The Innocence of Thunder

Professor Ouyang’s work isn’t through causing trouble, and everyone finds out why injuring Zhao Yunlan is an extremely bad idea. The Minster finds out a lot of things no one bothered to tell him earlier, and possibly wishes he hadn’t taken the job. Drama with a Pinch of Action, Romance Of Course, I-4

One

Shen Wei enjoyed the quiet times in his life, the times when he had no miscreants to chase down; when the humans were calm, not indulging in wars of conquest or moving their seat of government again; when his chosen profession had no crises and he could let himself be soothed by completing the small, daily tasks. He enjoyed those times very much, but he didn’t take them for granted. He’d lived long enough to know, with absolute certainty, that catastrophe would be back around sooner or later. The current quiet felt… provisional, to him. Fear still breathed faintly through the streets of the city, even after two years, feeding on the lingering aftermath of the chaos his brother had created. It was fear of just the kind that madmen and fools had all too recently seized on to set the whole country ablaze, careless of how they killed their own so long as they could hear acclaim in the people’s screaming.

So he kept his voice calm, in class, and graded his students’ work carefully, and made his smile easy and welcoming when someone tapped on his office door. He visited his own realm every week or two and paced the streets, let himself be seen, let his people approach close enough to taste the difference in his nature and know he was still their ruler, even so.

And a part of him waited, alert.

His office phone rang while he was signing off on his grade sheet for the new term’s first test, and he tucked it against his shoulder as he wrote the date. “Yes?”

“We have a problem.”

The sharp tension in Yunlan’s voice made him straighten, letting the pen drop as all his attention refocused. “What is it?”

“Can you come by the Division?”

A significant problem, then. “I’ll be right there.” Shen Wei caught up his bag and made for the doors, stride just a bit quicker than would be casual.

When he arrived at the SID offices, he found Li Qian sitting at the long table, both hands wrapped around a mug of tea so tightly her knuckles were white. Yunlan perched on the table itself beside her, eyes dark and serious when he glanced up at Shen Wei. Shen Wei sighed and leaned his hands on the table, feeling very tired. Of course it would be this.

“There were other samples, weren’t there?”

Li Qian winced. “I thought the lab’s security would be enough,” she said, voice low, not looking up from her tea. “I had Lin Jing overhaul it, when I took over. The samples from the serum experiment are locked with a sixteen character randomized passcode and a mechanical key that had to be signed out from building security.” Now she looked up, face drawn. “Professor Shen, those were the failed samples. There’s at least a sixty percent chance that anyone injected with one of those will die immediately.”

Which left a better than one in three chance that the recipient would not die, at least not quickly, but become something considerably more troublesome than a simple corpse. Shen Wei glanced at Yunlan in question and got a small nod. “The safe was opened, not broken, so it was likely a human who took them, given the security measures,” Yunlan said, quietly. “The regular police think it was probably one of the technicians Ouyang dismissed, maybe one with a grudge. They’re looking into that.”

And the Minister probably wanted the SID involved in case the thief, or possibly a test victim, wasn’t exactly human any more. He smiled faintly at the question in Yunlan’s level gaze. Of course Yunlan would see the moment of opportunity, and yet never press for it to be taken. It wasn’t a hard decision, though; Li Qian was his student, and he owed her what understanding he could give. He reached out to rest a light hand on her shoulder. “The situation will be taken care of. But that this has happened probably means I should tell you something I’ve been meaning to sooner rather than later.”

Curiosity eased the worried tightness of her mouth. “Yes, Professor?”

“Two things, really,” he amended. “This is the first.” He straightened and reached inward for his power.

This was different, since his nature had changed again. Before, he had used the part of him that was from Kunlun to wrap human form around the voracious void at the core of his being. That void was displaced, now—filled with Kunlun’s (Yunlan’s) second gift—but the chill of it was still part of him, and one he still did not care to let the humans around him feel. He still kept human form wrapped around it, but more lightly. Releasing human form, now, was less like turning his being inside out, and more like drawing aside a curtain.

Frost-edged blue swept over him and settled into his familiar robes, and the weight of his glaive in his hand.

Li Qian was staring, eyes wide. “I thought you must be Dixingren,” she finally said, very softly. “But… Really… the Black-cloaked Envoy?” And then she blinked, frowning. “But so long ago… the Ministry’s records say the treaty is thousands of years old. Is it an inherited title?”

Shen Wei smiled down at her, quite proud. Li Qian had always been one of his brightest students, in this ‘life’. “It is not. And that’s the second thing.” He watched her tiny frown of concentration deepen, could nearly see conclusions snapping together behind her eyes. She looked up at him, glanced at Yunlan and back, and then she sagged back in her chair, hands closing tight on the arms.

“What…” she swallowed hard and whispered, “what did we make?”

Yunlan’s smile was crooked. “Really, xiao-Wei, you have such smart students.”

Shen Wei drew human form around him again, settling that veil over the shadowy well of his power. “I do, yes,” he answered calmly, pulling up a chair beside Li Qian’s. As he’d hoped, the approval of her teacher calmed her a little. “The serum experiment’s results force development of latent potential. You know this already.”

She took a deep breath and sat up straight again. “Yes. I’m honestly still not certain of the mechanism, though. It was purely empirical science, for the most part. The theory behind it… well, the biochemistry is solid, but as for how increased excitation actually instrumentalizes…” she lifted her hands in a distinctly frustrated shrug.

“That is the place where known biology crosses with matters of the spirit.” Shen Wei smiled at her disgruntled expression, amused. “After ten thousand years, I have still never heard other words to describe that element. Though perhaps there will be more, soon.” He spread one hand open. “Consider the Yashou. The matter they are made of is fluid, changeable from one form to the other, yes?”

“And Dixingren sometimes, too,” she murmured, focused again. “Though I’ve never seen an energy conversion equation that looked balanced. But what does that have to do with spirit?”

