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In The Middle Of The Night

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Shen Wei was strolling across the university campus after his late night classes finished; a misleading name considering they were always done before midnight. But he supposed for diurnal lifeforms, eleven at night was already rather late.

The campus was mostly empty at this late hour. Shen Wei nodded to the occasional student still lingering, greeting his fellow nocturnal staff. Dragon City university was unique in that it offered quite the rich program at night, officially as an alternative for those who were too busy working during the day. Unofficially, it was for people like Shen Wei, who made the night into their day.

Suddenly, a scream tore through the quiet.

Shen Wei's head snapped up, senses going on high alert. The sound came from nearby, not the campus but an alley adjacent to the buildings. Shen Wei strained his ears and— there. Heavy breathing, a muffled squeak, quick footsteps. Two hearts, one beating fast in panic, moving away from campus, the other slow and fading fast.

One second, the professor stood in the middle of the path, deadly still; the next moment he was gone, as if he'd never been there in the first place.

He reappeared in the hutong, the narrow alley with the fading heartbeat. Shen Wei crouched down next to the young woman, barely older than a girl, checking her wounds. Her skin was still warm, but she'd stopped breathing, her heart giving one last, strained thump. It was too late for her, she'd lost too much blood. For a moment, Shen Wei dithered at her side, wondering if he should do something about it. If he drained the rest of the blood out of her, maybe—

A second scream had him running again, down the alley, around the corner.

The first thing he saw was a black shadow looming over a slim figure prone on the ground, silver claws gleaming in the light from the lamppost. Its maw opened wide to reveal hundreds of long, serrated teeth. The creature reared back, claws swiping down, and Shen Wei didn't hesitate. Within the blink of an eye, he appeared between the student and the monster, catching its claws on his arm. They tore through his suit, leaving deep gashes behind, blood welling up immediately.

Snarling, Shen Wei lunged forward, slashing his own needle-sharp nails across the thing's chest. It yelped in pain, flinching back, and Shen Wei pressed his advantage. The shadows flickered agitatedly, leaking black, insubstantial energy from the wounds Shen Wei inflicted on it. Finally, it turned tail and ran.

Shen Wei made to pursue the creature, put it down before it harmed anyone else, when a whimper caught his attention.

The student was curled on the ground, clutching her stomach. Blood was seeping through the clothes, and Shen Wei's nostrils flared as the smell assaulted his senses. He wrestled his hunger under control as he crouched down next to the young woman, gently grabbing her wrists and pulling her hands away.

The damage was extensive, Shen Wei realized grimly. With her stomach sliced open and her insides torn, he wasn't sure human medicine could fix her. Not before she bled out.

"P-professor Shen," the student stuttered, and Shen Wei glanced up from his inspection.

It was Li Qian. One of his star pupils, jockeying for the position as his TA in the upcoming semester. She could have gotten the position this year already, but had to withdraw to take care of an elderly relative, if he remembered correctly. She was clever, with a lot of potential, and Shen Wei foresaw a great future for her — if her life wasn't cut short tonight.

"Li Qian." He held her gaze, checking to make sure she was following his words. "Your injuries are grave. You might not make it to the hospital."

Tears sprang up in her eyes, rolling down her cheeks.

"I don't want t-to die," Li Qian sobbed. Shen Wei brushed her hair out of her face, pulling it to one side to keep it out of the way.

"You won't," he promised. "I can heal you."

The sobs broke off with a hitch, Li Qian staring at him in wonder. "You can?"

Shen Wei nodded, expression grim. "But there's a price. You will live a cursed life, an undead life. You will never see the sun rise again, forever living in the darkness of night."

"Like you," Li Qian breathed, a smile stealing over her face. "That's why Professor Shen teaches night classes."

Shen Wei chuckled, cradling the back of her head carefully in his clawed hands. Far too clever to let her die, indeed.

"It will hurt," he warned her. "I will need to remove all of your blood and replace it with mine. After, you too will need to drink human blood to stay alive. Is this a price you are willing to pay?"

Li Qian chewed on her lower lip, sucking it between her teeth.

"But I'll live?" she asked, sounding lost and young. "I'll be able to finish my studies? Take care of my grandmother?"

"Yes," Shen Wei agreed, making a mental note to look into her family situation. "Do not worry. If you consent to being turned by me, you'll become part of my flock. My family. I will take care of everything."

"Okay." Li Qian closed her eyes and nodded feebly. "I trust Professor Shen."

“Alright.” Shen Wei swallowed, overwhelmed by her sheer faith in him. He knelt down behind her, shifting to pull her up against his chest. Li Qian winced when the movement pulled on her injuries. With one arm across her chest to hold her up, Shen Wei curled the fingers of the other in her hair, tilting her head. “Hold still.”

He sank his fangs into her throat, all the way into her aorta. A trickle of his power kept her heart beating while he sucked her dry. Li Qian gasped, twitching against him, but his grip on her was firm. Finally, she fell still, only kept alive by his will. Shen Wei released her hair, letting her head loll onto his shoulder. One quick slice of his thumb over his wrist had blood welling up, and he held his arm to Li Qian’s lips.

With his mouth full, he couldn’t command her to drink.

Careful of his claws, he gripped her jaw and opened her mouth, letting the blood spill down her throat. The first swallow was instinctive, the body’s reflex to avoid choking. Then her eyes snapped open, flickering crimson as the transformation kicked in. She lunged forward, latching onto his wrist with hands and teeth, drinking greedily. Shen Wei stroked her hair, letting her have her fill. Blunt human canines grew sharper and longer, her manicured nails turning into claws, digging into his flesh.

Finally, with the transformation complete, Shen Wei could retract his fangs from her neck. Li Qian whimpered at the loss, and Shen Wei licked over the puncture marks as they healed.

“Shush, fledgling. I’ve got you.”

Li Qian needed more blood than a normal newborn vampire, considering the extent of her injuries. Shen Wei fed her a controlled stream of his power alongside his blood until her flesh knit back together without leaving so much as a scar. Only then did he grab her chin and forced her jaw open, pulling his wrist back. Li Qian whined, struggling weakly against his hold.

Shen Wei huffed a laugh and brushed a kiss to her temple, letting his own skin heal over now that the slash had fulfilled its purpose.

“Don’t worry, fledgling, there’ll be more.” He helped her stand up, her legs wobbly like a newborn foal. With a wince, Shen Wei noted his own low reserves. Blood bags wouldn’t be enough to sate Li Qian’s hunger, not for her first time, and he was craving fresh blood as well. “Let’s go hunt.”

 


 

Zhao Yunlan ducked under the do not cross line, flashing his badge at the policeman standing guard. Forensics was already all over the place, several placards marking various points of interest. Zhao Yunlan glanced at some in passing and grimaced at the gore. The body itself had been covered by a tarp, though judging by the bits of organs littering the small alley, it wouldn't be a pleasant sight. Zhao Yunlan braced himself as he knelt next to the corpse and lifted the tarp.

The woman was pretty, was Zhao Yunlan's first thought. Young, late teens or early twenties. Probably a student of the nearby university. Her face remained intact, eyes wide with fear and mouth frozen in a scream.

The rest of her was… less whole. Zhao Yunlan had to turn away from the sight, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth.

Before he could cover the victim again, a black shadow streaked through his legs, peeking under the tarp. The cat's ears swiveled forwards, whiskers quivering as it sniffed, then sneezed. Zhao Yunlan waited until it had taken in everything before finally lowering the tarp.

"Claws," Da Qing concluded, licking his paw clean. "Thin and sharp. Long, too."

Zhao Yunlan hummed to show he's listening, pulling on latex gloves and picking up the wallet found next to the body. He rifled through the contents quickly, finding several bills and a couple cards, as well as identification.

"Lu Ruomei, nineteen years old, born in Dragon City. Went to study at the university here, she has both a student id and a library card," Zhao Yunlan summarized. There was also a day old receipt for a nearby shop, and a bus ticket for nine P.M. last night, something they should check out. "Her attacker wasn't after money, though, that's for sure. She still has all her jewelry, and none of the bills were taken."

Da Qing sneezed once more. "Smells like undead."

"Not a shifter, then," Zhao Yunlan mused. Standing up, he took another look at the crime scene, the walls and ground splattered with gore and blood. "She wasn't sucked dry, either. Not killed for food."

