It’s been just over a month since she first met him. Hei Pao Shi. Chief Fu introduced them, about a week after he first joined the Alliance.
Zhang Yue was a bit intimidated at first, by the raw power she could sense simmering under his skin, by the authoritative air of the black cloak and mask. She supposes that’s the purpose of those garments. Intimidating enemies and allies alike. Keeping them away. Making sure they don’t look too closely. Don’t see what he doesn’t want them to see.
She hasn’t spoken to him a whole lot since that first meeting. He does not seem to be a talkative kind of person, and neither is she. Hei Pao Shi occasionally enters this cave they’ve set up as temporary Alliance library and requests a text from her, and Zhang Yue either retrieves it for him or brings him something similar. Sometimes it’s a specific work he’s looking for, but more often than not he asks her for something less clear-cut, a text on some broad and badly defined topic, and she has to ask questions to narrow down what text might be useful to get for him. That’s the closest they ever get to real conversation, and it’s always rather one-sided. Hei Pao Shi only ever speaks as many words as he absolutely needs to to answer her questions, and not a single one more.
It’s not that he’s uninterested. Zhang Yue has been able tell that much so far. She’s been able to tell from the way his eyes linger on the books she has on her desk every time he visits, almost imperceptibly. As if he’s curious about the work she does here whenever he’s not around to bother her. She’s been able to tell from the care with which he handles the texts she procures for him. Gentle, almost reverent, touch not that of a seasoned warrior but of a budding scholar. She can tell from his voice, from the things he doesn’t say but are always bubbling just below the surface. More elaborate answers to her questions that he doesn’t allow himself to formulate, questions of his own that he doesn’t allow himself to voice.
Not many people would notice those things, but Zhang Yue is a snake, and she is observant.
She might’ve been intimidated by him at first, but she isn’t anymore, not really. Hei Pao Shi’s mask hides most of his expression, but it doesn’t hide his eyes. It doesn’t hide the curious light flickering in the depths of those dark irises. It doesn’t hide the startling youth in that gaze.
It’s the seventh time that he visits her library when Zhang Yue first notices.
Hei Pao Shi steps into her candle-lit library cave, black mask covering his face and equally black robes wrapped around him, shrouding him in darkness, like additional armour on top of the heavy leathers she knows he must be wearing underneath. He steps into her library, posture stiff, tension in every line of his body, and Zhang Yue can instantly tell something is wrong.
Hei Pao Shi stands there for a time, in silence, just short of the cave’s entry, unmoving except for the rise and fall of his chest. It’s quicker than normal. Not much, but enough that Zhang Yue’s serpentine senses pick up on it. His breathing doesn’t quite shake, but it appears to be a near thing. His hands are hidden underneath the fabric of his robes, but Zhang Yue has no doubt they must be curled into fists at his sides. He’s upset.
It’s startling, and now that she’s spotted the physical signs she can feel it too. A thickness of tension in the air, like smoke coiling, crackling static filling the cave with white noise. It sparks, energy gathering around him, rolling off of him in waves. She’s never seen him so unmoored before, normally impeccable control run down to the barest threads.
Zhang Yue swallows, waits, eyes flitting between the Envoy and the shelves lined with precious books and scrolls. She doesn’t know if he has a fire power, but there are plenty of things other than fire that can destroy books just as surely, can render her work useless.
But he wouldn’t. She knows he wouldn’t, has seen careful hands unrolling ink-filled scrolls, calloused but gentle fingers turning dusty pages, eyes twinkling, scanning lines and lines of ancient writing.
He wouldn’t. He doesn’t.
Hei Pao Shi breathes in, a deep shivering breath, eyelids fluttering behind his mask, and the air settles again. He settles.
Zhang Yue breathes out.
The Envoy turns around, movements somewhat stilted in a way that is new too, gaze spanning the entire room before settling on her. He blinks, a partially hidden flutter of long lashes, throat moving as he swallows. It’s all slow, muddled, as if he’s moving through water, eyes focusing and recognition of his surroundings dawning in increments, coming up to the surface again after being lost deep in the currents of whatever trance it was that unconsciously brought him here.
“Hei Pao-daren,” she asks, moving around her desk and towards him, “how can I help you?”
And he looks at her, eyes uncharacteristically wide, now only an arm’s length between the two of them, and the great general stammers:
“I– I don’t…”
And Zhang Yue sees it. For the first time she sees the startling youth in that gaze.
She’s looked into his eyes before, but only ever caught glimpses of it, quickly hidden behind a steely glare or dark hood. She sees it now though. It’s unmistakeable. That flicker of uncertainty, a softness no adult’s gaze could have.
And then the walls come down again, figurative mask snapping back into place behind his real one, and he turns his head, hiding his face from view.
