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One familiar fading tune

Chapter Text

Crawl on my belly til the sun goes down
I'll never wear your broken crown
I can take the rope and I can fuck it all the way
But in this twilight, our choices seal our fate

 

Mumford & Sons - Broken Crown

 

 

 

Shang Qinghua was not a popular part of the Cang Qiong base’s community at the best of times, but right now he felt on the more hostile side of being tolerated. Even when he told people he was just doing his job, following orders like every other person on the lower end of the food chain, he felt only seconds away from a knife between his ribs or a club bashing his head in. Not that he himself had done anything to warrant such actions. More often than not had he skimped on his own rations when Shen Jiu again decided to try and cut off the few children in their community as useless mouths.  It had never lasted more than a day or two, with Yue Qingyuan coming back from a hunt or patrol to revise the orders of his second in command. But Shan Qinghua always had to bear the brunt of the people’s ire, as well as the tirades how he dared to endanger their future like this.

 

Granted, he could simply say ‘No’ and shut Shen Jiu down until their leader returned. As the head of logistics and food distribution he had enough power to do so. In theory.

 

Looking at it from a practical standpoint, though, he only had this job because he was good with numbers and organization. So he really was not in the position to provoke a fucking sociopath. Especially one with an advanced ability to manipulate air and who was able to debate himself out of everything due to lack of evidence. Line of sight was enough. Even Mu Qingfang could only declare him dead after a few minutes without oxygen. Yue Qingyuan would probably hand wave the whole thing as a freak accident and everyone would go on with their lives. Some might even be glad to have him out of the way.

 

Nope! He still wanted to live for a few years, apocalypse or not, thank you very much!

 

How long he could stay with thing progressing as they were was still another story. Again, in theory Shang Qinghua was a valuable asset, his ability being in the realm of the wood element with the option to grow edible fruits and vegetables in no time. A constant supply of fresh, healthy food in this wasteland of mutated plants and polluted earth. They should be treating him like a gift from the gods and protect him like the rare treasure he could be!

 

Only… For his powers to work he needed seeds from plants that were not mutated or at least edible. Something that should have been preserved from the start as a precious resource to prevent future food shortages. Easy to find in warehouses or the personal dimensions of space ability users, right? WRONG! There was nothing! Nil! Zilch! People just bitched at him that he should have thought of this himself and how useless he was once again.

 

Not that had been taken by surprise like everybody else when things went south. Being a loner by nature he had almost died a few times in the first couple of days after the power supply died and zombies roamed the streets. Everyone had been panicking and defended themselves without thinking twice. The two scars from the bullet wounds in his shoulders still hurt whenever the weather changed. Liu Qingge had never apologized for those, even after he realized his mistake and brought him into the group.

 

An incident that ultimately saved Shang Qinghua so he did not hold a grudge so much as lamented the inconvenience. If they had not taken him in, nobody in the area would have.

 

It was only half a year after the zombies appeared that flora and fauna started to change. Until then food was not hard to come by and the healing abilities of wood element, when not trained diligently, were far behind the water ability users like Mu Qingfang. Only in the higher levels would he be able to shine as an outstanding support who could even regenerate missing body parts. Something he still was far away from achieving after being neglected from the start when it came to certain resources like zombie nuclei and jade to level up his ability. And when someone was kind enough to share a few scraps with him, they didn’t seem to do anything for his powers. Adding to all of this the fact that he was, quite frankly, a disgusting coward and absolutely useless as a fighter, he could count his lucky stars that anyone was willing to put up with him.

 

At least that was Shen Jiu, Wei Qingwei and half a dozen others held against him at every opportunity. Especially Shen Jiu’s constant barbs and needles hurt a lot, after he had gotten used to friendly words and kind gestures from a person with the same voice and face.

 

He really should have pulled himself together and tagged along when Shen Yuan left with Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge, unwilling to put up with the abuse of Shen Yuan’s insane brother anymore. Being the third wheel didn’t sound so bad compared to a life as a doormat most people wanted to use as disposable meat shield at the right opportunity. Alas, now he was stuck in this place with no desirable option to leave.

 

Shen Yuan and he had never been what one would call friends, but Shang Qinghua missed the kind, young man who had always sported way too many bruises. He had been willing to just talk a bit, graciously putting up with the whining while one or even both of his grouchy bodyguards were nearby to make sure nothing else happened. When it came to the stories Shang Qinghua invented Shen Yuan had even been an appreciative audience. They both had needed this little escapism to keep themselves sane.

 

Shang Qinghua still did, but now there was no one left to listen. The parents in the base did not appreciate him near their children and who could fault them? Everyone else was too busy to pay him more attention than absolutely necessary.

 

He only hoped Shen Yuan, Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge were still alive. Decent people where hard to come by these days and even with their occasional jerk attitudes Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge had cared just as much as Shen Yuan.

 

With a sigh Shang Qinghua  jumped from the small wall, shoving all the depressing thoughts in the back of his mind. Why did the sunset always turn him into an emotional wreck? He needed to pull himself together and do something useful. The inventory lists for the personal dimension needed to be checked again. Some of the space ability users were too opportunistic to be left to their own devices.

 

The fading daylight barely touched the tips of his worn-out shoes when they hit the ground, only to turn into a raging inferno a second later. Ruins, like the rotting teeth in an old person’s mouth, were all that was left of the tidy, well-organized sanctuary he had called home for the last year. Walking corpses shambled around him as his knees buckled, their groans weaving a horrible cacophony with the screams and the sounds of flesh and bones being ripped apart by merciless hands and teeth. The old military base had fallen.

 

Not again!

 

The carnage around him was blurry enough to keep him from outright losing his mind, but when the smell hit he already tasted bile in his throat.

 

Burned wood, charred meat, excrements and the ever present stank of rot ripped through his senses. He could not tell where he found the willpower to not outright vomit and soil himself at the same time. A hand clasped over his quivering lips, he tried to get back on his feet. It wasn’t real. Only another nightmare his mind decided to torment him with. Like the monsters and strange creatures he always dreamed about. It would pass and be just another story he needed to tell or write down to get it out of his head. 

 

Just close your eyes and breathe. Everything is going to be alright.

 

Stumbling forward he imagined the looks he must be getting and the snarky remarks thrown at the next weirdo who finally broke and went nuts. He would have laughed at the image if it were not for the nausea. Neither the smell nor the sounds faded, clawing at the fragile walls that protected his sanity. How strange that human flesh smelled so much like harmless barbeque when cooked…

 

He knew he needed to see and understand the dream for it to go away. He needed to take in and remember everything that was shown to him regardless of how much I he just wanted it to stop. To leave him alone. Even when everything inside him screamed to run away and forget, he would still be forced to watch.

 

Resigning himself to his fate he raised his head, eyes burning from the acrid smoke in the air.

 

His whole body shook like a leaf in the wind and suddenly it was so clear what had happened. The sturdy gates were wide open without any sign of damage. His head spun as he tried to process the picture in front of him. 

 

Who would…?

 

He made a step forward without the intention to do so and his foot bumped into something solid. When he looked down it took him a moment to find the item he had just kicked away. The expression on Ming Fan’s youthful face was one of disbelief and betrayal, the neck separated by a clean cut instead of ripped and bitten.

 

Shang Qinghua felt an odd calm settle over himself, his body losing all tension before the world faded to black. He just wondered why the laughter in his ears sounded so utterly helpless and devastated.

 

----

 

He woke up on the floor of his patient’s room from a ratty designer shoe breaking two of his ribs.

 

His full-blown scream quickly turned into a pathetic whimper when the pain of simply breathing registered in his brain. Curling into himself, he almost blacked out again in the process. The following coughing fit brought him back just enough to make out the snarling voice next to his ear.

 

“And here I thought you were just some pathetic charity case like my stupid brother. Was it fun to play the idiot? How much did you weasel away, rat?!”

 

“What-?” was all Shang Qinghua managed before another kick hit his back. This time not quite hard enough to break bones, but enough to leave an especially painful bruise right above his tailbone. He couldn’t help but whine when a rough hand pulled him upright by his hair.

 

“Don’t you dare play innocent with me!” the voice – Shen Jiu – hissed, emphasizing the words with a painful shake before he threw his victim back to the floor. “The boy already spilled everything. All I want are names and numbers!”

 

Spilled what? What boy? Whose name? Shang Qinghua wanted to ask. He found himself breathless and lightheaded instead.

 

How was he supposed to answer without the ability to breathe?!

 

The struggle to get up – get away and hide - was met with yet another kick. This time it hit his wrist, forcing his nose into an intimate marriage with the floor when his arm gave way. He could already taste coppery liquid on his tongue. He managed a shaky breath, but the carefully reduced atmosphere around him did nothing to lessen the panic.

 

Shang Qinghua was only half aware of the pained groan that escaped him when he met Shen Jiu’s disgusted look with bleary eyes. His lounges almost hyperventilated to make up for the lack of oxygen. The black specs that started to mar his vision weren’t helping things at all! As was the feeling of the ground rolling and churning beneath him.

 

“Who are you working for?” Shen Jiu snapped, kicking his head for good measure.

 

“I don’t know-.“

 

Shang Qinghua wasn’t able to finish the sentence before Shen Jiu hauled him up again, his free fist hitting Shang Qinghua’s temple. The sharp pain mixed with the rest of the injuries, sending his jumbled thoughts again in a spiral of fear and the primal instinct to escape and hide. The words ended in a low whine, his legs twitching from the urge to curl himself into a ball.

 

Shen Jiu made a contemptuous noise. “Disgusting.” After another look he flung his victim to the floor. “I will break every single bone in your body, one by one, if that is what it takes to make you talk.”

 

Knuckles cracked as to emphasize the words.

 

Chapter Text

It would take a long time for Shang Qinghua to learn how many people spoke up for him, after word about Shen Jiu’s actions got out.

 

Mu Qingfang had outright banned the man from entering the infirmary for the foreseeable future, while Qi Qingqi took the initiative to question him in Yue Qingyuan’s presence. However, these actions had only brought ominous silence and none of the expected repercussion for the perpetrator.

 

Some rumors said Shen Jiu tried to murder Ming Fan and Shang Qinghua because they knew too much about his other crimes. Others painted him a hero who tried to prevent an attack on the base. The ones who knew the truth kept quiet for the time being. The only facts known were that Ming Fan still had not woken up after three days in intensive care and Shang Qinghua was too badly injured to answer any questions.

 

And that was true.

 

Shang Qinghua had honestly never been so thankful for the healing powers in his body, yet cursed them for keeping him alive. The pain from hours of torture made the dull ache of his bones mending under Mu Qingfang’s care seem insignificant. At some point he himself had not been sure anymore if he really was innocent. The only thing that had kept him from outright confessing just to make it stop was the fact that he really did not know who was targeting them.

 

Not that Shen Jiu had believed a word he said.

 

At first when had woken up in the hospital bed he had not known if it was really over or if he had been sucked into another of his strange daydreams again. Ning YingYing’s hand on his forehead had been a blessing, shocking him out of the stupor.  The poor nursing student had been so startled by his violent reaction and the following coughing fit. The sedatives Mu Qingfang had resorted to, to give him another few days of rest had been a welcome relief. Shang Qinghua didn’t mind how he had drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to properly think of what had happened.

 

He still could not bear to be touched without prior warning and even then it made him want to shrink away and curl into a ball.

 

He hated his weak self for flinching every time he heard a raised voice. For following every movement with wide, fearful eyes whenever someone entered his room. For not being able to speak or even breath properly as soon as someone’s gaze fell on him, regardless of how much warmth and concern lay in those eyes.

 

Ning Yingying always tried to cheer him up when she brought his meals and asked for stories. It had been Shen Yuan who told her about his hobby and she had always been interested.

 

Telling that she still never found the time to talk to him in over half a year.

 

No, now he was being unfair. There was always too much to do with people getting injured and the effect of the radiation and poison in the air on the normal people. At this point everyone with a brain knew that they could only ease the suffering and maybe give them a few more weeks or months.

 

It was only a matter of time until Shen Jiu would try to also cut off the doomed. At the latest when they were too weak to kick up a fuss.

 

Would he still be here at that time? Somehow Shang Qinghua doubted it. Not that he wanted to anyway.

 

Loud noises in front of his room startled him out of his thoughts. Mu Qingfang, Yue Qingyuan and the voice he never wanted to hear again in his life. He debated trying to eavesdrop, but then the urge to hide won. They might believe he was still asleep and leave him alone if he kept still enough under the blanket.

 

He heard the door open and Mu Qingfang’s angry voice coming closer.

 

“You will not hurt anyone under my care. Shang Qinghua is still injured!”

 

A snort followed. “We just want to ask him a few questions.” Shen Jiu’s voice, arrogant and condescending as always. “But alright, let’s have a nice cup of tea and a discussion with people who want to fucking kill us. You’re still the same naïve idiot, I see.”

 

Shen Jiu and Mu Qingfang were probably staring each other down after that. The anger was almost palpable in the air.

 

Under his blanket Shang Qinghua could not help but shiver. He desperately tried to bite back the pathetic whimper, threatening to make its way out of his throat. His chest felt like there was something slowly pressing down, making it even harder to breathe than the violent pain in his still broken ribs. He did not want to be hurt again!

 

“We need to know what’s missing. Do you want people to starve in a few months?” Yue Qingyuan intervened before things escalated again. He sounded calm, but way too close for comfort as far as Shang Qinghua was concerned.

 

“I don’t believe a word he says,” Mu Qingfang protested. A hand came to rest on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder on top of the blanket. “Ming Fan still has not woken up and it is clear that he almost suffocated. There are no signs of violence on his body, so we all know what that means. Words spoken under torture are not evidence!”

 

“There is evidence of contact to the outside,” Shen Jiu said unfazed.

 

“You still have to present that as well. And incoherent words spoken in one’s sleep are no justifiable reason for violence either.”

 

Yue Qingyuan sighed. “Qingfang,” he tried again. He sounded a bit further away, but the doctor was not done yet.

 

“Even with things as they are there is still something called human rights. If we ignore this fact we are no better than the monster outside our gates,” Mu Qingfang snapped. “Get out.”

 

Someone clicked his tongue, before Shang Qinghua heard the steps of one person move away. The door closed quietly.

 

“I expect civilized conduct.” With this the feeling of the hand vanished and for once Shang Qinghua desperately wished for the touch to return. Right now Mu Qingfang was the only person between him and the threat of more violence.

 

Someone got closer to the bed and he wrapped himself tighter into the blanket.

 

“I need you to answer a few questions, Qinghua. Truthfully,” Yue Qingyuan told him in the deceptively gentle tone he always used.

 

Shang Qinghua had no illusions about the intensity of his gaze at this moment. He was almost tempted to play dead, his fear audible when he made an affirmative noise. The truth would get him nowhere, but it was all he had to offer.

 

“Have you given resources to someone who is not part of this base?” Yue Qingyuan got straight to the point. He was back at the bedside, but at least not touching anything. Still Shang Qinghua needed a bit to gather his thoughts.

 

“Not without permission,” he finally wanted to say, but the words came out as a strained rasp. He was only able to repeat them after a painful coughing fit.

 

To his surprise Yue Qingyuan waited patiently and the next question took a moment to follow up.

 

“Whose permission?”

 

“You, Shen Jiu.” This time it was easier to speak.

 

“Are you working with someone from the outside? Trading information?”

 

“No.”

 

Again no response, the tension in the air too heavy to withstand.

 

Shang Qinghua only wanted to be left alone. He just waited for them to start accusing him of lying again and the first hit to land. With Yue Qingyuan’s enhanced strength it would at least take a shorter time to die.

 

Someone poured liquid into a cup. Probably Mu Qingfang.

 

The pain never came.

 

“How did you know Ming Fan is a traitor?” Yue Qingyuan continued, he started to sound a bit confused which in turn confused Shang Qinghua even more.

 

He wished he could take a deep breath without his own body turning him into a sobbing mess. He settled for a small sigh instead. They would probably label him insane after this.

 

So be it.

 

“I don’t. I just saw him in one of my dreams… His head that is.”

 

“What do you mean by dreams?”

 

The normally so gentle voice turned stern and came closer at the same time. There it was and it made Shang Qinghua shiver and hug the edge of the blanket closer.

 

“Daydreams, visions, I don’t know,” he continued in hope it would not make his situation any worse.

 

It hurt to lay himself bare like that. He had only told Shen Yuan about it and even then just bits and pieces. To acknowledge it as what it was instead of part of his imagination made him feel so much closer to madness, but the words suddenly burst from his mouth like a dam had broken.

 

“I see things. It’s fucking scary. I can’t control it. Sometimes I don’t even know if what I see is real or something that might or might not happen in the future. Everything was on fire with Zombies and people dying all over the place. The base looked like a battlefield, completely blown to bits and… and the gate was just open. Not a scratch. And then there was Ming Fan’s fucking head, chopped off with a blade or something!”

 

Only Shang Qinghua’s ragged breaths disrupted the following silence. He expected them to descend on him like harpies, yelling and jeering until he gave them what they wanted to hear.

 

There was only the rustling of cloths, slow steps and the fragrance of tea after probably Mu Qingfang put the cup on the bedside table. Shang Qinghua was almost tempted to take a peek, but then an unexpected voice said from further away:

 

“Not a single lie.”

 

Wait, when did Meng Yao get here? Had they planned for the psychic to test him from the start?

 

The realization sent a cold shiver through his body and at the same time relief drove the tension out of his muscles. He burrowed his face in the pillow, although the trembling of his body must be all too visible. He could not even muster the strength to be offended at him blatantly reading his thoughts.

 

They knew. They had to believe him now! He was safe!

 

“… mind unstable… needs help…”

 

They few words reached his ears, but did not register until it was too late.

 

A few days later he was sent away to ‘help him with his unknown ability’ and he wished he had died at Shen Jiu’s hands.

 

 

Chapter Text

The plain but fashionable wristwatch showed 01:15 under the faint moonlight.

 

It had been nothing more than decoration, a fashion statement and an almost-relict of the past before everything went to hell. Now Shen Jiu was glad he kept it. With electricity as a rare good the longevity of the battery was invaluable. And with the horrors that came out after sundown it was mandatory to keep track of time in all situations.

 

Right now, though, he wanted to kick his brother’s ass more than when he when he had taught him how to fight back at the base. A-Yuan always half-assed things to the point of being infuriating. He did not even take enough care to evade properly, always looking like he was beaten up by someone, but never as hurt as he seemed to be. If he had managed to get in trouble again-.

 

The sound of twigs breaking and irregular footsteps made him retreat further into the shadow of the ash tree he was waiting under. Another cloud shrouded the moon and it was even harder to make out the person stumbling through the underbrush.

 

Shen Jiu’s ability told him that the other person was breathing and when they stopped not far away the sloppy clothing hiding a slender frame came into view. Since they had parted ways it became more and more embarrassing how little care A-Yuan took of his appearance. The low curse when the person proceeded to shake their foot as if to get something out of their shoe almost provoked a sigh of relief.

 

“You’re late,” Shen Jiu stated impatiently instead, not moving from the trunk he was leaning against, arms crossed in a defensive posture.

 

The other person, his twin, raised his head and Shen Jiu could almost see the little smile that appeared every time he reprimanded his brother. It annoyed him to no end. Prior to their rebirth A-Yuan would have never looked at him like that. When had his useless little brother who aspired to become a teacher of all things started to grow up?

 

It had always been only the two of them after their parent’s death. Qi-Ge had tried to help them at the orphanage against the constant bullying, but after his adoption there had been a few rough years before their uncle found them.

 

The man just took them in because of the inheritance they would receive when they turned eighteen. If Shen Jiu did not snoop in his study he would not have known about it until it had been too late. They would have been kicked out on the streets with nothing but the cloths on their backs, like they have been shoved into a dingy apartment with a joke of an allowance when they were fifteen.

 

He would never regret the accident after he met his uncle’s family by chance a few days into the chaos. Another thing A-Yuan and Qi-Ge would never know. They could not afford dead weight anyway.

 

“I had to shake off Binghe first. He’s becoming stickier by the day,” A-Yuan said after a little sigh.

 

There was another thing that almost drove Shen Jiu to hit him. He scoffed, well aware of the displeasure showing on his face. “You should get rid of this beast already. He is trouble.”

 

Lou Binghe had been a High School sophomore Shen Yuan tutored during college to earn a bit extra. Only a few years later Shen Jiu had found out that the boy was the illegitimate son of a local business tycoon, pushed aside by the legal wife. He had hated the boy’s fake innocent behavior from the start, well aware of the longing expression in his eyes whenever he looked at A-Yuan.

 

At first he had been tempted to drive him out and force his brother to hold the lessons at the boy’s place, but then he relented to let them stay in their apartment. Better to have an eye on things than give the little beast a chance to do something to his awfully naïve brother. Especially after all his warnings fell on deaf ears.

 

The little, innocent sheep would never do something like that. Yeah right! He had been the root of all of their problems and Shen Jiu was still sure Lou Binghe had caused his brother’s death after kidnapping him.

 

Shen Jiu was sure he also had his hands in Qi-Ge’s passing. Another reason to kill him as soon as possible and not let him anywhere near the people Shen Jiu cared for. He had been in half a mind to just shoot him when he appeared in front of them about two months into the apocalypse.

 

It had been too late to keep certain other people out of the group when he had found himself in his past body. But this one he would fight tooth and nail until he left with his tail between his legs or lay a few feet underground.

 

The shock came when A-Yuan decided to leave with him instead of staying at the base.

 

His reason was to gather information on the outside. All things considered it was the best choice, even when everything inside of Shen Jiu screamed to keep the two of them apart. He would settle this account after they prevented the attack that devastated his life the last time around.

 

“Binghe is treating me well and Qingge also has an eye on things,” A-Yuan tried to placate him.

 

There was another unnecessary nuisance grinding his gears from second one. Shen Jiu snorted. “That brute isn’t any better. I still don’t understand why you had to save this useless muscle head. He-.”

 

“-is a valuable companion who saved my life at least four times in the last year,” A-Yuan completed the sentence. Shen Jiu could see him shaking his head. “They are not half as bad as you think, Ge. Really.”

 

They had been through this discussion way too many times without coming to an understanding. At the right time A-Yuan would understand how wrong he was about all of this and until then Shen Jiu could hope for the brainless ex-cop to keep his brother alive and Luo Binghe from doing too much harm to all of them.

 

“Shang Qinghua is gone,” he decided to shift the topic to something more important.

 

The way A-Yuan started and then tried to hide his expression told him he struck a nerve, but A-Yuan’s voice still sounded calm and firm when he asked, “What happened?”

 

“Qi-Ge decided to send him to the Research Center in B City a week ago. Meng Yao persuaded him. Something about an ability he cannot control.”

 

This one had been a miscalculation he now knew. But that was what you got for keeping important information to yourself. If he had known about the visions, he would have handled things differently. No wonder Shang Qinghua survived the attack and was nervous all the time when he knew what would happen. The stupid brat should just have opened his mouth sooner!

 

Thankfully A-Yuan latched onto the other piece of information instead of asking more about the unfortunate kid.

 

“Meng Yao? I thought he left half a year ago.”

 

“He said he went to look for his mother,” Shen Jiu explained with barely hidden disdain. “She is apparently dead and he decided to come back and… help. Qi-Ge believes him, so there is no getting rid of him. First thing he did was reading people’s minds, of course.”

 

A-Yuan cursed and Shen Jiu was relieved that at least their mutual hate for the telepath was still the same. The psychic ability user had been a headache and a half from the start, trying to probe information from everybody and them especially. They both remembered how Meng Yao had suddenly disappeared right before the attack took place and never surfaced again after that.

 

“That happened last time, too, right?” A-Yuan asked and Shen Jiu nodded.

 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “It will be hard to do something about him. He just disappeared in the attack and never surfaced again.”

 

“Need me to come back and help?”

 

The audible concern would have touched another person, but Shen Jiu bristled instead.

 

“Fuck off. If I see you anywhere near Cang Qiong base I kick you out personally,” he snapped. “I have things under control. You go play with your two idiots.”

 

“Three,” A-Yuan correct with a sigh. It looked like he wanted to say more and thought better of it. “Take care, Ge. I’ll do something about Qinghua,” he just promised.

 

The following awkward hug startled Shen Jiu, though he returned it anyway.

 

Halfheartedly he shooed A-Yuan away. “In two months at Jinlan and don’t be late again.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Mobei Jun had never been a bloodthirsty person. Even in computer games he preferred to be efficient and precise, always keeping a cool head on his shoulders. He never understood the carnage other people relished in or the need to make their enemies suffer. Until now.

 

When Shen Yuan came back to camp he had been in a near frenzy that even showed through his usual poker face. Something about a friend being in trouble. Shang Qinghua. Mobei Jun had heard the name before from all three of them in the few months he had been part of their team. It mostly came up with knowledge about monsters and dangerous areas they encountered for the first time. Lifesaving knowledge. They were sure about this person possessing some kind of clairvoyance ability and from all Mobei Jun had seen, he had to agree.

 

Shen Yuan’s plan had been to waltz right in there, fetch their friend, get every captive out that was still able to walk and blow the whole laboratory to kingdom come. The veto had come quickly from the other two. The military held their hand over the research center and Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge did not want to risk any part of the team falling into their hands.

 

The debate on how to save Shang Qinghua without being caught by the tight security had lasted long into the night. In the end Mobei Jun had volunteered to sneak inside and see what he could do. His space ability would at least allow a quick exit via teleportation if needed and to bring some nasty surprises in his personal dimension. He wasn’t one to risk his life without a good reason and if push came to shove he knew how to cut his losses.

 

Right now, though, he regretted not coming to this place sooner.

 

He had encountered several research subjects since he entered the building, all named with numbers and a few letters. Never full names on the display or the records left on some desks. It were children, teens, old and even disabled people, both physically and mentally. People who were not able to protect themselves or survive on their own out there and all of them too far gone to form a coherent sentence, let alone stand on their own two legs.

 

The slogan was exploration of special abilities for the future and betterment of mankind. Yeah right!

 

The first so-called scientist who crossed his path found himself with his lips frozen together and pushed into a closet.

 

Originally Mobei Jun had only planned to immobilize the personnel. However, after what he had already seen this changed and the ice that was meant to lock wrists together and feet to the ground got cold enough to kill tissue in an agonizing rate. The blocks that encased both calves crept up all the way to the hip for good measure. Not enough to kill yet, but enough to give a thorough taste of their own medicine.

 

When he entered the next room he paused. It was an observation room with two glass cells on the back wall. In the left one sat a boy with bandages around his neck, wrists and ankles. He stared at Mobei Jun with big, dark eyes and said something swallowed by the soundproofing of his cage. The right cell held another boy, curled up on the ground. From his angle Mobei Jun could see the bandages around his head that covered one of his eyes. Both of them did not look older than ten, maybe even younger.

 

But the most disturbing thing in the room was the strange sword next to the second boy’s cage, a grey eye embedded right under the hilt. Mobei Jun could have sworn it moved and even blinked at him.

 

Suppressing a shiver he took a look at the consoles in the middle of the room.

 

Subject 817-XL.

 

Subject 808-HC.

 

Subject 000-EM.

 

Again with the numbers, as if refusing to use names would somehow make their actions less vile and depraved.

 

With a keycard stolen from one of the sick assholes along the way he opened the cells. The children did not look aggressive and he would be damned if he left one person in this place who was still sane.

 

A hiss filled the air when the glass screens unsealed themselves and slid to the side. The boy on the ground just pulled his knees closer to his chest while the other one shrank back with a weary look.

 

“Who are you? You’re not a doctor,” he repeated his words. The small voice sounded so utterly exhausted and full of fear.

 

Mobei Jun fought the urge to frown as he slowly approached the cells. Being a man at the 6’5 mark, he was intimidating enough at a distance and his naturally cold expression tended to make most people around him uneasy. He decided to stay outside to not scare the children more than necessary. “You’re right. I’m here to get you out.”

 

The big brown eyes seemed to grow even bigger at that and not in fear this time. “Really?” the boy asked hesitantly.

 

Meanwhile, the other one eyed him through the glass with thinly vailed hostility.

 

Mobei Jun nodded with a straight face. “Really.”

 

After that he moved to bring the sword into the right cell. It was an impulse decision, but it just felt right. To his surprise the boy all but ripped the blade out of his hands when he was about to put it on the ground next to him. The one-eyed glare was more cute than threatening. He still decided to back off for the moment.

 

Pulling some prepacked sandwiches and two apples out of his dimension and putting them in front of the cells, he turned to leave. The boys where already huddled together, the one-eyed one safely tucked into his friend’s arms.

 

“Hey!” A high, hoarse voice called after him before he reached the door. There was a slight hint of panic in the words. “Where are you going?”

 

“Still need to find someone. Wait here.”

 

Without looking back Mobei Jun stepped into the hallway and froze the lock behind him before following the corridor further inside.

 

What he found was more of the same. Babbling, incoherent voices, anguished screams and blank looks. Only when he found the staff’s sleeping quarters did his ever-present scowl change into something more vicious. Doors and windows frozen shut he let the temperature drop to a point that surely would wake the inhabitants. He wanted them to squirm while their time ran out.

 

A few minutes later he was lucky to run into someone useful on the stairs. Not only did he finally know where to find his target, he could also drag the half frozen man along for fingerprints and retina scans.

 

The basement was like a high security prison for the most valuable test subjects. At this time it had only one occupant, the others already dead or brainwashed into military puppets.

 

The doors to the big, white room opened silently. Mobei Jun decided not to pay the devices near the walls any attention for now and walked straight to the bed in the middle. Restraints one would expect in closed wards of a mental institution held a rather small person in place, the pale face illuminated by the constant glare of the big lamp above.

 

At first glance, Shang Qinghua seemed surprisingly young. Eighteen, maybe twenty years old. It was hard to say with the dark circles under his eyes and the blank expression. The thin, almost fragile body looked like instant food and long nights in front of a computer screen. The messy black hair was in desperate need of a wash.

 

Mobei Jun gave him an hour if left alone in the wild. And that was him being generous. But, it made the fact that the young man had managed to survive this long all the more intriguing.

