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The Game That We've All Been Playing

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Xun Xu is dying.

He wasn’t in the best shape when they put him on the cart to begin with: exhausted, injured and still barely moving, and truly, he should have seen the ambush coming.

He didn’t.

As the poison spreads throughout his body, he can no longer see nor feel. He can only hear Pei Xu’s terrified whispers and pleas for him to stay conscious.

He can’t even answer.

He is floating, and he doesn’t even feel sad about his imminent end.

If anything, he feels disappointed.

As his mind gives in to the nothingness, his last conscious thought is that in the next life, he will take better care of Di Yue, if he is ever granted the privilege to meet her again.

Pei Xu says something to him, but Xun Xu cannot hear him anymore.

*

Lin Nansheng gestures his men to follow him and thankfully, they are trained well enough not to argue with him out loud, and obey.

They should be making their way towards the warehouse where the Japanese were rumoured to store art stolen from the wealthiest citizens of Shanghai – Chief Wang wanted them to suffer some losses at least, and Lin Nansheng, still not granted the permission to pursue Chen Moqun’s case, volunteered for the mission. 

But as they were passing this building, a strange sound caught his attention. It was as if someone was trying to stealthily get out of the small hut.

It might be a trap, but it may also be a new source of information, so Lin Nansheng approaches the hut, his men trailing behind them, their guns ready.

As they come closer, the sound of someone scratching on the walls with a sharp object intensifies. Why don’t they try the window, Lin Nansheng doesn’t know, but hearing no one inside, aside from the supposed prisoner, he kicks the door open and goes in.

There are no capturers in sight. In fact, the place looks abandoned – there is dust everywhere and the furniture is long gone. There is only one room aside from the one they have just entered. As they look around, searching for any sign of ambush, the house around them falls quiet.

The scratching from the inside has stopped.

For a moment, there is silence, both Lin Nansheng and the occupant of the other room seemingly wait for the other to act.

Then, Lin Nansheng decides to risk it and presses the handle. The door remains closed.

He waves his hand at the two agents closest to him and after a few moments, the door is forced open. There is no sound from the inside and Lin Nansheng is immediately wary.

A normal person would scream. A silent person spelled trouble.

Still, his curiosity gets better of him, and with his weapon drawn, he comes inside the dark room.

A second later, something crashes into his ankle and taken by surprise, he goes down, someone’s strong hands twisting his arm quite painfully as the occupant of the room pounces on him, using their weight to pin him down.

“Who are you and why are you keeping me here?” A male voice rasps and it sounds more ill than aggressive.

Lin Nansheng’s men come inside, and though he can barely see them with his face next to the ground, he knows they are ready to shoot his assailant down.

“Stand down!” He orders them, and then strains his neck to look up at the man pressing his knee into Lin Nansheng’s back.  “I am Lin Nansheng and we are not the ones who were keeping you here. We heard a noise and came to investigate.”

The man stays quiet for a moment, probably wondering if he should trust them. Not that he has much of a choice: despite the strength of his grip the man seems ready to collapse any minute.

As if to prove Lin Nansheng’s assumptions, the man sways slightly - throwing himself at Nansheng evidently took all of his energy. He could be easily overpowered now, but Lin Nansheng stays still. The man seems confused, not hostile, and confused, Lin Nansheng can deal with.          

The prisoner shuffles a bit, so that his lips are right next to Lin Nansheng’s ear.

“Are you Zhulong?” he demands.

It takes Lin Nansheng an embarrassingly long while to mentally run through all of the identities he’s used so far and to decide that no, Zhulong is not one of them. Though it sounds vaguely familiar. When he says as much to the man, his captor scoffs and apparently satisfied with the answer, promptly passes out, slumping atop Lin Nansheng’s back, his head falling right next to Nansheng’s cheek.

Lin Nansheng truly hopes his men are well-trained enough to immediately forget what they’ve seen, but he knows it is too much to ask.

*

The stranger’s state is not good. When Lin Nansheng and his team get him to the hospital, his breathing is so shallow that one of the younger ones suggests just ending the man’s misery here and then, but Lin Nansheng stops him. Zhulong might be a new Communist agent and it would be a shame to lose their only source of information.

That and after saving him from the hut, it seemed as if the stranger was Lin Nansheng’s responsibility.

