Zhao Yunlan isn’t usually a morning person. He would like to say he also isn’t usually a person who lets themselves be goaded into things by their cat, but that would be a blatant lie, and while Zhao Yunlan is happy to blatantly lie to everyone else, he tries not to do it to himself.
At least early morning hiking includes a beautiful sunrise view and the fresh mountain air. Besides, it is good to get out of the city sometimes, whether it’s of his own volition or nominally because Da Qing had dared him to do this hike in a day. Zhao Yunlan raises his head into the sun, breathing deeply. Pauses. Sniffs again. If this is what fresh mountain air smells like, the poets have all lost their marbles. The gentle breeze carries a kind of sour reek with it, unpleasant but also deeply… weird. Zhao Yunlan can’t recall ever having smelled anything like it.
Someone should definitely investigate that.
Zhao Yunlan turns off the path, heading against the wind. With every step he takes, the smell grows stronger, until he’s forced to breathe through his mouth to avoid gagging. He almost stumbles over the first corpse, huge and hideous as it is. Zhao Yunlan stares down at it, eyes skipping over the green and yellow skin, the fangs and claws, the bulging tumours, and the oddly-coloured blood, which seems to be the cause of the stench. Whatever it is – and he’s never seen anything like it, not even since he joined the SID as its Chief – it doesn’t look friendly.
It’s also very decidedly dead, which is possibly for the best because Zhao Yunlan didn’t bring his dark energy gun to go on a hike and the thing is massive.
Stepping around the corpse, he looks around the small plateau, sprinkled with stone and dry grasses and the occasional bush. Eight more of these creatures are scattered around the area, and bits of ground look a little scorched. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t need to be a detective to recognise the scene of a fight.
In the stillness of the air, a small rustle from underneath the bush nearest his legs has Zhao Yunlan jumping. When nothing darts out to attack him, he cautiously moves forward, reasoning that anything small enough to hide under a bush probably can’t do him too much damage. He sinks onto his haunches and peers into the little hollow underneath the stiff branches.
A pair of slitted golden eyes peers back.
Maybe Zhao Yunlan should’ve recoiled, got out of striking distance, but the eyes aren’t unlike Da Qing’s, if a little more slanted and luminous, and he’s busy staring at the glimmering black scales and the delicate horns and the ruff of soft-looking fur that all add up to a very convincing yet utterly impossible conclusion.
Dragons aren’t real, right? Surely someone would’ve told him if dragons were real.
“Hello?” he ventures, trying not to be discomfited by the way the dragon is still staring fixedly at his face. If even a fraction of the tales about dragons are true, then he should probably assume intelligence.
The dragon blinks.
“Can I, uh, help you? My name is Zhao Yunlan.” The dragon has gone back to staring. Zhao Yunlan licks his dry lips. “If you’re just hanging out here that’s cool and I’m not going to give you any trouble, but there’s a load of stinking somethings out here and you might want to go somewhere with a little nicer ambience.”
The dragon’s small head tilts, as if considering. Then it uncoils slowly, half sliding half scrabbling out of the bush hollow.
Out of the shade of the bush, Zhao Yunlan finally gets a good look at the dragon. Its scales aren’t black, in fact, but a blue so deep to appear such, and the mane has little streaks of silver interspersed. Zhao Yunlan is so distracted by the play of light over scales that it takes him a moment to catch up to what his eyes are also seeing.
“You’re hurt!” he yelps, earning himself a look that’s so clearly reproachful that he almost has to laugh. Definitely intelligent.
And yes, all right, the dragon is probably well aware of the set of claw marks streaking down its side halfway between the head and the tail. The tail in question twitches a little under Zhao Yunlan’s scrutiny, curling in closer to the slender body. Da Qing would never let him hear the end of this if he ever admitted to it, but it’s terribly adorable.
The dragon makes a disgruntled noise.
“Sorry, sorry,” Zhao Yunlan says, holding up his hands. “I’ll stop staring. I bet you get that a lot. Are you in immediate danger from those wounds?”
The dragon very clearly shakes its head. Which is good, because Zhao Yunlan has exactly zero experience with dragon field medicine, and only has supplies that are meant for humans. The bandages would probably be safe?
He wonders whether this little dragon fought those nine beasts all alone and won, or if it had been an innocent bystander, collateral damage in someone else’s fight.
“Will you heal on your own?”
The dragon nods, fur ruffling – in emphasis maybe? He needs a Dragon to Haiyu dictionary.
“All right,” he says slowly, thinking it through as he speaks, “I can take you with me to somewhere safe where you can recuperate, or I can bring you somewhere of your choice. Or leave you here, I suppose.”
The last is tacked on with some reluctance – he wouldn’t feel good about leaving the injured dragon behind, and not only because it’s disarmingly cute. It’s a dragon. Kid Zhao Yunlan would be jumping about in glee. Adult Zhao Yunlan wants to know everything.
The dragon seems to consider that for a little while, eyes going half-lidded. Then it moves forward until a cool snout bumps gently into Zhao Yunlan’s dangling hand.
