The first pain came as a quick shock on the back of his neck. Guo Changcheng hurriedly straightened up from where he had been leaning over a desk and eased his head gingerly from side to side.
"Senior Guo?" said one of the team members grouped around him. He blinked and focused, and saw three earnest faces all looking at him with concern. He smiled at them.
"It's nothing, don't worry." As usual, it really was nothing. Probably. "Now, you have your assignments for the afternoon...any questions?"
They had no questions. They were practically vibrating with eagerness to get back to work, to do their part for Haixing-Dixing relations in this new world of cooperative alliance. And so he set them at it, and turned away.
Ordinarily, this was the time he'd walk among the other teams, see their status, check in and see what they needed. But he pulled out his phone instead and sent a few exploratory texts. They were mostly about lunch.
Chu-ge didn't answer. Guo Changcheng watched the screen, rubbing his thumbs along the phone's edges, wondering if it meant something that his most-used emoji in texts to Chu-ge was the dumpling.
Finally he texted again:
not sure where u r
sorry I couldn't come along
or u know
to carry the bodies lol
He idly scrolled up, looking at their message history, and then added:
uh hey u don't really have bodies to carry do you cuz I can be right there
He checked that the vibrate function was on and put the phone in his pocket. Took it out of his pocket, turned off the vibrate function and turned it on again. Set the intensity to maximum. Put it in his pocket.
He took a deep breath, held it, let it out. Then he turned again to the bullpen and walked among the desks as usual. Staffers stood alertly as he approached, they spoke together, all was going well.
Still no text by the time he had made his way across the room.
He paused before leaving the last desk and asked a pair of young women, "Do you happen to know where Chu-ge is?"
Their eyes widened, as the new staff's usually did at any mention of Chu Shuzhi. "No, Senior," one of them said. "I think he was consulting with the housing team this morning."
"Thank you," he said. His neck ached, but it was fading.
He doubled back and spoke with the housing team: nothing. "We—" said a stocky young man, and paused. "Apologies, Senior Guo, but if we want to find Senior Chu we usually just...ask you."
"Of course," he said, smiling. "Please excuse me."
He found the Deputy Chief halfway up the stairs, draped over the banister, intently watching the iguana. The tip of his tail twitched slowly back and forth.
"Deputy," Guo Changcheng said. "Do you—"
Da Qing shifted into human form and slid off the railing. "I think it almost said something this time."
"Oh...yes?" Guo Changcheng said politely. Da Qing had recently become convinced for some reason that the iguana was actually a previously-unknown Yashou offshoot, hiding in plain sight.
"It had a glint in its eye."
They looked together at the iguana for a few moments more. It was currently chomping a leaf and seemed to have no comment on the situation.
"Deputy," Guo Changcheng said at last. "May I ask: do you know where Chu-ge is?"
Da Qing grinned. "Sure. Lao Zhao finally let him off the leash to go pick up whatsisname."
Guo Changcheng waited, but Da Qing seemed to feel he'd answered fully, and his attention went back to the iguana, eyes narrowing.
"What's his name?" Guo Changcheng finally prompted.
"Yeah, you know. The slumlord. That guy's going to be sorry he was ever born."
Guo Changcheng remembered the file: an owner of various buildings on the outskirts of the city, which he filled with desperate under-the-table Dixingren refugees. Without jobs or papers or knowledge of Haixing customs, they were dependent on his good will, and he exploited that for all it was worth. The Chief must finally have gathered enough evidence.
Or possibly he expected to get enough evidence in the interrogation room—Chief Zhao was never out of bounds with a suspect, but he was very skilled at turning a conversation inside out. And it was interesting how much it helped to have the Lord Envoy standing at his shoulder, eyes smoldering, voice as sharp and balanced as his blade.
"That's good news," Guo Changcheng said. He checked his phone for the time, noticing in passing that there was still no text. "When did he go?"
"Awhile back," said Da Qing vaguely. "Morningish." He shot the iguana a look out of the corner of his eye.
"But...shouldn't he be back already?" asked Guo Changcheng. "It's lunchtime now."
Da Qing's face lit up. "It is!" He started down the stairs, stopped short, pointed to his own eyes and then at the iguana with a warning glare, then leapt down the rest of the stairs and skidded away toward the dried fish cabinet. The iguana might have looked relieved.
Guo Changcheng stared at his phone, rubbing the back of his neck. Chu-ge was fine, surely. He'd been SID's only field agent since well before any such person as Guo Changcheng had ever been foisted upon him. He didn't need more worried little texts.
Okay, maybe one more. His thumbs flickered over the screen.
ur ok right
Now he really had to stop. He should just let Chu-ge be, let him get his work done without anyone hanging on his coattails. Any minute now he would arrive, scowling, towing that terrible slumlord like a sack of rubbish. He'd hand him over to Chief Zhao as if it hadn't taken any effort or skill at all. He'd scan the office, his eyes alert, until he saw Guo Changcheng watching him. Then he'd blink, something in his posture would shift, and he'd sit down and put his feet up.
Only then did Guo Changcheng realize that he was still standing halfway up the stairs, blocking the path. One of the newer team members stood a couple steps below him, carrying a folder of reports.
"Sorry," he said, and stepped out of her way. He started down, making himself think about lunch. When Chu-ge did get back, he'd be hungry, and maybe they could—
A sudden, hard pain flared in his solar plexus, right where the breastbone stopped. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't stand, he saw stars, he saw nothing, he—
"Senior Guo! Senior! Quick, get—"
Pain in his abdomen, lesser pain in his shoulder and his leg. He still couldn't breathe, not in or out. He opened his eyes—when had they closed?—and saw the high ceiling far away, with worried faces over him.
