The Marriage of Lightning and the Lake

Zhu Hong works on how to be Chief Elder, and falls hard for Ya Qing in the process. (Her uncle may have a point about her terrible taste.) Fluff, Romance, Character Study, Drama with a Pinch of Action, I-3

Pairing(s): Ya Qing/Zhu Hong

Now

Zhu Hong had been brought up as the precious daughter of the Snake tribe. Her uncle had spoiled her, especially after she lost her parents. Her older cousins had doted on her, and she’d never lacked for indulgent eyes watching over her. She’d been the uncontested princess of the children her own age, and ruled over her playmates with careless ease. She’d been taught the history and arts of her people until that had bored her, and then been allowed to go among humans for schooling in the greater world. When she’d stumbled across the Special Investigations Division while they chased a life-stealer, she’d decided she wanted to work for the Division Chief who’d taken the time to make sure she was safely away before closing on the culprit. She’d gotten her way.

Zhu Hong had perfected the pout, the winsome look, and the hard fist as tools to make the world go her way, and she knew exactly how to use them. As time went on, and she’d started wanting to be stronger, she’d honed her natural abilities until she could do almost what any of her fully-transformed cousins could. She’d learned human ways so well she could blend in as completely as she wished.

None of that told her the first thing about how to be Chief Elder of the Yashou people.

Then

“…never learned a thing about ruling, I never even took any classes on politics.” Zhu Hong twisted her hands together, pacing her uncle’s small outer room. “Is this really a good idea?”

He sat back in his chair, face perfectly neutral the way it almost never was with her. “Do you wish to abdicate, then?”

“No!” Zhu Hong bit her lip. She didn’t want to give up on the way forward Zhao Yunlan had probably hoped for, for the Yashou. But… “But if it’s the right thing for the tribes,” she said, slow and reluctant, “I should.”

An unimpressed sniff from the open door sent her spinning on her heel to see who would be eavesdropping on the Elder of the Snake tribe. Sheer black draperies stirred, just outside, and Zhu Hong stiffened. Of all the people she shouldn’t let overhear the slightest lack of confidence!

“You don’t need learning, for this, little snakelet.” Ya Qing didn’t look around at her, only stood with folded arms and her back to them. “We have that. What you need is wisdom.” Now she turned her head, and raked Zhu Hong head to foot with a cutting gaze. Another sniff. “I suppose you have enough of that to be going on with.”

As Zhu Hong stood there, stunned, the breath she’d taken in to protest caught short in her throat, Ya Qing spread her arms and leaped into the sky.

“That one always did have a taste for drama,” her uncle snorted, and stood to come and take Zhu Hong’s shoulders. “So? What do you want to do, a-Hong?”

Zhu Hong took another breath, trying to ignore the tangle of flattery and annoyance making her stomach flutter. “I want to try.” And then she couldn’t quite help asking, “Do you think she’s right?”

Her uncle smiled. “I think she could be.”

Zhu Hong smiled back, a little shy, and repeated. “I’ll try.”

Now

Honored Chief Elder…

Zhu Hong stifled a groan. It was getting so she felt a headache coming on just reading those words. And there’d been three letters waiting for her, this week, when she visited her uncle’s house. Three! For the Chief Elder, bypassing the tribe Elders completely!

Unfortunately, a glance at her office computer showed no new cases miraculously appearing to cause a plausible delay in dealing with these. She sighed and unfolded the first letter.

Then

Zhu Hong paced back and forth across the roof of the University’s east classroom building, trying not to move too fast or clench her hands or be otherwise obviously nervous, but unable to be still. She still wasn’t sure this was an entirely good idea.

Neither was anyone else. Her uncle, and even Ying Chun, had offered to come with her. When she’d refused that, her uncle had tried to send a cousin with her as a bodyguard. She’d had to argue for ten solid minutes to avoid that. She’d have felt better for some backup, yes, facing someone of Ya Qing’s power, but… taking someone from her own tribe just felt wrong, and bringing the Elder of the Flower tribe would make her look like a child hiding behind her aunt’s skirts. So instead, she’d done the next best thing and just had to hope it wouldn’t backfire…

“Interesting choice of location.”

Zhu Hong whipped around, biting back a hiss of surprise. She hadn’t even seen Ya Qing approach, let alone change. There she was, though, leaning against the roof safety rail with her arms crossed, black gown ruffling in the wind.

Smiling.

Zhu Hong settled back on her heels. Ya Qing’s smile was sharp and crooked, but it looked more amused than mocking. So Zhu Hong took a breath and lifted her chin. “It seemed suitable, to meet in neutral territory at first.”

“And to remind me which of us chose the winning side?” Ya Qing flicked dismissive, gloved fingers when Zhu Hong started to protest. “It was a clever choice. So? What does the Chief Elder want with me?”