Lin Jing’s voice came from behind them. “If ‘spirit’ is the crossover point where awareness imposes form on energy, isn’t that what balances the equation?” Lin Jing popped out from behind the stairs, as they all turned, with a sheepish smile. “I couldn’t help listening in. Am I right?”

Li Qian’s mouth quirked. “I’m going to kidnap you back for the lab, if you’re not careful,” she teased, still a little wan but rallying.

Shen Wei simply nodded. “I believe that’s part of it, yes. There is a level other than the cellular, on which living things produce energy. The soul itself is a generative element. That I can tell you for certain, having experienced existence both with and without.”

Li Qian opened her mouth, and then closed it again and rubbed a hand over her forehead. “I… all right. All right. Accepting that, for now… are you saying that the experimental results have an impact on this… this spiritually generative aspect of a person, also?”

“Exactly.” Shen Wei folded his hands and leaned forward, faint amusement fading into grim sobriety. “And not by developing awareness to deal with that degree of potentiality, of capacity, but by forcing the connection wider. So far, only two people have been able to handle that. One is Guo Changcheng, who is the purest soul I have ever encountered and who shaped his power wholly to compassionate ends, ignoring any other possibilities. The other is Zhao Yunlan, who has been this before.”

Before… Wait.” She held up a hand, eyes closed for a moment, clearly ordering her thoughts and questions. “This?”

“Gods,” Lin Jing put in, bouncing down onto the couch with a gleeful grin.

Li Qian sputtered for a second over that, before glaring at him and telling Yunlan, “I take it back. You can keep him, Chief Zhao.”

Yunlan chuckled, leaning back on his hands. “I suppose I’d better. But it’s true, even if the terms seem like what you should find in a children’s story. I’m still getting used to it, myself.”

Gods.” She scrubbed her hands over her face.

“It’s not what you’re used to,” Shen Wei agreed evenly. “Not what you’re taught, any longer, not even as moral metaphors.”

She reached for her tea and took a sip, looking down at it. “Ten thousand years,” she said, low. “Truly? You’ve watched over us all for that long?”

“Yes.”

She took a deep breath and looked up at him, eyes a little wide but steady. “Then please, Professor Shen. Teach me what we’re not taught any longer.”

He smiled slowly, immensely proud that this student of his could take such a large step into the unknown, and glanced up at Yunlan. Yunlan nodded firmly.

“Well then, let’s start with the history of Kunlun…”


Li Qian felt dizzy and overstuffed with the amount of new information she was trying to fit into her worldview. Grateful, and privileged to hear it right from the source, but also a bit dizzy.

It didn’t help when Professor Shen, escorting her out of the SID headquarters, said quietly, “I’m sorry.”

She blinked up at him. “For what?”

He paused, and his eyes were dark when he looked down at her. “For not keeping you under my protection longer. If it had been a different year, I would have fought harder to keep you enrolled. I knew anyone I mentored might catch Professor Zhou’s attention, and I might have realized that having had one of the Holy Tools in your possession would ensure it.”

Even a year later, Professor Shen’s astonishing care for his students still made her feel warm right through. The idea of being under the protection of the Black-cloaked Envoy was a little more daunting, but… it was still Shen Wei, wasn’t it? The same one who lectured and challenged and coaxed, who encouraged and drove anyone who entered his classroom but also held them safe for that hour or two—or more, if they worked with him outside of class. “Everything you taught me has protected me,” she said, simple and sure.

That lightened his expression into the faint, wry smile she was more used to. “Then thank you for being such a good student.”

Li Qian ducked her head, pleased. “I’ll let you both know, when I have the conversion estimates worked up, and a better idea of how much power someone injected with those results might gain access to.”

She hoped, as she slipped out the door, that she’d have them before Professor Shen and Chief Zhao had to face whoever the thief had been. But she also had to admit that she was much less worried, now, about how the SID would deal with whatever they found.


When Shen Wei came back in, he found Yunlan with his feet up on his desk, considering four different profiles on his screen.

“Do you think whoever took it knows the risks?” he asked, flipping a pen through his fingers to tap against his knee every few revolutions.

“We’ll know when we see whether they took it themselves or gave it to another.” Shen Wei leaned a thigh on the edge of Yunlan’s desk, watching him more than the screen. “Yunlan. Be careful, if we get into a fight with this person. You have far greater power, now, but you don’t seem to think of it unless you’re already concentrating on using it.”

Yunlan grimaced, flexing his fingers around the pen. “I know. Some things, the things that are most like me now, are right there, but most of it—most of Kunlun—is kind of wadded up in the back of my head until I go digging.” He looked up at Shen Wei with a crooked grin. “You’re right there, everything I know about you, or ever knew. But all that power? Not as much.”

Shen Wei softened helplessly at the confirmation that he was first in Yunlan’s thoughts, but Yunlan’s continuing reluctance to use his own power still worried him. “Would it be easier if we went outside the city to practice a little?” Away from anyone who might see or interfere or be injured.

Yunlan looked thoughtful. “It might. I don’t want to be out of touch right now, though. We can wait until after this case is wrapped up.” Apparently he noticed the frown Shen Wei was trying not to let show too clearly, because he took his feet down and leaned forward, hand on Shen Wei’s knee. “I’ll be careful, honest.”

Shen Wei had some fairly dark thoughts about what Zhao Yunlan considered sufficiently careful, but doubted that was going to change quickly. He laid his hand over Yunlan’s and said quietly, “All right.”

He hoped they weren’t both going to regret that he didn’t insist.

Two

Shen Wei stepped softly through the industrial park on the western outskirts of the city, at Yunlan’s shoulder. Most of his attention was on the outward flow of his power and senses, feeling along that flow for the eddy of another power’s presence. He spared a little attention, though, to cast a sardonic eye over the regular police team walking ahead of them. Despite Yunlan’s best efforts, two of them, the oldest two, were still casting uncertain looks at Chu Shuzhi and even up at the straight-winged shadow of Ya Qing above.