"Don't move, Senior," someone said. "The Chief is coming."
He was lying on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. His eyes rolled desperately up, and he saw Chief Zhao and Professor Shen hurrying toward him, the Chief's hand braced reflexively under Professor Shen's elbow. The Professor's face, while still so pale and thin these days, was calm and composed, and it reassured Changcheng somehow, even as his body tightened up from lack of air.
"What's all this?" said Chief Zhao. "Trip over something on the stairs, or what?"
"Wasn't me," insisted Da Qing, peeking in between the Chief and one of the new staffers, chewing on something.
Guo Changcheng reached up feebly, and to his surprise, Professor Shen bent and took his hand.
"Xiao Guo," he said. "Hold still."
His hand on Changcheng's was cool. And at once it started to become cooler, dark energy shivering minutely through Changcheng's palm and threading up his arm.
Professor Shen's eyes clenched shut behind his glasses. His brow furrowed, his shoulders flinched inward in a way that was quite unlike him. Changcheng was able to take one thin sip of air—then another—
"Sir—!" he managed. He knew he had to stop this. Professor Shen had nearly destroyed himself when he had led them to victory against Ye Zun's predation, and his recovery had been slow and uncertain.
Guo Changcheng saw Zhao Yunlan over Shen Wei's shoulder, standing behind him, his face a tense mask. Although he had done his utmost to save Shen Wei from Ye Zun, and from Shen Wei's own efforts, he would never take away Shen Wei's choice. But...his face.
Changcheng mustered all the force he had to pull his hand away. Even as dazed as he was, he managed to get free, which was alarming in itself. "You can... stop. Please. Sir. I'm...all right."
The Professor opened his eyes, and his expression smoothed out once more into composure, his mouth set. But Zhao Yunlan looked shaken enough for the both of them, if only for a passing moment.
"Chief Zhao," Changcheng gasped. "Where is Chu-ge?"
"He'll be back." Zhao Yunlan clicked his tongue. "He won't be happy to see you damaged, so we better get you up."
Many hands took hold of him, everyone cooperating to lift him onto his feet.
"Please," Changcheng said, wobbling a little, "where is he?"
Zhao Yunlan shrugged, one hand ghosting beneath Shen Wei's elbow to help him steady himself without drawing attention to it. "He's out on a pickup—"
"—Whatsisname," said Da Qing helpfully.
Chief Zhao gave Da Qing a backhanded push that was part cuff, part amiable thump. "Thanks, yeah. The one with all the apartment buil—"
"Sir!" Guo Changcheng said, actually interrupting him. His voice sounded echoingly loud in his own ears, and from the way Chief Zhao's eyebrows darted up, it must have been loud to him too. "Where?"
"The address is in the file," said Zhao Yunlan. "Is it important?"
"What, did he call for help?"
"No, Chief." He concentrated on his breathing.
Zhao Yunlan looked over at the housing team expectantly, and one of them had already retrieved the right folder; she recited an address.
Guo Changcheng started for the door.
"Whoooah whoah whoah," said Chief Zhao, heading him off. "Take it easy. He'll be back."
"He won't." A tingle of panic shot through Guo Changcheng's spine as he heard himself say it out loud.
Chief Zhao was no stodgy bureaucrat, and Guo Changcheng had never been more grateful to him. The Chief just looked him in the eyes for a moment, then nodded sharply. "Wait here." He headed out, with Shen Wei by his side and Da Qing at their heels.
Guo Changcheng followed them, grabbing his bag and clumsily pulling it around his shoulders. But when he tried to climb into the back seat, Zhao Yunlan stopped him.
"Look. Xiao Guo," he said, with that brusqueness he used to cover his gentle side. "We'll bring him back to you. Okay? You go lie down for a minute. Besides, who'll look after all the newbies without you around?"
"No," Changcheng blurted out before he knew he meant to. He stood still as Zhao Yunlan's brows lowered. "S-sir. I have to hurry. He's in trouble."
Only one more moment, and then Zhao Yunlan sucked in some air through a grin. "Yeah, he would be. I'll speed, and you text and tell him we're coming."
He waited for the Professor to buckle his seatbelt before stomping on the gas.
No answers to any of the texts Guo Changcheng sent from the back of the car as it rocketed along. Finally, all he could type was:
The slumlord's office building had imposing double doors, now smashed and hanging on their hinges. Guo Changcheng dashed inside, running ahead, closing his ears to the Chief's orders.
He clutched his fear-baton inside the bag, rushing along hallways, jumping over shattered furniture. It had been a terrible fight.
"Chu-ge!" he called. Yes, the sound told anyone who might be here exactly where they were, it made them sitting ducks and easy targets. He didn't care. "Chu-ge!"
The trail of destruction led to a back office, grossly luxurious, heavy furniture and thick carpets. An enormous mahogany desk was upturned and partly smashed. And behind it—
Two feet were just visible behind the desk. Splayed, relaxed, in the soft dark boots that Chu-ge always wore.
Changcheng stopped. Those boots were very still.
Chief Zhao jostled past him. "Lao Chu! Here, Damn Cat, give me a hand—" Together they hoisted chunks of the desk and heaved them aside; the biggest piece teetered and crashed into the wall.
It made a lot of noise. Chu-ge must have been sleeping very soundly, not to react to a noise like that. His arms were splayed like his legs, his fingers softly curled toward the palms. His coattails spread over the dark red rug like a pool of ink.
