"You don't have to come with me," Zhao Yunlan said and tossed a long-sleeved t-shirt into his open suitcase. "It's only three days, and Dixing energy doesn't affect me as quickly as it used to. I'll be fine."
He paused at the open sock drawer and slid a sidelong glance at Shen Wei. Shen Wei, who had already packed his own small bag, ignored him. He lifted Zhao Yunlan's t-shirt from the suitcase, folded it neatly and placed it over the others. He scanned the rest of Zhao Yunlan's packing and said, "If it's only three days, why are you taking so many clothes?"
Zhao Yunlan shot, basketball style, some rolled-up socks into his suitcase. One roll missed and fell to the floor. He bent down to pick it up, thinking of jokey answers. When he straightened up and looked at Shen Wei, he replied truthfully, "Because I'm not sure what to wear."
A tiny, questioning crease formed on Shen Wei's brow.
Zhao Yunlan threw the errant sock ball into the suitcase and continued, "Why did they ask me? What do I know about establishing a modern public security bureau from scratch? Why didn't they ask...well, anyone else, really?" He averted his eyes, as if that could keep Shen Wei from guessing Zhao Yunlan was referring to his father, Zhao Xinci.
"You have a special status in Dixing now," Shen Wei stated, as if Zhao Yunlan needed reminding of the horrible events, unfathomable losses, and unprecedented sacrifices which had brought light to Dixing and saved the world.
At the time, it had seemed to be the end of Zhao Yunlan's existence. Without Shen Wei, what more fitting end to Zhao Yunlan, he'd thought, than to give himself to the Lantern? Who knew that the Holy Tools, once stabilized, would bring Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan back from the portal between worlds? It had taken more than a year, the delay caused by Zhang Shi, uncomfortable being the sole inhabitant of a body, seeking a willing host. Once that was accomplished, Zhao Yunlan woke up one afternoon in his SID office as if from a long nap, and Shen Wei was sitting across the desk from him, whole and unharmed, watching him with a look of infinite tenderness.
It was a look Zhao Yunlan had occasionally noticed on Shen Wei's face since then, usually when drifting into sleep or waking up in Shen Wei's arms.
It was not the look Shen Wei gave him now. Shen Wei's look at the moment was a tiny frown of concern. Zhao Yunlan, connoisseur of those looks, also detected notes of confusion and exasperation. Before Zhao Yunlan could say anything – he hadn't decided whether to tell the truth or whether to change the topic – Shen Wei said, "You have four years of experience as head of the Special Investigation Department. You're familiar with Dixing and, one might say, intimately familiar with Dixingren." Shen Wei did not at all smile at this, but Zhao Yunlan recognized a troll when he heard one. "And you have the full support of the representatives of the former regime – myself, the Regent, and An Bai – as well as that of the transitional government. I can think of no better person to lead this workshop."
Zhao Yunlan didn't reply. He closed his suitcase and fastened it. Shen Wei's frown deepened.
"Do you not want me to go because you're afraid having me with you will undercut your authority?"
Zhao Yunlan glanced up sharply. "What? No. Where did that idea come from?"
They stared at each other for a moment in mutual puzzlement. Zhao Yunlan sighed and ran a hand over his face. "I do want you to go. Of course I do. But I don't want you to feel like you must go. You have your work here, it'll only be a few days, and... And I know how hard it is for you to go there now, after everything that happened."
Not that it wasn't hard for Zhao Yunlan to go there, but he had never been connected to Dixing in the ways Shen Wei was. Dixing had never been Zhao Yunlan's homeland.
Shen Wei's expression tightened minutely. "I'm not going because I feel I must but because I want to. And arranging a few days off work was no bother. Li Qian is covering this week's lecture as a guest speaker and was enthusiastically preparing her presentation, last we spoke."
He reached over and rested one hand on the nape of Zhao Yunlan's neck. His eyes softened and warmed as they met Zhao Yunlan's. "Avoiding Dixing will not undo what happened, will not erase our memories of that terrible time. As things change for the better, it'll be easier to be there. To see it for the place it's become, not for the place it was."
Zhao Yunlan smiled a little and nodded. "All right." Shen Wei returned his smile, and they picked up their luggage, ready to leave.
As they left the apartment building and drove to the official portal at the locust tree, Zhao Yunlan was silent. It wasn't that he'd said anything untrue earlier, but he'd kept part of the truth to himself: not only did he want Shen Wei to go with him, but the thought of Shen Wei not going was mildly alarming.
