The Conflict of Water with the Heavens

Zhao Xinci invites Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei to dinner and an argument. Predictably, Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei are too busy trying to protect each other to bother about themselves. Drama with Characterization and a soupçon of Angst, I-3


Zhao Yunlan looked up from his screen, a little startled. That was Li Huiliang’s voice, and Zhang Shi was usually careful to call him ‘Chief’ at work. “Yeah?” he asked, trying not to sound too obviously wary.

She stopped hovering in the door, at least, and came to hold out a folded sheet of paper. “This came for you. It’s from your father.”

After a long, still moment of wrestling down the sharp tangle of anger and love and disappointment and trepidation—which hadn’t gotten the littlest bit less tangled in the past year and a half—Yunlan reached out and took it. “Thanks.”

“He wants to have dinner with you.”

Yunlan opened his mouth to note that Zhang Shi still didn’t seem to know the meaning of ‘private’, and then sighed and shut it again. At the moment, it was her job to open everything and know everyone’s schedule. “Thanks.”

She hesitated, looking like there was something she wanted to say too, but finally shook her head, patted his shoulder silently, and left.

After another minute to brace himself for whatever cutting additions there might be to the dinner invitation, Yunlan unfolded the letter. “Seven o’clock, know it’s a slow month—as if, you’ve forgotten the paperwork already old man?—bring…”

Yunlan broke off, nearly choking on air in sheer surprise, and stared at the characters right there in black and white.

Xiao-Wei let them get home, at least, before he laid a hand on Yunlan’s shoulder, just inside the door, and turned Yunlan gently to face him. “Yunlan. What happened, today?”

Yunlan ran his hands through his hair. “It’s… It’s my father. He wants me to come for dinner.” For the first time in over four years. “And he wants me to bring you.”

Xiao-Wei’s brows rose. “To a family dinner?”

“Apparently.” Yunlan pulled the letter out of his jacket and handed it over. Xiao-Wei took it and read as he moved into the living room, passing it from one hand to another as he shrugged out of his jacket. Yunlan focused on the grace of the motion to distract himself from the lowgrade confusion and anxiety that had made up his day since the letter arrived.

“Hm.” Xiao-Wei glanced back over his shoulder and Yunlan took the moment to admire the sharp line of his cheekbones. “You did tell him he should decide for himself what he thinks, these days. Perhaps he has.”

The tangle of Yunlan’s emotions bit down again, right through his attempts to distract himself. He gave up and went to wind his arms around xiao-Wei, hoping for comfort instead. Xiao-Wei gathered him close, resting his temple against Yunlan’s. “Do you want to refuse?” he asked, softly.

Yunlan was quiet for a moment, weighing his feelings, even if he couldn’t quite disentangle them. “Not quite.”

“Then I’ll come with you,” xiao-Wei said, simply. Yunlan relaxed a little into that unquestioning support.

“Yeah. All right.”

Yunlan thought he might actually be experiencing vertigo, the feeling of disorientation was so strong at seeing his father in shirtsleeves, bringing plates to the kitchen table. It felt like ten years ago, when his father was still trying to provide, even if most of the food was carry-out. It felt like eight years ago, and a rather obligatory congratulation dinner when he graduated—which, in retrospect had almost certainly been Zhang Shi. It felt like five years ago, and a ream of sharp, useless, advice on how to handle the Division. Always his father still in his work clothes, and the bright kitchen table with the dark dining room a door away. Didn’t Yunlan have enough problems with old memory, these days?

At least he retained enough sense to watch xiao-Wei. There was such a world of culinary disdain in the momentary look down his nose at the rather limp greens and peppers that Yunlan almost laughed.


“So,” he said, picking out a small piece of honey pork and an equally small bit of rice, “what’s the occasion?”

His father swallowed his own mouthful, sharp eyes fixed on Yunlan. “I’ve been doing a little research about this thing you apparently used to be.”

“The whole god thing?” Yunlan examined a bit of pepper and decided he was getting spoiled by xiao-Wei’s cooking; it didn’t look appetizing at all.

“Mm.” His father took a quick drink, setting his glass back down precisely in place. “If the bits of legends that still exist mean what I think they do, it was a piece of Kunlun that was misappropriated to create ghosts. Dixingren. A part of him that was… spilled, and the spill consumed in the creation of a mockery of life.” The man seemed to be ignoring or maybe not even noticing how white xiao-Wei’s knuckles were getting around his chopsticks, though Yunlan was sure keeping an eye on that. His father leaned forward, intent as if he had a suspect in front of him. “If you are Kunlun, how can you not hate that? That theft of what you were?”

Yunlan sat back, eyeing his father thoughtfully. He thought it might be a genuine question, however aggressively it fished for one answer. He slanted a look over at xiao-Wei, and after a long moment the hard line of xiao-Wei’s mouth eased just a little and he nodded. Always the teacher, Yunlan reflected fondly; even being justifiably furious didn’t stop xiao-Wei from wanting to help people learn. He took mental hold of that fondness, like a guideline running between present and past, and reached for memory.

What he sank into was amusement.