"Hey," said Zhao Yunlan, stooping over him. "Lao Chu— come on, wake up—" He patted Chu-ge's face a few times, increasingly hard until he was almost smacking him— would anyone else ever have dared?
"Zhao Yunlan." Professor Shen's voice from somewhere behind Changcheng was dark and quiet. Zhao Yunlan laid his fingers along the great veins of Chu-ge's throat.
"What!" Da Qing crouched against the wall with wide eyes. "You don't mean that— that whatsisname could have—"
"Call it in," said Chief Zhao, his eyes still on his fingers, his fingers still on that motionless throat. "All points bulletin— tell Cong Bo— deploy Wildfire and his squad— Find him."
Da Qing ran.
There was a touch to Changcheng's shoulder, and Shen Wei stepped past him into the room, his footfalls noiseless. He went to Zhao Yunlan and they looked at each other for a long moment. Then Shen Wei grasped Zhao Yunlan's arm and slowly knelt, using the arm to support himself.
Now he gazed down into Chu-ge's face. "Chu Shuzhi." His voice thrummed with command. It was the Lord Envoy there, despite the trim, tidy Professor clothes. "Come back."
He held one hand open toward Chu-ge and bowed his head. To the dull quiet of the room the trickle of dark energy brought its own greater hush, a thread of silence as heavy as a filament from a neutron star.
Changcheng knew two things at once: he knew the Lord Envoy was the hero of all Haixing and all Dixing, whose heart was as ancient and as close as the mountain. But he knew too that Shen Wei had nearly immolated that heart, not all that long ago, willingly and sorrowfully giving all he was and all he had, for Zhao Yunlan, for the world.
Changcheng felt a moment of hope welling in his throat, and it tasted bitter—hoping that Shen Wei's terrible efforts would save Chu-ge, hoping that the private fear on Zhao Yunlan's face would come true so that Changcheng could have what he wanted.
It was awful, that perfectly balanced hope.
And it was worse, the moment after, when Shen Wei's open hand trembled...folded...and fell to his knee. Not a spark of dark energy to be seen. Not a sound from Chu-ge's peaceful form.
Shen Wei slowly clenched his fists. His bent head straightened, and he knelt there, the line of his back rigid. Zhao Yunlan crouched close to him and laid a hand on his arm. Neither of them spoke, because of course there was nothing to be said.
Guo Changcheng had once been the newest recruit, the lowest of the low, good for nothing and afraid of everything. He had fainted, he had yelped, he had shivered. Every day had brought some new shock. But nothing back then had ever been so hard as right now: one foot moving forward across the rug. Then the other. To walk toward that pitiful little group on the floor, those soft splayed boots.
Zhao Yunlan rose as he approached and stood in his way, reaching out for his shoulders. "Xiao Guo—" he began, and his voice had that sound in it that Changcheng remembered from his childhood: the sound of a preface, an overture, a door slowly swinging open to reveal a new darkness. Little nephew, said his aunt, bending down to him, I have some very bad news about your parents...
But Changcheng wasn't a child anymore. He would see with his own eyes. And more: he had a duty. The last duty he owed to Chu-ge, who had always protected him.
He walked around Chief Zhao, ducking away from his touch. As he reached Chu-ge's side, Shen Wei rose, and Changcheng distantly wondered if he was going to have to get around him too, the Lord Envoy himself. But Shen Wei only stepped back, his gaze lowered.
Guo Changcheng knelt down.
"I'm here," he said.
If he hadn't already known Chu-ge was dying, from the tone of Zhao Yunlan's hesitant voice, from the stiffness of Shen Wei's back, it wouldn't have mattered. Because all the confirmation he needed was right here, swamping any last flicker of hope: his power began to tingle in his hands and feet, and the white heat rose in his chest like acid. This power he had never asked for, but had done his level best to bear, to be worthy.
This was going to hurt. Hard to imagine a worse pain than was right in front of him, Chu-ge's body so still, his face as soft and untroubled as it never had been in waking life. But Changcheng knew it could get worse.
"Isn't that a good thing?" Chu-ge had asked him, when the power was new, when Changcheng was quailing before the terrible, invasive force of it. Chu-ge had put his hand on Changcheng's shoulder. And as if strength had flowed through that hand and into his heart and bone and blood, Changcheng had been able to say:
"Yes." He said it out loud now, as he had then, and reached one hand out toward Chu-ge. The other hand centered over his own chest, slowly grasping the hot coal inside that was he, himself. He was the live wire, the power flaring and crackling from his heart, down his arm, into blazing light.
If he could do nothing else, he could witness. This one last time.
The feeling seized him, pressing breath from his lungs. His mind was not his own. He braced himself as best he could, and he saw— he felt—
Chu Shuzhi ambushed, fighting, his feet on the ground and the comfort of violence singing in his veins. This was what he was for, this was what he knew—
The landlord's multiple bodyguards, Dixingren, with unexpected, intersecting powers—the air itself hardened around Chu Shuzhi, hammer and anvil, the stunning blow to the back of the neck soon followed by the killing blow to the nerves in the solar plexus.
And now Chu Shuzhi lay on his back, his sight dimming. The attackers had fled. All was quiet. In that quiet, there was peace. He had spent himself in the service of his master, the Lord Envoy who had raised him up. He had fought for the SID to his last breath. He had done his duty. It was enough.
