The Heavens’ Gracious Restraint

Shen Wei has a judgement to make. Zhao Yunlan just wants to understand his family. Drama with Quiet Angst, I-3

Shen Wei glanced over his shoulder at Yunlan’s rather set expression as they climbed the stairs to Li Huiliang’s small apartment. “You really didn’t need to come.”

“Unless you want to make this a purely Dixing-internal matter and send Zhang Shi back, yeah I do.” Yunlan jammed his hands a little deeper into his jacket pockets. “You know the Minister won’t count you as SID oversight. Besides, he’s the one of them that I actually like at least a little bit.”

Which was exactly why Shen Wei hadn’t wanted Yunlan to be present, but once Yunlan had started confronting his father, he didn’t seem to want to stop. It was starting to make Shen Wei nervous, wondering where it would end and whether Yunlan’s heart would still be in one piece by then.

Zhang Shi opened the door quickly, at his knock, brows rising as she saw both of them waiting. “Did something come up at the Division?”

“No.” Shen Wei let the weight of his responsibilities settle over him, and saw the reflection of it in the half step back Zhang Shi took. “Things have come to my attention that must be addressed.”

Zhang Shi was still for a moment. “I see.” She stepped back and gestured them in. Yunlan took one of the chairs, but Shen Wei shook his head at the silent offer and went to stand at the window, looking out.

“How often have you taken a host without consent?”

“At least half of them,” Zhang Shi answered promptly. “I’m sure you know how easily humans die. Sometimes death took long enough for me to ask the next one, but often not. And there were only a few I was sure enough of to ask before that point; anything else would have risked my purpose.”

“Was Ma Gui really that ruthless?” A glance over Shen Wei’s shoulder showed that Yunlan was leaning back with his legs stretched out, looking more casual than his thoughtful tone suggested. “The version the Lamp showed didn’t seem like that.” He cocked his head at Shen Wei. “Or did the Lamp mess with Zhang Shi, too?”

Shen Wei knew the sound he made was too harsh for amusement. “A little, I’m sure, but most of the damage was done well before that. This century was hardly the first time death has swept this land, but I’ve never tasted such madness in the very air as there was here for a while. Ghosts have… had no generative, ordering principle of their own. It swept my whole people into chaos along with the humans it touched. There aren’t more than a score who came through that with memory and personality intact.” He glanced at Zhang Shi, who was rubbing her hands down her arms as if cold. “I have no doubt it affected Zhang Shi as well, even protected by a human host. As for Ma Gui… no. But obsession is part of our nature.”

“Oh come on,” Yunlan protested. “I’ve never seen you act like that!” He was frowning a little, though, as if his own thoughts nagged at him, and Shen Wei managed a faint smile.

“Not often, no. But consider who it was that gifted me with part of a different nature.” The flicker of amusement drowned quickly under the weight of his own memories. “Even so, it took a very long time before I could pay attention to anything but the path of your soul and lives.” His eyes fell on Zhang Shi again, and she looked up as if she felt the weight. “Do not think I don’t know how that imprint of purpose gripped you. But that is one of the reasons ghosts were barred from this world.”

Zhang Shi stood straight, hands clasped before her. “I understand.”

“Then answer me,” Shen Wei ordered, quiet and level. “Did you ever cause the death of a host?”

Her chin lifted. “I did not.”

The chill fear he’d felt ever since he’d heard Yunlan say Zhang Shi had forced Zhao Xinci eased. He would not have to execute his lover’s sometime father, at least. “During the invasion two years ago, did you influence the will of your host, rather than simply block him?”

Zhang Shi’s eyes did not fall. “I did,” she admitted steadily. “Zhao Xinci is a strong-willed man, and he was fighting too hard for me to reliably block his actions.”

Yunlan closed his eyes for a breath, turning his head away. It was an expression that said he’d thought so but still didn’t like to hear the confirmation. Shen Wei weighed Zhang Shi’s unruffled, unrepentant calm and stifled a sigh.

“I do not discount your reasons, but you will continue to be the kind of trespasser I cannot ignore if you take a host again.” He straightened, holding her gaze. “My judgement, then, is that you may not take another host. This body will be your last. Do you agree to this?”

Zhang Shi flinched at his words, but regathered herself quickly. “Your gift to your people at least makes that a new beginning rather than a final end. I will abide by your judgement, my Lord Envoy.”

Shen Wei nodded, as satisfied as he could be with this balance. “Then you may remain in this world.”