“It was a gift, not a theft,” Yunlan murmured, closing his eyes for a moment to weigh that knowledge in his mind, and the tickle of a laugh that came with it. “And it was me. I don’t see why anyone was surprised it took an unexpected turn. Shen Nong, yeah, he was pissed off, but then he liked to pretend that none of us had any of the world’s darkness in us.” Yunlan opened his eyes with a snort of laughter, in complete agreement with his past opinion of this. “Such bullshit.”

Xiao-Wei reached out to touch Yunlan’s knee under the table, smiling soft and brilliant, the way he did when they managed to share a memory. “You all the way down,” he murmured, reminding Yunlan of the truths they’d found on their little vacation up in the mountains, and Yunlan couldn’t help smiling back. It was getting easier to believe that, as he got more used to thinking of Kunlun’s power as his own, but it still helped to hear xiao-Wei say it. He was calmer than he’d felt all day, when he looked back at his father.

“That answer your question, old man?”

His father was sitting so still he might have been turned to stone. “Then you’ve always…”

“Always been me?” Yunlan prodded, when he trailed off. “Seems that way.” The flash of what he swore was frustration, over his father’s face, was no more than he’d expected, but xiao-Wei stirred, beside him. He was looking thoughtful, when Yunlan glanced over.

“Souls are always what they are,” xiao-Wei said quietly, watching Zhao Xinci with dark eyes. “But living changes everyone, whether dying is involved or not. I am not, now, the same man I was ten thousand years ago. Neither is Zhao Yunlan. Neither are you the man I first met, Zhao Xinci.”

Zhao Xinci’s grip on his chopsticks tightened. It had always been the hands both of them showed tension in. “And you don’t think that’s a contradiction?” the old man asked, voice sharpening.

This time the certainty that rose in Yunlan felt so intensely his own, his own then and now, that it stole his breath and it was a moment before he could say, “Living things are always a contradiction. There is no answer that will always be right or always be wrong.”

“Nonsense,” his father snapped, and then paused right along with Yunlan because xiao-Wei was laughing. Very quietly, but definitely laughing.

“You have no idea how many times I’ve heard you have this argument. Once Legalism emerged as a philosophy, there were whole lives you devoted to arguing against it.” Shen Wei’s eyes flickered between them. “Even when you’d been taught another way, it was always care, for and in the moment, that you came back to as your basic principle.”

Yunlan started to answer and then stopped, attention caught by the way his father’s hands loosened and rested on the table. Bits of information snapped together in his mind to form a whole—the course of the discussion, his father’s question about Kunlun, Zhang Shi’s ability and inability. He spoke out of the shape of that sudden knowledge. “Zhang Shi could never change what you are. If he could, he wouldn’t have had to change what you did.”

His father’s head jerked back like he’d taken a blow, expression darkening. He’d never liked how much Yunlan relied on his intuition, his ability to connect the pieces and see. Yunlan had stopped giving a damn around ten years ago, and he was more than willing to press the issue this time since it was more than just him in the line of fire. “That’s why you wanted to see both of us, wasn’t it? To try to judge how much of me changed, and use Shen Wei’s knowledge of Kunlun to check your conclusion. That’s why you asked about the lost soul-fire like that; trying to provoke him so he’d speak without thinking. That’s why you didn’t like it when he spoke of how you changed. You’re afraid Zhang Shi changed what you are.”

His father’s expression went blank, like a board someone just wiped clean. Yunlan clapped a hand over his eyes and groaned. He was right. For fuck’s sake. “Did you ever consider just asking?” he demanded, dragging his hand down his face, utterly exasperated. His mother had said once that his father was very good at figuring people out but not nearly as good at dealing with the people themselves. Personally, Yunlan thought she’d been too generous.

“Of course not, when one of the people he would have to ask is me.” Xiao-Wei took a small sip of his water, the picture of composure if you didn’t see how tight his jaw was.

“Are you surprised I wouldn’t trust one of your kind?” Zhao Xinci cut back immediately, always on the attack when it was about Dixing, and Yunlan’s temper finally broke.

“You have a right to your own pain,” he snapped, “but you don’t have the right to make everyone else act like it’s theirs, too, just so you don’t have to admit that it’s yours!”

His father’s expression tried to blank again, but this time his brows flinched together the way they did when he was thinking about his wife. Yunlan suspected he was sounding a bit like her; she was certainly where he got most of his understanding of emotions from, including the understanding that he had some, a fact the old man seemed to like ignoring. He made an inarticulate sound of frustration, scrubbing his hands back through his hair.

A hand slid over his shoulder, gentle, and he looked up to see xiao-Wei watching him, focused completely on him, now, and ignoring his father like the man wasn’t there. He could see the offer in xiao-Wei’s eyes perfectly well, and shook a finger at him. “Don’t you dare. I am not listening to you say it doesn’t matter; it does.”

“Not this much,” xiao-Wei said, so quiet and sure that Yunlan was pretty sure he’d have been able to hear his own heart breaking for it, if his blood weren’t singing in his ears from how pissed off he was.

