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meditations ex post facto

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So some rich guy buys a motorbike, drinks twelve beers and decides the time has come to really impress the fuck out of his girlfriend, and three passers-by and a two-hundred-year-old cotton tree live to regret it. He’s just lucky they’ve lived to regret it, the judge intones at the sentencing hearing, and can only then fine the rich guy the amount he’d spend on a day’s booze and dry cleaning, because the law on the subject was written fifty years earlier and has not been updated since.

Which is why Zhao Yunlan is half-asleep on his desk, on a morning replete with flies and humidity, trying to draft a fines and penalties table without moving his head.

“You should drink less,” says Zhu Hong, as she slaps a cup of over-sweetened coffee onto his desk.

I didn’t ride my motorbike into a tree,” Zhao Yunlan complains. He and the damn cat had a perfectly sensible evening of dim sum and liquid refreshment and no one drank anything with a worm in the bottle or got a tattoo in a script they didn’t read. They were both tucked up in their respective beds by two in the morning. It’s not Zhao Yunlan’s fault that Da Qing has nine lives’ worth of alcohol tolerance and Yunlan’s liver is a quitter. “I am a paragon of virtue. I have all my own teeth and I’m a lawyer. Any mother would be proud.”

Zhu Hong sniffs and goes back to a set of Regulations pertaining to sequencing of traffic lights. They have diagrams in the Schedules that are the same colour as her lipstick. Zhao Yunlan takes a deep and restorative mouthful of the latte and takes a moment to be grateful she’s on his side.

“Fines and penalties,” Zhu Hong insists, when he looks up again.

Zhao Yunlan sighs, stuffs a lollipop into his mouth and inspects the table, which has a missing statutory footnote. He thumbs through the Keeling schedule and can’t find the section reference. Another deep inhalation of caffeine and sugar, now slightly cherry-flavoured from the lollipop. Still no reference. He consults the parent Regulations.

Then he sits bolt upright, flails with both hands and knocks sugary latte all over four annotated pieces of legislation, two explanatory Keeling schedules and the last keyboard in the office that doesn’t stick. “Shit! Zhu Hong!”

“What do you want me to do about it,” Zhu Hong says, not even rhetorically. She digs out paper napkins from somewhere and helps mop up the mess, glaring at him all the while. Zhao Yunlan feels like some sort of small prey animal, only hungover and more caffeinated. “What is wrong with you?”

“This!” Zhao Yunlan says, gesturing at his desk. His hand catches the cup and dumps the last inch of coffee onto his desk. “Ah! Fuck!”

For a second it looks like Zhu Hong is actually going to start hissing, but she must see something in his face; she sits down again and says, gently, “What is it, Zhao Yunlan?”

“I think,” Zhao Yunlan says, “we’ve got a problem. I don’t want to tell you what it is yet,” he adds, before she can ask. “It’s – look. I need to be really sure. Really, really sure.”

“All right,” Zhu Hong says, cautiously. “Tell your client, then.”

“No,” Zhao Yunlan says immediately. His policy client is named Guo Changcheng and Yunlan calls him xiao Guo even though technically he tells Yunlan what to do. Xiao Guo is twenty-two years old and if Zhao Yunlan tells him this he will cry. He will sit down in the middle of the floor and weep. He did that once when they broke a twenty-one day deadline and had to write formal letters of apology to the Speaker of the House. It was awful.

“Okay,” Zhu Hong says, after a moment. “If you need to be really sure. Why not go to the university and speak to Professor Shen? He wrote the book.”

“Who?” Zhao Yunlan asks, and jumps as someone tries to open a door into him. “Ah! Lao Chu, I have a headache, please stop that.”

“Stop what? Stop speaking loudly?” Lao Chu says, very loudly. “Are you a moron as well as an idiot?”

“Technically,” says Zhao Yunlan, a draftsman in his soul, “those two words mean the same thing” – but Lao Chu just steps on his foot again. Zhao Yunlan yelps.

“Professor Shen,” Lao Chu says, in his scary voice, “wrote the book.”

What book, for God’s sake?” Zhao Yunlan says, hopping up and down on one foot, but Zhu Hong has already got it down from the shelf and handed it to him. Zhao Yunlan flips through it past old friends such as Legislation should be firm; it should not shout and these rules are to be followed in every instance where to do so would not be barbarous and says, “Oh. The book.”

Statutory Instrument Practice doesn’t actually have its author’s name on the cover. It doesn’t need it, any more than the earth and sky need theirs.

“Your face is barbarous and so is your mom,” Zhao Yunlan tells Lao Chu, but he stops hopping and goes down to the university.

*

Dragon City University is not in session – it’s late summer, with everything dazed and hushed with heat – but Zhao Yunlan figures the academics never go on vacation and when he gets there it isn’t deserted; as well as the staff there are research students milling around and kids doing campus visits. Zhao Yunlan asks around until he can get someone to direct him to the law faculty, and from there it’s easy enough to find someone who knows where Professor Shen’s office is.

He wrote the book, he thinks, climbing the right set of stairs. The fresh air and lack of Lao Chu has given Zhao Yunlan a chance to think clearly, and it’s coming back to him who Professor Shen is. A draftsman like Zhao Yunlan, but not doomed to traffic regulations: Professor Shen was parliamentary counsel at the time the Constitution was drafted. In a sense – the only sense Zhao Yunlan really understands, holding no other creed or religion– Professor Shen made this world.

By the time he’s found the right door and knocked, he’s starting to feel like he’s late for a tutorial and trying to remember the four elements of negligence.

“Come in,” Professor Shen calls. “Thank you, Li Qian” – and a girl laden with papers and cupcakes trundles down the hallway. Zhao Yunlan steps inside and is so momentarily overcome by sense memory – books; dust; windows open to late-summer air – that something inside his brain forgets he’s eleven years out of law school and announces, “Duty of care!” like this will assist.

Professor Shen stares at him.

“Also foreseeability,” Zhao Yunlan adds intelligently, looking around the room to avoid looking at Professor Shen, who is understandably perturbed at this visiting lunatic who has appeared in his office to shout about the tort of negligence.

“Can I help you?” Professor Shen asks, after a minute.

