Shen Wei had always assumed that he was used to pain. He’d even told as much to Zhao Yunlan at one point, which in hindsight wasn’t exactly the best idea, but what he had been trying to convey back then was that having lived for as long as he had, Shen Wei has experienced numerous kinds of pain and learnt how to deal with it.
From physical pain of a broken bone or a pierced muscle, to the excruciating pain of watching his beloved be torn away from him by a wormhole, not knowing if he would ever see him again, Shen Wei has survived a lot. Slicing his vein open had been but a minor inconvenience.
Unfortunately, life had a way of surprising even him, introducing new and unexpected sources of suffering.
Like this conference.
On paper, it sounded like a perfectly sound idea. A year after the Dixing crisis, organizing a joint conference of scholars from Haixing, Dixing and Yashou tribes seemed to be a wonderful way of building a bridge between the peoples, of sharing knowledge and worldviews, of broadening horizons and deepening the friendships.
That’s what it was supposed to be. Why Shen Wei was even here.
But this was not an academic conference.
This was torture.
“… and that’s why it can be safely assumed that only thanks to Haixing influence can we speak of Dixing literature at all, making it a derivative genre. Therefore, since it is, essentially, Haixing literature with slightly different motifs, Haixing literary criticism is sufficient as means of analysing and interpreting Dixing works,” Professor Young finished, looking at his audience with satisfaction, revelling in the enthusiastic applause.
Shen Wei couldn’t understand it. The man had only used his own works as sources, clearly didn’t hear about Dixing epistolary genres, yes, multiple epistolary genres, was not aware of the existence of Dixing laments and had two typos in the names of Dixing authors. Somehow, the last one was the most insulting.
And the self-proclaimed expert hadn’t even noticed. Shen Wei did. And he was here for the Biology panel.
Professor Young was what Shen Wei always warned his students not to become, he was a…
“Pompous, entitled ass,” Zhao Yunlan murmured next to him, and although those weren’t the words Shen Wei himself would use, he was grateful that Zhao Yunlan would. They certainly conveyed the general opinion Shen Wei had of the man.
Zhao Yunlan’s presence at the conference was rather expected, as the Chief of the SID it was his business to ensure that there would be no incident that would set the relations between three nations a few hundred years backwards, but it was a nice surprise when Zhao Yunlan decided to accompany him to all the panels Shen Wei wanted to attend. He was well aware that the majority of talks was boring for him, and yet Zhao Yunlan has not left him yet.
Zhao Yunlan’s presence was always welcome, but now it was a godsend.
Professor Young replied to questions with the grace of a man whose ego required an additional room in the hotel, and Shen Wei decided to move his attention to his companion.
“I wonder if I should give him some of the books I have at home, so that he can see how wrong he is,” he said and Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows at him.
“I don’t know, you will probably make an enemy for life. This is not a man who wants to learn and share knowledge, this is a man that wants to be listened to,” he replied, fiddling with the lollipop stick in his mouth and distracting Shen Wei a bit. Just a tad.
“It’s almost like a hostage situation, he is well overtime now but he refuses to let us leave and have a break. Maybe I should intervene, as a police officer…”Zhao Yunlan added, a mischievous glint in his eye. Normally, Shen Wei would tell him to drop it, but now he found himself tempted.
Finally, Professor Young let them go, to the visible relief of the chairwoman who had made several attempts to stop him from taking additional questions and finally releasing his unwilling listeners.
“That’s one way of having a captive audience,” Zhao Yunlan said when they were getting coffee from the break room and a girl standing behind them in the line let out a surprised laugh.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to eavesdrop, I just…” she stammered out when they turned to face her.
“No need to apologize,” Shen Wei assured her but instead of relaxing, the girl stiffened even more.
“I’m so sorry, Hei, no, Professor Shen!” She exclaimed and oh, she was a Dixingren! That would explain it.
“I’m here as a scholar, not in any other capacity,” he told her gently, and she nodded frantically.
“And you? Are you a listener or do you have your own research to present?” Zhao Yunlan asked, and the girl turned to look at him, finally loosening up a bit.
