“I can't believe you talked me into this,” Da Qing whined, leaning on his hiking poles.
Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes and didn't reply. Back in the city, Da Qing had been all gung ho about running around in the mountains like he had in his youth, catching fish from streams with the natural grace of someone at the top of the food chain, but two hours in, he was whining. Zhao Yunlan didn't know whether to be amused or exasperated. “Didn't you want to go on a nighttime hike in the mountains? Relive all those romanticized memories of your youth doing important shit ten thousand years ago, hobnobbing with Ma Gui, the Black-Cloaked Envoy, and all the other long-dead heroes whose names you read in the history books?”
“Hey, I really was there!” Da Qing complained.
“Of course you were.” Zhao Yunlan crested the hill and scanned it for a path down to the relatively level valley floor. Nothing too forbidding. Zhao Yunlan checked the valley bed for signs of flooding. It wasn't the wet season, but one couldn't be too careful.
The ground moved. Zhao Yunlan froze and Da Qing almost collided with him, but then he saw something that might've been a hand rise from the soil and he immediately sprinted down the rocky path to help.
He arrived at the bottom without twisting his ankles, despite his clip. It was definitely a human hand, trying to pull at the air, with a layer of soil near it shaking. “Da Qing! Come help!” Zhao Yunlan shouted as he moved fistfuls of dirt off where the person's face likely was.
They were alive, and twitching, and their hand moved, and Zhao Yunlan had found them, please let it not be too late-
Zhao Yunlan scooped off a large clump of dirt, exposing a handsome face. The man coughed, his whole body spasming as his lungs tried to clear out the dirt. Zhao Yunlan hurriedly pushed more soil off his torso so he could curl up and let gravity help clean his face.
Eventually, the coughing fit quietened down. Zhao Yunlan got his first proper look at the man.
He was beautiful in an ethereal way, with waist-length loose gray hair and white robes straight out of a period drama. Long lashes, too. Roughly Zhao Yunlan's height. Very attention-grabbing in many ways.
“What's your name?” Zhao Yunlan asked. “We should go to the hospital; being buried alive can't have been good for you. Do you live here? What happened?”
The man frowned. Briefly, Zhao Yunlan feared the beauty was part of some linguistic minority and didn't understand him, but then he answered, “Ye Zun.” His voice was hoarse.
Ye Zun. Right. That was probably his name. A bit odd, but pretty. “Have some water?” Zhao Yunlan offered when he spotted Ye Zun rubbing his throat.
Wordlessly, Ye Zun accepted the offered water bottle and drank. The first sip jarred some dust in his throat and made him cough again, but once he'd gotten his breath back, he glugged down the whole bottle.
“He's from Dixing,” Da Qing whispered.
Zhao Yunlan froze. Da Qing had an eye – or perhaps calling it a nose would be more accurate – for Dixingians; if he thought Ye Zun was from Dixing, he was right.
And if that was true ... was this how they came up from their underground lair? Held their breaths and rose through the rock, propelled by their dark energy? For a creature who did that, Ye Zun looked surprisingly human. Zhao Yunlan had known his father's words were likely exaggerations, self-delusion to let him sleep at night after a day killing them, and they weren't caricatures of inhuman monsters. Even so, he'd been left with the lingering impression that Dixingians would carry an aura of darkness – carry the stigmata of their underground birth and alien heritage – not be completely indistinguishable from a human.
“Never been there,” Ye Zun decisively said as he handed Zhao Yunlan the empty bottle. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He stared at Zhao Yunlan, Da Qing, and the surroundings with a deepening frown.
“We're at the foot of the mountains near Dragon City,” Zhao Yunlan said. Whether or not Ye Zun was actually from Dixing, he was still someone in need of help. Zhao Yunlan was the Chief of the Special Investigation Department, true, but just a few months ago, he'd been a regular homicide cop. He knew full well just what depths of evil regular humans could sink to.