“Hi, I’m Zhao Yunlan,” Zhao Yunlan says. “I have a problem with my Regulations.”

He sounds like he’s admitting to a regrettably transmitted disease, but Professor Shen doesn’t seem to notice. Instead he motions Zhao Yunlan to sit and asks, “Would you like a cupcake? They are extremely bad.”

Zhao Yunlan takes one – it’s bright blue and about as appetising as a bacterium – and perches on the chair indicated.

“Now explain,” Professor Shen says.

Zhao Yunlan obeys. Strangely, it’s the process of explanation that turns him back into a thirty-two-year-old draftsman and not a teenage idiot. Professor Shen is intimidating – both from what Zhao Yunlan knows about his history and partly just the ridiculous good looks of the man, intense and lovely – but that focused attention suggests Zhao Yunlan is saying something worth paying attention to. He waves his hands around as he talks, pulls pieces of legislation out of his bag and waves those around as well, and finally piles everything onto the professor’s desk and stops talking.

Professor Shen doesn’t say anything for a minute. He gets up, walks to the window, comes back. His movements are deliberate, graceful. Zhao Yunlan finds it very easy to imagine him on the floor of the House, gowned with head covered, but for all that, he’s younger than Zhao Yunlan thought he would be. He must have been a shocking prodigy as parliamentary counsel. Zhao Yunlan wonders how he ended up here.

Not that here is bad. It’s a beautiful, airy lawyer’s study, lined with familiar texts. The window ledge is wound with greenery and the air suffused with a soft, indefinable sweetness. For the first time all morning, Zhao Yunlan feels calm.

“Keeling, please,” Professor Shen says.

Zhao Yunlan digs the Keeling schedule out of the pile of papers and gives it to him. He watches as Professor Shen leafs through it, running through the provisions with a fine-tipped pen. Even on this small scale, his movements are neat, precisely controlled, his hands slender and fine-boned. Zhao Yunlan is suddenly very conscious that his own shirt is stuck to him with half a gallon of cold latte.

But then he sees it: the moving pen pauses, right where he thought it might. A quick double-check, and Professor Shen looks up.

“You’re right,” he says.

Zhao Yunlan blushes for no reason, and resists the urge to punch the air.

*

He has to call Guo Changcheng, who cries. It’s profoundly awful. Then Zhao Yunlan goes back to the department to tell Zhu Hong that yes, his suspicion was quite correct, and Dragon City’s criminal ordinances against drunk driving have for fifty years lacked their operative provision.

“Which means…” she says, but she knows what it means.

“It’s legal to drive drunk in this city,” Zhao Yunlan says. “It always has been. Anybody who’s in prison for it, who’s been fined for it—“

“Oh, dear,” says Zhu Hong.

Everything after that is a blur. Once Guo Changcheng has got a grip, he calls his superiors, who call their superiors, who all then call Zhao Yunlan in the belief that if they ask the same question enough times they’ll get a different answer. Zhao Yunlan says, yes, sir, and no, sir, and no I wasn’t being hyperbolic and yes I did have something to drink last night but I don’t see what that has to do with it. He doesn’t want to bring Professor Shen into it –he gave Zhao Yunlan a second opinion out of the goodness of his heart and he doesn’t need the entire Dragon City municipal administration charging into his office yelling about traffic regulations – but in the end Zhao Yunlan can’t avoid it. Which means his next phone call is from Guo Changcheng’s boss’s boss’s boss, which is to say, Yunlan’s father.

“Still can’t make a judgement without the need for handholding,” is his father’s opening salvo. If Yunlan hadn’t got the second opinion his father would be telling him he was an arrogant child who’d throw the entire city into chaos without consulting anyone. “Did Professor Shen agree with you?”

“Yes,” Zhao Yunlan says, through gritted teeth. This is the first substantial conversation they’ve had for a couple of years, since Yunlan’s father happened to walk past a park bench on which Yunlan was busily making the acquaintance of a boyfriend du jour. At the time, Zhu Hong tried to cheer him up by telling him he was a disaster everything else so why not a disaster bisexual, and Lao Chu was so awkward it was borderline-homophobic until one of their policy clients said something that wasn’t borderline and Lao Chu punched the guy, and Guo Changcheng didn’t cry, which was all anyone asked of him. Da Qing just took Zhao Yunlan drinking. It was fine, and Zhao Yunlan is perfectly fine now. He puts down the phone and throws Statutory Instrument Practice at the wall.

“Zhao Yunlan,” Zhu Hong says.

“I’m fine.”

“I don’t care, stop throwing Professor Shen’s book around,” she says. “How was he, anyway? Was he very clever?”

“No, he was one of those dumb-as-shit academics,” Zhao Yunlan says, then feels bad about it. The phone rings again, which means he has to spend another twenty minutes explaining that no, he hasn’t changed his mind, yes they do have an actual goddamn legislative crisis on their hands, and no he doesn’t have a clue as to what they do about it because no one will give him a single second to think.

He steps out for a minute, for some air, and because the alternative is going upstairs to find somewhere painful to insert Zhu Hong’s traffic light Regulations. When he gets back Zhu Hong is on the phone, saying, “No, minister, I understand why you want to be certain. but I’m afraid I would have to concur with my colleague.”

Zhao Yunlan growls and throws another book at the wall. As Archbold on Crime slips down the skirting board, his phone bleeps with yet another email. Zhao Yunlan is about to throw his phone at Archbold when he realises it’s from Professor Shen.

You were right, Zhao Yunlan.

That’s all he wrote. Zhao Yunlan stops in his tracks, and breathes, and feels better.

*

In the end, they have to actually switch their phones off and lock their doors just so they can do their jobs. Zhao Yunlan and Zhu Hong stay up half the night but they get their note of advice done and, in Zhu Hong’s typical style – not Zhao Yunlan’s, which has a tendency towards legislative safari – it’s clear and straightforwardly expressed. They need to amend the broken legislation as soon as possible and they need to start refunding fines and releasing people from prison. The latter is the public relations nightmare but it’s Guo Changcheng’s problem.