Zhao Yunlan had this amazing effect on people that they opened up to him quite easily. Aside from those who really wanted to kill him the moment he opened his mouth, admittedly. Zhao Yunlan’s charm worked in mysterious ways, he was either the most charismatic or the most annoying man alive. In Shen Wei’s case, he managed to be both at the same time quite often.
The girl, named Hua Xiaoman turned out to be a researcher in her own right and was actually due to give her presentation on ancient instruments of Dixing during the upcoming panel on the Dixingren History.
While the girl outlined the major points of her findings the three of them have successfully migrated towards a table and Shen Wei got invested in the topic of Dixing music because this was something he had definitely missed – there was a handful of lullabies he could recall from his childhood and maybe two songs that the soldiers sang by the fire during the war, but apparently he had been asleep for the majority of the development of music in Dixing and it was fascinating.
After waking up he had been mostly concerned with Haixing and with upholding the treaty and even Haixing culture went somehow unnoticed by him, meeting Zhao Yunlan had changed that somewhat because the man went around singing and quoting movies, so by osmosis Shen Wei had some vague ideas about Haixing culture at least, but he wasn’t aware of Dixing’s.
“… I mean, I will be talking about it at length during the presentation, so I wouldn’t want to spoil it now, but I think some of the artists of the last decade might have been Dixingren in hiding, or at least came in contact with Dixing music at some point, the similarities are too great,” Hua Xiaoman was saying when Zhao Yunlan perked up to look above Shen Wei’s shoulder.
“Be right back,” he said quietly and sent them both an apologetic smile which Shen Wei didn’t believe in the slightest. Zhao Yunlan didn’t do apologetic, which meant he was up to something.
Shen Wei weighed his options.
On one hand, Hua Xiaoman’s research was a pleasurable topic to talk about and seeing actual Dixingren scholar made Shen Wei’s heart grow with happiness, not to mention the girl’s enthusiasm. On the other, Zhao Yunlan had a proclivity to get in trouble, so letting him out of sight might result in him being kidnapped, or in a mortal fight with a serial killer and/or wild youchu. Then again, the odds of any of these happening at a conference at the Dragon City, so close to the SID headquarters were rather low. But still. It was Zhao Yunlan.
However. Zhao Yunlan told him repeatedly that he wanted Shen Wei to enjoy the conference. So with a heavy heart and a sense of foreboding, Shen Wei turned his attention back to Hua Xiaoman, though his eyes kept on straying towards Zhao Yunlan’s retreating back.
He hasn’t left the break room at least, instead he approached a circle around one of the professors and cheerfully joined in the discussion. Slightly calmed down by the sight, Shen Wei allowed himself to concentrate on the excited postgrad telling him about Dixing harps.
That was his mistake.
After five minutes of relative peace and quiet, there was a shout from the corner Zhao Yunlan disappeared to. Shen Wei and Hua Xiaoman turned towards the source of the sound, just like every single occupant of the room.
“How dare you!” Professor Young roared again, to amplify the effect, it seemed. “I have never been so insulted in my life!”
Zhao Yunlan, the intended recipient of the enraged accusation only smiled wider, definitely taking it as a compliment, his hands in his jeans’s pockets and his posture relaxed.
“I just asked you a fair question about your sources, it’s what you do at conferences like this, right?” he replied, and Shen Wei was torn between going to him to make him stop and staying at the table to enjoy Professor Young’s humiliation.
“My sources are all perfectly…” the professor started, but Zhao Yunlan didn’t let him finish.
“…Written by you,” he interjected and took out a lollypop out of his pocket. He started to fight with the wrapper, very carefully ignoring the fuming man in front of him.
“I am the only expert in the field, who else should I quote?” The Professor finally growled, his face red and his hands trembling. He probably wasn’t used to anyone questioning his methods, but of course Zhao Yunlan would. When fates had been handing out self-preservation skills, he had been probably busy charming other souls in the line.
“Oh, I don’t know, actual Dixing writers? Or, maybe, Dixing archivists, if you really fear meeting people who actually can write something that doesn’t bore the reader to death.” Zhao Yunlan replied, merciless, and Shen Wei didn’t know it was possible to fall in love with someone even harder but today was full of surprises.