Zhu Hong crossed her arms with a huff, because she couldn’t actually deny she’d hoped the lingering shadow of the Black-cloaked Envoy would keep things calm. She also tried to ignore the little curl of pleasure that the Crow Elder thought her clever. “I just want to know. What exactly is it that you want? Snake, Flower, they’re both pretty content with how things are. The Snake tribe is happy if they’re left alone, and the Flower tribe already goes anywhere they please. What is it that Crow wants?”

Ya Qing pursed her lips, looking thoughtful, and pushed away from the rail to stroll over to Zhu Hong’s side. “You could have asked your uncle, or Ying Chun. They’ve heard it often enough.”

“Maybe.” Zhu Hong’s hands tightened on her elbows. “I want to know what you say, though. To hear it in your own words.” That was basic investigation, after all; she hoped it was basic politics, too.

And it seemed like it was, because Ya Qing relaxed a little, the feathers of her cloak rustling as her shoulders eased from their tense poise—flight-ready, Zhu Hong realized. Maybe she wasn’t the only nervous one? Ya Qing turned her face up to the sun.

“I want to stop hiding,” she said, quietly. “In the last hundred years, humans have turned further and further away from us, forgotten that they live in the same world as us, and we… we have let them. We’ve withdrawn and hidden from them. Even when we’ve been caught in their catastrophes, like the killings that swept the land these last fifty years, we’ve done nothing but hide ourselves away deeper.” She looked back down, and Zhu Hong took a step back. Ya Qing’s eyes burned, dark and furious. “I am sick of it.”

Zhu Hong wet her lips. She recognized that fury, had seen it so often in the SID’s investigations, and she’d seen it drive terrifying explosions of violence. Very softly, she asked, “Who did you lose?”

Ya Qing laughed once, short and hard. “Such a smart little serpent.” She looked away, over the University’s central lawn. Zhu Hong waited, trying not to feel fear of the fire she was standing so near. “My eldest sister,” Ya Qing finally answered, low. “The one who should have been our Elder. She liked to go among humans—said their gossip was more fun to listen to than ours. But someone saw her change, and that was a time when the slightest deviation was feared, attacked.” She swallowed, sharp and convulsive. “They mobbed and killed her.”

Zhu Hong’s hands closed tight on each other. “I’m sorry for your loss.” After the way the public had been turned on the SID, she had an unpleasantly visceral idea of how that might have gone. How much, she suddenly wondered, had Ye Zun turned Ya Qing against him, with that order? Had that been why Ya Qing had surrendered so easily to the branch’s choice of Chief Elder?

“She’s gone,” Ya Qing said, dry and distant, not looking at her. “There’s nothing to be done about that. But I can try to keep it from happening again.” With a quick breath, she seemed to come back to the present. “Or at least I can argue for it.”

“So,” Zhu Hong said slowly, “you want humans to know about the Yashou? So they’re less afraid of us?”

Ya Qing gave her a cool smile. “Precisely.”

The smile was cool, but there was a gleam in her eye that made Zhu Hong think that the matriarch of the biggest eavesdroppers and gossips in the world probably knew full well what Zhao Yunlan’s thoughts had been, when it came to informing the populace. Zhu Hong tried, but she really couldn’t hold back her laugh at the sheer nerve and grace of Ya Qing’s dance across the lines of friend and foe. Ya Qing’s smile curled wider, and she set a hand on her hip, smug (preening) in her success.

“You look like a cat,” Zhu Hong giggled, and Ya Qing ruffled up.

“Bite your tongue.” A faint sniff and she settled again, serious again but without all the fierce, edged focus of her first appearance. “So?”

Zhu Hong missed the teasing smile with an unexpected pang, but she took a breath and thought about it. Zhao Yunlan had chosen something right for humans; was it right for Yashou?

An image drifted through her mind, of going out to eat, maybe even with company, and being able to order a raw meat dish. And maybe some of the other diners would be disgusted, and maybe some would be fascinated, but what if she could know that the server would only hesitate a moment, and the cook would maybe even be excited to make something unusual, and that her companion would expect it. Might even have taken her out specifically for this treat.

Ya Qing’s smile flashed through her head, and she stuffed it immediately away, trying to pretend there was no blush on her cheeks. “It seems reasonable,” she said hastily, to Ya Qing’s raised brows. “At least as long as our territory is respected. But how… I mean, it seems like the kind of thing we could only do through negotiation with the human Ministry.”

Ya Qing smiled, slow, cocking her head. “What an ambitious scope you think in, Chief Elder,” she purred. “I think I like it.”