Zhao Yunlan didn't like to be apart from Shen Wei. He wouldn't say that 'clingy' was the right word... No, actually, clingy was exactly the right word. Of course they spent time away from each other when they were working. But – somehow – Zhao Yunlan's schedule always allowed him time to pick up Shen Wei from campus. They drove home together. They lived together. They slept together. Every morning Zhao Yunlan drove Shen Wei to the university and dropped him off. Once or twice a week Zhao Yunlan even arranged to have lunch in Shen Wei's office.
Maybe 'clingy' wasn't the right word, Zhao Yunlan thought. Maybe 'smothering' was more like it.
Possibly Shen Wei enjoyed this abundance of Zhao Yunlan in his life, but Zhao Yunlan hesitated to accept a lack of complaint as an indicator of bountiful joy. The problem was, Zhao Yunlan wasn't used to having someone he wanted in his life actually being in his life. Apart from his childhood years with his mother, his life with Shen Wei was the first time he hadn't felt alone.
He mentally apologized to Da Qing, his former roommate, but Da Qing was a cat. His answer to any moping on Zhao Yunlan's part was to suggest snacks.
They arrived at what was now called the Haixing-Dixing Border Zone and found a spot in long-term parking. Shen Wei, sedately dressed as Professor Shen, glasses and all, went to the back of the queue. Zhao Yunlan took his wrist and tilted his head to the VIP express line. If Hei Pao Shi, even officially retired, didn't count as a VIP then Zhao Yunlan didn't know who did.
As expected, the Dixing border agents knew exactly who Shen Wei was, and one of them not only bowed but started to kneel before Shen Wei urged her to her feet. The agents promptly stamped their identity cards – still paper, to suit Dixingren sensibilities – and one raised her arm and opened the portal, wishing them a nice journey as they stepped through.
The portal was always disconcerting, to put it mildly, and Zhao Yunlan kept his eyes closed and kept one hand locked with Shen Wei's until he felt solid ground beneath him. He shook off the residual vertigo and blinked his eyes open.
They were in a large, cream-colored hall. Long benches lined the walls for new arrivals to sit or lie down until the after-effects of portal travel wore off. Quiet, calming music played from the public address system. A large digital clock over the exit doors displayed Dixing time. As Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei walked toward the exit, a smiling youngster handed them an official sightseeing map of Dixing and wished them a pleasant stay.
Of all the surprising postwar developments, the one Zhao Yunlan truly never imagined was Dixing becoming a tourist destination, but he'd underestimated Haixingren curiosity about their neighbors. Enterprising Dixingren, including Zhao Yunlan's old friend the bartender, capitalized on this curiosity and established hotels, restaurants, tour groups, transportation services, and a museum of Dixing culture that mixed myth with reality. Dijun Palace was the top-ranked tourist site, followed closely by the ruins where the Sky Pillar had stood. Zhao Yunlan glanced over the sightseeing map and curled his lip in disgust. The Regent's dungeons were listed among the "places not to be missed."
He flapped the map in his hand. "How can anyone accept this?! Chu Shuzhi would tear the place to pieces if he knew. In fact, maybe that's not a bad idea..."
"It's fine," Shen Wei said calmly, guiding him through smoothly paved streets. Only the poorer, least visited sections of the capital city still had gravel streets.
Zhao Yunlan shot him a glance. It was not fine, how could Shen Wei even say that... Shen Wei's expression was severely tight, misery and anger in his eyes.
Zhao Yunlan let go of his own outrage and wished yet again that he didn't need Shen Wei to be here. Why hadn't he turned down the assignment? His father might've been unhappy – what else was new? – but Minister Guo would've understood.
Zhao Yunlan crumpled the map and stuffed it into a jacket pocket. He glanced about and tried to focus on the positive changes. Daylight. More activity, more color. The people looked happier, healthier. A small group of tourists crossed their paths, phones raised to snap pictures. Zhao Yunlan deftly wheeled his suitcase out of the way, and bumped into Shen Wei, who'd stopped.
"This intersection should be where the transport will pick us up," Shen Wei said, staring ahead. His jaw clenched briefly. Zhao Yunlan looked around. Behind the obvious recent changes, the buildings looked familiar... This was the street where Ding Dun had tried to kill him.