Professor Young spluttered and left the room without another word, leaving behind only his offended pride and Zhao Yunlan, who was now surrounded by a bunch of starry-eyed students impressed by him talking back to the professor.
“Chief Zhao is something else…” Hua Xiaoman mused and Shen Wei nodded absent-mindedly, his focus on Zhao Yunlan’s triumphant smile.
Even after all this time, Shen Wei wasn’t used to anyone fighting his battles for him and some part of him was now busy berating him for not doing that himself, for not taking a stand against this pompous, prejudiced man, but a larger part, the one Zhao Yunlan so happily nurtured, was simply happy. Because Zhao Yunlan did this for him. For all the Dixingren as well, but Shen Wei knew his partner long enough to realize that Zhao Yunlan had picked up on his irritation with the man and decided to act. For Shen Wei.
Zhao Yunlan looked up from his adorning fans and their eyes met across the room.
Zhao Yunlan smiled and all Shen Wei could do was to smile back.
“Now, this is the lecture I was waiting for!” Zhao Yunlan whispered excitedly, sitting down next to Shen Wei. He had the conference programme in his hand and Shen Wei realized it probably was his since he was the guest speaker, but he couldn’t recall seeing it after it was delivered along with the book of abstracts and his nametag. Well, apparently it had encountered Zhao Yunlan and got promptly lost in the chaos that followed the man. Still, Shen Wei supposed he should have seen it while cleaning up their house, yet he didn’t. Nor had he seen the book of abstracts, he was too preoccupied with his own presentation to realize he didn’t know who else was supposed to appear.
There were very few of his colleagues from the DCU in attendance, mostly because a lot of them got arrested for illegal experiments for the Ministry, so the majority of participants Shen Wei didn’t know personally; he definitely should have checked the programme. And yet he hadn’t because someone had always distracted him.
He turned to look at Zhao Yunlan to ask him about it, but the man was too busy looking at the screen in front of them.
That was suspicious.
Hua Xiaoman returned to her seat, her face radiating with happiness. She had every reason to be happy – her presentation was informative, well-researched and really engaging. She received an enthusiastic response from the audience, Dixingren, Yashou and Haixingren alike. A young professor from the Flower Tribe leaned forward from his seat to talk to her about a joint research into the instruments of the Alliance period. Shen Wei smiled softly. This was what this conference was about, this was what it was meant for.
He turned right to say as much to Zhao Yunlan and saw the unholy glee on his lover’s face, his eyes glued to the screen.
That didn’t bode well.
Shen Wei turned towards the screen.
‘Hei Pao Shi: Dixingren hero or a myth?’ the title of the presentation proclaimed, a strange drawing of a man in black robes decorating the right margin.
Shen Wei blinked.
The title did not disappear.
“Ah, Xiao Wei, loosen up. Let’s see how the history remembers you!” Zhao Yunlan whispered right into his ear and despite his irritation, Shen Wei could still feel his ears turning red.
He took a deep breath and leaned against the chair.
“…To conclude my presentation, it seems that ‘Hei Pao Shi’ was a title of a mythical hero, bestowed upon ancient Dixingren leaders who proved worthy of it, based on their merits. The disappearance of ‘Hei Pao Shi’ from the chronicles for ten thousand years, and re-emergence at the time of crisis when Haixing-Dixing conflict was on the rise, can be explained only by the correlation between the title and the political situation of Dixing. Like Western King Arthur, ‘Hei Pao Shi’ is evoked back in the time of need, whenever his name might be used as inspiration, propaganda, or, as was the case in the last decade, as a cautionary tale to discourage young Dixingren from committing crimes,” the speaker, Doctor Cheng, finished and Shen Wei felt Zhao Yunlan’s hand on his own, squeezing his knuckles gently.
He hasn’t even noticed that his fingers were so tightly grasping the material of his slacks. He hasn’t noticed many things because his mind was preoccupied with making sense of the fact that his whole life was apparently a part of a national narrative. Of the Regent’s propaganda.
