“You want us to do what?” Zhao Yunlan asks.
His father’s voice over the phone is not amused. “You heard me,” he says. “You should feel free to decline.”
There’s a warning there that Zhao Yunlan is completely uninterested in. “You’re kidding,” he says. “We accept!”
“This isn’t about you,” his father says bluntly. “This is less about you than anyone else in your department. Are you so quick to risk all of their lives?”
“Sure!” Zhao Yunlan exclaims. What a surprise, his father not wanting him to do something. But it sounds like his time it isn’t up to him, and Zhao Yunlan will take full advantage of that. “You know me, always endangering my team for the sake of science and diplomacy.”
“This isn’t a joke,” his father says.
Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes, mostly expressing his impatience to the heavens but coincidentally catching sight of Shen Wei outside his office door. He waves his hand, gesturing for him to come in while his father continues, “No one at the SID was chosen with something like this in mind, so it’s unlikely any of you will make it through the necessary training.”
“Right, of course,” Zhao Yunlan agrees. “I’ll be sure to let the Lord Envoy of Dixing and the High Chief of the Yashou Tribes know the Department of Supervision has such confidence in them.”
“Zhao Yunlan,” his father begins.
He smiles so it can be heard in his voice. “Thanks for the call!”
He hangs up, because history demonstrates he can get them all into so much more trouble than just hanging up on the supervisory department. He can, and he will. He has. It’s safer to choose this mistake than it would be to blunder into a bigger one.
“Did you just hang up on your father?” Shen Wei asks.
“Did you just express interest in my father?” Zhao Yunlan counters. “Because that’s more than I’d do! Also yes, is the answer to your question. Guess who they tapped for the launch project?”
Shen Wei widens his eyes in an expression of innocent interest. “Who?”
“You knew!” Zhao Yunlan exclaims, pointing at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn't know,” Shen Wei says. But he knows what Zhao Yunlan is talking about, so yeah. He definitely knew. “I thought there was a significant probability the SID would receive preferential consideration, given Xingdu’s commendable commitment to representation.”
“You did this,” Zhao Yunlan says. He had a secret… suspicion. The thought he tried not to voice, or in any way indicate ever occurred to him: that the Black Robed Envoy had influence with Xingdu that the Chief of the SID did not. It isn’t Shen Wei’s job to throw his weight around just for Zhao Yunlan’s whims.
“Of course not,” Shen Wei tells him. “The decision was never mine to make.”
He's talking about representation, which means he probably had help. “Zhu Hong too?” Zhao Yunlan asks, watching him closely.
Shen Wei doesn’t quite smile, but it’s a near thing.
“Aha,” Zhao Yunlan says, clapping him on the shoulder as he heads for the door. “Let’s get her for the announcement, then!”
Shen Wei doesn’t ask, just follows Zhao Yunlan across the hall to the office they created for Zhu Hong. She didn’t request it, and she still has a desk out on the floor, but the High Chief of the Yashou Tribes needs a confidential space to meet with her people during work hours.
To be fair, Shen Wei should have one too. But he spends more time in Zhao Yunlan’s office than Zhao Yunlan does, so no one sees any point to giving him a separate space. Least of all Zhao Yunlan, who likes the office better with Shen Wei in it anyway.
“Hey!” Zhao Yunlan says, banging on the open door. “Thanks for the thing! Come help me announce it!”
Zhu Hong looks up at him with judgment in her eyes, then at Shen Wei when she realizes there’s someone there who can communicate like a normal person. “The thing?” she repeats.
Shen Wei opens his mouth before catching Zhao Yunlan’s amused look. “He suspects us of conspiring to get Xingdu’s attention for a recent decision of some political importance,” he offers.
“Oh.” Zhu Hong finishes typing something and stands up. “That thing. All right.”
“Why is no one else excited?” Zhao Yunlan wants to know. “This is unprecedented! This is historic! Most importantly, this is very cool!”
Neither of them are smiling, but he's sure they both want to be. Probably not because of the thing, though. He's lucky to have powerful friends who like to make him happy.
“Why isn’t my jacket special?” Zhao Yunlan wants to know.
“Because you’re not the boss of us,” Zhu Hong tells him. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Thank you!” he declares. “And I’m the boss of them; doesn’t that count for anything?”
“Thank you for this beautiful jacket, Sister Hong,” Guo Changcheng says, very earnestly. Apparently earnestly. He’s interrupting Zhao Yunlan to do it, and he doesn’t look the slightest bit guilty.