Zhao Yunlan suppressed a shudder and turned around. Their ride had arrived. It was a double-wide rickshaw, driven by two large, muscular Dixingren. They gaped when they saw their passengers and bowed their heads.
"Hei Pao Da Ren."
"Please. It's Shen Wei. There is no Hei Pao Shi anymore."
They nodded dazedly before the woman dared to meet Shen Wei's gaze. She swallowed. "We didn't know... Would Hei Pao—Would you and Chief Zhao prefer palanquins? They're more private."
Shen Wei furrowed his brow, looking at the rickshaw. "There's no public transport? A shared vehicle?"
The man shook his head. "The carriages have all been booked for tour groups today. But if you really want one, we could—"
"It's fine." Shen Wei smiled enough to convince the drivers. "This will do nicely."
The drivers, relieved but still awestruck, placed the luggage on a rack in the back while Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan climbed into the seat. The drivers hefted the poles easily – perhaps their Dixing power was superstrength, Zhao Yunlan mused – and trotted through the bustling streets.
It wasn't until they'd left the city and were bouncing along a rocky, unpaved road between dark hills that Zhao Yunlan asked Shen Wei, "Where are we going? I thought the workshop was in one of the new hotels." He dug around his jacket's breast pocket for the printout of their reservation. "The Scenic View Resort at Wretched Cliffs," he read and arched one eyebrow.
"The Wretched Cliffs are about an hour away from the city," Shen Wei told him. He was more relaxed now. There was even a hint of pleased anticipation in his eyes. He caught Zhao Yunlan's look and said, "I've never seen them, but they are supposed to be quite majestic. Rivaling any landscape on Haixing, so I've heard."
Well, if Shen Wei was looking forward to the scenery, Zhao Yunlan wasn't going to complain. He remembered that he'd been meaning to take Shen Wei on a motorcycle tour of the wine country. Shen Wei enjoyed riding on Zhao Yunlan's motorcycle, and Zhao Yunlan enjoyed taking him on rides. When they got home, he'd block off time for that wine country tour for just the two of them.
Just the two of them... As if it were ever anything else, Zhao Yunlan thought uneasily.
The hills on either side of the road rose higher, became steeper, casting them in shadows. Dixing daylight, generated by the Tools, had a different quality than Haixing light, and the shadows were sharper and deeper. The hair on the back of Zhao Yunlan's neck tickled. But his nerves, he reminded himself, were because he had no idea how he was going run this damn workshop.
Shen Wei looked up and around and said with satisfaction, "Ah, the Grotesque Mountains. We should be there soon."
Zhao Yunlan drummed his fingers on his knee. "I have to ask. The Wretched Cliffs? The Grotesque Mountains? Where do these names come from? Is this another ploy to lure tourists?"
Shen Wei regarded him with wide-eyed sincerity. "They've always had these names, even when I was a child. They're among Dixing's most famous sites."
Zhao Yunlan had never been able to picture Shen Wei as a child, so his mind skipped right over to famous Dixing sites. And again, he had to ask.
"What are some of the others?"
Shen Wei thought before answering. "The Gorge of Despair. The Lonely Caves. The Ghastly Falls. And of course, the Abysmal River. You've already seen one of its tributaries. It flows beside Dijun Palace."
"These names are so poetical," Zhao Yunlan murmured sarcastically.
Shen Wei ignored this and continued, "All of these places are day trips from where we'll be staying. We could extend our trip..." He trailed off with a subtle note of hope.
Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows and blinked, but was spared responding to this surprising suggestion by the rickshaw's sudden stop. The drivers, smiling through their perspiration and panting, announced, "We've arrived." They unloaded the luggage and carried it up a smooth white driveway to a gleaming new hotel.
The hotel rivalled anything Haixing had to offer. Zhao Yunlan stared at it, impressed, as he climbed down from the rickshaw. The hotel's doors were glass and opened automatically with a quiet swish. The floors and walls were patterned marble. The enormous lobby was flanked on one side by a reception desk and on the other by a huge fireplace and two elevators. On the far end of the lobby was a floor-to-ceiling window curving outward. Zhao Yunlan, curious, walked over to it. The window overlooked the sheer drop of jagged cliffs plunging into dark mist. Zhao Yunlan instinctively leaned back and returned to Shen Wei.