 

When he was next to the bed Mobei Jun looked into the dark, round pupils, blown so wide that it was almost impossible to distinguish the dark grey iris around them. Shang Qinghua blinked at him slowly, his reactions sluggish, gaze unfocussed. Probably pumped full of all kinds of drugs. At least he didn’t look heavy.

 

With these thoughts Mobei Jun got rid of the leather binds and lifted the blanket.

 

Hospital gown. Great.

 

Some sweatpants and a hoody appeared on the bed. They were too big, but better than nothing for the time being. He doubted the youth would appreciate involuntary mooning everyone they met. Not to mention that Mobei Jun would never hear the end of it if he caught a cold right after being rescued.

 

The cloth situation out of the way he proceeded to littler the basement with explosives, like he had done on the floor above. He set the timers to twenty minutes and thanked the gods again for lightning users like Luo Binghe. This would have been a bitch to manage with traditional fuses.

 

Another look around and he decided to add some of the equipment to the physical records and drugs he had collected on the way. If the people in the base knew that he carried a warehouse full of random items and supplies in the back of his head they would probably pester him all day long. Even his team had no knowledge about the full extent of his powers and for the time being he preferred it to stay that way.

 

The dimension would be more convenient if it could hold living beings, though. With the youth like this things could get really ugly if he ran into a fight.

 

One last glare at the terrified ice block on the floor and he picked up his target in a princess carry. At first Mobei Jun had just wanted to throw him over his shoulder, but some strange notion led to a lot more care. He even wrapped him in the blanket for good measure. From the looks of it, this one had endured enough rough treatment for a lifetime.

 

Eleven minutes.

 

Mobei Jun closed his eyes and pictured the room with the two children. A strange tugging in his gut before a gasp told him he had the right place.

 

Both children looked at him in awe, mouths agape. He paid more attention to the empty wrapping and the apple cores on the floor. The latter found their way back into his storage. They would never rot in there and now they had someone who could use all the seeds he had randomly picked up in the last one and a half years.

 

That was, if the youth was still sane after his ordeal. Power growth could always be accommodated.

 

Ten minutes.

 

“We’re leaving,” he told the boys.

 

To his annoyance both just sat there and still stared at him. They had their backs pressed to the wall the sword held protectively in front of them. It was obvious that the one-eyed one would retaliate if he came closer.

 

He suppressed an annoyed groan. “Come here.”

 

This seemed to wake them up and they at least got to their feet.

 

The one-eyed boy leaned heavily on the sword. There was fresh blood on the bandages. “Why should we trust you?” he demanded, eying Mobei Jun warily.

 

Nine minutes.

 

“Nobody is forcing you. You can damn well explode with this building for all I care.” The words were more callous than he meant them to be, his expression deceptively cold and intimidating as always.

 

They were running out of time, for fuck’s sake! Cut the crap already!

 

Thankfully, the boys came closer. Still at a snail’s pace, but all four of them would never fit into the cell.

 

Six minutes.

 

“Hold onto my cloths,” Mobei Jun commanded. A few seconds later they stood in the dark outside the fence. This would be a close call.

 

As fast as possible he pulled his car out. The children again got googly eyes when the modified Hummer appeared next to them without warning.  He just ignored them to put Shang Qinghua into the passenger seat.

 

“Get in there!” he growled, herding them onto the backseat. Only then did he finally get into the driver seat himself. A look in the rearview mirror and he was ready to hit them. “Seatbelts!”

 

Three minutes.

 

This time there was no discussion. Right after he heard the second click he stepped on the gas. The tires left a cloud of dust and small stones behind them and the uneven ground gave the shock absorbers a workout. Mobei Jun did not care.

 

One minute.

 

The complex shrank rapidly behind them, there was no sound of gunfire or cars and he allowed himself a deep breath.

 

Nobody had seen them. They had a good head start away from the road. With all flying vehicles out of the way he just needed to avoid control points. And even those would be hard to manage with ability user fancying themselves as bandits and mutated beasts popping up everywhere.

 

The sound of the explosion was still almost deafening. Tremors shook the earth and for a moment it was hard to keep control over the car.

 

After a quick look at the column of fire in the distance there was the hint of a smile on his face.

 

 

Chapter Text

Realization hit a few hours later when he parked at the roadside to refill the tank. He had made himself a goddamn mass murderer!

 

Mobei Jun had no idea how many people he blew up with the building, let alone the military barracks outside. Most of them never saw it coming and he still wondered how nobody discovered the half-baked manipulation of the security system.

 

The most disturbing thing was, however, that he cared more about the strange absence of pursuit than the proverbial blood on his hands. Even the memory of some of the faces only left him with a slightly bad taste in his mouth. It did not feel like he had committed an unforgivable crime. More like a mercy killing and very satisfying revenge. Something that was, quite frankly, all too common with the world in its current state.

 

Those who were too kind found themselves taken advantage of, trampled on and more often than not dead at the hands of one thug or another. In the end humanity really was a race of savages as soon as the rules were not enforced anymore.

 

Mobei Jun looked through the window at the two children curled up on the backseat. They had fallen asleep in the early morning hours after staring at the sunrise like they could not believe they were able to see daylight again. He still had not asked them for their names.

 

Shang Qinghua was more cause for concern. Shortly after the explosion his breath had evened out and Mobei Jun was relieved to see him sleep without nightmares. He just dreaded the possibility of a mental breakdown when the drugs wore off. A look at the medical records was probably in order, now that he got some time on his hands. Perhaps, the knowledge about what actually happened could help him to avoid the worst case scenario. Knocking Shang Qinghua out again would only postpone the problem and cause more harm than good. And if they potentially had to work with each other later on, violence really was not an option.

 

Half an hour later he heard a groan from the passenger seat and put away the stack of paper in his hands. Most of the academese went over his head anyway. When he looked over he met a pair of big, grey eyes that watched him with visible confusion. Shang Qinghua seemed alert and there was no sign of a freak-out. Promising.

 

A bottle of soymilk and a bowl of congee appeared in Mobei Jun’s hands after a second. He held them under the other’s nose.

 

“Breakfast,” he explained. In the back of his mind he could hear Luo Binghe cursing him for abducting part of his favorite tableware again. Not that there were more than enough options to replace it. He had done it countless times without anyone noticing.

 

Shang Qinghua’s slim eyebrows shot up. He blinked a few times before he took the offered items with a quiet ‘Thank you’ Mobei Jun almost did not catch. The voice sounded so hoarse that Mobei Jun asked himself how much screaming had been involved in exploring this particular set of abilities. Outwardly he simply nodded, watching Shang Qinghua put the warm bowl in his lap. The small hands were shaking so bad that he calmly took the bottle back after a few moments.

 

He saw Shang Qinghua flinch, but only opened the lid to give it back.

 

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, noting that the youth avoided eye contact just as much as being touched.

 

Shang Qinghua’s eyes widened for a second and another ‘Thank you’ followed. This time less terrified and more embarrassed. When he began to drink the milk in small sips, Mobei Jun took a look in the rearview mirror.

 

The one-eyed glare he received had notably less intensity this time, though it could be due to the messy hair and the sleepy expression.

 

A sneeze from the other side of the backseat startled Shang Qinghua so much that he dropped the bottle into his congee with a squawk.

 

Somehow this started to feel more like looking after a bunch of stray kittens. So, no sudden movements and no letting them outside the car…

 

“I need to go to the bathroom,” the two-eyed boy said. Perfect. He really needed to get their names.

 

---

 

After a bit of fresh air and time to stretch their legs for everyone, Mobei Jun got the two children back into the car. Shang Qinghua had been content to stay seated, still looking a bit dazed. But he visibly perked up when Mobei Jun mentioned Shen Yuan.

 

He had learned that the boys were called Hua Cheng and Xie Lian. They used San Lang and Gege when talking to each other though. They did not look like brothers. He decided not to ask for the reason behind that.

 

Xie Lian turned out to be a little ray of sunshine, even getting Shang Qinghua to relax a bit. But the hoodlum that was Hua Cheng had demanded all of his attention again after a few minutes.

 

He was all sweet and smiles when it came to Xie Lian, his behavior around other people on the other hand would have thoroughly tempted the old housekeeper Mobei Jun’s parents employed to wash his mouth out with soap. Blunt honesty with a heavy dose of snark and a thick layer of sarcasm.

 

The frustrating thing was that Mobei Jun still did not know anything about their abilities or backgrounds. The only file he had found was an unreadable mess. Probably encrypted.

 

He also had to find more information about the sword. The eye was definitely alive and watching him and he was not having any more of this without a proper explanation!

 

After a glare at the curved blade he started the car to follow the road in a moderate speed. There was still no sign of pursuit, military or otherwise, and he really started to relax a bit when the first buildings of a village came into view. But then he saw Shang Qinghua freeze in terror.

 

The paragraph about an increased frequency of visions fresh in his mind Mobei Jun stopped again to look at him. “What?” he asked, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice.

 

At a closer look he recognized the slight tremble and vacant eyes. No answer then. This could probably take a while, so he decided to wait and see.

 

“Has he finally lost his marbles?” Hua Cheng asked from the backseat, followed by a mumbled “San Lang” from Xie Lian. “I was just asking, Gege.”

 

Mobei Jun ignored them to focus on the youth next to him instead. For all he knew, Shang Qinghua might hurt himself or choke on his own tongue unsupervised. He growing increasingly pale was worrying enough.

 

Fortunately, it only took a few minutes for Shang Qinghua to gasp for air as if he just emerged from deep water. The whispers from the backseat stopped and all of them waited for him to get his bearings.

 

Mobei Jun was almost tempted to touch his shoulder when the big eyes suddenly stared at him.

 

“Not that way,” the youth said with a shaky voice, his fear palpable. “Dogs. Wolves. I don’t know what they are, but… no. Just no.”

 

Mobei Jun studied him for a moment and after a nod he turned the car around. The other route would only take an hour longer. Better safe than sorry, especially when it came to more than one mutated beast. Most of the smaller ones were easy to kill when there was only one, but a whole pack was a whole other matter and he had exhausted his power more than necessary last night.

 

With a grateful look Shang Qinghua leaned back in his seat to close his eyes to rest. He appeared completely drained.

 

Behind them Hua Cheng seemed ready for another snarky remark when a polyphonic howl came from the direction of the village. The sound was so eerie and unnatural that even this feisty boy could not help but glance out the back window with apprehension.

 

“How did he know that?” Xie Lian asked, shoulders hunched.

 

Mobei Jun just drove a bit faster. “He sees things. Dangers in the future.” When he looked over, the skinny young man had already fallen asleep.

 

“The sister at the orphanage said that all fortunetellers are frauds,” Hua Cheng chimed in without taking his eyes from the road behind them. He was now kneeling on the seat and didn’t seem to notice Mobei Jun scowling at his back. His bare feet bobbed to an unknown rhythm. Only the sword gave Mobei Jun an innocent wink.

 

“Clairvoyance. Not fortunetelling,” he corrected the boy, irritation only showing in his cold, blue eyes. “Sit down.”

 

At first it seemed like Hua Cheng wanted to ignore him, but then he turned around and properly put the seatbelt back on. “Same difference,” the boy responded, only to have his head snap up when another howl came from the direction of the village. It sounded further away this time.

 

Meanwhile Mobei Jun pondered over slamming the brakes if the boy decided to endanger himself again. He had seen the eye-roll and some people just learned better from experience than talk.

 

With the sweltering heat around them he really had no patience for any shenanigans. Especially when he could not risk to exhaust his powers in case of unavoidable trouble. He felt like his body and everything around him was slowly melting.

 

Since the meteoroids had hit the planet and spread this cursed virus the temperature during the warm months had been continually rising until only two seasons without proper transition remained. 30 degrees Celsius were almost counted as cool at this time of the year now and scientist already were sure it would end in draughts and famine everywhere when things continued like this.

 

Many people still preferred the scorching summer to their first merciless winter a few months ago, when the snow piled meters high and the cold turn even minutes away from a proper heat source into a deadly gamble. Mobei Jun was not one of these people.

 

At least the road stayed empty for the next few hours and if there were any inhabitants in the villages they passed, they seemed to keep to themselves instead of practicing wayside robbery. The lack of undead after enough time to clear out the area was not surprising either.

 

The most reliable sign for an uneventful journey appeared to be Shang Qinghua sleeping peacefully through the heat. The two boys also caught up on much needed rest and between two toilet breaks and lunch on the road there was mostly silence in the car.

 

When they finally reached the small gas station it was almost dusk, accompanied by the most welcome drop in temperature outside.

 

Mobei Jun already spotted Liu Qingge’s broad figure behind the truck next to a gas pump and just parked on the other side. The other man seemed apprehensive at first, but when Mobei Jun left the car he nodded.

 

“Shizun!” the whiny, pathetic voice Luo Binghe reserved sorely for Shen Yuan sounded from the parking lot. Mobei Jun refused to speculate about the origin of this behavior. He just watched the two figures come closer.

 

A broad-shouldered man with unruly, dark curls following a slender, only slightly shorter one.

 

As always, Shen Yuan fiddled with a beautifully decorated folding fan. It clashed with the simple T-shirt and jeans he was wearing and even more with the worn-out sneakers on his feet, but it was a better choice than wasting electricity on something more modern to cool down.

 

Mobei Jun, in the meantime, had rounded the car to help the still half-asleep Shang Qinghua on his feet only to feel him go rigid as soon as Shen Yuan greeted them. Slowly, as if facing a horrible monster that was able to rip him apart at the slightest wrong move, Shang Qinghua turned his head. Mobei Jun could hear the labored breath and feel cold sweat on the youth’s skin.

 

The two approaching men halted.

 

“What’s wrong?” Shen Yuan asked coming closer at a faster pace and without warning Shang Qinghua slumped against Mobei Jun’s chest, boneless like a ragdoll.

 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan found it increasingly difficult to keep his facial muscles under control. He was reading through the diagnostic of Shang Qinghua’s state when he was brought to the research center.

 

Three broken ribs, a broken nose, a fractured wrist, signs of a concussion. The list went on and on. All older injuries with an impressive healing rate.

 

The psychological report mentioned severe panic attacks, insomnia and other signs of trauma.

 

Taking the fact into account that he fainted after only a glimpse of Shen Yuan’s face, the conclusion was obvious and it made him feel violently sick.

 

“What the fuck?” he murmured, eyes still glued on the condemning passages.

 

After a glance at the pale figure on the camping mat next to him he closed his eyes. It was a bad idea to be the first person he saw when he woke up. Maybe he should switch with Liu Qingge, since they dropped the two children on him of all people. But Shang Qinghua had always been terrified of him and who could blame him after being shot at their first meeting.

 

Binghe was just as bad. His glares had been the second cause of nervous behavior whenever he had chatted with Qinghua in the past and Mobei Jun needed his own rest after the last two days.

 

How the man with the literal resting murder face had managed to have two children and a traumatized teen sleep peacefully in the same car was still a mystery to Shen Yuan.

 

All in all, the situation was less than suboptimal, but someone needed to watch over Shang Qinghua. The report mentioned that he was prone to hurt himself during visions. No wonder there were always scratches and bruises when Shen Yuan chatted with him in the past.

 

They should have just taken the kid with them when they left, but now he was sure it was still the first reincarnation for his brother. If Shen Jiu remembered anything he would have never laid hands on Shang Qinghua of all people or allowed things to progress as far as they did. Shen Yuan could only hope that his brother was not too far gone to save anyone in his current state.

 

It was exhausting not to know what exactly happened the first time around to make his brother this frantic and ruthless in his attempt to save the people he loved. After the explosion they had been separated, both thinking the other one was probably dead. When Shen Yuan had found out that his brother was still alive and in danger he had rushed to help him only to get himself caught and dissected like a lab rat.

 

The second time Shen Yuan had avoided the research center and everything that involved the army like the plague, but had still been naïve enough to follow his brother’s plans and stick to him as the only person to trust.

 

Everything had been an even bigger disaster. Liu Qingge died a bit later, Mu Qingfang, Shang Qinghua and all other people with healing or useful passive abilities vanished one by one and everything turned into an unreasonable witch hunt after Qi-Ge’s death, ending with Shen Jiu and Luo Binghe at each other’s throats.

 

Granted, there had been no explosion and no zombie attack on the base, but the destruction only turned more subtle. Their home was still gone and they were none the wiser about their real enemies.

 

Even his second death came out of nowhere, leaving Shen Yuan with more questions than answers. Not to mention the knowledge that the visions would drive Shang Qinghua completely insane over time.

 

He now realized the warnings for what they were, but he still had no idea how to keep him from regressing to the point where Shang Qinghua became a sobbing, giggling mess. And traumatizing him to the point where he fainted from just seeing Shen Yuan’s face was not helping GODDAMNIT, GE!

 

“You have no idea what you did wrong, huh?” he murmured, looking at the pale face.

 

At this point he had saved Luo Binghe from becoming a scapegoat, Liu Qingge from dying in a car crash he still refused to acknowledge as an accident and Hua Huan base was willing to listen to requests for help from Cang Qiong base within reason. So, there also had to be a way to keep Shang Qinghua from losing his mind.

 

Something that sounded suspiciously like ‘hamburger’ reached Shen Yuan’s ears and out of habit he hid his amused smile behind his fan. Shortly after, Shang Qinghua’s lashes began to tremble accompanied by a groan.

 

He retreated a bit to the open tent flap, letting cool air inside. For a moment it almost seemed like Shang Qinghua would continue sleeping, but when he rolled onto his side his eyes opened.

 

Face still half hidden behind his fan Shen Yuan observed how the reaction changed from sleepy and dazed to terrified within seconds. Yes, strangling his brother sounded more and more like a very valid idea. But first he had to keep Shang Qinghua from hyperventilating himself into a full blown panic attack.

 

“Long time no see,” he blurted out and wanted to kick himself not a second later. Way to sound like some third-rate movie villain.

 

He did not know the first thing about psychology! How was he supposed to handle this shit?!

 

Shang Qinghua still staring at him like he was some kind of monster did not make things better. He had not moved an inch and looked, in fact, ready to faint again.

 

Fuck!

 

Shen Yuan decided on tactical retreat and he bolted from the tent with the words: “You must be thirsty. I’ll get you something to drink.”

 

The cold night helped to clear his head a little. After a deep breath he closed the windbreaker jacket and made his way over to the cars. They had already looted the small gas station shop and found a surprising amount of still drinkable beverages as well as an abundance of sweet and salty snacks in midst of the rotten smell of spoiled, once frozen food.

 

Maybe some soda and a chocolate bar could help the situation.

 

Judging from the picture next to the campfire Binghe had started in the evening, Liu Qingge had already bought himself into the good graces of the boys with wine gummies and a bag of chips.

 

He found Binghe on the roof of one of Mobei Jun’s cars. Before they met him the three of them had to make due with Shen Yuan’s decrepit SUV which rested in pieces by now after being torn apart by some mutated beast. He still missed that car. After Mobei Jun somehow procured two bulletproof off-road vehicles the pain had dulled quite a bit, though.

 

Shen Yuan still could not make sense of the man, but convenient was one of the best ways to describe having him around.

 

“How is it?” Binghe’s voice pulled him out of his musing, his expression hard to distinguish in the dark. Shen Yuan was still sure of the warmth in the dark eyes that followed his every move.

 

He shook his head and opened the tailgate of the car before answering, “Bad. Whatever Ge did, he went way too far.”

 

The following snort betrayed Binghe’s thoughts on the matter, but thankfully he kept them to himself. Not that Shen Yuan could fault him for the mutual feeling of dislike at this point. His brother and his boyfriends would probably never see eye to eye.

 

“Would Shizun like some help?” Binghe instead ask instead, provoking an exasperated look at the innocent coke bottles.

 

Shen Yuan grabbed two of them and a few chocolate bars. “When will you stop calling me that?” he griped as a big hand closed the car for him, the broad body warm and way too close behind him.

 

Binghe leaned even closer until his soft lips almost touched Shen Yuan’s ear. “Never.” The silky, deep voice sent shivers down Shen Yuan’s spine.

 

What are you trying to do here, Binghe? We are out in the open!

 

“Shameless.” Lacking a free hand Shen Yuan resorted to lightly tapping Binghe’s forehead with a chocolate bar. He was thankful for the darkness around them because from all he could tell his face must be burning scarlet.

 

Binghe retreated after gently biting his earlobe and Shen Yuan was ready to scold him when he heard his next words: “What if he doesn’t come around?”

 

“He will,” Shen Yuan simply answered without looking at his boyfriend. To his surprise, he sounded way more confident than he really felt. “Mobei Jun said he was calm and responsive. He just needs time.”

 

The hum did not sound quite convinced and it came as no surprise that Binghe decided to tag along. Guarding the cars was unnecessary in the first place. They had cleaned out the area during the day and nobody was insane enough to travel the woodlands by foot, so other people would be most likely heard before they were seen.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want me to help?” Binghe asked again, hands in his pockets.

 

Shen Yuan still remembered the slim, shy sixteen-year-old, half a head shorter than himself. A cute little lamb hanging on every word he said. Seeing the huge, broad-shouldered man with the charismatic, cunning smile had almost given him whiplash when they met again after five years of sporadic internet contact.

 

Even now in his third lifetime it was hard to come to terms with the loss of his cute, innocent student. Not that this Binghe was not extremely attractive – and he had always thought of himself as arrow straight before the chaos came for them – but sometimes he longed for the simple time when the biggest problem for the two of them was math homework.

 

“I’m fine,” he answered and stopped in front of the tent flap. Now how to crouch down and move this thing without looking like an idiot?

 

Binghe simply reached past him and solved the problem with an amused look.

 

At least Qinghua was still inside, the sleeping bag half open around him. Shen Yuan could see him tense up within the fraction of a second, face still deathly pale.

 

Well, shit.

 

He still tried to figure out how to make the situation less terrible when Qinghua’s eyes moved to something behind him and then back to his face.

 

“A-Yuan?”

 

“Un.”

 

Inwardly berating himself for acting like an idiot he almost missed how Qinghua’s shoulders sagged, the relief obvious on his face. The tears were even more unexpected. To his horror Shang Qinghua burrowed his face in his hands and just started sobbing.

 

Why did people always decide to cry in his company? Both his lovers even did it occasionally in bed, but that was not the point here!

 

Binghe took his hand back and the tent flap dropped back in place, giving Shen Yuan a chance to pull himself together. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a second. Binghe’s arms around him with his head on Shen Yuan’s shoulder were a welcome comfort.

 

“You were right,” Binghe simply said and pressed a kiss on his jaw before Shen Yuan had a chance to reply.

 

 

Chapter Text

Half an hour later both of them had calmed down to a reasonable degree. Qinghua was still sniffling a bit from time to time and flinched at every sudden movement, but the chocolate bar he was nibbling on seemed to help things a lot. The attempt to hug him had resulted in him attempting to merge with the flysheet, though.

 

“What exactly happened?” Shen Yuan asked, not only to breach the awkward silence that followed. It still hurt him to see his friend like that.

 

Qinghua drooped a bit and began to fiddle with the zipper of the sleeping bag. “I have no fucking clue, bro. One moment I had one of my weird things and the next…“ The following shudder was more telling than words. The poor guy looked ready to cry again.

 

“And the center?” Shen Yuan probed carefully his hand already on his fan again.

 

Qinghua shrunk even further into himself. “Can we not talk about that?”

 

He somehow reminded Shen Yuan of a frightened hamster with both of his hands around the paper wrapping. A hamster in urgent need of a bath, to be honest. And fitting cloths, but for the moment Qinghua seemed content to hide under the hood of his sweater and avoid looking into Shen Yuan’s eyes as much as possible.

 

He allowed himself a sigh. “Okay, but you know you can talk to me.”

 

For the first time since he re-entered the tent, Qinghua deliberately looked at him, even if it was only from the corner of his eye. A nod followed. “I… just want to sleep right now,” he then said and lay down on the sleeping mat again, his back turned.

 

“Okay. Goodnight, Qinghua.” Shen Yuan looked him over once more and left the tent, closing the flap behind him.

 

At the campfire he found Binghe preparing some smores and chatting with one of the two boys, Xie Lian, if Shen Yuan remembered correctly. The child seemed very interested in Binghe’s cooking skills. Liu Qingge sat on the side with a bottle of water in his hand, keeping an eye on Hua Cheng who seemed ready to drop at any moment.

 

The kids were again two wildcards and not for the first time Shen Yuan pondered the question how far he would come with playing things by ear like that. As nice as it was to change people’s lives and prevent horrible fates by accident, without more knowledge about what was going on in the grander scheme of things he could still end up with another clusterfuck at any moment.

 

He knew the remaining officials in every last one of the big cities were trying everything to keep as much power as they could. The capital probably resembled a lion’s den and ability users were recruited everywhere for one cause or another. So, them attacking independent bases was only a matter of time. But he had the ominous feeling that there was more to it. Something he could not put his finger on, nagging in the back of his mind.

 

When he sat down on an upside down bucket next to Liu Qingge, tapping the side of his closed fan against his lips, he was still so lost in thought that he almost missed the inquiring look.

 

“It’s alright,” he answered mechanically, eyes on the fire.

 

Of course Liu Qingge turned even more skeptical at that. “Shang Qinghua?” he asked with slightly raised brows.

 

Shen Yuan shook his head. “Asleep. I was just thinking about what to do in the future. We need to become stronger.”

 

Liu Qingge gave an affirmative hum. “More monster hunting then?”

 

“Yes, but what about Qinghua? He’s not a fighter and in his state all of this might be too much.”

 

“He can stay at the base.”

 

Shen Yuan cringed inwardly and gave Liu Qingge a pointed look. “We’ve seen how that works out.” He could not keep the barb out of his voice, but Liu Qingge just shrugged.

 

“Then we take him with us. The cars are safe.”

 

Pragmatic as always. But it was still a better option than leaving him alone again.

 

“He can be our early-warning system and medic,” Binghe chimed in with a shameless grin. “Just needs to hide and play dead when things turn ugly. And he needs to train his wood ability anyway.”

 

That actually sounded like a good idea. Shen Yuan nodded. “I will ask him tomorrow.”

 

“And what about San Lang and me?” Xie Lian suddenly asked, mouth smeared with the remains of his treat. There was even a bit of marshmallow on the tip of his nose.

 

Shen Yuan felt the sudden urge to hug and protect this child with his life. He reached out to pat the boy’s head with a yielding smile. “You will stay at Hua Huan base. The people there are really nice and I’m sure we will find someone to take care of you.”

 

When he noticed the obvious looks from both sides, he was tempted to roll his eyes. Seriously? Vinegar pot one and two because he was petting a child? How far gone were these two?!

 

In moments like this he was actually glad that there was no possibility of one of them giving birth. A child of either one of them would probably be the death of their relationship or spoiled so rotten that it became a disaster in itself. Not that the possibility of surviving a pregnancy was very high in the first place.

 

“You should go to bed. Tomorrow will be a long day,” he declared after clearing his throat and took Xie Lian’s hand.

 

Hua Cheng did not even react when he picked him up with his free arm to bring them into the tent Shang Qinghua was sleeping in. Xie Lian just followed without complaint, after wishing Binghe and Liu Qingge Good Night.

 

---

 

The next morning was dark, with a heavy, grey layer of clouds in the sky.

 

It was around seven when Shen Yuan decided to leave the tent, but the humid air already hit him like a brick wall. He joined Mobei Jun and Luo Binghe at the fire. The latter already prepared breakfast, despite keeping watch the whole night.

 

“Good morning, Shizun,” Binghe greeted with a way too bright smile. How was he able to look so radiant when Shen Yuan himself was ready to crawl back into his sleeping bag after a bite to eat and nap for a few more hours?

 

Shen Yuan managed something akin to a greeting, though it sounded more like a grunt.

 

Mobei Jun just handed him a much appreciated cup of coffee with a nod.

 

After a few sips Shen Yuan took a dubious look at the gloomy sky. “Acid rain or hail?” he mused, provoking a shrug from Mobei Jun. At least there had been no thunder or any other sign for the inevitable downpour yet.

 

“We need proper shelter for both,” Binghe pointed out, lips pursed with a worried expression. The damaged roof of the gas station would not hold out for another beating. “It looks like it will hold out for a while, but we should break camp soon.”

 

Another nod from Mobei Jun and he got up to wake up Shang Qinghua and the boys. Shen Yuan was handed a bowl before he could offer to get Liu Qingge.

 

“Shizun should eat. I will take care of the rest,” Binghe told him and left Shen Yuan bright red on his bucket after he stole a deep, fiery kiss.

 

He hid behind the bowl, drinking his breakfast slowly. One day this brat would be the cause of his spontaneous combustion. And with Binghe’s fire ability he would probably be able to make sure Shen Yuan survived even that.

 

For the next few minutes he was left with stirring the pot and slowly feeling the caffeine take effect. He was already on his third cup when a disheveled Liu Qingge wordlessly took a full bowl from him. The slightly swollen, red lips told Shen Yuan exactly why Binghe had insisted on being the one to wake him and he hid a smile behind his ever present fan.

 

“Good morning, Qingge,” he just said, mirroring the previous scene when Liu Qingge grunted something that could be called a greeting if one was generous.

 

Shortly after, Mobei Jun herded the last three to get breakfast. All of them looked a lot cleaner than the day before and smelled suspiciously of dry-shampoo. Just for Shang Qinghua it was a bit hard to tell since he again hid under the hood of his sweater. There was also the addition of new looking shoes on their feet.

 

Shen Yuan was almost tempted to ask for another spare, but then his resolution to wear his sneakers until their inevitable demise struck again. He loved these shoes so much that even the fact that he could feel every single stone through the thin soles could not bring him to throw them away.

 

While they were eating Mobei Jun already put the tents away as they were and Binghe extinguished the fire. The cookware was also stored away for cleaning at another time.

 

If Shen Yuan had not seen the effects of Mobei Jun’s space that seemed to stop time for the items put inside, he would be convinced that the man was cultivating mold as a hobby. The way he casually pulled out perishables he - by his own admission - had forgotten for almost a year had been cause for more than a few raised brows. Now it was nothing out of the ordinary anymore. Shen Yuan would not be surprised if he pulled out a full three-course menu including set tables and suitable background music one day.