So they get him to the secret hospital the Military Intelligence has been using since the beginning of the Japanese occupation. It might not be the best out there, but it is better than nothing and a preliminary check proved that the man needs it.

“I think he was tortured,” the doctor tells Lin Nansheng, and that only strengthens the suspicion that the rescued man is somehow involved with either the Communists, or the Japanese. Somebody wanted information from him, and that is an important reason to keep the man alive, at least for now.

Nonetheless, for now the man is unconscious and Lin Nansheng still has a mission to complete, so he leaves the rescued prisoner in the make-shift hospital and goes back to the port.

*

It is early in the morning when he finally makes it back home after delivering everything they managed to take away from the Japanese safe house to the headquarters. Normally, Lin Nansheng would write a detailed report of everything they’ve found himself, but that would take too long. So he delegated the task to Zhao Jinglong and went back to his apartment, vowing to go back to the hospital after catching some sleep.

He wakes up a bit after noon, surprised at the soreness in his arm – whoever the stranger is, he has some military training. Even weakened, he knew exactly how to effectively attack and subdue anyone who came near him. He didn’t look like a Japanese spy, though. Then again, Lin Nansheng didn’t have much time to look at the stranger during the night.

With a minimal amount of wincing, Lin Nansheng gets up and goes to the hospital – breakfast can wait, because there is a small chance that he will be sharing it with his new informant. If the informant is conscious already.

Before he can enter the safe house in which the hospital is hidden however, Lin Nansheng is welcomed with a panicked nurse running straight into him.

“Captain Lin!” she exclaims, and his head is flooded with the worst scenarios, including but not limited to, the man being dead, kidnapped, or escaped after having killed all the personnel.

“He just went away!” the woman shouts and Lin Nansheng realizes that what he thought was panic is, in fact, the power of sheer annoyance.

Before he can ask what she means by that, the woman angrily elaborates.

“An hour ago, he knocked doctor Zhang out and left, just like that, in the robe and nothing else!” Definitely military training then. But there is something…

“How do you know he wasn’t kidnapped?” The nurse gives him a powerful glare, and Lin Nansheng idly wonders if he had offended the woman in the past because it was a rather normal question which shouldn’t get such a strong reaction, but then the woman continues:

“Because he said goodbye to me and to the agent standing guard downstairs!” she hisses, and all Lin Nansheng can do is blink at her and force his brain to understand.

“This man can barely walk but he still managed to take out the doctor and then, instead of running, or escaping through the window, he went downstairs, and politely informed me that the doctor was unconscious in the room. Then he bowed and left!”

The man might be a bit of an idiot, it seems.

Then again, he is injured and probably very confused.

“Why haven’t you stopped him?” 

“Captain Lin, would you stop a crazy man in a robe who told you with a shy smile that he has rendered your boss unconscious?”

Lin Nansheng would, actually, but looking at the nurse’s face, this isn’t the answer she wants to hear. So Lin Nansheng wisely stays silent and instead asks her in which direction the man has gone. With one final scoff, the nurse tells him to search in the market. And to make sure the troublesome patient doesn’t return.

*

The man is called Xun Xu, as Lin Nansheng learns after finally finding him in the market, bewildered by the state of the menswear in Shanghai and discussing the concept of a suit with Lao Qiao with such fervour that he missed Lin Nansheng’s appearance entirely. This, Lin Nansheng understands.

He has been indeed tortured and betrayed by his closest friend who got him killed and shot him with poison. This is also something Lin Nansheng has no trouble believing because the doctor has informed him of the severity of Xun Xu’s injuries, and he can imagine the pain of betrayal all too well, especially from someone so close to him.

Over the breakfast, Xun Xu also tells him that he is in the middle of an investigation, and though he refuses to say what exactly it is he is investigating, Nansheng can make and educated guess, and it is believable so far – he was close to discovering the truth, so someone shot him, poisoned him and locked him up for a good measure. So far so good.

Except.

Xun Xu believes he is an agent for Shu Kingdom.

He didn’t say so exactly, but while trying to make his answer as vague as possible, some of the details slipped out. Like the names of the cities and people from more than 1600 years ago.

Lin Nansheng’s mind struggles a bit with the fact that apparently he has either picked up a very well-trained madman or somehow got himself a time-traveller.