—all this would have been enough, for the Lao Chu of not so long ago. It was the end he had looked for. But now, from beneath this peace, this closing of the story, came unbidden a painful cry of resistance:
Changcheng— His heart's voice, so small, so weak. Baffled, hardly knowing what to do with the need he felt, other than hide it. But here on the threshold of death, it was his final, fading thought, unplanned and uncontrolled: I wish— Sensations, of his hand on the back of Changcheng's neck, Changcheng's face lighting up at the sight of him, the warmth between them under his coat. He had hungered, but he was used to being hungry. Only now did it break free, too late, his only true regret.
Guo Changcheng absorbed all of this at once, desire and confusion and love and suffering, tumbling helplessly from Chu-ge's innermost soul. It struck him in a surge like an overloaded circuit; the light in his palm burned white-hot. There was no way to say he didn't believe it—there was no believing or not believing, inside this power of his. But it shocked him with its cry—physically shocked him, all his nerve endings firing at once. He lived again so many moments between them, spinning and dizzy.
Chu-ge, he said, whether only between them or also out loud he didn't know. He reached out, plunging down through the layers of searing light, gasping. Chu-ge!
He grasped him, wrapped himself around him— he lifted up the dying essence that was Chu Shuzhi as easily as Chu-ge's powerful arms had ever lifted him up and borne him to safety.
No no no, please, he begged the spirit as it faded, a flickering candle. Chu-ge, I heard you— I hear you— don't you know that I—
But the flame dwindled. How many times had Guo Changcheng been there for this moment, accepting some stranger's last thought, wearing it like a brand, forced to feel them slip into darkness against their will? So much death to hold in his arms, in his heart.
Isn't that a good thing?
He wept. The tears were scorching.
Wait! he cried out. I won't— I won't— He held on tightly, agony building—he would sooner be dragged under than rise to the surface without him.
He expected it, in fact. Chu-ge was so heavy in his grasp, and everything was burning, dissolving them down to ashes. But not without a fight: he struggled, writhing in the grip of this power he didn't fully understand, holding on to the light.
Memories surrounded them, tasting of joy and longing and loss. And Changcheng found himself caught and held by one, reliving it as Chu-ge and as himself: on the lab table, Chu-ge's hands knotted around his. Something reaching for him, waking him, breathing in to him like a fresh spring wind.
He remembered. Not as himself, unconscious, but as Chu Shuzhi he remembered: against all warnings, retrieving the Longevity Dial and desperately holding it in their joined hands, opening to the merciless power of the Holy Tool as it stripped layers from him inside...until Changcheng had stirred, his lips had color again, and it was all worth it.
And so now, heedlessly, frantically, Guo Changcheng dug down inside himself to find it again, that sudden influx of life and air and light.
Here it was! A glowing ember, nestled comfortably in the depths of Guo Changcheng's self— foreign matter, alien power, but welcome and unnoticed this whole time because of what it had borne: the familiarity of Chu-ge, a nucleus of strength Changcheng had leaned on all along, as easy as leaning on his broad shoulder.
His hand clenched tight before his chest. He gasped— struggled— and tore the ember free.
Chu-ge! Quick! Here!
The fading wisp that remained of Chu Shuzhi reacted not at all. The last grains were sifting away like a palmful of volcanic sand. Guo Changcheng reached out with everything he had, everything he'd ever been, and brought that piece of energy to him.
It hurt—even worse than his normal power—and he would have laughed if he'd had the breath for it, because that meant it was working. Glittering tendrils of himself, down to the cells and further, were tearing free and swirling into the dust that was Chu Shuzhi. Like water sprinkled on fragments of sodium metal, it all began to flare up, hissing and spitting and coming together.
The pain in him rose, spiked—he could distantly feel his body bent back like a bow, he heard shouting in his ear—Xiao Guo! Stop! Xiao Guo!—but he ignored it all for the gleeful pleasure of feeling the cherished presence stirring— noticing—
...what are you doing, Chu-ge said.
Changcheng continued his work, delivering with both hands and all he was, like scooping armfuls of wood into a fire, the pile getting lower, the blaze feeding and rising and brightening.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING, a wail now, feeble attempts to pull away from him.
Every moment the agony rose, the ash flowed back up the stream of time to awake as living flame, and Changcheng was comforted.
No, Changcheng said. He had said the same word to Chief Zhao today—right to his face!—and so far the world had not fallen down. He marveled.
As Chu-ge returned and coalesced, so did his determination. He fought. I won't take you down with me, he cried. Don't you understand?
Changcheng planted his feet within the whirlwind. Chu-ge, he said in firm and loving admonition. I understand that you gave me your life.
They were both in the lab memory for one more moment, terror and love roaring in the very air, the Dial setting all to rights by knitting Changcheng alive again with strips of Chu Shuzhi's desperate heart.
And now Chu-ge, trying and failing to pull away: That is yours! Only yours!
Changcheng stretched out in glorious nova like a dying star. Then it is mine to do with as I wish. He remembered opening his eyes on the lab table, seeing the tears and the sweat on Chu-ge's face—the beloved face, so open in that moment, in ways that he should have understood. Now he understood. I give it back to you.
The fist before his chest seized and clenched, once, again, and the last of the light spilled forth in white and infrared and ultraviolet. His awareness of himself was fading, and he sighed, happy.
There was screaming. There were hands, there were shoulders. There was the tiniest touch of dark energy, fragile but perfectly targeted, just the finest point of a needle on the side of his neck.
In Guo Changcheng's last moment as the dark flowed from his neck to envelop him, he found himself in the world again and fallen over Chu-ge's body. The muscles of Chu-ge's chest, the scent of his sweat and the crackling-ozone that lingered from his energy strings. And...Chu-ge's abdomen lifting and lowering beneath him...a slight breath in...and out....