Zhu Hong tried very hard not to squeak, or blush any more, or really react at all. She was pretty sure she was failing. “Then…” she cleared her throat and forced the breathlessness out of her voice. “Then I’ll consider, with the other Elders, how this might be done to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Ya Qing laughed softly. “Everyone’s? You’re an idealistic child. But I think perhaps I will like that, as well. Better than the reverse, at least.” She gathered her cloak about her. “Perhaps that ancient bit of wood truly does judge our natures.” In a flash of wings, she was gone.

Zhu Hong sat down abruptly on the short wall around the edge of the roof, careless of how her pants were going to get smudged, and pressed her palms over her cheeks. Ya Qing was just teasing. Of course she was; she thought of Zhu Hong as a child—she’d even said it. Typical of a Crow.

Of course, that must be it.

Now

The first letter was complaining of a human trespassing on the edge of Snake territory, and Zhu Hong had to wrestle with a strong urge to stab the paper with her pen, or possibly even bite it. They had a process for this kind of thing, and it did not include bending the ear of the Chief Elder!

She muttered under her breath as she hammered on the keyboard, sending a query to the police to see whether this had been reported (in which case the complainer might just live) or had been sent straight to her and no one else (in which case someone was about to get his tail tied in a knot, just see if she didn’t).

Then

“This will require re-writing parts of the treaty between the races.”

“I know.”

“We don’t even have contact with Dixing, right now, to fully ratify it again.”

“I know.”

“A-Hong, this will make things far more complicated—”

Zhu Hong exploded up out of her chair, in her uncle’s front room. “I know that! But Ya Qing has a point! If we really had stayed neutral, this time, how do you think the humans would have looked on us, if they’d won? Do you really imagine we’d have been able to wave the treaty at them and say ‘neutral!’ and they’d have just accepted that?”

Her uncle sat back, brows rising. “We could have hidden,” he said, but he sounded more thoughtful now.

“Where?” she demanded. “And for how long, before we ran out of places? Humans hunt their enemies; it’s something they have in common with Dixingren. And the less they know us, the more we withdraw, the more we look like enemies.”

Ying Chun finally looked up from her hands, folded on the table before her. “What if they do know of us, though? What will that mean for my people who don’t wish to be treated like some rare plant display, or fenced off?”

Zhu Hong chewed on her lip. What public suspicion might do to them all was one of the things she didn’t quite know what to do with, yet. “What if… what if no one had to reveal themselves immediately? Only the ones who want to, at first, and we just… don’t mention everyone else?” Professionalism nipped at her, and she added, “Unless someone has witnessed a crime.”

Ying Chun shook her head, kind but firm. “That will touch off a hunt, the first time someone has to come forward who had stayed hidden until then.”

“All or nothing,” Zhu Hong murmured, mostly to herself, and flopped back down into her chair with a sigh. There seemed to be danger both ways. If only the Yashou had anything resembling local patrolmen, anyone who was used to looking after large groups of people… Abruptly she sat up again, eyes widening. “Oh! We could use their’s!”

“A-Hong?” her uncle asked, cautious in a way that reminded her of his reaction to her attempts at creating medications, when she was young. She huffed at him, disgruntled.

“The police! The ones who patrol on the street, and have their own neighborhoods to look after. They’re the ones who could look out for trouble, and make sure everyone was safe; it’s their job!”

“Could we rely on human patrolmen to look after us?” Ying Chun asked, hesitant.

Zhu Hong sat forward, hands tight on each other with excitement as the thought unfolded further. “We could ask for liaisons from our people. The same way I am, to the SID.” Her hands broke apart, reaching as if she could hold this idea between them. “Maybe even use that as a way to get those of us who want to live closer to humans a start, introduce them and let them see how things work!”

Her uncle was back to looking thoughtful. “I suppose there are a few of the youngsters who might try. And sending them around with a human in authority would protect them, too.”

“Borrowing human authority to smooth our own way. I like that idea.” Ying Chun smiled at Zhu Hong. “I think I see why Qing-jie has started to approve of you more.”

Warmth flashed through Zhu Hong, like basking in the perfect beam of sunshine, and her breath caught on it. “She has?” Both her uncle and Ying Chun paused, staring at her, and she promptly blushed. That had probably been more gleeful than she should sound about Ya Qing’s approval.

“A-Hong.” Her uncle, in his turn, sounded alarmed, and she slid down in her chair, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “You’re not… you’re not really…”

Ying Chun burst out laughing, sweet and light, and Zhu Hong tried to sink through the floor. “Oh, no wonder she looked so pleased with herself!”

Uncle started half up from his chair. “If Ya Qing thinks she can trifle with my niece…!”

Ying Chun crossed her arms, stubborn as wood. “What’s wrong with it? Qing-jie is a good person! She wouldn’t lead anyone on.”