Ye Zun frowned. It was obvious he'd never heard of Dragon City. He clambered to his feet, shaking loose another sheet of dirt.
Zhao Yunlan swallowed and ignored Da Qing's glare. “Want a ride to the city? I could buy you food.”
Ye Zun stared at him for a long moment. “Sure,” he said.
Ignoring Da Qing's wordless protestations, Zhao Yunlan herded Ye Zun to the car like one might herd a skittish animal. He was glad they'd planned their route in a loose arc – the car wasn't parked terribly far away from where they were now; a kilometer or so down the valley and then a bit along the road. And Ye Zun didn't seem to have any injuries to his legs that might slow him down.
It was slow going in the dark, but they hit the road. Ye Zun looked to and fro suspiciously. Zhao Yunlan supposed that wherever Ye Zun was from – Dixing, space, the future – the roads there looked different.
“What is that?” Ye Zun asked, disgusted.
“That's my car!” Zhao Yunlan cheerfully replied. “See the large, rugged wheels perfect for off-road work and trunk and cabin full of space for bags!”
Behind him, Da Qing audibly rolled his eyes. Zhao Yunlan ignored it.
Ye Zun stared at the car in mute horror. “How does it move?” he eventually asked in a small voice.
Given the question, what Ye Zun wanted was probably an introduction to the operating principles of the modern combustion engine and how the transmission worked, but Zhao Yunlan wasn't that confident about his ability to explain that, so he bragged about the engine's specs instead. At length. Until Da Qing hissed and told them he was getting in the car already. “Save the front seat for our guest!” Zhao Yunlan hollered.
Da Qing groaned and sat on the front seat obviously out of spite. Figured.
“Well, it seems you'll get the back seat,” Zhao Yunlan said. “Come! Let's get you in.”
He drove down the roads until dirt turned to pavement and lights sprung at the roadside. The night's traffic was sparse outside the city, but when they entered it, one could see other people on the street, even if Dragon City had nothing on Tomorrow Mountain, where Zhao Yunlan's previous post had been.
He'd promised to feed Ye Zun. At this time of night in Dragon City, that meant one of two streets. “Let's go get some food!” he said, and steered towards the downtown region both of the streets were in.
A few of the smaller places were shut for the night, but stalls were still there, hawking their wares for all to eat. Zhao Yunlan's own stomach rumbled as well when hit with the panopticon of aromas.
“What'd you like to eat?” he asked. “I'll get you anything.”
“Fish!” Da Qing immediately said.
Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes. “Not you, you have a salary of your own. Ye Zun?”
Ye Zun stared at him suspiciously. Looking for the strings attached to the offer, Zhao Yunlan realized.
Well, better give him one. “Come, let me show you the delicacies of the modern world.” He winked.
This seemed to put Ye Zun on more familiar ground. He rose to regal heights and walked down the street, pointing at this and that, based more on appearance than what anything actually tasted like. Zhao Yunlan got him everything he asked for.
Once they'd reached the end of the street, Ye Zun had a veritable pile of food in his arms: meat on a stick, little steamed buns, a pancake in a wrapper, candied hawthorns, and chicken feet. His Dixing power was probably balancing everything in his arms. Da Qing had found fish from somewhere and brought some steamed buns for Zhao Yunlan.
“Need help getting all of that in your mouth?” Zhao Yunlan asked.
“No!” Ye Zun immediately replied and took a half-step back while defensively curling around the food.
“Ah, you must be talented, then!” Zhao Yunlan said with a wink and bit into the bun Da Qing had brought. Pork and carrot. “Go ahead!”
Ye Zun started by reaching his neck out and biting the skewered meat. It looked awkward, but he didn't spill anything, and when he bit down and chewed, he made a small sound of pleasure. For a moment, he was lost in appreciation, and Zhao Yunlan lost staring at his face, suddenly young and innocent like the world had blanketed him in kindness.
“What are you going to do with him?” Da Qing asked in a low voice, shattering Zhao Yunlan's image.