Which didn't necessarily strike vampires from the potential perp list, just knocked it down a couple spots.

Da Qing jumped up his leg, claws finding purchase in the rough jeans of his pants, before scrambling up his leather jacket to climb onto his shoulder.

"Might be a hag. Or a hungry ghost," he suggested, tail swishing in agitation.

The guard's radio crackled with static, and Zhao Yunlan glanced over his free shoulder. Da Qing's ears twitched, and then he hissed a curse. With his better hearing, he caught the exchange.

"They found a second site," Da Qing relayed. "Not far from here."

"Shit."

When they arrived, the second site was still in the middle of being cordoned off. Another small alley, half a block down from the first victim. Streaks of red marred the pavement, a pool of dried blood to one side, bits of unidentifiable, rotting flesh scattered around the center. The reason it hadn't been discovered as soon as the first became immediately obvious.

"No body?" Zhao Yunlan asked the officer at the scene.

"Haven't found it yet, D-detective Zhao, sir," the officer reported, face turning green. Great. A rookie. "We're canvassing the surrounding area. They, uh, the other officers said th-the victim might've been dragged into the bush."

Zhao Yunlan hummed noncommittally, crouching down next to the red pool. Like the first scene, a liberal amount of viscera was spread over the mouth of the alley. There was a difference, however: almost no blood was spilled, except for the pool and where the gore landed. Nothing compared to the first crime scene. Zhao Yunlan considered and discarded the theory that the victim was first attacked here and ran down the block to die in a different alley.

"Check in with the nearby hospitals," Zhao Yunlan ordered, standing back up and surveying the scene. "The second victim might have survived the initial attack."

"Yes, sir, right away, sir!" The officer saluted him, passing the order along on the radio. Then he hovered behind Zhao Yunlan, wringing his hands. "S-sir, do you… do you think she might still be alive?"

"Ah? Why else check the hospital?" Zhao Yunlan arched a brow at the rookie, who shrunk back. Sighing, Zhao Yunlan plucked Da Qing off his shoulder and thrust him in the kid's arms. The damn cat was getting heavy, anyway. "Here, hold him, I need to talk to forensics."

The officer clutched the black cat to his chest with wide eyes. Da Qing gave Zhao Yunlan the stink-eye, before resigning himself to babysitting.

"What's your name, kid?"

"Last name Guo, Guo Changcheng, sir!" the rookie replied automatically. Then his eyes grew even larger and he nearly dropped Da Qing. "Th-the cat, it can- it speaks!"

"Very observant, Lieutenant Guo," Zhao Yunlan drawled, patting his shoulder as he walked past.

His hunch paid off, in that forensics couldn't match the bits from the second scene to the first body, proving beyond doubt that a second victim existed. And yet, none of the hospitals reported a late night emergency. Neither did the officers find any more clues to their whereabouts. Not that Zhao Yunlan expected them to; there was no blood trail leading away from the crime scene indicating the victim left on their own volition. With a stomach wound deep enough to account for that level of gore, it was unlikely for them to leave no trace.

Zhao Yunlan crunched on his lollipop, turning the clues over in his mind. He was still missing a piece. It didn't make sense — yet.

 


 

Li Qian was cold.

Not that she was shivering, or freezing, or anything. It was a simple observation of her current state. She hadn't realized at first, overwhelmed by her new, heightened senses and the gnawing hunger in her stomach. The hunger was still there, always in the back of her mind, but no longer too intense to ignore. Professor Shen had made sure she was well-fed.

Instinctively, she turned towards her sire.

Professor Shen was sitting behind his desk, grading essays as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. He allowed Li Qian to keep him company, told her to catch up on her reading or coursework if she could concentrate. Li Qian swallowed. It felt weird, how hyperaware she was of his presence, how she could mark his location without even thinking about it. That was normal, Professor Shen had assured her, and it would fade over time.

Fidgeting, Li Qian pulled her book bag into her lap. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to focus on class tonight. Professor Shen had been so kind as to rearrange her schedule with the administration, moving her few morning classes to their post sundown equivalents. And despite his assurance that most of her new classmates were, for the most part, creatures of the night themselves, Li Qian felt nervous.

She could hear the heartbeats of every human student still lingering on campus.

A knock on the door distracted her. Chu Shuzhi, one of her flock brothers, stuck his head through the door, giving her a quick once-over before meeting their sire’s eyes. He was here to accompany her to the classes she didn’t have with Professor Shen, to make sure she didn’t lose control if there was a human near her. Her hands clenched around her satchel. Hopefully she could learn how to keep the urge under wraps soon, she didn’t want to be a bother for long.

“There’s a detective from the DCPD here, Professor Shen. Says he wants to talk with you about last night’s murder victim.”

Chu Shuzhi’s eyebrows went up while his tone went low with derision. Professor Shen set his brush aside and gave him a gentle smile. “Thank you, Chu Shuzhi. Please allow him in.”

Allow— not invite. An important distinction she would have to get used to. It had been weird, having to be invited into Professor Shen’s office after how often she’d already been there before. But now that she’d been turned into a vampire, different rules applied. The point Professor Shen was making, she thought as she watched Chu Shuzhi glower at the detective, was that this man had to be human. Or at least not a creature which needed an invitation to cross the threshold.

“Ah, quite the bodyguard you have there, Professor…?” the detective started after slipping past Chu Shuzhi, hands held up in exaggerated surrender. Now he stuffed them into the pockets of his jeans, rocking back on his heels and arching his eyebrows in question. A lollipop was sticking out of his teeth, bared in a smile. The canines were human blunt, and Li Qian felt something inside her relax.

“Last name Shen, Shen Wei,” Professor Shen introduced himself, standing to shake the detective’s hand with a polite smile. “And Chu Shuzhi is a hallway security guard, Detective…?”

“Detective Zhao, Zhao Yunlan. DCPD.” The man shook Professor Shen’s hand and lifted his leather jacket with the other, showing off a police badge pinned to the inside. He turned to look at Li Qian, but Professor Shen didn’t let go of his hand. “Ah?”

Professor Shen blinked, glancing down at their joined hands. Letting go, he gestured towards the chair. “Please, sit, Detective Zhao.”

Sitting down himself, Detective Zhao glanced between her and Professor Shen. Noticing, Professor Shen inclined his head towards her.

“My teaching assistant, Li Qian. We were in the middle of preparing for class.”

“Were you,” Detective Zhao drawled idly, looking her over. Li Qian tightened her grasp on her bag. The beat of his heart was distracting. He cleared his throat, drawing her attention to the throbbing of his pulse. “You look vaguely familiar. Have we met before?”

“No, sir.” Li Qian croaked, tearing her eyes away from his throat with effort. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“Hmm.” Detective Zhao gave her a lingering look, before turning back to Professor Shen, much to her relief. “Hallway security, you say. Are there many incidents at DCU that necessite private security?”

Professor Shen ducked his head and smiled. “As you might realize, the university is open quite late. Students feel safer with security after sundown.”

“The night class program, right.” Detective Zhao draped himself over an armrest, hooking his ankle over his knee and cocking his head. Li Qian straightened her own spine in sheer horror at his terrible posture. “How’s that working out for you?”

“Quite well, so far. The classes are smaller, naturally, but the students are very committed. It’s a joy to work with them.”

Detective Zhao hummed agreeably, pulling out his lollipop with a wet plop and pointing it lazily at Professor Shen.

“Lu Ruomei. She was one of your students?”

“Yes.” Professor Shen lowered his gaze. “She was in my introductory class to Tang dynasty poetry. Administration notified all her teachers of her unfortunate passing. I presume that’s why you’re here, Detective Zhao?”

“Ah,” he agreed, waving his lollipop up and down before sticking it back into his mouth. “I’ve already talked to her evening class professors, but yours is the latest course she took. Any idea why?”

Li Qian flinched. Detective Zhao’s head lolled until he was looking at her, clearly having caught the movement. One of his eyebrows went up.

“Li Qian, was it? Did you know Lu Ruomei?”

Gripping her bag tighter, Li Qian ducked her head. Her arms trembled, her stomach twisting with anxiety.