The surprised and terrified glances the Dixingren members of the audience sent his way didn’t help. He did say he was here in a professional capacity and none other, he did say that. And yet the urge to appear here in his robes was there. A cautionary tale! How did these people call themselves scholars?
At least this one didn’t have any typos in his presentation, but the thought didn’t make Shen Wei feel any better.
“Darling, should I tell him how very real you were yesterday when we…” Thankfully, Zhao Yunlan trailed off when Shen Wei glared at him.
“Oh, Xiao Wei,” He whispered instead, his voice so fond that despite his anger, Shen Wei felt himself calm down just a bit.
The chairman thanked Doctor Cheng for his ‘enlightening’ presentation and announced that this was the time for questions.
Quite predictably, Zhao Yunlan’s unoccupied hand was in the air before the man even finished, his other still covering Shen Wei’s.
“Oh, we have got our first question, yes, Mr…?” The chairman only now noticed the distinct lack of a nametag on Zhao Yunlan’s jacket.
“Zhao Yunlan, Chief of the SID. I was wondering, Doctor Cheng, how do you explain our numerous encounters with Hei Pao Shi? We do have actual extradition procedures that required His Eminence’s signature, we have also encountered him during several of our investigations. Would a legend have actual jurisdiction over prisoners?” He asked, his falsely cheerful tone bordering on hostile.
Doctor Cheng frowned, as if the idea of SID offended him on a personal level and Zhao Yunlan’s existence was beneath him.
“I would suggest, Chief Zhao, that maybe some official got this title to make him more important, a more apt partner for your department, but I am sure none of your officers actually assumed you were dealing with an ancient being?” The Doctor replied, his voice full of condescending contempt and Shen Wei could feel his own fingers digging into his tights. No one should be allowed to speak to Zhao Yunlan like that. Especially not some upstart doctor who had no idea what he was talking about.
Maybe he should actually make his identity known, to inspire these self-important people to actually learn, but before he could move, Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth again.
“Far from me questioning your expertise, Doctor Cheng, but to be quite fair I can’t recall you using our archives nor looking at the documents I’ve mentioned. Supposing that Hei Pao Shi is, in fact, an ancient being and an actual person, your whole presentation, though certainly well-researched, might be dismissive of his accomplishments or even downright offensive.” There was a murmur in the audience and some people turned to look at Zhao Yunlan curiously.
Doctor Cheng reddened. He was a perfect picture of a man who certainly didn’t look into the SID archives and hadn’t even thought about it. Normally, Shen Wei would be stopping Zhao Yunlan at this point, for his own peace of mind, but there was something satisfying in watching the scholar squirm.
The doctor started to stammer something about stipends and SID being a police unit not a research facility, and the chairman looked positively murderous, glaring in Zhao Yunlan’s direction. Well, Zhao Yunlan couldn’t find an international incident to stop so he decided to cause one on his own, it seemed. Shen Wei should probably ask him to leave the man alone. Maybe five more minutes?
“Well, do we have any other questions, possibly from people from this field of research?” The chairman inquired and Shen Wei wasn’t surprised when Zhao Yunlan’s hand went up yet again.
At this point the entire room was watching the showdown between the Chief of SID and Doctor Cheng of the Phoenix City with an avid interest and no one seemed ready to disrupt it with any questions of their own.
The chairman groaned.
Shen Wei should intervene. Zhao Yunlan picking a fight with one scholar was rather to be expected, but with two? Xingdu Bureau wouldn’t be happy with him. In fact, Zhao Xinci would probably summon his son to reprimand him officially. Shen Wei should be a mature person and stop his partner from causing an incident. He most certainly should.
He just didn’t want to.
“Yes, Chief Zhao?” The chairman prompted in defeat and Zhao Yunlan plastered on his most annoying smile.
“Could you go back to the part about the Alliance, you know, the Dixing, Haixing and the Yashou fighting against the rebels, could you elaborate on Hei Pao Shi’s part in that?”
Doctor Cheng narrowed his eyes.