There was no official contact with Dixing; his father had solved the problem of Dixingians by shooting them all. “Bring him home,” Zhao Yunlan replied.
Da Qing looked at Ye Zun, then leveled an unimpressed look at Zhao Yunlan. “Pervert,” he said.
Ye Zun bit into a candied hawthorn. Delight burst onto his face.
A warm feeling spread through Zhao Yunlan's chest. He could feel his ice-cold heart thaw to mush. “Yeah,” he agreed.
“I'm going to the SID,” Da Qing declared. “Lin Jing can examine your remains in the morning.” He transformed into a cat and hopped away.
Zhao Yunlan didn't think he was in mortal danger, but even if he died, his team would be fine. Lin Jing could go back to the Department of Supervision, Zhu Hong could retire back to the forest, and if Da Qing truly was immortal, he could just spend a few decades as a cat on the streets before rejoining the humans. The SID would go to some crony of his father's, but it wasn't like it would change anything – the only method they had of dealing with Dixingians was shooting them.
Ye Zun, on the other hand, didn't seem to have anywhere to go. Given his apparent food-related anxieties, he probably wouldn't want to return to his origins, anyway. Interestingly, he was unfazed about Da Qing turning into a cat.
“What's your Dixing power?” Zhao Yunlan asked.
Ye Zun took another bite of the hawthorn. “Eating.” Relatively harmless, then.
But- “Didn't you say you'd never been to Dixing?”
Ye Zun rolled his eyes. “I've lived my entire life on the surface. Unless being buried under a thin sheet of soil now counts as being sent to Dixing?”
“You really are out of the loop,” Zhao Yunlan said. “Dixingians have been forbidden from leaving Dixing for ten thousand years – ever since the meteor. The treaty was signed by the Black-Cloaked Envoy himself.”
“Ten thous...” Ye Zun's legs gave way beneath him. Zhao Yunlan rushed to his side to support him down.
Ye Zun ended up sitting cross-legged, with the hawthorn in his hand and all the rest of the food in his lap. “But- but-” He looked up at Zhao Yunlan beseechingly. “Ten thousand years?” he croaked.
“Yeah.” Zhao Yunlan should probably say something more. “I'm sorry. This must be hard for you.”
Ye Zun still looked utterly shell-shocked, but he started eating again, first the hawthorns and then the pancake and buns and chicken feet. His expression didn't change as he stuffed all the food into his mouth and down to his stomach.
Well. His Dixing power was eating. It'd make sense he'd be good at it, right?
After he swallowed the last chicken foot, Ye Zun burped and licked his lips, much like Da Qing after he'd eaten whatever unfortunate small animal he'd caught in cat form when he bothered to actually hunt. Ye Zun spent a moment in silent consideration before asking, “What will you do to me?”
And that was the crux of the matter. “I thought I might take you home and feed you some more?” Zhao Yunlan suggested. He didn't know where the entry to Dixing was, if one traversible from this side even existed, and he sure as hell didn't want to shoot Ye Zun.
“Didn't you say Dixingians aren't allowed on Haixing anymore?”
He was right to be suspicious. “Your case is special,” Zhao Yunlan quickly said. “We, uh, don't have the methods to deal with it, so you can stay here for as long as you like.”
“Forever dependent on your charity,” Ye Zun breathed.
He had a point. “Would you like some more food?” Zhao Yunlan asked in lieu of an apology.
Ye Zun jumped to his feet. “Yes!”
Zhao Yunlan brought him back to the car and they drove to a nice 24/7 takeaway joint. He figured Ye Zun would have trouble with the whole sharing food thing, so he ordered one main dish for himself and two main dishes and three sides for Ye Zun. He drove them to his apartment.
Ye Zun continued behaving in a manner consistent with someone who'd skipped ten millennia into the future. He looked around himself suspiciously as they walked up the stairs and stared at Zhao Yunlan unlocking the door.