That made Zhu Hong look up from the start of her plan to slink under the table and escape. “Really?” Her uncle sagged back with a groan, which Zhu Hong firmly ignored. Ying Chun patted her arm with the kind smile that had made Zhu Hong tag along after her whenever she visited, when Zhu Hong was a child.

“Really. It’s been a long time since she looked at anyone like that, actually. I’m glad she is again.” Her smile turned impish. “And she thinks you’re cute.”

Zhu Hong could feel the smile taking over her face, bright and hopeful as the feeling in her chest.

“I believe her exact words were, ‘more guts than brains, but she does have some brains, and it’s a cute look on her’.”

“Auntie!” Zhu Hong pressed her hands over her face, blushing so hard she thought she might faint.

“Stop teasing your Chief Elder,” her uncle grumbled. Zhu Hong couldn’t help noticing she only seemed to be Chief Elder when it was convenient. “If we’re really going to plan on revealing ourselves and sending some of us among the humans’ patrollers, we need all three Elders here to discuss it.”

All right, maybe not just when it was convenient.

“I’ll send a message to Qing-jie.” Ying Chun rose and patted Zhu Hong’s shoulder as she left, which was comforting even if she was still grinning.

“A-Hong.” When she peeked out from between her fingers, her uncle was leaning toward her, serious. “Are you sure about this?”

“I didn’t mean to,” she said, voice smaller than she’d quite like. “It just happened! When we talked, she smiled at me, and I just… And she liked my ideas, and she’s never treated me like a lesser threat or went easy on me, even when she’s so strong, Uncle, and—”

“All right, all right.” Her uncle was rubbing his forehead, and Zhu Hong chewed on her lip some more. “When you spoke,” he said, at last, “she truly wasn’t just toying with you?”

“I asked about what she had lost.” Zhu Hong looked down at her hands. “About what had hurt her. And she told me. She didn’t yell at me or insult me, even though she was so angry I could taste it. Instead she said I had good thoughts, that I was clever.” Very softly, she finished, “She said maybe the branch judged us rightly.”

Her uncle heaved a sigh and muttered something under his breath. Zhu Hong thought she caught the words “terrible taste” and bridled, but when he looked up he was smiling, even if it was crooked. “All right. No one has ever been able to change your mind, once you made it up. But think about the politics you’re going to have to deal with, being the Chief Elder carrying on with one of the tribe’s Elders.”

Zhu Hong sat very still, eyes wide. “…oh.” She hadn’t thought of that. If the Chief Elder was known to favor one of the Elders who were under her, that… that could be bad, couldn’t it? Favoritism. That could mean resentment, even people thinking Ya Qing had found a way to rule from behind Zhu Hong. Maybe if she was careful to be seen listening to the Elders of Snake and Flower? Or especially Flower, since she was a Snake herself, and she hadn’t thought about that either…

“Here we are!” Ying Chun slipped back into her chair, followed by Ya Qing ducking through the door hanging in a rustle of silk and feathers. When she straightened, she looked straight at Zhu Hong, smiling faintly, and her eyes were warm.

“You keep your word, it seems. I like that, too.”

Zhu Hong smiled back, helplessly, feeling like she was floating in a cloud of happy warmth that made it easy to ignore her uncle rolling his eyes and Ying Chun stifling laughter.

She’d figure something out.

Now

The second letter was from one of the patrol liaisons, which soothed Zhu Hong’s temper a little. That, at least, was something that was supposed to come to her eyes. This time, it was from one of the more adventuresome young Flower men, who seemed to be picking up his police-partner’s attitudes quickly. The letter read like an incident report, especially the part about the two Crows in his neighborhood who had had a “domestic disturbance” that annoyed the neighbors. Zhu Hong smiled over that part.

Who’d have thought, a year ago, that two Yashou shifting on the street, especially to have a fight, would be called something so common by the humans around them? The Crow tribe did seem to have a knack for that making that change happen, though.

Then

Zhu Hong had thought that things would move slowly. That there might be lingering glances, and perhaps gradually sitting closer at meetings of the Elders, and possibly even a visit to her home if she were out on the balcony or roof.

Instead she got Da Qing tearing through the offices just as everyone was packing up for the day, nearly yelling, “Ya Qing is out front!”

The new staff jumped, and lao-Chu stood slowly, eyes narrowed, and xiao-Guo started chewing on his lip, and Zhu Hong realized abruptly that she hadn’t told her co-workers anything about recent events except that she was working on improving Yashou-human relations.

“Stop!” Everyone turned to look at her, but at least no one was reaching for a weapon or for his power any more. Zhu Hong heaved a quick sigh of relief and let her outstretched hand drop. “It’s not… I mean… Look, just let me handle this, all right?”