“The old man just couldn’t stand not interfering, could he?” Yunlan muttered.

“You dealt with it as well as can be done, before they’ve seen our work first hand,” he murmured back.

Not that Yunlan had wanted to. When their senior officer, Ma Heng, had protested sending SID agents in with the police team tasked to investigate the lab technician Luo Qiang, Shen Wei had seen Yunlan start to smile, start to muster a jest to pass the protest off with, and he’d caught Yunlan’s eye and shaken his head. If Yunlan chose to challenge his father’s influence in the Ministry, he couldn’t rely on that camouflage any longer. Yunlan had paused with the tiniest of sighs before straightening up. “Lao-Ma, your own people have determined Luo Qiang is the suspect most likely to have taken the Institute’s specimens,” he’d said, quiet and level, and Shen Wei had seen how Ma Heng shifted back on his heels, startled. “The SID has no intention of trying to take over your investigation. But if Luo Qiang is the thief, and if he or another victim has ingested a sample, your men will be in danger. Containing such danger is our job. I’m asking you to let us do it, if necessary.”

“Well… I suppose…”

Yunlan had finally smiled at that and clapped the older man on the shoulder, but even then the smile was closer to the small one he used around his team than the beaming mask he used with the rest of the world. “Don’t worry! We’ll stay back unless it becomes our business.”

Shen Wei smiled a little himself and nudged lightly against Yunlan’s shoulder, remembering the adroit reassurance, strong-arming, and appeal to procedure that had left Ma Heng nothing to do but agree. Yunlan eyed him sidelong.

“You enjoy it that much, huh, getting to watch someone else have to play politics?”

“I enjoy that much being able to watch you show a little of your true strength,” Shen Wei returned, and studiously ignored the faint hitch in Yunlan’s stride.

The more he paid attention to the moments of surprise that answered the faintest praise, the more seriously he considered doing something permanent to Zhao Xinci.

The police team ahead of them spoke quietly to the night guard at Luo Qiang’s new employer, and the most junior fell back to Yunlan and Shen Wei, looking grim. “The night guard confirms that Luo Qiang has been working late often, and that he hasn’t left yet this evening. We’re going in to question him.”

“We’ll be right behind you,” Yunlan assured him and waved up at Ya Qing, pointing toward the building. She dipped a wing and took up a circle over the roof.

“I notice you haven’t tried to actually recruit her,” Shen Wei murmured, teasing.

“That’s up to Zhu Hong!” Yunlan smirked at Zhu Hong’s rather alarmed look as she joined them, along with Chu Shuzhi and xiao-Guo. “If she wants a consultant of her very own, it’s up to her to convince Ya Qing.”

Zhu Hong smacked his shoulder, hard, and looked away with a huff as Chu Shuzhi joined in smirking at her. “She’s one of my Elders; the SID doesn’t need to have any official claim on her.”

“You’re getting better at judging that kind of balance,” Shen Wei told her, quietly approving, and suppressed a smile at how she blushed. She used to do that over Yunlan’s notice, and he had to admit he approved of the shift in her focus to pride in her leadership ability.

They followed after Ma Heng’s team, through the wide halls of the offices and into the long chemical labs that made up the product research section. Passing down a hall of tall windows that looked onto an interior courtyard with a few trees and benches scattered in it, they could see the only lab with lights still on, on the other side of it. He exchanged a long look with Yunlan, silently agreeing that they were presenting far too obvious a target for anyone who might be watching out.

“Have a bad feeling that’s going to backfire on the old man,” Yunlan said, very softly.

“Probably unintentionally,” since Shen Wei doubted Zhao Xinci had meant for whatever disparaging words he’d spoken to Ma Heng about the SID to make light of the possible danger, “but yes.” He shot a quick, warning glance at Chu Shuzhi, who nodded and nudged xiao-Guo out to the side, flanking Yunlan and Shen Wei.

Presence flashed cold and heavy in Shen Wei’s senses and he barely had time to call, “Down!” before every floor-to-ceiling window around the courtyard shattered.

Fortunately for Shen Wei’s cover with the rest of the Ministry, catching objects was a skill he’d enlisted the entire office to drill Yunlan in. It had resulted in a great deal of silliness defended as “Professor Shen’s orders” but it also meant that green-laced force shot up in front of them all like a cliff face against the avalanche of broken glass thrown at them. Crouched behind that shelter, Chu Shuzhi flexed his fingers, strings starting to gather between them, and xiao-Guo pulled his baton out of his bag and held it tight. Zhu Hong drew in a long breath between parted lips and abruptly reared back. “That’s a Dixingren!”

“You’re sure of that?” Yunlan asked, slowly lowering his hand and power as the last of the glass dropped to the floor.

She nodded firmly. “The scent is really clear.” And then she paused, frowning, and added slower, “Unusually clear.”

Shen Wei drew in a sharp breath and his eyes locked with Yunlan’s, just as wide as his own felt. “Not a victim. A partner.” Luo had given the stolen sample to someone who already had power. No wonder the presence in his senses was so heavy.

“What better way to get revenge on Ouyang?” Yunlan agreed, and reached out to squeeze Ma Heng’s shoulder. “Get back, you and your men; back behind some concrete, if you can. This just became the SID’s business.”

“We can still back you up,” the man insisted. Shen Wei appreciated such staunchness. Perhaps Ma Heng didn’t need to be added to the office’s ‘going to be trouble’ list after all. Yunlan shook his head, though.

“The only thing you’ll be able to do is shoot him. He’s broken the rules of entry from Dixing but he hasn’t killed anyone. Let’s not have it be us that make it life or death, hm?”

Shen Wei stifled a sigh. It wasn’t that he didn’t approve of Yunlan’s desire not to kill his people; he did. He just approved Yunlan’s continued wellbeing more strongly.