 

„After we established that Qingge is still not allowed to drive,” Binghe said when they stood on the empty patch of grass near the parking lot, a familiar glare passing between the two of them. “Who’s riding with whom?”

 

“Same as yesterday,” Mobei Jun suggested, but this time Liu Qingge interjected pointing at Qinghua.

 

“I’d rather have him in the first car.”

 

Shen Yuan felt his brows rise at the following scowl. Mobei Jun crossed his arms and took a step forward while Qinghua shrunk behind him. When did this become a thing?

 

“Just let me drive ahead.” The words were matter-of-fact, but with the way the two men sized each other up there was a thinly veiled threat of violence in the air.

 

Before Liu Qingge could say another word Shen Yuan decided to jump between them. “We don’t have time for this right now. Let him take point,” he decided and gave Liu Qingge an apologetic look. He would make it up to him later.

 

“That’s decided then,” Binghe agreed, putting an arm around Shen Yuan’s shoulders to take him to the cars.

 

Liu Qingge looked betrayed for a few seconds, then his face darkened and he followed along. “Fine.”

 

“Yiling?” Mobei Jun only asked and Shen Yuan nodded. There were several big, underground parking garage in the town full of skyscrapers and from here they would only need two to three hours.

 

“We can stock up on water at Lotus Pier.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The first few days after the outbreak reminded him a lot of a game called Dark Souls.

 

Apart from the dark sign, a flaming ring that marked future undead as cursed, the process was disturbingly similar. The victim shriveled up and turned into something grotesque. Something less than human, without a heartbeat to pump the blood that had dried up and turned to dust inside their veins. Every movement was agony, if at all possible. The mind quickly filled with an insatiable thirst after living flesh and blood, humanity, to fill the horrible void inside.

 

Those without purpose lost their reason and became mindless killing machines. Horrors from the darkest nightmares one could imagine. Raging. Jealously trying to claim back what they lost from those who were less unfortunate. Monsters without a soul, without conscious thought, hollowed out from the inside while their flesh rotted from their bones.

 

They were, yes, hollow was the most fitting word to describe it.

 

Fortunately, Luo Binghe had a reason to live. A purpose brighter than the sun, guiding him through the pain with the memory of kind words and gentle hands. A person he needed to find and to protect at all cost.

 

With this light he was able to stay sane. To hide and grow instead of wreaking havoc like all the others. And over time the pain faded.

 

It made him able to hunt the monsters that roamed the vacant streets in search of food they did not need. Their energy made him stronger, smarter. It turned the vicious little animal into a deadly hunter, able to wield fire and lightning as his sword and bow.

 

And one day, after weeks of shrinking away from every real human he encountered, slaughtering their natural enemies in the darkness, the mirror showed a face he had thought lost to him.

 

He could not tell when it had started, but with every day, every hour, every minute, every second, his body returned to how it was before and became better.

 

Yes, he was still dead. He did not need food or water or even sleep. But now he could will his body to show signs of life again. To be warm like a real human’s. And he knew, he would be able to face his Shizun again without the fear of being looked at and shunned like something disgusting and vile.

 

It had been so many months since then. When he had finally found A-Yuan he was already safe. His horrible brother had tried anything and everything to keep Luo Binghe away, sneering at him with the same face he so loved.

 

Every time he called Luo Binghe a little beast and worse it had hurt so much. Even without them knowing what he really was – he would never allow this secret to reach Shizun’s ears – Shen Jiu always struck at his biggest vulnerabilities.

 

He had thought he would have to fight tooth and nail to get his Shizun to follow him when he reached the point of not being able to take the abuse lying down anymore, even with Liu Qingge’s unexpected help.

 

But when he had asked, there was just a gentle smile and the promise that not only Shizun but also Liu Qingge would follow. They even asked Shizun’s only friend at the base to join them. Shang Qinghua turned them down, too afraid to risk leaving the safe walls and Shen Yuan had been sad for a while.

 

Still, he left without regret as they decided to search for Liu Qingge’s family.

 

Luo Binghe could not help the smile on his face that always came with the memories. There were no regrets ever since, but one. And even that one was about to disappear with Shang Qinghua finally joining them.

 

He listened to the squabble further inside the building while watching the entrance. The rain had still surprised them before they could reach their goal and a pack of mutated dogs had attacked out of nowhere, leading to Liu Qingge ruining his shirt and injuring his arm by accident. Of course, he had taken it as a personal affront that his metal ability had failed to shield him properly and was now arguing with A-Yuan about letting Shang Qinghua heal him.

 

“You royally pissed of my father,” Luo Binghe said to Mobei Jun in a low voice who was eying the concrete ramp that lead outside. A few raindrops hissed as they left tiny holes where they touched the ground. Mobei Jun just gave a questioning hum, so Luo Binghe continued, “When you blew up the center his people were busy looting the military supplies. And he always wanted someone with a clairvoyance ability.”

 

Now Mobei Jun gave him an almost bored look out of the corner of his eye. “Am I supposed to care?”

 

Luo Binghe chuckled. “He is an emperor level,” he added only to earn a shrug.

 

“So are you. Again, am I supposed to care?”

 

It still puzzled Luo Binghe how Mobei Jun had managed to rid himself of the influence of the almost hive mind in the zombie hierarchy. Every emperor level was like a queen bee, able to control the ranks below them. They could command an army just by concentrating on it and communicate over long distances if they wanted to.

 

He entertained the possibility that Mobei Jun was on a level with himself, suppressing his true status for whatever reasons. Like Luo Binghe himself most of the time. He still knew he could beat him if he wanted to.

 

“He will not get the kid,” Mobei Jun suddenly said. A fact, not a question. Still, Luo Binghe nodded.

 

“That was never an option. Shizun wants him, so he stays. And maybe…” The withering look from the side provoked a self-satisfied grin on Luo Binghe’s face. He reached out to touch the cool lips with his thumb. “What? The offer for you still stands.”

 

Mobei Jun recoiled and bared the sharp, pointed fangs he kept hidden in front of humans, again moving his eyes to the exit after a staredown that only lasted for a few seconds. “Why does every last part of this family suffer from middle-school-syndrome?” he muttered with a hiss. More words than anyone of them had ever heard him speak at once.

 

Luo Binghe just laughed, sauntering back to the others where Liu Qingge finally relented and sat down to let the visibly overwhelmed Shang Qinghua take a look at his unexpectedly deep acid burn.

 

“I’m still pretty useless. This won’t help much,” Luo Binghe heard. Then a gentle, green light enveloped Shang Qinghua’s hands, barely touching the damaged skin as he let them hover over the wound.

 

Liu Qingge knitted his brows, but after a few seconds he made a surprised noise. The wound had closed completely without leaving even a hint of a scar. Shang Qinghua seemed just as surprised as he was, blinking rapidly in the attempt to understand what just happened.

 

The little smile on Luo Binghe’s face grew a bit wider. Not so useless after all. Not useless at all!

  

“Thanks,” Liu Qingge simply said after moving his arm around a bit.

 

The shaky smile on Shang Qinghua’s face after that was unexpectedly… cute.

 

“N-no problem,” the young man stuttered, both hands hidden in the big pocket at the front of his sweater. He still looked a bit tired, but notably better than the night before.

 

“You could try Hua Cheng next,” A-Yuan suggested, the delighted smile half hidden behind his fan, but Shang Qinghua shook his head.

 

“I did… this morning. It didn’t work. That’s why I thought…”

 

There went the hint of self-esteem and he hunched his shoulders again, as if trying to hide. Another thing they needed to work on over time. But at least now they had a more or less trustworthy healer on their side.

 

Suddenly Hua Cheng’s voice sounded from the other car, “That’s because I already have two eyes. I don’t need a third one.  But it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

 

He sat with crossed legs, shoes on the backseat and the sword on his knees. Behind him Xie Lian looked a bit apprehensive and fiddled with the bandage around his neck.

 

Right, Mobei Jun had mentioned that their circumstances were strange to say the least. Luo Binghe took a look at the sword only to find the eye closed. This was even more curious after it had moved around all evening, even after the boy had fallen asleep.

 

“May I?” Luo Binghe asked and pointed at the blade. It did not take a second for the boy to become hostile again, both hands protectively splayed over his lap.

 

“No! Go away!” Hua Cheng grabbed the sword with both hands and turned his back to the adults.

 

Well, so much for making friends. An insufferable, little ankle biter.

 

Luo Binghe looked at him for a few moments and then turned around to join the other three. He latched onto A-Yuan, placing his chin on the other’s shoulder with an elongated “Shizun…” and got the expected reaction immediately.

 

The fan went up, hiding all but a slight shade of red right under the beautiful eyes and he was sure A-Yuan felt the need to clear his throat. “Binghe, behave!” he was chided and even with the swift hit of the fan on his head a warm feeling bubbled up in his chest.

 

He hid his smile in the crook of A-Yuan’s neck, breathing in deeply. If they were alone he would have already pulled Liu Qingge into the pile and… Well, that was something for another time.

 

With his best puppy imitation he raised his head and was exactly able to pinpoint when the resistance melted away, but for his future happiness he pulled away a bit and turned to the other two instead. “It looks like we will be stuck for a few hours,” he said, noting the visible signs of discomfort in Shang Qinghua while Liu Qingge looked more impatient.

 

“By the way, did you also manage to learn how to fight while we were away?” he jokingly asked Shang Qinghua who studied his shoes with newfound interest.

 

The young man shuffled his feet a bit before answering, “They gave me something at the laboratory. I don’t know-“

 

He cringed and it was hard to say if it was from his own words or the strange meow that suddenly echoed through the parking lot.

 

Well, it was just a cat…

 

Luo Binghe shot to his feet and heard Liu Qingge curse next to him.

 

It was never just a fucking cat!

 

 

Chapter Text

Within the fraction of a second all hell broke loose.

 

Shang Qinghua jumped forward to tackle Shen Yuan to the ground, a slim shadow cutting through the air only inches from their heads as they fell. At the same time Liu Qingge brandished his sword, cutting a second animal in half that went for his throat. Two more jumped at Luo Binghe, one swiftly pierced by a blade of ice, the other set ablaze with a sidestep so the sharp claws only ripped his shirt instead of slicing his chest open.

 

Luo Binghe saw Mobei Jun flicker twice when he grabbed Shang Qinghua by the collar and threw him unceremoniously inside the car, doors closing with a bang. Part of the steel sheets meant for Liu Qingge almost dropped on his feet, the clatter drowned out by a chorus of growls and hisses rising in the darkness.

 

The urge to just torch the area grew with every second and Luo Binghe cursed himself for only turning on the emergency lights above the cars instead of checking their surroundings. Only, the threat of damaging the supports and the building above crushing them into bloody pancakes bound his hands. They stumbled upon a whole colony!

 

Now, Luo Binghe had liked cats a lot in the past. He even fed a few strays when he had money to spare. They were so much like Shizun that he had thought about adopting a few when he had stable living conditions after college.

 

These things on the other hand… Oh. Oh no. Not a chance in hell!

 

The first time they had encountered a mutated cat it had thankfully only been a loner. But the vicious little beast had proven to be a challenge for all three of them combined. Not only had it been a bitch to hit the small animal, it had also been incredibly fast and seemed to understand what they said to each other.

 

The cat had jumped around like a ball-lightning, using the whole space of the small warehouse, including the shelves right up to the top. Luo Binghe would never forget the sight when it stood still for a few seoncds, staring into his eyes as if challenging him to battle.

 

Frightening intelligence had lain in those big, yellow eyes, distracting only slightly from the fangs that were decidedly too big for such a small animal, the sharp teeth lining powerful jaws, and the thick, scruffy fur. Together with the wicked claws on all four feet the little monster had looked more like a miniature saber-tooth tiger. Not even the smallest hint had been left of the friendly, purring sofa cushions he had gotten used to.

 

He slowly bent down to help Shen Yuan to his feet, Liu Qingge and Mobei Jun on either side. Liu Qingge had already bent the plates into guards on his arms and legs and when the next attack came, he only let it run into his arm. After a satisfying CLONK he sliced the head off the heap on the floor, making sure this one would not rise again.

 

The following silence made the hair on Luo Binghe’s neck stand up and he was just about to send a lightning bolt out at random when a gust of wind rushed under the empty car and slammed three yowling fur balls into a nearby column with a sickening crunch.

 

“Sneaky bastards,” Shen Yuan commented and Luo Binghe knew he was following the movements via airflow.

 

Liu Qingge’s sword shot into the darkness at a wordless pointers, coming back bloody after several inhuman screams pierced the air.

 

Shen Yuan suddenly cursed, but when Luo Binghe turned his head he just saw three cats gloriously collide in midair where Mobei Jun stood a split second before. He casually fried them with another bolt, earning a dark look from Liu Qingge who stood nearby.

 

“Hey!” The beautiful man’s hair stood up in all directions.

 

Oh, right, metal and lightning. Luo Binghe gave him an apologetic grin. No harm done.

 

After that they made quick work out of the remaining few, the last one that tried to get away encased in an ice block and shattered for good measure.

 

When they stood in the middle of the carnage, the scent of blood heavy in the air, Luo Binghe felt unexpected pride. They had come so far in just a few months.

 

Sure, outside he or Mobei Jun could have solved the situation within seconds, but it was never that easy. And with both of them forced to hold back, A-Yuan and Liu Qingge had shown they could perfectly look after themselves and did not lag behind. In due time they might even be able to rival Mobei Jun. He really looked forward to it.

 

Even Shang Qinghua had proven not to be a liability which was more than Luo Binghe had expected in his current mental state.

 

Things were finally looking up.

 

---

 

After getting twenty-five crystals out of the cat’s brains and burning the corpses to not attract something bigger by accident, they still had to wait for the rain to stop.

 

While Shen Yuan doted on the children who were hyper as if they had just seen an awesome action movie instead of being afraid, Luo Binghe sat down next to Shang Qinghua who was nursing a bottle of apple juice.

 

“You knew this would happen,” he stated matter-of-factly. It was not an accusation, but the young man turned even paler and fumbled with his drink. Luo Binghe could feel Mobei Jun’s inquisitive stare behind him. He decided to wait.

 

“Ah,” Shang Qinghua said after a while, eyes flitting everywhere but in Luo Binghe’s direction. “I… I had this one… months ago. A-and I didn’t know if… if… and then they were already there!”

 

Luo Binghe gave him an understanding hum. “I’m not mad. You saved A-Yuan’s life. Again.”

 

At that Shang Qinghua finally looked at him, eyes wide in surprise. What had they done to him to be so… He inwardly shook his head.

 

“You should write a diary about your vision,” he suggested with a smile meant to reassure.

 

Still, Shang Qinghua’s expression fell. “That’s at Cang Qiong base.”

 

Of course, the pricks kept the important stuff. Luo Binghe held back a sneer at the mention of that place. He still maintained his smile. “Then it’s time to start a new one. Just share everything you remember. It helps a lot.”

 

“Huh?” Shang Qinghua blinked at him owlishly.

 

Luo Binghe felt a grin tugging at the corners of his lips. “The stories you told A-Yuan pretty much kept us alive the past year. Don’t tell me you had no idea?”

 

“Most of them never came true. I thought they were just dreams,” Shang Qinghua admitted, his expression doubtful.

 

The grin grew a bit wider and Luo Binghe quirked his brow. “They did. You just decided to not be around for that.”

 

“Even the Dream Ivy?!” Shang Qinghua asked, voice rising and eyes growing wide.

 

It was Shen Yuan who answered, “Yes. But we don’t talk about THAT ONE.” while Luo Binghe cringed. Liu Qingge and Mobei Jun nodded emphatically.

 

“What’s a Dream Ivy?” Xie Lian asked innocently and Shen Yuan hid his face behind his fan.

 

“Something you burn with as much fire as possible whenever you meet it.”

 

At that Shang Qinghua actually had the audacity to snicker and Luo Binghe felt a shiver running down his spin as he vividly remembered the encounter that lead to him passionately making out with a tree stump. Not that the others had fared any better until Mobei Jun had snapped at something and frozen the damnable plant solid.

 

Luo Binghe knew he would never again be able to fully trust someone with psychic powers in his life!

 

Shang Qinghua on the other hand started to look more like he had before they left, the lonely, haunted look gone for the moment. “And the mutated spider li-,“ he cheekily asked to be interrupted by A-Yuan whose blush was about to reach critical levels.

 

“Yes. And now shut up!”

 

Yet he was betrayed by Liu Qingge. “Spider what?”

 

He had been otherwise occupied at the time, but Luo Binghe felt his grin return. He actually liked to remember this one. It had shown him a whole new side of Shizun, not to mention a few hours that had been a lot of fun. It had been one of those rare occasions when A-Yuan had no complains about his unnatural stamina.

 

“Don’t worry about that!” Shen Yuan snapped exasperated. Luo Binghe just gave him an innocent smile.

 

They dropped the subject in favor of lunch and when the rain finally gave way to sunshine they found themselves faced with the problem that the landing for the ferry they had used a few weeks ago did not exist anymore.

 

From the looks of it something big had taken a bite out of the place and made off with whatever it had killed.

 

Liu Qingge kicked the sorry remains of a wooden plank into the water where the piece of wood at least floated and not dissolved. Luo Binghe still felt no desire to even dip a toe in there.

 

“Looks like the long way around,” he commented, brows still slightly raised.

 

Shen Yuan nodded. “Nighttime in the lakescape will be… interesting.”

 

“Fun,” Liu Qingge added.

 

Well, there was one person looking forward to playing with mutated water plants and fish.

 

Mobei Jun just grunted. “Let’s go.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The sunrise gave a beautiful glow to the still slightly wet roof of the ancient mansion and the surrounding buildings.

 

The fortifications against attacks and the raging elements, adorned with small sculptures and other decorations, made Lotus Pier look like an impenetrable fortress from the outside. Inside it was a small but bustling city with people working and trading in a disciplined, daily routine. Many inhabitants had water abilities and flaunted their powers by traversing the lakescape with ease. A fact that had opened trade routes to other bases in a heartbeat with clean, drinkable water as a rare good these days.

 

There were also many people who called on them for their healing powers. Injured travelers were a common sight by now and with their moderate rates the leaders of the base maintained many friendly relations.

 

These leaders were the foster parents of the fourteen-year-old boy sitting on the fortified outside wall of the base, his legs dangling in the breeze.

 

Wei Ying had landed himself nighttime guard duty again after his latest prank, but he had a smile on his face. Madam Yu had been almost kind this time and he actually liked being up all night more than getting up early. The other people on guard were friendly enough, thankful for a lightning user to keep the electric light and air-conditioning going. Most of them were not much older than Wei Ying himself.

 

Because of the rain that started around midnight there had been no possibility of anything coming their way, so they spent their time playing cards and telling stories.

 

A yawn almost dislocated his jaw and when he blinked the tears away he spotted two cars slowly making their way along the battered road. There were parts of plants plastered all over the hoods and the sides. As expected, he could see the remains of lotus flowers when they came closer.

 

The lotus were a common cause of accidents since the mutation started. They actually had to clean the waterside around the estate to make sure nobody got murdered for simply getting too close to the shore. The agitated plants would grab people’s legs and drag them under water to never surface again. Wei Ying had seen them sink a whole boat and only by stunning everything in the water with a timely shock had they been able to save the people involved.

 

By now this had become a common practice to harvest the pods though. And in all honesty, they tasted a lot better than they already had as if to make up for the trouble.

 

He cocked his head when the two jeeps reached the gate. “Shouldn’t you be coming from the other side?” he then called out to the familiar man with the curly hair who got out of one of the cars. What was his name again? Wei Ying clearly remembered his face and that these people went to Yiling the last time they were here. They had visited a few times already and always had something useful to trade.

 

“Good morning. I think, your ferry might be gone,” the man answered with a troubled expression on his face.

 

Wei Ying almost fell from the wall in shock. “Say what?” He scrambled to help open the heavy iron gates. One of the other guards already ran back to the mansion to inform Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan.

 

This was bad. Very bad.

 

That boat was their only safe way to get wares into the western regions and it was big enough to deter most predators. Not only would Madam Yu be furious, it also meant something horrible must have happened.

 

The other guards looked apprehensive when the two cars passed the gate, but Wei Ying was teetering on his toes, the nervous energy visible in his whole body. After months of calm routine there was finally something exciting happening!

 

“I’ll bring you to my uncle,” he offered, ignoring the tension around him. If these people wanted to harm them they would have done so ages ago.  And why should they try it with so few people after bringing them the news?

 

He found the passenger’s seat of the first car empty and just jumped in. The two men on the backseat were also familiar. It was just strange that one of them had his head in the other’s lap.

 

“Hi, I’m Wei Ying. What’s with him?” he introduced himself with a friendly grin.

 

The driver gave him an amused look while the man with the fan answered, “He just exhausted himself. I’m Shen Yuan. That’s Luo Binghe and this one here is Liu Qingge.”

 

Wei Ying followed the pointers and nodded. “I would say nice to meet you, but…” He shrugged apologetically, prompting a slight smile on Shen Yuan’s face.

 

Luo Binghe hummed at that. “We’re not sure if it’s only the landing or the boat, too,” he said while slowly driving through the empty street. Thankfully it was too early for many people, so there was no chance of hitting someone.

 

“Wait. The landing is gone?!” Wei Ying exclaimed after contemplating the words for a moment.

 

“Yep, Like something just bit it off and vanished,” Shen Yuan added.

 

That did not sound right. They had reinforced the pier in Yiling to make sure it would not deteriorate. How enormous and powerful did this monster have to be to just… eat it? Wei Ying shook his head.  “How can this be? If there is something so big out there, how did we miss it?” he muttered, brows pulled together at the base of his nose. “When did you see that?”

 

“Yesterday, maybe two hours after noon,” Shen Yuan answered again and Wei Ying wanted to sigh.

 

The ferry had left two days ago to wait for a contracted trader. The journey only took a few hours so if they were not back yet there was only one harsh conclusion. “This is really bad.”

 

After they parked the cars next to the mansion Wei Ying was surprised to see two children and a young man not much older than himself leave the second one. Those he definitely had not seen before. The young man stuck close to the fourth familiar person Wei Ying found the most intimidating. He still retained his smile as Shen Yuan introduced them.

 

When they entered the house everything was quickly taken over by Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan. Wei Ying found himself on an errand to get tea for their guests from the kitchen while his parents bid their guests to sit down.

 

On the way he ran into Jiang Cheng who looked a bit disheveled, most likely because he had just fallen out of bed with all the ruckus going on.

 

“What did you do this time?!” his brother demanded, an annoyed frown on his face.

 

Wei Ying pouted at him. “It’s not me! There was an incident with the ferry!”

 

Under Jiang Cheng’s scrutinizing gaze he repeated what the travelers had told him. “Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu are talking to them right now.” Wei Ying paused at his own words before he broke into a run for the kitchen. “Ah, the tea!”

 

There almost went his best opportunity to eavesdrop!

 

He let Jiang Cheng tag along, both stealing a few bites for breakfast before they brought the teapot and a tray with cups back to the living room.

 

“This needs more planning,” Jiang Fengmian just said as they entered the room. “We can’t just rush out there without knowing what we’re dealing with.”

 

He gave Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng a nod before looking at Shen Yuan. “My son will see you to the guestrooms. Regarding the trade request someone will seek you out as soon as possible.”

 

“Thank you, we appreciate that. We are also willing to help when need arises,” Shen Yuan answered with a smile as they got up from the couch.

 

Yu Ziyuan regarded him coldly. “If we should need help from outsiders, we will let you know.”

 

She just earned a nod from Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan, as well as a cold glare from the man called Mobei Jun. Chin slightly raised Wei Ying’s stepmother only returned the last look with a thinly veiled challenge of her own. She had not been called the Violet Spider by her attorney colleagues for nothing.

 

“What about the tea,” Wei Ying decided to speak up at this moment. He ignored the half annoyed, half incredulous expression on Jiang Cheng’s face and smiled amicably.

 

“It would be nice if we could take it to our rooms,” Shen Yuan answered and after Jiang Fengmian’s permission Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng made their way up the stairs to the west wing. They were sure that their parents would not take long to start arguing and neither of them wanted to be near them when it began.

 

Even after the negative paternity test that, in fact, showed that Jiang Fangmian had not cheated on his wife, they still had been at each other’s throats at every opportunity. It was a miracle they never spoke about a divorce, but the strain on the family had been palpable since they took Wei Ying in at the tender age of four.

 

His own parents just vanished one day, leaving the small child to fend for himself for more than a week until an employee at a nearby store found him drooling at the fresh baked goods on display. This was followed by half a year at the orphanage Wei Ying was unable to remember clearly anymore.

 

When Jiang Fengmian finally tracked him down and took the child of his ex-employee and his best female friend in Yu Ziyuan had taken it as a personal affront.

 

“Thanks. We will rest for a while,” Shen Yuan said and left the teenagers no chance to question why they chose to only occupy three of the offered rooms.

 

Wei Ying decided to just investigate this later and left together with Jiang Cheng to discuss how they could become part of the monster hunt.

 

 

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge woke in the middle of the night from his own loud moan and the familiar tingling of his scalp.

 

It took him a few moments to fully register the slowly moving fingers inside of him, as well as the smaller hand ghosting over his rock-hard erection. A split second later the feeling of teeth on one of his nipples sent a shiver through his whole body and he felt himself tighten around the three digits that lightly brushed the sensitive bundle of nerves every once in a while.

 

“Good morning, Qingge,” Luo Binghe crooned into his ear, followed by a gentle bite into his lobe. The fingers hit his prostate with well-aimed precision, turning his answer into a mewl as they almost pushed him over the edge. All tension had left his body and he could not help the small whine caused by Shen Yuan drawing back his hand to caress his shoulder and upper arm.

 

Liu Qingge’s eyes snapped open when Luo Binghe, too, suddenly pulled his fingers away, but his complaint was cut short by the deep kiss Shen Yuan pulled him into. Every time their tongues touched was like a small, electric shock, almost drowning out the feeling of the huge cock pressing into him from behind while Luo Binghe held his hips firmly in place.

 

His shaking hand found its way into Shen Yuan’s hair, cupping the back of his head to keep him from breaking the kiss and another moan was caught between their lips. Again Shen Yuan started to play with his nipples, making the feeling even sweeter.

 

His muscles twitched around the scorching length, but he was unable to get what he wanted under Luo Binghe’s firm grip. Why did he not move?!

 

After what seemed like an eternity of sweet torture Shen Yuan ended the kiss, his forehead leaned against Liu Qingge’s, the warm breath still noticeable on his lips. “Would Qingge like to… do what we talked about?” he asked with a husky voice that went right to Liu Qingge’s cock.

 

He blanked. What they talked about?

 

There were seldom discussions about what they wanted in bed. Most things were initiated by Luo Binghe with neither Liu Qingge nor Shen Yuan having to say anything. But there had been this one time a few weeks ago…

 

He felt his face grow even hotter than before.

 

Shen Yuan… they… they really wanted to…

 

His cock twitched at the mere thought and Luo Binghe lightly biting at his nape to finally start moving did not help to clear his mind. Liu Qingge swallowed a moan before managing a nod that brought a gentle smile to Shen Yuan’s face.

 

The next kiss was soft, almost soothing before Shen Yuan moved away. Liu Qingge followed him with hazy eyes, his body vibrating in anticipation, the slow and steady roll of Luo Binghe’s hips driving the last bit of strength out of his body.

 

Shen Yuan shifted before cupping his chin, thumb gently caressing his slightly parted lips and Liu Qingge felt his mouth water. He licked the salty skin, unaware of the pleading look on his face while Shen Yuan guided him to his crotch.

 

A soft, needy sound escaped him at the sight, mouth opening wider as a silent invitation. They had done this so many times, but never like this and he felt both hot and cold when his tongue touched the soft skin, Shen Yuan’s taste flooding his mind.

 

“What a good boy,” Shen Yuan praised, provoking a sharp intake of breath by Luo Binghe, his hips snapping forward in a faster pace, pushing Liu Qingge forward until the tip touched the back of his throat.

 

He heard Shen Yuan’s surprised moan, one hand gripping his hair as he gladly choked on him.  

 

This was more than he had expected and with Luo Binghe fucking him hard and fast, Liu Qingge did not last for long.

 

He came hard a few minutes later, his whole body convulsing as he whited out for a few moments.

 

Shen Yuan took not much longer before coming down his throat and when he pulled Luo Binghe into a kiss, gently stroking his hair the thrusts soon became erratic until he came with a “Shizuuuun” on his lips.

 

---

 

The next morning at breakfast Mobei Jun gave them the annoying knowing look Liu Qingge had come to hate in the last few months. He still gave the impression that he had a good night’s sleep and did not comment on the noises, though.

 

Shang Qinghua on the other hand seemed bleary-eyed and not yet fully awake. He stared more into his bowl than eating the food inside, especially under Shen Yuan’s concerned gaze.

 

“Then we will stay here until this is resolved,” Luo Binghe just said to the female leader of the base who had come to inform them, trade would be halted until they had dealt with the problem.

 

They all knew what this really meant and Liu Qingge could not blame her for not trusting them. Nobody but them had seen the damage. For all the inhabitants of the base knew they could be spies for the people who plundered their goods and stole their property.

 

Still, it was annoying to deal with the mistrust after they already offered to help. One would think staying here for a few times already would warrant some kind of goodwill.

 

Meanwhile, Yu Ziyuan glared at them as if to dare anyone to speak up against her statement. Liu Qingge felt his hackles rise at the nerve of this woman. Only the warnings of both of his boyfriends kept him from provoking a fight right here and now.

 

Just as she was finally about to leave, Shang Qinghua’s head suddenly snapped up, his eyes wide with fear. “It’s coming,” he said quietly but his hand shook so much that he let go of the chopsticks.

 

Good thing the daughter of the house had decided to dote on the children and taken them to play.

 

“What? When?!” Shen Yuan was the first to react. He reached out, only to stop himself halfway and take back his hand.

 

Yu Ziyuan slammed her hand on the table, looking intently at Luo Binghe. “What is the meaning of this?” she snapped, her whole pose that of a predator ready to pounce.

 

Liu Qingge was just about to put the insufferable woman in her place when Mobei Jun glared at them, one hand on Shang Qinghua’s back in support. “Let him speak.”