It was quiet. Those comfortable scents were gone, replaced by...disinfectant? No more reassuring movement of breath. He wanted to reach out for Chu-ge again, but he was so tired.
Someone was murmuring.
"...for observation. I'm hoping he'll get some rest, let us keep an eye on the injuries."
"Heh. Yeah, good luck with that," came Zhao Yunlan's voice.
"I can hear you, you know." Chu-ge! He sounded sleepy and irritated.
Guo Changcheng forced his eyes open and blinked to clear them. He was in a hospital bed, in a hospital room, everything clean and white and cool. Dr. Cheng, Chief Zhao, and Professor Shen stood at the foot of the beds, and in the other bed, propped up on pillows with the covers pulled to his chin, was Chu-ge. He looked as sleepy and irritated as he sounded, and Changcheng heaved himself up on one elbow to drink in the sight.
"You're up!" said Chief Zhao, spreading his arms in the air like a conductor. Then he pointed a stern finger. "Just you wait until your next performance evaluation, Xiao Guo. Red pen everywhere."
Changcheng gulped. Dr. Cheng put a hand over her mouth for a moment, then said soberly, "I won't have you troubling my patients."
"It's my job," said Zhao Yunlan self-importantly. "Besides, they look fine."
"And how have you been doing?" the doctor asked Shen Wei in an aside, her voice full of concern. "Ever since...everything."
Shen Wei blinked, but as he drew a breath to speak Zhao Yunlan leaned conspiratorially on his shoulder. "He'll tell you he's at a hundred percent."
Shen Wei's face didn't change, not really, but to Guo Changcheng his eyes looked soft. "I am well," he said to the doctor. "Much improved. Thank you."
Zhao Yunlan grumbled something, rolling his eyes, but it was a comfortable grumble.
"Would you like to see your prisoner now?" asked Dr. Cheng. "We have him in a secure room."
"You got him!" Changcheng said—he didn't mean to interrupt his superiors, but he couldn't help it, he was so pleased. "Already?"
"We all got him," Chief Zhao replied, leveling the scolding finger again. "The team does these things." Then he grinned. "Okay—actually Da Qing got him."
"Yeah. Wildfire had him cornered, but it was Da Qing who took him down. Bit him right in the leg." He made a pincer gesture.
"I don't think I've ever seen him do that before," said Changcheng, astonished.
"Well, he was pretty mad. So now the guy's on intravenous antibiotics." Chief Zhao looked at Chu-ge. "We should rotate those tactics into SID fight training."
"Uh huh," said Chu-ge. Changcheng somehow doubted he was planning to do that.
"You'll be happy to know that His Highness took the Dixingren bodyguards away for judgment." Zhao Yunlan didn't glance at Shen Wei when he said that, but of course even when he wasn't looking at him he kind of was. "They're in some big trouble."
Chu-ge huffed slightly. "I didn't even know he had bodyguards," he muttered.
"We'll have to see how your performance evaluation goes," said Chief Zhao, then his face went serious. "None of us knew. An intel failure. We're lucky they didn't kill you."
Guo Changcheng felt a sudden flash in the depths of his chest, bright and hot, and remembered the wisps of ash that had been the dying Chu-ge falling through his hands. He gripped his duvet, steadying himself.
"I guess they thought they had," Chief Zhao mused, "and they ran off." He leaned and smacked a palm onto Chu-ge's bed. "Man, we were so sure you were dying!" His lazy posture, his voice, they were so casual, but even Guo Changcheng could tell how affected he was.
Chu-ge said something. Changcheng couldn't really hear him right now, let alone look at him; he fought back the memories, he breathed in and out.
"Honestly," said Chief Zhao. "Xiao Guo was even ready to use his damn power on you for your last words!"
Chu-ge made some kind of strangled throat-clearing noise.
"But it didn't work," Zhao Yunlan said. "Feedback in the circuit or something, blew up on him, who knows. I guess we've learned one more useful thing for the tactics manual, other than 'behold the power of cat bites'."
There was a silence, lengthening. And just before it could get too awkward, Changcheng was finally able to look up, to smile brightly. He kept his eyes on Chief Zhao. "Yes, Sir. I should know better than to use it on people who are just unconscious. I still have a lot to learn."
The Chief shrugged. "Hey, put it in your self-criticism. We can balance it out pretty easy: you were the one who decided we should go rescue him in the first place."
"Oh, no, no credit to me, it was an easy decision," Changcheng said quickly, waving it off. "After all, I felt his pain, so I knew something was really wrong."
The Chief's eyebrows darted up. No one said anything. Guo Changcheng looked over at Chu-ge at last; Chu-ge was staring at him.
"Well," he went on, "you know, first it was the back of the neck, and I was worried? But then nothing after, so, maybe you'd just been in a quick fight—"
Chu-ge's mouth remained set.
"But then of course when I felt the—" Changcheng circled his hand over his own midsection, in the area of the solar plexus. "That was a really bad one. Even you might have found it hard to fight your way through it. So I..."
Finally it got through to him, the way that Chu-ge's eyes were slowly widening, the furrow deepening between his brows. Changcheng stopped talking. He should have stopped talking before he'd ever started. He should have stopped talking years ago.
"You what," said Chu-ge. Changcheng couldn't tear his eyes away, but he heard a low whistle from Chief Zhao.
"Uhh," Changcheng explained.
"You," said Chu-ge. "What."