“Sorry for the mess,” Zhao Yunlan said. He kicked some piles of clothes to the side and placed the food on the coffee table, his at the far end and Ye Zun's load at the end closer to Ye Zun. Hopefully Ye Zun would be too distracted by the food to pay attention to the apartment's condition.
Ye Zun glanced at the food at his end of the table, then at Zhao Yunlan's solitary carton, and back again. “Is this how people nowadays usually eat?”
“No,” Zhao Yunlan admitted. “Usually, we get a bunch of dishes and people share them all, but I figured that since your Dixing power is eating, I'd better make sure I had something!”
He wasn't sure his circumlocution had worked, but then Ye Zun relaxed minutely and started piling in. With great speed, too. Zhao Yunlan considered this additional point of evidence for food insecurity and decided against telling Ye Zun he could slow down.
It took him as much time to eat his carton of sweet and sour pork as it did for Ye Zun to eat the twice cooked fish, chicken noodles, pickled radish, century eggs, and smashed cucumber. Ye Zun burped.
That left Zhao Yunlan with ... putting the trash in the bin. He really needed to figure out what to do with Ye Zun.
“What happens to Dixingians in Haixing?”
And Ye Zun was sharp and suspicious. “Uh, the body in charge of enforcing the Treaty here is the Special Investigations Department; I'm the Chief. I'd like to, I don't know, send the people back to Dixing, but we don't know how.” He afforded Ye Zun a dazzling smile. “I suppose you wouldn't know where the door is?”
“Even if I did, I couldn't find it now.”
“The Big Dipper has turned and not just the stars have moved,” Zhao Yunlan agreed. “Say, Ye Zun, would you be interested in joining the SID?”
“And what would that entail?” Ye Zun asked in a low voice.
“Uh... Well, we sometimes get cases from the district police, and then we track down the culprit. The last time, it was just a human with some sciencey thingamajig, so he went to the regular courts. Yashou we give over to their leaders.”
Zhao Yunlan winced. Why had he made the offer? Oh, right, because he wanted an excuse to keep Ye Zun. “Dad killed all he found.”
“Ah.” Ye Zun licked his lips. “I'll join.”
“You- Great!” Zhao Yunlan laughed. He hadn't expected capitulation at that – had thought he'd need to convince Ye Zun some more – but he'd take it. Even if it was profoundly odd.
Ye Zun woke to sunlight streaming through the curtains. The bed – Zhao Yunlan's bed – was ludicrously soft, and dry and warm to boot. It was the best location Ye Zun had ever slept in.
He lazed in the bed for a while longer, enjoying the play of dawn light in the apartment. His stomach was full and his bedding dry. It seemed that after so many years of suffering, he'd been transported into a paradise.
Zhao Yunlan groaned on the couch. Ye Zun snapped his attention to him and listened. Nothing.
A while later, Zhao Yunlan groaned again. This time he swung himself up onto his feet and yawned. “I'll buy you breakfast on the way,” he absentmindedly promised as he sleepwalked into the bathroom.
Ye Zun smiled. Breakfast. It had been a long time since he'd been so well fed.
Zhao Yunlan had brought him to a similar street of vendors hawking their wares, and bought everything Ye Zun had pointed at. He was still munching on his final pancake as he walked into the brick building.
An invisible wall crashed into his nose and threw him back. “Ow!”
“Oh, fuck,” Zhao Yunlan said. He extended his hand and helped Ye Zun up. He was warm, and gentle, and did not try to steal Ye Zun's food. A curious frisson ran through Ye Zun as Zhao Yunlan slung an arm over his shoulders and brought him in through the invisible wall.
“Chief Zhao! You're alive!” a woman shouted as she hopped to her feet and stumbled.
“Why wouldn't I be?” Zhao Yunlan laughed, arm still around Ye Zun. “Zhu Hong, this is your newest colleague, Ye Zun. He'll be our ... field agent!”
Field agent. It sounded like he'd get to track down Dixingians and eat them.
“You're hiring him?” the cat cried out.