“Coming with me then?” Zhao Yunlan asks. His nose will certainly appreciate getting away from those corpses.
In reply, the dragon scrambles up Zhao Yunlan’s sleeve, agile despite its wounds, and before he can do more than start a little in surprise, it has curled itself up in the hood of his jacket above the backpack.
“Well, that’s one way to do it,” Zhao Yunlan mutters, only to yelp when that cool snout pokes him in the neck in reprisal. “All right, all right. Just have a nap back there or something. It’ll be a bit of hike to get back to the car.”
The dragon makes a chirping sound in reply. Zhao Yunlan can feel it moving about in his hood until it finds a comfortable position.
By the time he gets back to the trail, tiny trilling snores are keeping him company.
Zhao Yunlan is gladder than usual to close the door to his apartment behind himself. The dragon had not liked the car, clinging to Zhao Yunlan and making hissing noises the whole way. Zhao Yunlan supposes it makes sense – if you’re that small, anything as big and mechanical as a car must seem pretty monstrous, and dragons are known for their connection to nature.
Even better, Da Qing is out, so there won’t be any pointed questions about Zhao Yunlan adopting random creatures off the street (as if that hadn’t been what happened with Da Qing, more or less).
Mindful of his passenger, Zhao Yunlan drops the backpack by the door and kicks off his shoes. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the dragon’s gaze tracking through the apartment. There’s something distinctly unimpressed in those golden eyes, and Zhao Yunlan suddenly wonders if dragons have opinions about living space cleanliness. He’s inured to the clutter by now, but objectively speaking the place is… a mess. Ah well.
“All right,” he says, suddenly feeling a little awkward. He has no idea what one does to be a good host to a dragon. “Make yourself at home? I’ll set you on the bed.”
That being the least cluttered space, since Zhao Yunlan does sleep there more nights than not. Just about. He’s still a little relieved when the dragon chirps an agreement, and this time is braced for the peculiar sensation of the dragon climbing out of the hood and sidling down his arm until he lands on Zhao Yunlan’s washed-out duvet. It makes for an odd picture – the dragon, majestic despite its size, on the ordinary bed.
“Do you need anything?” Its wounds already seem fainter, healing at a pace Zhao Yunlan would’ve found outlandish for any other creature. “Water? Food?”
The dragon looks up at him with that unsettlingly intelligent and intense gaze and nods, then shakes its head. Five minutes of frantic rummaging later, Zhao Yunlan has found a bowl he’d consider clean and filled it with water.
He contemplates a spill on his bed, then decides that he hardly cares enough and sets it down on the duvet next to the dragon. It bobs its head at him, then cranes its head into the bowl to start lapping at the water.
Somehow, the dragon makes even that look dignified.
Zhao Yunlan still has a million questions, plenty of which he could reformulate into yes/no queries, but once the dragon has drunk its fill, it blinks sleepily and curls up at the edge of his bed. Whether for an easy exit or because it’s courteously leaving him space on the other side, Zhao Yunlan can’t begin to guess.
It barely takes a minute for the damnably cute trilling snores to start up again. Zhao Yunlan aimlessly stands in the middle of his flat for a while longer, staring at the dragon fast asleep on his bedspread. His life is seriously weird, sometimes.
It’s still a little early for sleep, but the dragon looks cosy and Zhao Yunlan had an early morning, so he shrugs to himself and sheds another layer of clothing before carefully settling on the other side of the bed. Far enough away that he won’t accidentally squish the dragon by rolling over in his sleep. Hopefully.
Except once he’s got comfortable, the dragon’s tail sneaks closer and loosely wraps around his arm. Zhao Yunlan stares down at dark blue scales, far softer than they look. They stand out starkly against his pale skin.
He doesn’t know what any of this means.
Despite his whirling thoughts, he sleeps better than he has in recent memory, as if the dragon radiates some kind of field of calm, enveloping them both. That is, except for the bit where Zhao Yunlan wakes to a commotion in the middle of the night, opening his eyes just in time to see a bristling Da Qing take a swipe at the dragon from the floor by the bed, the dragon hiss back in affront, and then there’s a miniature raincloud hanging in the middle of Zhao Yunlan’s apartment, raining fat droplets on Da Qing’s back and nowhere else. Da Qing howls in outrage and beats a galloping retreat. The raincloud vanishes and Zhao Yunlan locks eyes with a very smug-looking dragon.
The dragon definitely has sleeping magic, because there’s no way Zhao Yunlan would’ve gone back to sleep after that display so quickly otherwise.
Zhao Yunlan wakes by degrees, comfortable in his warm, fresh-smelling bed. Wait, fresh-smelling? He blinks his eyes open to find himself on the far side of the bed, tucked neatly under the duvet. It takes him a moment to remember why, but when he turns his head, the space where the dragon had slept is empty. The disappointed lump in his throat is momentarily diverted by the rest of the room – which is clean. Sparkly clean. So clean Zhao Yunlan can barely recognise it. A faint smell of fresh rain hangs in the air. Zhao Yunlan’s clothes from yesterday are neatly folded on the trunk at the bottom of the bed.