Zhao Yunlan thinks all of his people know him too well. He definitely knows them too well: he isn’t objective, and he only thinks the best of them. He probably shouldn’t be their boss anymore, but he’s not going to let anyone else do it, so they’re stuck with him.
“Ah, no need for that,” Zhu Hong says. “It was my uncle’s idea, but the other tribes didn’t want to be outdone. So they’re from all of us.”
“All of us?” Daqing repeats, already wearing his jacket like he’s owned it his entire life. “High Chief, Cat Tribe is not feeling represented by your language.”
“Cat Tribe has the highest percentage of ceremonial flight jacket recipients in the city,” Zhu Hong retorts. “You’re literally the sole single-tribe representative on this team, and don’t think I haven’t heard about how other tribes aren’t being trained to fly! You should enjoy your representation and preen about it, like you do with everything else.”
Daqing shrugs like this is a given, and Zhao Yunlan grins.
“I’m not wearing a flight jacket,” Chu Shuzhi grumbles, just loud enough to be heard even while he’s pretending he wasn’t.
Zhao Yunlan doesn’t even try, because it’s Zhu Hong’s gift if she wants it.
She does. “Really?” she asks, like she’s genuinely surprised by this complaint. “But Xiao Guo is.”
“Comrade!” Lin Jing exclaims, putting his arm around Guo Changcheng’s shoulders. He’s put on his jacket too, and Zhao Yunlan is impressed that Zhu Hong--or someone in the tribes--got all their measurements without ever hinting at what they were doing. “You and I will be the talk of the town, with our dashing figures and our matching jackets!”
“Don’t touch him,” Chu Shuzhi says, without looking up.
“He doesn’t mean it,” Guo Changcheng insists. He laughs in a way that used to seem nervous but now sounds shyly pleased. “No one will be talking about me, of course! And my figure is definitely not dashing.”
“Ha!” Lin Jing exclaims. He puts his fist on his hip and does not let go of Guo Changcheng. “You’re very dashing, and we all know Lao Chu agrees. Too bad he won’t be able to get close enough to you to prove it, what with the throngs around you and everyone ignoring him. Since he isn’t wearing his jacket.”
Chu Shuzhi makes a rude gesture in his direction, but does not otherwise move.
“You should--you should at least try it on?” Guo Changcheng suggests hopefully. “So we can tell the Yashou tribes how grateful we are? For their thoughtfulness and attention to detail?”
Zhao Yunlan would care more about witnessing Chu Shuzhi’s eventual capitulation if he wasn’t watching Shen Wei inspect his own jacket with great care. He’s honestly not sure if Shen Wei will put it on or not. He’s neatly tailored today, and he’s typically resistant to any and all of Zhao Yunlan’s efforts to change that in front of others. But he does occasionally accept outerwear in the name of practicality, and if this is going to be one of those times, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t want to miss it.
“Teacher Shen?” Zhu Hong says. “I know you don’t get cold; please don’t feel the need to humor us at the expense of your own comfort.”
Zhao Yunlan sighs loudly, but they both ignore him.
“I would never dismiss a gift given with the good intentions of the Yashou Tribes,” Shen Wei tells her. “And as it’s presented by you, I will wear it with gratitude and with pride.”
He inclines his head, and Zhao Yunlan wonders if that was a bow. He can see Zhu Hong wondering the same thing. Before she can decide, Shen Wei shrugs into his jacket like he wears casual cold-weather gear all the time, only tugging on it briefly before holding his arms out to the sides.
“Is it appropriate?” he asks.
It takes Zhao Yunlan several seconds to remember to get out his phone and snap a picture. In the meantime, Chu Shuzhi has been convinced, Lin Jing has whistled, and Guo Changcheng is clapping his hands together happily. Wang Zheng appears beside Zhao Yunlan to take his phone and push him toward Shen Wei, a gesture which he is very pleased to accept.
“Yes,” Zhu Hong is saying, but she hesitates when Zhao Yunlan waves at her.
“Over here,” he says. “Come on, everyone in for a group picture! We have to show our gratitude, don’t we?”
She smiles, wide and pleased, and tucks up under his other arm when he pulls her in. She gets Guo Changcheng and Chu Shuzhi on her other side, with Lin Jing crowding in next to Shen Wei. They are all--Zhao Yunlan checks Lao Chu specifically--wearing jackets that say “SID” on one side and “Space Investigations Department” on the other.