 

Even Yu Ziyuan was stunned for the moment, giving Shang Qinghua time to draw a shaky breath.

 

“I-… I think it was early afternoon. It attacked the pier without warning. Swallowing everything around the pier.” He paused for a moment, closing his eyes, shoulders shaking more than before. “I don’t know what it is. It looked like a pitch-black maelstrom… like an abyss in the water.”

 

There was silence around the table until Yu Ziyuan again looked at Luo Binghe, silently demanding an explanation.

 

She earned a sigh. “Clairvoyance,” he simply said, a grave expression on his face Liu Qingge had seldom seen. “Do you still not need our help?”

 

---

 

A few hours later Liu Qingge, Luo Binghe, Mobei Jun and Shen Yuan stood at the end of the pier next to Yu Ziyuan and a group of seasoned fighters from the base. They watched the lake glitter in the sunshine. Everything looked peaceful, but a lot emptier than it would normally be.

 

“If this is a trick-,” Yu Ziyuan threatened for the umpteenth time. She had decided to take the lead after the ominous words in the morning and left Jiang Fengmian to deal with fortifications around the waterside. As an earth ability user he could do little to help in an actual fight, but her powerful lightning ability was invaluable.

 

“He’s not been wrong yet,” Shen Yuan answered, lightly fanning himself in an attempt to fight the humid heat. He seemed to ignore the disgruntled demeanor of their host, calm and serene as always when they were faced with danger.

 

The haughty woman just scoffed. The whole time she had not taken her eyes from the water, but even after almost an hour everything still remained calm.

 

Liu Qingge exchanged a look with Luo Binghe and he knew he had the same foreboding feeling that had bothered him for a while now. A sudden impulse made him take a few steps forward to peek over the edge into the water. There were a few fish flitting by under the clear surface. The kind that not made one afraid to lose a limb or two when you were caught in their territory.

 

He frowned. Was this really just a wild goose chase? Maybe they had the wrong day?

 

About to turn around and voice his suspicion he felt a sudden pull from the water that rapidly turned dark around them.

 

“Wha-,” he managed, losing his footing when the first metal-enforced planks were ripped away.

 

He heard Luo Binghe call his name and saw hands franticly reaching out to pull him back. Then there was only suffocating silence and darkness…

 

 

It was so quiet he could hear his own heart beating louder and louder in his ears until it was deafening. A nothingness that could drive a man insane within minutes.

 

He realized he was able to breathe.

 

“Huh?” he said.

 

The sound echoed around him and slowly faded away.

 

What in the world was this place? He had expected some giant monster with teeth and claws. Something to physically fight, not… this.

 

The flash of white startled him back to a higher alertness. It had vanished as quickly as it came.

 

Did he already start to have hallucinations? His sword always came back without hitting anything, regardless how many times he tried to attack.

 

The flash came back time and time again and he had taken to loudly taunting it, just to combat the silence somehow.

 

Then it was there, right before his eyes. The empty eye sockets of the huge, skeletal fish appeared to study him.

 

It made no motion to attack as if waiting for something.

 

Yes, definitively hallucinations!

 

And yet it felt so real. Would he feel the bone if he reached out to touch it?

 

The first fish was joined by a second one after a while. Both of them moved slowly in the water in which Liu Qingge should have drowned long ago. Judging. Waiting…

 

Again he tried to fight them, but they just avoided everything he threw at them, skulls grinning with rows of giant, uneven teeth.

 

He was ready to snap when something else came into view.

 

At first he almost missed the golden eyes with slit pupils like a cat’s glowing in the darkness.

 

They were small like a human’s. As was the figure that slowly drifted closer.

 

Long, black hair flowed around the figure of an emaciated child, not older than nine or ten years. The skin of its face was almost as white as the skeletons that surrounded it like pet dogs.

 

Liu Qingge wanted to say something, but when he tried to speak this time he found his voice drowned by the water. At the same time he realized, he was not able to move anymore. Even the blades he used to attack were uselessly stuck next to him.

 

The child studied him just as calm as the fish had before. It slightly cocked its head, blinking as if seeing something unfamiliar for the first time.

 

When it clicked its tongue in dissatisfaction Liu Qinnge wrinkled his brows. He felt helpless and somehow like the child was dissecting him with its haunting eyes.

 

“You’re one of his,” the child suddenly spoke, the voice smooth and pleasant to the ears. “So be it.”

 

Liu Qingge wanted to ask what it meant by that when the water around him began to surge. He could take one last look at the strange being as he was suddenly thrown into the afternoon air, the broken pier coming closer at a worrying speed.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wei Ying was figuratively sitting on burning coals behind the crown of the dike the earth and metal ability users of the base had built only a few hours prior. His eyes were glued on the horrific scene before them, ready to jump out and help if he could.

 

The water under the pier had become dark as night within seconds and even with over thirty meters between them and the center of the whirlpool, and the rocks and metal as cover, he could feel the pull of the churning water.

 

“Oh, wow!” he exclaimed when the pier started to dismantle itself, pulling the person closest into the water with it. The other people had no time to react, hands grabbing at nothing as the man vanished below the surface.

 

The people around him hunched down, except for the strange young man that had come with the visitors. He watched the scene with an absentminded expression, saying, “They’ll be okay.” in an almost bored tone.

 

Jiang Cheng turned to him and Wei Ying could see the anger in his eyes that came from fear for his mother and friends out there. “They’d better be!” he yelled over the rising wind. “This plan sucks!”

 

Shang Qinghua seemed to just ignore him, against the timid behavior he had shown since he arrived.

 

Seconds ticked by and apart from the remains of the pier being stabilized not much happened. It was like in the eye of a tornado, oddly quiet if it were not for the sound of the water.

 

Suddenly Shang Qinghua recoiled with a squawk. “Holy shit!”

 

He pointed at a figure being ejected from the lake without warning. A colorful curse rang through the air and the man descended in direction of the pier as fast as he had left the water. Thankfully something caught him in midair, slowly lowering him onto the planks.

 

The maelstrom just vanished like a bad dream.

 

Wei Ying blinked a few time and looked at Jiang Cheng who appeared just as stunned by the outcome. Only the slight damage and the people gesturing wildly on the pier were proof that all of this had not only been in their imagination.

 

“How did you know that?” he asked Shang Qinghua with wonder in his eyes.

 

“Err…” was the only answer he got. The young man had paled, visibly shaken. “I’m not sure...?”

 

Wei Ying shared a doubtful look with Jiang Cheng, but when Yu Ziyuan came closer his brother quickly left him to wait for his mother. Since she appeared a bit disgruntled Wei Ying decided to keep his distance for the moment. But his eyes found another person that looked rather annoyed.

 

Liu Qingge was trying to keep Luo Binghe at arm’s length who seemed hell-bent on supporting, if not carrying him. “I’m fine. Stop fussing,” he growled even audible where Wei Ying stood, a light blush showing on his cheeks.

 

That was… weird?

 

Then Wei Ying’s view zeroed in on Shen Yuan who had his face half hidden behind a folding fan. He appeared worried.

 

It was nothing against Mobei Jun’s scowl when he suddenly appeared in front of him on the make-shift platform to grab Shang Qinghua, though. Wei Ying almost made a step backwards into the ten feet of nothing above the ground and was swiftly pulled back by the huge, broad-shouldered man.

 

“Uhm,” Wei Ying managed, but they already vanished to reappear next to Shen Yuan a heartbeat later. The three of them began to speak in low voices, gazes occasionally locking on Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian. Or more like Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua were speaking while Mobei Jun was like a bodyguard beside them.

 

The longer they talked, the more nervous Shang Qinghua became. Wei Ying could read the words “no idea” and “gone” from his lips when he held up both hands in a defensive gesture towards Shen Yuan.

 

Shen Yuan’s sigh was visible, followed by him shaking his head. He said something that brought a lopsided smile on Shang Qinghua’s face.

 

What the hell were they talking about?

 

Someone opened a passage through the dike and Wei Ying decided to slowly make his way down, using the small ledges left as stairs.

 

“… talk! Now!” he caught Madam Yu’s last words before she stomped off in the direction of the mansion. There was a sigh and Jiang Fengmian followed after some quick instructions.

 

Jiang Cheng looked a bit lost after basically being ignored by both his parents. Wei Ying always felt a stab of guilt in these moments. If he had been there uncle Jiang would probably have given a kind word and maybe patted his head. It was nice to be doted on, but he did not understand why Jiang Fengmian was so distant and strict with his own children. Though, Yanli-jie at least got a smile every once in a while.

 

“Wanna find out what’s going on?” Wei Ying asked with a grin when he reached his brother. Jiang Cheng just nodded, his eyes still on the backs of the two adults. He gave Wei Ying an annoyed look when an arm was thrown over his shoulders in an intimate gesture.

 

They followed the big group of men and women that escorted the five visitors with solemn faces. Somehow, he got a bad feeling about this. To him it did not look like they had anything to do with the destruction apart from stumbling upon the aftermath at first. But now he was not so sure and if he came to this conclusion madam Yu and others would certainly, too.

 

Did they work with whatever had been in the water? Were they trying to get their trust and wear them out so their allies could take over Lotus Pier? Or was all of this really just a weird coincidence with them caught in the middle?

 

All of this was strange and dropped him into deeper confusion the more he thought about it. If they were really here to harm them, why would they warn them of the attack? And why would Shang Qinghua give himself away like that when all he had to do was look scared to be believable?

 

Wei Ying chewed on the contradictory information until he stood in the hall in front of the closed living room door. “We need glasses,” he said to Jiang Cheng who raised his brows, but made to follow him to the kitchen.

 

“Why glasses?” Jiang Cheng asked confused.

 

Wei Ying already grinned again. “Because we can sneak into the study and listen through the wall.”

 

---

 

Yu Ziyuan’s voice cut through the room like a knife. “You really expect me to believe the bullshit about him seeing the future? You planned this and you will tell me right now what you’re playing at and who is targeting us or I will get someone to search your brains for me!”

 

Wei Ying cringed at the blatant anger. Now that he thought about it, he had never seen madam Yu seriously mad. Even when he crossed the line she had always been cold and controlled and kept her voice deceptively calm. This sounded like her about to snap at any second. It was good there was a wall between them right now and he was not the target of said anger.

 

“We’re not hiding anything. If this is what it takes for you to believe us, fine,” Shen Yuan answered calmly a few seconds later.

 

There was the sound of an armchair being moved over the hardwood floor. “A-Yuan!” Luo Binghe’s voice said.

 

“Uh-oh,” Wei Ying commented in a whisper.

 

“Big mistake,” Jiang Cheng agreed next to him with a grimace.

 

The crackling of electricity sounded before the words faded and there was a grunt of pain. Curiously it sounded like female voice instead of the expected male one.

 

“We warn you, help you and you dare to attack us?!” Luo Binghe’s voice rose.

 

Wei Ying felt the glass grow warmer in his hand. There was a kind of pressure in the air that made his whole body tremble in fear and he suddenly knew they had woken the real monster in the room.

 

“What the-?” Jiang Cheng began to speak when his father’s voice drowned out everything else.

 

“ENOUGH!” Jiang Fengmian shouted and the noise of the fight ceased immediately. “We apologize for this disgraceful behavior. My wife-“

 

“- needs a muzzle,” Liu Qingge finished the sentence, prompting a snort from someone else.

 

The pressure started to fade and only now Wei Ying became aware of the cold sweat that covered his face and back.

 

“We just want to trade for provisions and be on our way. Your problem should be solved and we don’t want impose on your… hospitality any longer,” Luo Binghe said way calmer than Wei Ying had expected.

 

When he heard uncle Jiang agree and offer them one more night under their roof to get the things they wanted, he felt his shoulders sag in relief. Now he knew what had been bugging him all this time. He had seen Luo Binghe’s lightning ability before when he killed a whole swarm of water monsters with one move.

 

If these people wanted them dead, they had been so long ago.

 

 

Chapter Text

Mu Qingfang sighed.

 

They had just gotten word that someone had attacked and blown up the military compound in which the reach center had resided. The very facility founded by the remaining government to get more information about abilities in order to develop a cure or at least a vaccine for the virus. And now all of the reportedly promising work was gone, together with a patient he had, reluctantly, left in their care.

 

Another fact to be mourned and Shang Qinghua had been quite unlucky to begin with. The timid young man had appeared every few days with one small injury or another, claiming he fell or was careless. Not always as believable as he hoped to be. Sometimes it had almost appeared like he was offering himself up as a victim.

 

Mu Qingfang had offered to listen to his woes many times, always to be rebuffed with reasons like he had enough work on his plate and that Shang Qinghua was fine.

 

It appeared, their understanding of ‘fine’ diverted a lot. But now it was too late and there really had been too much work to properly take action. Action that could have prevented unnecessary violence and an untimely death.

 

With these thoughts in mind he again returned to the herbs he had found during his last outing. They struck him as a variant of plants he knew had healing properties, so he decided to test them for their usability. Most of these experiments ended in failure. It almost appeared as if nature had decided to turn the characteristics of poisonous and useful plants around while they were not looking.

 

Still, it was the best bet he had to refill their rapidly dwindling medicinal supplies.

 

Especially the sedatives were running low which lead to another headache waiting for him. Ming Fan had woken up a few days after Shang Qinghua was taken away.

 

Physically the boy seemed fine, he just refused to talk. This was most likely connected to the trauma Shen Jiu left on him – still unapologetic about the whole incident, the man had even claimed he did everything for the good of the base – and Mu Qingfang could only hope for time and proper care to take effect when he was ready.

 

Perhaps, Ning Yingying constantly fussing over him and trying to cheer him up would do the trick. They were of similar age and Ming Fan had always appeared quite taken with her.

 

Mu Qingfang took a look at one of the petri dishes and wrinkled his brow. Another failure. He grabbed the notebook full of sketches of strange plants and animals to complete his notes on this particular herb. Another one to avoid eating. But it was quite long and sturdy, even when dried. Maybe they could use the fiber for weaving bags or cloths.

 

He only hummed when the door suddenly opened without a warning and quickly put the dish out of harm’s way at the sound of jump boots walking over the tiles.

 

“You’re still holed up in here,” Qi Qingqi complained, one hand landing heavily on the table.

 

“Again,” Mu Qingfang corrected, but he looked up with a calm smile. “May I help you with anything?”

 

Qi Qingqi looked taken aback, only to shrug a second later. Without a second though she planted her butt on the desk, long legs crossed. “I thought this would hit you harder,” she admitted, looking down on Mu Qingfang with slightly raised brows.

 

His smile became sorrowful and Mu Qingfang shook his head. “It does. I just think it’s better to do what I can than lament over things I cannot change anymore.”

 

“Fair enough,” Qi Qingqi commented. “Shen Jiu looked like he’d swallowed a toad when he heard about it.”

 

Mu Qingfang’s eyebrows rose. “I thought he would be rather happy about this after all that happened.” To his understanding Shen Jiu wanted to see the so-called traitor dead as soon as possible.

 

“Nah, he tried to convince Qingyuan to keep the kid here instead of sending him away. After Meng Yao confirmed that he wasn’t lying and the whole seeing-the-future thing came to light he did a full one eighty. He was positively sulking,”

 

“And that’s why Yue Qingyuan…” Mu Qingfang trailed off, eyes growing wide.

 

Qi Qingqi nodded. “Yes, the sky has fallen again and after today it will only get worse. It would be nice if these two idiots finally talked to each other or at least had a decent fuck, so the whole walking on eggshells can finally end.”

 

“Not every personal conflict is caused by sexual tension, my dear Qingqi,” Mu Qingfang retorted, but he could not deny that the thought did not come out of nowhere.

 

Qin Qingqi just dismissively waived her hand. “Come on, we all know it by now. And speaking of conflict caused by sexual tension. You still look like a kicked puppy every time someone mentions Liu Qingge.”

 

This time Mu Qingfang decided not to reply and just looked at his notebook intently. Such baseless accusations were not even worth an answer. He would never!

 

“Hiding behind that thing never works. You’re as red as a lobster,” Qi Qingqi teased him and Mu Qingfang inwardly cursed his fair complexion.

 

He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. “Could you please stop?” The words came out way more pained than he wanted to admit to himself.

 

Qi Qingqi just sighed and gently stroke his hair. “You need to get over it. He doesn’t appreciate you? Then fuck him! It’s his loss and there are so many people out there who would be better for you anyway. You’re cute, kind, incredibly smart-.”

 

“Qingqi,” Mu Qingfang interrupted, his voice muffled because he had buried his face in his hands. “… just don’t, okay? And I am NOT cute.”

 

Her laughter made him peek between his fingers while he begrudgingly let her ruffle his already hard to manage curls.

 

“Yes, you are. You are adorable and we need to find someone to keep you from working yourself to death one day.” There was a lot of mirth but also motherly concern in her voice and Mu Qingfang felt his chest warm.

 

He still shooed his best friend out of the room after they talked a bit more about trivial things.

 

When he finally put his notes down after two more hours of work, he rubbed his tired eyes. The light outside was almost gone and he decided it was time to go to sleep.

 

When the door opened again without someone knocking first, he sighed.

 

“What kind of e-.”

 

He never finished his words. Only a pair of black sneakers came into view as his shoulder hit the floor, then the world went dark.

 

 

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge balled his right hand into a fist a few times, but the numb feeling was still slightly there. Shang Qinghua had had a look at it in the evening, so the burn and the nerve damage should be gone. It was just annoying him.

 

In hindsight, it had been stupid of him to try and shield Shen Yuan with his arm when that woman attacked. Luo Binghe had negated the electric energy only a split second later and it would not have reached Shen Yuan at all. Fortunately, this had also meant the shock hitting him was cut short. He did not want to experience something like that ever again. The urge to hit a woman had never been so strong in him, even after Luo Binghe had given her a taste of her own medicine that left her twitching on the ground.

 

They were both lightning users. She would be fine.

 

Luo Binghe now sat next to him, looking like he was about to say something. After failing to keep Liu Qingge from falling into the water and the injury later, he was watching over him like a hawk. Albeit strangely flattering, it annoyed him to no end, making him feel like the maiden in distress that was constantly protected be the hero. He was damn well capable of looking after himself, thank you very much!

 

“There is nothing wrong with my hand. Stop fussing,” he told Luo Binghe for the third time in ten minutes.

 

The two of them were watching Shen Yuan negotiate the last of their deal with the traders. Mobei Jun gave the man who questioned how they were planning to transport the ten barrels a bored look and the water vanished into thin air, leaving the local gaping for a bit.

 

Liu Qingge knew after encountering quite a few of them that normal space users needed to touch whatever they wanted to put into their dimension. Circumventing this without breaking a sweat meant that Mobei Jun’s powers were way more advanced than he had thought.

 

This guy was a whole other level of dangerous. He itched to have a proper fight with him.

 

Still, it sped things up a lot and Liu Qingge could not wait to leave this place behind. The only people who came close to them, without having to, were the boy who lead them when they arrived and strangely enough the daughter of the two leaders.

 

Jiang Yanli was the complete opposite to her mother with a mild temper, gentle eyes and a wood element ability that seemed a bit underdeveloped. She appeared to have all but adopted Hua Cheng and especially Xie Lian and seemed genuinely sad to see them go. Looking at how she did not even flinch in the presence of Luo Binghe, Liu Qingge had to admit he liked the girl. In his opinion she was a lot stronger than she looked. A bit like his younger sister.

 

He missed Mingyan. She had been the only member of his family back at Hua Huan base to show genuine support when he came clean about his relationship with Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan. Though, he could do without the intimate questions about his sex life.

 

She said it was research for the stories she wrote and Liu Qingge had decided then and there that he did not want to know anything more about his sister’s tastes and hobbies!

 

“We’re ready!” Shen Yuan called after he almost had to pry Xie Lian from Jiang Yanli’s embrace. They might have been tempted before to spare them the journey, but after yesterday the decision to bring the children along had been easy.

 

Liu Qingge got into the passenger’s seat, Shen Yuan lazily sprawled over the backseat. They had taken guard shifts last night and with taking the middle one Shen Yuan still needed some rest.

 

Only after he really got comfortable with them had Liu Qingge discovered that this kind and friendly person could become quite testy and downright petulant if he did not get enough sleep. A fact that was endearing in its own way, but he would rather avoid making it a common occurrence. Luo Binghe seemed to share the sentiment since he got him a sleeping mask from who-knows-where. The exaggerated sewed on comic eyes still made Shen Yuan chuckle every once in a while.

 

When they passed the gate there was only grim silence, but it was just as well. Liu Qingge almost wanted someone to start something. He was itching to vent the frustration of the last two days and nothing helped more than beating something or someone up. Sadly, the natives did not comply and he was left to stare outside the window with a frown.

 

“Are we going straight north?” he asked after they had left Yunmeng behind and heard Luo Binghe hum.

 

“We’ve been away for almost two weeks already. People might get worried and I don’t want the idiots near Bailu Mountain to get any ideas,” he confirmed.

 

Liu Qingge began to play with the hilt of his sword. “I welcome them to try anything.”

 

“They weren’t able to handle the few monsters we left for them in the forest. I don’t think they could even dream of attacking the base in that state,” Shen Yuan chimed in, the mask still over his eyes. “If they’re still alive that is.”

 

Luo Binghe snorted at that. “Weren’t you trying to sleep?”

 

“Yes, mom!” A little pout accompanied the irritated sounding words when Shen Yuan turned around to show them his back.

 

The two men in the front of the car shared a knowing look and decided to keep quiet.

 

---

 

Two days later they had just shared dinner and brought the children to bed. Now the five men were sitting at the campfire in the middle of the woods, Liu Qingge a bit apart from the others while he listened to Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua talk about nerdy things.

 

“Yea, I miss that comic,” Shang Qinghua just said with a wistful look on his face. “They dropped Super Sons when it was just getting good!”

 

Shen Yuan nodded emphatically. “DC always made the worst decisions. Most people never even knew about the really good stuff! If they had advertised it better it would have been a hit for sure!”

 

There was moment of silence in which Luo Binghe took the chance to scoot a bit closer. “How big was Shizun’s collection?” he asked innocently.

 

Shen Yuan opened his mouth to answer when Shang Qinghua interrupted, “I always wanted to ask, what’s up with the Shizun-thing anyway?”

 

Surprised, both of them looked over before Shen Yuan started to laugh. Meanwhile, Liu Qingge perked up a bit. This story was new to him, too.

 

“Ah, that goes back to this trash fire of an MMO I got Binghe into,” Shen Yuan answered, still chuckling a bit. “What was it called again?”

 

“Proud Immortal Demon Way. And It wasn’t that bad,” Luo Binghe helpfully supplied.

 

Shen Yuan nodded again and grinned. “You were cursing at it more as a newby than I was as a veteran player, Binghe. Anyway, it was a title given by the mentor system in the game and it stuck. He refuses to stop calling me that to this day.”

 

“The great Shen Qingqiu deserves this show of respect and always will, especially after his untimely demise,” Luo Binghe declared.

 

They were so immersed in their memories that they only noticed Shang Qinghua’s amazed expression when he spoke again. ”Bro, no way! You are Peerless Cucumber and Heav-?“

 

“Don’t mention that name!” Luo Binghe interrupted. Liu Qingge could not remember having seen him this embarrassed about anything yet. There was even an undeniable blush dusting the chiseled cheekbones. “How do you even know that?!”

 

Shang Qinghua shrank a bit and rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, you probably don’t remember me. My online handle was Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky.”

 

“Wait, you were that godly healer we ran Abyss with three nights in a row? I wanted to recruit you for our guild but you never came online again!” Shen Yuan sounded aggrieved and reached out to grab Shang Qinghua’s shoulder who looked even more uncomfortable. “Where the hell did you run off to?!”

 

“I kinda almost had to repeat a grade and my dad cut my subscription and internet privileges for… indefinitely,” Shang Qinghua explained sheepishly. “Not much say on this when you’re sixteen.”

 

Shen Yuan groaned but let him go. “Seriously? How did you manage to stay up ‘til three in the morning in the middle of the week without him noticing?”

 

“Night shift.” Shang Qinghua shrugged. “And I really thought Heavenly Sky Pillar was younger than me!”

 

Liu Qingge had the privilege to see Luo Binghe splutter and even Mobei Jun looked a little bit smug. Heavenly. Sky. Pillar. Finest taunting material right there. Though, knowing what hid in Luo Binghe’s pants he could not deny that it was quite fitting.

 

Feeling his own face grow hotter Liu Qingge turned his head away.

 

He was still surprised. He would have never taken Luo Binghe for the gamer type. Probably another quirk he picked up to be closer to Shen Yuan. Liu Qingge could not fault him for that and he might have feigned interest in these hobbies, too, had he met Shen Yuan before survival became the main priority.

 

He was almost thankful for the apocalypse in this regard. Boring himself to tears just to follow his crush did not sound as desirable as it might have been under different circumstances.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

With a sigh Gongyi Xiao dropped his pen to massage his throbbing temples.

 

Since he had been forced to take over the lead of Hua Huan base, headaches had almost become the norm for him. The former high security prison may be one of the best bets for survival in the current state of the world, but Lao Gongzhu’s mismanagement left things in a deplorable state.

 

Not only had the man exploited his position to follow his urges as a lecher and pedophile, he had also squandered almost half of their supplies for his and his daughter’s luxury. There had been bribes to ensure loyalty from the people close to him, too. Gongyi Xiao was still unsure if they had cleaned out all the leeches after the man had been thrown out in favor of their new arrivals.

 

Honestly, the four men had been a blessing in disguise for them.

 

At first they had been wary of them, even Liu Qingge who had a tearful reunion with his family. They had been part of the first wave of refugees taken in. Then Lao Gongzhu and Xiao Gongzhu suddenly started to cast shade on him and Shen Yuan, trying to mark them as traitors while luring Luo Binghe away. It went as far as them locking up Shen Yuan in one of the death row cells until details came to light that cast an even bigger shadow onto the father and daughter pair.

 

A certain collection of compromising pictures to condemn Lao Gongzhu and on the other side a stash of certain weapons and other items that showed the peculiar tastes and the propensity for violence of his daughter. When she was literally caught trying to torture Shen Yuan, things had escalated quickly.

 

With only the ability to manipulate gold and no other skills to speak off both of them had already been of less use than the people without supernatural abilities in the base who did their best to pull their own weight. The attempts at acting superior to everyone else only lead to more resentment.

 

They had been chased out within a few hours, given only the cloths on their backs. Some people had even resorted to throwing rocks at Xiao Gongzhu when she still tried to plead her case in the most arrogant way possible.

 

It had been a shame.

 

Gongyi Xiao had not been part of the mob and he still regretted things had not been solved in a more civilized way. But when asked he had taken over the responsibility of managing their survival without hesitation.

 

His biggest problem right now was finding a way to feed the roughly three thousand people for longer than a few months. The greenhouse they had built could only produce so much and the earth and water users had enough work with keeping the toxins out of their crops.

 

People had already started to look for edible animals out there. Some had taken the gamble upon themselves and tried to cook their kills after gathering the nuclei. But, more often than not the results had been disastrous with mild food poisoning as the luckiest outcome. And the ones that could be digested by ability users were always already few in numbers. There were even less, normal people could stomach.

 

On that end the coughs were also getting worse by the day and many of them had difficulties as soon as they got out in the open by now. From what a few of the scientists among them had said it was either exposing them to the virus and risking to create more zombies, or watching them die in the most miserable way.

 

Gongyi Xiao dreaded either option, but judging from the current state it would be a miracle to bring even half of them safely through the coming winter.

 

He looked up when someone put a glass of water next to the documents on the table. Liu Mingyan gave him a friendly nod that brought smile to his face. Even with her ever-present face mask he knew she was smiling in return.

 

They had spent a lot of time together in the past few months and Gonyi Xiao had to admit that he had grown quite fond of her. The prospect of facing her family when it came to acting on more than feelings of friendship made him never toe the line, though. Not to mention that she was still seventeen. But perhaps in a year or two things could be different.

 

“Thank you,” he said.

 

“You should take a break,” Liu Mingyan answered, putting the pen out of reach. “Qin Wanyue said people are worrying about you, because nobody has seen your face in days.”

 

Gongyi Xiao was about to wave her concerns away, but sighed instead. “You’re right.” He made to get up from his office chair. A bit of fresh air might even help with the throbbing behind his forehead. “How about we have a look at what’s for dinner?”

 

Liu Mingyan seemed satisfied with this and followed him outside. When something suddenly rushed past Gongyi Xiao’s shoulder to land on the sandy soil with a strange sound he made a startled step backwards. He looked down and saw a black squirrel tail waving in the air. Its owner’s head seemed stuck to the ground and it struggled fruitlessly to get to its feet again.

 

“Damned pests! How did it get in here?!” someone cursed and with a start he remembered the newest mutation they had stumbled upon.

 

Gongyi Xiao had no idea who had called them death squirrels first, but the name stuck. And with good reason! The strange little animals looked absolutely harmless at first glance, safe for the wicked looking horns on their heads. If one met them on the ground they were easy enough to avoid or hunt down for their tasty, albeit sparse meat. Problems only arose when they had a chance to hide in trees or had other possibilities to stay high above ground. In said situations they engaged in their frightening, but silly hunting behavior, throwing themselves down at their victims head first to impale them on their horns.

 

Why they went for big animals and even humans instead of insects and smaller prey was a mystery to all of them. A mystery that had led to several serious injuries as well as one death by now.

 

He drew his combat knife to make quick work of the pesky rodent while others scanned the roof for more of them. Fortunately they seemed to be loners by nature, so it was unlikely to encounter more than one at a time if it was not a mother with young ones.

 

Liu Mingyan squatted next to him, her eyes scanning him for wounds in an instance. “Are you alright?” she asked warily.

 

“I’m fine. The aim was completely off,” he assured her and picked the animal up by the tail. It was a big one, probably enough for two or three meals if cooked with some sides. “We should start to think about helmets, though."

 

She chuckled, following him from the former employee housing for the guards into the main complex.

 

Gongyi Xiao returned quite a few greetings on the way and when they sat down at one of the tables in the mess hall he felt a bit more alive again. It was good to see smiling faces instead of the depressing numbers once in a while. He should probably go for a walk more often and invest more time in the joined training.