While he’s still blinking in confusion, a man appears in his field of vision, drying his hands on a dishtowel Zhao Yunlan could’ve sworn he didn’t own yesterday.
“You’re awake,” the man says, pleasant voice surprisingly deep. There’s some kind of rumble underneath the smoothness that metaphorically pricks Zhao Yunlan’s ears. He’s never heard anyone’s voice have a sound like that.
The man doesn’t act as if it’s at all unexpected for him to be in Zhao Yunlan’s apartment, even though Zhao Yunlan is pretty certain he’s never seen him before. He would absolutely remember having met a beauty like this, not to mention the interesting dress sense – dark blue dress shirt, so well-fitting it has to be tailored, dark grey slacks that look so tight Zhao Yunlan can’t help but wonder whether he can even bend over without ripping a seam, and white bands around his upper arms. It’s certainly a Look. So is the perfectly coiffed hair and the pleased expression on his face, as if Zhao Yunlan being awake is worthy of being celebrated. Something about the way he’s looking at Zhao Yunlan is familiar.
Zhao Yunlan’s gaze darts to the empty bed beside him and back to the stranger. “You are…”
“Ah yes,” the man – dragon? – says. “I am fully recovered, so changing my form was once again possible.”
Zhao Yunlan is suddenly acutely aware that he’s lying propped up in bed, wearing only a t-shirt and boxers, and there’s a dragon in human form standing in his flat, looking as put-together as a celebrity for a photoshoot.
He looks expectant, too, as if he’s just waiting for Zhao Yunlan to do… something.
So he blurts out the first question that comes to mind. “What’s your name?”
For the briefest moment, the dragon’s face falls, something deeply vulnerable swiftly vanishing behind a façade of calm so seamless Zhao Yunlan almost doubts he ever saw the crack at all.
“Shen Wei,” the dragon, Shen Wei, says. He traces a hand through the air and small clouds form into the hanzi just long enough for Zhao Yunlan to read the characters before they disappear again.
“Good name!” he says brightly, hoping for a return of the openness from before.
Shen Wei ducks his head in an appearance of bashfulness that Zhao Yunlan is almost certain hides other feelings.
“Thank you for your assistance,” Shen Wei says, voice quiet and mild, its smoothness rolling down Zhao Yunlan’s spine in a shiver entirely unrelated to the temperature in the room. “I will not take up any more of your time.”
And then he actually turns to leave.
“Wait!” Zhao Yunlan wracks his brain for something, anything that would justify keeping Shen Wei here longer, even for just a few moments. He still has so many questions. “I have… I want to –”
Shen Wei’s lips quirk and his hand reaches up to the bridge of his nose, as if to adjust glasses he isn’t wearing. “You know my name now. If you have further concerns, find me.”
It’s more than Zhao Yunlan thought he might get, so he nods, and only droops a little when Shen Wei disappears out the door. He doesn’t know what he did wrong, exactly, but he does know that he wants to see Shen Wei again. Preferably as soon as possible.
Only when he drags himself out of bed and into the kitchen for coffee, does he find the breakfast Shen Wei had apparently prepared for him before he woke up.
Being Chief of the SID gives Zhao Yunlan access to a range of options for tracking people not available to the public, but in the case of Shen Wei he doesn’t need to do more than a simple internet search. The first result leads him to the biology faculty of Dragon City University and the profile of Professor Shen Wei. There’s no picture to confirm, but Zhao Yunlan feels deep in his bones that, yes, this is the man who had just been in his apartment. The quiet dignity suits a scholar, and a university can hide many oddities among its staff. Besides, what use would a dragon have for working for money? No, it’d be a job they like doing and he can easily see Shen Wei as a researcher, a teacher.
It takes some effort to resist the urge to make his way to the university immediately. He should give Shen Wei a little space, probably, and besides he has his own work and his own team to interrogate.
Helpfully, everyone is milling about the main room when he enters, so Zhao Yunlan can get straight to it.
“So,” he says loudly, drawing everyone’s gazes, “how come no one told me dragons are real?”
Silence greets this – given the circumstances – very reasonable question.
“Uh, Chief,” Lin Jing finally ventures, scratching his head, “dragons don’t exist?”
Zhao Yunlan flashes him a grin that’s only a little sharp. “Wrong! One made it rain on Da Qing in our flat just this morning.”
As one, they turn to Da Qing, who looks like he’s a second away from turning into his cat form just so he can hiss at everyone. “It’s not like I was expecting Lao Zhao to bring a dragon home,” he huffs. “I would’ve been more respectful if I’d known. Probably.”
“In my defence,” Zhao Yunlan puts in, “I didn’t know I’d be bringing a dragon home, either, seeing as I didn’t know they existed until yesterday.”
