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Drip.

Blood leaks from between your fingers, your lips. You grit your teeth against another cough, another mouthful of precious life. The muscles spasm, and you struggle to breathe through it. The void of depleted energy burns at your heart, threatening to give way entirely, yet you persist. Your robes, as dark as they are, hide the flow of blood from your abdomen. Your mask hides most of your pallor as it presses into your skin, while your hood’s shadow erases the rest.

Nothing can hide the trail of dark blood in your wake.

Drip.

Your concentration wavers as another spasm forces more blood into your throat, lungs protesting the sudden lack of air—or perhaps they are simply protesting the abuse you're subjecting yourself to. It would've been so much easier to lie back and let the darkness claim you, but instead, you struggle to hold yourself together, limping your way to the only safe haven you know of.

Drip.

Drip.

Splatter.

Blood pours from your mouth, your nose, as the coughing fit you had fought off—ignored—tears from you. Cut muscle pulls apart further, a fresh surge painting the pavement a gory shade of red.

You can still feel the blade—your own blade—buried in your side, despite its absence, long since having dissipated. It had only taken a split-second distraction—an ambush from behind from a second and third combatant—for the first to command the Gonggong blade. The metal had reacted, tearing itself from your grasp with unnatural power, before turning mid-air and embedding itself in your abdomen.

The rest of the fight is a blur in your mind’s eye, between the pain, adrenaline, and depletion. Distantly, you remember depositing the three at the Regent’s feet with a barely restrained snarl, but past that…

'Foolish mistake,' you think. The only thing that had saved you was the billow of your robes as you struggled, throwing the first Dixingren’s aim off. Had their aim been true, you would have bled out in seconds, rather than struggling to reach Kunlun—no. He is Zhao Yunlan, now. Perhaps he always has been, and Kunlun was someone else, lost to time, just as you should’ve been.

Shaking your head, you banish the unproductive thoughts. You’re so close to the SID building, yet each step drains your strength. Sparks of dark energy bloom and burst over your fingers—an unconscious, wasted effort.

‘Just around the corner. Less than thirty steps.’

Consciousness wavers as you reach the door, vision blurring and doubling, black spots dancing in the periphery, as you fumble for the handle. The wood darkens further as you leave crimson streaks in your struggle. You sway forward; the door swings open under your weight.

Time slows as you fall forward, your energy too depleted to even brace against the incoming impact.

Your breath flees your lungs in a strangled whine, and stars burst behind your eyes as you land hard on the wood flooring. Darkness encroaches upon your vision, exhaustion sinking its claws into your tattered consciousness.

The last thing you see is Kunlun’s shocked face, his lollipop clattering on the floor as he rushes toward you.


It's certainly not every day that you find the Black-Cloaked Envoy quite literally falling over your threshold, blood pooling under his still form.

Nor is it a normal occurrence to see the spark of intelligence—of desperate trust—in those eyes, no matter how clouded with pain, fade and glaze over. Something tells you that between that broken wheeze and those eyes, this scene will feature heavily in your future nightmares.

Your lollipop rests forgotten on the floor as you run to his side, its wet, sugary sheen dulling as it starts to dry.

Your fingers barely touch his throat, hoping to find a pulse when a violent shudder runs through his body. Under your worried gaze, the black of his robes starts melting away, almost unwillingly. A crisp white shirt comes to light, a deep blue vest following. Gold collar stays glint in the late afternoon sun.

The mask itself shudders, edges blurring before fading out of existence. Long eyelashes brush his now bare cheeks, a faint red indentation along his nose, his forehead. His glasses fail to materialize, leaving him entirely unmasked.

Lead settles in your belly as all of your suspicions come true in the worst possible way.

The Black-Cloaked Envoy—Shen Wei—is sprawled across your threshold, barely breathing, leaking away his very life.

Holy fuck.

"Lao Chu! Xiao Guo! Get in here!" you shout, pressing your hands to Shen Wei's abdomen. The fine silk under your hands sticks to your fingers, completely soaked through. Each pulse running over your fingers is unnervingly cool and viscous. Hurried footsteps click behind you.

"Is there a particular reason you’re shouting like—what happened?" Lao Chu bites his snark off mid-sentence, his posture sliding into combat readiness. Strings unspool from his fingers, coiling lightly on the floor. Xiao Guo pales beside him.

"Xiao Guo, go tell Lin Jing that we need a sterile area in his lab. Once you've done that, find Da Qing. I don't care what he's doing. If he complains, let him know in no uncertain terms that he'll never see a fish again if he doesn't get his ass in gear. Lao Chu, you've got the steadiest hands here. Help me get him off the floor, then get your suture kit together."

Xiao Guo stutters out a "yes sir!" before hurrying off to take care of his assignments.

Chu Shuzhi dissipates his strings and steps forward, kneeling at your side. “Looks like he got stabbed with a damn sharp blade. There a particular reason we’re not calling for an ambulance or getting him to a hospital otherwise?”

You hum, pressing harder against the wound. No matter how much pressure you exert, more leaks out. He’s got to be dangerously low by now.

“I think if they pump him full of Haixingren blood, it’d kill him. What he’s got going is almost cold to the touch, and see how almost sticky it is?” You know full well it would, but you’re still grappling with the fact that he is the Black-Cloaked Envoy, of all people. Besides, you may be a nosy bastard, but that doesn’t mean you’ll blather about what you’ve just learned.  

Chu Shuzhi blinks, his irises flashing with dark light. "I see now. He's definitely not Haixingren, but his dark energy is so depleted I can barely see it. That cold stickiness is a trauma response, but it's not right. It shouldn't be getting quite that bad," he says as he pulls Shen Wei into his arms, more gently than you thought possible.