Ma Heng beckoned his men back, if reluctantly, and Shen Wei stepped carefully across the glass at Yunlan’s side.

There was a man waiting for them, on the other side of the courtyard, and Shen Wei heard Yunlan’s breath draw in harshly. A welter of uncontrolled threads of power spun around the man, shadow twined with eye-hurting shades of red. “Is that as bad as I think it looks?” Yunlan asked, low.

“It’s not much under his control,” Shen Wei agreed, “and… I think whichever result he took has forced the potential of his soul as well as adding to his power as a ghost.”

“Out of control, unstable, possibly crazy, with two different types of power,” Yunlan summed up with a sigh. “Wonderful.” As they edged deeper into the manicured square of grass and trees, he called, “I don’t suppose you’d like to come with us quietly?”

The man gave them as unbalanced a grin as Shen Wei had ever seen on one of his people’s faces. “When I have the chance to strike down the one who keeps us penned?” Tendrils of his power flicked at Shen Wei like a cat’s paw striking, and he deflected them calmly, considering their weight. It was nowhere near his own strength, but heavy enough for what had been more punctuation than a serious attempt to harm.

Yunlan spread his hands wide, a gesture that never failed to make Shen Wei tense up, in the field. “Oh come on! We’ve got a visiting process all set up, why not use that?” Under cover of his expansiveness, Chu Shuzhi drifted further off to the side, angling toward a clear path of attack.

“As if we don’t know what happens to anyone who trusts your laws,” the man spat. “As if Lan-jie wasn’t killed that way!” Shen Wei had one moment to remember the case of Luo Lan, and the very pointed discussion he’d had with Zhao Xinci about lines of custody and spheres of authority afterwards, and then things happened very quickly.

Chu Shuzhi’s burning blue strings wrapped around their opponent only to snap as black and red heaved against them, and Chu took xiao-Guo with him as he dove aside from the return lash of power. Another arm of it crashed down on Shen Wei, and this time he had to brace himself, hands raised to guide his own power as he pushed it back. The storm of red and black surged forward again immediately, this time straight for Yunlan.

And for one split second, Yunlan froze, hand twitching up and then toward his jacket, hovering empty of either gun or power. In that tiny breath of hesitation, their opponent’s power struck him, threw him back with an audible thud against the trunk of a tree.

The world seemed to freeze around Shen Wei, crystalizing around a single thought. He should have known. He should have expected this, and thought ahead, and been sure to drill Yunlan to catch another’s power just as surely as he did objects. He should have known.

The faint rustle as Yunlan dropped, boneless and silent, to the ground snapped the frozen world into shards, splintering in the rising surge of his rage, and Shen Wei reached deep into himself for the well of his power, restraint abandoned.


Zhu Hong started to dodge out from behind the minimal cover of a bench to drag the Chief around to the other side of the tree, only to stumble to her knees as a crushing weight of power exploded through the courtyard and outward. Qing-jie’s alarm call pulled her eyes up to see the crow diving for the roof as dark clouds poured across the whole sky like ink spilled into water. A sharp crack and actinic glow yanked her gaze back down to where Shen Wei stood, rage black in his eyes and the harsh set of his jaw, hand reaching out to call his glaive to him. When the butt of it struck the ground, frost raced outward all around, and threads of lightning licked out from the foxfire glow around him to follow. A rising cyclone of wind caught up shards of glass and pulled on steel beams until the building around them groaned.

Every instinct, both human and serpent, told Zhu Hong to freeze. To huddle still under the weight of that world-shattering fury and hope it passed her by. The last gasp of sensible thought, though, drove her creeping through the grass to Zhao Yunlan, because if he was seriously injured then all that was left was to pray Shen Wei’s wrath spared Zhao Yunlan’s own team. If he was dead… Zhu Hong’s hand was shaking as she reached out to feel his pulse, and she flinched helplessly as lightning split the air and the man they’d come for barely managed to scream before the scent of scorched meat blew over her.

Zhao Yunlan’s pulse beat under her fingers.

“He’s alive!” The rush of wind and crack of thunder drowned her out, and she drew in a deeper breath to shout it again before the cold, cutting wind and lightning dancing around Shen Wei destroyed the whole industrial park. The attempt strangled when she saw the small, black form diving straight down the throat of the cyclone around them to land at Shen Wei’s feet, rising into Qing-jie’s human shape, black gown whipping around her on the wind.

“Enough!” Those burning black eyes fell on Ya Qing, and Zhu Hong could see how she flinched back half a step before stiffening her spine; she’d never been more impressed with her lover than she was in this moment. Qing-jie raised her voice again, insistent. “The one you protect is safe!” She pointed toward Zhu Hong and Zhao Yunlan, who thankfully chose that moment groan and stir.

Shen Wei’s eyes closed, and Zhu Hong could see the long breath he drew in. As he released it, the wind slackened. Another breath and the clouds thinned, only heavy and gray now instead of that terrifying, lightning-laced black. When Shen Wei opened his eyes again, Zhu Hong thought there was sense in them, and relief made her hands shaky as she propped Zhao Yunlan mostly upright. She could see Qing-jie’s feathers and cloak trembling from across the courtyard.

Shen Wei finally released his glaive, and his words dropped into the falling quiet. “You have never lacked for courage, Ya Qing.”

Qing-jie bowed silently, and Zhu Hong only waited until Shen Wei had come to take the Chief from her before scrambling to Qing-jie’s side. Sure enough, she was shaking harder than Zhu Hong. “Are you all right?” Zhu Hong asked, anxious.

“I am.” Qing-jie leaned on her. “I would rather not do that again, though.”

Zhu Hong hugged her tight, uncaring for any watching eyes as lao-Chu and xiao-Guo and a few police slowly emerged from shelter.