Lin Jing still looks a little confused, so he probably didn’t know either. Zhu Hong looks faintly puzzled but not shifty, as if she’s trying to recall something half-forgotten. Which leaves Da Qing and Chu Shuzhi, who are both wearing recalcitrant expressions that just dare him to ask.
“Lao Chu?” Zhao Yunlan prods.
Chu Shuzhi scowls, but at this stage Zhao Yunlan is convinced it’s sheer reflex to being addressed by anyone and not something specific to his boss. “What?” he barks.
“Dragons? Care to enlighten us? Are they a Dixing thing?”
Chu Shuzhi’s scowl deepens. Eventually he says, clearly reluctant, “Not as such, but we do have… stories.”
“Stories?” Zhao Yunlan prompts, when Chu Shuzhi doesn’t look inclined to continue.
“Fairy tales, some say.” Chu Shuzhi grunts, dropping his boots from the table to the floor. “A long time ago there may have been Dixingren who were also dragons, some intertwining with Yashou heritage. They were usually powerful, but there were so few of them that accounts are a bit confused.”
Well, that’s pretty vague, but perhaps Zhao Yunlan should add ‘are you Dixingren?’ to the list of things he wants to ask Shen Wei. Except – if he does, and Shen Wei answers that he is, what is Zhao Yunlan going to do then? Technically, no Dixingren are allowed in Haixing, save Heipaoshi, and the SID is tasked with hunting down those who are. As far as Zhao Yunlan knows, there’s no dragon exemption clause. It doesn’t quite sit right, causing someone to be deported who, as far as Zhao Yunlan knows, has done nothing wrong. Has broken no Haixing laws.
All right, so maybe he shouldn’t ask that particular question – for now.
“Yashou heritage?” he asks, the other part of Chu Shuzhi’s brisk explanation that had caught his attention. He glances at Da Qing, who’s scratching at his neck, the picture of disinterest.
It’s Zhu Hong who speaks up in answer. “Legend has it that there used to be more Yashou tribes in the beginning, after we arrived on Haixing and our people split into Yashou and Dixingren. Snake, Crow, Cat and Flower are simply those who endured until the present day, who did the best at avoiding or blending in with humans.”
Zhao Yunlan is no evolutionary biologist – interestingly, though, Shen Wei is, which may not be a coincidence – but that sounds reasonable enough to him. Certainly, if there hadn’t been more variations once upon a time, the selection of crow, snake, cat and flower would seem rather random.
“All right, given all that, how is it possible that there is a dragon here now?”
No one seems to have an answer to that, but Zhao Yunlan notes that out of all of them, Chu Shuzhi looks the most thoughtful.
Zhao Yunlan entirely fails to give it more than a day before he visits Shen Wei at work, but he reasons that if the two of them are going to spend more time together, he might as well be upfront about being a nosey bastard.
Professor Shen seems to be a well-established figure on campus. The very first student he pulls aside to ask about directions to Professor Shen’s office gives him cheerfully precise instructions, all the while eyeing him with undisguised curiosity.
Zhao Yunlan winks at her as he leaves.
He’s in luck – Shen Wei is in his office when Zhao Yunlan knocks on the door, and doesn’t seem to be occupied with anything important, going by the papers spread out on his desk. Paperwork, in Zhao Yunlan’s experience, is never as urgent as other people try to make it sound.
Shen Wei is also wearing glasses. Thin, round ones that make his eyes look even bigger than they do without. Zhao Yunlan swallows.
“Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei greets him with, face annoyingly impassive. So Zhao Yunlan wasn’t the only one to do a bit of digging since they saw each other last.
“Professor Shen,” he returns cheerfully, settling himself in the chair in front of Shen Wei’s large desk, one leg dangling over an armrest. “I should’ve known you were a scholar, it suits your temperament.”
Shen Wei looks a little confused by that, as if he isn’t entirely sure whether Zhao Yunlan just paid him a compliment or not. Zhao Yunlan grins. Shen Wei blinks, looks down at his desk.
“Am I to take it that you have further questions for me then, Chief Zhao?”
“Oh, do call me Zhao Yunlan,” he says easily, “after all we already slept together. Chief Zhao is a bit formal for such close acquaintances, don’t you think?”
The blush that spreads over Shen Wei’s cheeks is just as delightful as Zhao Yunlan had imagined it would be.
“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says, a concession and warning all in one. Shen Wei is clearly a multitasker.
Zhao Yunlan takes a lollipop out of his pocket, waving it in Shen Wei’s direction. “Do you mind?”
Continuing his trend of having unusual reactions to normal things, the way Shen Wei is looking at the lollipop in Zhao Yunlan’s hand, all wide eyes and unnameable emotion, is almost enough to make Zhao Yunlan pause. He forges through it. “I’m quitting smoking, very much a work in progress, and it helps if I have something in my mouth.”
“Smoking is bad for your health,” Shen Wei says, clearly on reflex and sadly moving right past the excellent innuendo without acknowledging it. Maybe dragons don’t do innuendo?