"It never really came up?" He wished his bed was the one closer to the window, so he could fix all this by climbing out and going to live in a hut in the mountains forever.
"How could it not come up!" Chu-ge roared, sitting up in bed, the covers falling away. His chest was partly bare under there, the top of his pectoral muscles revealed above white bandages swathing him from mid-sternum to waist. An old jagged scar slanted down one side of his chest to disappear beneath the strappings. Tumbled in the duvet, one of the puppet's little feet poked out.
"Well—" said Changcheng, "I— I just didn't think about it. It wasn't always, it was just the bad ones I guess—"
"Oh just the bad ones! So that's okay then!" He was leaning forward, his face flushing, and Changcheng was so worried for him.
"But it was okay," Changcheng insisted. "It was just...it was okay, Chu-ge, because it was you."
Silence, but for Chu-ge's heaving breaths. Then came a very quiet shuffle of footsteps at the foot of the bed. When Guo Changcheng looked over, the doctor was already gone, and Shen Wei was towing Zhao Yunlan out of the room by the arm. Zhao Yunlan kept turning to look from Guo Changcheng to Chu-ge, mouth open as if he had three things to say all sticking in his throat, but Shen Wei smoothly and remorselessly guided him out without bumping him into anything.
The sound of the hospital room door closing was soft and definite.
Changcheng looked back at Chu-ge. That flush had gone, leaving alarming pallor in its wake. "You should lie down."
Of course Chu-ge instead swung his legs over until he was sitting tensely on the side of his bed, the covers kicked aside. He wore thin cotton hospital-issue pajama pants below his bandages, his bare feet braced on the floor. "Tell me," he demanded. "How long!"
"Are you sure you're well enough for this?"
Chu-ge only stared, his eyes dark and flint-sharp and full of dread. Not a tiger about to spring, but one fresh-caught in a cage.
Guo Changcheng sighed. "It's just hard to say. I couldn't pinpoint it at first...it started out so mild that I thought maybe I was imagining things."
"Until it got more predictable. And I noticed that it hadn't happened before we— before I got hurt that time, and I woke up in the lab. With you."
Chu-ge's hands were clutching the edge of the bed so hard that his knuckles were white.
"I never really remembered the details, I just knew that I was better, and that you were there." Changcheng smiled at him, and remembered taking his hand that day. It had felt so warm. "Oh, I was glad."
"Why do you look like that!" Chu-ge snapped. "You shouldn't be hit with someone else's pain— damn it, you're important to the SID. To the cause. They can get muscle anywhere!"
"That's not true," said Changcheng. "But I told you, it's oka—"
"It isn't!" Chu-ge's voice rose thinly. He clamped his mouth shut; the muscles at the points of his jaw flexed. Then suddenly he went on, as if he couldn't hold the words behind his teeth: "Every time you feel that pain, it means I'm failing you."
"Oh." Changcheng pushed at his covers, clumsily sitting up as best he could, though he felt so tired. "No— Chu-ge, no, every time it happens, it just means I get a head start on not failing you."
"As if you could," Chu-ge muttered with disdain.
Guo Changcheng nodded and wrapped his arms around himself. The hospital pajama top they'd put on him felt a little short, riding up at the waist. "I do my best," he admitted. "But I know it's not so much— and not good enough today, seeing how late we were." He paused, swallowing a lump in his throat, privately savoring the sight of a living, breathing Chu Shuzhi in front of him. Even if he was living and breathing so much that he might explode.
"That's not—" Chu-ge said impatiently— "—I meant you could never fail me!"
He almost barked that statement, like a marching slogan, and Changcheng's face felt warm. "Well..." he said. "I don't— I mean— You too."
Chu-ge shook his head rapidly, dashing the comment away, and glared at him. "You know we have to stop it somehow. This connection from the Dial. Unlink it."
Fresh energy shot through Guo Changcheng's backbone and he sat up very straight, but before he could come up with some convincing way to say absolutely not, Chu-ge's face lightened for a moment.
"Or maybe it's gone now. Maybe now that you—" He paused. "—Well. You know. Maybe it's all undone."
And he swiftly, matter of factly slapped a hand to his bandaged middle. His wince was barely a flicker—Guo Changcheng's sympathetic wince was bigger, and he said sharply, "Chu-ge! Stop!"
"That didn't do it," Changcheng said. "I mean— It's just that I never get the minor stuff. And you know, not, uh. Workouts or...uhh...or anything." He knew from the freezing expression on Chu-ge's pale face that he didn't want to hear about any of the...anything, or know about what Changcheng might have felt, or not-felt, or thought too much about not-feeling.
And when Chu-ge, true to form, simply lifted his arm in preparation for a harder test blow, Changcheng shouted: "No!" He was setting some kind of record today.
Surprisingly, Chu-ge hesitated. He lowered his arm, clearly in discomfort, settling it stiffly against his side. "I—" he started, his voice low. "I'm sorry. I don't want to—" But then the fire returned: "Dammit all, that's the point, I don't want to hurt you!"
"You aren't! You don't!" Changcheng insisted. And before Chu-ge could put his stubborn facial expression into more words, he barreled on: "I don't even think it can be unlinked, if it ever could. Not now that the Tools have all been sacrificed to stop Ye Zun."
"Sacrificed doesn't mean destroyed," said Chu-ge darkly. "A different dimension is still a real place. Ask Lin Jing, he'll tell you."
Guo Changcheng pressed his lips together. "Umm. Do I have to?"
But Chu-ge wasn't laughing. He looked worn out and on edge. "My lord the Envoy could find the Dial again. Or— he could— if anyone can, he can figure it out."