“In passing,” she managed to mumble, her lips feeling suddenly numb. If she hadn’t passed by that alley last night, hadn’t gone to check when she saw something weird… she wouldn’t have drawn the monster’s attention. She wouldn’t have nearly died in Professor Shen’s arms. He wouldn’t have had to save her life, by turning her into a creature of the night. She wouldn’t be struggling not to lunge at the detective, to sink her teeth into that delicately bared throat—

“Li Qian.” Professor Shen’s soothing voice drew her attention, and she blinked at him with wide eyes. “It’s alright. Just tell the detective what you saw.”

Mortified, she realized she'd been staring at Detective Zhao's throat again. Keeping her eyes firmly on Professor Shen, Li Qian nodded and relaxed into the order.

"I left campus several paces behind Lu Ruomei, although I didn't know who she was. It was dark. She ducked into an alley. I remember because it struck me as very brave, there were no lanterns nearby." Li Qian wet her dry lips. "The shadows were moving. At first I thought I was just imagining it, but…"

Gleaming claws rending through flesh. Nausea welled up Li Qian's throat, and she pressed her palm over her nose, breath hitching. Professor Shen's eyes were kind, anchoring her in the present.

"I screamed. I didn't mean to, it was just so—"

"Horrific?" Detective Zhao suggested, his tone much gentler than earlier. Li Qian glanced at him and nodded, before dropping her gaze into her lap. Her nails were starting to elongate into claws, and she quickly hid them under her bag.

"I, I don't know if she was still alive. There was— so much blood. The shadow, it, it was looking at me, and— I ran."

She had the detective's full attention now. Swallowing, she shot a quick glance at Professor Shen. She knew better than to talk about her turning, who knew if Detective Zhao was aware of their existence? Just because he was humouring her...

"This monster, can you describe it?"

"I, I didn't get a good look at it. It was dark."

"Did it have claws?" the detective prodded. Li Qian nodded mutely, hugging herself and shivering.

"Long and huge and silver in the moonlight," she whispered, her shoulders hunching instinctively. She remembered what those claws felt like, tearing through her flesh. "And teeth. So many teeth."

Her hands hovered over her stomach protectively, only noticing when she saw Detective Zhao looking. She quickly buried them in her cardigan. Hopefully her nails were back to normal by now.

Professor Shen cleared his throat.

"If that's all, Detective Zhao? I'm afraid we'll have to leave now or we'll be late for class," Professor Shen stated, making a show of checking his watch. For a moment, Li Qian thought Detective Zhao might object, as he stared at Professor Shen, white stick rolling into the opposite corner of his mouth. Then his face relaxed into a smile, and he dropped his feet to the floor, standing up in one smooth movement.

"Aiyo, of course. Don't let me keep you, Professor."

Chu Shuzhi was waiting for them outside the office door, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, glaring at someone down the hall. Li Qian only caught a glimpse of reddish brown hair and blue overalls as the person jumped from the window sill.

"Lao-Zhao, there you are!" The young man huffed impatiently. "Are we done here? I'm hungry."

Li Qian bit down a smile.

"Aiya, what are you getting paid for, lurking around?" Detective Zhao complained, rolling his eyes. Then he gestured to her. "I've found us an eye witness, Fatty. And what have you got, huh?"

The young man scoffed, turning towards them. There was a short moment where he froze, staring unblinkingly at Professor Shen, and then it was gone again. Detective Zhao tensed, glancing between the two of them.

"Do you know Professor Shen?" he asked, sounding nonchalant yet his body language was anything but. Li Qian shot Chu Shuzhi a worried look, her shixiong shifting into a more ready stance.

The young man was already shaking his head, when Professor Shen ducked his head, hiding a fond smile.

"Da Qing," he said, and the young man's head snapped up, meeting Professor Shen's eyes warily. "It's been… a long time."

The young man — Da Qing — glanced between Professor Shen and Detective Zhao, before his shoulders slumped. “Shen-dage. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

Li Qian blinked, shocked at the familiar address. A glance at Chu Shuzhi revealed an equally dubious expression, his perpetual scowl darkening. Detective Zhao was silently mouthing ‘dage’, clearly not having expected this either. She wondered what was going on.

“Not at all,” Professor Shen demurred, his expression kind. “I understand you’re tracking down what killed Lu Ruomei. Please, let me know if I can be of any assistance.”

What, not who. Li Qian shuddered.

“We’ll get out of your hair,” Da Qing promised, snagging the sleeve of Detective Zhao and dragging him off, ignoring his sputtered protests. Professor Shen stared after them for a long moment, not moving until they were out of sight.

Then he adjusted his glasses and smiled down at Li Qian. “Shall we?” As if nothing happened.

 


 

Zhao Yunlan let Da Qing drag him out of the university building and down the stairs before he dug his heels in. He understood wanting to get out of earshot, and he had the foreboding feeling that Professor Shen's hearing was better than a normal human's. Still, Da Qing tugged on his sleeve, a determined scowl on his face. Zhao Yunlan refused to budge.

"Da Qing!"

Da Qing whirled on him and hissed, clearly agitated. If he were in his cat form, his tail would be swishing side to side.

Zhao Yunlan eyed him critically. He didn't know what Da Qing was, exactly. He wasn't a shifter; werewolves travelled in packs and werebears avoided city life. There might be werecats about, but he's found no record of them in his research either. Of course, there were many beings able to shift form, vampires were infamous for transforming into bats after all. Still, Da Qing accompanied him during the day as much as during the night, wherever their current case took them.

Da Qing didn't have a family, and yet he'd called Professor Shen 'dage'.

"What's the matter with you?" Zhao Yunlan asked irritably. "That was our best lead! Why the hell did you promise we wouldn't bother them?"

"There's no way Shen-laoshi is involved with the murderer," Da Qing declared with utmost certainty. "You were wasting our time."

Zhao Yunlan scoffed.

"From where I'm standing, he looks like our most likely suspect."

Da Qing glowered, swiping at him with a clawed hand. Zhao Yunlan jerked back, surprised at how angry a response his theory got.

"Don't be an idiot, lao-Zhao."

"How am I the idiot here?" Zhao Yunlan protested, scowling at his partner. Holding up his fingers, he counted, "He worked that night so he was nearby, Lu Ruomei was his student, he has institutional power over the only eye witness we have, and she kept checking in with him while telling her story."

Not to mention the way she subconsciously protected her belly during her retelling. It was obvious she'd seen the disemboweled victim, the question was, what did Professor Shen have on her to keep her silent? Or was she that scared the same would happen to her? But then, how had Professor Shen convinced her he wouldn't kill her, if she witnessed him slicing up her classmate?

"The girl?" Da Qing hazarded, his eyebrows climbing up. "And he allowed you to interview her?"

"What's this about 'allow', since when do we need Professor Shen's permission to do our job?" Zhao Yunlan complained, crossing his arms.

"You have no idea what you're sticking your nose into this time," Da Qing griped, tone aggrieved. “Can’t you leave well enough alone for once? Why do you always insist on running headfirst into trouble?”

“Well, why don’t you tell me then, oh wise, old cat,” Zhao Yunlan snarked. He only received a stink eye in response. Huffing to make his annoyance with his partner known, Zhao Yunlan dropped his arms out of their defensive position and shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “Can’t think of a good enough excuse? Fine then. You don’t have to come along next time.”

"Don’t be so damn stubborn, lao-Zhao. Just drop it, seriously," Da Qing grumbled, rolling his eyes. "It's not him, and he's not someone you want to mess with. You're lucky he went easy on you tonight, don't push it."

Zhao Yunlan latched onto the most pertinent information. "So you agree he's dangerous."

"I said, drop it," Da Qing hissed in aggravation. Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes and strode off, not waiting to see if Da Qing would follow. They still had a case to solve, and Zhao Yunlan intended to get to the bottom of it. Whether the Damn Cat wanted to help or not.

 


 

Despite Da Qing's warning still ringing in his ears, Zhao Yunlan gave in to his insatiable curiosity. A little snooping wouldn't kill him, after all.

Much to his growing frustration, there wasn't much to dig up about the good professor. According to his birth certificate, Professor Shen was 32 years old, born and raised in Tomorrow Mountain. He completed his degrees and PhD in literature at Dragon City university, and only two years later they hired him for the night class program. There were no social media accounts connected to the man, only a university email address for professional contacts. Scrolling through the university's website, Zhao Yunlan learned that Professor Shen used to be Professor Zhou's grad student, and he downloaded a couple papers published by him.

