“Chu-ge…” Guo Changcheng whispered, before once again losing consciousness and falling into a deep slumber. Chu Shuzhi breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the slow, but steady, rise and fall of Changcheng’s chest.
The Longevity Dial had worked. Even if he had at first failed to protect Changcheng from Yezun, he had managed to save Changcheng’s life. That thought alone was enough to bring a small smile to his face. He still couldn't forgive himself for failing in his basic duty to protect his loved ones (like so many times before, Shuzhi thought with no small amount of bitterness); and he was still a bug that could be easily manipulated and squashed by those bastards who controlled Dixing. But, just for today, this little victory was enough.
Shuzhi’s knees suddenly gave out and he collapsed back onto his stool. The Longevity Dial took more out of him than he thought. He knew that the Longevity Dial involved the transfer of his lifeforce, and it was a sacrifice that he was more than willing to make, over and over again, but this constant burning sensation in his chest was strange.
He wrapped his fingers around the Longevity Dial beside him and used his spare hand to support his weight as he stood up. He gingerly brought the Longevity Dial back to its proper resting place, placed it on the pedestal and covered it with the protective dome. It looked just like how it had been before, and no one would be any the wiser.
The burning sensation in Shuzhi’s chest, however, didn’t subside, even after several minutes had passed. His mind flashed back to when Professor Shen used the Longevity Dial to cure Chief Zhao’s eyes. Strange. It didn’t seem like Professor Shen was in visible discomfort after he’d used the Longevity Dial… Shuzhi pulled out his phone, intending to call Professor Shen, before remembering that, despite his many years on the surface, Professor Shen still didn't have a mobile phone. He would have to visit Professor Shen in person to get some answers.
Shuzhi moved back to Changcheng, unconsciously reaching out his hand to caress his cheek. By the time he realised what he was doing, he was already tenderly stroking Changcheng’s cheek with the back of his fingers. Changcheng’s eyelids briefly twitched before they stilled again.
“Changcheng, I’m going to visit Professor Shen for a while to ask him some questions. I’ll be back soon.” Shuzhi took out his puppet from within his robes and carefully placed it in Changcheng’s open hand. “He’ll protect you from any danger until I get back.”
Shuzhi quickly pressed a fleeting kiss to Changcheng’s forehead before he could think better of it, and then swiftly left the room.
Back in the room, Changcheng dreamt of stolen kisses and passionate confessions. He smiled wistfully in his sleep. If only dreams could become reality.
Chu Shuzhi knocked on the door to Professor Shen’s apartment. No answer. He knocked again.
Suddenly, the door of the apartment directly opposite Professor Shen’s opened. “Lao Chu? What are you doing here?” came Professor Shen’s voice, surprise evident from his tone. Shuzhi turned around.
“Lord Envoy. You’re staying at Chief Zhao’s place?” Professor Shen’s cheeks coloured. Actually, Shuzhi thought, he shouldn’t be surprised. Their relationship was like the world’s most poorly kept secret, no matter how much Zhu Hong pretended otherwise. Anyway, he had more important things to discuss. “Can I come in?”
“Of course.” Professor Shen moved to let him in. “Zhao Yunlan is out buying some food because he doesn’t trust himself to cook for me.” Shuzhi snorted in response. Chief Zhao could barely make instant noodles on the best of days. “I trust that this matter you’re coming to me for doesn’t concern him?”
“It doesn't. I have some questions about the Longevity Dial. What happens to Dixingians when they use the Longevity Dial–“
“You used it, didn’t you? To save Xiao Guo,” Professor Shen interrupted. His eyes hardened. “I thought I told Da Qing to tell you not to touch the Holy Tools. Why did you disobey my order?”
“Da Qing didn’t say it was an order from you,” Shuzhi muttered. “But, with all due respect, Lord Envoy, even if I had known it was an order from you, I would still have done it. I will do whatever it takes to save Changcheng’s life.”
Professor Shen stared at Shuzhi for several tense seconds, which Shuzhi held without flinching, each second feeling longer than the last, before cracking a tiny smile that barely turned up at the edges. “I guess I should have expected that. You and I are similar in that sense.”
He didn’t have to say any more for Shuzhi to understand what he meant. Both of them would willingly sacrifice every fibre of their being for their loved ones. It was, after all, this similarity in devotion that impelled Professor Shen to release Shuzhi from his imprisonment and to send him to Haixing as an agent in the first place.