"Do you think so?" Changcheng asked, trying to be gentle. "Could he manage? I, I mean—" —before Chu-ge could finish reflexively reacting— "I'm very happy he's up and around, but it was so close. He'd harm himself by trying. And...he would try. You know he would."
Chu-ge stared at him, all that momentary fevered hope instantly cast aside. His shoulders sagged like a beaten fighter's in the final round. "No... no. That's right."
"Anyway," said Guo Changcheng tentatively, "what if I didn't want to?"
A tired wave of one hand. "Of course you don't want my lord to put himself at risk. I wasn't thinking."
"No, I meant...what if I didn't want to sever the link?"
SID gossip always took for granted that no matter how beaten down Lao Chu was, he was guaranteed to pop back up. Lin Jing had even made a meme about it one time back in the day, photoshopping Chu-ge's face onto an animated gif of one of those inflatable punching-bags for kids, this one shaped like a clown.
(Of course, after the discovery, Lin Jing had spent twenty minutes fleeing all around HQ, upstairs and down, Chu-ge herding him with a volcanic stare and bursts of energy strings that barely missed him on purpose—until Zhu Hong finally got tired of laughing and regretfully deleted the original image file from Lin Jing's hard drive.)
Now the gossip came true yet again: those sagging shoulders immediately lifted and broadened like a cobra's warning hood. "Then you would be stupid," he spat, each word hard as a bullet. "You already have enough on your back. You have your power, and we don't know what the combination might do."
"We know what it did once," Changcheng said without thinking. "We know what it did today. And I'm so grateful."
Chu-ge swallowed. This time the moment stretched out, long, too long, awkward. With Chief Zhao in the room they'd successfully avoided the topic, but here it was again. Guo Changcheng privately cursed himself. None of the people who had triggered his power before had ever lived to feel embarrassed by it. And he couldn't help but think that if he had more skill, he wouldn't have to see that stricken, mortified look on Chu-ge's face. He wouldn't have to know that he'd caused it.
He took a deep, deep breath through the pressure in his chest. Memories shook him, that reflexive cry of Chu Shuzhi's innermost heart, longing and reverence and torment. He relived moments of their lives as Chu-ge and as himself; he clung to them, as instinctively as he'd ever clung to the hem of Chu-ge's coat.
But Changcheng's own pain and regrets were not the point. Nor were his own fresh realizations. None of these memories had been given to him willingly, by choice and by control. None of it was his to have.
"I—" he managed, almost whispering. His voice was a faint echo of the voice that had sounded inside them both, during the last moment that had been translatable as words. "—I give it back to you."
Chu-ge's mouth moved as if he were trying to speak. He looked frightened in a way Changcheng had never seen before, and his eyes brimmed, black stones gleaming at the bottom of a pool.
Changcheng mustered all the strength he had learned in his time with the SID. He said, "You know...sometimes? What people think they want in a moment of crisis isn’t...isn't what they want the rest of the time. And it's okay. It really is."
Chu-ge still said nothing. He did not look comforted at all.
So Changcheng smiled. "Please don't worry. I'm happy. I'm happy to be your brother."
Chu-ge abruptly stood. A tear jarred loose and trickled unheeded along his cheek. He gazed down at Changcheng, in wonder but also in something strangely like horror.
"You," said Chu-ge, his voice hoarse. "You said that before. In my dream."
"I... What dream?"
Chu-ge's teeth showed for a moment in a helpless grimace, but he didn't answer. Instead he suddenly pressed again on his bandages, hard.
"Chu-ge!" cried Guo Changcheng.
Chu-ge was still staring, but now his face grew slowly calmer, and his hands relaxed. "I felt that."
"I expect so!"
"Yes," he sighed. He smiled shakily. Another tear slipped down. "That hurt."
"I can— do you need me to get the doctor?"
But Chu-ge let out a low huff that was almost a laugh. "No." He swiped one wrist across his eyes. "Just...listen to me."
Guo Changcheng nodded.
"I had a little brother," Chu-ge began slowly. "He was taken from me. You... you aren't him."
Changcheng tried hard not to let his sinking heart show. He only nodded again.
"You're here." Chu-ge sniffed back tears, cleared his throat. His face, worn and pale, was nevertheless determined. "You're something other to me."
A pause. Changcheng waited.
Chu-ge regarded him. One hand rested at the top of his bandages, fingers touching the end of the gnarled old scar. "I think you know."
Guo Changcheng's heart pounded in his throat. "When this happens..." he said. "The power, I mean... I know the last question. At the threshold. I catch it and carry it, because they can't."
It was hard to put into words, the feeling, the current and the message and the way it felt—as delicate as an ice crystal, as fierce as a spatter of hot oil.
"But it's not mine," he went on at last, firmly. "I'd never presume. It's— it's in trust."
He stood up too now, their eyes coming to a level. And as he had in that old, new memory of the lab table, he reached out toward Chu-ge and slowly took hold of one of his hands. Chu-ge's fingers were broad and strong and cool. "It's safe," he finished. "It's safe with me."
Chu-ge's breathing hitched. He squeezed Changcheng's hand. He seemed to be struggling with something, and finally he said, in a choked, gruff voice, "Yeah."
Changcheng rubbed his thumb over Chu-ge's work-worn, fight-worn hand. "I, uh," he started without knowing where he was headed. "I just wanted you to know that. You know? I don't want you to feel— You've had a really long day. You don't have to do anything, or say anything—you should just get some rest, and listen to the doctor. You should look after yourself! Someone has to."