Shen Wei helped Yunlan to his feet, unable to keep his hands from patting him down, heart still beating fast and hard. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

Yunlan waved one hand, though he kept the other clamped on Shen Wei’s shoulder. It made his attempt at insouciance only mildly convincing. “Just some bruises, I’ll be fine.” His brows rose higher the longer he looked around the scorched, frozen, and wind-battered courtyard. “Well. I guess now we know what shape your power takes most easily. Storm, huh?”

“You were injured,” Shen Wei pointed out acerbically. “What would you expect?”

“Not quite this much violence, maybe?” Yunlan eyed a cracked steel support beam. When he looked back to meet Shen Wei’s tight-lipped glare, though, he stilled for a long moment and then glanced aside. “Guess I should be more careful, then.”

“I would appreciate it greatly.” Shen Wei blew out a breath and made himself ease back from the edge of temper that panic had pushed him up on. “You will never not be the most important thing to me,” he added, more softly, “but I will try to restrain myself, yes. I… wasn’t quite prepared for how much more power I truly have to draw on, now.”

Yunlan glanced over his shoulder and grimaced. “Is our suspect still alive?”

“Yes. For now,” Shen Wei bit out, and had to yank his temper back down again. “Though he could probably do with a hospital visit.”

“All right.” Yunlan rubbed the back of his head gingerly. “I could maybe do with a checkup myself, I suppose.” He turned to check on everyone else and his mouth curled up, rueful and amused, when he got to the police team. “And then we’d probably better visit Minister Guo.”

Shen Wei pulled his brain back into line, along with his temper, and sighed as he contemplated the abrupt change in the shape of their campaign within the Ministry, with his identity revealed. “We’d better go in ready to tell him who you are, as well.”

Yunlan’s glance was as sharp as ever, even if his balance seemed shaky. “Mm. You think we can work him around that quickly, from panic that the Zhao he was hanging his hat on is outside his control to appreciation that he’s got more than just a Zhao in his corner?”

Even with his growing concern, as Yunlan leaned more heavily on his shoulder, a part of Shen Wei relaxed into the warm comfort of a partner whose thoughts matched his. “He focuses on the bigger picture, whenever he has a chance to. It’s why he chose you for his side, after all.”

Yunlan made a thoughtful noise and pulled out his phone to take pictures of the scene, especially of the torn construction materials and trees. Shen Wei smiled helplessly at Yunlan’s instinct for the most dramatic presentation possible and glanced around the courtyard. Chu Shuzhi was over by their criminal with a rather green looking xiao-Guo, taking the precaution of trussing the man up with ties. Shen Wei approved. Zhu Hong had righted a bench for Ya Qing and was on her own phone, demanding emergency vehicles. Ma Heng was edging towards them with white showing all the way around his eyes. Shen Wei nudged Yunlan gently, so he’d stop snapping pictures and notice.

“Xiao-Zhao,” Ma Heng started, keeping his eyes fixed on Yunlan, voice rather thin. Yunlan smiled at him as calmly as if he dealt with such destruction every day, which was… less untrue that Shen Wei really wished, given the last few years.

“Lao-Ma. We’ll take care of custody for this suspect, since he falls into our area. Are any of your men injured?”

“No, but…” He twitched as Shen Wei stirred, and Shen Wei took care to keep his voice low and soothing, the way he would for a student who was anxious over an exam.

“Did your men find Luo Qiang here?”

Ma Heng blinked, shaken at least a little out of his fear. “I… no?”

“Please make sure a search for him is started, then. If this man was mad enough to attack me, he may have been mad enough to kill his own collaborator.”

Ma Heng nodded slowly, eyes skittering around the courtyard. “Yes, of course. We’ll keep looking.” He seemed to rally a little, as Shen Wei made no move to strike him down, and waved an arm around as he turned back to Yunlan. “But what was that?! Who…? What…?” His glance kept flickering toward Shen Wei.

Yunlan held up a hand. “That’s not general knowledge, I’m afraid. I’ll be sure to ask the Minister to address it for you, though, since you were right in the middle of our work, this time.”

“The Minister knows?” Ma Heng seized on that implication, looking hopeful.

Yunlan held up his phone, still showing his last photo of the courtyard. “I’ll be reporting to him as soon as the hospital lets me go.”

Ma Heng slumped a little in obvious relief. “Right. Yes, of course. I’ll take care of informing the company, xiao-Zhao, you go on.” He bustled off, fortunately before Shen Wei lost control of the bubble of laughter in his chest.

“You’re very good at talking around the truth. I’ll have to remember that.”

Yunlan’s lean against him turned a little less heavy and a little more deliberate. “It’s a talent.” And then he winced at the sound of approaching sirens, immediately quelling Shen Wei’s amusement.

“Zhu Hong.” She jumped as if he’d stuck her with a pin instead of called her name, eyes wide as she looked around, but she wasn’t shaking any more when she came over. Shen Wei gave her a steady, approving nod, and her spine straightened a little more. “Can you deal with the scene, here? I’d like to get him over to the hospital.”

She took a good breath. “Yes. I’ll take care of the rest.”

He paused, considering her, and tipped his head toward where Ya Qing sat on her salvaged bench, looking composed once again. “Thank Ya Qing for me. You chose well, in the one who will support you.”

Zhu Hong instantly forgot the remainder of her nerves and ducked her head, blushing pink.

“Call Cong Bo, while you’re at it,” Yunlan added over his shoulder as Shen Wei turned them around. “Tell him to make sure there are no leaks from the police side. Yet.”

“Yet?” Shen Wei asked, keeping an arm around Yunlan as they threaded their way back through the halls.

“I might suggest some of the information go out that way. Did you see how Cai Peng and Ye Xiuying were looking at you?” Yunlan smiled. “Once they got over the first shock, I think they kind of approved.”

Shen Wei looked over at him, brows lifted and Yunlan elbowed him lightly.

“It’s not just my personal maniacs that can appreciate you, you know. What else was the past eight months worth of campaigning about?”

“I was under the impression it was to reduce fear of my people,” Shen Wei noted dryly.