A couple of days later the kid has consumed the entire city’s tissue and antacid supply and Zhao Yunlan is back at his desk with a brand new headache, trying to do the damned operative provision. It shouldn’t be that difficult. The Regulations as they stand define what drunkenness is; they set out that the offence extends to cars, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes; they have the original fines and penalties table that got Zhao Yunlan into all this trouble to begin with. They just don’t say anywhere that you shouldn’t drive while drunk. Zhao Yunlan has an overwhelming urge to go back in time, find that fucking colonial-era draftsman and feed him Zhu Hong’s traffic light Regulations.

He pulls a sheet of paper off a legal pad and writes: regulation 2A; heading, driving while drunk. Don’t drive drunk, you bastards.

“Legislation should be firm; it should not shout,” Zhu Hong says over his shoulder.

Zhao Yunlan scribbles it out. Regulation 2A. Where a person drives with a higher than acceptable blood alcohol level he shall be committing an offence.

Not gender-neutral. Zhu Hong is his checker and won’t let him get away with that.

A person A, where A is a natural person, and driving a vehicle, shall, where A is in a state of inebriation

He can’t even get to the end of that one. Zhao Yunlan tries to block out Zhu Hong yelling at Lao Chu about how his inability to punctuate an unindented full-out brings shame to all his ancestors, gets out his phone and remembers the peace and quiet of Professor Shen’s office.

He types what kind of cupcakes do you actually like and presses send before he can lose his nerve.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Professor Shen says, an hour later in a pretty, near-deserted café on the university grounds. “It was a professional courtesy.”

“Yeah, well, so is this,” Zhao Yunlan says, gesturing with a vanilla-matcha cupcake. “And anyway, if I had to spend another minute in my office listening to Minister Gao telling me the human cost behind the statistics—“

“He is a tedious man,” Professor Shen agrees, setting down his mug of jasmine tea. He’s the only lawyer Zhao Yunlan has ever met who doesn’t drink coffee. “I admire your forbearance.”

“I have no forbearance,” Zhao Yunlan assures him. “I get drunk a lot and throw things.”

Professor Shen smiles, which he doesn’t do a lot, Zhao Yunlan has noticed. “That certainly sounds like my time in the service,” he says. “I’m unsurprised to see the tension between policy and legal has not waned in the intervening years.”

Zhao Yunlan smiles back and takes a sip of his own tea, which smells wonderful.

“They just want us to rubber stamp everything,” he says, more bitterly than he intended. “Yes, what you’re doing is perfectly legal and isn’t certifiably insane, yes, minister, no, minister, can I stand on my head for you, minister.”

“Are you having to recompense the people convicted?” Professor Shen asks, curiously.

“Probably,” Zhao Yunlan says, banging his forehead on the wooden table top at the mere mention of the subject. He lifts his head before Professor Shen can decide it’s him who’s certifiably insane. “They keep talking about administrative difficulties.”

“They can’t think of a way to spin it,” Professor Shen says, not a question. Zhao Yunlan runs his hands through his hair and they share a look of perfect understanding.

“I don’t know why I do this job,” he tells the cupcake. “It’s definitely not for the filthy lucre.”

“It has its compensations,” Professor Shen says. It sounds like he’s measuring his words carefully. “I always thought… well. To say what the law is; to give it form, and shape. It was a source of continuous wonder to me.”

Zhao Yunlan looks up sharply. “That’s… uh. That’s how I feel about it too.”

It’s exactly how he feels about it, when not hungover, coffee-soaked, stuck in his office overnight or passing tissues to Xiao Guo. Neither of them speaks for a minute. Zhao Yunlan is starting to associate Professor Shen’s presence with the scent of jasmine, and with respite.

“It’s – well,” he says, wanting to express this but not sure how. “Zhu Hong talks about, what are they called, performative speech acts. You know, when we put, it is an offence to operate a vehicle after nightfall, or whatever. It wasn’t an offence until. Well. Until I wrote that down.”

He’s sounding like an idiot law student again. But Professor Shen puts his cup down and looks at him seriously. “Yes,” he says. “And in so doing, you remake the world.”

“Yes,” Zhao Yunlan says, impossibly pleased. “Yes.”

They’re looking at each other and smiling. Zhao Yunlan takes a belated first bite of his cupcake.

“Why did you leave?” he asks, suddenly. “You were parliamentary counsel. You wrote the Constitution!”

“I assisted in its writing,” Professor Shen says. Without the warmth in his voice, this time, and Zhao Yunlan curses his own curiosity.

“You don’t have to answer that,” he says. “Sorry. I’m just—Anyway. Hey, your tea’s getting cold.”

Professor Shen glances down at it. To Zhao Yunlan’s shock, a ripple of white flame passes along the edges of his hands and gutters out on the rim of the cup. The tea starts to steam again.

“Wow,” Zhao Yunlan says, involuntarily. “That’s – wow.”

He had wondered if Professor Shen were Yashou; he noticed some obscure texts on his office shelves about Yashou legal status, which Zhao Yunlan is only familiar with because Zhu Hong has some of them too. It’s not something he knows much about. He knows nothing at all about Dixingren. He looks at the steaming cup and isn’t sure what to say.

“We had an opportunity,” Professor Shen says, his head lifting to meet Zhao Yunlan’s eyes. “To cast off our colonised past. To set out protection for everything that we are, and not what a Western power thought we should be, centuries ago. We did not take that opportunity.”

“Oh,” Zhao Yunlan says. The Dragon City constitution lays out its equality of status provision by creed and race and gender, among other things; Zhao Yunlan learned the whole list as an undergraduate. He probably absorbed enough at the time for an essay on Yashou status in comparison with religion and sexual orientation.

Yashou and Dixingren status, he supposes. He really doesn’t know anything about this.

“It was very disappointing,” Professor Shen says, now faux-brightly, which makes Yunlan’s heart hurt a little. “So after that I left the service, and I had always considered retiring into academia in any case—“

“Of course,” Zhao Yunlan says, at random, because he doesn’t know what else to say. Yunlan does what Guo tells him, in theory, though the kid is the same age as the milk in Zhao Yunlan’s refrigerator. He can so easily imagine Professor Shen, a little younger, faced with another wet-behind-the-ears policy client, having to listen to something about how it’s impolitic.

