makes it obvious he is questioning Zhao Yunlan’s intelligence. “I’m a cat,” he says, as if that explains everything. He licks his paw daintily then curls his head back into his rotund body.

Zhao Yunlan stares at the dark ball of fur and wonders where his life had gone wrong. No — he knows exactly where it went wrong, and that was when he had noticed a few kids picking on a stray cat in an alleyway a few months ago and shooed them away. Should have let the fat-ass fend for himself, he thinks sourly. He sprawls on the bed with limbs that feel as heavy as lead. The night’s sleep hasn’t done much to help him recover from the battle, and Zhao Yunlan’s eyes keep falling closed again of their own accord. He considers just waiting for his mother to come back and bodily drag him off the bed, but he estimates he has approximately thirty seconds before his leg becomes a pin cushion again.

With a mental sigh, he tries a different motivational tactic instead and thinks, Shen Wei. The earlier he gets to school, the more time he has with Shen Wei before the classroom fills with other students and the recitations of another day’s lessons. He imagines the startled expression on Shen Wei’s face as he looks up from a book, that intent flash in his eyes before he looks away, the way he tries to hide his smiles at Zhao Yunlan’s jokes. Shen Wei’s presence never fails to make any day better, no matter how tiring or boring it might be. The thought of him makes Zhao Yunlan grin, and it is enough to carry him out of the bed to begin his day.

~

When Zhao Yunlan gets to school, it’s still early enough that the classroom is less than halfway full. A few girls are in their seats near the windows, speaking quietly with their books in front of them. Wang Zheng is one of them; she looks up when Zhao Yunlan arrives, offers him a small smile and makes a note in the ubiquitous little notebook on her desk — taking attendance, as the class council member for discipline.

Zhao Yunlan nods at her but quickly shifts his attention to the back of the classroom instead. He manages to catch a single glimpse of Shen Wei’s wide-eyed stare before he predictably looks back down at his textbook. Zhao Yunlan grins and saunters down the lefthand aisle. Shen Wei would never admit it, likes to pretend that he barely notices Zhao Yunlan at all, but Zhao Yunlan knows he is watching from the corners of his eyes.

“Good morning, Xiao Wei!” He chirps into the hazy half-light of the winter dawn as he swings into his own seat. It’s in the row behind Shen Wei’s and one desk to the left, so it provides a perfect view of the red tip of the other’s ear.

“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei acknowledges without looking up.

Zhao Yunlan is undeterred. “How long have you been here?” He asks.

“Just the past twenty minutes.”

“You were here before seven?” Zhao Yunlan responds, incredulous. He lets out a yawn that’s only somewhat exaggerated. “How do you always get up so early? My ma had to kick me out of bed this morning.”

“I…enjoy being awake early.”

Zhao Yunlan laughs. The answer doesn’t surprise him at all. “You’re such a nerd,” he teases. “Well, I guess that’s why you’re the class president, not me.”

Shen Wei doesn’t respond. That’s fine, Zhao Yunlan thinks. He leans forward over his desk and rests his chin on his folded arms, continuing to watch Shen Wei. The steady, precise motions of his hand in a penmanship that would make Zhao Yunlan’s mother cry. The perfectly straight line of his back, without the slightest hint of a slouch. The soft-looking hairs at the nape of his neck that Zhao Yunlan wants to touch with his fingers and his lips. He imagines what they would feel like if Zhao Yunlan were standing close enough to nuzzle his nose into them, to share the heat from his body. To sneak his hands beneath the baggy tracksuit of the school uniform and trace the muscles that Zhao Yunlan knows lies underneath from careful observation during gym class.

Okay, that’s probably not a line of thought he wants to go down right now, unless he wants a repeat of this morning’s problem. Zhao Yunlan snaps himself out of his fantasy. He reaches out to tap on Shen Wei’s shoulder, doing his best to ignore the warmth on the pads of his fingers where they touch. “Hey Xiao Wei, can you help me with the Biology assignment that’s due this week?” He asks with an innocent grin.

Shen Wei’s hand pauses over the page but doesn’t turn around. “Cheng Xinyan will help you. It’s part of her duties as the subject representative.”

“But you’re the one with the top mark in the class.”

“And Xinyan is a close second.”

Zhao Yunlan spares a single moment of thought at the way that Shen Wei casually says her given name, then tosses it aside. He is pretty sure Shen Wei doesn’t like her that way, and he knows he isn’t imagining the looks he gives Zhao Yunlan when he thinks he isn’t paying attention. Shen Wei is just too serious all the time, takes his studies and his responsibilities as class president too much to heart. Zhao Yunlan is confident he can wear him down.

“But I understand things so much better when you explain them.” He whines, shaping his lips in a pout even though he isn’t sure if Shen Wei can see it with his head still pointed downwards at his books. But the red in Shen Wei’s ear starts migrating to his cheek, so Zhao Yunlan must be doing something right. “You want to help your classmates make the most of their learning experience, don’t you?” He continues to wheedle.

Shen Wei is silent for several seconds, and Zhao Yunlan thinks he has decided to ignore him again. But then — “Alright,” Shen Wei replies. Another pause, then the words coming out all in a rush: “Not right now, I need to start the morning recitation. But we can look at it at lunch.”

Score! Zhao Yunlan thinks with a grin. It’s still five minutes before seven thirty, but Zhao Yunlan doesn’t call Shen Wei out on it as he fusses over his notes for an unnecessarily long time then makes his way towards the front of the classroom. Most of their classmates have filtered in while they were talking, and the room is filled with the buzz of their chatter until Shen Wei calls for their attention. Zhao Yunlan stands up with the rest of the class and starts mindlessly intoning whatever essay it is they’re supposed to be learning this week, but mostly just taking advantage of the perfectly legitimate excuse to ogle Shen Wei.

