The file on the third victim was fairly ghastly. Shen Wei flicked through it, pausing at the photos of the fatal injuries: burns to the hands and on the face, near the mouth. Similar to the burns on the other corpses. There was nothing to suggest a Dixing power as the cause of death, but Zhao Yunlan wouldn't be here, half-perched on Shen Wei's desk, if he didn't think a Dixing person was involved.
Shen Wei handed the file back to him. Their eyes met briefly, enough for Shen Wei to catch Zhao Yunlan's intense, interested look before Zhao Yunlan forced his attention to the file. Shen Wei ignored the familiar, faint quickening of his pulse.
"Seen anything like this before?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"No. Any number of powers could've caused such burns," said Shen Wei, "but they could also be caused by certain chemicals or toxins. Why do you believe a Dixing person is responsible?"
"Call it a hunch." Zhao Yunlan briefly smiled at him without humor. "A sixth sense."
He might have been teasing Shen Wei with his own words, but there was no doubt he was worried about the case. Shen Wei gazed at him, unable to ease his worries, until Zhao Yunlan poured himself off of the desk.
"By the way, Hei Lao-ge, do you need a ride home?" His pretense at bland casualness was undercut by a hint of hopefulness.
Shen Wei rested his hand on a stack of papers on his desk. "I still have grading to do."
Zhao Yunlan glanced at the stack. "That's all? No problem. I can wait until you finish."
Their eyes met again. Shen Wei didn't want to concede, but he imagined trying to grade papers while Zhao Yunlan sat across from him, watching him. And if Zhao Yunlan stuck a lollipop in his mouth and started sucking it... Or picked up a pen or letter opener or even a paperclip and started playing with it... Zhao Yunlan was an attractive distraction. Zhao Yunlan with props was an intolerably attractive distraction.
Conceding, Shen Wei gathered the stack of papers and straightened them to put into his briefcase. Rising, he said, "I can take these home to—"
He was cut off by Zhao Yunlan's phone ringing. Zhao Yunlan answered it, stepping to the door and opening it, gently resting his hand on Shen Wei's back to guide him to leave first. In the corridor, after Shen Wei locked his office, he fell into step beside Zhao Yunlan as the call ended.
"There's another victim," Zhao Yunlan informed Shen Wei grimly. "Still alive, for now."
They went directly to Dragon City Hospital, spoke to the physician about the victim's condition—severe but not as extreme as the others—and visited the victim, Chen Luyang. He was a young man of athletic build, averagely attractive except for the small burns on his face. He looked at them uncomprehendingly as Zhao Yunlan made brief introductions.
"Can we ask you some questions?" Zhao Yunlan said, carefully sitting on the foot of the bed and crossing his legs. Chen Luyang nodded.
"Who, or what, caused your burns?" Zhao Yunlan asked. His questioning was careful, but his focus on Chen Luyang was unwavering and sharp. Shen Wei wondered if Zhao Yunlan ever understood why some victims wouldn't respond well to that kind of directed attention.
"I don't know what happened." Chen Luyang spoke with difficulty, rasping. "I woke up this morning. Like this."
Two of the other victims had been found dead in their homes; the third body was discovered on a park bench, dressed for jogging. Whatever was killing these people, it seemed to strike them when they were unaware. It was something insidious, like a poison, unnoticed by the victim until it was too late.
Zhao Yunlan nodded. "What did you do yesterday?"
"Went to work. Met friends for dinner." Chen Luyang paused, wheezing a little. Shen Wei read reluctance in his look and didn't think the pause was entirely for physical reasons. He poured Chen Luyang a glass of water and handed it to him.
Chen Luyang gave him a grateful glance and took a sip. He named the restaurant where he'd met his friends and recited their names. Zhao Yunlan listened. "And after dinner?" he pressed.
Chen Luyang looked down, avoiding Zhao Yunlan's focus. "I went to a club for a drink." Zhao Yunlan waited very patiently before finally asking, "Which club?"
Chen Luyang didn't meet Zhao Yunlan's gaze. "The Celestial Garden," he mumbled. He set the glass of water aside and closed his eyes, wincing in pain. Zhao Yunlan waited a moment longer before rising. He placed one of his name cards on the table and pulled out his phone as they left the room. He called the SID to assign Da Qing and Guo Changcheng to watch the victim, in case the culprit decided to finish the attack.
After the hospital, they went to the SID office. Lin Jing and Chu Shuzhi returned from examining Chen Luyang's apartment. Zhu Hong spoke to his work colleagues and boss. Zhao Yunlan arranged the case information on a white board and stood back.
"So far, there's been at least a week between attacks. We can leave this for tonight, and question the friends and restaurant tomorrow."
Zhao Yunlan drove Shen Wei home. "The Celestial Garden is not a place you go to just for a drink," he remarked.
"No," Shen Wei agreed quietly.
Zhao Yunlan shot him a look, eyebrows raised. "You know the place?"
"I'm aware of it." Shen Wei had, in fact, been there once, years ago when he was still a graduate student. He'd found it interesting but a bit too seedy for his liking. He chose not to mention any of this to Zhao Yunlan.
Zhao Yunlan's eyebrows were slow to lower as he returned his attention to the road. "I'll have to go there to question the staff, but I don't like my chances of getting any useful answers from them. Places like that survive on secrecy."
"Is it connected with any of the other victims?" Shen Wei asked. He hadn't seen it mentioned in the files.
"No, not that we know of." Zhao Yunlan slapped the steering wheel and made an exasperated noise. "That's what's bothering me so much about this case. There are no connections between the victims that we can find. All they have in common is that they're all men and all roughly the same age, that's it."
Shen Wei watched the night streets blur by. "There's another similarity between them," he reflected. "None of them were in relationships."
"Huh. That's true. Not a narrowing factor, though," Zhao Yunlan said. "A lot of people aren't in relationships. Myself, for example." He sounded unhappy about this, and Shen Wei turned to watch his profile, unable to respond in any safe way.
By the time they reached the hallway between their apartments, Zhao Yunlan's mood had bounced back to familiarly flirtatious, though it lacked conviction. He was content with draping one arm across Shen Wei's shoulders, leaning in close, and telling him to have a good sleep. By Zhao Yunlan standards, hardly provoking at all.
Stopping between the doors of their apartments, Shen Wei held his briefcase in front of him and said, "Do you want me to accompany you tomorrow when you question the potential suspects and witnesses?"
Zhao Yunlan, flicking his keys in his hand, gave Shen Wei a wide-eyed look. "To the Celestial Garden? Why, I wouldn't dare ask Professor Shen to cross its threshold. No, no, rest assured, I will gallantly shield you from such a den."