They checked in and were given the royal suite, compliments of the hotel. Shen Wei wanted to refuse, Zhao Yunlan could see it in the set of his mouth, but the front desk receptionist told them it was in appreciation of Chief Zhao's visit as workshop leader and honored guest.
"We'll take it," he said, smiling, and as they headed for the elevators, he nudged Shen Wei. "See? It's not just you who's a VIP."
"As I told you earlier," Shen Wei pointed out, quietly smug.
The hotel had been built into the cliff and the guest rooms were below the lobby level. They rode the elevator down to the third floor. There were only three doors, each to a different suite. The marble and lighting was warmer and more subdued than in the lobby, and it was extremely quiet. No matter how disastrous the workshop might be, Zhao Yunlan thought, at least the hotel was nice.
His favorable impression deepened when they entered the royal suite. The furnishings were new and pristine. The colors were muted golds, bronzes, and coppers. In the main room were a fireplace, sofa, and writing desk. The bath contained both a large shower and a soaking tub, and the bedroom was dominated by a platform-style bed. The windows in the bedroom and main room looked out over the same cliff side and mist as the lobby, but the effect wasn't as vertiginous.
Zhao Yunlan wheeled his suitcase to the center of the bedroom and flopped onto the bed. It was firm but comfortable. He approved. He outstretched his arms and legs and didn't touch any edges. A bed big enough for two with room to spare. He definitely approved.
"Whoever bankrolled this shack knew their stuff. You'd be hard pressed to find a hotel this nice in Dragon City."
"I believe this is one of the bartender's properties." Shen Wei was, of course, unpacking and hanging up his clothes in the closet.
Zhao Yunlan clasped his hands behind his head and watched him. "I've been thinking about those famous sites you mentioned."
Shen Wei turned around and looked hopeful.
"While I'm off workshopping Dixing into modern public security, you should go on those day trips. No reason why you should stay cooped up here."
"Oh." Shen Wei's face didn't fall, exactly, but the hope receded, replaced by a minuscule crease between his eyebrows. He sat on the edge of the bed by Zhao Yunlan's legs.
"I planned to attend the workshop sessions," Shen Wei said. "As an observer."
Zhao Yunlan's first impulse was to breathe out a sigh of relief and say, hell, yes. But, honestly, was there a good reason for Shen Wei to sit in dull meetings all day? A reason other than Zhao Yunlan needing to cling to him?
"Wouldn't you be bored? Besides, this is a perfect opportunity for you to see the famous Ghastly Caves and Lonely Falls."
"Lonely Caves and Ghastly Falls," Shen Wei corrected automatically. "But I thought—"
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "I'm afraid extending our trip wouldn't do," he sighed. "You have to get back to your classes, and I only asked for three days' leave."
Shen Wei nodded, disappointed, and said, "We can return another time to tour the sites together. I'll observe the workshop as planned."
Zhao Yunlan remembered Shen Wei's misery in the city and could not imagine ever coming back here again.
"Ah, there's no need to make a special trip. Not when we're right here. The Ghastly Falls are practically on our doorstep. Can you really pass up this chance?"
Zhao Yunlan reached over and coyly ran a fingertip along Shen Wei's thigh. "And... I might get too distracted with you sitting in on the workshop. Whenever I'd look across the room, there you'd be, in your vest and sleeve garters and glasses. How could I pay attention to anything else?" Zhao Yunlan licked his lips and batted his eyelashes.
Shen Wei regarded him silently for a moment before his lips twitched. "I did not pack any sleeve garters." Zhao Yunlan pouted at him and Shen Wei snorted softly. "I'll get information from the front desk about day trips. As long as you're sure..."
Zhao Yunlan smiled. "I'm sure. I want you to enjoy yourself. See all the amazing scenery and tell me about it later."
Shen Wei leaned over and kissed him gently. "All right."
They ate in one of the hotel's three restaurants and the food, a fusion of traditional Dixing and modern Haixing cuisine, was excellent. After the meal, they wandered the grounds of the resort, which were still under development. Zhao Yunlan was disappointed – little more than gravel walkways and a couple of boulders – until they discovered the hot spring baths. There was a private one for couples, but it had to be booked in advance. When they returned to the lobby, Zhao Yunlan immediately booked it for the following night. After his first day of workshopping and Shen Wei's first day trip, a soak in a private hot spring bath would be the perfect treat.