That’s how they put it. Impolitic, as though everything they do isn’t politics.

“I’m sorry,” he adds after a minute. Awkward, but he means it. “On that subject” -- not at all on the subject, Zhao Yunlan is trying desperately to change the subject -- “I’m having trouble with my operative provision.”

Then he gets a lollipop out of his pocket and stuffs it into his big stupid mouth, because apparently his relationship with this man consists solely of getting to him discuss painful personal history and then making him do Zhao Yunlan’s job for him. But Professor Shen gives him an amused look, takes a pen and a napkin and writes:

2A. A natural person must not operate a vehicle while in a state of inebriation.

“Your definitions for ‘inebriation’ and ‘vehicle’ are already in regulation 2,” he says. “‘Natural person’ is in the Interpretation Act. And you can put the offence in the next subpara.”

It’s an elegant solution. Either he has the sort of mind that has retained the details from his quick glance at the Regulations a couple of days before, or he guessed Zhao Yunlan would ask and looked at it before he came. From their limited acquaintance, Zhao Yunlan suspects both are true.

“Professor Shen,” he starts.

“Shen Wei,” Professor Shen corrects. “We are brothers-in-arms, after all.”

He’s still looking amused, almost fond. He looks like any lawyer-academic with the rolled-up shirt cuffs and inkstains on his forearms, but that aura of controlled intensity is magnetic. A tiny glimmer of flame appears at the edge of his hands, and disappears again.

Zhao Yunlan doesn’t want a brotherly relationship with him. He wants something that isn’t brotherly at all. He swallows hard and bites through the stick of the lollipop. “Shen Wei, then,” he says. “Thank you very much for your help.”

It’s a thing you say when you’re about to leave, but neither of them moves. Zhao Yunlan holds Shen Wei’s gaze over the table and licks his lips.

Shen Wei smiles at him, reaches out and takes the last of the frosting off his lips with a poised index finger. “I hope we meet again soon, Zhao Yunlan,” he says. “Our discussions thus far have been exceedingly instructive.”

He sweeps out of the café with an inordinate grace. Yet again, Zhao Yunlan blushes ridiculously. He pockets the napkin and returns to the department.

*

Guo Changcheng thanks him for sight of the operative provision and says he needs to consult with his superiors. Zhao Yunlan takes that as licence to ignore him over the weekend. Monday morning arrives and Zhu Hong wants to know how his date went.

“It wasn’t a date!” Zhao Yunlan complains. “It was a professional courtesy! To an esteemed colleague!”

Zhu Hong gives him her best sceptical look. “You went for cupcakes.”

Zhao Yunlan can’t actually blame her, because he’s never been any good at hiding his feelings and he’s kind of composing an email to Shen Wei in another window. Deaaaaar Professsssor Sssshen, he writes. The latte from the other day has made itself at home in his keyboard. Zhao Yunlan painstakingly scrolls back and deletes all the extra letters. I reaaaaally want to see you again pleaaaaaaassse come to dinner with me.

Not at all weird.

Shen Wei, I was planning to go for noodles tonight. Perhaps you’d like to accompany me.

Weirdly formal, but better. He presses send before he realises that “planning” still has two extra As and a stray Z.

Hi, Professor Shen, I’m a grown man and a professional draftsman!

He doesn’t send that. He closes the window just as Zhu Hong sits down on the edge of his desk. “I think,” she says, “it’d do you good to be with someone serious.”

She says it loudly enough for Lao Chu to hear, and probably also Guo Changcheng who works two floors up and the minister on the fifth floor and every other person in Dragon City, including the ones who are in a coma or dead.

“I don’t,” Zhao Yunlan says, hopelessly. “I’m not.”

“Grown-up,” Zhu Hong persists. “Mature.”

For some reason that makes Zhao Yunlan imagine Shen Wei when he was still parliamentary counsel, stalking the halls of the House with the black cape and hood. It makes him shiver, not in a bad way. Zhu Hong merely smiles.

Lao Chu is less impressed. “Professor Shen deserves better than your frivolity,” he declares, which makes Zhao Yunlan yelp something about wait are you defending his honour before realising that he’s just conceded the point at issue. He takes the lollipop out of his mouth and tries not to look like a disaster bisexual. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t succeed.

“Zhao Yunlan is ours, and he’ll do,” Zhu Hong says. “Go redraft your full-outs.”

Lao Chu goes off to redraft his full-outs. Zhao Yunlan surreptitiously checks his email – no response – and looks up to see Zhu Hong is looking at him with something that could pass for affection. “I hope it works out,” she says.

“Thank you,” Zhao Yunlan says. A few years back, before she was promoted over him – which Zhao Yunlan does not resent in the slightest; she’s a better draftsman than he is or will ever be – they had a thing, kind of. Romantic at first, fizzling into deep, long-term affection. She wants to see him happy, just as Zhao Yunlan wants to see her happy.

“Zhu Hong,” he says. “I was speaking to—someone. About, uh, Yashou constitutional protections.”

“Were you really?” Zhu Hong gives him the look that means, I’m not a fucking idiot. “He’s Dixingren, isn’t he?”

“How did you know?” Zhao Yunlan says, immediately giving up on trying to be subtle. He did some surreptitious research when he got back to the office after his not-a-date cupcakes with Shen Wei, and while it’s a matter of public record that Shen Wei is interested in Yashou and Dixingren rights, Zhao Yunlan didn’t find anything that stated definitively that he’s Dixingren himself. It made him feel a little strange, that Shen Wei had chosen to tell him on not very much of an acquaintance, over green frosting and tea.

Zhu Hong gives Zhao Yunlan an appraising, not quite happy look. “He’s… active in certain circles,” she says at last. “I’ve come across him, ah, elsewhere.”

“Oh,” Zhao Yunlan says.

“And I’ve read his academic writing,” Zhu Hong says, in a different tone. “He’s a key thinker on the topic.”

“I didn’t,” Zhao Yunlan says. “I didn’t – well. I never really thought about it before.”

Zhu Hong reaches over and ruffles his hair. “Grow up, Zhao Yunlan,” she says.