Shen Wei was tempted to mention that he had been there before, just to see Zhao Yunlan's reaction, but now was not the time. He bowed his head and wished Zhao Yunlan a pleasant night, and retreated into his own apartment.
A lot of people aren't in relationships. Myself, for example. The words—and Zhao Yunlan's unhappiness saying them—lingered in Shen Wei's mind, disturbing him while he graded papers. When he finally put down his pen, his eyes strayed to the entryway, as if he could see through the doors and into Zhao Yunlan's apartment. But unfortunately—or fortunately—this was not a power he had ever learned.
And what could I say to him? Shen Wei thought, staring at the entryway and the solid, dark door, firmly closed and locked. All the things I wish to say...I should not.
The following day Shen Wei caught up on preparing lectures, reading the backlog of scientific papers in his fields of interest, and, after dispensing with his professorial duties, going to the SID office to read the files of the current case more closely. He was reviewing the post-mortem reports when Zhao Yunlan breezed in, followed closely by Chu Shuzhi.
"Oh, good, you're here," Zhao Yunlan greeted Shen Wei, flopping down onto the sofa beside him. Within moments he'd unwrapped a lollipop and rolled it in his mouth. Shen Wei ignored this as best he could.
"No surprise, the staff at the Celestial Garden were as tight-lipped as our old buddy, Hei Pao Shi," Zhao Yunlan said, waving his wet lollipop in the air. Shen Wei gave him a sidelong glance at the deliberate jab. Zhao Yunlan grinned at him. "But we managed to find something anyway. A connection to another victim, the first one."
"Oh?" Shen Wei reached for the file folder for the first case.
"When we searched the first victim's apartment, there was a curiously designed swizzle stick that caught my eye. I didn't think anything of it, but today I noticed that the bar at the Celestial Garden uses the same swizzle sticks." Zhao Yunlan leaned forward and touched Shen Wei's arm. "A swizzle stick, by the way, is something used to stir cocktails."
Shen Wei met his teasing with a serious look and said, "So the first victim had also been to the Celestial Garden. It seems reasonable that the others had, as well."
Zhao Yunlan sat back. The lollipop stick rolled from one side of his mouth to the other. Sometimes Shen Wei wasn't sure which was more difficult to resist: Zhao Yunlan deliberately provoking or Zhao Yunlan simply being himself, unintentionally provoking.
"Perhaps," Zhao Yunlan said around the lollipop, noncommittal. "It would be good to know for certain, though." He took the lollipop out of his mouth and regarded it for a moment. "Something else I'd like to know is what our latest victim was doing at the Celestial Garden."
Shen Wei tossed the file folders onto the table. "He seemed reluctant to tell us anything more."
Zhao Yunlan, still staring at the wet, red sphere of his lollipop, said, "I sent Guo Changcheng to sit with him, but somehow I don't think he'll want to confide in Xiao Guo." At this, Chu Shuzhi, sitting at his desk, snorted in amused agreement. "And Da Qing doesn't exactly invite confidences, either," Zhao Yunlan continued. His eyes moved from the lollipop to Zhu Hong.
Zhu Hong returned his look obstinately. Shen Wei observed the silent war of wills and saw the instant when Zhu Hong conceded. Zhao Yunlan saw it, too, and smiled, popping the lollipop back into his mouth. Zhu Hong stood up, shot Zhao Yunlan a stubborn glare, and marched off to visit the hospital. Shen Wei hoped she'd calm down by the time she got there. She was strong-willed but still very young. On the other hand, she'd surprised him more than once with her ability to be mature and insightful when she chose to be.
Zhu Hong wasn't gone very long before she returned and took a seat at her desk. Zhao Yunlan, standing by the case board, turned around. "Well? What did you find out?"
Zhu Hong looked up at him with a sweet chill and said, "He wouldn't tell me anything, either. I'm not his type."
"Not his—" Zhao Yunlan said impatiently. "Ah."
Zhu Hong's pursed smile faded as she glanced at Shen Wei, looked at Zhao Yunlan, then turned back to her computer. Zhao Yunlan rubbed the back of his neck and paced over to the table. Perching on it in front of Shen Wei, he said, "I guess that leaves us."
Us? Shen Wei thought. Why 'us' instead of just one? Perhaps because Zhao Yunlan still suspected Dixingren involvement, Shen Wei told himself, not entirely convinced.
Chen Luyang's reluctance to divulge details about his personal life was understandable but frustrating. Zhao Yunlan, sitting in the chair beside the hospital bed, one leg crossed over the other, was being as patient as he could be. He could only repeat his question any number of ways.
"If it was someone at the Celestial Garden who did this to you, don't you want that person brought to justice?" he asked. He glanced down at his hands clasped over his lap and rubbed his knuckles with his thumb. "There are already other victims."
Chen Luyang frowned, looking away, agitated.
"Chen Luyang," Shen Wei said quietly. He stood at the foot of the hospital bed and waited for Chen Luyang to meet his gaze. "Our interest is only to prevent more people from being hurt. We know that although the Celestial Garden has a bar, it also has private and semi-private rooms where patrons can meet, anonymously if one chooses." Shen Wei felt Zhao Yunlan's attention shift to himself.
"It is for these meetings that customers patronize the Celestial Garden," he continued. "There is no shame in it. Living life alone, without a partner. Sometimes, perhaps, without a best friend. A confidante. Very few can walk a completely solitary path and never seek the comfort of others, even if this comfort is fleeting, lasting no more than one dark night. This is a private matter, and we would not ask you about it if it weren't important. But," Shen Wei took a breath, "we do not judge you for it."
Zhao Yunlan's stare felt like a physical thing, sharp yet not a weapon. Shen Wei kept his focus on Chen Luyang, who insisted, "But it can't be him. He said he was new to Dragon City. And he was so nice."
Instantly, Zhao Yunlan's attention snapped back to Chen Luyang. He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. "Who? Did you get a name?"
Chen Luyang shook his head. "No name," he admitted. "But yes, I met someone there. He was at the bar but wasn't drinking, so I asked if he wanted a drink. He said no, and we started talking. He was cute. He wanted to know about places in Dragon City. Honestly, I don't think he was lying about being new here. He didn't seem to know about any of the popular places. Anyway, yes, we went into one of the rooms. But all we did was kiss, I swear. And he put his hands on my face, but really gentle, and I..." Chen Luyang looked down. "My ex used to do that sometimes. It reminded me of him, and I thought, why am I doing this? How lonely must I be to come to a place like this? So I backed out of it. And he wasn't a jerk about it or anything. He was disappointed, I guess, but he didn't make a scene. It just doesn't make any sense. Why would it be him?"