They continue like this for the next half hour, with their homeroom teacher watching on approvingly. There is only one interruption — ten minutes before eight, in the brief moment of silence between one reading and the next, there is the elephant-like thud of footsteps thundering down the hall, followed by the appearance of a breathless Lin Jing panting at the door. Zhao Yunlan laughs to himself. On the other side of the classroom, Wang Zheng frowns and leans down to make a mark in her notebook.

~

“Did you really need to use the Guardian Token for that jacket?” Da Qing mutters from where the top of his head is poking out of the backpack.

“Of course! Don’t I look like a cool university student?” Zhao Yunlan flicks the collars of the leather jacket, bouncing his backpack with its furry cargo in the process.

“Definitely,” Lin Jing says, not without an envious glance. Zhao Yunlan grins at him. He can always rely on Lin Jing to take his side in the ongoing disagreement about the “appropriate” use of magic. It is, after all, one of the few advantages of being the Lord Guardian.

“Shh, the room is right ahead,” Wang Zheng’s ever-sensible voice reminds them. Zhao Yunlan pushes Da Qing’s head into the backpack and zips it up tight.

A security guard is leaning outside the door of the workroom in the back of the museum, which is very average-looking despite the apparent pricelessness of the artifacts beyond it. The man takes a drag of his cigarette before turning his attention to the three figures coming down the corridor.

“Dashu,” Zhao Yunlan says as they get near, throwing on as charming a smile as he can. He had used the Guardian Token to make himself look a little older and Lin Jing and Wang Zheng had gone through their closets and found their most respectable outfits, so he is reasonably certain their disguises should work. “We’re from the university, I assume the professor mentioned we’re coming?” He pulls out the Token, which presumably is showing itself to the security guard as a student ID or something of the sort. The security guard squints at it for a moment before waving them through.

When they open the door, they are relieved to find that the lights are off and the contents of the windowless room are shrouded in darkness. They had decided to try their luck at lunchtime on the weekend, hoping that there wouldn’t be any real researchers there but that it also wouldn’t be too odd of a time for student assistants to be visiting. They flick on the lights, and in that brief moment when everyone is blinking as they take in their surroundings, Zhao Yunlan’s eyes meet a wide-eyed pair staring back at him behind a familiar mask.

“Hei-laoge, what a coincidence!” Zhao Yunlan is the first to come back to his senses. The Envoy continues to stare at him, frozen and looking almost shocked like he never is. Behind him, Wang Zheng and Lin Jing stiffen and there is a thump against Zhao Yunlan’s back, signalling Da Qing’s attention from inside the backpack.

Finally, the Black Cloaked Envoy seems to break out of his daze. His gaze sharpens and his lips, which had previously parted just the slightest bit as if to speak, purses again into a thin line. Without taking his eyes off Zhao Yunlan, he gently sets the ceramic vessel in his hands back down onto the padded workbench in front of him, his gloved thumb brushing the top of it with care. Then, he vanishes in a cloud of dark smoke.

“What’s happening? Let me out of here!” Da Qing’s voice interrupts, followed by the sound of his claws tearing at the fabric.

Wang Zheng leans over to let him out, and the black cat leaps onto the ground with a grace that looks incongruous with his bulky body.

“So the Black Cloaked Envoy was here? I hope that thief didn’t steal anything,” Da Qing grumbles.

Zhao Yunlan is about to object to this description of the Envoy — he thinks about the almost reverent way the Envoy had handled the artifact — when Wang Zheng says, “I don’t think he took anything with him.”

Da Qing doesn’t respond to this. He just leaps up onto the nearest table and starts examining the rows of artifacts, sometimes poking his nose in close. The valleys around Longcheng are littered with the remains of prehistoric settlements, which have been studied by teams from the local museum and university for many years. Based on what they’ve been able to find out, the majority of the newest finds are being stored in this room, but it isn’t long before Da Qing trods back to Zhao Yunlan with a shake of the head.

“How are we supposed to find the Hallows like this?” Lin Jing groans beside him. “This is like fishing for a needle in the sea!”

“Yeah, Damn Cat,” Zhao Yunlan folds his arms and grumbles. As if dealing with the attacks from Dixing isn’t enough of a chore, Da Qing also has them out on a wild goose chase in what little free time they’re able to scrounge together. Zhao Yunlan had only managed to sneak out of the house earlier because his ma is away on a business trip and his ba is too caught up in a case to chase him down for his admittedly unfinished homework. “We’ve been looking for the stupid things for the last four months. And your Kunlun-jun too, and we still have no idea where they are. How are we supposed to find them anyway? Are we even looking on the right continent?”

Da Qing turns a green-tinted glare on him, completely unsympathetic to the high schoolers’ predicament. “They’re close, I know they are,” he says with an unfounded confidence that makes Zhao Yunlan’s hackles rise.

“How are we supposed to recognize them? You haven’t even given us a description of what they look like!”

“I’ll know when I see them!”

“Yeah, sure…”

“I did find the three of you, didn’t I?” Da Qing snaps.

I was the one who rescued you,” Zhao Yunlan retorts. Although he does have to admit that Da Qing had seemed to recognize him immediately, tossing him the Guardian Token and freaking Zhao Yunlan out to hear the cat talk. And he had identified Lin Jing and Wang Zheng as the Guardians of the West and North (although Zhao Yunlan still thinks the word “find” is giving him too much credit, since both of them were already in his class).

Before they can continue to bicker, however, there is the sound of screaming, followed by an alarm blaring through the museum’s PA system. “Please remain calm, security personnel are on route,” says a voice that seems to be barely holding on to its own calm. The four of them straighten up in unison and exchange glances with each other, then run out of the room.

They run down the corridor and into the main exhibit area of the museum, following the sound of the screams. They pass by groups of people, some running in the opposite direction and others standing frozen in front of the displays. “Run! Get away!” Zhao Yunlan yells at them as he flies by, trying to pull them out of their daze but not having time to stop and make sure.