She’s about to leave him to his Regulations when his email pings. Zhao Yunlan goes to check it in a hurry and ignores her knowing look.

But it’s not Shen Wei, it’s Guo Changcheng, with an attempt to amend the operative provision. “A natural person,” Zhao Yunlan reads to the room at large, “must not ever have driven while in a state of inebriation. That’s criminal retrospectivity. We can’t punish people for things that weren’t illegal when they did them.”

“What even is constitutionality?” Zhu Hong asks the ceiling. “Why would we even have the rule of law? Shut it down.”

Zhao Yunlan shuts it down, but nicely; he doesn’t want to make Xiao Guo’s face scrunch up in that way it does. And when he’s done that, he checks again and sees Shen Wei has replied. He likes noodles. He’d love to come.

*

Of course, the next thing on the disaster bisexual agenda is deciding if this is a date, a friendly dinner, or an opportunity to discuss non-ambulatory footnotes. (Not a hypothetical example. Zhao Yunlan fucking hates lawyers.) The noodle bar he picked is deliberately non-indicative, not fancy but with good food and full of people: couples, groups of friends, people dining alone with a book. Shen Wei meets Zhao Yunlan exactly on time, orders the nasi goreng when Zhao Yunlan says he’s had it a couple of times and he liked it. After that, they fall easily and naturally into conversation. Zhao Yunlan asks about Shen Wei’s family, where he’s from, and learns that Shen Wei was born in Dragon City; that his parents are dead; that he has a twin brother he doesn’t get along with. “Ye Zun believes I should be more radical,” Shen Wei says. “He has a less significant power than mine, but doesn’t hide it.”

Zhao Yunlan has only recently learned that Dixingren do typically hide their powers, or at least try to, for fear of being stigmatised or harassed. But before he can think of a response, Shen Wei asks him about his own family and Zhao Yunlan finds himself saying, “My mother is dead and my father isn’t worth having.”

Shen Wei doesn’t seem shocked at his filial impiety. His eyes on Zhao Yunlan are steady and kind, receptive to further explanation, accepting of none. “My mother died when I was small,” Zhao Yunlan says after a moment. “And my father… doesn’t really approve of me.”

He tells Shen Wei the story about the park bench, about what his father saw him doing and how he’s barely spoken to Yunlan since, even though it’s been years. Partly because it’s a relief to share it with someone other than Zhu Hong, and partly because he’s still conscious of the gravity of what Shen Wei has shared with him. Zhao Yunlan wants to offer a truth about himself in return.

Also, people don’t tell each other their tragic coming-out stories in service of non-ambulatory footnotes.

“Your father has poor judgement, it seems,” Shen Wei says, after a pause. “How very unfortunate. For him.”

There’s an edge to his tone, which makes Zhao Yunlan feel – he’s not sure what. Settled, calm, as he often does in Shen Wei’s company, but also… championed.

And just like that, the last of his apprehension about this date – which is definitely a date – is gone. His pad thai is excellent. His father has poor judgement. And the way Shen Wei uses his chopsticks, elegantly, with the precision of an operative provision, is wonderfully distracting. Shen Wei catches him staring, and holds his gaze for longer than he has any right to. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t look away.

When the bill comes, Zhao Yunlan reaches for it but Shen Wei puts a hand on his and moves it gently to the side. “You can get it next time,” he says, his voice rich with promise. The restaurant is crowded and they’ve been sitting jammed up together all this time, but now Shen Wei is close enough for Zhao Yunlan to feel his breath and the warmth of his body. Yunlan doesn’t feel tense or nervous. He leans in to kiss Shen Wei because it’s the only right and sensible thing to do. It’s lovely, then the waiter clears his throat from behind them and they both pull back.

“The service in this place is abominable,” Zhao Yunlan tells Shen Wei, who laughs. Zhao Yunlan has never heard him do that before.

“Best not to scandalise my students,” he says, gesturing at the packed restaurant. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Zhao Yunlan is grinning like an idiot as they pay up and head out. They’re only a short distance from the university campus – Shen Wei is probably right that one of his students would have been in spying range – so it makes sense to wander in that direction, along the tree-lined path into the grounds. In the cool of the night, a modicum of reticence creeps back in; they’re not teenagers to be instantly making out against a tree, but the space between them is still charged with the promise of things to come. Zhao Yunlan smiles to himself. “It’s very dark,” he says, in one of the long spaces between the streetlights, not spelling out what they could use that darkness for.

In answer, Shen Wei uncurls his fingers around a blossoming of flame. Zhao Yunlan can’t help the sharp intake of breath. It’s startling, beautiful, the reflections glittering in Shen Wei’s eyes.

“Wow,” Zhao Yunlan says, struck, brought short. “That’s… wow.”

“I shouldn’t,” Shen Wei murmurs, focusing on his cupped hands. He looks up from beneath his lashes, soft and unguarded. “People might see.”

The flickering light passes over his face. his eyes are intense, like when he was telling Zhao Yunlan that who they are, what they do, remakes the world. Zhao Yunlan has to grit his teeth together to avoid saying something extremely full-on and terrible like: you are what I was looking for, or, with a draftsman’s accuracy: you are what I didn’t know I was looking for.

“If I could do that,” he says, after a moment, awash with everything before him that’s like nothing he’s ever seen. “I wouldn’t hide it.”

The fire goes out. Zhao Yunlan blinks at the sudden darkness, his eyes adjusting only slowly. Shen Wei says, very slowly, “My brother would agree with you.”

There’s no particular emphasis in the words. But suddenly Zhao Yunlan is aware of the night’s chill all around them, the distant birdcalls. “I, ah,” he says, not sure what’s going on.

“And my brother,” Shen Wei continues, distantly, “is in prison.”

“Oh,” Zhao Yunlan says. “But it isn’t… it isn’t, actually illegal, to be Yashou or Dixingren.“

“Not actually illegal,” Shen Wei repeats. “That’s not a high bar, Zhao Yunlan.”

“Look, I didn’t mean–” Zhao Yunlan starts, confused as to how they got here from a foolish thing he said when in the grip of something he was only just beginning to understand.