“Hence, the quitting,” Zhao Yunlan agrees, and pops the bright red lollipop into his mouth. Shen Wei’s sightline is definitely a little lower than previously for a moment. Promising.
The thought actually brings him up short. It’s one thing to flirt with a beautiful human just in case he stands a chance, but Shen Wei is, well, a dragon. Zhao Yunlan isn’t even sure which of his forms is more… real. If he’s anything like Da Qing, the answer is both, but there’s so much Zhao Yunlan just doesn’t know right now.
He should probably get the work-related stuff out of the way first.
“So, mind filling me in on those big, stinky corpses that were all over that plateau? Were you the one fighting them?”
Shen Wei nods, once again all business. “Youchu. They are confined to the Forbidden Place, but occasionally some manage to escape. They prey on all other lifeforms. I was – ” Shen Wei hesitates, seemingly searching for the right word and Zhao Yunlan’s eyes narrow a little, “taken by surprise by the size of this group, leading to my injury. I made sure the bodies are taken care of, so you don’t have to worry about anyone else stumbling across the site.”
Well, that does take one worry off his back, even if he can’t help but wonder how exactly Shen Wei managed to get them ‘taken care of’. Those corpses had hardly looked easily disposable.
“And your injury?” Zhao Yunlan asks, being possessed of sensible priorities – at least in some areas of life.
Shen Wei looks surprised. “I’m perfectly fine.”
Zhao Yunlan lets that opportunity pass with a heroic effort of will – he doesn’t want to come on so strong that Shen Wei shuts him down entirely – but he doesn’t stop himself from giving Shen Wei a lingering once-over, cursing the desk that hides half of him from view. He does look fine, as impossible as it sounds.
“Dragons heal quick then?” he asks, tone mild and casual as he swirls the lollipop around his mouth.
Shen Wei doesn’t twitch. “I do.”
Zhao Yunlan points at him with the lollipop. “I have a lot of questions, you realise. Are you sure you want to have this conversation in your office? Given that I had no idea dragons existed until yesterday, I’m assuming people at the university aren’t aware of your full identity.”
In truth, it’s not like Shen Wei has to tell him anything, but so far brazening through has worked well for Zhao Yunlan, and Shen Wei seems like he might even like him.
“We don’t exist,” Shen Wei says quietly, mouth pulling into the most painful-looking smile Zhao Yunlan has ever seen. His heart actually skips a beat looking at that expression on Shen Wei’s flawless face and something cold stirs in his stomach. There was no self-pity in Shen Wei’s voice – he sounded as if he was stating simple fact.
Before Zhao Yunlan can figure out what to say to that, Shen Wei shakes his head, as if dislodging the thought. “Very well, I will cook for you tonight. Your apartment should be private enough, no?”
Now it’s Zhao Yunlan’s turn to blink. Shen Wei wants to cook for him?
“We could just get takeout – ” he starts, because he may not always have the best manners but he’s definitely aware that making a guest cook in his own home is crossing some lines.
Shen Wei doesn’t let him finish. “You need to eat more healthy food,” he says severely – not something that’s ever done it for Zhao Yunlan before, but apparently he’s finding out new things about himself this late in life – “I saw the state of your fridge yesterday. I will bring the ingredients.”
His tone brooks no argument.
Zhao Yunlan, remembering how delicious Shen Wei had managed to make simple breakfast congee, isn’t all that inclined to try anyway.
Shen Wei knocks on his door at precisely six o’clock, grocery bag in hand, and doesn’t let Zhao Yunlan get much of a word in edgewise by sheer dint of bustling into the kitchen with such contained focus that Zhao Yunlan mostly just ends up watching the way he moves, the lines of his face, the deep shine of his hair under the kitchen lights. He has already noted that it’s a good face, but it turns out watching it in profile while Shen Wei concentrates fiercely is an entirely new experience – it’s also the second time he really sees the dragon in Shen Wei, in that slow, non-blinking attention.
It feels, thrillingly, like they’re already something other than two people who met for the first time two days ago. Zhao Yunlan is starting to think that Shen Wei, at heart, is just a domestic person. He can’t quite decide whether that fits or doesn’t fit with dragon lore, but Shen Wei certainly moves through the kitchen as if it’s his domain, and after his efforts yesterday, Zhao Yunlan’s apartment is still much cleaner and more orderly than it has been in years.
A different person might simply have let himself be carried away by the banked warmth in every one of Shen Wei’s actions. A part of Zhao Yunlan has, content to bask under Shen Wei’s attention to himself and his home, but beneath it all his mind insists on churning away, unsatisfied until he has conclusively assigned Shen Wei a place in the world. There are things that still don’t quite make sense, beyond the fact that dragons are real and always have been; Da Qing’s unusual evasiveness, the way Chu Shuzhi had gone quiet and thoughtful, the story of Dixingren dragons thousands of years ago. The way Shen Wei had acted as if taking care of the youchu was normal for him, expected even, and had so casually known about their background. Shen Wei is a dragon, that much is already unimpeachable, but Zhao Yunlan is starting to wonder whether he might not be other things as well.