“Yes, this much.” Yunlan stood, catching xiao-Wei’s hand and pulling him along. “Great dinner, Dad, we’ll have to do this again. ‘Night.”

His father had stopped looking blank and was now sitting back in his chair, brows raised in a considering sort of look. “Good night,” he answered, slowly, like he’d just seen something he wasn’t sure he understood. Actual love, probably, Yunlan thought savagely.

Yunlan didn’t let go of xiao-Wei until they were at the Jeep, by which time xiao-Wei had stopped looking startled and started looking patient. Yunlan stifled a growl and took a breath. “You are not the reason that my father and I don’t agree,” he said, firmly, “and you making allowances for him won’t fix anything.”

Xiao-Wei leaned against the Jeep, arms crossed. “I’m the ruler of Dixing, and the one responsible for guarding the border between realms,” he pointed out. “I think I am the reason, actually.”

“You are not. He was an asshole who neglected his family before Zhang Shi.” Yunlan flexed his hands open and closed a few times, bleeding off what frustration he could, and made himself reach for calm; it was the only way he was going to win this argument. “He was also always someone who believed in rules and laws over personal connections. That’s why he can’t admit what he’s doing, what he’s trying to find out, maybe not even to himself. Not because he hates Dixingren; because he’s letting his personal feelings override Ministry law and policy.”

Xiao-Wei pushed away from the Jeep and came to rest his hands on Yunlan’s shoulders. “While you believe people are the most important,” he finished, softly. “But I don’t need you to confront your father for my sake, Yunlan. Truly.”

Yunlan couldn’t help a soft snort, because xiao-Wei knew him so well and still didn’t see it. Of course he didn’t. He stepped closer, running a hand up xiao-Wei’s arm to settle at the back of his neck, and spoke almost against xiao-Wei’s mouth. “What if it’s for my own sake?”

Xiao-Wei’s eyes were wide and dark. “What?” He sounded like he’d lost the thread of what they were talking about, which had been at least part of what Yunlan intended by touching him. He wanted xiao-Wei to really hear him. “You’re right. My father and I have different priorities, and at this point I think we always will.” He stroked a thumb gently down xiao-Wei’s neck. “I argue with him because I can’t agree and still be myself.”

Xiao-Wei leaned his forehead against Yunlan’s. “You can’t say this one wasn’t more intense because of me, though.”

“It was more intense because the old man was being especially wrong,” Yunlan corrected, and then smiled, feeling the truth of his next words all the way down. “And I wouldn’t care, even if it were because of you. Who I am, who I choose to be, is the man who loves you.” This close, he could feel the catch of xiao-Wei’s breath.

“Even…” Xiao-Wei cut himself off almost at once, but Yunlan could fill in the rest easily enough.

“Even over family,” he agreed, low and steady. “Zhao Xinci was the one who chose to deny what family should mean. He gets to live with the consequences.” He leaned in to kiss the protest he could feel coming off of xiao-Wei’s lips and added, “You already give me what I need, xiao-Wei. You are my history and my origin, and if I ever wanted kids, well there’s the whole rest of the Division.”

That made xiao-Wei laugh, even if it was a little unsteady. “All right.” His hands came up to cradle Yunlan’s face. “If that’s so, if you’re sure… then may I speak to him in your defense?”

It was probably very bad of Yunlan to spend a moment savoring the glorious mental image of Shen Wei’s cold temper taking Zhao Xinci apart. He did it anyway. “…just don’t actually kill him?” he finally answered, more than a little distracted.

“I did say speak,” xiao-Wei pointed out, and kissed Yunlan gently, hands sliding down Yunlan’s neck and over his chest. “Thank you. It’s been… difficult to hold back, sometimes, since I first saw the two of you actually in each other’s company.”

“And yet you’d have let him step all over you,” Yunlan grumbled, and glared briefly at xiao-Wei’s careless shrug. “All right, then, fair is fair. Let me speak in your defense, when he’s being an asshole.” Which would be all the time.

Xiao-Wei smiled, soft. “You do that already, Yunlan.”

“And you don’t get to try to stop me.” The streetlights made it hard to be sure, but Yunlan thought xiao-Wei might be blushing a little.

“If you’re sure this is what you wish,” xiao-Wei agreed, slowly.

All Yunlan’s lingering irritation from dinner melted at the reminder that that really was the most important thing, to Shen Wei. He leaned in to kiss xiao-Wei and murmur against his mouth, “Thank you. Home?”

Xiao-Wei drew back, reluctantly enough to make Yunlan think briefly about the possibility of making out against the side of the Jeep. “Yes.”

As Yunlan pulled out into the evening traffic, thinking about their apartment and their bed, he realized with a start that the acid tension that had usually followed a ‘family’ dinner, since his mother’s death, really was gone. He could turn his head all the way to check his blind spot and everything. Which didn’t mean he was going to go courting any more such meals, of course, but did make him smile and reach a hand over to rest on xiao-Wei’s knee. Xiao-Wei glanced over and smiled back, small and pleased, settling his hand over Yunlan’s. Maybe, Yunlan thought, they should have a real family dinner when they got home.

He liked that thought.