“I can't just leave him out to die, can I?” Zhao Yunlan said. “I unearthed him, now I must take responsibility.”
Da Qing rolled his eyes and Zhu Hong scoffed. A third person appeared on the scene, this one a tall human man whose short hair looked like he'd suffered from an explosion. “Take responsibility for what?” he asked. “Boss, I didn't know you had such perverted desires.”
Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes. “Zhu Hong, Da Qing, Lin Jing, this is our new field agent, Ye Zun. He's Dixingian, but spent the past ten thousand years in stasis. Ye Zun, these are your new colleagues: Zhu Hong, our secretary, Da Qing, the Vice Chief, and Lin Jing, our tech person.”
“Hi,” Lin Jing said. He turned to Zhao Yunlan. “Do I get to take readings on him? You know we don't have proper data on Dixingians. If I get to-”
“I'm taking him over to the Ministry to get the papers done. Zhu Hong, if you'd fill in the preliminary forms?”
Zhu Hong sighed, aggravated, and did something with the glowing rectangle. A completely different box buzzed into life and spat out some papers. Ye Zun turned to Zhao Yunlan beseechingly.
Zhao Yunlan patted his shoulder. “It'll make sense eventually. Zhu Hong didn't know much about the modern world when she arrived, either!”
“Hey!” Zhu Hong objected. Zhao Yunlan just winked at her, then grabbed the papers and Ye Zun and swooped out.
They spent the morning in the car, going to various places and then talking to various people in the imposingly tall buildings. Ye Zun supposed this was just how buildings looked like in modern Haixing. He spoke when prompted to, but mostly he observed.
The architectural details were odd, of course, luxurious wood paneling and weird materials Ye Zun couldn't identify, coupled with vast swaths of wasted space, but mostly what he noticed was Zhao Yunlan. Zhao Yunlan fluently changed himself to fit whatever opponent he was facing, smoothly talking himself around any conversational pitfalls and into the result he wanted.
He was also burning a large quantity of favors for Ye Zun's sake. Interesting.
Once they were out of the building and away from any of its prying eyes, Ye Zun reached out with his powers. He's only recently stolen the Boss's power with his life, with little chance to practice, so he started slowly.
There was no fear there, unlike in the minions he'd had, and no recognition, either. This wasn't that fake Kunlun whom gege had lavished attention on, then, but rather someone who looked a bit similar. As for what he wanted from Ye Zun-
A smile. Warmth. Stroking his hair. A frisson of happiness.
Ye Zun delved a bit deeper to find that this Zhao Yunlan just wanted for him to be happy in his presence, safe and well-fed. There was a hint of protective urge there, too, and something that was perhaps self-denial. That wasn't important, though; what was important was that Zhao Yunlan's designs for him were eminently bearable. Compared to the humiliations the Boss had put him through... Ye Zun would choose this every time.
“Your ID card will be mailed to the SID tomorrow,” Zhao Yunlan abruptly said. Ye Zun immediately withdrew from his mind. “It takes them a while to print that stuff. You should get it by tomorrow evening, though, and we can set up a bank account for you either tomorrow or the day after.”
“What's a bank account?” Ye Zun asked, now confident that Zhao Yunlan wouldn't look down on him.
Zhao Yunlan froze with the button thingy pointed at the car. “It's. Uh. Um, a bank stores lots of money, and you get paid for your work to your account at the bank. Then you can withdraw money from the account to pay for things.” He smiled apologetically. “Though now that everything's electronic, the money's mostly just ... numbers going up and down. Wait, do you know what money is?”
Zhao Yunlan sighed and pressed the button thingy. The car made a noise. “It's a bit like bartering, but instead of trying to figure out what you have that the other person wants, you give them money and they can use the money to get what they want from someone else. Like a, a bartering token.” He got in the car and started twiddling with his small glowy screen. “I'll ask Lin Jing to give you an overview of technologies invented in the past ten thousand years these days.”