His nose alerts him to impending dinner before Shen Wei’s gentle voice does. He has been quiet for longer than he’d thought, not that Shen Wei seems bothered. He looks content, in fact, when he sets down dishes on the kitchen island Zhao Yunlan uses to eat, and Zhao Yunlan can’t help the smile that steals over his face at the sight. After so little time, Shen Wei moves him in ways few people ever have – too much, perhaps, but Zhao Yunlan already feels himself enmeshed, unwilling to retreat.
“Smells delicious!” he exclaims, drawing a smile from Shen Wei that only grows deeper when Zhao Yunlan piles his bowl with food and makes approving noises around the first few bites.
“So are all dragons cooking geniuses? Is that a thing?”
Shen Wei ducks his head, but not before Zhao Yunlan has seen the pleased smile hovering on his lips. “Not as far as I’m aware. It’s merely a hobby.”
Around a mouthful of chicken, Zhao Yunlan asks, “Have you ever used your dragon abilities for cooking? Say, cooling down something hot with a breeze? Miniature raincloud adding water to dough?”
Shen Wei somehow manages to look like he’s wincing without moving his body. “I should apologise to Da Qing.”
“Nah, the Fat Cat deserved it.” Zhao Yunlan shrugs. “He knows better than to claw at people before judging the situation.”
“He was justifiably surprised,” Shen Wei corrects gently. “Surely finding a dragon on his bed isn’t a normal occurrence in his life?”
Zhao Yunlan points his chopsticks at him. “My bed, Shen Wei, my bed.”
Shen Wei’s expression is even more innocent than usual, just shy of batting his large doe eyes. “Are you certain of that? There is much more cat hair than human hair on that bed.”
Zhao Yunlan opens his mouth, indignant retort already on the tip of his tongue, then stops. Frowns. “Wait, how do you know that?”
“Dragon abilities,” Shen Wei says, so perfectly deadpan that Zhao Yunlan can’t even tell whether his leg is being pulled.
Zhao Yunlan squints at him suspiciously, but in the end decides that eating more delicious food is the better part of valour in this case.
It would make a good segue into some of the questions still swirling in his mind; questions about Shen Wei’s abilities, about what he’s doing in Haixing, about his past.
Despite his bluster in Shen Wei’s office – and his many, many questions – Zhao Yunlan has no intention of interrogating Shen Wei. For all that conversation flows easily and Shen Wei looks intently interested whenever Zhao Yunlan talks about himself, there’s a still a distance there that Shen Wei seems unwilling to cross, something he isn’t telling Zhao Yunlan.
Zhao Yunlan may be insatiably curious, but Shen Wei isn’t a suspect, and as comfortable as he feels in the other’s presence, they’ve only known each other for a couple of days. He can be patient, can’t he?
Being patient is one thing. Losing his chance entirely because some Dixingren punk seems intent on flattening him against the side of a building with the help of a mini hurricane is entirely another. Zhao Yunlan is blasted backwards at such speed that he barely has time to think oh shit before the impact – which never comes. Instead, Zhao Yunlan finds himself cradled mid-air, as if an invisible hand has reached out to brace his back and sides. He would be paying more attention to the way he’s slowly drifting to the ground, if he weren’t so preoccupied staring at the cloaked figure that has suddenly appeared halfway between him and the Dixingren.
Long black cloak and hood? Check. Fuck-off big glaive in his hand? Check. General aura of mystery? Check. Apparently today’s the day that Zhao Yunlan finally gets to meet the famed Heipaoshi. He’d be more disgruntled about how long it’s taken, if the man hadn’t just literally saved his life. Zhao Yunlan can forgive any number of dramatic entrances if it means he remains unsquished.
At the same moment Zhao Yunlan’s feet touch down, Heipaoshi slams the butt of his glaive into the ground. Ice crackles forward, encasing the Dixingren who’d been causing them such trouble. The winds die down immediately.
Heipaoshi turns to Zhao Yunlan, giving him his first view of both the mask and his devastating jawline.
“Chief Zhao,” he says – so he knows who Zhao Yunlan is then, neat – “are you unharmed?”
Zhao Yunlan stares at the covered face, breath briefly arrested, because he knows that voice. That subtle, underlying rumble of thunder, covered by velvety smoothness that caresses the ear. Proves a half-formed theory, too.
Well. That makes things both easier and harder. And neatly explains Shen Wei’s reticence.
“Perfectly fine, thanks to you, Hei-laoge,” Zhao Yunlan replies cheerfully, a beat too late.
He can see Shen Wei blink behind his mask, gaze flitting from Zhao Yunlan’s face to his relaxed stance as he draws his own conclusions. A noiseless sigh escapes his lips.
“I need to take care of this,” Shen Wei says, gesturing to the Dixingren still encased in ice. “Perhaps we should… talk, later.”
Zhao Yunlan grins. “You know where to find me.”