“Are you sure?” Da Qing demanded, actually looking serious for once.

“Yes, I’m sure.” She spun on her heel and marched out to the front door. The new staff, at least, stayed where they were, but Da Qing crowded after her and lao-Chu was sauntering after him. Zhu Hong could tell already this was probably going to be embarrassing. She wasn’t used to doing things she needed to keep others informed of!

Ya Qing was across the street, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed and a sharp quirk to her lips, and Zhu Hong supposed Da Qing could be excused for thinking her threatening. But Zhu Hong could see the brightness of amusement in those dark eyes as they raked over the small crowd on the SID’s steps. She elbowed Da Qing back and stepped forward, hands clasped to keep from fidgeting.

“Elder. Was there something you wished from the SID?” She did her best to sound dignified, but the way Ya Qing’s mouth curled up made her heart skip a beat.

“Indeed, I think there is.” Ya Qing pushed away from the wall and strolled closer. “Perhaps later for that, though.” A wave of tingles ran over Zhu Hong when she caught the implication, and Ya Qing’s smile got a little wider. “For now, I simply wished to see my High Elder safely home for the day.”

Da Qing looked quickly back and forth between them. “Wait a minute. You came just to walk her home?” He started to grin, and dodged back when Zhu Hong tried to grind her heel into his toe.

“Did something happen?” Lao-Chu, thankfully, was looking more thoughtful, though there was a definite sardonic tilt to his brows that Zhu Hong ignored with all her might.

Ya Qing flicked dismissive fingers. “A few of my people are having difficulty moving with the times.”

Zhu Hong’s eyes widened, but the flash of worry that the Crow tribe might not accept the compromise the Elders had reached ran straight into the realization that Ya Qing had come to protect her, and drowned there. “Oh,” she managed softly, hands clasping on each other tighter.

Laughter flashed in Ya Qing’s dark eyes again. “So go get your things, and I’ll walk you home.”

“Yes.” Zhu Hong barely noticed Da Qing’s snickering. “I’ll… yes.” Lao-Chu was rolling his eyes when she turned around, and she glared at him. It wasn’t like he had any room at all to talk, not with xiao-Guo draped over his shoulder, now giving Zhu Hong his brightest puppy-dog smile as she stalked past to grab her shoulder-bag.

“Have a good night,” Da Qing prodded as she passed, and skipped back with a laugh when she hissed at him.

There was a definite smirk tucked up at the corners of Ya Qing’s mouth, and she ushered Zhu Hong down the last step with a hand just barely touching her back. Zhu Hong tried not to blush and failed completely. As they walked, though, and Ya Qing let the quiet deepen between them, Zhu Hong felt herself relax into the ease of it. Ya Qing walked close to her, and her arm curved behind Zhu Hong once or twice when they turned a corner, but it wasn’t teasing any more. Just… nice. Protective, but quietly, not the overbearing way her older cousins tended to these days.

“Do you think there will really be trouble?” Zhu Hong asked as they turned down her street.

“Possible, but not likely.” Ya Qing cast a sharp eye over the rooflines of Zhu Hong’s block and nodded, looking satisfied.

“Why did you come, then?” Zhu Hong dared to ask, eyes fixed on her keys as she sorted out the one for the front door. A sidelong glance showed Ya Qing’s smile getting that teasing curl to it again.

“I did wish to see you home safe. You’ve shown yourself a reasonable and intelligent person, as we’ve planned the Yashou’s revelation, and I want to encourage that.” She reached out and set a finger under Zhu Hong’s chin, lifting her head. Zhu Hong fumbled her keys with a tiny gasp as a thrill of excitement ran through her. “I also simply wished to walk with you. Would you prefer I didn’t?”

It took Zhu Hong a moment to find words again. “No, I…” she swallowed and dared, “I liked walking with you.” The knowledge that she walked in Ya Qing’s protection had made her feel warm, all the way home. Even Ya Qing’s teasing fit in so well with the way the SID teased each other all the time that it made Zhu Hong’s heart turn over at how easy it felt.

Ya Qing’s teasing smile melted into a deeper, quieter warmth. “Then perhaps I’ll come to walk you home again.”

Zhu Hong wet her lips, intensely aware of the gloved finger resting under her chin. Her voice came out soft and breathless when she said, “I’d like that.”

“Then I will make sure it happens.” Ya Qing stepped closer, and Zhu Hong’s eyes went wide, lips already parted on a quick breath when Ya Qing leaned in and brushed the lightest of kisses over them. “Sleep well,” she murmured, as she drew back, and was gone into the shadows of the evening before Zhu Hong could even squeak.