“You still haven’t told me where are we and how you’ve found me,” Xun Xu says, his voice almost a whisper and automatically, Lin Nansheng strains his hearing to pick up any alarming noises. There are none. Maybe that’s how Xun Xu speaks, then.

“By accident. We were searching for…” Here, Lin Nansheng hesitates. Xun Xu’s… everything might be a ruse, he might have been sent by the Japanese for all Nansheng knows. Then again, the enemy should have better plans than just ‘ send them a man to save, they will definitely pick him up and tell him all the secrets’ – Lin Nansheng is sure that if it had been anyone else, they would have killed Xun Xu on the spot, for safety, especially after he got a jump on them.

“We were searching for something else,” he settles on and observes as his guest looks down, hiding his expression.

Xun Xu is wary of him, which suggests he might not be actually crazy.

“Who is Zhulong?” Lin Nansheng tries, and Xun Xu immediately looks up. He has nice eyes, Lin Nansheng observes absent-mindedly. The calculating, distrusting gaze doesn’t suit them.

“What were you looking for?” Xun Xu counters and it seems they’ve arrived at an impasse. But Lin Nansheng’s education is something he is not only proud of, it is also something he knows how to use, so he gives his guest another cup of tea and replies:

“I don’t think I can tell you that now, I have no way of verifying who you are. But I’m not working for Wei, if that is your concern.”

Xun Xu gives him a small, sad smile.

“I have no way of verifying that,” he retorts and takes a sip of his tea.

“Actually, you have. Wei doesn’t exist anymore.”

Xun Xu drops his cup and spills the tea on the table, but Lin Nansheng doesn’t care much.

He gets up to get his history book instead, getting ready to explain.

*

Xun Xu is a strange roommate to have – despite his injuries he moves around quite often and insists on doing the shopping whenever Lin Nansheng is not around, claiming that he wants to return the hospitality to the best of his ability.

The sad part is, Nansheng believes him, because even though Xun Xu was clearly trained to be a spy, he is rather a terrible one. He is observant alright, and he has integrated himself with the locals quite quickly, according to Lao Qiao’s testimony -  people like talking to him and he is good at listening and remembering information given, but his personality is un-spy like as it can get. He is earnest and trusting, and he genuinely likes people, to the point where Lin Nansheng starts to worry about his continued survival.

He also seems to have accepted his time displacement, which is odd to say the least. Lin Nansheng has no real reason to keep Xun Xu around, aside from the fact that he promised Wang Shian to take responsibility if Xun Xu turns out to be a Communist or worse, a Japanese agent. It is easier to keep an eye on him when he is in the same space, that’s true, but it is also nice to have someone to come back home to, even if that someone insists on wearing his out-dated clothes and cannot cook to save his life.

Rich people, Lin Nansheng thinks with exasperation every time he has to eat a dinner created by his flatmate.

Xun Xu is, however, a nice conversationalist and he seems interested in learning about the world around him, so they never run out of topics to discuss.

Though talking about Xun Xu’s past seems to be a hazard.

“How did he kill Li Miao?” Lin Nansheng asks one day during dinner, curious about the Zhulong he’s heard so much about, and is rather unprepared for the sheer fury the question ignites.

“He put drugs in his water! He told me about it proudly, about how he was sure he wouldn’t be able to make the shot if Li Miao was moving,” Xun Xu growls out, and Lin Nansheng wonders which part makes him the angriest – the betrayal of Gao Tangbing, or the manner of assassination.

“Can you imagine, carrying a vial of poison with you?”Xun Xu continues, clearly disgusted with drugs as a concept. Lin Nansheng, the person who volunteered to assassinate a Japanese general and drink poison if he was to be captured, can imagine having it on himself, but wisely keeps quiet.  

“What kind of world it is, when you can’t trust even a cup of water?” A normal one, for a spy, Lin Nansheng thinks in the privacy of his mind. Then it strikes him:

“Why did you drink with me that first day then? If you thought I might be working for Wei?”

Xun Xu looks at him with his usual calm, earnest stare.

“I trusted you to be honourable on the first meeting.”

Lin Nansheng truly fears for Xun Xu’s continued survival.

*

Wang Shian once again refuses him the opportunity to pursue Chen Moqun and either get his side of the story or execute him for treason, and Lin Nansheng is furious. He knows that his behaviour in the past didn’t earn him much trust in the Military Intelligence, but how else is he to regain it if he cannot clean up his own mess?