 

“I heard you went on patrol yesterday?” he asked Liu Mingyan while they were eating their plain meal.

 

“Yes, they finally allowed me go on one. My ability has gotten stronger, too, and we were able to kill a boar and a couple of foxes.” Her shining eyes made her even more beautiful. Gongyi Xiao felt himself smile again.

 

“That’s great. Your whole family is a big help for the base.”

 

To his surprise, Liu Mingyan sighed at that. “The biggest help would still be my brother. I wish I knew where they are right now and if he’s okay,” she admitted and Gongyi Xiao had to resist the urge to grab her hand to comfort her.

 

“I’m sure he’s fine and they’ll come back soon.” At least that was what many people here were hoping for in secret. Where he had become something like the backbone of their governing system these men were their strongest and most reliable defense. If something were to happen to them or if they were gone for too long, it would be a disaster for the morale, not to mention that it gave robbers and other enemies more leeway for an attack. And this included possible traitors still inside the base.

 

He really hoped they would show up soon.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua cowered behind a bush, shielding his head with both arms from the chaos around him.

 

There were fire and screams everywhere. Gunfire added to the noise every once in a while and if he were not, quite literally, caught in the middle of it all, he would have run for his life as soon as it started. The heat rushing over his head and the sound of elements colliding in the course of the fight almost overturned his decision to keep hidden a few times already.

 

He did not know how he ended up like this. One moment he went into the underbrush to relieve himself and in the next there was pandemonium around him. Had there always been this narrow path to his left? Had the mountain always been this close? Was this even real?

 

The last question, sadly, had become part of his daily routine by now. It had always been hard to distinguish between vision and reality, but after the scientists had given him a drug that supposedly enhanced his abilities in a short amount of time it only got worse. Everything happened too fast, his body and mind not able to keep up with the changes and at times he just wanted to hide somewhere and scream or bang his head against a wall until he passed out.

 

The times when he was grounded in the here and now got shorter and shorter. It was especially bad when there was nothing to distract him and the lucid nightmare he drifted in and out of began to overlay his senses to the point where he was unable to tell reality and a possible future apart. Even in his sleep he found no respite since they had left Lotus Pier. There were at most two or three hours of rest, then he woke up in a state of panic and confusion. He had taken to fake sleeping in the car to not distract Mobei Jun from driving. At night he fortunately had the option to just hide the tears in his sleeping bag until he calmed down. The red eyes with dark circles under them could conveniently be blamed on the oppressive heat. But the less he slept, the worse things got.

 

Still, the others had enough on their plates without him acting up like the idiot he was. No need to annoy them. Especially with the very real possibility of them deciding to get rid of him some way or another hanging over his head. He just had to get it together. Who had ever heard of an ability user who was unable to control their powers? He just needed time to get the hang of it and then everything would be fine! But until then it got harder and harder to keep up the mask he had made for himself…

 

He almost toppled over when someone touched his back. The coolness seeped through his thin sweater like a charm, driving away the noise and chaos to only leave the gentle light of the forest and the rustling of leaves behind. With a sigh he let his arms drop, leaning heavily into the big hand that had pulled him back to reality. For a heartbeat he just wanted to burrow his face in the man’s chest and never let go again. Yet, he only closed his eyes and lowered his head, breathing deep and slow to hold back the building sob.

 

He only realized how badly he was shaking when he felt himself being scooped up into strong arms like a child. Barely swallowing a startled squeak, he looked up at Mobei Jun’s face with wide eyes. His cheeks warmed instantly and his mind was suddenly occupied by a whole other kind of fear and excitement. Not least because he was pressed way too closely against the broad, muscular chest. His hand deciding on its own to grab the plain black T-shirt only added to his embarrassment.

 

As always there was a scowl on the unnaturally handsome face. The deep blue eyes studied him with a mix of annoyance and something he could not quite grasp. “You skipped breakfast again,” Mobei Jun said, carrying him back to the camp like he weighed nothing.

 

“I,” he began, but stopped when something light and small landed on his belly. The granola bar was as simple a message as it could be and his stomach decided to betray him when it growled at the thought of food alone. Thus he was still munching on the remaining honey coated cereal when they reached to others.

 

“Another one?” Luo Binghe asked with raised brows and Mobei Jun simply nodded, leaving Shang Qinghua to explain himself when he put him down. The strong arm stayed behind his back as if Mobei Jun expected him to topple over at any moment. Strangely enough it was the only touch Shang Qinghua could more than barely tolerate right now and he had to admit that his knees still felt a bit weak.

 

A bowl of congee was shoved into his hands by Luo Binghe. “Eat first,” he was ordered instead of the expected questions. None of them seemed to want immediate answers. Shen Yuan was trying to feel Hua Chengs forehead – Xie Lian had come down with a light fever last night and Hua Cheng’s eyes looked a bit glazed, too – while Liu Qingge was busy with his own food.

 

Shang Qinghua felt even more tension drain from his muscles and sat down on the grass with a huff. Then he saw that the bowl was filled to the brim and bit back a groan. It was not that he did not like it. Everything Luo Binghe cooked was delicious! Just, seeing all these things day in and day out had done a real number on his appetite for a while now and he already felt full after a few bites. The granola bar alone was enough to last him until lunch.

 

Only when he heard Luo Binghe clear his throat did he realized, he had been staring at the food like it was his worst enemy for more than a minute now. With a shaky smile he lifted the bowl to his lips and drank.

 

Oh god, he would vomit in a few minutes and they would kill him for it! Nobody was allowed to waste food! He was so fucking dead!

 

The next deep breath left him wheezing and coughing. It was a bad idea to literally inhale the rice and the feeling of liquid in his windpipe only added to the rising panic. Shen Jiu’s snarling face flashed before his eyes, the useless questions ringing in his ears. He was about to give in and stop struggling when a ridiculous thought struck him that almost made him laugh. He was choking on goddamn congee and would end his life right here as a fucking virgin to boot! How pathetic was that?!

 

The sudden pressure on his gut came unexpected and left him gasping for breath. Through the tears in his eyes he could make out Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun in front of him, so whose arms were holding him right now?

 

“You all right?” Liu Qingge’s voice asked behind him and he was lowered onto the ground slowly.

 

Ah, that explained things. Police. First Aid. Right.

 

There were fingers on his left wrist to take his pulse.

 

“Uh-huh,” Shang Qinghua managed rather weakly. His head was still spinning and the earth felt like it moved below him. With one arm covering his eyes he waited for his racing heartbeat to slow down. At least he had managed to hide the unbidden tears, though, he could not help but bite his lower lip to hold back suspicious sounds.

 

He almost dies because of a bowl of congee! The only death he could think of that sounded stupider than that was maybe electrocution via instant ramen or something like that.

 

The laughter came out more like a sob when he finally could not hold it in anymore. “I’m really too stupid to live,” he mumbled and earned a tap by something hard and cool against his elbow.

 

There was a noncommittal hum next to him and the person next to him let go of his wrist.

 

For a while Shang Qinghua just lay there and listened to the noises around him. While he heard the others pack and quietly talk to each other, the one next to him never moved. He just sat there without breaking the silence and this time Shang Qinghua really managed to calm down to the point where he was ready to take his arm away. He squinted at the bright sunlight, after wiping the remaining tears away with his sleeve, still counting the length of his breaths like Mu Qingfang had taught him.

 

Deep and slow. 1… 2… 3… 4…

 

He shot up with a scream. “Fuck! We don’t have time for this! There will be an ambush when we’re close to the mountain and it will cause a forest fire!”

 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan’s left ear still rang a bit from the sudden outcry while he listened to Shang Qinghua’s explanations. His friend looked pale and shaken, but it was obvious that he felt a lot better with the prospect of actually doing something about what he saw. And preventing the disasters at hand instead of stumbling around blindly was the best way to go about things in his humble opinion.

 

There were only a few problems.

 

“Sounds like semi-automatic firearms,” Liu Qingge deduced from the information Shang Qinghua had given them. Being the weapon nerd that he was, he of course picked up on that first. He would be still relying on his old service weapon, if it were a) not this hard to find more ammunition for it and b) completely useless against zombies and most other monsters by now.

 

Against the undead only fragmentation type projectiles or those that left huge exit wounds would do any good at all. Simply piercing the brain did not even slow them down anymore and it had to be severed completely from the body or damaged to the point where no function were possible anymore to effectively kill.

 

Small animals would jump around so quickly that it would either end in a lot of wasted ammunition with almost no hits to speak of or endanger his teammates through ricochet shots. The big ones were even worse, with thick fur or bone plates shielding their vital points. Carapaces were also becoming a common sight. Most bullets would never reach deep enough to do any real damage and only aggravate them further.

 

Only against other humans these weapons were still effective. In the hands of bandits it was clear what the intention was. Not to mention that they appeared to have gathered more people in the time they had been conveniently ignored for bigger threats.

 

“Time to smoke them out for good then,” Binghe commented and Liu Qingge nodded. When it came to a good fight these two were always on the same page and god may help whoever was standing in their way. “Letting them live is too much of a risk for the base. Especially with Lao Gongzhu’s people out there riling them up, if we’re unlucky.”

 

Shen Yuan watched them with a bit of apprehension until Shang Qinghua managed to speak up timidly, “If you use fire it will go out of control and we’ll be caught up in it. It’s dry enough to burn the whole forest down with a cigarette butt.”

 

Well fuck. That ruled out the easy option and Binghe had to twiddle his thumbs. From the sound of it, electricity would be just as dangerous to use.

 

The dark look Qinghua got told Shen Yuan that Binghe understood this as well. And it was not beneficial to their conversation that he seemed ready to run and hide again. Not that he could be blamed in this case with Binghe being extremely intimidating when he was angry. Shen Yuan was glad that he himself had never been on the receiving end of that particular glare in his third life. He tried not to think about the two other tries.

 

“We can help,” a tender voice chimed in. The two children had been listening quietly and from all Shen Yuan saw, Hua Cheng would have liked to keep it that way. His expression turned dark within seconds. Xie Lian continued anyway. “I can tie them up and San Lang can tu-”

 

“Gege don’t,” Hua Cheng interrupted and gripped Xie Lian’s sleeve, trying to pull him away.

 

Shen Yuan sighed when Xie Lian vehemently shook his head. “It’s alright. You don’t need to help. You’re too young to get involved in stuff like that,” he said with what he hoped was a gentle smile. The thought alone, to let children take part in a homicide, simply made his teeth itch. If there were any other way he would go without killing entirely.

 

Hua Cheng gave him a guarded look, still trying to get Xie Lian to leave with him. Especially under Luo Binghe’s curious gaze.

 

“I would like to know how you want to tie them up and what exactly your friend can do,” Binge said. When did he get so close to the children? He was already in reach to grab Hua Cheng, if the boy should try to run for it.

 

“Hua Cheng can-“ Xie Lian started to speak again, but Shen Yuan’s attention was diverted by the strange red fog curling towards Binghe.

 

“Don’t touch that!”

 

Qinghua’s cry came a second too late and all of the sudden a little Daruma doll fell to the ground where Binghe had stood.

 

WHAT THE FUCK?!

 

Liu Qingge and Mobei Jun were already on their feet while Hua Cheng pulled Xie Lian towards himself, arms circled around him in a protective gesture. Hua Cheng all but snarled at them like a trapped animal.

 

“What the hell did you do to him?!” Liu Qingge exclaimed, sword in hand. He looked ready to murder the children and this time Shen Yuan could not blame him. He himself was still trying to process what just happened.

 

With a snap of his wrist he opened his fan and tried to regain his composure, the little voice in the back of his head already screaming and cursing like a sailor. He was just about to say something and try to defuse the situation when Shang Qinghua started cracking up.

 

Great, now they also had to deal with him losing his mind! Though, he did sound genuinely amused and nothing like the pitiful sound half an hour ago.

 

Wait a minute…

 

“You knew he could do that?!” Shen Yuan asked, more accusing Qinghua than anything. There was the sudden urge to hit this shameless little…

 

He earned a nod and through the breathless laughter Shang Qinghua admitted, “I’ve seen it before… in another situation. He’s fine. It fades… after a while. I thought you knew too!” After another look at the toy in the grass he just lost it again, leaving Shen Yuan to shake his head and massage his temple with one hand.

 

“So… it’s not dangerous?” Liu Qingge reaffirmed uncertain, his sword still aimed at Hua Cheng who was shielding Xie Lian by now.

 

Mobei Jun simply picked up, well, Binghe… and threw him over to Shen Yuan. “You better keep that close.” Then he sat down next to Qinghua and gently knocked his knuckles against his head, saying something Shen Yuan did not catch. It only lead to more laughter, so it was probably fine.

 

After a look Shen Yuan had to say, the doll was rather nice. Black, red and white, like the original. And it felt a bit warm in his hands after he caught it, dropping the fan on the ground in the process. He wiped a speck of dirt away with his thumb before he asked Hua Cheng in a conversational tone, “How long will this last?”

 

The boy seemed hesitant to answer at first, but when Liu Qingge also relaxed a bit, he dared to move his attention to Shen Yuan. “Half an hour, maybe.” He still sounded rebellious and not at all apologetic, but it was at least a small sign of cooperation.

 

“And this is what Xie Lian wanted to tell us?”

 

He earned a nod from both boys. Suddenly the bandages on Xie Lian’s wrist started to move like a flat, white snake. “And this is Ruoye. The scimitar is called E-Ming,” Xie Lian added.

 

“Are they both sentient?” Shen Yuan asked, wrinkling his brow when he looked up from Binghe.

 

The answer was another nod and a dark look.

 

Well then. Things got crazier by the day. What was he even surprised for anymore?

 

Liu Qingge appeared to follow the same train of thought and quietly sat down to take a look at the doll. They shared a quick grin and Shen Yuan picked up his fan again. Never a dull moment.

 

“Were they made in the research center?” he probed further when the bandage, Ruoye, came a bit closer and touched his arm. Almost as if it wanted to make friends.

 

The only answer he got was a “No” and this time even Xie Lian shut down at the topic.

 

“Will he be very mad?” Xie Lian asked after a while. Shang Qinghua had calmed down already and by now they all just waited for Binghe to return to normal, Hua Cheng not willing or perhaps unable to speed things up.

 

Shen Yuan really wished he had a wristwatch like his brother or any kind of clock really. But then the time would probably have felt even longer for him. “I don’t think he will. Binghe can take a joke,” he tried to reassure Xie Lian. He patted the painted wood gently when it started to shake on its own.

 

“Is that normal?” Liu Qingge asked, taking the toy from him to inspect it further. A second later he had their boyfriend sitting in his lap with a grumpy expression on his face. Binghe looked a bit disheveled, but overall fine, as promised.

 

Shen Yuan decided to hide the amused smile behind his fan. “Welcome back.”

 

Binghe just got up and silently held middle and forefinger of his left hand in front of his eyes to point them at Hua Cheng with a glare a second later. “We still got a bandit problem to solve,” he said with barely hidden anger.

 

Shen Yuan’s shoulders shook treacherously when he only turned his head away to hide the laughter he still fought to hold back. Binghe would never live this one down.

 

 

Chapter Text

The item that decided the conflict from the get-go was a simple coin

 

What Luo Binghe had planned to relieve his pent-up frustration was more or less a one-sided massacre. They had tried to play nice for long enough and the bandits had shown their will to kill indiscriminately every time refugees tried to get past Bailu Forest. Even young children were not spared in their attacks and it was not like an open fight would have had a different result. But with this he was sure to circumvent Shang Qinghua’s prediction. So, what was a simpler solution than killing their enemies by bringing their own hide-out down on their heads?

 

The description they got of the area had been perfect and once again he began to wonder if there was an eidetic memory hiding in Shang Qinghua’s head. From the looks of it, the young man himself had not realized this, if it really was the case. Again something to explore further in the future. It would certainly explain a few more things he had wondered about.

 

Right now, though, he was standing opposite to the half hidden path that led straight to an old cave inside Bailu Mountain they had found a few months prior. With the broad layout and a clean water source inside it was only natural that the bandits had decided to occupy it. The beautiful underground lake would be the only thing to mourn in Luo Binghe’s opinion. Perhaps they could find a way to salvage it with the help of a few earth users afterwards.

 

He looked back at Mobei Jun who had teleported Liu Qingge and him here. The other zombie was leaning against a tree with a half curious, half wary expression on his face, his eyes on the small piece of metal wedged between Luo Binghe’s curved forefinger and the nail of his bent thumb.

 

Liu Qingge was the same, albeit a bit annoyed after being told to stay behind him. “What exactly are you planning?“ he asked at the sight of the almost feral grin on Luo Binghe’s face.

 

It was good that at least Shizun had decided to stay behind with the other three to guard the cars. Somehow, it became harder and harder to reign in his emotions with what he was about to do. He knew they were being watched, but the guards obviously decided not to give themselves away, yet. Even with a telepathic connection they would be too late now.

 

“You’ll see,” Luo Binghe answered after a few more breaths to calm himself down and suddenly every hair on the bodies of the three men stood up with the rising static electricity in the air. Lightning coiled over his arms and shoulders while he adjusted his aim. The distinct crackling in the air that prompted Liu Qingge to take a step back.

 

A second later the projectile left a thin, scorching white trail behind, akin to how lasers were depicted in movies. The picture was accompanied by a gust of wind and an almost deafening sonic boom.  The following screams when the coin ripped through everything in its wake and set the air itself on fire with the energy he had stored inside only registered as white noise.

 

Bullets shooting out from behind the bushes at the same time changed direction in midair to cause another bout of painful sounds, if any, when they hit the hidden gunmen instead. Some seeking refuge in flight were promptly frozen by Mobei Jun who was already busy smothering the surrounding flames left by the ignited particles in the air with a blanket of ice.

 

The sound of an additional explosion further away signaled the demise of the hidden weapon stash, minimizing the chance of survivors in the cave. A small avalanche crashed down the mountainside soon after.

 

The whole process took no more than a few minutes, leaving Luo Binghe to stretch with a smug expression and a satisfied groan. He ignored Mobei Jun’s scowl, his mood too good to be dampened by anything right now. “You blocked the entrance?” he only asked, already knowing the answer.

 

“Yes,” Mobei Jun confirmed in a tone that conveyed the words ‘Fuck you!’ without having to spell them out.

 

Luo Binghe chuckled. “What? I thought you’re all for efficiency,” he teased, not even bothering to get his curls in order. With the remaining electricity still in the air around them there would be little use to care for proper appearances. “I got the idea from this kid, Wei Ying, at Lotus Pier. He’s not quite there yet, but very creative.”

 

“He gave you the idea to emulate a railgun?!” Liu Qingge asked incredulously a bit of anger in his voice.

 

Mobei Jun just glared at him, his disapproval visible in the light, cold eyes.

 

Not that they did not have a reason for reprimanding him. Luo Binghe’s powers had almost blown up in his own face a few times already. Every time he experimented with more outlandish ideas to be precise. But there had not been a serious injury yet. At least not for him and he made sure to have none of his allies in the line of fire when he did things like this.

 

Well, unnecessary to go into detail about his additional adjustments. “Yes,” he answered Liu Qingge’s question and just grinned, when his boyfriend knocked him upside the head, the scowl deepening. From the feeling of it he had not even used half of his actual strength.

 

Mobei Jun raised his brows a bit, took another look around and grabbed their shoulders when there were not smoke or other signs of hidden fire to be found. “We should go back.”

 

Luo Binghe only had time for a quick nod, then he stood in front of Shen Yuan who made a startled step backwards. Shang Qinghua had flinched at the sudden appearance and knocked over what appeared to be a tower made of small stones.

 

“You lose. Two stories!” Hua Cheng declared without so much as batting an eyelash, prompting Xia Lian to chuckle.

 

Shang Qinghua frowned at him, distracted for the moment. “I never agreed to bet anything,” he grumbled.

 

“The road is clear. Home is waiting,” Luo Binghe announced without paying them any mind.

 

Forestalling the question that was written on Shen Yuan’s face Liu Qingge added, “He blew up the cave.” The following silence spoke volumes, but then Shen Yuan just shook his head with a sigh.

 

 

Chapter Text

Qi Qingqi took a deep breath as she willed herself to lower the fist she wanted to smash into Meng Yao’s face so badly. She had never been quick to anger, but right now she was livid. Only the thought of her best friend and the fact that Mu Qingfang despised violence kept her from beating this scrawny little weasel into a pulp.

 

Mu Qingfang had not appeared at breakfast and after she had not found him in his sleeping quarters or his second bed in the infirmary she had tracked down every last person who could have seen him. It had been to no avail until she stumbled over a tiny bit of information.

 

“Where is he?” she asked for the second time, her other hand flat on the wall next to Meng Yao’s ear. The little bastard still had the gall to look bewildered. “You know exactly who I’m talking about and if I feel only a hint of you screwing with my brain you’ll be out faster than you can say major concussion.”

 

Meng Yao swallowed and then swallowed again when she allowed the thought of testing Mu Qingfang’s experimental painkillers on him to rise to the surface. Not even the doctor himself had been sure how much of the neurotoxins were still in them. This could be an interesting gamble between coma, a quick death or hours of unspeakable agony.

 

She had to give the man credit that he still managed to keep a straight face at this point. “I only went to the infirmary because I had a headache. Ning Yingying can attest to that. She was the one who treated me. I haven’t seen doctor Mu for a few days,” he defended himself and the tension in his body told Qi Qingqi he was not about to run away from the situation. With his feet encased in concrete this would be hard to manage anyway.

 

“You were the last person to go in there. And don’t try to tell me Yingying or Ming Fan could be the culprits. A water and a steel ability user don’t have the capability to be this sneaky. Or are you telling me there were people who managed to hide from you?” Their noses almost touched and in the back of her head Qi Qingqi loved the fact that she was a few centimeters taller, thus able to look down on her prey.

 

“Like I said,” Meng Yao refuted with no visible agitation or fear. “I had a headache, or migraine to be more precise, so the possibility of me missing something or someone is quite high. Do you know what a migraine does to a mental ability user? Or any other person for that matter?”

 

She stared him down for a few more seconds, then Qi Qingqi sighed while taking a step back. “Are you still out of order or can you try to find him?”

 

Meng Yao straightened his shirt and exhaled audibly. “I can try,” he then said, holding up a hand to keep her from responding. With his closed eyes, wrinkled forehead and the other hand on his temple he reminded Qi Qingqi more of one of those scam artists that loved to appear on TV in the past. But it was all she had now, so she waited and crossed her arms in front of her breast with a huff.

 

A few minutes passed in silence before Meng Yao shook his head. “Either unconscious or too far away.”

 

“Great. That means I have to tell Yue Qingyuan,” she concluded. Shen Jiu would be having a field day. She could see the haughty look already and hear his condescending ‘I told you so!’ ring in her ears. With the only tolerable male in this group gone, she would go stir-crazy in no time.

 

After a pause she shot a dark look at Meng Yao and her fist was up again. “You!” Motherfucker! She had been about let him go like this!

 

But before she could do anything a sharp pain in the back of her head forced her to her knees. She was just about to crush the man’s legs in retaliation, the damage to her own psyche be damned, when sudden pressure almost rendered both of them unconscious.

 

“That’s enough,” Yue Qingyuan said calmly, though he was far from his normally friendly and forgiving smile.

 

Qi Qingqi grunted, fighting to get to her feet again. “Qingyuan, be careful. He is –“

 

“He is a government official. Meng Yao is here to negotiate cooperation between us and the Wen Clan,” Yue Qingyuan said and grabbed her elbow to help her up again. “I would appreciate you letting him go now. Mu Qingfang should see to both of you.”

 

Still gaping she loosened her hold on Meng Yao’s legs reluctantly. “Cooperation with the government? What bloody government are you talking about?! We’ve been on our own for over a year!” she argued, shaking her head a second later. “Qingfang can’t treat us. He vanished last night.”

 

“So that’s what this is about?” Narrowing his eyes Yue Qingyuan looked at Meng Yao who carefully lifted his pants from the darkening bruises on his lower legs.

 

“I know nothing about this and I’m unable to find him,” the smaller man answered, only raising his head when had examined the damage to his satisfaction. “Also, why should there be kidnappings from our side when we try to establish friendly relations? Wen Ruohan is an honorable man.”

 

Qi Qingqi nearly spat on the ground, but left it at a snort. “I beg to differ. Using your private army to coerce people into following you and doing your dirty work is anything but.”

 

“The Wen Clan brought peace to the capital with the necessary means.” Meng Yao again had a calm and levelheaded expression, not showing the pain his wounds must cause him. “Before listening to pointless rumors you might want to think about who would benefit from sowing discord amongst the survivors.”

 

Again there was the feeling of being manipulated and Qi Qingqi was unsure if it was just the well-chosen words or something deeper, related to Meng Yao’s power. She opened her mouth to refute him one more time when Yue Qingyuan coughed.

 

“How about you hear him out first without jumping to conclusions. From all I heard it is a good opportunity for all of us.”

 

And suddenly she knew what had been bugging her the whole time since Meng Yao had reappeared at the base. Qi Qingqi grit her teeth. “Sure, that’s why they send someone who can manipulate your thoughts! Do you even hear yourself talk, Qingyuan? Shen Jiu would laugh you out of the room right now!”

 

“Shen Jiu was the first person to say we should trust them.” Yue Qingyuan shook his head. “You’re reading too much into this, Qingqi.”

 

That one, too? That meant, Meng Yao had built himself the perfect little nest when she was not looking. “Yea right. I’m searching for Qingfang myself,” she only said and left to find Nig Yingying. Right now she needed this infernal headache gone and a way to get safely out of this place in time.

 

Their leader had sold them already into slavery and she was not having it. Whoever wanted to follow would be very much appreciated.

 

 

Chapter Text

After four more hours, and Shang Qinghua saving him from having his skull split by a squirrel when they were forced to get a fallen tree out of the way, Mobei Jun was glad to see the gates of the base in front of them. All he wanted for the moment was to hole up in his room and sort a few things out in peace and quiet. So, for him, the hero’s welcome they got instead was anything but welcome.

 

Of course, Luo Binghe basked in it, starved for attention as he was. He wasted no time informing Gongyi Xiao about the bandits and what they had brought back with them, turning Shang Qinghua into an anxious mess in the process as people wanted to get a look at the wood ability user who could hopefully help with their food shortage.

 

A tomato plant growing to full height in less than two minutes with ripe fruits ready for the picking hanging from the vines and a lot of cooing and admiration later he just excused them and led Shang Qinghua with him into the building. There would be enough to do with the water and some other things he had left on the parking lot to be stored away. To his surprise Shen Yuan covered for them, taking the chance to proclaim they were tired from the journey and that the children, too, needed some rest.

 

Mobei Jun did not care what exactly happened afterwards. He maneuvered Shang Qinghua into the small bedroom with a desk on the side and watched him visibly relax when the door closed.

 

“You should sleep,” he said, ignoring the fact that it was at most four o’clock in the afternoon. What he also ignored was the small bed that would force physical contact if none of them wanted to risk landing on the floor at the slightest wrong move.

 

Red like one of the tomatoes he had just grown Shang Qinghua stared at him. “I-I really don’t need…” He trailed off under the stern gaze, Mobei Jun making no secret of knowing how little Shang Qinghua had rested in the last few days.

 

“Sleep,” Mobei Jun said again, the tone this time stricter. He hated to repeat himself with obvious things. The meek nod, though, almost made him cringe. There were again fear in Shang Qinghua’s eyes, which he hated even more. But at least the kid crawled under the blanket and dropped his pants on the floor before he closed his eyes.

 

Even if he only rested his eyes, it was still better than having him half dead on his feet all the time. In Mobei Jun’s opinion it was a miracle that he had not fallen asleep while standing, yet.

 

When he was sure Shang Qinghua did not need anything else, he sat down in the chair, placing his boots on the desk and again tried to make sense of the records he had taken from the research center. Maybe after seeing some of the powers Xie Lian and Hua Cheng had, it would be easier to decipher the gibberish.

 

He had his back to the bed, movements deliberately slow and kept to a minimum. No need to add more pressure by monitoring his reluctant guest. The peaceful silence and occasional page turning was enough to give a sense of security. Soon Shang Qinghua’s breath evened out and got notably deeper, only to give way to a scared little noise about half an hour later.

 

Time to test one of his theories.

 

Mobei Jun got up to sit down on the edge of the bed. At first Shang Qinghua tried to shrink away from him, but when he slowly reached out to stroke his hair the tense shoulders and ragged breath relaxed. The death grip Shang Qinghua had on the blanket with all four limbs also loosened and after a minute he seemed to be fast asleep again.

 

With a hum Mobei Jun continued to read and after a while he did not register anymore how his fingers cooled the overheated skin of Shang Qinghua’s face and neck. If he had turned his head he might have seen the little smile the much needed affection brought to the young man’s face.

 

---

 

The next morning found Mobei Jun stretched out on his back, Shang Qinghua sprawled over his chest, half hidden under the blanket and sleeping peacefully.

 

Being woken up for dinner after a few hours, Shang Qinghua had whined about the heat, so Mobei Jun had decided to accommodate in the easiest way possible. The ten to fifteen minutes of wolfing down one of the dishes Mobei Jun had stored away did not even count as really being awake and by now it had been about fifteen to sixteen hours straight catching up on sleep. If there had been any nightmares, they had not been visible on the outside and with the slight drooling every once in a while faking sleep was out of the question.

 

Mobei Jun did not mind sharing his bed like this to tell the truth. It meant one problem solved for now and it was quite nice to have someone sleeping next to him. Or on top of him in this case.

 

The knock on the door a few minutes later lead to a very surprised Shen Yuan when he poked his head inside. “And here I wanted to ask if you had seen him.” It was a bit comical how he shook his head while quietly closing the door behind himself. “He’s been sleeping since yesterday?”

 

Mobei Jun answered with a hum, the vibration in his chest prompting a content sigh and a smile.

 

Shen Yuan regarded the scene with an amused glint in his eyes. “Wow, he’s really out cold. I’ll tell them to save some breakfast for you two.”

 

Mobei Jun hummed again and cupped the back of Shang Qinghua’s head with one hand as he began to stir a bit.