When the Tools brought light back to Dixing, a new diurnal cycle was established. There were no artificial sunsets or sunrises. Darkness fell quickly and the night was as long as the day. Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei relaxed in their suite's main room after nightfall. Zhao Yunlan lounged on the sofa, making notes for the workshop. Shen Wei sat at the writing desk, reading a book he'd brought. When Zhao Yunlan's eyes glazed over and his handwriting became illegible even to himself, he yawned and went to bed. He was half asleep when Shen Wei joined him. Unlike their bed at home, there was plenty of room for them to sleep without touching. Zhao Yunlan rolled over and snuggled against Shen Wei out of habit.
Faint light had broken through the mist outside when Zhao Yunlan woke. He propped up on one elbow and watched Shen Wei sleeping. Shen Wei was cute – there was no other word for it – when he slept. Soft and relaxed, his long eyelashes resting on his cheeks, his hair mussed. Zhao Yunlan enjoyed this rare moment while he could. Usually Shen Wei went to sleep after him and woke up before him.
Just when Zhao Yunlan was contemplating waking Shen Wei with a kiss, Shen Wei opened one eye, squinting, then the other. He blinked up at Zhao Yunlan, who was unable to stand the adorableness anymore and kissed him softly. Shen Wei held the back of Zhao Yunlan's neck and deepened the kiss.
"Save that thought for later," Zhao Yunlan murmured. "Our room service breakfast will be here soon."
"Oh." Shen Wei let go and sat up.
Zhao Yunlan slid out of bed and showered first. While Shen Wei was showering, Zhao Yunlan pawed through the suitcase and finally decided to wear blue jeans without holes in the knees and a henley shirt. He finished dressing when the room service arrived, and sat down to breakfast. Shen Wei emerged from the bedroom in dark trousers and a blue pullover. Folded over one arm was a black anorak – a near cousin to the one Zhao Yunlan lent him once, which had been ruined by youchu blood. Shen Wei draped the anorak over the desk chair and joined him.
Zhao Yunlan appreciated Shen Wei in his casual clothes for a moment and asked, "So, what's on today's agenda?"
"I'm going to hike to the Ghastly Falls." Shen Wei took a small bite of rice. "They're not far from here at all." He gave Zhao Yunlan a look that was too mild to be reproachful.
Zhao Yunlan focused on eating. Shen Wei poured him water. "Have you decided on how to run the workshop?"
Zhao Yunlan nodded and swallowed. He picked up his notebook and handed it to Shen Wei, who scanned the pages curiously. Zhao Yunlan took a sip of water. Shen Wei wordlessly handed the notebook back to him.
"That bad, is it?" Zhao Yunlan winced. "Come on, you can tell me the truth."
Shen Wei kept his eyes on his rice bowl and said, "A good lesson plan is a necessity for effective teaching."
"I know, but I thought I'd get to know everyone first, then we'll talk about public security. Maybe do some brainstorming together. There were some team-building exercises I did once before I joined the SID..." Zhao Yunlan paused, watching Shen Wei, on the verge of inviting him to the workshop and leaning on him as a teacher. Or, rather, clinging to him.
"I know you'll do fine," Shen Wei said. He truly believed it, too. Zhao Yunlan could see it in his steady, reassuring look. Shen Wei's faith in him bolstered Zhao Yunlan's confidence. Feeling energized and cheerful, he finished the rest of his rice.
"I have to go find the meeting room," he said, rising. He picked up his notebook, kissed Shen Wei's forehead, and said, "Have a great time at the Ghastly Falls. I want to hear all about them tonight."
He heard Shen Wei's almost imperceptible sigh as he left the suite.
Day one of the workshop went better than Zhao Yunlan could've ever expected. Aside from himself there were only four people in it, and it was easy to make introductions and get to know them. Two of them – Li Rui and He Chen – had previously been low-ranking Dijun Palace guards. Another – Song Bin – was head of a village on the outskirts of the capital city. The last – Zhou Rong – was the organizer and leader of a neighborhood watch. They were all eager to learn about Haixing methods of public security and were thoughtful about how some of the same structures and practices could be applied to Dixing's unique environment.
Zhao Yunlan found them easy to talk to and, as they asked perceptive questions, discovered he had more knowledge and expertise to offer than he'd thought. In preparing, he'd been focusing on the day-to-day challenges the SID faced, but the workshop attendees needed basic information, too. Things Zhao Yunlan hadn't had to concentrate on since the earliest days of his career, but which came readily when he called them to mind.