The unpleasant thought of 'can Dixingren stroke out?' crosses your mind. Nonetheless, you keep your hands pressed against Shen Wei’s side, walking backwards as Chu Shuzhi carries him farther into the building. Concern for an ally—a friend—gnaws at your empty belly.


You awaken, everything around you vague and blurry. Your eyes refuse to focus, no matter how hard you tell them to. The lights above you are far too bright, a halo glittering around them. A weight, pleasantly warm, rests against your side, vibrating faintly. It shifts, and your nerves flare awake, pain lancing through your belly. You stifle the instinctive shout, but a faint groan escapes you.

“Nngh…”

“Ah, Shen Wei, you’re awake!”

That voice… Kunlun? No. What time are you even in right now? You blink at him, confusion clear on your face.

“You’re still out of it, huh. Blood loss will do that, though if you were all here, I get the feeling you’d know that,” he smiles at you around a lollipop stem, a calculating edge in his voice. “Da Qing, give us a little time, yea?”

“I better get so much fish for this, Lao Zhao.”

“Yea, yea. Shoo.”

The warm weight hops off the table you’re resting on, a chill creeping into your bones. Details come sneaking in, but you still can’t remember why you’re here, a terrible pain in your side and enough fog in your brain to engulf the city.

Zhao Yunlan pats your hand, careful to avoid the IV.

“You still look entirely lost, so I’ll start easy. You’re at the SID, and you’ve been stitched up. Lao Chu does a damn good suture job, especially in less than ideal situations. We’re still not sure who skewered you or why, but you’re very lucky their aim was off. A couple centimeters in any direction and you’d’ve bled out.”

He sits back, quiet, to let you absorb that information. Glimmerings of memory pull up from the fog, and more lucidity comes to you.

“I—How did I get here?” Last you could remember, you’d still been in your robes, but Zhao Yunlan had referred to you as Shen Wei. Had you dropped the guise before you made it? Or…? An unpleasant weight settles in your gut, waiting for the other boot to drop. You squint at him, vision clearing a bit.

Zhao Yunlan shifts, a little disturbed. “You, ah. You fell through the door. Literally. I thought I was already too late by the time I got to you. Thankfully, I was wrong, but,” he sighs, running a hand through his hair. A smudge of dark rust on his forehead catches your eye—your blood marks him, stains him.

“Did you see anything else?” you ask, heart in your throat.

“That depends. Do you want to tell me in your own words? Or am I to jump to conclusions?”

The words hurt less than the resignation, the expectation of disappointment, in his voice. Still, denials crowd over your tongue, each less plausible than the next. If he saw, no amount of lies will save you.

Your silence stretches too long.

“I see. Truly, it is less jumping to conclusions than confirming what I saw, and I saw you, Brother Black.

Your breath catches in your lungs, “I—”

He continues, as though you’d never spoken, “I can understand the need for secrets, Shen Wei. You could’ve simply told me to fuck off, but you insisted on lying. While I did enjoy our games of cat and mouse, I have to ask: why? Why lie? Poorly at that.”

Your side throbs, sutures pulling taut as you struggle to sit up. You are maskless, both within and without, uniquely vulnerable under Zhao Yunlan’s piercing gaze.

He knows far too much—

I can’t—

He mustn’t know—

Gentle but firm hands at your shoulders halt your forward progress. “Hey, Shen Wei! Take a breath… that’s it. Lean back.” One hand moves to your cheek, the touch calling you back to your body. “There we go. Y’know, Lao Chu doesn’t know who you are, truly. If you unravel his knitting, he’s going to string you up the hard way,” Zhao Yunlan’s smile wavers, and he ducks his head. “I got a little intense, and I’m sorry for that. You're vulnerable and hurting; I shouldn't use that against you.”  

The phantom sensation of your sword in your side returns full force, tears glossing your eyes. As you blink them away, you try to speak. “I—I was going to tell you. When the time was right. There are so many things I want to tell you, but I can’t. Not without risking… everything. Ah!”

He startles as you try to curl into a miserable ball. The pain radiates into your chest, your pelvis. "Shen Wei? Come on, talk to me—what can I do to help you hurt less?"

When you don't respond, he turns to the lab door, calling out, "Damn Cat! Get back in here!"

As Da Qing lopes back into the room, bells jingling, Zhao Yunlan tries to get you flat on your back. Despite your conscious efforts to help him, your muscles have other ideas.

Da Qing hops up onto the table, worming his way up against you, purring up a storm. A tendril of foreign dark energy brushes against your muscles, resonating with an encouragement to relax. Ease up, it whispers. To your relief, they listen.

You breathe through the remnant cramping, focus returning to the world at large. A warm hand holds yours, gently tracing the faint lines of your veins. It almost tickles.

“You doing better?”

“Mm,” you manage. “I wasn’t aware Cat Yashou could heal like this.”

Da Qing chirps and brushes his fuzzy cheeks against your free hand, encouraging pets. You acquiesce, stroking along the ridges of his skull.

Zhao Yunlan huffs a laugh, “yea. He’s pretty good at it, though it’s not really suited to stab wounds. Does best with bruises and sprains.” He squeezes your hand. “If you’re alright for now, I’ll leave you be. But, when you’re able to sit up, we are going to have a conversation about all of this, and what we’re going to do about it. Got it?”

You blink up at him, slow, deliberate. ‘I do trust you, despite my behaviour,’ it says. You see a glimmer of recognition at the gesture, and you get a slow blink in return. Raised by a cat, indeed. Such a simple action, yet it fills your heart with warmth.

While getting stabbed with your own blade was certainly not ideal, perhaps Zhao Yunlan knowing won’t risk as much as you thought.

For the first time in a very long time, something like hope blooms in your chest.