"You didn't feel anything when he touched your face?" Shen Wei asked, mentally inventorying Dixing powers he knew of that could cause burns.
"No." Chen Luyang shrugged. "Just his hands. And like I said, he was gentle."
Zhao Yunlan frowned, thinking. "And you also kissed." He paused, watching Chen Luyang closely. "Forgive me for asking this, but it could be important. Were the kisses, uh, how should I say? Little things without committing to 'hey, let's have some fun'? Or were they more..." He made a vague gesture with his hands and cocked his head from side to side. "Wide-ranging?"
Chen Luyang and Shen Wei both gave him a look. Chen Luyang answered with heavy reluctance, "Wide-ranging, I guess. If that's what you want to call it."
Zhao Yunlan nodded and sat back. "All right. Thanks. You're being very helpful. We'll need a description of the man you met, okay?"
During the drive back to the SID, Shen Wei expected Zhao Yunlan to either talk about the case or ask him how he knew about the Celestial Garden's private and semi-private rooms. Zhao Yunlan did neither, driving in silence, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel from time to time.
At the SID, Lin Jing reported that he'd gone back through the second victim's mobile phone contacts and retraced one of the nameless numbers that had been a dead end before. Finally, he announced with boastful confidence, he had figured out that two of the numbers were transposed. After correcting them, he'd called the number and spoken to a man who admitted to meeting the second victim at the Celestial Garden a couple of months ago.
"Is he our guy?" Chu Shuzhi asked from his desk.
"No." Lin Jing shook his head. "He lives in the wine country and hasn't been to Dragon City since then. He gave me names and numbers of friends, neighbors, and co-workers who could all vouch for him. He said he didn't come forward earlier because he didn't recognize the photo in the news as the same man he'd met at the bar." He paused and pursed his lips. "Apparently it was very dark in the room and their positions...um..."
"We get the picture," Chu Shuzhi said flatly.
"That's three connections to the Celestial Garden," Zhao Yunlan said, walking up to the case board. "And we have a description of a potential suspect, although how useful it will be..." He sighed and tapped the board. "All right. Good work for today. The Celestial Garden is closed tonight, and that seems to be our killer's hunting ground. And so far, he's waited at least a week between victims. Unless there are more like Chen Luyang, injured but too embarrassed to come forward."
He stared at the board for a moment longer, frowning, before turning around and looking brightly at Shen Wei. "Professor Shen, care for a ride home?"
During the drive, Zhao Yunlan finally asked by stating, "You knew about the rooms in the Celestial Garden."
Shen Wei had expected the question but not the tight, controlled way he asked it. "Yes. I went there once. Years ago."
After a brief silence Zhao Yunlan said, "You don't drink alcohol."
"No." Shen Wei stared out the front windscreen, tensely waiting for whatever Zhao Yunlan would ask him next.
There was another silent pause. The noise of the metal machine's engine filled the enclosed space around them.
"Are there places like the Celestial Garden in Dixing?" Zhao Yunlan asked curiously.
Surprised by the question, Shen Wei turned and watched his profile. "There are drinking establishments, but..." He had to think about it. "I...I honestly don't know." There hadn't been, before, but in the centuries since the treaty so many things had changed.
"Don't Dixing people also get lonely? Seek comfort?" Zhao Yunlan's voice was quiet.
Shen Wei redirected his attention to the road ahead. "Of course," he answered. He smothered anything else he might say and reveal to Zhao Yunlan and waited for the next inquiry.
Zhao Yunlan, however, glanced at him for a moment and fell silent, closing his parted lips and leaving the question unspoken. Shen Wei wasn't relieved to have ended the conversation. There would be some time in the future when what was unspoken between them would need to be expressed. He calmed his heartbeat and waited for the ride to end.
The following day at the SID office, the team brought all their notes and reports together. Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng were posted to watch Chen Luyang's room, although Zhao Yunlan had his doubts that the killer would try to finish the attack.
"If it's the man Chen Luyang met," he said, "he let him go easily. If he wanted to kill him, why would he do that?"
"But we know the injury didn't appear until the next day," Da Qing put in. "Whatever it is, it's not immediate. Maybe he thought he'd already done enough." He shifted on the sofa and leaned over the back of it, watching Zhao Yunlan.
Zhao Yunlan nodded, pacing in front of the case board. "Mm. Possibly, yeah." He turned sharply and strode to the table to sit on the end of it, feet dangling. "We don't have much of a description. He's cute. Nice eyes. Pretty lips. Good body. Good kisser." He looked down at Shen Wei, sitting on the sofa, and smiled. "The description could be me."
Shen Wei met his look evenly and said, "Except he doesn't have a beard."
Zhao Yunlan winced exaggeratedly and wagged a finger at him. "Ah, that's right. So the description could be you. Ah! Don't say it, I know. No glasses, either."
Da Qing, annoyed, cleared his throat. "Getting back to the case... If the description of the suspect is so vague, what about the victims? We might have to bait a trap."
At the mention of baiting traps, Shen Wei remembered an echo of Chu Shuzhi's words to him about Zhao Yunlan months ago. He glanced down at the file folder in his hands, absently flicking at the corner with his fingertips.
On the case board, Zhu Hong arranged a row of the candid photos of the victims that they'd collected. She stood back and tapped her chin. "Pretty generic," she said. She flashed an insincere smile at Da Qing. "I'll have to sit this one out. One of you boys will have to be the bait this time."
Zhao Yunlan looked from Da Qing to Lin Jing, who both glanced away hurriedly. Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes at Da Qing. "It's your idea."
Da Qing shrugged. "Send Xiao Guo?" he suggested.
Zhao Yunlan groaned. "Send Xiao Guo into that place? They'd eat him alive."
Da Qing sat up and smiled. "Then send Lao Chu with him."
Zhao Yunlan, clearly imagining giving Chu Shuzhi the assignment and clearly imagining what Chu Shuzhi's reaction would be, hedged, "Uh, I think they're better on hospital duty for now." He gave Da Qing and Lin Jing pointed looks.
Wang Zheng, who'd been quietly studying the case board from her desk, said slowly, "But doesn't anyone else see the similarity?"
"What's that?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Wang Zheng shifted her gaze to Shen Wei. "I think they all look similar to Professor Shen. If he didn't wear glasses."
Both Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei turned to stare at the photos on the case board. Shen Wei didn't immediately see any particular resemblance, although all the victims were close to his apparent age. Their physical builds were similar, he supposed. Hair cuts about the same.
Zhao Yunlan hopped off the table and stood between the case board and Shen Wei. "I see it," he said. "Professor Shen?" He smiled slowly.