“Please, come sit.” Professor Shen and Shuzhi arranged themselves on opposite ends of the sofa, and Professor Shen poured some Dixing tea he had just made into two elegant teacups made of pristine China that he had seemingly magicked out of nowhere. He passed a cup of tea to Shuzhi, who politely refused. “You are familiar with what the Longevity Dial does, I’m sure?”
“From written records, we know that the Longevity Dial has mostly been used to extend a person’s life within races,” Professor Shen lectured as he took a sip of his tea. “For example, Haixingians have used it to extend the life of another Haixingian, and Dixingian have used it to extend the life of another Dixingian. The texts warn against trying to extend a person’s life across races, because the energies of Haixingians and Dixingians are fundamentally incompatible. Do you remember what happened to Lin Yusen?”
Comprehension suddenly dawned on Shuzhi, who had until then been frowning in confusion. “You don’t mean…”
“Like Yin and Yang, our energies are related but mutually exclusive. Once a Haixingian has been infected with dark energy, it can go afoul in his body and explode outwards. The same can happen to a Dixingian who has been infected with human energy. The Longevity Dial transfers lifeforce, but it can also transfer these other energies in the process, often accidentally.”
Realisation hit Shuzhi like a freight train. “That can’t be… I only wanted to save Changcheng. Don’t tell me I doomed him instead?” Shuzhi’s voice cracked as he began to panic. He stared at his trembling hands and squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe it was his fate to inadvertently destroy everything that he cared for with his own hands. He bitterly wondered if life was playing some elaborate joke on him.
“Not necessarily.” Professor Shen’s kind voice shook him out of his thoughts before he could spiral further into self-hatred. “The Longevity Dial’s purpose is to restore the life of another. It would defeat the point if the person saved then died from the incompatible mixing of energies. No, it is more likely that the price is instead demanded from the user. Do you feel any different now that you’ve used the Longevity Dial?”
Now that he was no longer thinking about how he may have doomed Changcheng by mistake, the burning sensation in his chest returned with a vengeance.
“My chest feels like it’s on fire,” Shuzhi said, pensive. He suddenly remembered that Professor Shen had also used the Longevity Dial to cure Chief Zhao’s eyes. “Lord Envoy, you used the Longevity Dial too. If Chief Zhao is still fine, then…” The relief that rushed through him at that realisation was palpable.
Professor Shen nodded. “As I suspected, some human energy from Xiao Guo has mixed with yours. The burning that you feel now is a side effect of the unstable mixing of energies. Left unchecked–”
“How long more do I have?” asked Shuzhi, interrupting Professor Shen mid-sentence. He would have to make arrangements if this would kill him soon. He would rather be reincarnated as a cockroach than allow Changcheng to be caught in the blast. He mentally went through the people he could leave Changcheng’s protection to: Chief Zhao was just as likely to kill Changcheng by sending him to a too-dangerous mission as he was to protect him. Da Qing was unreliable, often falling asleep on stakeouts, and his ability to fight left much to be desired. Perhaps Zhu Hong, whom Changcheng seemed to think of as his big sister? But she was more of a secretary than a field agent and didn't have much fighting experience…
Professor Shen must have noticed the mental calculations in his head because he waved a hand to catch Shuzhi’s attention. “You needn’t worry. I will absorb the human energy from you.”
“What,” Shuzhi said incredulously. “Won’t you…?”
“Like you said, I also used the Longevity Dial. Zhao Yunlan’s human energy has already mixed with mine, and I’m still here. What additional harm will Xiao Guo’s do?”
“But–” Shuzhi started to protest. The Black-Cloaked Envoy had already done too much for him as it was. He couldn’t let him bear this burden for him too.
Professor Shen held a hand up to silence Shuzhi’s protests. “Enough. Trust me, I have a plan. Besides, who will protect Xiao Guo if you’re gone?” Professor Shen’s eyes twinkled with untold mirth. “Now move a little closer.”
Shuzhi edged closer to Professor Shen and frowned, guilt that he had again caused trouble for his saviour eating him up from the inside. “Lord Envoy… thank you. I will never be able to repay this debt that I owe to you.” Even if he slaved for another hundred years in service to the Black-Cloaked Envoy, it would not be enough.