Zhang Shi relaxed from her straight, waiting posture into a relieved smile and gave him a quick bow. “Thank you, Lord.” Yes, as much hold as the purpose she’d imprinted still had on her, he’d thought it would be like that. And perhaps the value of the family she’d been part of, however covertly, was part of that relief as well.

As if he’d heard the thought, Yunlan looked up from his clasped hands and asked, quietly, “Were there other times you pushed him like that, before the end?”

Zhang Shi hesitated. “Not like that, no, but… Two minds, two beings, in one body means there’s constant pressure, constant contact between us. It was actually very disorienting when we separated and I didn’t feel that any more.”

Shen Wei watched Yunlan hesitate for a long moment, expressions chasing each other across his face. Shen Wei thought he saw understanding and also something like horror before Yunlan closed his eyes again and took a slow breath, in and out. “You miss him, huh?” he asked.

Zhang Shi smiled, tight and crooked—a smile Shen Wei had seen a few times on Zhao Xinci’s face. “He’s not an easy man to get along with, I know, but… yes.”

“No, I think I get it.” Yunlan pushed himself up out of his seat and reached out to rest a hand very briefly on Zhang Shi’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’ll be able to stay.”

Zhang Shi’s smile eased into something gentler. “So am I.”

Shen Wei got them out the door as quickly as possible, attention more on Yunlan’s disquiet than his own parting words. “Yunlan?” he asked softly, as they reached the Jeep. Yunlan stopped and leaned against the side with a tired-sounding sigh, arms tightly folded.

“What a mess.” He looked up as Shen Wei turned to block view of him from the sidewalk. There was a helpless quirk to his smile, as if he’d gotten stuck halfway through trying to be reassuring. “After however many thousand years, and who knows how many hosts, I still don’t think Zhang Shi really gets what it means for a human mind—hell, for any other mind—to be constantly encroached on like that. The old man must have felt like a hostage situation in his own head for a decade and a half. And yet Zhang Shi is still the one of them I don’t actually resent.”

Shen Wei stepped closer and slid his hands over Yunlan’s shoulders, a little hesitant, glad when Yunlan let his head fall and rested his forehead on Shen Wei’s shoulder. “When I first saw how upset you were by mention or sign of your father,” he said softly, running his fingers through Yunlan’s hair, “I thought it was something smaller. The anger of a child at an absent parent, perhaps. I thought it was a shame, because I had seen that he did care for you. When you took over the SID, he requested my presence simply to ask me to stay away from you as much as I could.” Yunlan made an irritated sound against his shoulder.

“Tried to tell me to stay away from you, too, when the other way around didn’t work.”

Shen Wei’s smile was rueful as he curved his hand protectively over the nape of Yunlan’s neck. “Yes. And I thought that was an overreaction, but at least a caring one. It wasn’t until we confronted Wang Xiangyang and I saw you together, saw the way Zhao Xinci chose to try to keep you from offering yourself in his place, that I started to understand how long and harshly he must have discounted all your strengths.” He gathered Yunlan closer and said softly, against his ear, “Don’t be angry with yourself about this. Zhang Shi was the one who showed you at least some warmth, even if it was at Zhao Xinci’s expense. I have to admit, he’s the one of them I have less anger for, myself, even though he’s the criminal of the two.”

Finally, the tight line of Yunlan’s shoulders eased a little, and he reached out to wrap his hands around Shen Wei’s arms. “I really am glad Zhang Shi is staying,” he admitted, low. “Knowing he approves feels kind of like having my dad’s approval. I just kind of hate that I still need that, and that it doesn’t change, knowing Zhang Shi has a really broken moral compass.”

The sharp clarity of Yunlan’s vision, even into himself, put a purr into Shen Wei’s voice. “You are magnificent, Zhao Yunlan. Never doubt that.”

That made Yunlan laugh a little, and when he lifted his head his smile was wry but warm. “In your unbiased opinion?”

“In my extensive experience,” Shen Wei corrected, smiling back. And that was quite enough time spent on Yunlan’s one and a half fathers. “So, shall we go finish packing?”

“Yeah, all right.” The head shake Yunlan gave him said he knew perfectly well he was being diverted, but he still pulled out his keys and got in. Shen Wei opened his own door, satisfied for the time being.

And all the while, he carefully kept his mind turned away from his lingering suspicion of who, exactly, might have told Yunlan how to rekindle the Lamp. It would have been an abuse of his authority to let that suspicion influence his official judgement. As for his personal judgement, Yunlan wished for Zhang Shi to stay. As long as Zhang Shi served faithfully, as a member of the SID, Shen Wei would stay his hand.

He thought that he and Zhang Shi probably understood each other, on that point.