Once again, he got assigned another task that is clearly beneath his actual skill level, but he will do anything to prove himself, so he accepts it and goes home, silently fuming. Usually, he would roam around Shanghai a bit more, maybe go to the French Concession to search for the Communist radio station, yet since he got a roommate Lin Nansheng is a much more frequent guest in his own house.

As he makes his way down the street, he hears children’s excited voices, which is a novelty in the area.

He slows his steps and looks out of the corner, expecting to see a newcomer, possibly a foreign agent gathering information by bribing children.

Instead, he is welcomed with a sight of Xun Xu sitting on the steps leading to their building, his blue robes somehow not looking out of place, telling a group of young children some story. There is a smile on his face as gesticulates dramatically, illustrating some exciting bit of his tale. The children are delighted.

For a moment, Lin Nansheng can only stare.

His memory recalls Gao Tangbing’s words Xun Xu relied to him, the ‘you were never meant to be part of this’, and he privately agrees. This peace, the happy smile on his face, suits Xun Xu much more than distrust that comes with being a spy.

So he stays there, standing on the street and listens to a fantastical tale of two brave agents stealing secret plans from a fortress with the help of bamboo kites, and feels his anger dissipate.

*

It turns out, Xun Xu wasn’t joking about the bamboo kites.

He actually offers it as a viable solution to Nansheng’s problem of how to get inside the mansion in which Ikeda Eisuke is rumoured to be next Sunday.

“Do you really believe we could, what, fly on bamboo kites and land in the garden, unseen by anyone, without crashing to death?” He asks incredulously, and Xun Xu answers with an offended scoff.

“Chen Gong could,” he replies, and Lin Nansheng has really enough of Chen Gong at this point. Sometimes it seems as if everything in Xun Xu’s life had been somehow influenced by Chen Gong, the man was everywhere – Xun Xu’s closest friend, his brother-in-law, his greatest ally and his almost killer. And even despite that, Xun Xu still talks of him with warmth, still remembers him fondly, as if the man was some kind of hero.

“Not everyone can be Chen Gong,” Lin Nansheng forces out, “Some of us don’t even want to, unless you want to be shot in the chest again?” he says, and it seems to be a bit too cruel because Xun Xu looks away, his expression hurt.

Then, as Lin Nansheng searches for something to say, to somehow apologize, Xun Xu gets up and silently leaves the apartment.

Lin Nansheng sits there, rooted to the chair and looks after him, wondering what now.

He feels so tired. He knows his job is needed, he can see the danger the Japanese pose every day, he sees value in even the smallest missions that rob them of money, influence or people, but sometimes it’s too much. The lies and deception get to him. The frustration gets to him, too. And now he has managed to hurt the only person he doesn’t have to lie to on a daily basis.

Resigned, he looks at the mattress that Xun Xu slept on, their flat too small to have two separate bedrooms. Maybe they should start looking for something bigger. Maybe Xun Xu won’t want to stay with Lin Nansheng anymore.

At the beginning Lin Nansheng wondered why Xun Xu wasn’t looking for a way back to his times, and it took him a while to finally ask him that. When he finally did, Xun Xu just sighed.

“I already know what happens, right? I won’t change anything returning, and I think I was supposed to be dead. What’s the use in coming back only to be feared?” he replied, and there was something vulnerable in his eyes.

“I don’t have anyone waiting for me either,” he added quietly, and Lin Nansheng remembers how his heart had clenched at the words.

Now, sitting alone in their shared home, he wonders if he shouldn’t actually encourage Xun Xu to build a new life for himself here. Without lies, without spies, just a regular life with no Lin Nansheng in it.

He had kept Xun Xu close for safety, so that Chen Moqun’s agents wouldn’t get to him, but maybe staying is not much better after all. Xun Xu barely knows the world outside, only what he had experienced by walking through their neighbourhood and what he’s learnt from Lin Nansheng. Maybe he will be able to meet someone who will make him forget about Chen Gong.

For some reason, the thought doesn’t fill Lin Nansheng with happiness.

Instead, he feels tears gathering in his eyes.

He sits like this for a while, watching the fading sunlight outside, the light from the green lamp on his desk becoming his only companion, when there is a noise on the corridor.  Automatically, he reaches for his gun and gets ready to shoot.