The screaming gets louder as they near the central hall where the most prized artifacts are kept. Then suddenly, it stops. There is one last wail which drifts off-key like a car horn speeding into the distance, leaving only an eerie silence behind. Goosebumps rise on Zhao Yunlan’s arms as he stumbles to a stop a few steps outside the entrance of the room. He takes a moment to take a deep breath, then presses the face of his watch. The familiar power engulfs him, weaving from his legs to his torso and down his arms, leaving tingling warmth on his skin and multi-coloured afterimages in his eyes. From the corners of his eyes, he can see Lin Jing and Wang Zheng undergoing their own transformations as well.

When the energy leaves him, Zhao Yunlan is standing in the Lord Guardian’s yellow robes. They are cut in clean lines with narrow sleeves, and would be simple but for the deep, saturated colour and the winged dragon crawling up his back. Zhao Yunlan gives his outer skirt a flick, feeling as always like a wuxia hero in the outfit. Beside him, Lin Jing seems to almost sparkle in his robes of brilliant white, while Wang Zheng is a black-clad shadow. Together, they rush into the central hall with Da Qing at their heels.

Zhao Yunlan’s heart drops at the sight that greets them. People are collapsed all over the floor, the display cases and each other. Their eyes are closed and their limbs are limp. There are families huddled together, children encircled by their parents’ arms. Elderly people folded over in positions that hint at broken bones. A whole tour group crumpled together in a heap dotted with bright yellow baseball caps.

And hovering above them, Zhu Jiu with his stupid purple hair and cartoon villain grin. Beside him, there is a human-shaped monster with a giant megaphone for a torso, stretching its arms out and catching waves of energy emanating from the unconscious crowd.

“Stop right there!” Zhao Yunlan yells up at them. “Just because these people are at a museum on Sunday doesn’t mean you can take their energy! They should get their energy drained the normal way, like being bored by the audio tour!”

From his feet, Da Qing growls in exasperation. Zhao Yunlan ignores him; he has to get his kicks from somewhere.

“Oh look, if it isn’t the Lord Guardian and his sidekicks.” Zhu Jiu sneers as he literally looks down on them.

Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes and flicks his wrist towards the megaphone monster. The long lash of his whip grazes its hands and cuts off the flow of energy from the unconscious people. The monster turns to look at him and lets out a crackling, electronic roar. It holds its hands out in front of it, as if summoning some kind of attack, but there is a sudden string of clinking sounds from Zhao Yunlan’s side and a metal chain flies out to bind the monster’s hands together.

“Sidekick my ass,” Lin Jing mutters.

Zhao Yunlan grins and raises his arm to aim his whip at the monster again to finish it off, but this is when Zhu Jiu interferes. He jumps in front of the monster and lets out a rush of dark energy at the four of them. While they rush to scatter and avoid the attack, Zhu Jiu makes a slicing motion at the chains binding his monster’s arms.

Soon, the attacks are coming from two directions. Even though it’s three against two, Zhao Yunlan, Wang Zheng and Lin Jing are only just managing to keep up. It’s no wonder, since we’re just kids who barely know what we’re doing, Zhao Yunlan thinks sourly. Fully on their game and with their attention on the Guardians, Zhu Jiu and the monster are letting loose volley after volley of dark energy. Zhao Yunlan tries to counter with his own whip and talismans, but it’s difficult to aim while constantly dodging attacks. Lin Jing seems to be having similar problems, as his chains slide past his targets to hit one of the display cases intead. There is a crashing noise as the case shatters and shards of glass land on the floor.

For a moment, it looks like the tide of the battle may be turning as Wang Zheng unleashes a jet of water that catches Zhu Jiu in the chest and pins him to the wall. Zhao Yunlan aims, putting as much energy as he can summon into it. If they can take down Zhu Jiu, it would be a big win not only for this battle but for whatever grand scheme Dixing has planned. They know that there is someone else behind Zhu Jiu, but it should slow them down significantly. Just as he releases the whip, however, a rush of intense pressure hits his side, tensing his muscles and making him stumble. The lash of the whip, and the bright yellow streak of power emerging from its tip, jerks to the side and hits a marble column instead.

When Zhao Yunlan looks up, the megaphone monster is standing above him, its blue lips pulled wide in a toothy grin. He barely has a second to reorient himself before another wave of energy catches him in the chest. It compresses his lungs, and for several horrifying moments Zhao Yunlan finds himself unable to breathe.

Then suddenly, the sensation stops and the stars that were starting to form behind Zhao Yunlan’s eyes are replaced by a soothing black. Zhao Yunlan gasps, trying to pull as much oxygen inside of him as he can. Dimly, he hears the banging of metal and the slicing whistle of a blade.

When Zhao Yunlan becomes fully aware of himself again, he has to blink several times to make sure he hasn’t actually passed out and started dreaming. Instead of pushing Zhao Yunlan aside or jumping in to divert the monster’s attention like he usually does, the Black Cloaked Envoy has Zhao Yunlan pulled tightly against one side of his body.

“Hei-laoge,” Zhao Yunlan tries to say. The feeling of the Envoy’s chest and arms against him, and the pounding of his own heart, is making it hard to catch his breath and speak. He is probably too quiet, because the Black Cloaked Envoy continues to leap through the air, his cloak wrapped around Zhao Yunlan. He dodges the attacks effortlessly, then twists Zhao Yunlan to one side as if he weighs nothing while he swings his guandao outwards with his other arm. Shit, that’s hot, Zhao Yunlan’s mind supplies unhelpfully, feeling dizzy. This close, he can smell the incense that seems to be emanating from the cloak, the sharp clarity of frost, and something else that must be the Envoy himself. Zhao Yunlan fights the impulse to dig his nose into the crook of the Envoy’s neck like a pervert. He clears his throat and tries again. “Hei-laoge.” It comes out louder this time, and the Envoy spares a precious second to actually turn his head and look at Zhao Yunlan.