Zhu Hong took a deep breath and found her key again. She walked steadily up to her apartment and let herself in, locking the door carefully behind her. She set her bag down and sat composedly on the couch.

And then she covered her face with her hands and squeaked.

Now

Their rapidly assimilating Flower patroller had added a post-script asking if he could double up with a friend, who he thought would work well with his current police partner. Zhu Hong chewed on her lower lip as she thought. It would be a good thing, if a trusted partner could introduce the next one in line, but would it be seen as unfair? Not all Yashou wanted to try out a human partner, by any means, but among those who did the competition for who would get to learn human-style policing next was pretty stiff.

Or perhaps this was exactly the gesture she needed, to make sure the Flower tribe felt equally treated? That had been getting to be more of an issue, she knew, ever since…

Well, it had been getting to be more of an issue.

Zhu Hong kept her head bent over her desk as she wrote a note to herself to discuss it with Ying Chun, privately. Less chance of lao-Chu or Da Qing noticing how she was blushing, that way.

Then

Zhu Hong was glad the series of attacks the SID had been called to look into weren’t actually the doing of a Dixingren. She was glad they didn’t have to subdue someone with the kind of power a Dixingren might have, and even more glad they didn’t have to try to figure out what to do with the man after since there was no Black-cloaked Envoy to hand him over to any more.

With her growing political awareness, she was entirely sure that the human Minister was even more glad to not be faced with that question.

But, while it meant that she and Da Qing had not cornered a Dixingren in a blind alley, it did mean she and Da Qing had cornered a crazed human with metal claws of some kind strapped to his hands. One who had attacked three women with them, and was staring at Zhu Hong with a mad, fixed gaze.

“We’ll be all right,” Da Qing muttered out of the corner of his mouth. “If he charges you, can you push him back? I’ll jump on him while he’s open.”

Zhu Hong sucked in a deep breath, ignoring how it shook, and nodded sharply. She could do this. She could. She’d kept up her training, and she could hold off even other Yashou most of the time. Claws wouldn’t be a problem.

The man smiled nastily at her, and she tensed.

The moment he stepped towards her, though, black fell out of the sky like the shadow of lightning, bursting between them in a swirl of power and feathers. Six black feathers shot forward and pinned the man to the brick behind him by his jacket.

“You dare.” Ya Qing’s voice was low, but cut through the man’s shout of outrage like a knife. Another handful of feathers hovered over her outstretched hand, gleaming and sharp. “You dare raise your hand to her?”

All of Zhu Hong’s coiled tension unwound in a soft shock of warmth. “Qing-jie,” she whispered.

Ya Qing glanced over her shoulder, eyes raking up and down Zhu Hong. “You’re well. Good.” She flicked her fingers, and the hovering feathers nailed a few more handfuls of cloth to the brick, pinning the struggling man more firmly. “I suppose I’ll refrain from killing him, then.”

“Yeah,” Da Qing put in slowly. “We do kind of try to do that.”

Ya Qing sniffed. “Make yourself useful then, Cat, and take care of him.”

Muttering under his breath about bossy birds, Da Qing edged wide around her and went to clout the man smartly, like a cat stunning a mouse it wanted to play with. Ya Qing watched closely until the man was zip tied at wrists and ankles, and finally sighed, relaxing with a shake of her shoulders that resettled her feathers. “You’re our Chief Elder,” she scolded Zhu Hong, coming to take her shoulders and look her over more closely. “You should be better guarded than this, when you’re out working.”

“I can take care of myself,” Zhu Hong protested, though not as strongly as she might have. “And there are so few of us who can do field-work at all…”

On his way back past them, phone out and lifted to catch some reception, Da Qing paused and took a second sniff. A smirk spread slowly over his face. “Once a princess, always a princess, I guess. You liked being rescued, didn’t you?”

Zhu Hong delivered a swift kick to his ankle and hissed when he hopped away, still laughing. She couldn’t meet Ya Qing’s eyes.

Until lace-gloved fingers caught her chin and turned her face back. Qing-jie was smiling. “Did you, then?”

“Only because it’s you,” Zhu Hong said, caught in those dark, laughing eyes, and then blushed harder when she realized what she’d admitted.

“I’m glad,” Qing-jie murmured, just between the two of them, stepping closer. “Perhaps I shall watch over you myself, then.”

Zhu Hong wet her lips and reached slowly out to tuck her hands under Qing-jie’s cloak, around her waist. “That would take up a lot of your time, though, wouldn’t it?” Not that she was actually protesting, just… trying to be a little bit responsible.