“If someone saw me just now,” Shen Wei says, cutting him off. Zhao Yunlan can’t see his face; his voice is soft and unemotionless. “And they happened to hold a grudge, and happened to write an anonymous letter to the university, suggesting a rearrangement of the tenured law faculty. Or, for example, if someone had guessed why I was so fervent on the subject of Yashou and Dixingren rights, when I left the service.”

“It doesn’t mean you’d just lose your job!” Zhao Yunlan says. Even as he says it, the lawyer part of his brain is throwing up its hands in despair at how much of an idiot he is. “I mean… you’re, you’re you. People would never, that wouldn’t happen.”

“So I should rely on the graciousness of others?”

It’s like a whipcrack. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t respond.

“It could happen,” Shen Wei says. “And there would be nothing that could save me.”

Nothing in the edifice of what he himself created, is what he means. “No,” Zhao Yunlan says, “just because it’s not actually written down—“

His phone rings, stopping him from saying something else idiotic. He wants to throw it into the bushes, but this time the lawyer part of his brain prevails. “Hello?”

The person on the other end says: “You told Guo Changcheng the provision was unconstitutional.”

“Uh… yes?” Zhao Yunlan says, dazed by this. “It… is?”

“Are you crazy, Yunlan?” his father yells. Zhao Yunlan jumps and holds the phone away from his ear. “You told him that it was unconstitutional to put drunks back into jail and hang on to their fines! We’re letting people out of prison! We need to tell the families of victims that the criminals who killed their loved ones will go free!”

“It’s still unconstitutional,” Zhao Yunlan says. He feels like he might cry, horribly. Shen Wei is still there with that unknowable look, his face shadowed by the dapple of branches.

“Come into the department, now,” his father says, and hangs up.

Zhao Yunlan puts his phone in his pocket. He hands are shaking, he notes dispassionately.

“Shen Wei,” he says. “I’m sorry, I have to—my father, I mean, my department—“

Shen Wei has already gone, a figure into darkness.

*

Guo Changcheng meets him in the lobby. Zhao Yunlan isn’t surprised when he’s taken straight up to Minister Gao’s office. As well as the minister, his father, Zhu Hong and Lao Chu are there, plus a couple of other policy officials Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know. The room is thick with briefing notes and stray paperclips; they’ve clearly been here for a while.

“Good evening, Zhao Yunlan,” the minister says. “I understand we have to release all our criminals, return the money they’ve paid in fines and restore them to their jobs operating heavy machinery.”

“Their employers aren’t going to take them back,” Zhao Yunlan says. “And it isn’t very much money.”

“Zhao Yunlan,” the minister says so sharply that Guo Changcheng whimpers. “Explain.”

Zhao Yunlan considers saying, if you’d just read my damn advice, minister. Instead, he says, as diffidently as possible: “It’s a basic constitutional principle.”

It’s never a good idea, to start an explanation to a career politician with the word “principle”. Zhu Hong sighs audibly. But Zhao Yunlan is committed now.

“We aren’t above the law, even we who make it,” he says. “We can’t punish people for things that aren’t illegal.”

“But, Zhao Yunlan,” Guo Changcheng says, eagerly. “Everyone knew what it really meant! Everyone knew there was supposed to be something that said you shouldn’t drink and drive.”

“But there wasn’t,” Zhao Yunlan says. “And we can’t put it in retrospectively, either. We can’t say it hasn’t ever been legal to drink or drive. We can’t use our power to change the past.”

“Show him the charge sheet,” the minister says to Guo Changcheng, who gives Zhao Yunlan one of the innumerable bits of paper. Zhao Yunlan skims the text of an arrest report for one Professor Ouyang, who earlier tonight got dumped by his girlfriend, indulged in some expensive spirits and drove his car into an electricity pole, which fell over onto five other cars and an elderly lady’s prize bougainvillea.

“Are you telling us,” the minister says dangerously, “that we have no power to detain this man? That we now need to tell the provincial prosecutor to release him, because he hasn’t done anything wrong?”

“As far as drunk driving goes?” Zhao Yunlan takes a deep breath. “Yes, minister.”

Then comes the shouting. Minister Gao yells something about the political implications and Guo Changcheng whimpers loudly, but the voice that breaks out over the others is Zhao Yunlan’s father. “A basic constitutional principle,” he says, in perfect mimicry of Yunlan’s momentarily earnest tones. “Letting out our criminals back onto the streets, for the sake of something that no one but you would ever notice!”

“We did notice,” Zhu Hong says, a hiss in her voice. “It is our job to notice.”

She’s saying, we: she’s bringing herself and Lao Chu into this, so it’s three of them together. Zhao Yunlan loves her.

“It makes no difference,” Yunlan’s father says, impatiently. “You always were difficult, weren’t you, Yunlan? Always the rebel. What the hell are you fighting for?”

He says the last part in low tones, so the minister won’t hear. Zhao Yunlan curls his fingernails into his palms and says nothing.

“Let’s get to the point,” Zhao Yunlan’s father says, at a normal volume. “If we’re to pass the retrospectivity provision, we need legal clearance.”

“Which you haven’t got,” Zhu Hong says.

“But we will,” Zhao Yunlan’s father says. He’s looking at the minister, then back at Zhao Yunlan. “I suggest the three of you rethink your advice overnight. Otherwise we may seek it elsewhere.”

“You’re not seriously threatening our jobs,” Zhao Yunlan says, more irritated by this than alarmed. It’s so like his father, he thinks, to throw things at everyone in sight when it’s his own son he wants to hit. “You can’t just fire the three of us for no reason.”

“We can think of some reasons,” his father says. The minister says nothing, clearly thinking himself above the internal affairs of his department, and Zhao Yunlan is still irritated, but then he hears Zhu Hong’s sharp intake of breath, that still sounds like a hiss. “Particularly you, Zhu Hong.”

There’s no legal protection in Dragon City for Yashou and Dixingren. As though in memory of nightmare, Zhao Yunlan hears Shen Wei’s voice: there would be nothing that could save me.

He stands there, his fingers still curled into claws, not knowing what to think, or do, or say.