“Are you alright?” the Black Cloaked Envoy asks, soft and concerned in a way that Zhao Yunlan hasn’t heard before. There’s something about the timbre of his voice that seems familiar somehow, in a way that’s different from his usual stiff formality or sharp commands. Zhao Yunlan files it away for later consideration.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks to you.” Zhao Yunlan goes for a smirk, but is disappointed that the Envoy has turned his attention back to the monster. “You can put me down now,” he says regretfully. The arm around him tenses, so Zhao Yunlan is fairly certain the Envoy has heard, but he makes no move to do so. Zhao Yunlan shrugs and takes the time to survey the scene instead.

With the Black Cloaked Envoy’s arrival, they seem to be gaining the upper hand. Zhu Jiu and his monster are on the defensive now, fending off multiple attacks at a time. Someone must have also knocked over Zhu Jiu’s creepy energy-gathering test tube, because some of the museum patrons seem to be stirring. There’s even a child, about four or five years old, who is sitting up and looking around with wide eyes. She looks fascinated by the scene going on around her, completely unaware of the danger, even as a stream of dark energy heads towards her. She only stretches an arm out, reaching for it as if for a small animal.

“No!” Zhao Yunlan cries, the sudden horror hitting him square in the chest, making him feel like all of his organs are being squeezed from the inside. He tries to get to her, only remembering when the Envoy’s arm tightens around him in reflex that he is still wrapped inside the cloak. “Over there!” He shouts, trying to get the Envoy’s attention, but he only succeeds in distracting him in the face of the megaphone monster’s next attack. The Envoy’s footsteps falter, and in the subsequent second of freefalling panic, he sees Wang Zheng release a blast of water that knocks the dark energy off its intended path.

Zhu Jiu is getting desperate, Zhao Yunlan realizes. Instead of aiming for a few quickly moving, high-powered targets, he has decided that it’s easier and more effective to shoot at the civilians instead. The attacks on Zhu Jiu and his monster stop as the team scramble to keep the museum-goers safe instead. Most of them aren’t in any condition to run from the battle on their own and, unless the Black Cloaked Envoy can extend his disappearing trick to everyone, there is no way for the five of them to cover them all.

They need a distraction, and fast. Zhao Yunlan looks around him. He sees the artifacts around the room, many of them now exposed to the open air with the damage the glass cases have taken. “I have a plan, follow my lead,” he leans in to whisper into the Envoy’s ear. Without waiting for an answer, he raises his voice and yells, “There! Put me down there!”

The Black Cloaked Envoy looks at where he is pointing and hesitates only for the briefest of moments before following the instruction. Zhao Yunlan pushes at the Envoy’s arm and scrambles out when it loosens. He grabs at the nearest artifact that is small enough to be carried, which looks like some kind of ancient hair ornament. “Hah, there you are! We’ve been looking for you forever!” He exclaims. With one last subtle check to make sure he’s gotten Zhu Jiu’s attention, Zhao Yunlan stuffs the hairpin into his robes and takes off for the exit.

As he runs into the lobby, Zhao Yunlan notices with relief that there is no one there. He slides across the marble floors, listening to the sound of footsteps behind him. He takes a second to wave frantically at the automatic doors, which open just in time for him to keep a slight lead on Zhu Jiu.

Thanks to the cold weather, there aren’t any of the usual groups of teenagers and elderly people gathered in the square outside the museum, but it isn’t empty by any means either. People cut across it to get to their destinations on the neighbouring roads, and there are a handful of people waiting at the bus stop at the corner. Zhao Yunlan needs to find a place that he knows will be deserted, someplace like… like the lake!

Zhao Yunlan crosses the square and scrambles up the low-lying buildings on the shopping street on the other side. He takes the rooftops as much as possible, leading Zhu Jiu away from the people on the streets below. His destination is only a few blocks away, but Zhao Yunlan has to zigzag every once in a while and even sometimes double back so that his path is too unpredictable for Zhu Jiu to catch with his teleportation power. Eventually, the whitewashed wall of the garden appears in front of Zhao Yunlan, with its clumps of brown and green treetops beyond.

Traditionally designed and built by a prominent family centuries ago, the garden surrounds a man-made lake larger and deeper than the usual decorative ponds as it had once also served as a reservoir for the city. On warm days, the park is filled with visitors admiring the gazebos and carefully cultivated horticultural displays. Now, however, in the middle of winter with the chilly northwest wind sweeping through the city, the park is mostly empty.

Zhao Yunlan flips over the wall and lands on the slippery stone walkway on the other side, the shock to his ankles smoothed away by whatever magic it is that fuels his transformations. With a quick glance, he sees that there are still a few people scattered here and there, taking a walk through the trees, but they seem to be staying clear of the open, windy area around the lake.

Zhao Yunlan leads Zhu Jiu out of the mass of trees near the wall and onto the bridge with its many stone columns leading into the centre of the lake. There is a small island with a pavilion, red-roofed and bright against the dull grey water. He takes a running start off the wide square railings of the bridge and up the sloping roof of the pavilion. “Come and get it!” He yells, a wild burst of glee flying out of his chest as he balances on the tiles.

He doesn’t have to wait long before Zhu Jiu pops up beside him. Zhao Yunlan is ready, takes a flip to the other side of the roof as he watches Zhu Jiu skid precariously down the frost-lined tiles. Zhao Yunlan takes the opportunity to shoot a talisman at him which freezes the man long enough for him to get in a hit with his whip. Zhu Jiu flinches at the contact, clutches his right arm then turns angry eyes onto Zhao Yunlan.