Shen Wei could easily refuse. He was Hei Pao Shi, not 'bait.' But this case had started to trouble him for reasons he hadn't named, and if it ultimately did involve a Dixing power, he wanted to find out what and why.
He met Zhao Yunlan's gaze. "Yes. All right."
That evening, before the Celestial Garden opened for business, Zhao Yunlan came over to Shen Wei's apartment to check on him. He examined Shen Wei from head to toe. "You're wearing that? See, this is what I was afraid of."
Shen Wei, who hadn't changed his clothes but had removed his glasses, asked mildly, "What do you suggest I wear?"
Zhao Yunlan gestured at him. "Something less Professor Shen? Something more...more..."
"More Zhao Yunlan?" Shen Wei suggested.
Zhao Yunlan's gaze fixed to his, and although Shen Wei had intended it as a gentle joke about Chief Zhao's casual appearance, it had meant something more to Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei immediately regretted it, deeply, seeing his eyes flash with hurt.
"I...I only meant—"
"Ha ha, yes." Zhao Yunlan grinned and chuckled to erase the moment, though it was now etched in Shen Wei's memory. "That's a good idea, actually. Borrow some of my clothes. I doubt your wardrobe extends much beyond sweater vests and blue suits, am I right? And the cape and mask might be a little too much. Yes, we need to find you something a little less...um...this."
So saying, he shepherded Shen Wei across the hallway and into his apartment, where Da Qing was sprawled across the sofa. Da Qing glanced over and said, "He's wearing that?"
"No," Zhao Yunlan said firmly. "That's why he's here. Help me dress him more bait-like."
Da Qing's contribution was a sporty, blue, padded jacket Shen Wei felt ridiculous wearing. Zhao Yunlan immediately vetoed it and Da Qing whisked it away with a pout. While Zhao Yunlan went hunting through his own clothes, Shen Wei quietly removed his sweater vest and sleeve garters, and unbuttoned the top three buttons of his blue shirt. He pocketed his necklace and neatly rolled up his sleeves. Zhao Yunlan turned around, holding up a thin disaster of a shirt, and stopped, staring.
"Will this do?" Shen Wei asked. "Or another button? To allow my undershirt to show?" He unfastened the fourth button, and Da Qing, watching from the sofa, said brightly, "That's much better."
Zhao Yunlan hadn't said anything, but Shen Wei could feel his gaze. Not quite meeting it, he glanced over. "Chief Zhao? Is this bait-like enough?"
"That's...yeah." Zhao Yunlan tossed the shirt he was holding onto a pile at the foot of the bed. He checked his watch. "They're open by now. It might be too soon for our guy to show up, but I don't want to chance it. Come on." He briskly strode past Shen Wei and grabbed his keys.
Shen Wei followed, frowning. "You're going, too?" he asked in the hallway.
"Yes, I am."
"But the staff know you're from the SID," Shen Wei pointed out. Zhao Yunlan quickly trotted down the stairs and soon they were outside in the cool night air.
Zhao Yunlan stopped by the building's front gate. He spun around, shaking his keys. "Yes, yes. They know I'm a cop. And I know you can take care of yourself if there's any trouble. But I'm not going to send a member of my team out as bait without backup." He gave Shen Wei a level look, inviting the challenge. "I'm your backup."
"Da Qing—" Shen Wei started.
"I'm your backup," Zhao Yunlan repeated definitively.
"Very well." Shen Wei nodded.
All they accomplished the first night was that Zhao Yunlan had a quiet chat with the staff, who understood that if their bar was being used as a killer's hunting ground, it would hurt business. After he assured them he wouldn't poke his nose into goings-on not connected to the case, they agreed not to give him any problems. Shen Wei sat at the bar, alone, watching the crowd for anyone fitting the suspect's imprecise description. Zhao Yunlan was right; it could be almost any of the men here.
Whenever any of the customers paired off for one of the rooms, Zhao Yunlan did his best to blend in and go spy. But the private arrangements on this night were mostly group affairs, and their suspect didn't work in groups. The duos were women or a man and woman together.
The second night was also uneventful. The staff informed Zhao Yunlan it was their quietest night of the week. Some male customers went to the rooms. How Zhao Yunlan was observing them Shen Wei decided not to worry about, for now. Alone at the bar, the only conversation Shen Wei invited was from the bartender, who recognized him from the previous night. She hadn't been informed he worked for the SID, and he and Zhao Yunlan had arrived separately.
"Don't worry," she told him, wiping down the sleek wooden bar. "It's slow tonight. Come back tomorrow night. It'll be busier." She smiled at him reassuringly. "Someone will notice you. You're good-looking."
The words called forth a deep echo from centuries ago, and Shen Wei scanned the room for Zhao Yunlan without thinking. He watched him returning from the private area and their eyes met briefly.
"Ah, not him," the bartender said with a swipe at the bar.
"Why not him?" Shen Wei asked, curious, his gaze following Zhao Yunlan as he found a shadowy table from which to watch the entire room.
"He's..." She stopped herself from divulging more and frowned. She gave Shen Wei a sympathetic look. "It's up to you, of course, but I don't think that guy would be much fun. More trouble than he's worth."
Shen Wei privately disagreed with this assessment in every way but was amused by her low opinion of Zhao Yunlan.
"It comes with the territory," Zhao Yunlan told him later, when they returned home in the very early morning after the Celestial Garden closed. "I represent authority, my actions could bring unwelcome attention to the private space they've made for themselves and their customers, it's to be expected." He yawned, sliding the key to his apartment from his jacket pocket.
"Well," said Shen Wei, wanting to tease him a little, "she advised me not to waste my time enticing you."
Zhao Yunlan, yawning again and opening his door, replied matter-of-factly, "Way too late for that. Get a good rest." He disappeared into his apartment and the door closed. Shen Wei stared at it for a moment, collected himself, and went into his own apartment to try to get the rest he needed.
For the third night, Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan, and Da Qing all decided that Shen Wei needed to dress more bait-like. He wore the closest fitting trousers he owned and only a black, sleeveless undershirt. He presented himself for critical review in Zhao Yunlan's apartment. Zhao Yunlan stood back, one hand on his chin.
"There's something still..." he said musingly, eyes raking over Shen Wei. He glanced at Da Qing. "What do you think?"
Da Qing, draped over the sofa, dug into a bag of snacks and said around crunching, "I think he needs jewelry. Some bling to catch the eye."
Zhao Yunlan jutted out his lower lip, nodding in agreement. "Why don't you wear your necklace?"