 

With an apologetic gesture Shen Yuan made to leave the room at that. Still, it did not take long for Shang Qinghua to wake up. He squinted at Mobei Jun with bleary eyes only to hide his face in the crook of his neck a few seconds later. The skin got significantly warmer, a deep blush creeping all the way down the slender neck.

 

Mobei Jun gave him a few minutes, his fingers still burrowed in the messy, black hair. At the feeling of the quick breath calming down again he simply asked, “Hungry?”

 

“U-huh,” came the muffled answer, Shang Qinghua still not willing to lift his head.

 

“You need to get up for breakfast,” Mobei Jun reminded him, but Shang Qinghua gave him a sound of protest and burrowed deeper into his hair. He gently ruffled the young man’s hair still waiting for a response.

 

“Don’t wanna,” Shang Qinghua finally complained like a petulant child. “Can’t I just have another granola bar?”

 

This time Mobei Jun wrinkled his brows at the ceiling. “No. Eat properly.”

 

“Then I’m not hungry.”

 

“Shang Qinghua,” Mobei Jun warned. He felt the young man flinch and rubbed the back of his head soothingly with his thumb.

 

There were a few seconds of apprehension followed by a sigh. “Okay, okay. I’m going.” Shang Qinghua took a deep breath and rolled to the side to almost face plant the floor. Mobei Jun had gripped him by the collar just in time.

 

“Careful,” he said with Shang Qinghua flailing in his grip and croaking a startled excuse that did not really make sense. Mobei Jun just got up and made him sit on the bed. “You okay?” Clumsy and jumpy was a bad mix at the best of times. Better not risk him injuring himself again.

 

Shang Qinghua simply nodded. With red cheeks and his hair standing up in all directions he was a rather pathetic sight. The little pout made him look even more like a child and the word jailbait flashed in the back of Mobei Jun’s mind when he realized that he was only wearing underpants and a shirt that showed most of his collarbone and left shoulder right now. His eyes lingered a bit too long on the slender legs until he gave himself a mental slap.

 

“Get dressed,” he growled, more agitated at his own thoughts, but it still made Shang Qinghua wince and pick up his pants as fast as possible. He nearly fell over his own feet again in the process, giving an even more inappropriate sight.

 

Mobei Jun quickly turned away to sort out his own clothing situation. Even if the kid was of age, he would not take advantage of the situation! He needed security and help, not someone with ulterior motives!

 

When he turned around he looked right into the eyes of a scared kitten begging for love and attention.

 

Oh, for fucks sake!

 

 

Chapter Text

Gongyi Xiao sat at his desk, eyes closed, spoon in one hand and the other supporting his head at temple height. For once he did not care about his posture, nor his elbow leaning on the wood. Not even the fact that he was eating during an important discussion was in any way relevant to him. His brow was creased and his lips pressed into a thin line.

 

He inhaled and exhaled deeply through his nose and when he opened his eyes he was looking at the man in front of him like he was seeing the stupidest person in the world. “So, you’re telling me that these kids have a volatile temper and could probably wipe out the whole base and a few kilometers around us at a whim and you’re still planning to leave them here and have us look after them?”

 

“Hua Cheng has a volatile temper, but as long as you don’t threaten him and treat Xia Lian well, it will be alright,” Luo Binghe corrected, seemingly unfazed by the sheer outrage in Gongyi Xiao’s face. “We will stay here ‘til winter is over and have an eye on them. After that it should be okay. They could even become an asset for protecting the base.”

 

“That means you will stay here for at least eight months and make sure they don’t cause any accidents?” Gonyi Xiao heard his voice slightly rise. It was extremely difficult not to shout in face of the nonchalant reaction.

 

And then came the point where he felt like he might pop a vein or two as Luo Binghe said, “We will go on hunts every once in a while. But only for a day or two. Three at most if things don’t go as planned. Oh, and a short trip to Jinlan in a couple of months.”

 

“Wait. You’re planning to disappear for days, if not one or two weeks and have us just pray that nothing goes wrong? Where did you even find them?!” Gongyi Xiao snapped.

 

This time Luo Binghe just shrugged. “We got them out of the research center before the thing blew up. And they’re children, not monsters. If you-.”

 

Gongyi Xiao lifted a hand to interrupt him and took a deep breath. He proceeded to glower at the other man. “Please don’t tell me you had anything to do with the explosion. Did these children have anything to do with the search for the cure?”

 

“They were not searching for a cure. It was a weapon factory for the military, controlled by the government. Genetic manipulation, brainwashing, you name it. They were mostly going for children and disabled people as guinea pigs. The stronger ones were all turned into well-behaved puppets or taken apart for genetic material. I can give you at least ten scientific reports that prove it,” Luo Binghe deadpanned and Gongyi Xiao felt himself instantly deflate.

 

Many had suspected that there was more to the pretentious announcement and the search for rare and powerful abilities, but it was still hard to swallow. He looked into the dark eyes that held not a hint of malice or deception at this moment and sighed deeply. He was almost ready to curse.

 

After another slow breath that was still unable to calm him down even a tiny bit he ate a bite of his breakfast. So much for the brilliant hope of humanity and trusting anyone from the outside. “And what about the third one? Shang Qinghua?”

 

“An old friend from Cang Qiong base. He’s harmless and willing to help. He could tell you a thing or two about the so-called saviors of mankind, too,” was the answer that made Gongyi Xiao cringe. “Part of the team and our new medic.”

 

No wonder that one looked like a deer in the headlights in front of strangers.

 

“Fine,” he found himself saying. “I guess you expect me to get someone trustworthy to take care of the children and keep this under wraps?” At the nod and the insufferable smirk on Luo Binghe’s face he again glowered at him. “You owe me big time!”

 

“Yea, I know.” Luo Binghe took the hint and got up from the chair he had been lounging in for the last twenty minutes. “By the way, there was a zombie attack at the same time. Nobody will be able to track the explosion back to us.”

 

Gongyi Xiao felt the need to throw a pen after him. With the closing of the door he burrowed his face in his hands, his appetite gone for the moment. “That’s not the goddamn problem…”

 

---

 

Three hours later he read the official looking letter for the tenth time and rotated his pen without realizing it anymore. It was a good thing that they had gotten rid of this so-called delegation from the capital in less than two days. And it was an even better thing he had not made any promises. Even with the bait in form of help for the winter dangling in front of his face. But if they really had a way to turn ability users into their mindless pawns it was only a matter of time until the choice would be ‘Follow us or die’.

 

After thinking about the new information about the research center and the fact that this probably was only one of many hidden laboratories, he wanted to scream. Lao Gongzhu had also sent a few people there under the guise of getting help with mental breakdowns and other problems. Had the man known about what he was doing? It had been mostly people who were rather outspoken against him.

 

The messenger had said, there was an older promise of cooperation made by their former leader. Nothing they could hold them to now, but they had announced another visit to give them time to think things through.

 

Gongyi Xiao had understood the veiled threat as what it was. Alas, he had not been clear what it actually entailed at that point.

 

A wisp of smoke startled him out of his gloom and he watched the tiny flame in the middle of the stack of paper eat its way to the outside. There was nothing left of the oppressive contract attached to the treacherous words but a small pile of ash and a molten stapler. With a swift gesture he wiped it off the unmarked tabletop and grit his teeth. To hell with that! As if these people had done anything for them when everyone was running for their lives! He would not sell anyone out like that!

 

Just… how to break the news without having a potential riot on his hands?

 

“Oh, bad timing?” Liu Mingyan asked from the door and he looked up in surprise. “I’ve knocked three times but there was no answer…”

 

Like a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day she brought a smile to his face. “No, it’s alright. I was just thinking. Anything you need?”

 

“There is something going on at the greenhouse and I thought you might want to have a look,” she explained and Gongyi Xiao could see the excitement in her eyes.

 

He nodded, taking one last look at his empty desk to follow her outside. The question if she knew more details was met with a silent curving of her eyes over the mask. He supposed it was a good thing then.

 

And it was actually amazing what he saw when he entered the well temperature glass building. At the first glance he saw several fields that originally were full of sad looking or even wilting sprouts covered with healthy looking plants. They were not yet ready to bear fruit, but the foundation was made and a sight to behold.

 

“These are-?” he asked, startled by the bright grin Qin Wanrong gave him. She was one of the water users responsible for the place and had looked cast down for months.

 

She spread her arms in absolute delight, almost hitting her older sister who was standing beside her. “Tomatoes, cucumber, green beans, leeks, radish, cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower… Everything we planted thrives! We just added some wood energy to the water two hours ago! If it stays like this we’ll have a full harvest in a week! We could even try to plant grain or rice at this rate! It’s incredible!”

 

Again Gongyi Xiao looked around, trying to take this information in. Suddenly it was like a huge weight had dropped from his shoulders. Judging from the big smiles all around he was by far not the only one who felt this way.

 

“And Shang Qinghua?” he inquired when he realized the young man responsible for this little miracle was nowhere to be seen.

 

Qin Wanrong gave him a sheepish look. “It worked so well that we made some more for the next few days and then he looked really tired. I don’t know where he is, but Mobei Jun looked like he wanted to eat us alive.”

 

“Oh.”

 

The sound made by Liu Mingyan was a mix of curiosity and understanding. Her smile behind the mask was wide enough to show on her cheeks and the slightly curved eyes. When she noticed him looking she cleared he throat. “It’s good that he’s taken care of, isn’t it? It would be bad if he got sick.”

 

Gongyi Xiao nodded at that. “I will thank him later,” he just said, again puzzled by the mystery that was his – hopefully – future girlfriend. In the back of his mind he already planned extra guards for the greenhouse. With this opportunity at hand he was unwilling to risk anything. If they were able to utilize these powers to their full potential it would be no problem to feed even more people without running into problems. They only needed to keep some of the produce to use it as seed material every time.

 

Now he only had to find Luo Binghe, Liu Qingge and Shen Yuan to talk about the other problem. With three of the strongest people in the base on his side he might be able to convince the other inhabitants of his plans to stay independent. Not that he was not able to listen to other opinions or wanted to oppress anyone. It was just an attempt to give them enough security and self-esteem to not panic at the mere thought of an attack anymore.

 

With the bandits gone they had enough time to prepare properly for an eventual fight.

 

Chapter Text

„Any thoughts on how to deal with this?” Gongyi Xiao finished his monologue after he had asked the three of them for a private talk in the afternoon.

 

Shen Yuan could not help but admire his composure with all of this hanging over his head like the fucking sword of Damokles. They had been gone for a bit over three weeks, but it already felt like months had passed, or even years in Gongyi Xiao’s case.

 

He had been a serious and diligent person from the beginning, but still only half a year younger than Binghe. Shen Yuan had wondered if the two of them could be related, since they looked fairly similar. Now they were worlds apart with the playful glint gone from his eyes and lines starting to etch themselves into Gongyi Xiao’s face. The poor guy needed a break and all he got for his efforts were even more work and bigger trouble. With them dumping two wildcards on him out of nowhere the cracks finally started to show.

 

“We need guards or an early warning system along the road,” Liu Qingge added his piece after a moment of silence. Straight forward as always and as far away from the politics as possible. Shen Yuan hid a smile behind his face, refraining from stating the obvious fact that this was not what was meant with the question.

 

Yet, Gongyi Xiao nodded with a thoughtful expression. “We would need to clear out more of the wildlife for that to work, but it’s a good idea. You wanted to go hunting, right? And since you’re also for staying independent, I’ll gladly accept your help when we make the whole thing public. We just need to decide on when and how we break this to three thousand people. ”

 

Now Shen Yuan felt his eyebrows raise. Someone’s gotten crafty. He shared a look with Binghe who seemed just as surprised before he cleared his throat.

 

“Wouldn’t it be a good to do this when we’ve got the first harvest?” he ventured, still hidden behind his fan. “It’s probably easier to swallow when they know we’re self-sufficient and don’t need any help from the outside.”

 

“If we drop a hint that we’d probably have to share the produce if we take the offer it could make this even easier. That was part of the contract, wasn’t it?” Luo Binghe added and Shen Yuan had to commend him on his quick thinking.

 

They looked at Gongyi Xiao expectantly who rubbed his nose with his forefinger. “I had planned to not make a big deal out of the greenhouse,” he admitted. That got him a snort.

 

“Seriously? Half the base already knows what’s going on and the other half can guess with how the workers run around with the biggest grins on their faces. And the tomato plant from yesterday still sits in the flower bed. People will die laughing if you try to tell them nothing’s going on.”

 

Shen Yuan suppressed a sigh. “Binghe.”

 

“It’s only the truth, A-Yuan,” his offending boyfriend tried to defend himself. Liu Qingge gave him a dark look, but Gongyi Xiao unexpectedly started to chuckle.

 

He regarded all three of them with a warm smile. “You have no idea how good it is to have you back here.”

 

Shen Yuan blinked and he was sure the other two looked just as surprised. But then he could not help but grin just as wide as Gongyi Xiao. “It’s good to be back home.”

 

 

One hour and a lot of laughter and friendly banter later they left the small office.

 

Luo Binghe stretched in the decidedly too warm sunshine next to Shen Yuan and he could only shake his head. “I really don’t envy him. Does anyone here ever help the poor guy?” he complained quietly, earning a shrug from Binghe.

 

“If you want things done properly you need to do them yourself. And there are still rats hiding in the complex,” Binghe said, his voice also lowered. “If he trusts the wrong people we’re screwed in a few months tops.”

 

Shen Yuan gave him a dark look. “I know that. Still, if he collapses from overworking himself it helps nobody either.”

 

“That’s why we agreed to be the helpful idiots, isn’t it?” Binghe grinned and stole a kiss behind the fan, his arm around Liu Qingge’s waist. After a whack with said fan and an elbow to the ribs he pouted, his eyes giving the dreaded puppy impression – tears included - that always managed to melt Shen Yuan’s heart.

 

“Not out in the open,” Shen Yuan chided none the less, glad he saw no one looking at them.  

 

“What’s the plan?” Liu Qingge thankfully prevented further slapstick. He still had not removed Binghe’s, Shen Yuan noticed amused.

 

It was a bit ironic that Shen Jiu of all people had been the cause that these two had stopped butting heads. If anything, his brother was surprisingly good at posing as a common enemy for other people. He’d probably be livid if he realized it was his own animosity that made this relationship possible. And yet Shen Yuan had to admit he missed his brother. Not to mention Qi-ge.

 

He really hoped everything was alright over there and his brother had managed to turn things around on some level. The plan to drive away the people unable to defend themselves to keep them from harm never sat right with him. Only Shen Jiu had seen it as the best option after he already gained a reputation in the first few weeks for mercilessly harvesting nuclei from the zombies they killed on their way. He really wished his brother would stop embracing the role of the ruthless monster and try a more level-headed approach. There was always the threat of breaking his own neck in the process with all the resentment he piled on himself. Though, Shen Jiu had never seen much worth in himself from the beginning. Shen Yuan still heard his words that he probably had no right to be happy in any life.

 

A gentle nudge brought him back to reality and he found himself confronted with Binghe’s and Liu Qingge’s concerned faces. “You alright, A-Yuan?”

 

He smiled at Binghe’s question. “Yes, just memories. It’s nothing.”

 

“Oh, okay.” Both of them did not seem wholly convinced. “I asked if we should go do some cleaning along the road tomorrow,” Binghe then explained and Shen Yuan tucked his arm into his.

 

“Sure. I heard the squirrels are really tasty.”

 

---

 

 

Jin Guangshan watched the seven to eight year old child writhe in a pool of what looked suspiciously like blood with barely hidden distaste.

 

Messy, long hair, greenish skin, sharp teeth that reminded him more of a shark than a human and eyes that screamed the madness right into ones face. The creature was contained with all sorts of strange writings and what looked like a chain of talismans encasing its upper body. There was the smell of fresh meat, iron and fear in the air and he was honestly thankful for the dimmed lights that made it impossible to see what exactly lurked in the deeper parts of the chamber.

 

Did nobody ever think to clean this place?

 

But worse than the smell were the screams and mad ramblings since they had entered through the solid steel doors.

 

“FUCK YOU! THIS ANCESTOR WILL RIP YOUR HEADS OFF, FEAST ON YOUR EYEBALLS AND SHIT IN YOUR NECKS! I WILL MAKE YOU FUCKERS REGRET YOU WERE BORN! LET ME OUT OF HERE YOU WITLESS-!”

 

The sudden silence was even more startling than the infernal cursing. Jin Guangshan needed a moment to gather himself before he looked at the man in white beside him who still wore an amicable smile. The scene dyed him, like everything else, in a strange, green light akin to a ghost light.

 

“I’m sorry. Like I said, this one is a defective product. There, of course, will be no charge and we would be thankful for any test data provided. We will also provide personnel to take proper care of it as well as the required fodder.”

 

It was a bit hard to return the smile, but Jing Guangshan would be the last person to let such an opportunity go. “When will it be delivered?” he asked, still keeping watch on the quiet creature from the corner of his eye. He had seen what this so-called guardian deity was capable of, even as a failure. If he could later get his hands on a better one for a discount it was honestly worth it to put up with the foul mouth and other strange habits.

 

“We will set things up within the next month. The testing phase will be one year, as we discussed. Would you like to sign the contract right now?”

 

Jin Guangshan nodded, turning his back to the ominous pool.

 

“That would be perfect.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng looked out of the car window with a frown. Even the view of the ocean a few kilometers away could not lift his spirits while they followed the mountain road to their destination.

 

He knew why his parents wanted him here, but it still made him feel so utterly useless they had decided to rather send him away than let him help with potential monster attacks. What his mother had said about proper education only made it worse. Who needed calculus and geography when your home could be destroyed any day and you had to be strong enough to survive? They made Wei Ying and a few other boys come with him to supposed safety and his mother had assured him it was not because they saw him as a burden, but that did not make anything better.

 

On the contrary. They all knew about the strict rules in the mountain recesses and having his stepbrother there would be a disaster. Admittedly an entertaining disaster, yet he was the person his mother had asked to keep him in check. He could really do without the additional headache.

 

Said headache was humming some stupid travel song for the umpteenth time on the backseat. They liked each other well enough, but after a week of travel and mostly utter boredom the antics were anything but fun.

 

“Can you stop that?” Jiang Cheng snarled with a look over his shoulder. The fact that sleep on the road was not very relaxing was getting to him more and more.

 

Wei Ying gave him a bright smile, his feet on a suitcase placed on the backseat, the back of his head resting on his folded hands against the window. “We’re almost there. Stop being grumpy.” He wiggled his toes, shoes who-knew-where. “Aren’t you excited? They say the base is still one of the most beautiful places left. It’s just a shame the people there all have a stick up their asses, if the rumors are true.”

 

“Then why are you excited? Their punishments are probably worse than my mom’s,” Jiang Cheng countered and turned fully around when he heard Wei Ying snort.

 

“They’d have to catch me first.”

 

Jiang Cheng was just about to make a snarky remark about how many times Wei Ying had been caught by his parents in the last three months when the car stopped.

 

A look outside showed him broad stone steps leading further up the mountain and vanishing behind the ragged stonewall. They were on a big plateau with trees surrounding the road, a flat garage building hidden to the side and a bold cliff reaching up on the left of the steps. To the right was a basin of crystal clear water, fed by a gurgling stream that had its source further above. He suddenly remembered what he had read about this place. It was village that had formed around an old monastery and even long before the catastrophe it had only been possible to reach it by foot.

 

The ancient writings on the cliff had long been wiped away by the elements, but from what the book had said there must have been an impressive list of thousands of rules once. A list that was still partially enforced by the inhabitants. Especially when it came to noise and indecent behavior.

 

Jiang Cheng left the car followed by Wei Ying who eyed the steps for a moment and then looked back at their driver and the group behind them. “Don’t tell me we need to carry all our stuff up there by ourselves.”

 

“Looks like it,” Jiang Cheng answered, just as keen on the idea as the other sounded. He turned back to the car after another look at the cliff. At least they did not have to literally climb.

 

Wei Ying still stood there and apparently tried to figure out how much higher the way went, judging by how he leaned to the right. “We could call for someone. Maybe people will come down and help us,” he suggested and Jiang Cheng was close to rolling his eyes.

 

“Sure, I always wanted to witness an avalanche up close. There’s a reason why loud noises are forbidden.”

 

“Oh.” The ever present grin on Wei Ying’s face looked a bit strained, but he picked himself up again just as fast. “Okay, hiking it is then.”

 

Jiang Cheng always admired him for the ability to see all things in a positive light and envied his cheerful attitude. Being pessimistic and more of an introvert by nature he had a much harder time getting along with people, not to mention finding friends. If Wei Ying had not been there, life would probably be a lot more lonesome. And his brother was one of the few people who did not get close to him because of his parent’s wealth and influence. He just wished others would stop seeing him as Wei Ying’s extra or an inferior version. That they had awakened the same ability bugged him to no end. Not least because Wei Ying was once again better at using and controlling it.

 

Right now, though, he had other problems than always being number two at literally everything. With a backpack and two full suitcases he more or less crawled up the mountain. The others were not better off having taken most of their belongings with them to prevent anything from getting lost in a potential attack. Even the three adults had their hands full with the extra luggage and up here the heat was not significantly less oppressive than at a lower altitude.

 

He was sure there were guards around. His mother had told them about how many of the people here could manipulate sound as their ability. So, if there were no people around the bottom of the increasingly annoying stairs the ones above probably heard everything they said. They just did not bother to come and meet them. It was likely they expected a trap.

 

Wei Ying groaned behind him when finally a wall came into view, still at least twenty meters away. This time Jiang Cheng could not fault him. He felt miserable himself, his whole body drenched in sweat and every step pure torture for his tired legs. With the air being noticeably clearer up here it was easier to breathe, but the incline took a toll none of them had expected.

 

Thankfully the gates were open and they all but fell through it, taking a moment to catch their breaths with luggage all over the path. Who cared for saving face and keeping up appearances? If there should be a next time he would leave all heavy things behind, including the books his parents had forced on him!

 

He heard someone clear his throat not far from them and reluctantly raised his head. What he saw around them then made him gape in awe.

 

It was as if they had been dropped in one of those wuxia novels Wei Ying loved so much. The place looked like to an enormous park, divided by small streams with delicate stone bridges connecting gravel paths. There was no sign of the horrible state the rest of the world was in. Only tranquility and peace.

 

The white wooden houses looked all ancient in style but well-kept and lived in. Jiang Cheng assumed there were vegetable gardens and play areas for children in the backyards. When his gaze followed the winding road further upwards he saw the majestic monastery towering over everything.

 

Only the people following their daily routine in modern cloths broke the illusion. Especially the young man who waited patiently for them to recover, a friendly smile on his face. He was maybe three or four years older than Jiang Cheng himself, but his immaculate appearance and mild temper made him appear more mature than his age suggested.

 

A few others also gathered around. They watched quietly with mild curiosity on their faces, every single one of them with looks that ranked above average. The curious chatter or whispered jokes Jiang Cheng was used to were completely missing, though. The silence almost made him squirm when he got up and brushed the dirt off his pants.

 

“You must be the people from Yunmeng we were told about,” the young man inquired, the glint of gentle amusement in his eyes. He cupped his hands and managed a perfect bow in front of the small group. “My name is Lan Huan. I will show you to your sleeping quarters.”

 


Chapter Text

A few days later they still had not gotten used to the ungodly schedule of their new life.

 

Being one of the few places that could be considered to have proper education these days, there of course were lessons five days a week in the reopened boarding school. That in itself would not be so bad, would they start later than seven o’clock in the morning.

 

The boys in the dorm had to get up as early as five o’clock for breakfast and morning training, which included three rounds around the monastery grounds. And Jiang Cheng, honest to god, did not want to know how many kilometers this added up to. Right now he did not want to know any details Period. He was tired, sweaty and cranky and ready to punt someone off this goddamn mountain at a wrong word.

 

A certain someone in particular who had coaxed him into staying up late with a few of the other teenagers sent here by their families. In the process Wei Ying had just vanished for two hours and came back without saying anything when everyone was about to finally go to bed. His brother had looked a bit worse for wear, but still in a good mood. Something that still bugged him and caused a foreboding feeling in his gut. A feeling that made him want to smack Wei Ying upside the head preemptively.

 

It was not that Jiang Cheng regretted socializing and having fun. He was just angry how hard it had been to get a certain someone out of bed under the threat of punishment for the whole room if one of them was late. He really did not need more on his plate than he already had.

 

What this punishment was? Well… more running and detention after the lessons ended at four in the afternoon and sometimes on weekends. In severe cases there even had been beatings, but those were circumstances nobody would find him in. And these only affected the person responsible for the crime. Again something he had to remind his brother of, if he wanted to avoid being dragged into more trouble.

 

Next to him Wei Ying yawned, feet heavy on the gravel and eyes puffy. A pathetic sight, just as the rest of them. Though, one was still a bit worse of, wheezing and stumbling behind the group more than usual.

 

Most of them were sure Nie Huaisang had only survived thus far because his big brother and the other people from their clan had protected him as the precious baby of the family he was. At one year older he should have been the person to look up to and keep them in line, but he was a complete nerd and whiny to boot. They did not even know what ability he had, only that it probably was nothing physical.

 

The only person who really seemed to enjoy his company from the start was Wei Ying, again without any prejudices or judgement. But soon after, Jiang Cheng had also accepted him into their circle and not only as a good source of comic books and certain prohibited magazines. The guy, under all his cowardice and complaining, never took kindness for granted and never got mad, even when someone accidentally damaged his belongings.

 

When they finally got back to the courtyard most of them were ready to drop. Only a few, him and Wei Ying included, had the energy to keep walking a few steps while stretching their arms over their heads. After their breaths calmed a bit they also sat down on the stairs. If they had to do this in the afternoon they would be fried by the sun for sure. Right now it was still rather cool in comparison, but the possibility of having a shower before class already sounded like heaven.

 

It still baffled Jiang Cheng that this place had natural clean water. This had something to do with the height of the mountain and the particles in the air staying under a certain altitude as far as he had understood. The hail, if there was any, happened not to be as severe, too.

 

The forest at the bottom of the stairs was a whole other story. Mutations ran rampant and the poison covered everything as if an invisible gate had been opened. So, trying to run away and hike to the city down at the sea was a really stupid idea.

 

Speaking of which…

 

“Where were you last night?” he finally managed to ask Wei Ying who had all but draped himself over the cold stone.

 

He turned his head and gave Jiang Cheng a cheeky grin. “You remember the wine I stole out of uncle Jiang’s cabinet?”

 

Of course Jiang Cheng remembered. They hid it in one of the half empty suitcases stored in a shed near the dorm. There was not enough space in their rooms to have all the luggage at hand and with teachers regularly searching the dorms for contraband like alcohol and cigarettes it was the best place for the bottle.

 

“Then what took you so long?” he asked with a frown. “It’s only a few minutes to get out there and back. You didn’t drink all of it by yourself, did you?”

 

Wei Ying shook his head, regret visible on his face. “I wish… Nah, Lan Zhan surprised me. Something about curfew and then he smashed the bottle. ‘Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses’.” For the last sentence he imitated the young master’s stoic tone of voice and expression.

 

“You got caught in flagrante delicto by Mister star pupil, ‘I skipped two grades and all my teachers love me’ Lan Zhan?” Nie Huaisang spluttered next to them.

 

Jiang Cheng facepalmed and stifled a groan. “When he comes after you, you’re on your own,” he growled, but Wei Ying just laughed it off with a confirmation for Nie Huaisang, ignoring his brother’s dark look.

 

“What can he do? He destroyed the evidence himself and it’s not like I drank anything or smell of it. The worst they can do is punish me for going outside at night. And it’s not like he can have me under constant surveillance.”

 

This time Jiang Cheng only raised his eyebrows and said nothing.

 

---

 

The error of Wei Ying’s assumption became apparent when they entered the classroom half an hour later. In the once empty seat in front of Wei Ying’s sat a stiff, pale figure with a finely chiseled face and light brown eyes. From the corner of said eyes Lan Zhan gave them a quick look that had Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang move to their seats without another word.

 

Wei Ying just stood there, visibly stunned, before he made his way to his desk and got his book out. Jiang Cheng almost felt sorry for him. But, his brother has made his own bed he now had to lay in. Perhaps the second young master could keep him from running wild for a while. If not, it would at least be funny to see him try where Jiang Cheng had talked to a wall time and time again.

 

He only hoped Wei Ying would not come whining to him later.

 

His thoughts were interrupted when Lan Qiren entered the classroom. By far the strictest teacher here, nobody was willing to test his patience. Well, again nobody but Wei Ying.

 

As soon as the man turned his back to the class after the greeting, to write something on the blackboard, a piece of folded paper hit Jiang Cheng’s desk.

 

You think the old fuddy-duddy knows?

 

He did not even look over, but watched with growing horror as the lines on the blackboard rapidly increased in number.

 

“It seems like some people still don’t understand our rules, so we will take this lesson to go over each and every one of them. This way ignorance will be no excuse in the future,” Land Qiren’s voice cut through the pregnant silence. He just had to turn around again when another small, white ball landed next to Jiang Cheng’s hand. With the hope, he had pushed it to the ground and stepped on it fast enough Jiang Cheng met his eyes apprehensively. The stern gaze sent a shiver down his spine.

 

Of course he knew! And from the way his eyes wandered over to the pointedly innocent looking boy behind his nephew, he regarded the last action alone as an act of war.

 

Jiang Cheng could only watch the train wreck that was the game of questions and answers between the teacher and his brother, until they reached the point on how to deal with zombies if one had to fight them.

 

“You have to destroy the brain or chop of the head to be sure they are unable to rise again,” Lan Zhan supplied after Wein Ying had taken too long to answer on this topic.

 

Yet, he raised his hand, prompting Jiang Cheng to once again cover his eyes with his own. Not this theory again! The man who told him this nonsense had clearly been insane and Jiang Cheng’s mother had almost strangled him for the suggestion alone once already!

 

“Teacher, I have a question,” the gleeful, but sincere sound of his brother’s voice made him cringe while he peeked through his fingers. Wei Ying got permission to go on with the wave of Lan Qiren’s hand. “What if we tried to talk to them instead? Some people say the zombies might not actually be dead and they’re just as intelligent as we are. We could work together and use their strength to survive.”