“I was going to let you go if you gave me the Hallow,” Zhu Jiu hisses before letting out a stream of dark energy that Zhao Yunlan ducks away from. “But now it’s personal.”

“Wow, I’m honoured,” Zhao Yunlan drawls. “But I have to ask, what Hallow are you talking about?” He takes a backflip off the pavilion roof. His whip had unfortunately not done as much damage as he had hoped, but at least he has already achieved his goal in leading Zhu Jiu away from the museum; the megaphone monster should be no match for the others, especially now that the Black Cloaked Envoy is there. Instead, he continues to drag out the time by leaping from rooftop to bridge, through the pavilion and back again.

“The Hallow!” Zhu Jiu snaps. “The thing you took from the museum!”

“Oh that,” Zhao Yunlan says with a casual flick of the wrist from his spot on an even part of the railing. “It’s a pretty hairpin isn’t it? I thought it would make a nice gift for my mom. It’s her birthday tomorrow and I totally forgot!”

“Shut up! Give it to me!” Zhu Jiu teleports right in front of Zhao Yunlan, eyes flashing.

He lands closer than the few times before, the flapping of his coat catching Zhao Yunlan in the thigh. Zhao Yunlan stumbles back and just manages to get out of reach, but he ends up having to run backwards along the railing. He is concentrating too much on avoiding Zhu Jiu’s punches and not enough on his own balance. His foot slides sideways off the slippery stone, and by then it’s too late to avoid a tumble into the icy lakewater below.

There is a single moment of terror as Zhao Yunlan falls backwards, one half-second of his head sinking into water, before his butt hits the bottom of the reservoir. He winces as the impact to his tailbone seems to vibrate through his entire body, but when it passes he finds himself staring at Zhu Jiu’s smirk. The other man has him gripped by the collar, and Zhao Yunlan realizes with a small breath of relief that the water in the reservoir is only waist-deep. Zhu Jiu reaches into the front of Zhao Yunlan’s robes, and he opens his mouth to yell out something inappropriate but a stream of dirty lakewater and a cough come out instead.

“What is this?” Zhu Jiu hisses, squinting at the hairpin he has just pulled out, its jade surface dully reflecting the grey cloudy daylight.

“I told you, a gift for my mom!” Zhao Yunlan chirps, with as cheery of a voice as he can manage with his still-scratchy throat. He is able to pluck it easily out of Zhu Jiu’s hands with the man frozen in surprise, and shoves it between his too-long bangs which are now lying flat and dripping water against his forehead. “But I think I look pretty good in it too!”

The quip is met with silence, Zhu Jiu apparently in too much of a stunned fury to speak.

“Get away from him!” A third voice interrupts the silence of the frozen winter afternoon.

Zhao Yunlan turns his head and his smile grows wider. “Hei-laoge! Just in time!”

There is a flash of silver, and the Envoy’s guandao is slicing through the air. Zhu Jiu releases Zhao Yunlan as he dodges, and tries to hit back with blasts of dark energy. Recovering his balance and just managing to not fall butt-first back into the water, Zhao Yunlan admires their movements as they glide across the lake. The water doesn’t seem to slow them down at all, instead only serving to highlight the fluidity of their motion. The Envoy, in particular, is unleashing frankly beautiful swings of his blade that rain cascades down on his opponent.

It is soon evident that Zhu Jiu is no match for the Black Cloaked Envoy, one-on-one and with no civilians as distractions. They are moving too quickly for Zhao Yunlan to get in a decent shot at Zhu Jiu without risking a hit at the Envoy instead, but he notes with satisfaction that there is an awkwardness to the way that Zhu Jiu is carrying his right arm. The Envoy seems to have noticed this as well; his next blow catches Zhu Jiu near the spot where Zhao Yunlan had hit him earlier, and Zhu Jiu actually lets out a yelp. He teleports several metres to get away, and looks back at Zhao Yunlan and the Black Cloaked Envoy.

“You’ll pay for this.” Zhu Jiu hisses, clutching his arm. Then, he focuses in on the Envoy with narrowed eyes. “My boss will take care of you, you traitor.”

The Envoy’s head snaps up at the words. “What did you say?” He sounds more caught off guard than Zhao Yunlan has ever seen him. But Zhu Jiu doesn’t answer. In the blink of an eye, he is gone.

Traitor. Zhao Yunlan repeats the word in his head. Maybe Da Qing isn’t completely wrong after all. He had warned Zhao Yunlan to stay away from the Envoy, suspecting him to be from the other side. Maybe that’s true, Zhao Yunlan thinks, but he’s clearly not working with them.

“Hei-laoge, you saved me again!” Zhao Yunlan calls out instead, dragging his legs through the water to reach him.

The Envoy’s eyes snap to his, then scan him from head to — well, to where his stomach disappears into the somewhat murky water. Zhao Yunlan would be more gratified by the attention, but he is suddenly very aware of his sodden hair and robes. His Guardian robes usually do a pretty good job of protecting him from the elements, but apparently they’re not meant to be completely dunked in water. He probably looks like a drowned rat right now, he thinks with a sigh. The Black Cloaked Envoy, meanwhile, cuts a striking figure even standing waist-deep in the lake, his long cloak floating out behind him.

“You must be cold,” the Envoy says, and it is only then that Zhao Yunlan realizes he is shivering.

“Oh, it’s fine. Just a little water,” he answers as he forces his teeth to stop chattering.

“You should get inside as soon as you can and warm up.” The Envoy makes a movement towards Zhao Yunlan, then seems to stop himself. He frowns instead at somewhere above Zhao Yunlan’s eyes.

Zhao Yunlan remembers the hairpin still on his head. “Oh this? What do you think?” He throws out a grin, and looks up between his eyelashes and the soggy fringe of his hair. “Does it look good on me?”