"No," Shen Wei refused flatly, which of course only ignited Zhao Yunlan's dangerous curiosity. Shen Wei read it in his eyes and added with a self-deprecating smile, "It's a bit plain, not exactly what you call 'bling.' But I have a pocket chain."
Zhao Yunlan's eyes flared with something other than curiosity and he smiled slowly. "Ah, yes, you do have a pocket chain. I remember it well. That should do nicely." Shen Wei went to his apartment to put it on and returned. Zhao Yunlan circled him, looking him over. "I think I have the perfect addition."
He rifled through his wardrobe and brought out a black leather biker's jacket with a choker collar. He held it out for Shen Wei to slip into. "Does it fit?"
Shen Wei pulled his arms forward. He could move well enough in it. The sleeves were the right length. The jacket had a rich, warm aroma mingled faintly with Zhao Yunlan's own scent, and the leather was soft and supple. Shen Wei ran his hand down one sleeve. He was aware of Zhao Yunlan watching him closely.
Da Qing piped up from the sofa, "And here's my contribution," he said, grinning. He removed his bracelet and tossed it to Shen Wei. Shen Wei caught it and slid it over his wrist with a murmur of thanks.
"Yeah," Da Qing said with enthusiasm. "Now that's what I call bait."
The decorative changes might've helped. The sympathetic bartender greeted Shen Wei with an approving grin of encouragement, and he did attract more notice than he had on the previous nights.
The Celestial Garden was busy tonight. Zhao Yunlan called Da Qing to help with surveillance, in cat form. It was a long, exhausting night, and as they drove home in the morning, Zhao Yunlan banged the steering wheel in frustration. "Our guy better not be spooked off. Could he be going somewhere else?"
"How can you be certain none of the men tonight were our suspect?" Shen Wei asked. This question had been occupying his mind for some time.
"I can't be, not entirely," Zhao Yunlan said grimly, "but I'm hoping for more cooperation from Chen Luyang." He pulled his phone out with one hand and waved it in the air. "I snuck some photos and I hope he'll be able to identify the guy. Although the light's not good in most of them and I couldn't get too close, of course."
"That's..." Shen Wei paused, imagining the understandably upset confrontations Zhao Yunlan would receive if anyone had caught him. "...a terrible invasion of privacy," he murmured, glancing out the side window.
"I know," Zhao Yunlan said, exasperated. "But what else can I do? If he's not interested in you..." He cast a sidelong look at Shen Wei. "Though someone was. Who was that guy you were talking to for so long?" The 'so long' had lasted, at most, ten minutes.
From the back seat, Da Qing, in human form, leaned forward between them. "Yeah, who was that guy?" he asked with eager curiosity.
"He invited me to a private room," said Shen Wei, "but as he wanted to include his girlfriend, I believed he was not the suspect and declined."
"Oh." Da Qing sounded disappointed and sat back.
Zhao Yunlan tilted his head to one side and after a pause said, "Yeah, that doesn't sound like our guy." He gave Shen Wei another sidelong look. "If you declined, though, what was all the chatting about?"
"He indicated he was a regular customer. I told him I was a new customer and asked if he'd noticed any other new customers—men—lately. I gave the impression that I thought my chances of meeting someone compatible might be improved if we were both new."
Zhao Yunlan nodded a few times. "Okay. Yeah. Good thinking. What did he say?"
Shen Wei looked at him. "He said that aside from you, whom he described as 'the suspicious, skinny guy who just likes to watch'—his exact words—there's been one other, a man who showed up about four weeks ago."
"The timing sounds right," Da Qing said, stretching across the back seat with a yawn.
"Could he describe him?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"I didn't want to sound like I was investigating him, so I only received a general description of an attractive young man with nice eyes. But he told me that this man would probably show up tomorrow or the next night, because those are the days he'd seen him there before."
"Good, good." Zhao Yunlan smiled at Shen Wei. "We're getting close, I can feel it. Wrap up this case, and you don't have to be bait anymore." Shen Wei didn't mind being bait as much as he thought he would. It was interesting to observe others in such a setting.
Zhao Yunlan parked and they walked up to their floor, exchanged good nights, and parted ways. Shen Wei entered his apartment and realized he was still wearing Zhao Yunlan's jacket. He opened his door, saw the closed one across the hallway, and drew back. He could return the jacket later. He kept it on while he sorted through the things he needed to take care of for his classes. Sitting at his desk, he ran his hands along the soft sleeves, and inhaled deeply to bring the faintest hint of Zhao Yunlan's scent that lingered.
The jacket had pockets. He'd resisted exploring inside them all through the night, but now he indulged his curiosity. The left pocket was empty, save for a bit of lint. The right pocket contained a crumpled lollipop wrapper. Shen Wei smiled softly at it and replaced it. There was an inner pocket and it contained a small piece of folded paper, ripped from a notepad. Shen Wei unfolded it. On it was written: Shen Wei, in Zhao Yunlan's distinctive, hurried hand. That was all.
Shen Wei stared at his own name. He touched the gel-ink pen strokes with his fingertips, wondering what the circumstances of Zhao Yunlan writing them had been. Wondering why the paper had been folded and tucked into the inner pocket, where it stayed, apparently forgotten, next to Zhao Yunlan's heart.
That evening Shen Wei returned the jacket to Zhao Yunlan, but Zhao Yunlan insisted he wear it again, that it went with the bait look. Shen Wei wore a white sleeveless undershirt and close-fitting black trousers, ornamented with his pocket chain. Da Qing again lent him a bracelet. They approved of Shen Wei's latest look.
"Honestly, I don't think the problem is the look," Zhao Yunlan said, standing back and eyeing him. "You look like bait, but you don't act like bait."
Shen Wei regarded him, reluctant to ask. "How should I act?"
Contrary to the teasing, flirty answer Shen Wei was expecting, Zhao Yunlan answered honestly, "For one thing, can you sit without resting your hands on your knees? And, I know this is a terrible thing to ask, but can you slouch a little? Just a tiny bit? You look so...so alert."
"Ready to jump up at the first sign of trouble," Da Qing critiqued.
Shen Wei couldn't dispute that description, and considered how his seated posture would look to others. "Anything else?"
"You can't drink booze, I get that," Zhao Yunlan said, "but the glass of plain water isn't cutting it."
"They don't serve tea at the Celestial Garden," Shen Wei informed him. "I asked."
Zhao Yunlan's endearing, indulgent look unaccountably reminded Shen Wei of the folded slip of paper containing his name. He touched the jacket over his heart and turned the motion into smoothing, as if the jacket were wrinkling.
"Order something colorful," Zhao Yunlan said. "Fruit juice. Ask for one of their fancy swizzle sticks. The bartender seems to like you. I'm sure she'd be happy to make you something that will attract someone's attention."