“There is nothing,” he says, voice gruff in an apologetic kind of way, “I’m sorry for bothering you.”
But now that she’s seen, he can’t hide from her completely anymore. It’s obvious. The remaining tension in his shoulders, in the set of his jaw, hands curled into the fabric of his own robes to keep them from fidgeting.
“Would you like some tea?” she asks, keeping her voice soft.
He blinks at her, surprised, and for a moment she thinks he is going to refuse – he’s going to refuse and turn around and disappear the way he came – but then he nods.
“Yes, thank you.”
She leads him over to a side-table – she never drinks or eats at her desk, that would be asking for trouble – and he follows, black robes swishing around him as he walks. Hei Pao Shi sits down on the opposite side of the table, back straight and hands folded carefully into his lap, dark eyes tracking her movements as she finds two cups and pours the tea.
Steams rises, curling into the air and filling it with the calming herbal scent of her own favourite tea. Zhang Yue breathes deeply, content to stay silent even though her curiosity whispers at her to ask questions. Instead she waits, focussing on taking small sips from her tea. The young general across from her – and she knows he is young now, just not quite how young – does the same, warm cup of tea cradled in long-fingered hands, mirroring Zhang Yue’s movements, consciously or unconsciously. She takes a sip, and he does the same. And another. And another. And slowly, incrementally, sip after tiny sip, he relaxes, tension finally flowing out of him.
Something in the air shifts with it. Calming. Zhang Yue can feel it, like the pressure in her ears popping after a dive in the lake she grew up next to. She hadn’t even noticed it, had felt the pressure settling earlier, the static noise of dark energy dying down, but apparently not all of it. She takes a deep breath, another sip from her tea, and when Hei Pao Shi follows suit she feels it. A gentle brush of feeling, like ripples on that selfsame lake. The natural flow of his energy at rest, not raging wildly at the edge of control like before, nor as it was but a moment ago, tightly and desperately contained, like holding one’s breath for too long on a deep dive. Instead it’s flowing freely, calm and content.
Zhang Yue drains her cup, watching him do the same, turning it in his hands and putting it down on the table with the same graceful gentle attention he bestows on Zhang Yue’s books.
“Thank you,” he says again, tongue darting out to wet his lips. Nervous. Unsure. So completely unlike the stories she’s heard about his ruthless but calculated ferocity on the battlefield. He fidgets with the hem of his robe.
“I should go,” he says, suddenly, rushing to get up, “I’ve kept you long enough already.”
This time it’s Zhang Yue’s turn to mirror his movements. She jumps to her feet, rushing to catch up, to stop him from turning around and disappearing in a swirl of dark fabric. She closes the distance between them with all the speed of a water snake, catching the hem of his sleeve between her fingers and clasping his hand between her own.
“Hei Pao-daren is always welcome here whenever he finds himself in need of some peace and quiet,” she says. The words are rushed, tumbling out of her like a waterfall, and Hei Pao Shi stills, a soft gasp of surprise falling from his lips as he turns to look at her, wide eyes dark and yet twinkling with light. There is a hesitancy there, something almost like fear.
“I wouldn’t want to impose,” he says, softly, like it’s an admission of a terrible secret, “I’m not the most pleasant company.”
And Zhang Yue thinks of the other stories she’s heard, about the shadow moving among the troops, healing and caring and helping wherever he can but rarely ever simply sitting down at a campfire to spend an evening; about the great general who guards the camp from his lonely spot high up on the cliff face, keeping the soldiers safe while they rest at night; the awed whispers about Hei Pao Shi’s incredible power tearing up battlefields and leaving carnage in his wake.
Zhang Yue looks into those dark eyes twinkling with light, and realizes suddenly, with a clarity, that she’s not looking at an expression that’s ‘something almost like fear’. It is fear.
Fear of what he can do with all that power. Fear of what the world expects him to do with it. Fear of not being able to do so, or perhaps even doing it too well. All hidden behind a dark mask, a swirling cloak, behind layers of carefully guarded distance.
Of course a young man with power like that would keep himself apart. Of course a young man who became a peerless general almost overnight would keep himself apart. Of course a young man growing up in a world torn apart by war, and expected to be the one to finally bring an end to all that pain and suffering, would keep himself apart.
“I think you’re perfectly pleasant company, sir,” Zhang Yue says, softly but with conviction, and the look of surprise that crosses Hei Pao Shi’s young face at those confidently spoken words makes her heart bleed. The uneasiness she can feel in the ripples of dark energy around him, right before he clamps down on it again and hides it, even more so.