“That is a two thousand-year-old artifact,” the Envoy says drily.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

The Envoy lets out a huff of a laugh. “I’ll return it to the museum, you should go home. Don’t catch a cold.”

“Heipao-gege is so thoughtful,” Zhao Yunlan coos, but takes the ornament out of his hair and hands it to the Envoy. In a move that surprises Zhao Yunlan, the Envoy’s eyes widen before he hurriedly ducks his head. Too much of his face is hidden for Zhao Yunlan to check for certain, but he would almost say that the Envoy looks flustered. It sends a little thrill of satisfaction through Zhao Yunlan, and he watches as the Envoy slowly turns back towards him to take the hairpin, eyes still cast downwards and avoiding Zhao Yunlan’s gaze. His fingers tingle where the Envoy brushes against them.

There is a moment of tense, charged silence, before the Envoy lets out a quick puff of a breath. Zhao Yunlan laughs as well, and lets the tension drain out of the air between them. “Wait a minute,” he says, and puts on a mock frown. “How do I know you’re not going to steal it? You’re the infamous antiques thief, after all.”

“You will just have to live with the guilt then,” the Envoy deadpans, his eyes glinting again like usual.

With a swirl of his hand, the Envoy vanishes in his familiar mass of roiling smoke. Zhao Yunlan spends several seconds staring at the empty spot where he had just been standing, then starts to chuckle.

~

Despite the Envoy’s words of caution, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t make it home to a hot shower for some time. Transforming back to his civilian form takes care of his wet clothes, but it doesn’t do anything for his hair or for the layer of moisture that clings stubbornly to his skin. It’s annoying, but Zhao Yunlan pulls up the hood of his parka (the leather jacket has unfortunately disappeared as well) and decides it’s not really that uncomfortable.

He meets up with the others for a debrief, and predictably gets an earful from Da Qing for putting too much trust in the Black Cloaked Envoy. He also gets some grudging praise when he describes the blow he managed to deal to Zhu Jiu, and takes the opportunity to preen.

When he does arrive back home, Zhao Yunlan barely gets through a few pages of his homework before he starts yawning and his concentration wanders away. He gives it up as a lost cause, and decides he deserves a break for saving the city yet again.

Zhao Yunlan tumbles into bed early that night, but when he wakes the next morning to the insistent beep of the alarm clock, it feels like he hasn’t rested at all. His head is plagued by the remnants of too many dreams, forgotten except for a tightness in his chest that makes every breath feel like a battle. That, and the sense-memory of someone bleeding out in his arms, feeling the life leak away no matter how hard he tries to staunch the flow.

He lies unmoving on his bed and stares at the ceiling. Summoning up the energy to move feels impossible, and the situation isn’t helped by the soreness biting at his muscles. It’s disheartening how familiar the feeling is getting to be. Without his mother there to inject her indignant energy to the morning and drag him out of bed, Zhao Yunlan simply lies there and lets the nebulous clouds of anxiety float in his head.

By the time he finally pulls himself up and stumbles to school, Shen Wei is already standing at the front of the classroom. The disappointment is another punch to his empty stomach. Dully, Zhao Yunlan makes his way to his desk and lets himself be carried adrift by the voices of his classmates rising and falling around him.

It takes until the middle of second period for Zhao Yunlan to realize that the lethargy he is feeling may not just be the aftereffects of a hard battle and a night of uneasy dreams. The fog in his brain doesn’t clear up, and he finds himself shivering even in the heated classroom.

“Zhao Yunlan!”

His teacher’s sharp voice jolts him out of his half-doze. As a frequent target of her frowns, he can tell by the depth of the dip in her eyebrows and the tightness in her lips that this isn’t the first time she has called his name. Probably not the second or third time, either. He scrambles to stand up and answer her question, wincing as he bumps his legs into his desk in the process. He looks at the blackboard to see if he can figure out what she is asking from the words scribbled there, but he can’t seem to arrange his muddled thoughts into something that makes sense. Zhao Yunlan has no choice but to throw out a smile and ask her to repeat the question. As the last word of the sentence makes its way out of his mouth, it transforms into a horrifyingly loud sneeze instead.

Great, Zhao Yunlan thinks. Even the classmates who hadn’t been staring at him before are definitely doing it now. Which Zhao Yunlan wouldn’t normally care much about, but he can see from the corner of his eyes that Shen Wei has turned to look at him as well. He stops himself from looking too closely to see which of his various shades of disapproval Shen Wei is wearing this time.

Liao-laoshi sighs heavily. “Zhao-tongxue, you seem to be unwell.”

“I’m fine! I’m fine. Just a little cold.”

“Why don’t you go to the nurse’s office?” Liao-laoshi says. Zhao Yunlan opens his mouth to protest, but she continues. “You obviously aren’t listening to anything I say anyway. Please go so you aren’t disturbing the other students.”

Zhao Yunlan can only pack his things and do as she says, feeling multiple sets of eyes on his back the entire time. But as soon as he leaves the door of the classroom behind, he feels a wave of tiredness crash over him. The energy he had summoned up at his last valiant effort at saving face leaves him in a rush, and Zhao Yunlan admits that going to see the nurse is probably a good idea.

The school nurse is a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who tuts at him and gestures at him to sit. He must doze off again, because when he blinks there is a bowl of brown liquid in his hands, emanating the bitter smell of traditional medicine. He blinks and looks up, then jumps to see the nurse in front of him with a squinting frown and a thermometer in her hands.

She lets out a bit sigh. “I’ll call your parents to come and get you. I don’t trust you not to fall asleep on the bus like this.”

Zhao Yunlan makes a face. “My ma is out of town on a business trip. And my ba…” He hadn’t seen his father at breakfast that morning, which means he is still caught up in a case and had left early for work — or perhaps had never been back the previous night at all. Zhao Yunlan shakes his head. “He can’t leave in the middle of work.”