The morning passed quickly and they broke for lunch, catered by the hotel at an outside picnic area on the unfinished grounds. The dramatic, misty cliffs provided a scenic background to their meal, and Zhao Yunlan wondered how Shen Wei was enjoying the Ghastly Falls.
"We thought, perhaps, his lordship...ah, that is, the former envoy, would stop by," Zhou Rong said sheepishly. From the look in her eyes, Zhao Yunlan guessed she was a Hei Pao Shi fan. There were, apparently, quite a few of them.
Zhao Yunlan smiled. "Shen Wei went sightseeing, but you may see him later." The others wanted to know where His Lordship had gone and were full of advice about local places to see. When he told them, they agreed that the Ghastly Falls were spectacular, not to be missed, and the walk there was full of wild beauty. Zhao Yunlan began to feel sorry that he wasn't there to experience it with Shen Wei.
The afternoon session of the workshop went as smoothly as the morning. The attendees were excited by the new information and ideas they'd gotten, and Zhao Yunlan ended up staying nearly an hour after the official ending time because he hated to back out of the discussion.
When he returned to the suite, Shen Wei was sitting on the sofa. He looked expectantly at him.
"Our reservation for the private hot spring bath is in ten minutes," Shen Wei observed with a weighty calmness Zhao Yunlan knew meant he was kind of irritated.
"Still plenty of time." Zhao Yunlan gathered the hotel robes and slippers and shepherded Shen Wei to the door. "This will be just the thing to relax." Shen Wei shifted his gaze sideways, as if he wasn't in any mood to relax, and Zhao Yunlan kissed his cheek. "I'm sorry I stayed late. The workshop went better than expected, and it's been genuinely interesting."
Shen Wei loosened up at that and smiled softly. "I knew it would go well."
"Yes, you did," Zhao Yunlan chuckled as they stepped into the elevator. "You can tell me 'I told you so' all night long."
"I would never do such a thing," Shen Wei murmured, his lips bending in a tiny, affectionate smirk.
The private hot spring bath was as perfect for unwinding as Zhao Yunlan had hoped it would be. Even Shen Wei, after getting accustomed to the bubbling heat, reclined in satisfaction. The bath faced the high, jagged silhouette of the Grotesque Mountains, which Zhao Yunlan admitted were more attractive than he'd given them credit for earlier.
"Why are they called 'grotesque'?" He eased lower in the bath.
"Legend has it that the Dixing explorer who named the mountains thought they were ugly," Shen Wei said, rolling his shoulders in the steaming water.
Zhao Yunlan was about to ask about the Ghastly Falls, but Shen Wei wanted to hear about the workshop. Zhao Yunlan ran his hands over Shen Wei's shoulders and gave him a gentle massage while he told him all about the workshop's attendees, the topics they covered, and the ideas they discussed. Too soon, their allotted time in the hot spring bath was over. Bundled in hotel robes and carrying their clothes, they returned to the suite for a room service dinner just as night fell.
"All right, enough about the workshop," Zhao Yunlan said, sliding some morsels of braised fowl into Shen Wei's bowl. "How were the Ghastly Falls?"
Shen Wei took a small bite before answering. "Hard to see." He selected a few slices of seasoned root vegetables and placed them in Zhao Yunlan's bowl. "They're very popular with tourists and the overlook was crowded. But the journey there and back was pleasant."
"I heard it was a nice hike."
Zhao Yunlan frowned a little. He'd wanted Shen Wei to have a great day out, but it sounded disappointing. Maybe tomorrow would go better.
"I bought you a souvenir," Shen Wei said, going over to his anorak. He pulled a small, round object wrapped in brown paper from one of the pockets and handed it to Zhao Yunlan. Zhao Yunlan set down his chopsticks and unwrapped it.
It was a snow globe. Inside the clear plastic dome was a sparkly orange waterfall plunging from a miniature mountain. When shaken, orange and red glitter filled the dome. On the base of the dome was written 'Ghastly Falls.'
It was silly and tacky and cheap-looking and nothing Shen Wei would ever notice for himself, much less buy. But it was exactly the kind of ridiculous toy Zhao Yunlan enjoyed. Practically every shelf at home and in his office displayed such knickknacks.
He shook it again, watching the glitter swirling in the liquid inside, and imagined Shen Wei – the former Hei Pao Shi, His Lordship – buying this tacky thing. For him.