Zhao Yunlan's suggestion and the change in Shen Wei's posture worked. Shen Wei received rather more attention than he'd expected, and it was a busy night at the club. He lost sight of Zhao Yunlan for long stretches of time. Da Qing, in cat form, slinked along the walls and lurked under tables.
Shen Wei evaluated the guests who wished to spend time with him, declining invitations from women, couples, older men, men with beards, and men who wished to include him in a group. There were three men who fell into their suspect's parameters. The first was a regular customer, well known to the bartender. His interest in Shen Wei flitted away when someone else came up to the bar. Shen Wei observed the man's casual, take-it-or-leave-it behavior and thought it unlikely he was the suspect.
The second man's interest in Shen Wei was focused and palpable, and instantly reminded Shen Wei of Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei sipped from his gaudy glass of orange-mango juice and scanned the room, but Zhao Yunlan was gone again. He agreed to accompany the man to a private room.
The room the man chose had black walls with chains and shackles attached to them. Electric candles mounted on chest-high stands provided low light, and in the center of the room was a black, leather-covered object with straps that Shen Wei glanced at in passing.
"I've been bad," the man said with an exaggerated pout. "I've been very bad. I need to be punished." He stood by the wall and fondled one of the shackles.
Shen Wei approached, wondering if this was their suspect and he wanted to repent. Or flaunt his crimes. The man's eyes gleamed and he smiled. "Should I take anything off?" he asked.
Shen Wei stopped, looking him over. He was not acting like a repentant or gloating killer, nor did he seem like the suspect Chen Luyang had described, the one who'd touched and kissed and been gentle.
"Is punishment...all you want?" Shen Wei asked.
The man's eyes moved to the leather object and Shen Wei noticed a whip coiled on top of it. "I need a lot of punishment," the man said eagerly.
Shen Wei thought it extremely unlikely this man was their suspect. "I'm sorry," Shen Wei said awkwardly. "Excuse me."
"Wait, what? You're just leaving me?" The man gestured angrily.
Shen Wei glanced about the room. He was vaguely reminded of the Regent's dungeons in Dijun Palace and the misery and suffering there. That such an environment would attract people was a curiosity. "This isn't what I imagined," he said truthfully.
"But you said..." The man came closer, frowning at him. "If this isn't what you're into, why did you say yes when I asked if you were a master of rare pleasure?"
Shen Wei paused, comprehending the implied meaning of the phrase for the first time. He had never felt particularly naïve in modern Haixing but there were subcultures within subcultures that he wasn't acquainted with. "I'm sorry," he said again, demure.
"You didn't understand the question," the man guessed, relaxing. "You are new here, huh? It's all right, but you better learn the language, friend, before you get into trouble." He looked Shen Wei up and down and licked his lips. Leaning on the leather object and crossing his arms, he asked, "What are you looking for, anyway?"
Seeing an opportunity to gather more intelligence from another customer, Shen Wei replied slowly, "I'm looking for a man who would like to kiss me. Who would like to touch me, and would be gentle with me."
The man's cool, detached gaze softened. "You haven't found anybody like that?" The way he asked shot Shen Wei's thoughts back to the past: to a cliff top, a black night, a brush of warm breath. He swallowed and dragged his mind back to the present, the case, the suspect.
"No, not here," he said. "Not yet."
"Ah, well..." The man's expression was sympathetic. "You might find that here. But, you know, just be careful."
"I will. Thank you."
As they left the room together, they nearly bumped into Zhao Yunlan, who was tapping on his phone. The other man left and Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan stared at each other for a moment. Zhao Yunlan's eyes travelled to the room behind Shen Wei then down the corridor after the other man. Shen Wei shook his head subtly. Zhao Yunlan relaxed, only slightly, and they returned to the bar. Zhao Yunlan seemed about to ask Shen Wei something, remembered the case, and changed it to ordering another drink from the bartender. He took his drink and found a spot in the corner to watch the bar.
As customers came, chatted with Shen Wei, and left, Shen Wei found himself scanning more often for Zhao Yunlan. He was watching him pull his phone out when a man next to Shen Wei said, "Do you want another drink?"
Shen Wei turned around and the first thing he noticed about the man was his eyes. Expressive, kind eyes. Shen Wei was again reminded of Zhao Yunlan, but resisted searching for him. He smiled and glanced at his half-drunk glass of fruit juice. "No, thank you, not right now. I'm new here," he offered.
The man smiled. "I'm new, too. I've only been here a few times, but it's a fun place. I've met some nice people here."
"I'm glad to hear it."
The man's attention on Shen Wei was direct and unmistakable, yet Shen Wei didn't feel it was entirely sexual or predatory. One thing he was certain of, however, was that the man was from Dixing. His dark energy was obvious. Shen Wei couldn't tell if the man sensed that Shen Wei was also from Dixing. Some Dixingren knew, or guessed; others didn't.
They chatted about trivialities. This was different from the others who'd approached and made their interests and intentions clear quickly. The man said he didn't know Dragon City very well. Shen Wei told him he worked at Dragon City University, and they talked a little about the university and its famed collection of artworks by Haixing old masters.
"Do you know there are rooms here?" the man asked, leaning close. "We can go into one to be alone. If you'd like." He smiled shyly.
"Yes, let's go into one of the rooms," Shen Wei said with a little smile.
The unoccupied room they found was a bit plain and frumpy, with a couple of vinyl sofas covered in cheap blankets. A light with a red lamp shade cast sad shadows in the small space. They sat down on one of the sofas.
The man searched Shen Wei's face. "Do you want to kiss?" he asked.
Shen Wei hesitated. He hadn't seen Zhao Yunlan as they'd left the bar. He wasn't sure how far he was supposed to take his role as bait.
The man, seeing his uncertainty, continued, "It's all right. We don't have to." He smiled. "People don't usually use their names here, but I'm Lei Xin." Shen Wei did not reveal his own name. This didn't bother Lei Xin. "You're very attractive," he said. "But you look worried. Don't be. We won't do anything you don't want to do. I'd just like to make you feel good. How does that sound?"
Lei Xin's voice was very quiet and soothing. Was it a power, Shen Wei wondered. Did it lure his victims into acquiescence? Curious to know what Lei Xin meant to do, and confident that he could defend himself, Shen Wei said, "That sounds nice."
Lei Xin touched Shen Wei's face, lightly resting his fingertips on Shen Wei's cheekbones. Lei Xin closed his eyes and took deep breaths. Dark energy seeped from his fingertips into Shen Wei's skin.