With the nurse’s grudging approval, Zhao Yunlan curls up in the little cot in the room to sleep off his fever. He barely registers the rigidness of the bed and the roughness of the blanket before he has drifted off. If Zhao Yunlan had been in the state of mind to wish that he would be spared a continuation of his unnerving nightmares, he would have been sorely disappointed. There is no blood or death this time around, but there is an impending sense of dread deep in his stomach. The dreams are full of faces that are both familiar and strange — people he feels he should recognize but doesn’t, people who are expecting something of him that he can’t manage. A feeling that there is something he is missing, that he needs to remember, to remember…

It is a relief when he opens his eyes and sees Shen Wei. His face is so familiar, so right, and it somehow eases the unknowable sorrow that weighs him down; even with his muscles still aching and a headache splintering his half-formed thoughts, Zhao Yunlan can’t help but smile.

“How are you feeling?” Shen Wei asks. Zhao Yunlan stares up and takes a moment to admire the deep brown of his eyes, looking intently back at Zhao Yunlan. The curve of his cheekbones, his lips pink and pushed out just a little. “Zhao Yunlan?”

Zhao Yunlan blinks, and remembers that Shen Wei had been asking him a question. “Terrible,” Zhao Yunlan replies, then grins. He is aware of how dopey he must look right now, but he is so glad to see Shen Wei that he can’t do anything about it.

Shen Wei’s frown, which Zhao Yunlan realizes has been etched carefully into his features this entire time, deepens. “Why didn’t you—” Shen Wei starts to say in a sharp tone, sounding the way he does when their teacher needs to step out for a moment and leaves him in charge of the class. Zhao Yunlan laughs, and can only find enough energy to be mildly horrified by his own reaction. He loves seeing Shen Wei break out of his mild-mannered, polite shell. Plus, he is usually the one Shen Wei ends up disciplining in class, and it’s always a giddy feeling to get Shen Wei to turn his attention to him in front of everyone. Now, Zhao Yunlan’s response seems to make Shen Wei’s brows tighten even further. “You should have stayed home today,” he says stiffly.

“But I wanted to see you,” Zhao Yunlan says, looking up at Shen Wei from under his eyelashes and throwing out a pout that probably looks more pathetic than flirtatious in his current state. He hears the truth in those words as he says them. For a second, he wonders what Shen Wei’s reaction will be and thinks that he might be too out-of-it to handle that right now. But Shen Wei just huffs out a sardonic breath of a laugh and his eyes turn up in that way that’s almost an eye-roll but not quite.

“Come on, I’ll take you home.”

Zhao Yunlan continues staring at him for a moment, wondering if he had heard right. But no, of course Shen Wei would volunteer to see a sick classmate home, that is exactly like him. Zhao Yunlan is torn between joy at spending more time with Shen Wei, and embarrassment at the near certainty that he is going to make even more of a fool out of himself in front of his crush. “It’s fine, you don’t need to do that. I can manage.”

This time, Shen Wei actually goes for the full eye-roll. “Zhao Yunlan.”

“Hm?”

“Get up,” Shen Wei says, then turns to grab Zhao Yunlan’s backpack and parka from the chair beside the bed.

Zhao Yunlan laughs and gives in, feeling tension seep from him at the decision. “Sure, sure. I’ll do whatever you say, Mr. Class President.”

“Evidently not,” Zhao Yunlan thinks he hears Shen Wei mutter under his breath.

As they step out of the school gates, it soon becomes apparent that Zhao Yunlan would not have made it back home on his own. The bus ride back passes in a blur. At one point, Zhao Yunlan thinks he starts to lean into Shen Wei where they stand holding onto a pole. He vaguely feels Shen Wei put an arm around him to keep him steady, and later to pull him up the stairs to his apartment and into bed. All of this is surrounded by the haze of a dream, so that when Zhao Yunlan wakes up again with his head feeling somewhat clearer, he spends some time lying there with his eyes closed, savouring the last remnants of the fantasy.

When he finally does open his eyes, however, it’s to the sight of Shen Wei perched in a chair beside his bed and looking down at him. Zhao Yunlan startles in surprise, and the two of them stare at each other silently for a few seconds, the hazy memories from the past few hours recategorizing themselves in Zhao Yunlan’s mind.

“You stayed?” Zhao Yunlan asks. When Shen Wei says nothing, he continues. “What time is it?”

Shen Wei looks down at his watch. “Three o’clock.”

“Three—three o’clock! You didn’t go back to school after lunch?” The incredulity bursts out of Zhao Yunlan. “You skipped class?” Suddenly his heart is beating furiously in chest. Maybe that is why he feels light-headed, or maybe it’s from trying to process this unlikely piece of information.

Shen Wei’s head drops and turns slightly to the side. Zhao Yunlan can see his ears, tinted a rosy red. Shen Wei reaches towards the bedside table, picking up a bowl that Zhao Yunlan hadn’t noticed was there. “The congee is still warm,” he says, eyes still cast downwards. “You should have some before you take more medicine.”

Zhao Yunlan is rendered speechless. He knows there is nothing in the fridge. The leftovers his mother had left had been finished two days ago, and he and his father have been surviving on takeout since then. He can only take the bowl and take a sip. The heat travels down his throat, into his chest and stays there. The warmth grows with every mouthful he swallows, until he feels like he is wrapped in it. All of the exhaustion and frustration of the past few days — the past few months, really — seem to fall away. Zhao Yunlan normally doesn’t like to be fussed over. His mother’s brand of aggressive caretaking makes him feel like a child, and Da Qing’s nagging is just plain annoying. But there is something about Shen Wei that soothes him, something about his unobstrusive, solid presence and his quiet actions that makes everything feel alright.