The door opens and in comes Xun Xu, a bright grin on his face.

“I figured it out!” He proudly announces, crossing the threshold, seemingly not minding the fact that Lin Nansheng has a gun trained on him. Then again, Xun Xu is used to people he trusts turning on him, his mind supplies and he really wants to cry now.

Nansheng decides not to make the situation worse and hides his weapon.

“What did you figure out?” He asks carefully, still mindful of their argument, but Xun Xu seems to have forgotten, sitting back at the table, his eyes sparkling.

“How to get you inside the mansion. You were right, the kites wouldn’t have worked - ” Xun Xu amends, and Lin Nansheng opens his mouth to comment on that, when the man continues with:

“- because the cliff is too far away and too low, but I noticed that-“

Lin Nansheng stops listening for a moment because seriously, what the hell. Bamboo kites.

Still, Xun Xu’s smiling again and Lin Nansheng gradually relaxes.

*

The Headquarters, though sceptical at the beginning and suspicious of Xun Xu’s general existence, calms down with time, their initial distrust changing into amusement at Lin Nansheng’s expanse.

Whenever he comes by, someone asks him about the well-being of his ‘pet’, a term that annoys Lin Nansheng to no end. He makes sure to inform everybody referring to his roommate that way what are the consequences of doing so again, and sure enough, most of his co-workers if they want to inquire about Xun Xu, simply use his name.

The notable exception is Zhao Jinglong, who on one fine day comes to him and asks if he could drop by to bring Xiaohe a book about Shanghai and for a moment, Lin Nansheng simply stares at him, trying to comprehend.

“Xiaohe?” He repeats, and Zhao Jinglong pales.

“I’m sorry Captain Lin, he told me to call him that, but of course, I won’t if you forbid it!” He stammers out and Lin Nansheng is really, really confused.

Then, his mind makes the jump. He assures Zhao Jinglong that his visit would be welcome and that he can refer to Xun Xu however Xun xu wishes him to, and goes on with his day. Though if he is to be honest with himself, his mind is a bit preoccupied.

When he gets back home, he is still thinking about it.

“Why does Zhao Jinglong call you Xiaohe?” He asks upon entering, and stops in his tracks.

Xun Xu is sitting on his mattress, his hair down for the first time since Lin Nansheng met him, combing it slowly and listening to the radio. He looks out of this era and strangely belonging to it at the same time, and when he looks up to stare at Lin Nansheng, his lips quirk up in a warm smile.

“Because it’s my courtesy name, he tried to address me formally and since he is your friend I thought…” he trails off and the hand holding the comb stops.

“I didn’t know it was your name,” Lin Nansheng says and is taken aback by how dejected he sounds.

Xun Xu, or rather, Xiaohe, as it turns out, looks at him in silence for a moment, the song from the radio the only thing filling the sudden gap between them.

“It's just a courtesy name. I thought you might call me... something else,” Xun Xu says and Lin Nansheng’s heart jumps a bit at how raw his tone is.

He comes closer so that he can sit on the mattress in front of Xun Xu.

“I would love to, if that’s alright with you,” he confesses, and even to him, his voice seems uncharacteristically warm.

Xiao Xu smiles at him brightly.

*

“Captain Lin, how is the wife?” One of the agents asks, and Lin Nansheng is too preoccupied with driving to fully register the words, so he absent-mindedly replies with:

“Quite alright, though I’m afraid he will try to join the police soon, he picks up cases from our neighbours. He finds missing husbands and borrowed pots quite effectively, ” and doesn’t pay attention to the silence that follows.

Only after he manages to park the car does he notice the peculiar glances his agents send his way, mostly because they seem strangely fond.

He recounts the conversation they had as he makes his way towards the targeted warehouse and almost stumbles when he realizes what exactly he had suggested to his men.

Fighting the heat warming his cheeks, he picks up the pace.

It’s not like they are wrong, all things considered, he supposes.

He hopes they will manage to finish up early enough for Lin Nansheng to come home and prepare breakfast before Xun Xu gets to it – for all his disdain for poison, he is very unwillingly skilled at changing even the most innocent ingredients into lethal weapons, when combined.

Even so, Lin Nansheng cannot wait to get back home.