 

Every last person in the room stared at him with a dropped jaw, except for Lan Zhan’s cold demeanor and Lan Qiren’s slowly reddening face. “And how do you plan to survive long enough to have this conversation? They are monsters that will kill you on sight! They don’t even understand human speech anymore!”

 

“They do understand! I know someone who talked to one and he’s still alive. They’re not monster, just different.”

 

“OUT!” Lan Qiren’s scream made the shocked students around him flinch and to all their surprise Wei Ying complied without another word.

 

 

Chapter Text

The library was hot, stuffy and inherently boring. It had been for the last two weeks and would probably be so for the remainder of the three months of detention.

 

Wei Ying knew exactly how he had found himself here, punished with copying rules and old texts that threatened to melt his brain after a few minutes. He was also very clear why Lan Zhan as honor student and part of something that could be called the disciplinary committee sat on the other side of the table to supervise the detention. The only thing he could not wrap his mind around was how he again had managed to sit in an invisible bubble that swallowed every sound he made.

 

It was not like he was cut off from the outside. The sound of Lan Zhan’s pen scribbling away as well as the occasional rustling of fabric even seemed to magnify in his own silence. But whatever Wei Ying tried to do, he was unable to produce a sound.

 

Yell and scream? The result was nothing but a sore throat and being out of breath after a while.

 

Tap nails or fingertips on the table? The same result as trying to scratch it or playing with the paper sheets. Nada.

 

Hitting the ground or table with your fist? Nothing more than a ‘Pathetic’ if Lan Zhan was interrupted by the vibration of the wood.

 

Rolling on the ground in a fit and pouting? The full force of stoic ignorance after a reminder that the punishment would be prolonged if he did not reach his daily quota.

 

He had tested it all within the first few days and was still not sure how Lan Zhan managed to keep this thing up for an extended timespan. Sound users were more terrifying than he had ever thought and this revelation came long after he had seen one of the other boys rip a wooden dummy apart with his voice alone.

 

Only, this time he really had not aimed at getting himself in trouble again. He had done his work, kept his head down and for once not even tried to start a conversation with his prison guard. The perfect example of obedience, really, if it had not been for this song he still was unable to get out of his head.

 

Lightly tapping the rhythm on the table had led to absentminded humming and ended in sudden silence again. The only indication that Lan Zhan gave him any attention at all was a stern look before he vanished into his own work again. A translation of sorts from what Wei Ying could deduce after a few glimpses.

 

He scowled at the neat pile of yet again pushed away notes in which he had tried to apologize and explain himself. No mercy at all. He was really not used to one of his peers hating him instead of stuck-up adults.

 

And the worst thing was that he really found himself drawn to this silent one. He wanted to be friends with Lan Zhan, unable to explain the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ behind it. He only knew he wanted to laugh with him and make him smile, if this was in any way possible. The constant rejection only fueled this desire and made him double his efforts every time.

 

Jiang Cheng had joked about him having a crush a few days ago prompted by the weirder parts of Nie Huaisang’s collection. Namely boys love content he was still unsure how to feel about.

 

It was honestly a strange thought, to have developed romantic feelings for someone of the same sex. Not that Wei Ying had any experience with girls either. There had never been any reason to think about this stuff before. He rather put his efforts into sports or read comics and fantasy novels.

 

All he knew was that he did not want a relationship like the one Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu had to deal with. The kind of cold war one wanted to stay away from as far as possible.

 

He wanted what his parents had before their deaths. Something he did not remember clearly, but he knew the household had been full of warmth and love.

 

It had been the same feeling he got when he observed how this strange group of men treated each other. The three who shared a room in particular. Perhaps it was not so bad thinking about another boy in this way. If only he knew what Lan Zhan thought about stuff like that. And if he was really hated by his… maybe crush? With the other’s monstrous strength he really did not want to risk being beaten up.

 

Wei Ying groaned silently and picked up his pen again to occupy his mind with something else. It would be so easy to just make a photocopy of all of this. They even had a copy machine sitting near the counter! Carpal tunnel was a thing! Alas, apart from electricity it needed other parts to work that had been used up months ago. They were really already back in medieval times, weren’t they?

 

Half an hour later he suddenly heard himself sigh heavily and looked up in surprise. Lan Zhan studied his face with an unreadable expression. “We’re done for to today. Same time tomorrow.”

 

With that he got up and started to put his books back in the shelves. The same routine as every day and Wei Ying was just about to leave when his mouth once again worked faster than his brain.

 

“Say, Lan Zhan, do you think it is wrong when men love other men instead of women?”

 

It was an honest question and after having said it out loud Wei Ying did not feel any shame for asking it. He just stood there and watched the other boy who still had his back to him.

 

“Pathetic,” Lan Zhan answered after a pause, his shoulders stiff while he still faced the lowest shelf in a crouch.

 

For a moment Wei Ying stared at him, then he rubbed his neck in embarrassment. “Right. I’ll be going then.”

 

If he had not been this worked up, he would have spotted the red tips of Lan Zhan’s ears and the fact that the other boy had not moved an inch in over a minute. But right now he needed fresh air and only felt rejected yet again.

 

The fact that Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang were outside, waiting to go to dinner together, brought the smile back to his face. With a grin he hooked his arms around both of their necks and just laughed at Jiang Cheng’s expected complaints.

 

“What’s gotten into you now?” the annoyed voice rang next to his ear, but Wei Ying just shook his head with a grin.

 

“Let’s go eat.”

 

---

 

The next morning, after an evening of whining to Jiang Cheng about how cold and unreasonable Lan Zhan was to him, the seat in front of his own was empty again. There was no sign of Lan Zhan all morning and he found it increasingly difficult to follow his normal routine of sleeping, not paying attention and trading messages with his friends. He knew all this stuff already anyway and he would probably attend a much higher grade if he were not too lazy to put any real effort into his schoolwork. This not least came from not wanting to outshine Jiang Cheng too much.  His brother’s temper was bad enough being close behind, so it would probably be a huge blow if he came to realize how far apart they really were.

 

Also, playing the clown was much more fun than reading dusty books all the time. The things he really wanted to learn took place outside of the classroom and involved their survival instead of useless knowledge from the past.

 

This was one of the reasons he had sabotaged Lan Qiren’s latest history test with cheat sheets after promising Nie Huaisang to help him pass. His poor friend was utterly useless when it came to learning dates and numbers by heart. Lan Zhan of all people had caught him what resulted in a flurry of flying paper until the whole room was in an uproar. And thus he had ended up in the not so dreaded detention that awaited him once again this afternoon.

 

Only now the test was once again planned after the lunch break and he had no idea how to get anyone of them out of it. Who needed this stuff anyway? In a few decades, if not years, they could count their lucky stars if they were still alive.

 

Chewing on a grass stalk he lay on the ground with both hands behind his head. Legs crossed, his right foot bobbed to an unknown rhythm that was taken up by a quiet melody a few feet away. The boys who originally lived here had become friendlier to the newcomers with time and most of them were fun to talk to. But they still kept their distance from him as soon as any teacher could see them.

 

If Wei Ying could get them on his side to actually learn something useful, like real fighting or how to find the weak points of certain monsters, boring lessons and old, useless subjects could really become a thing of the past.

 

Right now, though, a familiar face took all of his attention and he waved at Lan Zhan with an excited call, while the other seemingly did his best to ignore him.

 

“Why do you always have to taunt him like that?” Jiang Cheng asked exasperated out of the shadow under a nearby tree.

 

“I’m not,” Wei Ying retorted with a little pout. “I just want him to be my friend.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Jinlan was a strange city.

 

Not strange in terms of architecture or people. Not even strange when it came to the landscape around it. It was just that this city had been the only bigger settlement in the country that had not experienced a virus outbreak at all.

 

At first this had been a blessing and they had resumed life like normal with the rich farmland around them providing for everyone. But by now the weather phenomena and the heavily polluted air, water and soil were all present. Supplies became sparse or too laden with poison to be consumed by a normal person at any level.

 

They still had no zombies or mutations. Not even a strange looking leaf anywhere. And on the other side, surprisingly, also no ability users. And that meant, even with power supply as well as the local sewage work still going, the people were starving or slowly rotting away from the inside without any help in sight. It gave the term ‘walking dead’ a whole new morbid meaning.

 

Still, the citizens refused to give up and had decided to close the inner parts of the city off to everyone and everything from the outside. By now they were so paranoid about the virus somehow finding its way amongst them that even people who offered to give them food and medicine were chased away. With all this Shen Yuan started to ask himself how long they might survive on cans and frozen food, if there were still any to find in the city.

 

That his brother had chosen this place to meet up still made him antsy.

 

He knew exactly where in the outskirts they were supposed to meet and already had told the others he needed to leave for a few hours. But he also knew that somewhere around this time something big happened to Jinlan that wiped the remaining survivors clean off the face of the planet with no proper clues on what exactly happened.

 

There had been no corpses, starved or otherwise, no signs of carrion eaters that could have destroyed the evidence and no signs of a big fight in his last life. They were just gone. Over two hundred thousand people vanished as if they never existed in the first place.

 

He turned around when he heard Liu Qingge grunt on the backseat. His boyfriend had been the only one sleeping after a long night, but now Qinghua’s head leaned on his shoulder. Both of them rested peacefully, even with Qinghua jammed between the two broad-shouldered men. If Mobei Jun minded the fact that his charge was finally able to relax in the presence of someone else, it only showed in his familiar icy presence.

 

Right now he looked out of the window, seemingly detached from the situation as always. Only his right hand that slightly touched Qinghua’s fingers was an indication he acknowledged them at all.

 

Shen Yuan shared a small grin with Binghe before he concentrated on the map they had taken from another abandoned gas station again. “Next one left,” he said, his voice lowered to not disturb the others. “There should be a safe house where we can stay for a few days.”

 

He kind of had come clean with his boyfriends months ago about knowing more than he should. -Telling them this was his third attempt at things in this hellhole was out of the question, of course. Things like that got you marked as a lunatic faster than you could say ‘don’t shoot me’.- But his gut feelings and the stories or rumors he had heard were taken seriously enough to follow the lead. Part of it probably came down to them thinking it was another of Qinghua’s visions back from Cang Qiong. Some of those had been oddly specific.

 

They followed a run-down street in the suburbs. The once white houses with neat lawns around them mostly ruins by now. It was hard to say if vandalism or the weather had gotten to them first. He was only sure that the roofs had been smashed in and burned both at some point. He was just unsure in which order.

 

Finally the sight of broken walls, windows and doors gave way to a high iron fence surrounding a fortified building. The gate hung battered in its hinges, but the house itself looked mostly intact, apart from a few scratches here and there. A good sign. He just hoped the unexpected changes in details that came up more and more often did not entail someone hostile already living here. After what had happened at Lotus Pier the butterfly effect could go jump off a cliff for all he cared!

 

Thankfully, there was no sign of life when Binghe opened the garage door and let them into the house. At first glance everything looked peaceful in here, too. It did not appear like anyone had broken in or attempted looting either. From all he saw it seemed like the rumors were true that no riots had taken place and life just trickled on until the people realized something was wrong.

 

If the town were not this insignificant and out of the way, all of this would raise the question why nobody had tried to claim it as a stronghold in the past. As things stood now it was not worth the effort anymore.

 

With a sigh Shen Yuan occupied one of the armchairs and found himself confronted with Liu Qingge who remained as the only other person in the living room. Binghe had probably gone to inspect the kitchen and the other two kept to themselves anyway most of these days.

 

Mobei Jun was about to become the same kind of sticky guard dog to Qinghua that Binghe was to him. He marked this down as a good thing, even when it cut his time with his friend shorter than he would have liked. Qinghua had put on some weight and looked a lot happier and healthier in the last few weeks. Whatever it would develop into, he was sure Mobei Jun would take good care of him.

 

Not to mention that he had his own close family to occupy him.

 

Part of this family just leaned down for a kiss when he stretched out his free hand to cup Liu Qingge’s cheek. He was really spoiled with his two men, wasn’t he?

 

“Hey! What about me?” Binghe made himself heard a few seconds later. Being crowded by both of them made Shen Yuan laugh and after a few minutes they decided to take things to one of the bedrooms.

 

---

 

A few hours and two obnoxious hickeys on both sides of his neck later Shen Yuan was on his way to a nearby playground. Yet again he had told the others only that he had to meet someone alone and this time there had been no debate anymore. Just a concerned look from Binghe and Liu Qingge telling him to be careful.

 

The overprotective boyfriends made progress! Shen Yuan just hoped he could rely on them actually staying away or all hell would break loose if they accidentally met his brother. With all that had happened it would probably end in a bloodbath he wanted to avoid at any cost.

 

A moment later he almost thought the bloodbath had already happened before he realized that the red on the ground was too bright and stiff. The sorry remains of melted plastic and singed steel bars made the former playground look like a massacre. Even what was left of the metal parts of the benches on the side was deformed into a mockery of its former self.

 

Shen Yuan shook his head and let his eyes trail over the streets around. From the looks of it there must have been trees and shrubs to obstruct the view not too long ago. Those had not left any traces apart from earth instead of gravel where they once grew.

 

Now that he thought about it, it was odd that there were still so many plants around that survived against the odds. As if everything was molded to fit the new circumstances perfectly. And only this place was the exception.

 

But what was more important right now was his brother’s conspicuous absence. It was the date and time they had agreed on. In the past Shen Jiu had never been late, always reprimanding him for being late. So how come there was no sign of him at all? Did something happen to him?

 

Shen Yuan stepped out on the street, listening for the noise of a car or steps on the pavement or anything at all. The silence and the light of the red moon around him were eerie. Not even insects made themselves known.

 

The air gradually became too cold for the thin cloths he was wearing without even the slightest breeze to aid it.

 

There was no movement, no breath, nothing really.

 

And then he heard the call of an owl and the flapping of large wings out of nowhere.

 

FUCK!

 

He ran.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Where is he? He said two hours at most!”

 

Liu Qingge observed Luo Binghe running a groove into the carpet. He had been at it for half an hour already. Exactly the half hour Shen Yuan was late.

 

How did Liu Qingge know that?

 

They had gotten a clock in the house to work and Luo Binghe stared at it every few minutes like it was his mortal enemy. Not that Liu Qingge himself had been any better.

 

All four of them sat in the living room and with every time Luo Binghe bugged Shang Qinghua if he had seen anything that indicated Shen Yuan could be in trouble the boy shrunk more into himself. Right now Luo Binghe turned to him for the seventh time, but before he could open his mouth Shang Qinghua finally snapped.

 

“I’m not a fucking magic 8 ball! Stop asking me every few minutes!” he yelled, stomping out of the room a second later.

 

Luo Binghe cursed again and while he and Mobei Jun glared at each other, Liu Qingge followed the noise of a zipper out into the hall.

 

“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” he asked Shang Qinghua who had just donned a windbreaker, ready to leave the house.

 

The boy stared at him in surprise for a second before he shut down again. “I need fresh air.”

 

Liu Qingge just nodded, grabbed his own coat and followed him outside in silence.

 

He was acknowledged with a startled look after Shang Qinghua just sat down on the stairs at the front door. Without raising his head he let Liu Qingge pass him to lean against the wall and cross his arms in front of his chest.

 

“I really have no idea,” Shang Qinghua said after a while when they heard no suspicious noises through the open window.

 

Liu Qingge gave him a nod. “I know.” What else could he say? He had never been good at keeping conversations alive, but to his surprise the boy continued.

 

“I wish I knew what’s up. Or that he just shows up in a minute or two and tells us he got lost for a bit. He’s my best friend, you know? My first one really… man, that sounds so weird. I’m really that pathetic, huh? If I could just control this stupid thing in my head…”

 

Unsure what to make of Shang Qinghua’s words he nodded again. He really was the wrong person to listen to such things and the more he did the more awkward it felt. But, it was strangely gratifying to have someone open up to him like that. Not to mention someone he had accidentally wounded in the past.

 

“You think we should search for him?” Shang Qinghua asked and looked up to him with a strange expression. “He really might be in trouble.”

 

This time Liu Qingge pushed himself off the wall and breathed out audibly. “We search. You wait here in case he comes back.”

 

From the dejected expression he got, it had been the wrong thing to say.

 

Shang Qinghua got up with a sigh. “Yea, I’m too useless for anything else anyway,” he mumbled to himself and this time Liu Qingge understood why Shen Yuan sometimes followed the urge to smack him with his fan.

 

Liu Qingge struggled with the words Shen Yuan or Luo Binghe would use, but decided to simply say what was on his mind: “Not useless, just the right person for the job. We need to know where to find you when we’re injured.”

 

Shang Qinghua paused in his step and he just looked at the small back for a moment. When he was just about to write the situation off as unsalvageable and move on like he always did the boy turned around and gave him an unexpectedly honest smile.

 

Perhaps, he was not that bad with words after all.

 

They entered the house again with the fear of stumbling over the bloody aftermath of a fight, but unexpectedly there seemed to be a truth when they entered the living room again. Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun were sitting over a map of the city – Liu Qingge had long given up on understanding where all these things suddenly came from. Having them at hand when needed was good enough for him. – and apparently tried to figure out where exactly Shen Yuan could have gone to.

 

“Any ideas?” Liu Qingge just asked, after he had shaken his head at Luo Binghe’s hopeful look to the door.

 

While Luo Binghe deflated Mobei Jun shrugged. “He went in this direction,” he said and traced the road with his finger.

 

“The best place to meet someone would be…” Luo Binghe did not finish the sentence, but three fingers all landed on different places on the map. He huffed with slight amusement. “Okay, we have at least three places to search. Shang Qinghua waits here as suggested.”

 

Good, their voices had been heard loud and clear as it seemed. Liu Qingge only registered the boy’s red face in passing. Why was he flustered again?

 

There was a short discussion and they decided to systematically search the area starting with the nearest mark on the map.

 

Ready to go Mobei Jun just handed the kid a flare to alert them in case of an emergency and Shang Qinghua looked at him as if he had gone insane.

 

“With my luck I’ll burn the house down,” he said, eying the bulky pistol like someone would look at a particularly dangerous snake.

 

Luo Binghe laugh at that. “As long as you don’t kill yourself, that’s fine.”

 

Mobei Jun just patted Shang Qinghua’s head twice while the kid now stared at Luo Binghe incredulously. They left, followed by soft muttering and the sound of the front door being shut.

 

“The school first, then playground and supermarket,” Luo Binghe repeated what they had agreed on and got a nod from the other two. Yet, Liu Qingge could not help but look up at the unnerving blood moon that hung over them in the night sky.

 

Shen Yuan had told him about this phenomenon once. It was not that the moon itself or the light reflected by it changed color. It was actually a sign for how polluted the atmosphere was. With the deep, saturated red Liu Qingge was surprised they were still able to breathe properly in this place.

 

He brought up the rear, ready to kill anything that might jump them from the shadows, but the longer they went, the clearer it got that there could hardly be an ambush. The place was just empty. Void of even the smallest sign of life, really.

 

“Looks like how they imagined post nuclear war ruins in movies, doesn’t it?” Luo Binghe’s musing broke the silence. He still seemed on edge, but more wary than aggressive. Liu Qingge returned the questioning look when he turned around to make sure he was still there and okay.

 

Before one of them could say anything Mobei Jun crouched down next to the remains of a garden wall and gingerly picket something up. He gave a thoughtful hum when Liu Qingge went over to see what he had found.

 

“We got company,” Mobei Jun stated. He held up a black feather. Liu Qingge was just about to ask which bird when the caw of a crow sounded from a ruin on the other side of the street. Two birds perched on the broken roof, cautiously following their movements.

 

When there were one or two a whole murder was not close behind most of the time. On reflex alone Liu Qingge had his sword already out of its sheet and scanned the other buildings. He only saw from the corner of his eye how something white fell from one of the bird’s beaks. It landed next to the house and Mobei Jun picked it up the moment both crows took flight to vanish further down the road.

 

For a moment there was only the sound of shoes on pavement, then Mobei Jun gave them a small note with only two sentences on it:

 

Found something that’s yours.

Meet me at the flower shop.

 

They looked at each other in alarm. “Where-?” Liu Qingge voiced and Luo Binghe pointed in the direction the crows had flown off to. They were sitting on the road as if waiting for them.

 

“We’re probably supposed to follow them.”

 

Under normal circumstances there might have been teasing for stating the obvious, but right now the three men just chased after what became more birds after every time they flew out of reach. It was an obvious trap. They all knew it. But right now they had no other lead to follow.

 

After the fourth corner Liu Qingge was not sure which road they were on anymore. He just knew they had been led on a merry chase for more than ten minutes. He was just about to voice his doubts when a sign on the sidewalk came into view. A wooden sign with bright colors and flowers painted on it. A wooden sign that could not have survived for over a year under normal circumstance.

 

He stopped dead in his tracks. “What the hell?”

 

The crows settled on the roofs around them and did not make a sound after that. They just watched, too far away to cause any harm, but too close and to numerous for comfort.

 

Liu Qingge felt like he was about to explode, the memory of a certain lake still fresh in his mind. He hated being played with and this was so obvious he could not even laugh. Only Luo Binghe’s hand on his shoulder kept him from directly attacking with everything at his disposal.

 

“You made it! Congratulations!” a cheerful female voice unexpectedly broke the silence. The owner of said voice immerged only a second later from what was once the flower shop in question.

 

A slender young woman with a bright, cheeky smile on bright red lips. Her hair was arranged in countless little braids and her cloths… did not really cover anything up and amplified her big breasts and swinging hips. To Liu Qingge it felt like she was advertising herself in the most shameless way possible. He had the urge to lend her his coat to satisfy his sense of modesty.

 

Luo Binghe crossed his arms, his expression one of distaste as well. “And you are?”

 

“Sha Hualing,” Mobei Jun supplied, his brows raised in mild surprise.

 

The prompt made the woman freeze and gawk at him in horror. “What are you doing here?!” She made two steps back and Mobei Jun just looked at her with a cold expression on his face.

 

“I don’t care what your problem is. Where is Shizun?!” Luo Binghe interrupted, obviously at the end of his patience. His fingers started to burrow painfully into Liu Qingge’s shoulder, but eased up after being nudged in the ribs.

 

Around them the crows began to stir and Sha Hualing fought visible to regain her composure. “Shizun? You mean that pathetic wind user? Really?” She chuckled and now Liu Qingge could feel the air crackle around him. “Not here. But you just have to give us the clairvoyant to get him back without a scratch.”

 

The same moment Liu Qingge’s sword was at her throat, Mobei Jun had grabbed her arm from behind, threatening to break it. Luo Binghe played with a growing fireball in his hand, his pupils contracted to small dots.

 

Just as they were about to question her for the last time Sha Hualing began to laugh, her voice like delicate silver bells in the night.

 

Not a second later all three men found themselves on their knees, clutching their heads in indescribable pain.

 

“Fine. We didn’t want to play nice anyway. When Junshang is done with them they won’t even remember your names.”

 

She stepped forward and the crows charged.

 

 

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua looked at the car jack in his hands and then the person who had just crumpled to the floor.

 

He was not completely sure how he got here. He just remembered a siren-like voice in his head that wanted him to leave the house and come to her. In the back of his mind he had known it was a terrible idea to heed it, but apart from grabbing the next thing on his way that could be used as a weapon he had done nothing to resist. Good thing he had been in the garage to get something to drink at that time.

 

From what felt like a lucid dream, he knew he had gone to a house two streets over. There also were other voices, one of them a woman, the others familiar male ones. The latter had been the reason for him to lash out as soon as the control on his mind let up. He felt no remorse, even with the wheelchair in plain sight. That’s what they got for targeting them like this.

 

When he looked out of the window he could see a swarm of black birds being shredded as two of the three men got to their feet again. Liu Qingge was still out cold.

 

Especially Mobei Jun looked harried and after another glare at the elderly man Shang Qinghua was ready to run down the stairs and help. Only the angry voice of the woman kept him from leaving quite yet.

 

“Meng Mo! What’s going on?” she called, followed by a curse, quick steps and the sound of something breaking shortly after.

 

Now Shang Qinghua peeked downstairs to find himself almost skewered with a blade of ice. “Wrong target!” he squeaked, making a few steps back on reflex. The last one ended on nothing and a second later he found himself crashing hard into a pile of half decaying debris on the first floor. Stupid holes everywhere!

 

“Qinghua?” he heard Mobei Jun’s apprehensive call.

 

Footsteps came closer while he tried to get up from the moldy wood. “Ow… I’m okay! I think…” The answer led to strong arms fishing him out of the pile and putting him on his feet again. The blue eyes scanned him for injuries before Mobei Jun let go of him and breathed out audibly.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

Shang Qinghua made a face. “Psychic up there. He’s knocked out.”

 

To that Mobei Jun raised his brows, but only went up the stairs to get the sorry figure and return outside where Luo Binghe was guarding Liu Qingge’s still figure. He wrinkled his brows when he saw the two additional people with Mobei Jun, but made room for Shang Qinghua to tend to his unconscious lover. Luo Binghe even relaxed slightly when Shang Qinghua told them that Shen Yuan was not in immediate danger right now.

 

“He’ll be fine. Just fainted,” Shang Qinghua announced a few seconds later. He felt as relieved as Luo Binghe looked. “But you two need to be healed and I don’t care if you think you’re not alive anymore. Just because they call you zombies does not mean you’re really undead.”

 

The words had just left his mouth when Shang Qinghua realized what he had said. He saw Mobei Jun and Luo Binghe stare at him with wide eyes and gulped.

 

Oh shit!

 

But instead of an attack or angry questions the stunned silence dragged on for minutes. Finally Shang Qinghua felt his shoulders relax and he sighed.

 

“Come on, it’s not that surprising. I see things, remember?”

 

He grabbed the hands of the two unusually docile men to get to work. For once his inner turmoil did not show on the outside and he felt kind of powerful with them helplessly confused like that.

 

When the cuts on Luo Binghe’s face had faded Shang Qinghua heard him take a deep breath. “Since when?” he just asked. Thankfully, there was still no hostility.

 

“I’ve known before Dawang got me out of the lab. You never tried to eat anyone, it wasn’t important. Why make a big deal out of it?” Shang Qinghua shrugged as he let go of them. Mobei Jun still needed a little more work, but was looking a lot better already.

 

Luo Binghe scrunched his face while he visibly tried to process the information. “Dawang?” he began and shook his head right after. “Never mind. What did you mean when you said we’re not dead? Wasn’t that scientifically proven?”

 

Shang Qinghua snorted. “Sure. That’s what they told people to make them feel better about killing off their friends and family. I only know bits and pieces, but the virus does not kill. It just… changes things. You’re basically mutants. We all are. It has something to do with the crystals in our heads.”

 

“You mean, normal humans have those, too?” Mobei Jun interjected and Shang Qinghua shook his head.

 

“Ability users have them. That’s where all this stuff comes from. It’s the only way to adjust to the changes and the reason why everything else can’t survive for long.”

 

Luo Binghe breathed out a long sigh. “Then why don’t we all turn into the same thing? Why the deviation?”

 

“I have no idea. Genetics? State of mind? Environment? You tell me.” Shang Qinghua shrugged and let go of Mobei Jun’s hand, feeling a bit dizzy. Slowly the cold also caught up to him and he gladly took the jacket Mobei Jun offered him when he started to shiver. A cool but gentle hand landed on his head.

 

Luo Binghe just shook his head in disbelief. “That’s… Wow. How can you be so calm about this?”

 

“Bro, I’m positively freaking out every second and can’t deal with my fucking life right now. You just stop screaming after a while when everything’s constantly spinning out of control around you. And right now I’m more concerned about that one waking up than anything else.” He motioned to Meng Mo still lying on the ground next to them.

 

Luo Binghe gave the old man a cold look. “Who is that anyway? We could just kill him, if he’s that dangerous.”

 

“Eh.” Shang Qinghua took a moment to get over the fact that he had just been pulled into Mobei Jun’s lap, the man’s chin resting on his shoulder. After a deep breath he melted into the embrace and closed his eyes for a moment. It felt surprisingly good to get all this stuff off his chest. “He works with that woman. And we need him to teach you about your psychic ability. Something about controlling dreams.”

 

This prompted Luo Binghe to glare even more at the man. He still had Liu Qingge’s head in his lap and Shang Qinghua was sure he would have at least kicked Meng Mo under normal circumstances. “That means he knows where Shizun is. Who is this Sha Hualing anyway?” After being very vocal about hating psychic abilities it was no wonder that he decided to ignore this fact for now.

 

“She’s my ex-fiancé,” Mobei Jun answered unexpectedly. “Our parents decided it. The hate’s mutual.”

 

Shang Qinghua blinked while Luo Binghe snorted. “My condolences. And whose young master were you to get an arranged marriage?”

 

“Mo Industries.” The scowl was visible in the corner of Shang Qinghua’s eye. “We should go back to the house.”

 

This time Shang Qinghua chuckled and Luo Binghe’s eyes grew wide. “Wait, THAT tech empire Mo Industries? The guys who had their hands in every new development since…”

 

“Whatever it was, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Mobei Jun deadpanned and lifted Shang Qinghua from his lap to get up himself. He threw Meng Mo over his shoulder, waiting for Luo Binghe to pick up his still unconscious boyfriend.

 

They had to wait a few more minutes when Shang Qinghua remembered something. “Be right back,” he said and vanished into the house to come back with the car jack over his shoulder and the wheelchair in tow. The other two gave him amused looks. He pouted. “What? We need those?”

 

With this he led the way, only to make Mobei Jun and Luo Binghe realize they had been running in circles the whole time they were chasing Sha Hualing’s birds.

 

“By the way. The zombie thing…”Luo Binghe said after they were back in the house.

 

Shang Qinghua just shrugged. “You talk about that when you’re ready. But I think you should have more faith in these two.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Shen Yuan awoke to a string of curses even he would refuse to repeat to anyone he knew.

 

He chose not to open his eyes for the time being and just listened to the woman who came closer with every word. The last thing he remembered was an enormous eagle owl chasing him into a house and then everything went black. The headache still throbbed lightly in his temples, but much less oppressive than it had been before he fainted.

