The mission shouldn’t have gone to shit like this.
That didn’t stop everything from blowing up in Zhou Zishu’s face, but it beat stating that this was not the plan.
Normally Tian Chuang members were highly skilled and careful operatives that wouldn’t make mistakes like this. The fact that things had truly gone so badly was alarming. Zhou Zishu was convinced he had trained his men better. Nobody should have been tipped off that Tian Chuang was going to infiltrate this complex tonight. They had planted inside men weeks ago. They had thoroughly tailed and surveilled the Minister and his household for weeks. The timing of the attack was also meticulous, with most of the defences lowered given that the Minister was away.
Their target was his daughter, involved in a cyber scam that Tian Chuang wanted to get into. It would be good to know what someone so high up could be hiding, for leverage purposes. Not everything had to end in death. The girl didn’t know it yet, but the boy she was meeting tonight was part of the ring and Tian Chuang needed that information to sway a recently proposed policy. There could be even more useful information, if only they could get it.
Of course, someone somewhere must have slipped up, because there were two - no, three - bullet wounds currently in Zhou Zishu’s shoulders and upper chest. He panted; the feeling of metal and bone grating against each other meant that a bullet had lodged in a broken rib. That explained his breathing difficulties. Fuck.
His men were scattered throughout the complex, most on sentry duty. Or they had been, before someone had been spotted and the guards still stationed started firing. The chatter from their radios indicated that they were confused but trained well enough not to panic, aiming to either kill or capture anyone they could. His men needed to leave. A couple had been eliminated already, grunts chasing the pop of bullets before silence rang in place of their reports.
The sound of massive amounts of shattering glass on the far side of the main house made the leader of Tian Chuang wince. The short screams following the noise meant at least one person had either gone through a window and ended up impaled on bits of glass, or had been thrown down into it during hand-to-hand combat. At least if it was a scream, it was probably one of the guards and not one of his own men, who were trained in numerous ways to resist torture without a sound. Then again, with this clusterfuck, it could well be some new recruit too green to control himself. Either way, if the glass hadn’t killed the poor bastard, the ones converging on his location would soon finish the job.
Another bang came from behind him, the gunfire loud in the stillness of the night in the upscale neighbourhood. The nearest neighbour was far away. Luxury offered plenty of green, empty space in this smaller town, but the quiet night was still violently disturbed. The spy tracked the sounds of the gunshot across the building and almost missed the warnings around himself. Two more bangs, much closer, dragged him back abruptly
Zhou Zishu pressed his hand to the fourth and fifth bullet holes, stabbing the guard responsible in the throat. The dark suited figure fell, eyes staring sightlessly as Zhou Zishu swept past, tactical pants barely rustling against the fallen body. The corridor was dark, the power cut. Patches of moonlight and the orange sodium glow from the street lamp outside filtered through the skylights. The result was a patchwork that could expose Zhou Zishu and hide his enemies, and he’d be none the wiser until it was too late. It was hard to tell if the doorways were opening or if Zhou Zishu was finally making his way out without more surprises.
As the stairs came into view, Zhou Zishu ensured his men were retreating. He listened to the minimal noise on the comms and used it to track the positions of his more vulnerable, less trained people. Hopefully they would bail and regroup at the appointed locations. The number of casualties he heard over his earpiece was staggering for such an easy mission. It was unclear whose side had been more heavily injured when all he could hear was the thump of bodies colliding and the whistle of needles being darted into unsuspecting idiots. Since he only had comms for his own unit, there was no way for the leader of Tian Chuang to tell if the mansion’s guards were suffering any casualties of their own. More bangs from the lower floor meant the guards were definitely aware of intruders and were not waiting for answers.
The stairs were steep and turned the corner, making it a blind spot. The absolute worst thing that Zhou Zishu could face right now. They had eschewed having someone hack into the security features, trusting their skills, but a familiar voice in his ear telling him if the coast was clear would be so much more useful than the tiny mirror he slid out.
Five bodies, at least two of which were Tian Chuang, and an open door to the large garden. As long as whoever was responsible for the unconscious and dead bodies between him and the exit wasn’t around anymore, Zhou Zishu could make it. He considered checking for pulses among the fallen, but there was nothing he could do if he found one. By now the blood soaking his tactical shirt and vest made it stick unpleasantly to his wounds as he tried to move quickly. Prying the cloth away, Zhou Zishu moved more freely as he dashed to the door, not stopping to see if there was someone outside.
The bush he hid behind let him look around, cursing the complete failure of this mission. When Zhou Zishu couldn’t get up again on his first attempt, he lowered his head. Pulling out his phone, the personal one he kept on him at all times and had personally made sure was untraceable, he texted one of the two contacts.
Hoping that he could make it to Da Wu before things got truly bad, Zhou Zishu moved. The Great Shaman of Nan’jiang was a miracle worker when it came to medical interventions on behalf of Zhou Zishu and his disciples from Siji Manor. Sometimes all that stood between death and his men was Wu Xi. It looked like tonight, he’d stand between the envoys and Zhou Zishu.
The blood dripped enough to leave a trail no matter how he hid or ran among the varied landscape features. There was little point in trying to remain discrete with how badly things had gone. The call to retreat was already sent and his surviving men scattered to regroup. Several houses down, lights were on and the distant sound of sirens came.
They were out of time.