“That too, of course.” Yunlan smiled at the catch in Shen Wei’s stride, perfectly serene. Shen Wei tried, as they emerged into a parking lot increasingly crowded with emergency vehicles, not to be visibly flustered by the curl of pleasure at Yunlan’s regard, so familiar and so dearly missed for so long. Yunlan leaned into him a little more and murmured against his ear, “You said it yourself, didn’t you? You’ll always be the most important thing, to me.”

Shen Wei was aware the paramedic was giving him a rather odd look as she escorted them toward one of the two ambulances. He really couldn’t help the brightness of his smile, though.

Three

By the time they got to the Ministry, both temper and pleasure had settled a bit and Shen Wei felt prepared, if not exactly ready, to deal with politics. He watched Minister Guo carefully for any signs of distress, but the worst he saw was a hard swallow or two as Guo Ying looked through Yunlan’s pictures of the destroyed courtyard. He was not, therefore, surprised when the Minister passed over protestations of ‘impossible’ or questions of ‘how’.

“Why was I not informed this was a possibility?”

Shen Wei exchanged a swift glance with Yunlan and returned his tiny nod; this was as good an opening as they would get. He settled back in his seat, legs crossed, and rested his folded hands on his knee, reaching for professorial rather than otherworldly authority. “I could have told you of that, at least, yes. Or rather, I could have told you a half lie. The truth is something it will be very difficult for you to believe, Minister Guo; that would have been so even before your kind burned your own history. It’s been thousands of years, now, since scholars started to believe that because gods no longer walk the world to be seen, they never existed at all.”

Guo Ying jerked back in his chair. “Are you claiming to be a god, as well as the Envoy?”

“I am, yes.” Shen Wei smiled faintly, aware that Yunlan was having a certain amount of fun watching this. The Minister, on the other hand, was starting to look a little wild around the eyes. “I did say this would be difficult to believe. It may help, though, if you consider: what is a god?”

“That… But…!”

“A soul. A spirit. A personality. A body,” Shen Wei continued calmly. “Gods have same parts of being any other living, thinking creature has. But in them, far more than in humans or ghosts, those parts are mutable, answering to the will. And the potential power bound up within them is… well.” He waved a hand at the phone still clutched in the Minister’s hand. “As you see. That was actually a fairly mild response, as these things go.”

Guo Ying scrubbed a palm over his face, took a breath, and visibly pushed aside his shock. “Leaving the details aside, two things about this concern me. One is, as you say, the potential power and potential catastrophe walking around the city.” He stared down at the phone again and added, with a distinct edge of disbelief, “Teaching university classes.”

Yunlan snickered and, at the Minister’s brief glower, turned his laugh into several unconvincing coughs. Shen Wei leaned a little more firmly against his shoulder; he suspected the painkillers the hospital had given Yunlan were taking effect, though he also had to admit that Yunlan didn’t have much respect for authority on the best of days. Fortunately, the attentive look Shen Wei turned on the Minister was a bit more convincing. Guo Ying, demonstrating a pleasing degree of wisdom, focused on him.

“The second concern is the political issue of having a foreign head of state working within the Ministry.”

“I guess we could always take you off the official payroll,” Yunlan suggested, eyes still bright with amusement.

To Shen Wei’s interest, Guo Ying flapped an impatient hand. “That’s not the problem. ‘Consultant’ can cover a lot of ground, and we’ve done this once with Chief Elder Zhu Hong already. The problem is that this needs to be documented, with scopes of authority laid out, and approved at the highest levels of our government. Anything else is asking for very serious trouble at the lower levels.” He straightened up and continued as formally as if they were, indeed, meeting in their most official capacities, “Is there anyone who can confirm your identity, for the record, Your Eminence?”

“Aside from every one of my people now resident in the city?” Shen Wei asked, a bit dryly, but shook his head at the Minister’s frustrated expression. “I know you need someone not under my direct influence.” He glanced at Yunlan, questioning. There was one possibility, but that one came with his own problems. Yunlan took a slow breath, looking down at his hands, and finally nodded. Shen Wei quietly rested a hand over Yunlan’s as he turned back to Guo. “Zhao Xinci has known my identity for some time.”

The Minister’s eyes narrowed just a little. “Did he.”


Guo Ying had long considered Zhao Xinci the exemplar of a specific type of career Ministry employee. He was only modestly talented; he got results through persistent and methodical work, rather than through brilliance. He was also intensely loyal to the Ministry itself, valuing proceedure and the Ministry’s reputation above all else. Guo Ying had never considered that entirely admirable, though he was aware many other members of the Ministry did admire Zhao Xinci for it.

So Guo Ying had been careful, when he’d become Minister. He’d taken Zhao Xinci’s smiling support with a grain of salt. And when Zhao Yunlan had finally stepped up to oppose his father’s anti-Dixing agenda directly, Guo Ying had placed his trust with the one of them he knew to hold ferociously to integrity and compassion. That hadn’t changed the fact that Zhao Xinci was his head of the Supervisory Bureau, though, so when Zhao Xinci stepped into his office today, Guo Ying nodded courteously.

“Director Zhao, thank you for joining us.”

Zhao Xinci’s glance turned hard for one small second, as it passed over Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei, but smoothed again into a warm smile. “Of course, Minister. How can I assist?”

Guo Ying passed over the by-play, the way he’d been doing all year. “It has become necessary to have a member of the Ministry confirm Shen Wei’s identity. Would you be willing to do so, for the record?”

Zhao Xinci’s smile abruptly froze, and his head snapped around to direct that cold look at Shen Wei. A crinkle ran down Guo Ying’s spine, seeing Shen Wei’s polite patience fall away, in turn. Watching Shen Wei’s eyes turn hard, he realized just how much care the man had been taking to be courteous and accommodating.

“You said this would never need to go beyond the SID,” Zhao Xinci said flatly.