As Heipaoshi, Shen Wei may be above such base behaviour as rolling his eyes, but Zhao Yunlan can tell he dearly wants to. As Zhao Yunlan’s grin widens, a portal rips a hole into space, swallowing the Envoy and his detainee both.
He half expects Shen Wei to arrive in the middle of his flat via portal, but apparently that’s not the polite thing to do, for instead he gets a knock on the door an hour after he got back in from wrapping up the case.
“Door’s open,” he calls, which earns him a reproachful look from Shen Wei once he steps inside.
Zhao Yunlan crosses his arms over his chest. “Don’t give me that look, Hei-laoge, I left it open because I knew you were coming.”
He studies Shen Wei, who’s still awkwardly hovering near the doorway in an outfit even more prim and proper than usual and a back so straight Zhao Yunlan’s spine hurts just looking at him.
Zhao Yunlan blows out a breath, gesturing Shen Wei to the couch. “Oh, relax, I’m not going to berate you. I would’ve liked a heads-up, but I do understand that your position in Haixing is a little… delicate. You’re just a bit too distinctive for the secrecy to work – you can’t tell me I’m the only one who has ever figured it out.”
“You’re the only one who has ever figured it out,” Shen Wei immediately says, one corner of his mouth ticking up in something close to a smirk. He settles himself on the sofa, hands on his thighs. The opposite of casual. “How did you?”
Zhao Yunlan leans back against the kitchen island, bare toes wriggling against the floor. Maybe he should’ve put his socks back on. “Your voice. It’s got this rumble to it.”
Shen Wei stares at him, looking utterly bewildered. “My voice rumbles?”
“Yes? I mean, not like a rumble rumble, but there’s something underlying every sound that I’ve never heard in a Haixingren.” Zhao Yunlan scratches the back of his neck. “You’re sure no one else has noticed it?”
“Perhaps other people aren’t paying quite such close attention,” Shen Wei says, suddenly so straight-faced that Zhao Yunlan is 90% sure he’s being teased.
So he leans into it.
“Well, you are rather captivating,” he says in a tone of voice that might’ve been termed a drawl if he hadn’t been so sincere.
Shen Wei’s eyes drop, and Zhao Yunlan is delighted to spy redness flaring on his ears.
Zhao Yunlan hasn’t made it a habit to curb his reckless impulses, so he presses on. “Is this why you’re hesitant? The whole moonlighting as Dixing’s arbiter of justice thing?”
When Shen Wei raises his eyes again, they are dark and deep, boring into Zhao Yunlan’s own. “I have many secrets.”
Indeterminately old. Indeterminately powerful. Of course he does.
“And if I don’t care?”
Gold flares in Shen Wei’s gaze, there and gone again, leaving something uncomfortably close to tiredness behind.
“Then we both have choices to make,” he says – quietly, but with such unmistakeable longing that Zhao Yunlan’s heart stutters.
Silence billows and stretches. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t quite know what to do with himself, the air feeling heavy against his skin. Given a dragon’s powers, it might well be in truth. It’s a pointed demonstration of Shen Wei’s otherness, offered perhaps as a warning, or simply to remind Zhao Yunlan that he should consider his choice carefully. That, at least, makes sense – surely Shen Wei hasn’t lived this long without some people reacting to his identity badly.
Shen Wei’s longing doesn’t.
Zhao Yunlan isn’t one to downplay himself, but for someone to be this intense about him after a couple of days of acquaintance seems deeply far-fetched. Then again, what does he know about the way dragons fall in love? Perhaps they just… know.
His own deficiencies in the romantic department suddenly loom large, and he casts around for a distraction.
“Tiny dragon, professor, and Heipaoshi,” Zhao Yunlan muses, watching Shen Wei’s brows contract. “How do you keep it all straight?”
“The size of my dragon form is variable, depending on my energy levels,” Shen Wei informs him, and this is probably how he does belligerent, isn’t it – instead of answering the question, politely throwing out a deflection that’s actually interesting.
It’s absolutely working on Zhao Yunlan.
“You aren’t usually that small?” he asks, half disappointed because the tiny dragon had been seriously cute and half burning with curiosity what a bigger Shen Wei dragon would look like.
Shen Wei tilts his head, eyes suddenly twinkling behind his glasses. Between one heartbeat and the next, Shen Wei’s human form blurs and reforms into a dragon.
Shen Wei’s elegantly tapered snout is now level with Zhao Yunlan’s head, his body too thick for Zhao Yunlan to grip even with two hands, not that he means to try. The same chirping sound that had been so high-pitched and cute from the tiny dragon throat, is deeper now, and several magnitudes louder.
He knows he’s staring, but no one could’ve looked away from such a sight.
Shen Wei shifts closer.
“May I?” Zhao Yunlan asks, a little breathless as he looks into Shen Wei’s large golden eyes.
Shen Wei’s horns twitch, a shimmying ruffle that probably signals something another dragon could understand.