Nothing useful in unraveling the mystery of Shen Wei, potential murderer.

Meanwhile the trail of Lu Ruomei's killer ran cold. With no viable intel other than Li Qian's testimony, the case was labelled solved, the cause of death decided as mauled by bear. The DCPD handed the case over to the Game and Fish department and washed their hands of it.

It didn't sit well with Zhao Yunlan, how quickly the paperwork was passed. Someone higher up had to have greased the wheels.

And once again, his prime suspect was Professor Shen, weirdly well respected at such a young age and clearly influential. Da Qing wasn't someone who paid attention to just anyone, and the fact that he kept warning Zhao Yunlan off was a clue in itself. Professor Shen knew something, Zhao Yunlan was certain. He tried visiting the professor again the next day, but was barred entry, fed some lie about Professor Shen taking the day off for 'personal matters'.

Which probably was code for dealing with pesky murder charges, Zhao Yunlan thought glumly.

His bad mood had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Professor Shen was the most attractive man he'd met in years, and if it weren't for the minor detail of him being a suspect in a murder case, Zhao Yunlan would have already asked him out on a date. Not helped by the fact that the professor's well-tailored suit gave him a perfect eyeful of that glorious ass.

So Zhao Yunlan skulked through the ministry's halls for days, leaving Da Qing to research what creature fit Li Qian's description, while he focussed on ferreting out the professor's connections at the Ministry of Public Safety, to track the bribes back to the source. It didn't take him long to root out the fall guy, a policeman who was merely following orders. The trail up the ranks was purposefully muddied, proving Zhao Yunlan's instinct right once more. There was foul play involved.

Tracing the bribes to the higher ups in the ministry was tedious work, the people in question too well-established to accuse without hard proof, and too clever to be obvious about their wrong-doing. Nevermind that corruption seemed to run rampant amongst politicians, the web of traded favours thick and complex and giving Zhao Yunlan a headache.

But Zhao Yunlan was determined to keep pursuing this lead.

However, for once it seemed luck was on his side. Zhao Yunlan managed to hunt down a ministry clerk, a young guy by the name of Gao Tianyu according to his name tag. The guy was visibly nervous talking about it, but Zhao Yunlan managed to wheedle some useful information out of him. Like the fact that once a month, Professor Shen was known to visit the Blood Moon bar on the southside of the city. And that his next appearance was scheduled for the full moon.

Zhao Yunlan let the squirrelly guy off the hook, satisfied with his new lead.

 


 

The bar was filled with shady figures, sitting in dark corners or hunching over a drink at the bar. The dim light was barely enough for Zhao Yunlan to navigate between the booths without stumbling over a wayward chair. The skin on the back of his neck prickled with unease. It was too dim to count how many people were present, nevermind finding anyone in the crowd. Zhao Yunlan stuck to the edges, making his way around the room along the walls, a foreboding feeling twisting in his stomach.

Movement on the upper level caught his attention, and Zhao Yunlan froze.

He recognized that silhouette. Tall, lean, standing next to a younger woman, his hand on her shoulder, saying something in a voice too quiet to carry. The small woman nodded, hugging herself, visibly uncomfortable. As if noticing Zhao Yunlan’s stare, the man turned his head, the light catching on his glasses, making them glint.

Well. Zhao Yunlan grinned, raising a hand to wave at the professor. Seemed like Lady Luck was on his side.

Professor Shen frowned down at Zhao Yunlan, then said something to the woman next to him, who had to be Li Qian. Zhao Yunlan moved at the same time as the professor did, heading for the stairs, hoping to intercept him before he could vanish into the crowd.

But before he could even make it to the foot of the stairs, a brawl broke out at the bar.

Quickly, a crowd gathered around the fighters, jeering and cheering. The press of bodies dragged Zhao Yunlan along, and he spent precious seconds pushing through to the outskirts. There was a crash, the shattering of a chair, and Zhao Yunlan should probably put a stop to this right then and there, but— he held Professor Shen’s gaze, at the top of the stairs, elegant fingers curling around the baluster. A part of him knew, the moment he looked away, his query would be gone. Another, deeper part of him didn’t dare look away, the instinct of the rabbit freezing before the snake.

A scream sounded through the bar, a sudden hush falling over everyone. Zhao Yunlan blinked and looked over to the brawl.

For a moment, everything seemed frozen. One of the instigators was clutching at his arm, blood seeping through his fingers. It felt like the entire bar took a collective breath, and then— the crowd descended on the man. One second, the fighters were swaying on their feet, the next they were born to the ground as the on-lookers fought over them like pigeons over breadcrumbs.

Blood splattered across faces, red eyes and white fangs gleaming in the dim light, and Zhao Yunlan’s heart stopped.

The vampires tore into the humans in a feeding frenzy, rendering limbs in their haste to get at the blood inside. Without conscious thought, Zhao Yunlan’s back hit the wall, trembling fingers closing around the handle of his service weapon. Bloodlust took over and the vampires swarmed from the initial feeding site to spread across the entire bar. Screams were silenced as one by one the customers fell to their insatiable hunger.

Those sober enough to be aware of the danger they were in ran for the door, only to find it locked, rattling the handle to no avail.

Claws dug into Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder, tearing him from his shock. He pulled up his gun, realizing too late that he should’ve gone for the stake inside his jacket instead. Cursing, he clicked the safety off, meeting the vampire’s red-hazed leer with steady eyes and firing point blank. The vampire flinched back, but didn’t let go, even though the bullet went straight through his heart.

“Fuck,” Zhao Yunlan muttered, firing twice more in quick succession, trying to back away. Fangs opened wide, gleaming with saliva, and the vampire lunged for him. Zhao Yunlan squeezed his eyes shut, throwing his weight back in hopes of unbalancing his attacker and dodging, though he had little hope of escaping fate — vampires were faster, stronger than humans.

An arm caught him around the waist, pulling him up against a firm body. His attacker was blasted back, crashing into a table and straight through it, leaving a mess of splinters behind.

Zhao Yunlan blinked, glancing sideways at his saviour. Professor Shen looked grim, staring after the vampire. Fangs poked over his lower lip, but his eyes were their normal soft, dark brown.

“Stay with me,” Professor Shen ordered, his hand on Zhao Yunlan’s hip tensing.

He pushed Zhao Yunlan towards the stairs, staying between him and the chaos. As they reached the bottom stair, Professor Shen's free hand snaked out, snatching a running human by the neck and effortlessly tossing him upstairs, over the baluster to land on a table set up in the gallery. Zhao Yunlan's heart thumped rapidly against his chest at the casual display of supernatural strength. Finally glancing at him, expression inscrutable, Professor Shen ushered Zhao Yunlan up the stairs.

The gallery was mostly empty by this point, the vampires having jumped down to join the frenzy. Two figures stood off to the far side, heads bowed together, and Li Qian hovered at the top of the stairs, wringing her hands. Her eyes were flashing red, fangs poking out of her mouth as she stared at the human who Professor Shen had caught for her. Then they dimmed, and Li Qian shot a worried look at Professor Shen, who smiled gently at her.

"Go on," he said, not an order, but permission. He reached out, long fingers stroking over her hair, brushing it back behind her ear. "No need to hold back. Sate your hunger, my child."

Li Qian took a hesitant step forward, her fangs digging into her lower lip. She didn't reach for the burly man, though, who was slowly coming out of his daze.

Professor Shen sighed, tugging Zhao Yunlan into the corner and finally unwinding his arm from around him. Then he stepped forward, pinning the human to the table with a splayed hand on his chest. The other hand slashed through the air, nails turning into needle-sharp claws and tearing open a large gash down his throat. When he looked up, Professor Shen's eyes gleamed red.

"Li Qian," he commanded, and the girl surged forward, all hesitation forgotten. She latched onto the wound, uncaring of the blood splashing onto her blouse, drinking in audible gulps.

Professor Shen lingered for a moment longer, until the man's struggles grew weaker, before letting go and stepping away. Then he tugged on the sleeves of his jacket, hiding the drops of blood drying on his dress shirt's cuffs, but not before Zhao Yunlan caught sight of it. Professor Shen adjusted his glasses as he walked towards him, and Zhao Yunlan's stomach dropped, wondering if he was next on the menu.