“It’s just two words, Zhao Yunlan,” Guo Changcheng says suddenly. He’s such a sweet kid. He just wants them to all get along. “A person must not, and a person must not ever have. It doesn’t really matter.”

Zhao Yunlan wants to grab him by the collar and ask: if this doesn’t matter, then what does? If who they are and what they are and how they use their power doesn’t matter, then maybe it doesn’t matter if he drafts to be gender-neutral or Lao Chu learns to punctuate his full-outs or if anything anywhere has operative provisions. Maybe it doesn’t matter if he gets up in the morning or rides his motorbike into a tree. Maybe nothing matters at all.

But he doesn’t say any of that. Suddenly, Zhao Yunlan is tired of being shouted at; of trying to stand his ground when it insists on moving beneath him. He turns around and walks out of the office. He goes home because he can’t think of anything else to do. In his apartment, he pours himself a generous measure of single malt – quelle irony – in the hope it will empty his brain of anger and self-doubt and the goddamn legislative process. It works, but only for something else to fill the vacated space of his head: that image of Shen Wei, standing under the trees, his hands overflowing with flame.

Zhao Yunlan fetches out his laptop, and writes: Dear Shen Wei, I had a fucking awful night. The whisky probably doesn’t help his clarity of expression and all the vowels are still sticking, but he tells the whole story anyway, about the retrospective provision and the drunk drivers being released from prison and how he’s pretty sure his father will threaten Zhu Hong to get at him. You were right about constitutional protections for Yashou and Dixingren. I’m really sorry.

He attaches a copy of his advice note for good measure. I’m so sorry, he writes again, and falls asleep with the laptop still in his bed.

*

In the morning things are, somehow, worse. “Zhao Yunlan, wake up,” Zhu Hong says, having called him before his alarm would have gone off, if he’d even bothered to set it last night. “Zhao Yunlan, are you there? It’s been leaked to the press.”

She’s gone before Zhao Yunlan even has a chance to react. He sits up and starts scrolling through news websites, numbly. BBC News has got it and so has the South China Morning Post. Dragon City to release fifty years’ worth of criminals, says one headline. Shock and outrage, says another. Go to Dragon City, get drunk! says a third, which irrationally annoys Zhao Yunlan; it’s never been illegal to drink in Dragon City, or any other common law jurisdiction.

He throws his phone down and doesn’t know what to do next. If he should go into the department, or not; if there’s even anything he can do to help in the chaos, or if he’d want to, if there were. If he and Zhu Hong are suspected of the leak. If there’s any point to even getting out of bed.

Then his phone buzzes again. It’s Shen Wei – which is odd; Zhao Yunlan wasn’t expecting to hear from him this morning or, if he’s honest, at all. Odder still, it’s a text; all his communication with Shen Wei has been by email and in full sentences. Zhao Yunlan stares for a moment at a text that’s a single cupcake emoji, and launches himself at the shower. Da Qing is out doing important cat things but left some painkillers out for him. Zhao Yunlan grabs them on the way out.

Half an hour later he meets Shen Wei at the entrance to the café they went to that hot, hushed day. It’s still very early, the fog hanging low over the university grounds. Shen Wei’s face and eyelashes are wet with it. “Tea,” he says.

Zhao Yunlan only nods, not sure what’s going on here. When Shen Wei comes to sit at the table, holding two mugs of steaming hot tea, Zhao Yunlan warms his hands on it and waits for whatever happens next.

“Did I get it right?” Shen Wei asks. “The little picture.”

“The what?” Yunlan says. “The… emoji?”

Shen Wei nods. “I didn’t want to commit too much to text,” he says. “But I wasn’t sure how. Li Qian is very good with technology, so I asked her to help me.”

Zhao Yunlan stares at him for a second. Then he’s just overcome by warmth, a deep, loving fondness for this strange, passionate, inept and earnest man. “You got it right,” he says, with a hand to his mouth so he doesn’t accidentally spill feelings all over the table. And then, as his brain catches up with his ears: “What do you mean, commit too much?”

In answer, Shen Wei reaches into his coat pocket and unfolds a newspaper. It’s an early edition from a provincial local outlet. Zhao Yunlan skims the text, picks up the name “Ouyang” and knows immediately what the rest of the story will be. Professor Ouyang, lacking neither means nor guile, acquired his own defence lawyer, who was smart enough to understand the heavenly blessing contained in the leaked news story. The defence lawyer has now petitioned for his client’s release on the basis that what he did wasn’t illegal at the time he did it, and the judge, finding this inarguable, released him.

“After the leak, I knew that someone arrested overnight for a drunk-driving offence would take advantage,” Shen Wei says. “Li Qian and I looked through all through the morning reports until we found an example.”

“Ouyang will only be the first,” Zhao Yunlan notes. “And the department can’t hush it up or pass a retrospective provision now. Ouyang or one of the others will sue straight off, because it’s….” He sighs, fed up of the very word. “Unconstitutional.”

“Retrospective provision is unconstitutional,” Shen Wei murmurs silkily, and Zhao Yunlan leans back in his chair.

“You shouldn’t have done it, Shen Wei,” he says. “Not for me.”

“I merely assisted in some legal research,” Shen Wei says, voice and expression even. “Nothing more.”

It’s a good act, but Zhao Yunlan isn’t fooled for a second. “What if the department starts making inquiries with the newspapers?” he says. “What if they try to source the leak? What will they find?”

“Nothing,” Shen Wei says firmly. He meets Zhao Yunlan’s eyes. “Li Qian is very good with technology.”

Zhao Yunlan laughs out loud and toasts Shen Wei with his mug. “I’m glad to hear it,” he says. More serious, he adds, “Thank you. No one has ever – well. No one’s ever done anything like that for me before.”

“It wasn’t just for you, Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says, matching his serious tone. “Does it matter, what the law says? Does it matter what it does not say?”

There’s a world in which he might have gone the other way, Zhao Yunlan thinks. Shen Wei might have decided that if the law says you can drive while drunk and discriminate against Dixingren, then who cares what else it says. But Shen Wei left the service, not the profession; he believes, still, in the whole of his heart, in what they do, and that it matters how they do it.