Professor Shen gave him a wry smile, the corners of his lips quirking upwards, as if he knew a secret that no one else knew. “Chu Shuzhi, enough of that. This, I say to you as an equal, not as your superior or the Black-Cloaked Envoy: there are few things in life worth fighting for. Once you find it, hold on to it and never let go.” Professor Shen held his hand against Shuzhi’s chest and said with steely determination, “Now, let us begin.”
Shuzhi made himself comfortable on the stool and stared at Changcheng’s sleeping form, Changcheng’s hand nestled in his.
“Don’t tell Zhao Yunlan what happened here today,” said Professor Shen, his face pale from the effort of assimilating Changcheng’s human energy into his own. “If he finds out, he will definitely try to stop me.”
“I still don’t quite understand what your Honour is planning,” Shuzhi admitted.
“Just promise me you won’t speak of this to Zhao Yunlan.”
“Of course, Lord Envoy.”
True to his word, he didn’t mention a word to Chief Zhao when they walked past each other in the hallway outside the apartment. Chief Zhao opened his mouth in surprise, looking about ready to ask Shuzhi why he was there, but Shuzhi simply nodded briefly in his direction before quickly returning to the headquarters and Changcheng’s side.
Try as he might, he couldn’t figure out what the Black-Cloaked Envoy’s plan was. He was obviously trying to make his energy composition more volatile by absorbing human energy, but what for? Did he have a way of expelling human energy that other Dixingians did not? The Black-Cloaked Envoy had always been rather secretive about the true extent of his powers, and much of it remained a mystery even to Shuzhi. His musings were, however, interrupted when Changcheng stirred in front of him, his eyes fluttering open, and when Changcheng turned to look at him in wonder, he couldn’t think of anything else at all.
“Changcheng! You’re awake!”
“C-Chu-ge, y-you’re here.”
“Dummy. Where else would I be?” Shuzhi tightened his grip on Changcheng’s hand, bringing it to his chest. “I was worried.”
“Chu-ge, you w-worry too much. I-I’m fine.” Changcheng smiled at Shuzhi, as if to prove that he was indeed fine. Shuzhi rolled his eyes. “No, you’re not if you’re still stuttering like this. Go back to sleep.”
“I j-just feel a b-bit weak. B-but I’m so h-happy that Chu-ge is with m-me,” Changcheng said, his smile never once leaving his face. Shuzhi felt the corners of his mouth involuntarily turn upwards in response.
“I’m happy you’re with me too. For a second, I thought–” Shuzhi couldn’t bring himself to continue, but Changcheng had this uncanny ability of knowing what Shuzhi wanted to say without his actually saying it, and he brought his free hand to softly, if unsteadily, touch Shuzhi’s cheek.
“But I-I’m here n-now. I’m o-okay.” Shuzhi sighed. It was just like Changcheng to be more concerned about Shuzhi’s feelings than about his own health. It was this selflessness that drove Shuzhi to protect, to care for, to cherish, and to love him, all in equal measure.
This, I say to you as an equal, not as your superior or the Black-Cloaked Envoy: there are few things in life worth fighting for. Once you find it, hold on to it and never let go. The shock of twice thinking Changcheng was in mortal danger really put things into perspective.
“Changcheng. I have something I want to say to you.”
“W-what is it?”
Shuzhi steeled himself, looking away from Changcheng’s puzzled stare so that he wouldn’t lose his nerve. “When my didi (A/N: younger brother) died, I thought I would never again experience happiness. His death… is a weight that I will never be able to put down.” He took a deep breath and continued, “But then, you appeared and gave my life meaning again.”
Shuzhi sneaked a glance at Changcheng’s expression, which was slowly morphing from polite puzzlement to delighted disbelief. He renewed his grip on Changcheng’s hand. “I-If you don’t mind, I hope that… in this life I will always be able to take care of you... and forever stay by your side as we grow together.”
Changcheng flushed a deep red and stared at Shuzhi in amazement, barely containing his happiness. “C-Chu-ge, w-was that what I think it was?”
“What, are you actually going to make me come out and say it?” Shuzhi said, a faint pink dusting his cheeks. “Idiot, I like you.”