“No, I could not,” he replied stiffly,” if you are interested in the Alliance, my book on the subject will be available next month,” he added, very clearly hoping this would be the end of it. But Zhao Yunlan was dauntless.
“Oh, then just as a preview for us folks interested in the book, how would you comment on the relationship between General Kunlun and Hei Pao Shi?”
Shen Wei looked at him sharply, ready to chastise him for asking something that bordered on their privacy, when Doctor Cheng laughed out loud, drawing Shen Wei’s attention back to his person.
“General Kunlun? You sure like your legends, Chief Zhao. There was no general like this, unless you believe in magic hurricanes that steal beloved leaders away?” He mocked and this was it.
Shen Wei raised his hand.
Zhao Yunlan has been having the time of his life at the conference so far. The morning panel where Shen Wei was a guest speaker was obviously about Bioengineering and Biology in general so Zhao Yunlan didn’t understand much of it, but watching the love of his life talk about his passions for half an hour or so and then answer all the questions with this small, happy smile on his face was worth it.
The later panels, those were fun too, if only because they featured a lot of old, stuffy men whose egos were easily wounded and Zhao Yunlan sure loved annoying people like these. There was of course Professor Young who was a dirtbag, but considering how offended he was when he left the conference building, Dragon City would probably not see him again. Good riddance.
There were a few young, upcoming Dixingren researchers and listening to them was a pleasure, though Zhao Yunlan’s favourite was the presentation by a member of the Snake Tribe – mostly because it was about the history and effects of Yashou beverages. Hua Xiaoman was also a lucky find and it was great to see Shen Wei light up as she spoke about her topic. Now that the world was at a relative peace Shen Wei could concentrate on what he’d loved the most – learning, and Zhao Yunlan adored seeing him like that, his eyes sparking with interest, with happiness at gathering knowledge.
Still, there was one presentation Zhao Yunlan had been really looking forward to, for selfish purposes.
He purposely had hidden conference materials from Shen Wei because if he had been ready for the presentation about Hei Pao Shi his reactions wouldn’t be as raw and genuine as they had been.
And it had been fun to watch Shen Wei squirm in his seat and look in increasing disbelief at the nonsense doctor Cheng was spouting, especially when the man got to the poems about Hei Pao Shi, written long after Shen Wei had succumbed to his millennia long slumber, and interpreting what was clearly a hero-worship into symbolical work of self-discovery and patriotism.
It really had been fun until the end of the presentation, when the fool cheerfully assured everyone that such fantastical figure as Hei Pao Shi couldn’t be real because come on, real people weren’t so selfless and strong.
That was when the whole thing stopped being funny.
Because while people being hilariously wrong about Hei Pao Shi were, admittedly, funny, dismissing everything Shen Wei had done as ‘pure fantasy’, that was not allowed.
So maybe he had been less than respectful in his questions to Doctor Cheng than he should have been, but that absolute moron had the audacity to insult his Shen Wei. What was one academic scandal in the face of this transgression?
He had asked about Kunlun to further expose Doctor Cheng’s lack of knowledge, because even Zhao Yunlan had read texts about Kunlun back when Shen Wei had been still trying to hide this from him, so he knew that these sources existed, he was also sure that Doctor Cheng hadn’t seen them.
He was about to destroy this man’s entire career, when Doctor Cheng dismissed General Kunlun as another literary fantasy and Shen Wei went feral.
He wasn’t aggressive, he wasn’t even shouting.
But his calm, precise tone dripped with promises of violence and Zhao Yunlan had to fight back a shiver, though not caused by fear. Oh no, far from it.
“… Not to mention the chronicles, accessible in the Royal Library of Dixing, as every serious Dixing researcher is well aware. While the chronicler is rather prone to poetry when describing the leaders of the Alliance, he is generally conscious of dates and General Kunlun’s appearance and disappearance are well-recorded, as are the battles he took part in,” Shen Wei was saying and Doctor Cheng looked like he desperately wanted to run away but couldn’t because pure malice radiating from Shen Wei kept him in the spot.