He could try to fight. He still had a stake up his sleeve, literally.

But.

There were over two dozen vampires below in a feeding frenzy, and Zhao Yunlan was only one human. He might take a couple of the bastards with him, but chances of his own survival were slim to none. The professor, however, had protected him against one of his own, had taken him away from the worst of the chaos. He seemed in control of himself, despite the scent of blood hanging heavy in the air, strong enough for Zhao Yunlan's human senses to gag on it. And — Zhao Yunlan stole a quick glance at the man on the table — he'd been able to hold back with that meal only inches under his nose, had allowed Li Qian to feed instead.

It went against all the teachings Zhao Yunlan knew. A vampire, once lost to bloodlust, couldn't be pulled back.

Professor Shen's eyes were no longer red.

Zhao Yunlan forced himself to relax against the wall, offering the professor an arched look and a flirty smile, lowering his lashes seductively.

"Aiya, Professor Shen. Fancy meeting you here." Zhao Yunlan tilted his head, aware of how it bared his throat. Professor Shen's gaze flickered down for a heartbeat before meeting his eyes again. Zhao Yunlan's smile widened into a grin. "What brings an esteemed person such as yourself to this rundown bar?"

"I should ask you the same thing, Detective Zhao," Professor Shen returned, his brow furrowing slightly. "You shouldn't be here."

"Ah? Why's that?" Zhao Yunlan shifted, both so he could more easily push off the wall should he need to dodge, and to open his body language in something akin to an invitation. "Didn't expect me to find out your little secret so fast?"

Professor Shen’s frown deepened. “You have no idea what you walked into, have you, Detective Zhao?”

“I don’t know, Professor Shen” —Zhao Yunlan waggled his eyebrows— “why don’t you enlighten me?”

Eyes flashing red, Professor Shen took a step closer. His arm darted forward, too fast for Zhao Yunlan to see, catching Zhao Yunlan’s chin in a gentle but firm grip. He tilted Zhao Yunlan’s face up, forcing him to meet those crimson eyes. Zhao Yunlan licked his lips, and that gaze dropped to follow the motion before rising to stare at him.

“Who told you to come here, Detective?”

Professor Shen’s voice had an odd quality to it, an almost hypnotic lilt in that susurrating purr. Zhao Yunlan blinked, staring deep into blood-red eyes, his mouth dropping open. A surge of arousal washed through him — Professor Shen was the most attractive man he had met to date, and this… this authority, that air of command was doing things to Zhao Yunlan. It made him want to obey, to go to his knees and— Zhao Yunlan let his gaze roam down Professor Shen’s body, taking in that impeccable suit. He wondered what the good professor would do, if he dropped down and started mouthing at those tight pants. Wondered if Professor Shen was already as hard as Zhao Yunlan was.

Zhao Yunlan shook himself, dragging his eyes back up. Professor Shen’s eyes had lost their red glint, his frown having shifted from furious to puzzled.

Wait—

“Are you—” Fuck. Zhao Yunlan had heard of a vampiric ability to put someone into a trance, make them follow commands without second thought. It was a rare skill that took centuries to master. His estimate of Professor Shen’s age went up a notch. Zhao Yunlan frowned back. “If I tell you, what are you going to do to them?”

Professor Shen bared his fangs, then dropped his hand from Zhao Yunlan’s face (and how stupid was it that he already missed that cold, gentle touch?), taking a step back and visibly reining himself in. 

"Report them to the authorities," Professor Shen gritted out, and Zhao Yunlan blinked. That wasn't what he expected. Judging by the stone-cold expression on the professor's face, it wasn't his first choice either, given free rein. How curious. "Whoever this person is, they sent you here to die, Detective Zhao."

Zhao Yunlan swallowed. "How come?"

Professor Shen turned around, gesturing for Zhao Yunlan to follow him. He led him to the railing, overlooking the bloodbath below. None of the humans had survived the massacre, vampires jockeying over the remaining morsels. Zhao Yunlan grimaced at the sight, keeping his eyes on the professor's face.

"Everyone here tonight was a prisoner on death row," Professor Shen explained in a low voice. He met Zhao Yunlan's disbelieving stare. "The government sends them here once a month. That way, they get rid of their worst criminals and we get to indulge our more… primal urges."

Zhao Yunlan opened and closed his jaw, mouth pressed into a thin line. He surveyed the crowd below, trying to tune out the gore.

If what Professor Shen said was true, and he had no reason to doubt his word, then… Gao Tianyu really had sent him here with the intent to kill Zhao Yunlan. There was no way he knew about the bar, and that Professor Shen would be here, but not about what went down behind closed doors. Zhao Yunlan swallowed, staring at the sightless, blank eyes of a former inmate. That could have been him, if Professor Shen hadn't intervened.

"Aiya, I can't help but notice Professor Shen isn't joining the festivities?" Zhao Yunlan tore his gaze away from the horrifying spectacle, falling back on teasing and flirting to distract himself. He winked at the good professor who was staring at him, nonplussed. "Don't tell me dear ol' me is keeping you from the fun?"

Professor Shen huffed, the sound more angry than amused.

“I have staked my claim on you, Detective Zhao.” His gaze roamed over the crowd, before landing on Zhao Yunlan, piercing straight through him. He reached up to adjust his glasses, hand briefly obscuring his expression. “As a general rule, I do not pick more than one human on these nights. It wouldn’t be fair to the younger ones.”

A shiver ran through Zhao Yunlan. He licked his lips, half-nervous and half-aroused by the implication.

“And does Professor Shen intend to feed off of me?”

“No. Tonight, I merely supervise.” The look Professor Shen shot him was unreadable. “No one will dare lay a hand on you as long as you are with me. For your own safety, please stay close.”

Putting on his best demure expression, Zhao Yunlan batted his eyes. “Whatever you say, Professor.”

Professor Shen didn’t quite roll his eyes, but the feeling came across regardless. He turned away from Zhao Yunlan to watch Li Qian. The wheels started turning in Zhao Yunlan’s head. ‘Supervise,’ he had said. Considering he had already claimed to be older than most inside the bar, it was safe to conclude that Li Qian must be his… What did vampires call the ones they turned? Would he refer to her as his daughter?

Li Qian glanced up from her feeding, feeling their eyes on her. Blood dripped down her chin, trickling down the long line of her throat and past her neckline. Her blouse was equally filthy, soaked in blood. She had made a mess of the man’s throat, the neat gash Professor Shen opened torn wider, puncture marks from her fangs littering the surrounding flesh. His skin had gone pale from blood loss, and Zhao Yunlan was relatively sure he was dead by this point.

Zhao Yunlan swallowed down the rising nausea.

The movement caught Li Qian’s attention, her gaze swivelling from Professor Shen to his throat. She licked her lips, cleaning up some of the blood around her mouth, eyes fixated on Zhao Yunlan’s pulse. Her tongue ran over her fangs, and she took a step forward with clear intent.

“Uhh…” Zhao Yunlan shot a worried look towards Professor Shen, staying frozen in place. He might make it worse, if he moved. Vampires were predators, after all.

“Li Qian.” Her head snapped up, eyes focussing on Professor Shen. He shook his head, stepping slightly in front of Zhao Yunlan. “No.”

She whined pitifully, eyes darting to Zhao Yunlan and then back to Professor Shen. Her lips pursed into a pout, and she ducked her head, glancing up pleadingly from under her lashes. It was a surprisingly childish display, a stark contrast to the dignified young woman he’d met the other day. The red eyes made the whole situation feel even more surreal.

“If you’re still hungry, finish your meal,” Professor Shen told her sternly, expression unyielding.

Li Qian shot the cadaver a disgusted look, wrinkling her nose.

Professor Shen huffed in amusement and beckoned her. "Then come here."

Perking up, Li Qian trotted over, darting one last yearning glance at Zhao Yunlan as she came closer, before standing at attention in front of her sire. Professor Shen favoured her with a soft smile, raising one hand to stroke over her hair. Li Qian nuzzled into the touch like a contented cat.

"You've done well, fledgling," Professor Shen praised, and Li Qian preened under the compliment. Then she froze, and it took Zhao Yunlan a moment to realize Professor Shen was gripping her by the hair, tilting her head back.