“Time spent guarding our Chief Elder would not be wasted.” Qing-jie’s thumb traced just below the curve of Zhu Hong’s mouth, and her lips parted on a soft gasp for breath as her heart tripped. “Time guarding you would not be wasted.” She closed the last centimeters between them, and Zhu Hong melted into the kiss, dizzy with the heat of knowing this magnificent, powerful woman wished to protect her, to hold her safe—and yet would not stand between Zhu Hong and her chosen work.

It felt so sweet.

When Qing-jie let her go, Zhu Hong pressed closer for a moment, snuggling against her just for one breath before she drew back and stood on her own feet. Qing-jie’s smile was warm and proud, and Zhu Hong smiled back shyly.

“Tell me, when you go out on work.” Qing-jie smoothed a lock of Zhu Hong’s hair back. “And I will watch over you.”

Zhu Hong ducked her head and promised, “I will.”

“Then I will see you tonight.” Qing-jie’s voice was soft with a promise of her own, and the warmth of it lingered even after she vanished back into the sky in a rush of wings.

“So, is it safe to look yet?” Da Qing called from the entrance of the alley.

“Shut up,” Zhu Hong snapped, brushing her blouse straight with brisk hands. “How long until someone comes to take him off our hands?”

Tonight couldn’t come fast enough, for her.

Now

Zhu Hong jotted down another note to herself to ask Ying Chun to send a small thank-you to her tribesman’s human partner. The man seemed to be getting along well with Yashou in general, and she wanted to encourage that as often as possible. She added a note at the bottom to ask Qing-jie to make certain someone spoke to the Crow couple. Relatable squabbles were one thing, but a serious fight in the streets would only set matters back.

And then she doodled the characters of Qing-jie’s name in the fanciest style she knew, smiling over them until she caught lao-Chu smirking from two desks away. She scowled at him and folded the note up.

She’d keep the SID up to date on Yashou affairs that might land on their desks, but what she felt about Qing-jie was nobody’s business but her own.

Even if it did tend to overlap with her official business an awful lot.

Then

It had taken months of planning, and then another month of concerted arguing with one after another administrative assistant to the new Minister, but Zhu Hong had finally done it. There was a new treaty document written out, and it was going to be signed on Yashou territory.

She stood in the back room of her uncle’s house, examining her makeup and twitching her flowing black vest into place and trying not to hyperventilate.

“Calm yourself, Hong-er.” Qing-jie’s hands slid over her shoulders from behind. “Haven’t the tribes all agreed to this? Even the old hold-outs?”

Zhu Hong took another quick breath. “Yes.”

“And hasn’t the human Ministry agreed to our draft? Hasn’t their Director of Administration spoken in favor of the patrol liaisons?”

Zhu Hong nodded at her reflection, breathing a little slower. “Yes.”

Qing-jie leaned against her back, warm and light, and purred in her ear, “Wouldn’t your uncle squawk, if I kissed you right here?”

Zhu Hong burst into helpless giggles. “Qing-jie!”

She could hear the smile in Qing-jie’s voice. “Hmm?”

Zhu Hong took a breath and let it out, feeling her shoulders drop under Qing-jie’s hands. “Yes.” She turned and wound her arms around Qing-jie, holding tight and feeling the strength of Qing-jie’s arms around her, and then leaned back. “I’ll be all right. You go ahead.”

She’d learned not to arrive with Qing-jie, not to meetings with other Yashou, the same way she’d learned to be careful what she ate in front of humans and to restrain her hiss when she was surprised or angry. She didn’t like it any better, but at least it was for a better reason. She didn’t want the tribes to doubt that she was keeping everyone in mind, not just Qing-jie, that she was doing her best as Chief Elder.

And Qing-jie smiled at her approvingly for it, and touched her cheek gently. “That’s our thoughtful little serpent. I’ll go argue with the other two about where we’ll hold the next market.” She did kiss Zhu Hong, then, but light and swift, and was gone with a rustle of feathers.

When Zhu Hong ducked out of her uncle’s house, the three Elders were indeed arguing, around his small table. Zhu Hong gave Qing-jie a narrow look and snorted at her lover’s tiny smile; yes, Qing-jie had done it on purpose. Well all right, then.

“The three of you must have been arguing for decades,” she declared. “Aren’t you tired of it, yet?”

All three of them laughed, which made her think Qing-jie wasn’t the only one trying to tease her back to calm. Zhu Hong took a breath and came to stand beside the table, straight and sure, and finally spoke the words officially.

“As your leader,” and then she looked at Qing-jie’s smile and couldn’t help teasing back, “she who had a crush on the Lord Guardian and competed against the Black-cloaked Envoy,” Qing-jie and Ying Chun both snickered, and even her uncle’s mouth tugged into a smile. “I’ve taken time on my day off to come here in order to host an important meeting, you know. It’s not like it’s easy, with two jobs!” Qing-jie gave her an indulgent smile, and Zhu Hong laughed a little herself.