“You know I think it does,” Zhao Yunlan says. “I apologise for what I said last night.”

He wrote, I’m so sorry, with sixteen Os, in his email. But I apologise is a performative speech act.

“I accept your apology,” Shen Wei says. He leans in and kisses Zhao Yunlan, unhurried and sweet. It’s not in discharge of sexual tension, at least not only that: it’s an expression of the rightness of things. When they draw apart, the vapour from the mugs is mingling with the fog at the open windows. On a day not so long from now, Zhao Yunlan’s love for Shen Wei will be so wholly part of him as to be indistinguishable, like the scent of jasmine from the steam.

“What’s your brother in prison for?” he asks, after a while.

“Various violent crimes,” Shen Wei says. “But still… it was a longer sentence, than it should have been.”

Zhao Yunlan risks reaching out, putting a hand on Shen Wei’s on the tabletop. It feels like more of an intimate gesture than the kiss. Shen Wei looks up at him and doesn’t pull away.

“Come with me,” Zhao Yunlan says. He means, come with me back to the department, but without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing. He means, come with me to wherever I go next, to wherever we choose to go together.

*

Back in the office, Zhu Hong is brandishing Statutory Instrument Practice. “Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched,” she says, to Lao Chu. “The concrete word to the abstract; the single word to the circumlocution; the short word to the long…”

“The Saxon word to the Romance,” Shen Wei finishes, from the doorway. Zhu Hong looks delighted.

“Professor Shen, it’s a pleasure to meet you at last,” she says. “Please come and explain to Chu Shuzhi why the term ‘article’ cannot be defined to include a live fish.”

Zhao Yunlan has given up asking questions such as what any of this has to do with traffic light Regulations. He’s just grateful that it sounds like business as usual. He excuses himself and goes upstairs.

“Yunlan,” his father says, when Zhao Yunlan strides in without knocking. “Are you—“

“I’m not withdrawing my advice,” Zhao Yunlan says. “I’m a service draftsman. I’m not here to tell you want you want to hear. And don’t go after Zhu Hong to get at me if you don’t want to lose all your lawyers.”

“Yunlan,” his father says again, but Yunlan suddenly doesn’t care what his father has to say about anything. The desk is covered with loose paper; there’s a half-plunged cafetière on the side. It looks not unlike Zhao Yunlan’s own office, two floors below. In another world, father and son would rejoice in what they had in common.

But Zhao Xinci has decided, for himself, to forego that. How unfortunate for him.

“And you need lawyers,” Yunlan continues. “Because you’re being sued. Try and get that retrospective provision in now, and Professor Ouyang will tell the whole world that the government is overturning the rule of law. That’ll do wonders for Xiao Guo’s acid reflux.”

“Look, you’re a good lawyer,” his father says. “Just…”

Zhao Yunlan doesn’t stay to hear just what. On the threshold he turns and says, “By the way, I’m seeing someone. He’s nice. I think it’s going to be wonderful.”

He goes back down to his own office, thinking about what would have happened if Shen Wei hadn’t orchestrated the leak. What Zhao Yunlan would have done, given the choice between his own and Zhu Hong’s and Lao Chu’s jobs and standing their ground.

From the doorway, he looks at Shen Wei, who gave up a job and a whole world that he loved, and thinks he knows what he would have done.

“Hong-jie,” Zhao Yunlan says softly, as he goes in. “They know what’s going on upstairs. If we don’t release people and return their fines, we’ll be court-ordered to do it. We were right.”

Zhu Hong nods, but the uneasy look doesn’t disappear from her face. Zhao Yunlan curses himself again for never seen this anxiety before. She’s afraid, will always be afraid, of something he can’t save her from; and Shen Wei, now sitting on Lao Chu’s desk and gesturing with a stapler, is afraid of the same thing. Not what is, but what might be.

One day, Zhao Yunlan resolves, they will make that amendment to the constitution. However and whenever it comes about, in itself the amendment will be watertight. It will be a living text, drafted by the people it serves, and it will protect them for all time.

Here and now, that’s not enough. But it’s something.

“Guo Changcheng brings us news from his planet,” Zhu Hong reports, distracted by her phone. “Apparently we have to release… uh, five whole people from custody. And we can cover the fines from the stationery budget.”

“Because the fines and penalties haven’t been adjusted for fifty years,” Zhao Yunlan says, remembering this as though out of a dream. “What about Professor Ouyang?”

“They got him for criminal damage to the pole.”

Shen Wei laughs, which delights Zhao Yunlan’s heart. He goes over and kisses him. This evening, Zhao Yunlan thinks, they’re going to have to expend some significant effort on making out. Perhaps he’ll learn what happens when someone blessed with an extraordinary power of self-control leans back and cuts loose. Even if they don’t get that far, Shen Wei will be appalled by the state of his apartment. His laptop is still in his bed. Zhao Yunlan can’t wait.

In the meantime he enjoys Lao Chu’s look of stunned disapproval, feeling Zhu Hong’s eyes on him. When he turns, she gives him a very small thumbs-up.

“Come to lunch with us,” Yunlan says to Shen Wei.

“It’s ten thirty in the morning.”

“Come anyway,” Zhao Yunlan says, gesturing to Zhu Hong and Lao Chu. “Noodles. We all like noodles. Shen Wei, stop admiring Chu-ge’s full-outs. They’ll only break your heart in the end.”

“I was wondering,” Shen Wei says, finally tearing himself away from Lao Chu’s terrible Regulations. “Why did no one notice the absence of the operative provision in the drink-driving instrument for so long?”

“No one ever looks at it.” Zhao Yunlan shrugs. “Magistrates look up the fines and penalties, not whether drink driving is actually a crime.”

“Mmm.” Shen Wei considers. “Colonial drafting being what it was, I wonder what else isn’t actually a crime.”

“Arson,” Zhao Yunlan says. “Jaywalking. Credit card fraud. Conspiracy to commit embracery. I don’t know what that one is. Murder.”

“Murder is a common law offence,” Shen Wei and Zhu Hong say in unison, in identical tones of exasperation. Zhao Yunlan wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake. He picks up Statutory Instrument Practice and puts it back on the shelf, and they all go out together.