The professor leaned in, lapping up the blood on her throat.

It didn't feel sexual, to Zhao Yunlan's surprise. He expected to feel… weird, watching what had to be a vampiric ritual. There wasn't even a stirring of jealousy in his gut, despite the arousal still simmering in his groins. More than anything, it reminded him of Da Qing giving him a tongue-washing when the cat decided he hadn't done a good enough job cleaning up.

Like a lioness cleaning up her cub, Professor Shen strategically licked away the blood on Li Qian's chin and face. It seemed to have another benefit as well: Zhao Yunlan noticed how Li Qian's fangs retracted, the red haze leaving her eyes under her sire's ministrations.

When he was done, the professor cupped her cheek, brushing a thumb over clean skin until she met his eyes.

"You'll learn to make less of a mess in time," Professor Shen assured her. Li Qian blushed, ducking her head.

"Thank you, Professor. I'll try my best." Swallowing nervously, she turned to Zhao Yunlan and bowed. "My apologies, Detective Zhao. I was out of line."

"Aiyo, no harm done." Zhao Yunlan gave her his best suave smile, sticking his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. "It's instinctive, don't apologize for that."

He glanced quickly at Professor Shen, catching how his expression softened. Meeting Zhao Yunlan's eyes, he inclined his head in gratitude. Then his gaze slipped past Zhao Yunlan, sharpening. Turning around put his back to the vampire and his fledgling, yet Zhao Yunlan didn't think twice about it, more worried about what caught the professor's attention.

The two vampires who had stood off to the side having a quiet conversation walked up to them. They both wore robes straight out of a historical drama, long black hair framing their faces in waves. Their eyes roamed over Zhao Yunlan, much more subtle in their hunger for his blood than Li Qian but making no particular effort to hide it for his comfort. Zhao Yunlan took a hasty step back, slipping behind Professor Shen on his free side.

"Heipao-daren," the first one spoke up, both of them dipping into graceful bows.

"Lord Justiciar," Professor Shen returned, voice colder than Zhao Yunlan heard him before. But that wasn't what made him freeze up.

Justiciar was the title of a particularly powerful vampire. It had been beaten into Zhao Yunlan's head early on, by Da Qing and his father both, as one of the names necessary to watch out for. As Justiciar, this particular vampire was the liaison with the police department, in charge of keeping the local vampire population in line. There were only a handful of vampires out there bearing the title, and they all had one thing in common: they were old and powerful enough to force most other vampires to obey them.

Considering what Professor Shen had told him earlier about the purpose of the blood bar, it made sense for the Justiciar to be present.

He couldn't help but shoot a worried glance Shen Wei's way, wondering who between them was stronger, then chastising himself for the interest flickering up inside him at the thought of watching prim and proper Professor Shen get into a fight. The casual display of supernatural strength earlier was still seared into his memory.

“Heipao-daren, this humble public servant means no offense,” the Justiciar started, hunched shoulders a stark contrast to Professor Shen’s upright posture. He offered the other vampire a solicitous smile. “However, there are still some of our brethren who go hungry, but wouldn’t dare encroach on your claim.”

“They are free to whatever is left in him,” Shen Wei replied, flicking his wrist in the direction of Li Qian’s former meal. “My fledgling has sated her thirst.”

The Justiciar’s smile twitched into a grimace, his eyes darting around nervously. Zhao Yunlan wondered what his game was, his eyes narrowing. He was obviously up to something.

“That is very generous of you, Heipao-daren.” The words couldn’t sound more false to Zhao Yunlan’s ears. And again with that title. He snuck a glance at Professor Shen, whose icy expression gave nothing away. “And what about, ah, your other choice?”

That calculating gaze landed on Zhao Yunlan, who slouched under the scrutiny, shifting his weight on his back foot to seem as nonchalant as possible, but ready to move at the slightest provocation.

Professor Shen didn’t quite step in front of him, but something in the way he straightened drew all attention back to him. Zhao Yunlan noticed the commotion downstairs dying down and glanced over the railing to see every single one of the vampires below focussed on them. Movement caught his eye, and he recognized Chu Shuzhi, the ‘hallway security’ from the university, stalking up the stairs. The blood trickling from the corner of his mouth down his chin made him seem even more intimidating.

“Detective Zhao is off-limits,” Professor Shen announced, his voice projecting across the entire bar. The command seemed to have physical weight, and Zhao Yunlan found himself subconsciously holding his breath.

“Ah…” The Justiciar leaned back, licking his lips in what seemed genuine apprehension compared to the earlier facade. “Heipao-daren, I truly do not mean to cause offense, but I couldn’t help but overhear you do not intend to feed tonight.”

A murmur went through the crowd.

“I do not,” Professor Shen confirmed coldly.

“Then…” The Justiciar glanced at his compatriot, before looking at Zhao Yunlan. “Of course, Heipaoshi-daren is aware of the rules of this place. Is he saving this meal for someone else, perhaps?”

“No.” Professor Shen’s brow furrowed lightly, his expression stern. “Detective Zhao is not here as part of the” —his gaze roamed over the crowd below, lips twisting into a sneer— “festivities.”

“Ah…” Glancing downstairs, the Justiciar took a hurried step towards the professor, lowering his voice to a whisper that Zhao Yunlan had no doubt every vampire could hear with their superior hearing. “Heipao-daren, as the liaison, I have to ensure that none of these humans escape from here alive.” He cowered at the glare Professor Shen favoured him with. “Please, Heipaoshi-daren, do not be angry with me, I’m just trying to do my job.”

Chu Shuzhi scoffed as he stepped up behind Professor Shen, arms crossed and glowering at the Justiciar.

“Is Detective Zhao on your list?” Professor Shen asked, tone curt.

“I… Pardon?”

“Is Detective Zhao on your list?” Professor Shen repeated, taking a step forward. The Justiciar stumbled back, offering him a nervous smile.

“Uh, I mean, of course he should be…” Then he turned, the kindly grandfather impression falling away as he hissed at his companion. “Check the list!”

The other vampire scrambled back to their corner, hefting a heavy book from the table and paging through it rapidly. Zhao Yunlan watched with arched eyebrows as he dragged a finger down the last page, mouthing the names as he read them, then turned a page back to do the same thing over again.

“Well?!” the Justiciar snapped impatiently after the third page was turned.

“Ah, Lord Justiciar, I’m sorry, I cannot find any Zhao…” the vampire answered tentatively. 

"What do you mean you can't—!" the Justiciar turned back to them, an ingratiating smile back on his face. "Ah, Heipao-daren, there seems to have been a misunderstanding…"

"Indeed," Professor Shen replied coolly. "I will leave getting to the bottom of this in your hands, Lord Justiciar."

"As Heipaoshi wishes," the Justiciar agreed, bowing obsequiously. Zhao Yunlan arched a brow, surprised at the level of deference shown. Professor Shen eyed him for a long, tense moment, then turned his back on him without a word of acknowledgement.

"Chu Shuzhi." Professor Shen beckoned the only vampire who dared come upstairs during the confrontation, hovering at his shoulder.

"Daren," Chu Shuzhi said, stepping forward and kneeling with a dramatic flick of his wrist that had his cloak flaring out behind him.

"Take Li Qian back to the den," the professor ordered, straightening the cuffs of his dress shirt. "I have business to attend to."

"Yes, sir." Chu Shuzhi bowed his head in acknowledgement, then rose to his feet gracefully.

Professor Shen turned to Zhao Yunlan, a question in his eyes. Zhao Yunlan arched his eyebrows at him, wondering how his suspect-turned-protector would surprise him next.

"Detective Zhao, I'm sure you have many questions."

Zhao Yunlan clicked his tongue, rocking back on his heels. "Certainly. Is Professor Shen in any mood to answer them?"

Professor Shen met his gaze evenly, then flicked a pointed glance at the curious crowd, all too obvious in their eavesdropping. Zhao Yunlan inclined his head in acknowledgement. Then he cocked his head towards the exit and arched his eyebrows, mouth tugging into a hopeful smile. Professor Shen started to smile back, then ducked his head, hand coming up to adjust his glasses, effectively hiding his face.