Ye Zun went to the other side of the car and clumsily opened the door. He managed to close it without assistance, though with some fumbling. What- The seat belt. He snapped it shut under Zhao Yunlan's tender gaze.
“It should go over your shoulder,” Zhao Yunlan said in a soft voice. He leaned over to tug the fabric strap closer to Ye Zun's neck. “Over your collar bone and rib cage.”
The back of Zhao Yunlan's hand brushed against Ye Zun's jaw. He should have found it terrifying to have someone's hand so close to his throat, after all the times the Boss had choked him, but either due to what he'd just gleaned or his powers activating on skin contact, he felt only a little touch of excitement. His heart beat faster, and to his great surprise, he wanted Zhao Yunlan to stay close to him. “And the other part?” he asked, not sure what he wanted.
“Over the hipbone,” Zhao Yunlan replied in the same soft voice. He ran a finger around the edge of the fabric strap, pressing against Ye Zun's hip.
This time, the excitement was much easier to identify. Ye Zun wasn't sure he wanted to indulge in it. “I'm hungry,” he blurted out instead.
Zhao Yunlan straightened himself with a smile. “Then I shall feed you! How do dumplings sound? There's a place that does them well just a few streets away.”
“I want a whole fish, too,” Ye Zun impulsively added.
“A mountain of dumplings and a whole fish too, for our hungry, hungry Ye Zun,” Zhao Yunlan said with a smile, then asked Ye Zun what else he might want. Ye Zun wanted all of it, of course. And Zhao Yunlan agreed to give him it all.
The afternoon was spent learning about things from the modern era. Lin Jing enthusiastically explained the history of technology to Ye Zun, then went on on something called the internet; Ye Zun didn't retain much in face of such information overload. Hopefully there'd be a better introduction tomorrow when Lin Jing had had the chance to sleep on it. Or he could convince Zhao Yunlan to give one.
Da Qing said he'd take night shift again. Ye Zun suspected the fat cat thought that he was going to cause an explosion in the apartment or something. He wasn't, but he was perfectly satisfied with that amnesiac idiot who'd actually stuck around with his traitor brother staying the hell away from him and his Yunlan.
This time, Zhao Yunlan selected the dishes: Sichuan boiled beef, a vegetable noodle thing, and a bunch of dishes whose names Ye Zun promptly forgot. He wasn't too keen on the spiciest ones, but there was enough to fill him up even with Zhao Yunlan eating the ones doused with Sichuan peppercorns.
Ye Zun burped after he ate the final bite of noodles and lazed on the couch. After just a day warm and fed, he could feel himself relax.
“You look so happy like that,” Zhao Yunlan said beside him, softly and with a smile on his face. He reached out and gently yanked at some of Ye Zun's hair. “Has anyone told you your hair is pretty?”
“Well, it is.”
Ye Zun had never been complimented on his appearance – the Boss had told him he was useless, or only good for getting on hands and knees – and wasn't expecting the warm glow that spread through him. “Food is nice,” he said, sidestepping the point. “Why shouldn't I be happy?”
A fond grin spread on Zhao Yunlan's face. “Then I shall keep you fed forever.”
Ye Zun made an appreciative noise. He knew the best way to keep behavior was to reward it. But what reward would be fitting at this point?
He was struck with an image of a wild cat rolling onto its back and exposing its belly, soft but with the threat of claws. “You may touch my full belly without retribution,” he declared.
Zhao Yunlan laughed and pulled him into his arms. “Oh, Ye Zun,” he fondly sighed as he wrapped his arms around Ye Zun's waist and kissed his neck.
It should've felt horrible – should've made Ye Zun eat Zhao Yunlan for his crimes – but Ye Zun only felt a terrible fondness join the relaxation food had brought him. “Continue, human,” he murmured.
Again, Zhao Yunlan laughed, but he pressed another kiss to Ye Zun's neck and nuzzled him. Ye Zun melted further into the embrace and enjoyed the fruits of the future.