“All right, a-Hong,” her uncle started, and she glowered, “yes, yes, Chief Elder,” he amended, patting the air with mollifying hands. “Our mistake. It’s your turn; go ahead.”

Zhu Hong sniffed, arms folded. “That’s more like it.” She took a deep breath and stood straight again. “My charge to our tribes is this: we will seek peace and pursue development through internal reforms and exchange of ideas with other peoples.” She lifted a hand as if escorting a new age in. “Let the first convention we will host begin!”

They all applauded, good natured, as Zhu Hong heard the first crunch of human footsteps through the old leaves that carpeted the forest ground. She wound her hands tight together, nerves leaping up again. The brush of lace-gloved fingers over her wrist made her look down to find Qing-jie looking up at her. In that steady gaze Zhu Hong saw both ferocious determination and a quiet faith that made the whole world stand still around her for one second.

Including her nerves.

Zhu Hong smiled, soft and small with her thanks, and lifted her chin to step forward and greet Minister Guo for the first time as an equal, feeling the whole weight of the tribes behind her, pushing her forward. If she didn’t know all of how to carry that weight, yet, she would learn.

Her Elders would teach her.

Now

The third letter was a demand that the Chief Elder mediate an inheritance dispute.

Over a cloak pin.

Zhu Hong finally gave up and groaned out loud, flopping down across her desk in despair, and never mind how Da Qing would undoubtedly laugh at her. No matter how much she ignored or schemed or yelled, these just would not stop coming. Letters asking her to fix family affairs. Letters asking her to solve a quarrel with a spouse. Letters asking her to tell someone’s child to straighten up. Did she look like some kind of avatar of the heavens, here to solve everyone’s personal problems? No! But the letters wouldn’t stop.

“Does someone want you to solve their love life?”

Zhu Hong sat bolt upright, staring, because that had sounded like…

And it was, in fact, Shen Wei, who had paused by her desk on his way past and whose mouth was quirked in a tiny, commiserating smile.

Zhu Hong tried to wrap her mind around the idea that, apparently, some Dixingren buttonholed the Black-cloaked Envoy with this same kind of nonsense, and felt her eyes trying to cross. “You… I mean, they really…?” she asked weakly, waving the letter.

“The Regent takes a certain pleasure in saving them for me,” he said, dry. “If you wish to learn from my mistakes, just ignore them all with as much dignity as you can manage.”

She looked up at him, caught by the implication that he had ever been in her position—a young ruler, maybe not consulted all that much about what he really wanted, trying to learn how to do right by his people anyway. And she heard again the words Qing-jie had murmured in her ear, one evening as they lay together, talk meandering through Yashou into Dixing politics.

“I didn’t learn as much as I would like, from Ye Zun, but one thing he said repeatedly. That Shen Wei had never wanted to be his people’s ruler. That he only did it because of Kunlun. So I think it must be true that that’s how the Envoy began. But I watched what he did all last year, too. He has a short temper, and little mercy for enemies, but for his own… for his own, he can show great compassion. He loves his people, now, in his own way.” Qing-jie stroked her fingers gently through Zhu Hong’s hair. “I respected that. In the end, I wished it had been him I went to, listened to.” She’d leaned up on an elbow, smiling down at Zhu Hong. “And more than that, I wish you could have known more of him and his experience, now that you’ve taken on such great responsibilities.”

Zhu Hong had curled closer and admitted, softly, “So do I. He… he was kind to me. Even when I was being foolish and jealous, he was kind. I wish I could ask him things, sometimes.”

And now here he was, offering that experience freely.

Zhu Hong’s eyes fell from the level darkness of his. “Thank you…” Her gaze flickered up and down again before she could stop it, and she made herself take a breath and look back up to finish, “…Shen da-ge?”

She couldn’t help ending on a question, unsure he would accept such familiarity. Would even want or understand the apology she was trying to give. There seemed to be so much age, so much time in the weight and quiet of his gaze.

After a long moment, though, he smiled faintly and lifted a hand to rest on her head. “You’re welcome.”

Zhu Hong broke into a relieved smile, ducking her head under his hand, shy and pleased.

She could feel lao-Chu smirking from two desks over, and tossed him a glare as Shen Wei turned away toward the Chief’s office. Lao-Chu looked irritatingly smug. “I told you,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Oh shut up,” Zhu Hong huffed, turning back to her own screen for a report to finish or something. The office already had a fan of the Envoy, it wasn’t like she needed to add anything there.

She was going to tell Qing-jie, though, when she came to pick Zhu Hong up tonight. She thought Qing-jie would approve.

Zhu Hong was smiling as she tucked the last letter away and opened her files.

End