“You forget yourself,” Shen Wei cut back, cold. “Was that treaty made with you, or even the Office of Dixing Affairs, as was? It was not. I said that knowledge of my identity need not go beyond the SID, as things stood.” He spread his hands flat against the table, and Guo Ying didn’t think it was entirely his imagination that there was a flicker of light around them. “Do not think that you ever had control over me, Zhao Xinci. My first bargain was never with you.”

That caught Guo Ying’s attention on the political level again, and he held out a quieting hand toward Zhao Xinci and reached for formality to lay over the tension in the room like a fire blanket. “May I ask who it was with, Your Eminence, as this appears to have some bearing on Dixing and human relations?”

Some of the chill faded from Shen Wei’s bearing, and he inclined his head gracefully to Guo Ying. “You may. When Kunlun, god of mountains, sacrificed himself to create the Lamp and make way for returning human life, I bargained with Shen Nong to see his soul reincarnated as a human. My part of the bargain was to guard humans from my own kind, even to the destruction of every one of us should the seal between realms break again.”

Guo Ying jerked back in his chair, honestly shocked by the brutality of such a demand. “That seems… extreme.”

“Only sensible, surely,” Zhao Xinci murmured, and Guo Ying suppressed a passing urge to gag his Director of Supervision with his own tie. Was it really necessary to antagonize an apparent ally with the kind of power it was clear Shen Wei wielded?

Shen Wei didn’t even shrug, though, merely flicked his fingers dismissively. “From the viewpoint of the god who most loved humanity, after Nuwa herself, yes. The nature of my kind, in and of itself, was inimical to humans.”

“That’s changed now, though,” Zhao Yunlan put in quietly, completely focused on Shen Wei, even to the exclusion of his father for once, which caught Guo Ying’s attention. “That old mistake is healed. Your bargain is fulfilled.”

The iron hard line of Shen Wei’s shoulders eased just a little, and he smiled faintly at Zhao Yunlan. “Almost. When there are methods in place to regulate interaction that don’t require the threat of my power to secure… then perhaps I will think it done.”

Guo Ying relaxed, himself, at this calming of the atmosphere, at least until he noticed the hard look Zhao Xinci was giving his son. “You don’t think it a bit presumptuous to declare an end to someone else’s agreement?” the Director asked.

Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei both went very still, and tension wound itself back up Guo Ying’s spine as he tried to anticipate how they might react, and once again damned Zhao Xinci’s intractable distaste for Dixing and the powers of its people. Shen Wei quietly turned his hand palm up, and Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them, Guo Ying found himself frozen by the weight of his gaze, a bottomless depth that wasn’t calm but was knowing.

“That bargain was made for my sake. I am not apart from it.”

Guo Ying felt like he’d physically tripped over something, the conclusion that presented itself was such a shock. Which was, perhaps, why his normal grasp on diplomacy deserted him and he actually said out loud, “Ah. Two gods on my payroll, then?”

Apparently it was the right approach, though, because the momentary smile that flashed over Shen Wei’s face was wry, perhaps even sympathetic, and the weight of Zhao Yunlan’s quiet certainty melted into a sheepish grin. “Yeah, well, apparently dying and being re-formed out of pure energy will do that to you sometimes.”

Guo Ying blinked. “Dying?”

Zhao Yunlan paused, mouth open for a moment, and then stared at the ceiling. “Ah. We hadn’t gotten around to mentioning that part, had we?”

“Yunlan!” Zhao Xinci snapped, abruptly tense. And it seemed that the intimidating weight of Zhao Yunlan’s presence hadn’t dissipated so much as been set aside, because it fell back around him like a cloak as he turned to stare at his father for a long, silent moment.

“Zhang Shi was wrong to ever take a host without their consent,” he said at last. “Even your pragmatism has limits, and you were already wounded by that intrusion when you lost Mother to another Dixingren.” Zhao Yunlan’s eyes were dark and heavy and old, holding his father’s. “I know that he probably influenced you far more strongly than you ever admitted, during the crisis two years ago. But you’re free of that now. Isn’t it time you decided for yourself what it is you think and feel?”

Zhao Xinci was pressed back in his chair, shoulders stiff, jaw set.

This sounded like a far deeper problem than Guo Ying had ever thought lay behind Zhao Xinci’s hostility to Dixing. If so, though, he absolutely needed to know the full story, and Zhao Xinci did not look the slightest bit willing to tell it. “Director Zhao,” Ying said, softly, “I think I need to speak with these gentlemen alone. Please write up that affidavit confirming the Black-cloaked Envoy’s civilian identity, will you?”

Zhao Xinci composed himself with the kind of speed Guo Ying didn’t entirely believe. “Of course, Minister.”

Guo Ying waited for the door to close quietly behind him before turning back to his increasingly complicated visitors. “Perhaps,” he requested, a bit tightly, “you could tell me the whole of this story from the beginning?”

Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan exchanged another long, speaking look and nodded to each other.


Shen Wei let Yunlan tell most of the story, this time. A quick glance between them agreed on it: what they needed now was a human’s perspective on what it meant to change one’s nature as Yunlan had. That was the perspective closest to Guo Ying’s heart, and the viewpoint most likely to make sense of what might otherwise seem utterly alien—Yunlan’s power, Zhang Shi’s centuries of interference.

Thinking about how this fit into their campaign helped distract him from the tangle of his emotions: worry over Yunlan’s tension from the moment his father had entered the room; immense irritation with Zhao Xinci; the shock of breathless warmth, hearing the weight of their past in Yunlan’s voice; calculation of just what penalties he might need to bring to bear on Zhang Shi, and how much of that story he might get from Yunlan. He needed to think about all of those, but not in the middle of a meeting with the human Ministry.

When Yunlan had finished, the Minister clasped his hands tight before him on the table and asked quietly, “This came to you because of your past and the Lamp. That I can understand, even if it still seems strange. But what is happening to Changcheng?”