The effect built gradually, at first a slow warmth throughout Shen Wei's body, like healing. The warmth steadied, and there followed a numbness, not unpleasant. Cares and concerns, worries and fears all faded away. Finally, the numbness leveled with the warmth and Shen Wei felt a giddiness, an excitement similar to sexual arousal but much deeper, and very powerful.
Shen Wei opened his eyes, which he didn't remember closing. Lei Xin's eyes were still closed and his smile was soft and lazy. He rocked, his fingertips just barely touching Shen Wei's cheeks.
"Ohhh yes," Lei Xin moaned quietly. "You feel it, don't you? It's good, isn't it?"
"Stop," Shen Wei said.
Lei Xin swayed, smiling. He didn't seem to have heard.
"Stop immediately," Shen Wei commanded him, and grabbed his wrists, pulling his hands away from his face. Lei Xin's eyes opened, and as they refocused they filled with fear.
"Who are you?" he asked with a gulp.
"Shen Wei!" Zhao Yunlan burst into the room. "There you are! I was..." He read the scene, held up his phone, and snapped a photo of Lei Xin. He tapped on his phone and within seconds received a reply.
"It's him," he said grimly, pulling handcuffs from his jacket.
How Zhao Yunlan managed to arrest Lei Xin and get him out of the Celestial Garden without causing a scene Shen Wei was never certain. Shen Wei found Da Qing hunkered by a wall, scooped him up in his arms, and left the bar. He carefully deposited Da Qing onto the sidewalk outside and Da Qing adopted his human form.
"We've caught him," Shen Wei told him. "Chief Zhao took him back to the SID."
Da Qing nodded. "I'll let Xiao Guo and Lao Chu know that Chen Luyang is safe. Thanks for your help, Professor Shen." He smiled and waved before rushing off. Shen Wei watched him go, remembering a young Cat Tribe kitten chasing a butterfly once, centuries past.
When Shen Wei was certain he was alone, he sidled into the shadows of a nearby park and summoned his Hei Pao Shi robes and glaive. He formed a portal and stepped through it to arrive in the SID main office.
"Word spreads fast, Hei Lao-ge," Zhao Yunlan greeted him with a smug grin. He was sitting on the sofa with his feet on the table, crossed at the ankle. "He's in the interrogation room." His gesture indicated that Shen Wei was welcome to take the prisoner away, but when Shen Wei walked toward the room, Zhao Yunlan fell into step beside him.
"He reacted badly when I showed him the photos of his victims," Zhao Yunlan said, quiet and serious. "It might be an act, but..." he trailed off, scratching the back of his neck.
"But?" Shen Wei prompted. They stood outside the room.
"I don't think he knew those men died." He gave Shen Wei a worried look. "Could there be another killer? An accomplice?"
Shen Wei had reached a different, unhappy conclusion. "I should know after I speak with him," he said.
Zhao Yunlan opened the door. "He's all yours."
Shen Wei took Lei Xin to a deserted park. Lei Xin sobbed, repentant and shocked by what he'd done. Shen Wei asked about his power and learned that it had recently awakened. Lei Xin had used it in Dixing, where it had always induced the pleasant, intoxicated feeling Shen Wei had experienced earlier. He'd discovered he could transfer the feeling through touching, kissing, and sexual acts.
"But it feels so good just touching, I'd rarely have sex with them," Lei Xin said and sighed. "Problem is, there aren't a lot of places to meet the right kinds of men in Dixing. People there are so..." He didn't finish the thought and lowered his eyes. "Forgive my words, Hei Pao Da Ren."
"So you decided to come to Haixing," Shen Wei said.
Lei Xin nodded. "I'd never thought about it before, but one day I took a walk by the old capital ruins near the Sky Pillar, and the idea popped into my head. Soon after that I met a guy who showed me how to get to Haixing." He smiled. "I like it here. I met nice men. I...I didn't know..." His eyes filled with tears.
"Your touch is not compatible with Haixing people," Shen Wei explained. "It damages them after the pleasurable sensations fade and it causes burns which can kill them if their exposure to your power was prolonged." Lei Xin sobbed, covering his face. "I need to know if there were more men that you met," Shen Wei pressed. "Why did you visit the Celestial Garden only once a week? Did you meet men in other places?"
"No." Lei Xin looked up, gulping and shaking his head vigorously. "No, I only met those four men. The cover charge to get inside the Celestial Garden costs a lot. I couldn't find steady work, but I made some money clearing yards and painting houses. I saved up during the week so I could go to the club."
Shen Wei was satisfied with his answers and thought Zhao Yunlan would be, too. He was convinced Lei Xin had meant no harm, but he couldn't stay on Haixing with a lethal power, even if he promised never to use it. How long before the loneliness and need for companionship were too strong to resist? When Lei Xin had touched him, both of them had felt the power's effects. The temptation of such pleasure would be strong.
Removing Lei Xin's power was possible for Shen Wei, but it was dangerous and carried a heavy price. Nevertheless, Shen Wei offered him a choice: to remove his power or to send him back to Dixing to face imprisonment and worse. Lei Xin surprised him by choosing the latter. He could not, he said, imagine living without this part of himself, so newly discovered. Shen Wei respected his choice and delivered him to the Regent.
It was not yet dawn when Shen Wei reached his apartment. From force of habit he glanced at Zhao Yunlan's door and noticed light spilling from the gap onto the floor. He paused, then knocked on the door. Zhao Yunlan answered it within a few seconds. He wore a loose tee shirt over drawstring flannel pajama bottoms, but he did not look like he'd been asleep. He invited Shen Wei inside with a puzzled but pleased smile.
Shen Wei touched the leather jacket. "I came to return this. And Da Qing's bracelet," he said, looking around for Da Qing.
"Ah, he decided to curl up and sleep at the SID." Zhao Yunlan shrugged. He smirked. "I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Lao Li mentioned he was going to the fish market first thing this morning."
Shen Wei set the bracelet down on the table next to the sofa. He held the jacket out for Zhao Yunlan. As Zhao Yunlan took it, Shen Wei said, "When you first suggested I change how I dress, I said something awkward to you. I apologize."
Zhao Yunlan hung the jacket from a peg on the wall and frowned for a moment. "Something—? Oh, that." He grinned quickly and waved it off. "Don't worry about it. You were right, anyway. Compared to Professor Shen, I suppose I do dress a bit more...available?" His smile was fixed and unconvincing.
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei said firmly, not willing to hear him speak of himself in such a way. "That was not at all what I meant. I only meant—"
"Shen Wei. It doesn't matter." Zhao Yunlan relaxed. "The case is over."