Tears blurred Zhao Yunlan's vision and he blinked. "I love it," he said, and reached for Shen Wei. "Come here." He stood up and pulled Shen Wei into a kiss. "I think it's time for bed."
Some time later, Zhao Yunlan stirred from a light doze and shifted to rest the back of his head against Shen Wei's bare shoulder. Shen Wei kissed the top of his head.
They'd left one of the bedside lamps on, and their hotel robes and slippers were cast about on the floor. Zhao Yunlan reached across the mattress and picked up the snow globe from the bedside table. He shook it and smiled. Shen Wei skimmed his fingers along Zhao Yunlan's arm.
"I've always wondered," Zhao Yunlan said lazily, "why do Dixing rivers look like lava?"
"The high mineral ore content turns the water in Dixing red, orange, or yellow."
Zhao Yunlan yawned and placed the snow globe on the mattress beside him. Shen Wei told him about Dixing mineral ore in a low, soothing voice, and Zhao Yunlan fell asleep in his embrace.
When Zhao Yunlan woke up the next morning, Shen Wei was already up and dressed, and breakfast had been delivered. Shen Wei's itinerary for the day was the Gorge of Despair, so named, according to Shen Wei, because the explorers who found it despaired of ever getting across it. Zhao Yunlan was beginning to appreciate early Dixing explorers' no-nonsense approach to place names.
Day two of the workshop went nearly as well as day one had. The attendees were still enthusiastic, but they were reaching the harder topics now and there was less consensus. Zhou Rong outlined her idea for local justice councils, but Song Bin said they'd feel more secure if there were a higher authority ensuring all localities followed the same laws. He Chen wanted an appeals process, and Li Rui believed all Dixingren within a certain age range should perform public service in area patrols. This was Zhou Rong's area of expertise, and she and Li Rui sat together at lunch, fleshing out the details.
Zhao Yunlan ate while staring at the cliffside mist, and wondered if Shen Wei was having a better time at the Gorge of Despair than at the Ghastly Falls. Song Bin and He Chen sat and chatted with him.
"The Gorge of Despair isn't bad," Song Bin said, "but from what I've heard, you don't want to miss the Lonely Caves."
"I don't think too many tourists go there," He Chen observed. "It should be quiet, not too crowded."
Sounded like exactly the kind of sightseeing Shen Wei had been hoping for, Zhao Yunlan thought.
Curious, he asked, "Why are they called the Lonely Caves?"
Song Bin wasn't sure. "I have no idea. Do you?" they asked He Chen. He Chen shrugged. "Maybe because not many people go there?"
Zhao Yunlan wondered why not, if they were so remarkable and easy to get to. Then again, in a place without light for so long maybe caves weren't top of Dixingren to-do lists.
The workshop's afternoon session made good progress. Zhao Yunlan could see the first traces of a working public security system for Dixing forming. All credit to the attendees. He'd done little more than share information about Haixing and prompt the others along the way. But he felt a tinge of pride at the work they'd done. Was this how Shen Wei felt when he watched his students advance and become successful?
By the final hour, Zhao Yunlan was exhausted. They all were, although the attendees wouldn't admit it. They had a good plan to take to the transitional government and solid, practical solutions to carry out their ideas. Zhao Yunlan called the workshop to an early close. He promised to follow-up with them later and learn how things were going. And if they needed his advice he was happy to give it.
"But I think you have everything you need to succeed without my help," he said with a smile. "You understand the situation here better than I."
He was touched by their sincere expressions of gratitude, and left the workshop feeling positive and accomplished. Why had he dreaded leading it?
When he reached the hotel suite, Shen Wei hadn't returned yet. Zhao Yunlan flopped onto the bed in his clothes. He could rest until Shen Wei came back, then they could have dinner and an early evening. Now that the workshop was over, he was sorry they'd be leaving tomorrow.
It was dark when he woke up. Shen Wei stroked his hair. "Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm fine." Zhao Yunlan sat up, disoriented. "I'm sorry, I was tired. How late is it?"
"It's just turned night," Shen Wei said. He switched on a bedside lamp and Zhao Yunlan squinted until his eyes adjusted to the light. "The Dixing environment may be affecting you already." Shen Wei frowned with concern.