Yunlan passed the question to Shen Wei with a glance. “The same thing that’s happened to humans from the beginning,” Shen Wei answered, just as quietly. “This is a door that has always been within all of you. Sometimes humans have found the key to it by long virtue and reflection. Sometimes you’ve stumbled through it by accident, and a life lived so intensely in one direction that the weight of it pushes the door open. Professor Ouyang found, not a key, but an axe. The people he injected found the door broken down without any of that preparation.” Shen Wei opened a hand toward the man sitting at his side, quiet and a little wrung out if Shen Wei was any judge. “Zhao Yunlan had other memories to rely on, to help him when that happened, yes. But your nephew was not wholly without such aid. Guo Changcheng had his own purity of purpose and spirit, and those have brought him through the change safely. Be at ease, Minister Guo. Your nephew will be well.”

Yunlan leaned forward, hands clasped loosely on the table, every line of his body projecting reassurance to support Shen Wei’s words. “We’re not saying it’s all going to be easy. The gift he found in himself isn’t a light one. But he’s still one of my people, and I keep my people safe.”

The Minister looked up at that, caught by something in Yunlan’s words. “Yes, you do,” he agreed, slowly, and finally sat back. “That’s the essential heart of my job as well. If I can trust you to take care of your part…”

Yunlan gave him a firm nod, eyes steady on his. “I will, Minister Guo.”

Guo Ying returned it. “All right, then.” He took a breath and turned back to Shen Wei. “Your Eminence. I have to admit that it’s extremely irregular to employ a foreign head of state in the Ministry. But we’ve made use of legal fictions plenty of times in the past, and I have to offer my compliments on just how solid a legal fiction Professor Shen Wei is. If your people will also be willing to abide by the fiction, I believe this can be made to work.”

“My people are extremely adaptable,” Shen Wei noted, dryly. It was a massive understatement, given their lack of any internal ordering principle until this very year. If this was how he meant to go on, well, there was no better time to establish the precedent. He glanced at Yunlan, meaning to voice the question, only to smile wryly and let the breath out unused. Yunlan looked back at him, unwavering support in his steady gaze. “I will convey this news to the Regent, and to my people living as citizens here.”

“All right, then.” Guo Ying held out his hand. “Thank you for your support, Professor Shen.”

Shen Wei huffed a soft laugh, amused by the man’s mix of forthright honesty and pragmatism, and reached back to shake his hand. “My pleasure, Minister Guo.”

“Good. Now.” Guo Ying ran his hands through his hair. “Please get out of town for a week or so, both of you, while I figure out how to break this news to the rest of the Ministry.”

Yunlan laughed and pushed upright. “Sure thing, Minister.” Shen Wei smiled and followed him.

As they made their way through the halls of the Ministry headquarters, Yunlan gave him a sidelong glance. “So. We never did get to have a honeymoon, did we?”

“We never did find time to train you properly in using your power, either,” Shen Wei countered, a fact that was now weighing harder than ever on his mind.

“Dual purpose trip?” Yunlan offered in a hopeful tone. “Out of the city somewhere?”

“I suppose that would be acceptable,” Shen Wei allowed, and rolled his eyes a little at the cheery arm Yunlan draped across his shoulders as they stepped out the front doors, and the way it made the building guards smirk. They were always amused by Chief Zhao teasing the reserved Professor Shen, and Yunlan seemed to like putting on that show. Shen Wei didn’t actually protest, of course. He’d never really been able to say no to Yunlan.

As far as he could tell, the entire world had much the same problem, so he didn’t worry too much about it.

“So, just us this time?” Yunlan asked, as he started the car. “No kids along?”

“I believe that’s traditional, yes.” Shen Wei leaned back against the seat, reaching for all the small, familiar things to settle himself again. The rumble of the Jeep’s frankly overpowered engine. The way Yunlan shrugged himself more comfortably into his seat. The habitual flick of Yunlan’s eyes over the dash and mirrors, ending on Shen Wei himself.

“Are you all right?” Yunlan asked quietly, hands resting still on the wheel. “Usually it’s me losing his temper with the old man, not you.”

Shen Wei closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the spark of his own potential-nearly-actual along his skin, power still roused up and only barely waiting to be used. He suspected it would take a while to calm all the way. “I will be.”

“Hey.” The warmth of Yunlan’s hand on his cheek made him look around. Yunlan was smiling, small and soft, the intimate smile that was just for him. “I won’t leave you again.”

Shen Wei jerked taut before he could stop himself, fear leaping up from where it lurked in the back of his mind, as soon as it was named. “Yunlan…”

“Shh, shh, xiao-Wei.” Yunlan leaned across their seats, thumb stroking gently over Shen Wei’s cheek. “Listen to me. I promise I will do everything in my power to stay with you. All right?”

Shen Wei searched the bright eyes so steady on his own. “Everything?” he asked softly. Today had demonstrated very clearly that Yunlan wasn’t entirely comfortable with his own regained capacity.

Yunlan’s smile turned a little crooked, but he didn’t look away. “Everything. I promise.”

Zhao Yunlan made very few promises, Shen Wei had noticed, and never lightly. He took a slow breath and let this one settle into his heart and mind, let it soothe back the bared edge of fear. “All right.”

Yunlan leaned in a little further and kissed him, sweet and warm, before settling back and putting the car in gear. “Good. So where should we go?”

Shen Wei cast a thoughtful look up over the roofs of the city to the mountains, remembering what they’d said a few weeks ago about places Yunlan might be comfortable practicing with his power. “I think I know of a place we can use.” And maybe the idea of a ‘honeymoon’ was a good one, after all. Perhaps, away from both of their jobs and people and responsibilities for a while, they could find some peace that was for themselves and not just other people.

He hoped so. Even Yunlan’s promise couldn’t immediately unwind the fear from ten thousand years of watching humans die with such terrifying ease.

Not immediately, but with a little time… maybe.

End