Chu-ge's head dropped and he made a sound from deep in his throat—it might even have been a watery laugh. "When you talk like that— it makes it so hard to—" He broke off and looked up. And yes, he was actually smiling a little bit, the corner of his mouth curling, though his eyes were so red.
"To what?" Changcheng asked.
Chu-ge stepped up very close to him. His hand around Changcheng's was tentative and gentle. And then— and then, so were his lips, as he kissed him softly, barely touching.
Well—that did it, all right. Guo Changcheng forgot what he had been saying or wanting to say. His lips tingled; he felt a blush rising hot. Chu-ge's face so close to him radiated warmth, and that scent of his skin with the tang of ozone beneath.
Hardly believing he was allowed, he kissed back, closing his eyes. Chu-ge's mouth parted under his. He had scarcely dreamed—no, no, he had dreamed, he could admit it, his ears burned with the memory of them—but never the kind that could ever actually come true.
He slid his arms around Chu-ge's waist—carefully, minding the bandages. Chu-ge hugged him close and hooked his chin over Changcheng's shoulder. They stood there together, amid the hospital hush and the disinfectant and the faint distant sounds of ordinary life.
Changcheng's heart thumped and double-thumped with a startled, joyous racket. He was almost dizzy with it, with everything. When he swayed slightly on his feet—so tired, practically overcome—he felt Chu-ge steadying to brace him, despite Chu-ge's own obvious exhaustion head to foot.
"Come on," Changcheng said at last into the side of Chu-ge's head. "Lie down."
Chu-ge disentangled from him slowly, clumsily, blinking like someone just stepping out of a dark room. He turned away.
"With me, I meant?" Changcheng said. "Lie down...with me?"
Unless you don't— Or if you think— Temporizations rattled in his head. But he bit his tongue and just waited. Chu-ge seized him by the wrist and pulled him to bed, crawling in like someone at the end of a double marathon, and Changcheng arranged the duvet before slipping in there himself.
He ended up flat on his back, sinking comfortably into the mattress, with Chu-ge curled on and around him. One leg over his, one arm across his chest, his softly bristled head resting against Changcheng's neck. His heartbeat was powerful and very slow.
Guo Changcheng lay dazed, floating. This close he could still faintly feel the life inside Chu-ge. Not just the blood and breath, but deeper, including the new banked coal that glowed with energy given and energy returned. He sensed ragged edges, some Chu-ge's and some his own. He wondered if he'd done it right.
"Changcheng," said Chu-ge. "Why didn't you tell me."
He gathered his thoughts. Not that there was so much to think about, in the end—it felt obvious, every step leading along their whole strange, winding path up to now. "Well," he said finally, "I learned about your brother, and... and everything, and I thought... I understood. I was so honored."
Chu-ge butted his head against Changcheng's neck. "Idiot," he said distinctly into the side of Changcheng's throat. Then he kissed him there, and the scruff on his lip and chin left tingling trails. "Not about this. Why didn't you tell me about the pain?"
"Oh! Well...it wasn't a big deal."
There was a grunt from Chu-ge, the dubious one that Guo Changcheng had heard a lot by now. He thought that was the end, until out of the quiet Chu-ge finally went on: "So if it wasn't a big deal, then why not mention it?"
Caught. He breathed in hard, and felt Chu-ge's heavy head move with his chest.
"Hmm?" Chu-ge's voice was clearer now, gathering the energy he had when he was on a culprit's trail. But Guo Changcheng wasn't afraid of that sound anymore. It sought him out where he was hiding, and set him free.
"Because," he said. "Because I know you."
Chu-ge didn't interrupt, though Changcheng could feel his alertness.
"I know you would do anything to protect me. And that's not what I wanted. If you can't fight, wholeheartedly, do your job for the SID—serve the Envoy—only because it might cause me discomfort... It would ruin you. And me too."
The sound this time was lower than a grunt, more of a growl, rumbling through both of their bodies.
"You know it's true," said Changcheng—not trying to convince him, just stating a fact.
"You can't read my mind or anything now, right."
He stroked Chu-ge's hair, soft fuzz against his palm. "No."
They lay and breathed together.
"Listen," said Chu-ge firmly. His voice was a little slurred, his mouth pressed into Changcheng's collarbone. "Next time, tell me these damn things. If I'm not supposed to do all the protecting of you, but you're sure as hell not doing enough of it, then we've got to figure something out. Right?"
The whip-snap question was comfortable and perfect.
Chu-ge's arm closed tight, tighter, heavy and solid, pulling himself firmly against Changcheng. Changcheng could feel the arch of his ribcage, the edge of the bandages.
"Doesn't that hurt?" he asked.
"You tell me," Chu-ge muttered sleepily.
Changcheng smiled at the ceiling. "That's not how it works."
When Chu-ge was finally out, fallen into a solid healing sleep, his embracing arm easy and relaxed, Guo Changcheng slid from his bed.
He tugged up the duvet, smoothed it. Chu-ge's brow was clear, the lashes of his closed eyes soft dark smudges. The puppet was tucked in next to him; its head was just visible over the top of the duvet, ever wakeful.
"You'll help me, won't you," whispered Guo Changcheng, and bowed to it.
He felt a little silly, and a little brave, and a lot grateful. And tomorrow—he nestled into his own bed with a private grin—they could all argue with Chu-ge about keeping him in the hospital one more day.
Chu-ge might think he'd get out of it, like he always used to. But Guo Changcheng had won today, in arguments and battles and the face of death itself. He knew who was going to win this time.