"Let me escort you back to the ministry," Professor Shen insisted, dropping his hand to exchange a pointed look with his… bodyguard? Subordinate? who nodded and took Li Qian by the elbow, leaving first. Professor Shen ushered Zhao Yunlan out ahead of him, and Zhao Yunlan cast one last look back over his shoulder. The Justiciar looked like he'd bitten into a lemon, his companion glaring after them.

Then the door closed, and Zhao Yunlan looked ahead.

 


 

"So, Professor Shen, Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan started as they ambled along through the streets. The darkness felt a lot less dangerous now, knowing his companion was more dangerous still and meant him no harm. "I guess that's an assumed identity, then? For the paperwork at university?"

Professor Shen ducked his head, smiling. Zhao Yunlan's heart skipped a beat, and his foot hovered over the pavement for a second too long before he forced himself to continue. Who could've known, Professor Shen's cold beauty turned even more lethal when he smiled?

"It's not," Professor Shen refuted, and then he turned that unfair smile on Zhao Yunlan with a hopeful air. "It's the name I was given by my sire."

"Oh? Not the one you were born with?" Zhao Yunlan inquired curiously.

Professor Shen shook his head. "I was known as Wéi, before my sire found me. He gave me his family name when he turned me and added strokes to my given name." Professor Shen stared off into the distance, his expression unbearably fond. "He said anyone in his flock deserved a properly dramatic name."

"Sounds like my kinda guy," Zhao Yunlan offered, not sure what to say. "Where, uh, where is he now?"

"Dead." The smile dropped from Professor Shen's face, and Zhao Yunlan cursed himself for his careless question. "Has been for millennia. I'm the head of the flock, these days."

Zhao Yunlan tucked that fact away, along with the mention of millennia, as in multiple. Just how old was this guy? But he'd already hit too close to home with his previous question. Instead, he decided to focus on another, hopefully safer part of that answer.

"So all the vampires, back at the bar. They're part of your flock?"

Professor Shen's lip curled in distaste. "No." He turned to look at Zhao Yunlan, expression thoughtful. "They wouldn't have challenged me like that if they were."

"Huh." That made sense. Meaning that Chu Shuzhi guy was probably one of Shen Wei's flock, along with Li Qian. However, it did leave Zhao Yunlan wondering. "Why did they back down, then?"

"I'm older and more powerful," Professor Shen said, matter-of-fact and without a hint of boasting, despite the implications.

More powerful than the local Justiciar even. Zhao Yunlan sucked in air through his teeth. It was quite the claim, but would explain how careful the Justiciar was to at least appear respectful. It did leave Zhao Yunlan wondering, though, why Professor Shen wasn't the one to assume that role.

"Heipaoshi?" he asked lightly, unwrapping a lollipop and stuffing it into his cheek. Artificial cherry flavour bloomed over his tongue and took the memory of the blood smell with it.

"My title, amongst vampires," Professor Shen explained, dragging his gaze up from Zhao Yunlan's mouth. Zhao Yunlan grinned back at him. "You haven't heard of it before, Detective Zhao?"

"I'm afraid I'm not well-educated when it comes to people of the night," Zhao Yunlan demurred. He stopped on the sidewalk, Professor Shen turning to face him. Leaning closer, Zhao Yunlan could count those long lashes fanning his eyes. "Perhaps Professor Shen could teach me?"

"Detective Zhao is playing with fire," Professor Shen murmured, not stepping closer but not backing away either. 

"Professor Shen already promised not to kill me tonight," Zhao Yunlan shot back. Tilting his head laid his neck bare, and Zhao Yunlan grinned invitingly. "Unless he changed his mind?"

Dark eyes took on a glint of red, fangs dropping over plush lips in a display of danger — but not threat. Zhao Yunlan lowered his eyelashes and glanced up coyly through them.

"Do I smell good?"

Professor Shen wavered, his head dipping to the crook of Zhao Yunlan's neck, not touching but hovering close. A shudder went through his otherwise still body, and Zhao Yunlan could hear him inhale shakily, could feel the cold radiating from his skin so close to his own.

Then Professor Shen took a step back, regaining his composure.

"Detective Zhao—"

"Zhao Yunlan," he interrupted the professor, grinning insouciantly around his lollipop stick. Professor Shen stared back at him with wide eyes, a deer caught in the headlights look to him. Zhao Yunlan waggled his eyebrows, smirking. "Aiyo, Professor, I'd say we know each other rather well after tonight, no? Surely we can drop the formalities."

"Very well." Professor Shen swallowed, throat bobbing. "Call me Shen Wei, Detective Zhao.”

“Ah?” Pulling the lollipop out of his mouth, he wagged the candy in the professor’s face. Professor Shen— no, Shen Wei— looked at him, nonplussed. “Only if you call me Zhao Yunlan, Professor.”

“Detective—”

“Shen Wei.”

Shen Wei’s eyes went wide, staring at him in shock. There was something to his expression Zhao Yunlan couldn’t put his finger on, before it was swallowed by a brilliant smile.

“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei agreed, and Zhao Yunlan returned the smile with his own, helplessly joyous one. The way Shen Wei said his name… His heart felt so light, he worried it might float away.

Clearing his throat, Zhao Yunlan turned and started walking again, Shen Wei falling into step with him. It took him a moment to remember what he wanted to say, distracted by the graceful, soundless glide of Shen Wei's long legs.

"Shen Wei, I meant to ask you," he started, pushing the lollipop into the opposite cheek. "Now that I'm aware — what happened that night?"

"You are speaking of the night of Lu Ruomei's murder," Shen Wei clarified, meeting his sideways glance. Zhao Yunlan inclined his head. "I'm afraid I cannot be of much help, Detective" —at Zhao Yunlan's pointed look, Shen Wei huffed and amended— "Zhao Yunlan. The creature was not one I'm familiar with."

"Creature?" Zhao Yunlan stuffed his hands into his pockets and clicked the lollipop stick against his teeth. "You saw what murdered your student?"

Shen Wei shook his head. "Not just saw — I fought it."

The last piece of the puzzle slotted into place. "It didn't just attack Lu Ruomei, but Li Qian, too," Zhao Yunlan guessed, and Shen Wei nodded gravely. Zhao crunched on the hard ball of candy, mind whirring as the picture became clear to him. "Li Qian was recently turned. That night?"

"Indeed," Shen Wei agreed, gaze lingering on Zhao Yunlan's face. "Detective Zhao has a sharp mind."

Zhao Yunlan shrugged the compliment off, uncomfortable. "The thing that attacked her, was it as she described?"

"Yes," Shen Wei confirmed. "It had a strong resemblance to a hungry ghost, but it held its shape unlike any I've seen before. While it was a mass of writhing shadows, it still remained distinctly humanoid."

"Curious…" Zhao Yunlan muttered. He'd have to check in with Da Qing tomorrow, see if this clue could lead them somewhere.

It wasn't far to the ministry, the building looming ahead of them soon. Tension coiled in Zhao Yunlan's stomach, and their easy conversation trailed off into a barely tolerable silence. The gate guards took one look at Shen Wei before ushering them through, not even requesting identification from either of them. Eyebrows vanishing into his hairline, Zhao Yunlan couldn't help but wonder if the night shift consisted of more supernatural beings even at the ministry.

To no one's surprise, his father was still working despite the late hour. They caught him just as he was about to lock his office behind himself. Zhao Yunlan hoped for his sake that Shen Xi was made aware ahead of time and not still waiting on her husband with a cold dinner, as was her wont when she felt pissed off.

"Director Zhao." Shen Wei inclined his head in greeting.

"Heipao-daren," Zhao Xinci returned stiffly, his eyes narrowing as they landed on Zhao Yunlan. "Did you need something?"

"Yes." Shen Wei didn't show any sign of offense at the brusque question. "I bring you a warning, and a request."

Zhao Xinci's gaze darted to Zhao Yunlan, clearly inferring his presence as a threat to their family. Zhao Yunlan shifted uncomfortably, opening his mouth to clarify, but his father interrupted before he could get a word in edgewise.

“Whatever offense my son committed, I take full responsibility. Please excuse his rash nature, I haven’t taught him well.”

At his side, Shen Wei stiffened. “On the contrary, Director Zhao. I should think you have taught Zhao Yunlan well indeed.”