“Yes,” he says, voice deeper, rumblier, the hint of clinking stones lurking in its timbre, but still undeniably Shen Wei’s voice. “Always.”
Just like Da Qing when he speaks in cat form, Shen Wei doesn’t seem to need to open his mouth for his voice to be heard. Some other time Zhao Yunlan will let himself get distracted by questions of Yashou magic.
Now, Zhao Yunlan reaches out a hand to brush questing fingertips along the hinge of Shen Wei’s jaw to the strong, sinuous body. The scales are shockingly soft and smooth, unlike any other texture Zhao Yunlan has ever encountered. The overlap of scales is so seamless he can barely feel the transitions. At this size, the cool Shen Wei radiates flows over Zhao Yunlan’s hand up to his forearm, raising goosebumps.
A soft whirring noise, almost like a purr, starts up as Zhao Yunlan keeps running his hand over the scales. When he casts a glance at Shen Wei’s face, he finds Shen Wei’s eyes almost closed, just a hint of gold peeking out from under midnight blue lids.
“This is good?” he asks nonetheless, needing to be certain, needing to hear it.
One of Shen Wei’s eyes opens to give him a sidelong glance.
“Always,” his voice repeats in a rumbly whisper that runs down Zhao Yunlan’s spine like one of Da Qing’s stiff fur brushes. The eye closes again. “It has been a long time since someone has touched me in this form.”
Or, Zhao Yunlan silently suspects, in his human form. Professor Shen, as guileless and helpful as he is, doesn’t invite closeness. Heipaoshi certainly doesn’t.
He doesn’t even notice that his hand has stilled until Shen Wei does an impatient little shimmy, crest of fur rippling so mesmerizingly that Zhao Yunlan laughs and doesn’t hesitate to sink his fingers into the silky ruff.
When Shen Wei huffs in approval, small clouds shoot out of his nostrils only to immediately disperse in the air.
“How does that work?” Zhao Yunlan asks idly, letting his hand roam further. It seems a little undignified, the way he’s pawing all over Shen Wei, but if Shen Wei encourages it… “Two sets of powers, doesn’t that ever clash?”
Shen Wei cocks his head. “In this form, I have a dragon’s grasp of wind and rain. In my other form I have direct access to dark energy and the powers that I’ve learned over the years. They do not cross over.”
“I suppose it’s for the best,” Zhao Yunlan says after a moment of considering that. “You’re already so intimidatingly powerful, just imagine a dragon with nature and dark energy powers both.”
Shen Wei turns his head until he can look fully at Zhao Yunlan’s face. He gets the impression that if he could frown in dragon form, he would be. “You find me intimidating?”
Zhao Yunlan shrugs, a sheepish little gesture. “A little? I mean, Xiao Wei, you can do amazing things, that no one else can. I’m just a squishy human, and not a particularly special one at that.”
He’s still speaking when Shen Wei’s eyes widen impossibly further, and then suddenly Zhao Yunlan’s hand pats at air and his eyes unfocus in the face of the blur that accompanies Shen Wei’s transformation. But not into his human form. Instead, a split second later sees the same tiny dragon Zhao Yunlan had first encountered hovering in front of Zhao Yunlan at head height.
“It’s not a bad thing, Xiao Wei,” Zhao Yunlan says quickly, and this time he notes the way Shen Wei’s whole body stills at the nickname – yes, ok, maybe Zhao Yunlan is moving a little fast with the endearments – and files it away for later. “You may be uniquely powerful, but I’m not afraid of you. Perhaps I should be, but I’m not. It almost feels like we’ve met before.”
Shen Wei’s mane ruffles, but he doesn’t say anything, eyes wide on Zhao Yunlan’s face.
Zhao Yunlan swallows back further words, not sure if they’d do any good. Then, slowly, he stretches out his hand, palm up – as clear an invitation as he can make.
Shen Wei blinks, and then dives towards it. He’s just a little too big to comfortably fit on just one palm, tail dangling over the side and one set of silver claws gently pricking over Zhao Yunlan’s wrist. A happy little noise erupts from the dragon’s throat, tail flicking to tickle sensitive fingertips, and Zhao Yunlan can’t help but wonder if Shen Wei’s instincts are a little… different in this form. He seems so much less inhibited as a tiny dragon than he does in human guise. He also seems to be less verbal, though Zhao Yunlan supposes there may have been other reasons why Shen Wei didn’t talk to him when he first picked him up.
“Do you want to stay the night again, like this?” Zhao Yunlan asks quietly, surprising himself with how much he wants the answer to be yes. One of these days he wants to sleep with Shen Wei in human form, he already knows that, but there’s something to curling up with a tiny dragon that’s infinitely comforting. Or maybe that’s just whatever sleeping magic Shen Wei seems to exude in this guise. “If you can stand all the cat hair, that is.”
Shen Wei snorts out a little puff of cloud and nods his tiny head.
The bliss of the next morning – slow awakening and breakfast included – would’ve been complete if not for Da Qing’s call that a student has been found murdered on Dragon City University campus.