He wandered into the kitchen and poured water into two glasses, gesturing for Shen Wei to sit down. Shen Wei sat on the sofa, resting his hands on his knees, and watched him closely. Zhao Yunlan set a glass of water on the coffee table in front of him and paced around the table, sipping from his own glass. He watched Shen Wei just as closely, finally dropping down onto the sofa beside him and squirming to sit facing him, back against the arm rest, knees bent, bare feet resting on the cushion next to Shen Wei's thigh. Shen Wei swallowed and curled his fingers over the smooth fabric of his trousers.
As always, this physical closeness between them was bearable unbearableness. A sweet torture. The scent of him, the heat from his body... Shen Wei took a small sip of water, meaning to excuse himself to return to his own apartment.
"There's something I've been wanting to ask you," Zhao Yunlan said.
Shen Wei looked straight ahead, avoiding meeting his gaze. "Go on." No doubt Zhao Yunlan would ask him about the time in the past when he'd been to the Celestial Garden. Shen Wei had been waiting for this and was prepared to tell him the truth, if not all the details.
"Isn't it possible, sometimes, that the completely solitary path one is on is actually wide enough for two?" Zhao Yunlan spoke quietly, serious.
Shen Wei stared at him, unprepared for such a question. How could he answer this? What was the right answer, after all? He had thought, when he first met Chief Zhao, that one course of action was correct above all others, but Zhao Yunlan had managed time and again to bend this course... No, that was unfair. Time and again, Shen Wei had allowed—welcomed, he could admit now—Zhao Yunlan to bend the course of action and lead it where Shen Wei wanted: back to Zhao Yunlan.
Zhao Yunlan broke the heavy silence between them. "You can't answer that? Or you don't want to," he continued, softly sad, not accusing.
Shen Wei felt he must answer. "Perhaps the path one is on is dangerous."
"All the more reason to share it," Zhao Yunlan countered immediately, meeting his gaze steadily and trapping it for a long moment. Then he laughed a little, tossing his head. "Aren't all paths dangerous in some way? Alone or together, the path is the path."
Shen Wei glanced away and murmured to himself, "Wide enough for two." Oh, such tempting words, like fingers reaching through his skin and bones to hold his heart. He touched his chest out of habit, expecting his necklace. But, of course, it wasn't there. He hadn't worn it to the club.
The club. That seemed like years ago now, not a few hours. Shen Wei half-smiled softly, remembering the words he'd spoken.
"I want a man who would like to kiss me," he said, very quiet. "Who would like to touch me, and would be gentle with me."
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan breathed his name.
Shen Wei looked at him evenly. The decision was no longer a burden; having made it, he felt light, almost weightless. He gazed into Zhao Yunlan's perceptive, expressive, kind, beautiful eyes as if seeing them—allowing himself to see them—clearly for the first time. "Zhao Yunlan," he said, smiling.
Zhao Yunlan shifted fluidly to move closer, sitting on his haunches, somewhat kneeling as he delicately caressed Shen Wei's cheek. He searched Shen Wei's face wonderingly. Shen Wei tilted his head into his hand. "Not that gentle."
Zhao Yunlan smiled and laughed a little. His palm pressed more certainly to Shen Wei's cheek and he leaned in to kiss him. At first a sigh, breath drifting across Shen Wei's lips, before the touch: warm and soft and supple. Their lips glided and stroked, slow and cherishing, and now and then Shen Wei felt the thrilling friction of Zhao Yunlan's mustache.
The kiss was sublime and indulgent, and Shen Wei decided not to worry about it right now. They could stop, of course, he thought, placing his hand on the nape of Zhao Yunlan's neck and initiating the next long, glorious kiss.
When Zhao Yunlan drew back, he locked his hands behind Shen Wei's neck and said, "We're not stopping," as if he'd read Shen Wei's mind. He kept hold while Shen Wei leaned over to take off his shoes, then he lay back on the sofa, urging Shen Wei over him. They kissed again, Shen Wei sinking into his embrace, pressing delightfully against him despite the awkwardly placed limbs and the spatial limits of the sofa. Zhao Yunlan parted his lips, inviting and luring with his tongue. Shen Wei filled his mouth and was captured by wet, hungry heat. When he lifted from the kiss Zhao Yunlan caught his lower lip with his teeth before gently letting go.
Shen Wei stroked Zhao Yunlan's hair, gazing down at him, so giddy from everything rushing through him he could barely find words. At last he said, "This is not very comfortable."
Zhao Yunlan ran his hands soothingly up and down Shen Wei's shoulders. He smiled broadly, his eyes lit with contentment. "Aside from the fact that it also feels fantastic, I agree."
Shen Wei smiled back. "I can move us. Such a short distance. You'll barely notice."
Zhao Yunlan looked into his eyes and his smile softened. His fingertips skimmed the fabric between Shen Wei's shoulder blades, a skittering, pleasing touch. "Are you ready to go to bed with me?" he asked quietly, without a hint of teasing or flirting.
Shen Wei met his gaze, not sure how to respond. He hadn't thought farther ahead than simply being more comfortable: an impulse of the moment. But going to bed with Zhao Yunlan meant more than a momentary impulse. Shen Wei wanted to—of course he wanted to, desperately and fiercely wanted to. So fiercely it almost overwhelmed him. But wanting to was not the same as being ready.
"I..." he started, and Zhao Yunlan said easily, "Then we'll stay right here. And feel uncomfortable and fantastic at the same time."
Shen Wei kissed him slowly, deeply, grateful that he understood. "I will be ready," he said, brushing his lips along Zhao Yunlan's cheekbone. "Just not now. Not today, but soon."
"I know," Zhao Yunlan said confidently. He clasped his hands behind Shen Wei's back, squeezing softly. "I'm irresistible, after all." He flashed a grin and Shen Wei mock-glared at him. He shifted until they were nearly side by side, wedged together on the sofa. Zhao Yunlan rubbed Shen Wei's back and kissed him sweetly.
Shen Wei regarded him for a moment. "Do you want me to tell you about that time I went to the Celestial Garden?"
"As much as I enjoy discovering all your secrets," Zhao Yunlan said, "there's nothing about that time that concerns me, is there?"
"Then no. That's a secret you're welcome to keep."
Shen Wei was relieved but he raised one eyebrow. "Chief Zhao is not in the least bit curious?"
Zhao Yunlan gave him a determined look, all of his focus and all of his desire directed at Shen Wei, not as a weapon but as a treasure. "Chief Zhao," he said, "wants his curiosity about such matters satisfied through deeds, not words. Not today," he added, softer. "But soon."
Shen Wei kissed him again, finding in the warmth of his lips and in the gentle patience of his touch that one path was truly never solitary, after all. It was always wide enough for two.