“But I could–” he starts, and Zhang Yue thinks of the stories she’s heard about what his power looks like when it’s unleashed upon an enemy, about the churning tidal wave of unsettled agitated energy he brought with him when he stepped into her library earlier, the potential of all of that unleashed upon her and her work, the sheer destruction he could bring about with a mere flick of his wrist… and then she thinks once more of careful hands unrolling ink-filled scrolls, of calloused but gentle fingers turning dusty pages, of eyes twinkling, scanning lines and lines of ancient writing.
“I could–” he starts.
“But you wouldn’t,” she cuts in, and it silences him as effectively as dunking him in the lake would have. “You could do many things, Hei Pao-daren, but that thought doesn’t scare me, because no man I’ve seen touch a scroll with as much reverent care as you do would ever use those same gentle hands to hurt me.”
“I go out to kill people every day,” he counters, trying to pull away, “it’s the only thing these hands know how to do.”
“That’s not true,” Zhang Yue exclaims, shocked that he would think in such a way about himself, and yet maybe after all she’s seen of him today, she should’ve expected it.
She squeezes his hands, still gripped in hers, gently, soothingly, keeping him in place, and then she continues, gentler, reigning in the shocked indignance colouring her voice: “These days you might be forced to use them for killing, but these are the hands of a healer, sir, of a scholar and an artist. These are gentle hands, and curious hands, and kind ones. They can do so much good, so much beauty. I’ve seen it myself.”
He opens his mouth as if to say something, then closes it again, swallows and tries again.
“I really don’t want to impose…”
“You’re not,” Zhang Yue interjects, “you’re always welcome here. To read or talk or just sit in silence. Always.”
And Hei Pao Shi blinks at her, not with the stern eyes of a general but with the sparkling ones of the youth she now knows he is, a flicker of hope in the dark depths of those irises, behind the black mask that makes him look so much older than he is, that suddenly seems so out of place on his bright face. He blinks, once, twice, and then he looks away again.
“Alright,” he says, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
It’s no more than a whisper. Just a breath of air in the silence of the room. Soundwaves rippling, ebbing and flowing in the same calm patterns as his energy.
It feels like victory, that one word of acceptance.
Hei Pao Shi’s hand finally slips out of her grip, and she lets it. She lets him step away, towards the entrance to the library. She watches him rearrange his robes, tighten the ribbon on his mask, pull his hood up a little further, cover himself in shadows just a little bit more. She watches him straighten his back, watches the youth turn once more into the general.
It must be exhausting, that change, and frustrating. It must be scary, to have to be that person.
It is. Zhang Yue knows it is now. She didn’t ask what had him so unmoored before, but she can guess. It’s not a thing she can fix for him either. He is both the youth and the general, and in this war they’re in the general will always have to take precedence over the youth. Zhang Yue cannot change that, but she can try to give him a place to relax. A place where he doesn’t have to keep himself apart and hide as much as he does everywhere else.
She watches Hei Pao Shi make his way to the entrance of the library, once more his imposing shaded self, ready to face another day of fighting with no end in sight.
She watches as he stops and turns around, standing still as a statue for a moment and then letting his gaze rest on her again.
“Thank you,” he says, voice once more the deep self-assured cadence of the general. His face is mostly hidden by his hood and mask, but his eyes gleam in the dark, and in that gleam Zhang Yue can see the youth he will hide away again when he turns back around and steps outside. It sparkles, glitters almost as if his eyes are changing colour, deep warm brown to flaming orange to startling blue.
And Zhang Yue shakes her head and smiles: “thank you, for placing your trust in me.”
Hei Pao Shi inclines his head, the corners of his mouth curling up into something that’s almost a smile, and then he turns again, robes swirling around him, and he disappears in a flurry of dark fabric, the gentle ripple of his energy disappearing along with him and leaving the library strangely empty in his absence.
That was the seventh time he visited her library. Since then he’s visited many times more. To read, or to share a cup of tea in silence, recently even to talk. He still doesn’t speak much, but she can tell he’s hungry for more knowledge, and every question he asks her of his own accord feels like another kind of victory. Zhang Yue makes sure to answer every single one of those precious questions with as must attention and care as she can.
In her library Hei Pao Shi doesn’t have to hide himself away, and at those times when he comes in like a roiling storm of energy, of pure undistilled destruction barely contained in a cage of flesh and bone, Zhang Yue makes him sit and drink her tea, and he always leaves again radiating calm.
He never takes off his mask, and she never asks him to. By the thirtieth visit she can see behind it well enough that he doesn’t need to.
When, much later, general Kunlun waltzes into the Alliance headquarters and steals Hei Pao Shi’s heart along with his mask, taking Zhang Yue’s place as his closest confidante and source of calm, she feels nothing but pride at how much her young general has grown.