Zhao Yunlan finishes his congee and looks up. Shen Wei seems to have gotten over his bout of bashfulness and meets his eyes. A sudden thundering starts in Zhao Yunlan's heart, and he feels like his chest is about to explode. There is a slowly dawning realization in the back of his mind, its bright rays peeking over the horizon as he watches Shen Wei lean forward to take the empty bowl from him.

Since his very first crush at the precocious age of six, Zhao Yunlan has never felt a single ounce of shyness or suffered any bout of anxiety at liking someone. He has always charged full-steam ahead without overthinking things as his classmates often did, letting his feelings guide him as they waxed and waned. He has been called bold, shameless, and many worse things.

But this time, Zhao Yunlan thinks he has found something he doesn’t know how to handle.

~

It is another day, another battle, another close call. Zhu Jiu has taken a hit, but that doesn’t mean their enemy is sitting back. There’s another girl they are starting to see more and more often now, with her own group of monsters and flashes of electricity shooting from her hands.

Zhao Yunlan drops down and sits at the ledge of the rooftop and stares out at the city below. He takes a moment to catch his breath, to recall the elderly couple he had nearly failed to save and smooth over his own anger and sense of powerlessness before he heads back down to face the others.

“Are you alright?”

The voice is soft, and a bit stilted in its uncertainty. When Zhao Yunlan turns around, he is surprised to see that the Black Cloaked Envoy hasn’t vanished like he always does after a battle. He can’t see the Envoy’s eyes in the darkness, only the outlines of his figure, his robes fluttering behind him, darker and lonelier than the night.

“Of course, I’m always alright,” Zhao Yunlan replies. But it doesn’t come out with the lightness he intends, taking on a hint of sarcasm instead.

The Envoy is still for a moment. Hesitant, Zhao Yunlan thinks, calling to mind the silhouette of a solitary tree wavering in the wind. Then, the Envoy steps forward to Zhao Yunlan, but he doesn’t move to sit down beside him.

“Are you?” Zhao Yunlan asks quietly.

For several long seconds, Zhao Yunlan thinks he isn’t going to answer. Then, the Envoy lets out a breath. Not quite a laugh, but with a hint of amusement all the same. “I’m always alright,” he echoes.

That draws a few chuckles out of Zhao Yunlan. He looks up at the figure beside him. The Envoy is staring ahead, and all that is visible is the folds in his robes marked subtley by the dull reflections of streetlights. Zhao Yunlan’s quiet snickers flare into outright laughter as he remembers his dream from just a few weeks ago. The chance to get the Envoy alone had once been a staple of his fantasies. But now here they are, barely an arm’s length apart, and all Zhao Yunlan feels is that constant weariness that has grown heavier and heavier over the past months.

Maybe, Zhao Yunlan thinks, it’s because he has learned the difference between the things he would like to have, and the things he truly wants. He thinks about the faces in the crowd of the concert hall today. Not just the fear, but also that shattered hopelessness in knowing that none of their efforts at bravely carrying on through the crises of the past few months mean anything in the face of unexplainable forces. He thinks about the line of Shen Wei’s back, turned away. The way he can count on his hands the words Shen Wei has spoken to him since that day he had dragged Zhao Yunlan home and made him congee.

Until recently, Zhao Yunlan hadn’t known there are things he could want with such burning need. The video games and comic books, the weekend outings with friends, the girls and occasional boy who caught his eye — all of those could be either easily obtained or else quickly forgotten within a few days. He hadn’t known there are things that mean so much they become a part of who you are. Things that you would spend your whole life trying to catch, even as they slip through your fingers time and again.

At least Zhao Yunlan has always had the ability to laugh at himself. He puts his palms over the flat surface of the roof behind him and leans back, tilting his head up to the sky with his lips parted in a smile.

The sound draws the Envoy’s attention. “What is it?” He asks, his face coming into Zhao Yunlan’s view.

Zhao Yunlan raises a hand to wave the question away. “Why do you do this?” He asks instead.

“…this?”

“Yeah, this.” Zhao Yunlan makes an up-and-down gesture at the Envoy’s robes. “We do it because a fat cat told us to. Why do you?”

The Envoy gives him an inquiring look, with his head tilted. “A yao?”

Zhao Yunlan nods. Maybe he shouldn’t reveal too much, as Da Qing says, but he still can’t help but trust the Envoy. He has, after all, done nothing but help in all the times they have met.

The Envoy seems to consider for a moment before speaking. “Would you believe me if I said someone asked me to in a dream?”

“Sure, that seems about as likely as anything else these days.” Zhao Yunlan shrugs. Then he remembers what he had heard Zhu Jiu say that time in the garden. “Who are you? Are you from Dixing?”

The Envoy shakes him head. “No. At least, I don’t think so.” He pauses. “I’m hoping…he can tell me more when I find him.”

“Him?”

“Kunlun.” The Envoy’s eyes widen then, catching a reflection of the streetlights so that they spark like stars. He looks young, Zhao Yunlan suddenly thinks, maybe he’s about my age after all. Younger than Zhao Yunlan had expected, from the powerful way he moves, certain and like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. “Do you know—“ The Envoy starts to say.

Zhao Yunlan shakes his head. “We’re looking for Kunlun-jun too. Him and the Hallows.”

The brightness that had seemed to almost glow out of the Envoy’s face dims. He is standing straight and tall again, like a stone column unaffected by the elements. Except now Zhao Yunlan knows that is a mask as much as the one on his face. “Then I hope our reasons for finding them do not conflict.”

“Me too,” Zhao Yunlan agrees.

“But in any case,” the Envoy adds emphatically, “I will not let harm come to this city.” Zhao Yunlan opens his mouth to say that he knows, but the Envoy continues. “Or to you.”

Zhao Yunlan’s mouth drops open. Before he can figure out how to respond to that statement, the Envoy is gone.