“Oh?” Finally, Zhao Xinci met Zhao Yunlan’s gaze, his brow twitching up before smoothing back into a neutral expression. “In that case, I am confused why you felt the need to escort him here, Heipao-daren.”

“Because,” Shen Wei stated flatly, his expression growing colder, “someone from your Bureau sent Detective Zhao to investigate the Blood Moon bar tonight.”

Zhao Xinci paled rapidly. “The Blood Moon bar,” he echoed, eyes widening slightly and flicking over Zhao Yunlan’s body, looking for injuries.

“Yes,” Shen Wei confirmed, clasping his hands behind his back with the same energy of someone crossing their arms. “Fortunately, I recognized him before anything could happen.”

Zhao Xinci stared at him for a long moment, before turning to Zhao Yunlan, who nodded in confirmation. Then his father surprised him by bowing low to Shen Wei.

“In that case, you have my eternal gratitude, Heipao-daren.” The words were said with sincerity that took Zhao Yunlan aback, although he could hear the strain in his father’s voice, saw the muscle jumping in his jaw as he grit his teeth. Straightening slowly, Zhao Xinci kept his head bowed. “Whatever your request, I will do my utmost to see it granted.”

“Find out who is behind this and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Shen Wei ordered, and Zhao Xinci bowed his head lower in acceptance, the muscle in his jaw jumping again. Shen Wei watched him through dark eyes, then nodded sharply. He gestured for Zhao Xinci to stand straight. For a moment, Zhao Yunlan thought he might refuse on principle. “Now, as for my request.”

Zhao Xinci went tense, rage flickering in his dark eyes. “Certainly,” he ground out.

“Make Detective Zhao the official liaison between my people and the Dragon City police department,” Shen Wei demanded. There was no other word for his cold tone, assured in his authority. Expecting to be obeyed. “Any request from the department, any case that might be related to us goes through him, personally.”

Zhao Xinci's gaze flicked to Zhao Yunlan, then honed back in on Shen Wei.

"I ask Heipao-daren to reconsider," he ground out, “Detective Zhao hasn’t received enough training yet.”

Zhao Yunlan grit his teeth, swallowing the denial rising up his throat. He’d accomplished many things, collected plenty of merits and achievements in his career so far. At twenty-eight, he was far from a new recruit, and his father’s lack of confidence galled him.

“He is partnered with Da Qing,” Shen Wei rebutted calmly. “He is investigating the creature that murdered Lu Ruomei. To keep him ignorant when he is already involved is foolish.”

“It will make him a target,” Zhao Xinci objected.

“They’ve already set their sights on him,” Shen Wei disagreed. “Making him the liaison now will let them know we won’t allow his death to be swept under the rug.”

Zhao Yunlan startled, glancing at Shen Wei from the corners of his eyes. He had suspected him of ulterior motives, of course, requesting to work closely with Zhao Yunlan out of the blue. And maybe a small part of him had hoped it was because he enjoyed Zhao Yunlan's company, was drawn in by Zhao Yunlan's thinly veiled flirting. But the jaded side of him knew better, knew that more than likely politics were involved.

After all, Shen Wei had already wrung concessions out of his intractable, high-ranking father. And yet, none of them seemed to be for his own benefit. Zhao Yunlan couldn't help but wonder what he was up to.

Zhao Xinci sneered. “It will put him in direct contact with those wishing him harm as part of his duties, making it much easier for them to succeed!”

Shen Wei cocked his head, his piercing gaze levelled at Zhao Xinci. “You assume one of my kind is behind this.”

"Who else would have the motive?" Zhao Xinci shot back. "You said it yourself, the killer my son is chasing is one of your kind."

"I said no such thing." Shen Wei started to sound irritated, adjusting his glasses. Zhao Yunlan guessed he wore them to appear more harmless. "Do not let your preconceptions blind you to the true danger your family is in, Director Zhao. You have many enemies who might wish to get back at you through your son."

"Many of which are creatures of the night, just like you are," Zhao Xinci returned blandly, folding his hands in front of him. 

"Aiya," Zhao Yunlan interjected, hoping to defuse the tension. He didn't believe either of them would give in anytime soon. "Dad, surely there's no harm in granting Heipao-daren's request? As he said, I'm already involved. At least I'm forewarned now." He quirked his eyebrows up and arranged his face into an imploring expression. "Compared to what else he could've asked for, promoting your son to a prestigious position is the least evil, no?"

The reminder of the life debt owed seemed to shake Zhao Xinci out of his stubborn refusal. He eyed Zhao Yunlan with a dark scowl, clearly unhappy with the entire situation, but when he turned his sharp gaze back to Shen Wei, he inclined his head in agreement.

"Very well, Heipao-daren. Have it your way."

A self-satisfied smirk tugged at the corners of Shen Wei’s mouth, before he ducked his head and rearranged his face into a neutral expression.

“Then, I will leave first. Director Zhao.” Shen Wei nodded politely, then turned to Zhao Yunlan, who met his unfathomable gaze with arched brows. “Detective Zhao, should your investigations turn anything up, you know where to find me.”

Zhao Yunlan pulled out his lollipop and grinned at Shen Wei, waggling his eyebrows. “During your office hours, I presume.”

Shen Wei huffed, a quietly amused noise. “Precisely.”

With another nod goodbye, he turned on his heel and stalked down the corridor. The lights flickered, and in a moment of impenetrable darkness, he vanished. Zhao Yunlan whistled to himself, impressed.

His father, on the other hand, seemed indifferent to whatever trick the vampire pulled. When he turned to look at Zhao Yunlan, his face was drawn into a grim frown.

"What did you do?"

Zhao Yunlan sucked on his lollipop, very much longing for a smoke to get him through this conversation. Countering such accusations always led to more arguing rather than less. He bit down on the white stick between his teeth, hard. Still, he couldn't quite bite back the sarcasm clawing up his throat.

"My job." Zhao Yunlan met Zhao Xinci's unimpressed glare with an insouciant grin. Then he dropped it, letting his expression sober. "I was chasing down leads on why the Lu Ruomei case was ruled an accident before the investigation finished. At the time, I suspected Professor Shen to be involved." Zhao Yunlan arched an eyebrow at his father. "Imagine my surprise when I ran into him tonight in the middle of a bloodbath."

Zhao Xinci's mouth tightened at the reminder. "Why were you at that bar in the first place?"

Zhao Yunlan shrugged half-heartedly. "While I was tracking down the bribes that went into closing Lu Ruomei's murder case early, I ran into some clerk — Gao something, Gao Tian...yu? — who let slip Professor Shen would be at the Blood Moon bar." Zhao Yunlan spread his arms in a so you see gesture. "And thus I owe my life to a mysteriously titled vampire."

Zhao Xinci ignored his not so subtle request for more information, zeroing in on a different detail. "Surname Gao, you said."

Zhao Yunlan huffed in annoyance. "Any relation to Minister Gao, do you think?"

"I'll look into it." Zhao Xinci's scowl darkened. "Do not continue to search the ministry for leads on your case. Either hunt the monster down or give up. That's an order, Detective."

The logical part of him knew his father was simply worried and bad at showing it. Still, Zhao Yunlan bristled, clicking the lollipop stick against his teeth. "Yes, sir."

His father gave him a stiff nod. They walked out of the ministry together in heavy silence. Zhao Xinci's driver held the door open for them, but Zhao Yunlan took a polite step back.

"I'll get home on my own, thanks."

"Don't be foolish," Zhao Xinci snapped, waving him in impatiently. "Besides, your mother constantly complains that you do not visit enough. You can stay the night."

"I've been busy," Zhao Yunlan protested, even as he surrendered to the inevitable. "Police work takes a lot of odd hours."

"When did she ever care for that excuse?" Zhao Xinci returned dryly, his face twisting in sympathy.

As the door closed, Zhao Yunlan could have sworn he saw something move in the shadows. Then clouds covered the moon, and even squinting didn't help make out anything in the darkness. The driver started the car, the rumble of the motor snapping him out of his concentration, the sudden turning on of the headlights ruining his night vision. They illuminated the parking lot, revealing nothing to be there. Zhao Yunlan sighed tiredly, rubbing at his eyes. Just a figment of his imagination.

From the roof, red eyes watched unblinkingly as the car drove off.