A tick. A boom. The whoosh of an accelerant assisted flame. Time was truly up. Zhou Zishu noticed the licks of orange through the boards of the shed he was using to climb over the hedge and pushed away. He prayed the branches were stable enough to hold him the last bit of his climb, since the shed was no longer viable. Reaching up and then laying atop the hedge to keep his profile low, Zhou Zishu rested a moment. With his weight spread out, the hedge held him steady. Out of breath, he considered the likelihood of one of his men starting this fire to distract the authorities, and then remembered the absolute shitshow the whole operation had become. Another explosion of hot air flared as the shed roof beside him caved in. The heat made him cover his head as he rolled off the top of the hedge and to the ground below.
The leader of Tian Chuang kept his head covered, ignoring the ringing in his ears. His mental map of the area should still be accurate despite all his blood loss, and the woods just beyond would give enough cover if he could make it there in one piece. The dark bushes along the slope hid the blood stains, rolling him this way and that on his way into the cover of a city-managed forest. When he finally stopped some meters into the tree line, everything ached. Lying on his back, winded, bits of leaves and twigs sticking sickeningly into places that shouldn’t be open like they were, Zhou Zishu took a moment to breathe, thinking of his people out there, hidden and fleeing like rats.
Those that made it out, anyway. The death toll was high this time and the loss of so many people who relied on him was a heavy weight on his chest. With blurry eyes, Zhou Zishu looked up at the figure above him. Maybe the boot was why everything felt so heavy. With no room to breathe, Zhou Zishu’s vision grew dark.
The flash of gunfire at close range barely registered as everything faded away.
Zhou Zishu had resigned himself to an afterlife of suffering, so the pain wracking his entire body did not surprise him. The faint voices somewhere above him seemed to react though, and things just went dark again.
Steady beeping, rickety metal wheels on tiled floors sticky with cleaning solution and a sharp smell told him he was in a hospital long before he could rouse himself enough to shift his hand. The IV dug into his elbow and pressed a bruise into already damaged skin.
That was unexpected.
Duan Pengju didn’t usually mess up at close range.
His struggle to take in more information didn’t go unnoticed, but Zhou Zishu didn’t really have time to study the person in the other bed in the ward. They looked kind of small…
“Can you lift your arm please?” The feeling of the sponge wiping away the sweat in his armpit was nice, even if the water had become lukewarm at this point. Of course, the humiliation of being unable to even wipe himself clean or dry did crush any pleasant feelings he might have had about the bathing. At least he didn’t stink so much of the antiseptic that used to stain his skin brown around his bullet wounds.
Seven of them. Seven pieces of metal that had exploded into his body and tried to end his life.
Seven chances to atone for the men he had lost over the years.
And it had been ripped from him by Da Wu and the surgeons.
A part of Zhou Zishu hated the fact that he was still alive. His closest friends hadn’t said anything about finding him, but Jing Beiyuan had slept in his bed with him when the nurses stopped their rounds for the night and couldn’t shoo him out anymore. He must have been pretty bad off if carefree Qi Ye chose to cuddle him in public.
‘Did I die on the table maybe? Or as they brought me here?’
The nurse bathing him lowered his arm, accidentally bumping one of the bullet wounds in his shoulder as he settled him back against the chair in the shower of the hospital room. The hiss of breath he couldn’t stop was enough to make the nurse wince, glancing up in apology as he made his way down to Zhou Zishu’s legs and made sure the scratches from the tumble down the hillside were cleaned around.
He would have to get his hands on his chart soon, if this hospital still used paper copies. He needed to know how much damage had been done to him and if he could still be a useful enough tool to survive his return to work. Maybe he should have just died there in the woods. Da Wu hadn’t said anything about how long his recovery would take and the doctors were never around when he was awake to ask.
Plotting how he would charm a pretty nurse into giving him the information he needed distracted him enough to ignore the indignity of the rest of his sponge bath, even the invasive parts. (It didn’t. But no one was there to see his shame and he could always kill the nurse later if needed.)
It took several more days, most of them spent drugged on painkillers and muscle relaxants, before Zhou Zishu managed to find out a bit more about his road to recovery. The first thing he learned was that his name on the files was Zhou Xu. Clever of his friend to pick that. The new identity also meant that when he got out of the hospital, he didn’t have to return to Tian Chuang. Zhou Zishu was declared dead on mission. It had taken several hours to come to terms with that. Jing Beiyuan had sat with him when he’d realized he could actually leave the Window of Heaven. Letting the organization he founded fade away from his control was never going to be easy. Zhou Xu expected to struggle with this for days, but had to agree with Beiyuan - there was definitely freedom in being dead.
The second was that he would need months of physical therapy to regain enough mobility for it to be considered a return to his previous state. Regardless of if he tried to come back from the dead or do something else with his life, his physical condition would definitely need time to fully recover.
The third was that he was sharing a semi private room in the long-term care ward of the hospital with a literal child.
Under most circumstances the hospital would not put a child with an invalid adult for such a long period of time, but apparently there was a rather complicated custody debate. The hospital staff were instructed by Child Services to make sure the teen was not in a room by himself or with other children who could be targeted. When Zhou Zi- Zhou Xu. When Zhou Xu had been awake enough to speak with his doctors, they had asked if he was alright acting as a sort of safety net for the child, making sure that no one tried to take him out of the hospital or otherwise threaten him. Looking at the weeks of recovery ahead, Zhou Xu agreed.
Keep an eye on the kid. Get better.
Then use his new identity to properly disappear once and for all.