Zhao Yunlan remembered what being affected by Dixing felt like. He shook his head. "No, it's not that." He scooted off the bed and stood up, stretching. "I was so focused on the workshop that once it ended, it was like a burden being lifted." He patted his stomach. "Now I'm hungry. Are you?"
Shen Wei relaxed, watching him, and smiled. "Yes."
They ate at the smallest of the hotel's restaurants. It was casual and quiet with low lighting. Pretty romantic, Zhao Yunlan thought. The food was simple, traditional Dixing fare, good but somewhat bland for Zhao Yunlan's taste.
"How was the Gorge of Despair?" he asked. "Spare no details. I want to hear all about it."
Shen Wei replied after a pause, "It was fine."
It seemed like the Gorge of Despair was another disappointment on Shen Wei's sightseeing tour. Zhao Yunlan stirred his mushroom broth, thoughtful.
Shen Wei pulled something flat from his jacket pocket and passed it across the table. "There wasn't a souvenir booth, but I got this."
Zhao Yunlan held it up. It was a photograph of Shen Wei standing on the edge of what looked to be a massive gorge stretching far into the distance. No wonder those Dixing explorers had despaired of crossing it.
"That is the best vantage point of the gorge," Shen Wei told him. "It's a popular spot for couples to have their picture taken, and an entrepreneurial young woman has established a photograph business there. She has placed two sets of markers on the ground where the couple should stand and still get the desired background view." Shen Wei pointed to the lower right corner of the photo. "I stood at this set of markers. By myself."
Zhao Yunlan raised his eyes to Shen Wei over the edge of the photograph. Shen Wei met his gaze evenly with the mildest expression possible. Zhao Yunlan arched one eyebrow.
"I get the message," he said, and his lips quirked in a rueful smile. "In fact, I've been thinking all afternoon, we should stay another day and go see the Lonely Caves together. Can you take an extra day off? I can contact Da Qing and tell him he's in charge for one more day. He'll be thrilled, I'm sure."
Shen Wei looked very pleased. "Yes, I would like that."
Haixing phones didn't work in Dixing, but there was a message service that operated via the portal. After dinner Zhao Yunlan stopped at the hotel's concierge desk and arranged for messages to be sent to Da Qing and to Dragon City University. He also picked up a map of the hiking trail to the Lonely Caves.
Back in the suite, they went to bed early, but Zhao Yunlan wasn't sleepy because he'd taken a nap earlier. Shen Wei leaned against the headboard and slid an arm across Zhao Yunlan's shoulders.
"You haven't told me how the workshop went today."
Zhao Yunlan shifted comfortably against Shen Wei. "It went well. I feel like real progress is happening here. Everyone in the workshop was sincere about doing the best for Dixing. Hey, though." He gently elbowed Shen Wei. "They were disappointed not to meet you."
"Perhaps there will be a chance in the future." Shen Wei rubbed Zhao Yunlan's arm. After a moment, he said, "I was genuinely interested in attending. The development of Dixing's public security is important to me."
"I know." Zhao Yunlan tapped his fingers on his stomach. "I shouldn't have persuaded you not to. I just... I didn't want you to miss seeing the places you wanted to see."
Shen Wei's sigh was tiny and almost silent. His hand glided over the curve of Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. "I wanted to see those places with you," he said simply.
Zhao Yunlan frowned and drummed his fingers faster. "Do you ever think I need you too much?"
Shen Wei's hand stopped its soothing strokes. "I don't know what you mean."
Zhao Yunlan sat up and switched on a lamp. He looked into Shen Wei's eyes and saw faint confusion overlaying infinite tenderness. He swallowed.
"You don't think I'm too clingy?" Before Shen Wei could respond, Zhao Yunlan hurried on, "Because I worry I am. I'm in your life all the time now. We barely spend any moments apart. I didn't want to drag you to Dixing, but I couldn't stand the idea of three days without you. Doesn't that seem clingy to you?"
Shen Wei's eyes widened slightly, very soft. "I waited ten thousand years for you to be in my life all the time." He smiled gently. "I'm not the best one to ask about what seems clingy."
His words and his smile were straightforwardly honest, and they made Zhao Yunlan lightheaded with relief and love. After he caught his breath, he grinned, tasting tears, and wiped his eyes. "I never cried so much before I met you," he grumbled with mock annoyance.
Shen Wei drew him into his arms and Zhao Yunlan relaxed in his embrace. Shen Wei switched off the lamp and they held each other in the silent darkness until they fell asleep.