“Then of course we have Fu You’s diaries, which you must’ve read, Doctor Cheng, as an expert in the field, and you have to agree that while many parts regarding her private life were edited out, her account of Kunlun’s presence in the Alliance’s headquarters is rather detailed and corresponds with the chronicler’s.” Zhao Yunlan would like to know how Shen Wei was so well-informed on the topic, but his braincells were busy fanboying over Shen Wei, or rather over Hei Pao Shi in Professor Shen’s clothing, ripping Doctor Cheng’s reputation to shreds.
He wasn’t sure if he has ever witnessed anything hotter in his life.
“Kunlun was also a prominent figure in Ma Gui’s letters, which are preserved at the Yashou Reserve, I am surprised this particular source was not mentioned in your presentation, especially since these letters were the most prominent inspiration for The Ballad of the Mountain Spirits by Han Ye you’ve discussed in your paper,” Shen Wei continued mercilessly and Zhao Yunlan wanted him to never stop.
Doctor Cheng was close to tears and would probably run to the hills the moment Shen Wei’s air of authority allowed him to escape.
“To conclude, I find your thesis to be faulty at best…” which was the academia for ‘horrendously wrong, you absolute moron’, Zhao Yunlan knew, he’s listened to Shen Wei and his colleagues enough times. “… But I have great hopes for your book, I’m sure it is more detailed and will showcase your meticulous research,” Shen Wei finished with this particular fake, polite smile of his that did not reach his eyes. Those burned with barely concealed fury.
Zhao Yunlan was sure his knees were too weak to support him now. He didn’t even attempt to stand up.
Thankfully, no one paid him any mind, because the moment Shen Wei stopped speaking the conference room erupted in applause.
Doctor Cheng decided to make use of the commotion and ran away from the room. The chairman didn’t even try to stop him, probably re-thinking all of his life choices, or maybe planning to skip the city along Doctor Cheng.
Shen Wei took a few deep breaths and turned to look at Zhao Yunlan, his expression turning sheepish.
“Yunlan…” he started but Zhao Yunlan shushed him immediately.
“Don’t even think about apologizing. That was the hottest thing I’ve ever witnessed and if you do not take me home right this second I might commit an act of public indecency.” Shen Wei blushed at that and for a second Zhao Yunlan was afraid he was going to argue, but he just nodded and got up to say his goodbyes.
They would miss the panel on the cultural significance of the Heavenly Pillar but Zhao Yunlan thought it for the best. They didn’t need to listen to half-baked scholars and their hot takes on Ye Zun being a poor meow meow, and that seemed to be a very probable direction this conference might be going.
Besides, they had more pressing matters to attend to.
Zhao Yunlan’s brain came back fully online the next morning. The night before he was preoccupied with different things (like Shen Wei, Shen Wei and Shen Wei, just to mix things up), so it took him a while, but when he was reminiscencing about the previous day, his single braincell that was not busy ogling Shen Wei disrespectfully, recalled the question he had had at some point during the academic equivalent of Doctor Cheng’s public execution.
“Xiao Wei, you are not a literature professor, how did you know so many texts about Kunlun?” He asked in the middle of breakfast and was rewarded with Shen Wei’s bashful blush. Oh no, he didn’t, he had destroyed a man with this knowledge and Zhao Yunlan needed to know why he had it in the first place. Being cute was not going to help him. Not this time.
“Come on, tell me or I will make some truly outrageous guesses,” he threatened and Shen Wei gave him his usual, fondly exasperated look.
Then he sighed heavily.
“Knew you will have to defend my honour at some point in the future?”
Shen Wei blushed harder.
Zhao Yunlan took that as a cue to abandon his plate and his chair, and move to invade Shen Wei’s personal bubble. That always seemed to break Shen Wei’s resistance a bit.
Shen Wei sighed again, with a feeling, and closed his eyes.
“I just missed you after waking up. A lot. So I read everything I could about you to remind myself you were real,” he finally confessed, ducking his head a bit.
“Oh, babe,” Zhao Yunlan whispered and leaned in to kiss his ridiculous, badass and very real, thank you, ancient being.
For some empirical evidence.