Ironically, he remembers nothing about the launch itself. The boredom of waiting is imprinted on his mind, but the thrill of rising burns brightly through every other detail. Except Zhu Hong being on one side of their tiny three-person compartment and Shen Wei on the other, and her warning that if he tries to hold Shen Wei’s hand the whole time he’ll permanently injure one or both of them.
He doesn’t remember who was on which side. He doesn’t remember which hand Shen Wei was holding, or who let go first. He doesn’t remember how quickly the sky went from blue to black, but he knows the countdown to separation must have been soon after.
Their little spacepods--Zhao Yunlan wants to call them starpods, but so far it’s not an argument he’s winning--can launch independently. Supposedly it saves fuel to bind them together and push them out of the atmosphere in their melded state. Once friction stops being a factor they split and spread out, which he thinks is short-sighted. If you’re in it for the long haul, why wouldn’t you want company?
They tell him there is no long haul for these ships. They’re tiny short-range exploration pods, originally designed to survey (everyone knows this means to spy on) remote areas of their own planet. And satellite. And maybe someday, when they’ve dropped the spying part entirely and can agree on construction and supply runs, another nearby planet or two.
In the meantime, sending civilians up in spacepods promotes a message of peace, unity, and transparency that the government sorely needs in the middle of Yashou-Dixing reintegration. It’s an optimistic message for a turbulent time. And Zhao Yunlan isn’t above playing politics when it gives him the chance to add “space jockey” to his title.
He doesn’t know why Shen Wei and Zhu Hong agreed to go. He likes to think they do it because it’s fun, because it’s a rush, because they like it as much as he does. And maybe that's it. Maybe they agreed because they’re secret space cases like him. Or maybe they pulled strings because it was good diplomatic experience, because they really thought the world needed it, or just because they wanted him to have it.
He doesn’t know. He did ask. Shen Wei said it’s because he likes new things. Zhu Hong said it’s because it inspires people. They’re both laughably earnest about it, so he lets it go. He likes having them with him too much to protest.
Their first time out, Zhao Yunlan gets a low fuel warning on the other side of the planet, and he was paying attention but he’s also trying out every maneuvering capability he has. Spacepods don’t move in space the way simulators do on the ground. It’s exciting and overwhelming and the others are basically watching over his shoulder the entire time.
“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says, before he can let up on the wild turns he initiated for science.
“You’re low on fuel,” Zhu Hong says at the same time.
“Yeah, how are you?” Zhao Yunlan asks, glancing across their displays and noting how little Shen Wei’s has dipped. What a surprise. The pods are powered by the energy of the planet, and he’s pretty sure Shen Wei’s will always run out last. If at all.
“You look good,” he says, answering his own question. He’s too far gone to start re-entry now and still end up somewhere retrievable before tomorrow. “Brother Black, mind if I join you?”
“Please do,” Shen Wei says. He sounds polite, and Zhao Yunlan is proud of himself for keeping the worry out of that voice.
If there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s aiming his pod at someone else’s and accelerating. He’s the best at it, because going faster actually makes it work better. Surprisingly, most people think doing it right feels like crashing.
Zhao Yunlan will always be willing to crash into Shen Wei. Figuratively and otherwise.
His pod races toward Shen Wei’s, the inner environmental skin tingling over his limbs--just to remind him it’s there, maybe, it’s not like he’ll need it--even as they reach out for each other. He can feel Shen Wei’s smile a second before he sees it, a gentle rocking the only other evidence of impact when the walls between them disappear. There’s one spacepod where there used to be two, and he can hold Shen Wei’s hand again.
“Want me to come in too?” Zhu Hong’s voice asks.
Shen Wei doesn’t wait for him to answer. “We should return as we left,” he says.
“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan agrees, instinctively moving over even though there’s no need to make room. She’ll bring it with her when she arrives. “Come on home.”
Zhao Yunlan still thinks his flight jacket should be special, and he says as much the first time they’re back on the ground. It’s just a way of talking without babbling, focusing on something in the excitement that can be repeated without a misstep. But of course there’s one person who always takes him seriously.
“It is special,” Shen Wei tells him. Everyone is listening. There are cameras recording for the entire world to hear. “You’re wearing it.”
Zhao Yunlan stops complaining about the jacket after that.