Tears welled up in Changcheng’s eyes. He gathered himself with some effort and said, slowly and carefully, “Chu-ge... I’m so happy. Actually, I’ve liked Chu-ge for a long time now. Even though I’m quite useless and don’t have anything to offer…”
Shuzhi swatted Changcheng on the head with his free hand, before instantly regretting it and soothing the area he just hit with tender strokes. “Stop looking down on yourself. I like you just as you are, no more, no less.”
Changcheng’s wondering smile could light up the sky. “Then, Chu-ge, I like you too!”
“Good.” Shuzhi tucked his hand behind Changcheng’s neck and angled his head towards him. Changcheng’s eyes were blown wide open in anticipation. It was almost comical.
Shuzhi slowly bent over and when their faces were an inch apart, he suddenly surged forward and claimed Changcheng’s lips with his own. At first, the angle was all wrong, and their teeth clashed together uncomfortably. Neither of them was particularly experienced. Shuzhi then growled and twisted Changcheng’s head to the side, and their lips fit together perfectly after that.
Changcheng moaned in response to the sudden pressure, opening his mouth just a fraction. That was enough for Shuzhi to force his way in with his tongue, licking into Changcheng’s mouth as if he were a man dying of thirst and Changcheng were his oasis. They stayed in that position, breathing each other in, for what seemed to be hours but were only minutes, their tongues wrestling for dominance (Shuzhi was clearly winning but Changcheng didn’t mind one bit). Eventually, they separated, a thin trail of saliva extending between them before finally snapping like an over-taut rubber band. Shuzhi grinned ridiculously at Changcheng, who blushed to the roots of his hair under Shuzhi’s intense gaze.
“Chu-ge…” Changcheng whispered, unadulterated adoration evident in his eyes, his voice and the way he clutched at Shuzhi’s clothes, loath to let go. “If this is a dream, don’t wake me up.”
“Dumbass,” Shuzhi replied good-naturedly, ruffling Changcheng’s hair. “Don’t joke about stuff like that.” Shuzhi shuddered as he recalled the nightmare ‘gifted’ to him by the Master of Nightmares. Even with Changcheng right next to him, safe and sound, he was still not fully over that ordeal.
“H-huh, why not? Is it because of Zhu Hong?”
“…I’ll tell you later. We have all the time in the world.”
And they would have the time, if he had anything to say about it. He would kill the next bastard who dared to touch a single hair on Changcheng’s head. There was still a lot they had to learn about each other – with countless experiences to be shared and stories to be told – and Yezun (that seemingly immortal cockroach) still had to be defeated. But those things could wait. For now, they had each other, Shuzhi thought as he idly caressed the back of Changcheng’s hand with his thumb, and that was enough.
EXTRA (EPISODE 40)
“You’re going on a blind date?!?!” Shuzhi yelled, a vein on his temple throbbing with barely suppressed anger. Changcheng quailed.
“I-I didn’t have a choice. My uncle thought it was time for me to settle down and I didn’t know whether it was okay to tell him…”
Shuzhi smacked a palm to his forehead before he got the urge to smack Changcheng instead. “You could have refused! You were the one who insisted on going into Dixing to face Yezun, and now you tell me this is the state of your courage?!”
Changcheng pouted. “But I only insisted because I was hypnotised into–“
“Shut up!” Shuzhi glared at him, cutting him off.
“Chu-ge! It’s just one blind date and my uncle said he’ll stop bothering me about getting married after this! Besides, no one can compare to you anyway,” Changcheng pleaded, watching as Shuzhi paced around the room in agitation.
Finally, Shuzhi stopped his pacing and fixed Changcheng with a stern yet contemplative gaze. Changcheng put on his best impression of a kicked puppy, his lower lip slightly sticking out and trembling and everything. He’d been practising that one for sure, the manipulative bastard.
“Fine. But I’m coming along.”
“Eh? Will my uncle still think it’s a blind date if you com–“ Changcheng said before quickly changing tack as he noticed the increasingly stormy expression on Shuzhi’s face. “I mean, of course, Chu-ge! And we can go on a proper date after that too!”
Sensing that the storm was about to pass, Changcheng quickly got up from his place on the sofa and slotted himself neatly behind Shuzhi’s back, wrapping his arms around his midriff. “Chu-ge, I like it when you’re jealous.”
Shuzhi rolled his eyes and huffed, turning around to embrace Changcheng properly. “Idiot. You owe me.”