 

His hands were a bit numb and when he tried to move he found his wrists bound with something that felt like plastic. Zip ties from how they cut into his skin. The same applied to his ankles, but at least there was no blindfold or gag. A big mistake. He certainly would not point that out to her, though.

 

Peeking through his lashes he found a pair of sandals only a few inches from his face. Slender feet, an ankle tattoo consisting of colorful flowers and vines and toenails painted with intricate designs. Why someone would put this much effort into their foot care at this point was beyond him. It had been beyond him long before the outbreak, so, as a certified slob whenever the situation allowed it, he really had no right to judge.

 

“Damnit, where is that useless geezer?” the owner of said well-maintained feet complained and turned away. The rustling of feathers together with a subdued hoot came from what Shen Yuan assumed to be a window. “I know, Ai. But if we don’t give Junshang what he wants, he will not let us leave. We both don’t want to be part of his little experiment,” the woman answered the bird as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

 

Again the owl hooted, prompting a sigh. “His control is too strong to run away and he does not care for the others. He just wants the one that can see the future.” Suddenly her voice turned a lot angrier. “If Meng Mo double crossed me over this I’ll make sure he needs more than a wheelchair to move around! When the incubation period is over I’ll make them regret everything!“ There was a soft chirp and the woman chuckled. “Yes, that one in particular. I’ll keep his head as a souvenir for all the shit he put me through. Not interested in this my ass. The arrogant fuck embarrassed me in front of two hundred people. His idiotic uncle, too. Killed the whole family. Yeah right!” She clicked her tongue and left the room. From the sound of it, the bird followed along the side of the building.

 

Finally Shen Yuan was able to take a look, though, what he saw made him frown. Flickering electric light, a concrete floor, bare white walls and a metal door. The window was too small to get through and high enough that he had to stand on tiptoe to see what was outside.

 

Yep, a cellar room it was. A small one at that. The only company he had was an old boiler that was absolutely useless in his current situation. Great. And since he had no clue how long he had been out the darkness outside either meant it had at most been a few hours or he had missed more than a day. Either way his boyfriends were probably going berserk by now.

 

“’What to do?’ Zeus said. ‘The gods are wasted and throwing up all over Olympus.’” [*] he mumbled under his breath after cutting his feet free. Right now he regretted not being more flexible. Without seeing his hands there was nothing he could do about the binding there. Why was there never a mirror when you really needed one?

 

There were not tools or anything sharp either. The door was most likely locked. Breaking it down was not difficult, but it would be loud enough to alert people and without knowing what exactly he was dealing with, this was a stupid idea. The fact that the woman was apparently had the ability to talk to animals was worrying enough. A twisted Disney Princess came to mind and Shen Yuan cringed.

 

This Meng Mo sounded even worse. A person who managed to stay alive and independent in this world despite sitting in a wheelchair was a whole other level of terrifying.

 

He crossed his legs and tried to ignore his strained shoulders. There was no real hunger or thirst yet, so he began to assume it was still the same night.

 

On another note he started to figure out what had happened the last time with Jinlan. From the looks of it this Junshang had sent people to somehow spread the virus in the inner city… and then what? It had almost sounded like there was a way to control the resulting zombies. Had they really created a horde of a couple hundred thousand monsters and made them move somewhere else? How was that even possible without anyone noticing? This bordered on mass migration and the only way to conceal it would be psychic powers or illusions.

 

Where would you even move them to?

 

Granted, it was easy to hide with a few people. Even a small village could go undiscovered for a while. But two hundred thousand? This was an army! Coupled with the experiments of any kind this made Shen Yuan not want to go further down the rabbit hole.

 

If these people were hostile they were fucked either way.

 

The whole situation made him want to channel his brother’s temperament and give his captors a piece of his mind to with a taste of how it felt to suffocate out of nowhere. Where was Shen Jiu anyway? If he was anywhere nearby Shen Yuan needed to find and help him. And after that he would beat him up for all the shit he put innocent people through, not to mention leaving him hanging like that!

 

Another hoot sounded from outside, followed by wings flapping. Shortly after someone opened the door.

 

Since it was too late to lay back down and play dead, Shen Yuan decided to glower at whoever came to take a look. His brother looked intimidating enough when he did this. Might as well.

 

“You’re awake,” the woman assessed after a short moment of surprise, but seemingly unfazed. She gave Shen Yuan a smile instead that made him tense up even more. “Perfect. You can tell me a bit more about your friends then.”

 

She was met with ice silence and the air around her noticeably thinned. But the smile only deepened and started to remind him more and more of a shark.

 

Oh no.

 

“Cute. You know, the rats Ling-er brought along are not only for feeding Ai.” She pointed at the window where the bird sounds had come from. “They really like eating human flesh and nobody would miss a few fingers and toes on you. So… if you keep this up we’ll just get the blindfold.” She sighed theatrically.  “Ling-er is not a monster. It’s entirely your choice, sweetie.”

 

For a split second Shen Yuan felt his eyes grow wide before he bit back a curse of his own. Should the sentient zombies not appear much later? If this were one of the games he used to play he would be ready to flip the table. How unfair was that?!

 

Still unwilling to admit defeat he stopped his attempt and slowly got to his feet. From the looks of it she was alone at the moment and the door was still wide open. The real problem was the fucking owl outside. And since she obviously controlled all animals in the vicinity…

 

“Good boy,” she praised him, making every hair on his body stand on end with the patronizing tone. “I knew you’re not that stupid.”

 

Did he look like a dog?! He was not one to hit woman, but this little shit made him want to strangle her. Under all the makeup she was at most a year older than Liu Qingge’s sister and even that one was more mature! He had had enough of bratty teenagers during his internship and this one needed her ass whooped!

 

“Now tell me whe…“ She had reached out with one hand to touch his face when her claw-like nails clattered on the ground. There was a moment of stunned silence before rage contorted her features. “YOU!”

 

Shen Yuan prided himself in the fact that neither his anger nor satisfaction showed on his face and sidestepped the other hand that got the same treatment in passing. “I heard, pet rodents need their nails clipped or they might injure themselves,” he quipped. One of the spaghetti straps of her top snapped. “You should really put some clothes on. That outfit wouldn’t even fly for a twelve-year-old dressing on her own.”

 

There was a mad glint in her eyes when the girl lunged forward. Again Shen Yuan avoided her and this time he added a little shove via airflow. The following scream initiated a flurry of movement. There were at least twenty to thirty greyish-brown rats filling the room, all of them significantly bigger than what normally lurked in sewers and dumps. He took one look and, when the first two animals jumped at him, decided this was the best moment to run for it.

 

Two heavy gusts of wind cleared his way, the last one enough to squash a few rodents in the metal door. He took the steps two stairs at a time and slammed another door shut behind him on the first floor. A silent, dark school corridor greeted him. That meant he was closer to the others than first assumed. Great.

 

The glass pane of a damaged cabinet together with the last rays of moonlight solved his other problem shortly after. With his hands finally free he began to reassess the situation. Leaving the building was a no unless he got the girl under his control. But that meant he had to get rid of the rats first.

 

“You’re dead!” he heard a female voice holler after him just when he found the stairs to the second floor. Time to give the bitch and her pets a little work-out. He almost hope the owl would crash through one of the huge windows to complete the chaos. Strangely enough, there was no sign of the beast being around at all.

 

Aided by his own wind he jumped complete over the second flight of stairs to wait behind wall right next to the landing. The animals jumped into the invisible meat grinder with abandon, obviously mindless under the control of their master. A yelp followed by something audibly falling down the stairs finally brought a grin to his face. Blood really was slippery.

 

After a quick breath he swiped the dead animals away while taking his beloved fan out of his pocket. He made sure it was undamaged, before hiding his face behind it and stepping onto the landing. The girl really cut a sorry figure down there. It looked like she had hit her head and was still trying to get her bearings. But she was still feisty enough to glare up at him.

 

“Now we can talk,” Shen Yuan declared and leaned lightly against the stair-rail. “By the way, I would advise you to take strangers more seriously in the future.”

 

 

Chapter Text

„Where is my brother?“

 

Sha Hualing blinked at the man at the top of the stairs in confusion. “Who?”

 

The fan moved slowly in front of his face as he drew his brows closer together. With the worn-out jeans, sneakers that looked likely to fall apart at any moment and the green t-shirt that was at least one size too big for him he looked ridiculous. Was that some kind of Donghua or Anime print on his chest? With a proper haircut and at least a vague resemblance of a sense of style he might have been handsome, but right now… This was just sad.

 

“The guy that looks like me, but with shorter hair and designer clothes. A lot grumpier,” he interrupted her assessment. The blinking got more rapid as she fought to keep her expression neutral.

 

There were two of them? Oh, hell no!

 

Instead of voicing these thoughts she leaned against the wall and shot a suspicious look upwards. “Do I look like the lost and found office? Why do you think I’d know? The only other people I’ve seen here are you guys and the pricks guarding the city center.” And that useless piece of shit, Meng Mo, whom she would pummel into next week as soon as she found him!

 

When the fashion disaster raised his brows she realized how much she had played herself right now. He had offered her a free hostage situation to get out of this mess and she had to open her damn mouth without thinking. Stupid! She must have hit her head harder than she first thought.

 

“Ge really didn’t come then,” he just mused, completely ignoring her blanching face. For a moment he seemed immersed in his own world before he looked at her again. “Can you see through your animal’s eyes or is it just control and communication?”

 

“I… what?”

 

Incoherence was a concussion symptom, right? Sha Hualing wanted to kick herself right now. How did this guy manage to catch her off guard every time? And how did they arrive at something that felt like a friendly chat? Was the script not interrogation and threatening to kill her?

 

But he just looked at her, the amusement visible in the shape of his eyes above the fan. “Your ability. How does it work? I’ve never seen something like that.”

 

Still no threat. Just genuine interest. What the hell?

 

He even patiently waited for her to gather her thoughts. The whole demeanor reminded her of her Biology teacher in eighth grade. Sweet, understanding and willing to explain as many times and in as many ways as it took for everyone to understand the lesson.

 

“Hold on there, mister crazy professor. Why should I help you?” she asked with a lot less bite than intended.

 

The guy had the audacity to smile at that. “That’s Shen Laoshi or Shen Yuan for you. And I’m just curious. The more you know about abilities the easier it is to find new and more efficient uses for them.”

 

“Uhm,” she made unsure of how to reply to something like that. But the longer she looked at him, the more she inwardly relaxed. There was a strange urge to be open and honest with him that she did not quite understand. She decided to listen to it and answered, “It’s a mix of sound and mind control. Only works on intelligence below human levels, though. They… share impressions with me more than real words.”

 

He nodded, closing his fan to tap the guard against his lips. “And the owl? You called her Ai, right?”

 

“Ai is different. She is bound to me,” Sha Hualing answered without thinking about it anymore. “We share the same powers.”

 

The man paused. “What do you mean by bound?”

 

“It’s kinda like a pact. She listens to me, we protect each other and make each other stronger. There is also some strange telepathy and empathy thing going on. I’m not sure how that works, though.”

 

For some reason he seemed really excited by that. “Wait. You can turn mutated animals into pets? Like in roleplaying games or MMOs?”

 

“Err… I don’t know about the game thing and it’s not every random beast, but yes. Like Ai some of them have human intelligence and their own abilities. If it matches and you do it right, they can become loyal to you.”

 

He tapped the fan a few more times against his mouth, clearly pondering what has been said. “This is amazing! And absolutely crazy,” he finally exclaimed with shining eyes. “Do you know if there are any categories, like which races get which abilities? Or is it just up to luck to find one that fits?”

 

“I’m… not sure?” Sha Hualing began and suddenly the detached feeling she had the whole time grew into something that resembled an out-of-body experience. She was unable to move or speak and could only feel herself get up from the ground. There was also a yielding smile on her face that had no business being there.

 

“There are some already recorded cases. Plant monsters for example only seem to respond favorably to the wood element, regardless of secondary abilities. Tigers and other wildcats have shown mostly fire or lightning affinities. Fish and ephebic creatures are prone to be of the water variety … You probably get the gist.”

 

There was a conversational tone to her voice, almost as if she were talking to a friend or relative.

 

From the apprehensive reaction Shen Yuan had also picked up on the change. He stood up straight, the fan spreading out again. “That means, it’s a matter of temperament and habitat?”

 

“You could say that, yes.” Sha Hualing wanted to scream when her head bobbed. “I would have thought you already figured that out. Especially with two of the strongest monsters in this country as part of your group. Disappointing. They have to be smarter than that and more observant. Missing the most important and entertaining parts in all of this. What a shame.” Sha Hualing could do nothing against it when she spread her arms in a helpless gesture. “Alas, listening was never his strong suit.”

 

In the meantime Shen Yuan had made a step back, brows again knitted tightly. “Monsters? What are you talking about? There are no-“

 

“But they are,” he was interrupted, followed by a little sigh. “There he runs all over the place with two pet zombies on his heels and still doesn’t realize. And you even claim to love one of them. You should really try to understand your partners a little better. Father in law is disappointed.”

 

With a little pout the body shook its head. Sha Hualing was not sure if it was meant as a warning for her or just her master using one of his puppets as means to communicate. Either way, she hated it! She hated it so much that she wanted to claw at her own face to get rid of these unfamiliar expressions.

 

In her near frenzy she almost missed the man’s small gesture before white, hot pain flashed through her head and the world went dark. 

 

---

 

When she came to she felt something blunt digging into her stomach accompanied by steady, uncomfortable movement. Her first reaction was a groan that somehow multiplied the pain in her head. The dizziness and urge to vomit were almost overwhelming. She had no idea if she had ever felt this miserable in her life.

 

“Vomit on my back and I’ll drop you,” a male voice informed her matter-of-factly.

 

She covered her mouth with one hand as fast as she was able to. That alone seemed like a herculean feat. Opening her eyes was an impossible task for now. Her head hurt too much to even think about calling Ai for help. Could this get any worse?

 

There was only the school in here memory and… Oh, right. There was that asshole and it felt like he had thrown her over his shoulder like a sack of radishes. Neat.

 

Right after she had somehow calmed her stomach a loud call ripped through her brain like a hot blade.

 

“SHIZUN!”

 

She braced herself for the impact, but there was only a light whack and the other man give a whine. “No Shizun! I’m so mad at you right now!” The loud voice right next to her ears was another jolt of pain a second later. Her tormentor stomped forward with renewed vigor.

 

There was another concerned voice asking if Shen Yuan was alright and offering to take over carrying her – Yes please! –, but he was rebuffed in an only slightly more civil way. “Just… don’t talk to me right now, okay?” Shen Yuan cut him off and the sound of his steps changed. A wooden floor?

 

“A-Yuan, I don’t know what…?” The whiny voice tried again and the quick turn made Sha Hualing even more dizzy.

 

“You’ll know soon enough!”

 

“Oh shit!” a fourth, more timid voice joined in. She felt herself rudely thrown onto something soft she identified as a couch after a careful peek, then the noise resumed.

 

“Get me that fucking block of ice here! I’ll rip both of you IDIOTS a new one!”

 

Someone left the room in a hurry. He was a bit smaller than the others from what she was able to make out. Was that not her target? Then what happened to Meng Mo?

 

 

Chapter Text

Mobei Jun had just checked up on the old man when he heard the commotion downstairs. With an uneasy feeling he put the blindfold back in place, in hopes it would hold the man’s powers in check. The rules for psychic powers were still a mystery to most people, himself included.

 

The abilities with physical manifestations were prone to turn on themselves and hurt the user instead if there was no opportunity to see their environment. You needed to be able to target at least something or this something became most likely your own body. Inconvenient, but not hard to predict.

 

With mindreading and control over others it was not that simple. He had a guess that the target had to be seen in person at least once and to be in sight to cause damage to them. On everything else he drew a blank. At least they knew that trying to control someone and attacking at the same time weakened one if not both of the action. And when in doubt they could always knock him out again.

 

The moment he turned to the door it opened by itself to give way to a pale and frightened looking Shang Qinghua. That was not good. But before he could ask, he was already given the missing information already, “Shen Yuan is back. Wants to talk to you. I just… need a moment.”

 

Gnashing his teeth he forced the kid to sit down on the bed and gave him with some chocolate and a blanket before he left him in the dark room. Time to face the idiot who still had no awareness on being a potential trigger for panic attacks, if not mental breakdowns. The angry voice was loud enough to understand every word on the stairs and what he saw when he entered the living room let Mobei Jun imagine why everyone hated Shen Yuan’s brother so much. Though, from what he had been told, that prick would not be caught dead in a Chikorita shirt.

 

He decided to just watch for the time being after entering the living room. Luo Binghe all but groveled in front of the fuming Shen Yuan, Liu Qingge stood next to the couch and… Oh, Sha Hualing looked pretty beaten up. He could almost feel sympathy for her. Emphasis on almost.

 

Suddenly Shen Yuan turned at him with an outstretched index finger. “You! Both of you! What the fuck were you thinking?!”

 

Mobei Jun raised his brows to exchange a questioning look with Luo Binghe. He could not think of anything both of them had done that would send Shen Yuan into a frenzy like this. “Please elaborate,” he then said after Luo Binghe seemed just as clueless.

 

“Alright.” The gnashing of teeth was an improvement to having a finger poked in his face, but the deep breath Shen Yuan took was awfully foreboding. Luo Binghe cringed and even Liu Qingge took a small step back from the radiating anger.

 

“When were you two jackasses planning on telling us that you are freaking zombies?  And why do I have to hear it from your fucking father through her?! YOU PROMISED ME NO MORE SECRETS, BINGHE!” Shen Yuan gestured impatiently at Sha Hualing at the same time.

 

Luo Binghe already looked close to tears when Mobei Jun joined them, now this was furthered by Liu Qingge’s sharp intake of breath. “A-Yuan… I…”

 

“I’m not done yet!” he was cut of mercilessly and in the next second his chest was poked with the offending index finger. “Have your tiny, rotting brains ever thought about how dangerous it is for you to two enter ANY BASE AT ALL!  If anyone had the slightest hunch there would be a freaking witch hunt and I don’t care how strong you are, because there are tons of ability users who can work together and turn you into minced meat in fucking seconds!! What if you got seriously hurt and I took you to a fucking doctor to fucking find out that you have no fucking heartbeat?! DID YOU THINK YOU CAN KEEP THIS BULLSHIT UP FOREVER?!!”

 

Only Shen Yuan’s ragged breath could be heard after that for a few second. He still glared, alternating between Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun. Though, the latter looked rather unimpressed.

 

“Are you done?” Mobei Jun simply asked when he was sure the yelling was over for the time being. He had his arms folded and watched Shen Yuan with deceptively calm eyes.

 

There was another pause and the glare focused solely on him. “How dare you?” The finger was back and Mobei Jun was one stab short of pummeling its owner into the wall. Thankfully, he only pointed and did not touch him. “Do you even care what this will do to Qinghua? He trusts you more than anyone. What do you think will happen when he finds out the person he’s crushing on hard has been dead for over a year?”

 

“He already knew before we met,” Mobei Jun decided to drop the next bombshell without caring anymore. Right now he was thankful for his pale complexion, though. He had suspected for a while that the kid had feelings that went beyond normal friendship, but hearing it spoken out loud made things a lot more difficult.

 

On the other side Shen Yuan’s eyes widened and Liu Qingge took the opportunity to take part in the conversation. “You three played us for fools the whole time?” His tone was dangerously low, shoulders tensed like a predator ready to attack.

 

Luo Binghe was still no help at all. By now he just stood there, his face as white as the wall behind him, with an expression as if his soul had already left his body. The fear coming from him was as palpable as the pure wrath of his two partners.

 

Mobei Jun wanted to take their heads and bash them together. The little grin he noticed on Sha Hualing’s face did not improve his mode. He decided to make an example and froze her mouth shut while the temperature in the room noticeably dropped.

 

“Qinghua told us when you were unconscious,” he told Liu Qingge as calm as possible after that. “Contrary to you two he decided not to make a big deal out of this.” He rather withheld the fact that Shang Qinghua knew even more in the current atmosphere and just proceeded to return the two glares.

 

Finally Shen Yuan breathed out heavily through his nose and shook his head. “This is so fucking stupid. We’re doing exactly what he wanted, aren’t we?” With him relaxing a little Liu Qingge also seemed to calm down again. He still eyed Mobei Jun with obvious suspicion. Luo Binghe seemed to be completely under his radar. Speaking of irrational fears.

 

“If you don’t need me anymore I need to look after a possible mental breakdown up there. You should take care of your own meltdown over there,” Mobei Jun said after a nod in Luo Binghe’s direction. When he moved up the stairs the temperature returned to a normal level. He was relieved to hear Shen Yuan call out to Luo Binghe in a gentle tone before he braced himself for the mess he had to deal with upstairs.

 

---

 

There were always good and bad nights. If the first night Mobei Jun had slept in the same bed with him was one of the best, this could be considered the worst one yet.

 

Shang Qinghua tossed and turned in his sleep. Where it was possible to calm him down by stroking his hair or pulling him into a hug under normal circumstances, he now tried to get as far away as possible. Every touch caused a shiver, sometimes followed by a small, terrified noise in his throat. Like a frightened animal he had curled himself into a ball until only a few strands of hair peeked out under the blanket.

 

When he woke up after at most half an hour he was distraught and disoriented. And every time he would bury his face in Mobei Jun’s chest to cry himself to sleep again within minutes. An unsettling cycle, repeated over and over again. And with every time the dreams appeared to get worse.

 

While he watched over the frightened bundle of misery Mobei Jun felt himself strangely reminded of his mother. Back then he had not known why she cried so much and always looked sad an exhausted. The word depression had been unknown to him at the time. With his twelve years he had only known that she should not be lonely, so he had snuck into her bed every night while his father was out on one of his countless business trips.

 

He remembered a doctor coming into the house every few days. The man had talked to his mother for at least an hour and left medicine that made her sick for days. Mobei Jun had been praised for being a good son and the doctor told him, if he wanted to talk about his fears and woes, he could always come to him or tell his mother to call him in.

 

One morning, after a few weeks, he had found his mother lifeless in her bed with strange foam dripping out of her mouth. The cry for help had been too late and after the funeral the doctor was called for him instead. During his countless therapy sessions he had learned more about mental illness than he had ever wanted to know.

 

He tried to shake off the memories when Shang Qinghua let out a little whine. Only now did he realize how hard he had clutched him in his arms and pressed him as close as possible. He loosened his hold to gently stroke his back in apology.

 

“You’ll be okay,” he whispered again and again into the dark hair until the first rays of sunlight snuck through the curtains.

 

 

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge looked at the sorry figure with his head in Shen Yuan’s lap. He had calmed down only a few minutes ago, after endless crying and apologies to both of them. Even now Luo Binghe had his hand in an iron grip as if holding on to a lifeline.

 

Seeing him this terrified had been baffling to say the least. Liu Qingge was used to the cheeky, sometimes ridiculously embarrassing, sometimes downright brutal front. Nothing had prepared him for the picture of an overgrown child so terrified of rejection that he had difficulties to string a coherent sentence together. And what they had gotten out of him had been even more unsettling.

 

The sheer obsession and dependence on them needed to keep himself sane was a whole other type of insanity in itself. When he thought about how Luo Binghe, his partner, a person he loved and cared for, had been in a constant state of fear to make even the smallest misstep and lose it all, he realized how little he really knew about both of them.

 

And he, quite frankly, could not blame anyone but himself for that. It was his nature to take things as they were and not think too much about anything that did not pose an immediate problem. This in itself had now become the very problem. Or more, it had always been a problem he just had not seen the whole time. He had no idea how to deal with all of this and how much it had undermined his trust in these two people.

 

Interacting with Mobei Jun would be even harder, though, he already had to thank him for keeping Sha Hualing from talking. The expression in her eyes was obvious enough. She would have made things a thousand times worse on principle if it were not for the ice covering half of her face.

 

Could he just try to trust Binghe and through that have faith in his trust in Mobei Jun? Thinking about it, the man also cared deeply from how he treated Shang Qinghua. Not to mention that he had stuck his neck out for them without needing to and would have had countless opportunities to betray them. He even carried most of Liu Qingge’s own arsenal without complaint and never failed to arm him instantly in critical situations. In short, he could be considered a reliable and valuable ally, if not friend.

 

Why did things always have to be so complicated when it came to human interaction that went beyond fighting? Or was he just about to make them unnecessarily complicated by giving this matter way too much weight? His thoughts went back to the statement that Shang Qinghua had known about their differences from the start and decided not to make a big deal out of it. If the kid that had been mistreated and abused until he was an unstable mess could shrug it off why could he not do the same?

 

And then it suddenly hit him how many presumably mindless undead he had slaughtered without a second thought. Sure, it had been self-defense. He had just kept himself and the people around him alive. But what if there had been another way? Not to mention that the practice of digging out the cores in their brains and using them to strengthen their own powers had been nothing short of cannibalism.

 

He took a deep breath and stared at the ceiling. “Damn…”

 

“Hu?” Shen Yuan turned to him, but he just shook his head.

 

“This night was way too long.”

 

Shen Yuan answered with a nod and a yawn. One of his hands was still in Binghe’s hair, the other one gripped just as tightly as Liu Qingge’s.

 

“I hope everything’s alright up there,” Shen Yuan said after a few more moments of silence.

 

Instantly Liu Qingge’s eyes moved in the direction of the stairs. “We would probably know by now if anything went wrong with the psychic up there,” he mused only to be stared at by Shen Yuan.

 

“Psychic? You mean that Meng Mo guy?” he asked and Liu Qingge shrugged.

 

“No idea what he’s called. He was still unconscious when the others told me we have a captive.”

 

This gave Shen Yuan pause, his eye growing wide all of the sudden. “Shit, I forgot about the people in the city!”

 

---

 

Half an hour later they sat around the coffee table. All of them looked pale and tired, Luo Binghe and Shang Qinghua even more so. The latter had dark circles under his eyes and appeared as if he had not slept at all.

 

They had Sha Hualing and Meng Mo bundled up on the floor. The former still had some blood clinging to the hair on the back of her head while the latter seemed completely disoriented.

 

In the back of his mind Liu Qingge filed the information that taking out mental abilities worked best by inflicting head injuries. Well, he too would not want to mess with anyone else’s thoughts if he had to deal with his own crippling headache. The only threat right now was the huge owl that had perched on their roof for the last few hours. After Shen Yuan’s short explanation regarding its connection to Sha Hualing he would watch the girl even more closely.

 

Right now, though, they had to deal with an even bigger problem.

 

“Those who have reached a certain level of power can control others of our… kind at a whim,” Luo Binghe just said. He still sounded a bit hoarse. “If it were anyone else, either of us could probably jump in there and sort things out, but my father has always been stronger than me. With things as they are we can’t even control the two we have right here. Like A-Yuan said, he could just take them over or watch us through their eyes. The injuries would not bother him much. It’s not like he feels what they feel. And I don’t think he would even consider their body’s and mind’s limitation when he wants something done. He never had any scruples when it comes to breaking people.”

 

“And since he’s probably working with my uncle, we have to deal with a sociopath and a homicidal nutjob,” Mobei Jun concluded.

 

Shen Yuan let out a long, deep sigh. “Here I thought my family was messed up.” There was a wry smile on his face Luo Binghe mirrored. Shang Qinghua just cringed and even Liu Qingge joined in, knowing full well whom they were thinking about.

 

“Now, what can you two tell us before we decided you’re too dangerous to keep around?” Shen Yuan turned to the two captives. Both of them had not said a word the whole time. Sha Hualing just sported an annoying pout after she had popped her jaw a few times, probably trying to get some feeling back.

 

She watched all of them defiantly.

 

“I could freeze and shatter her head,” Mobei Jun offered in a conversational tone. “Would solve the annoying owl screeches.”

 

Her answer was an obvious insult but so slurred nobody was able to make out the meaning of the words. After a few moments of surprise the tension dissolved in a fit of laughter and for a short time nobody cared about the danger looming over them or the petulant stare full of bloodlust.

 

 

Chapter Text

Ning Yingying suppressed a groan and massaged the space between her eyebrows with two fingers.

 

Everything was a mess. Not only had Qi Qingqi gone with a bigger band of survivors behind her than anyone expected, the ones left behind also were restless and ready to bolt. Ning Yingying herself had been pestered by Qi Qingqi to also follow them to search for Mu Qingfang and a new place to live in the process.

 

The latter she could understand after Shen Jiu had acted up several times and word got out about Meng Yao’s real purpose here. She still wanted to kick the Wen official who had put that idiot in charge of their diplomatic relations with Cang Qiong base. He had pulled Yue Qingyuan and Shen Jiu on his side in a way that looked awfully shady. Many suspected his mental powers at work. And when he had made himself as suspicious as possible he still was not usable as a proper scapegoat.

 

It would have been so easy to have him take the fall for the doctor’s disappearance. A few pieces of evidence planted here and there, A bit of information about the real experiments in the research facilities. She could have covered her tracks perfectly and make a villain of this so-called new government in the process. Easy-peasy, with no one the wiser.

 

Not only had he put forward an alibi in form of a headache she herself had treated, he also tried to help them find the insufferable goody two-shoes. It had been a blessing that Qi Qingqi was dense and gullible enough to outright dismiss the fact that she had been the last healthy person in the infirmary that night. And who would suspect the sweet, innocent nurse anyway. But it had led to a level of vigilance that made it impossible for her to get near the other targets on the list.

 

She was not even able to follow the plan to bolster her own powers with resources the medical team rightly deserved for keeping all these idiots alive day in and day out. Doctor Mu had never asked for an appropriate share and proceeded to run around outside, leaving her with the lion’s share of the work. New sources for vaccines and pain medication. What a joke! If they were just given the opportunity to become stronger without jumping through countless hoops they would have been able to treat sickness and injuries within seconds.

 

But no, it would undermine their integrity to charge more for medical treatment of those with offensive powers. The selfish bastards who had more nuclei from their missions than they would ever need could not be made to give up more than the share the base took from them to distribute between all workers, with only an equal small share for those with healing powers. Even now she wanted to strangle him whenever that gentle smile and those oh so innocent eyes popped up in her memory. Good riddance!

 

Now she only had to make sure that her employer did not decided to take her as a replacement for the manpower she had been unable to provide. She was sure she had never seen his real face, but he was probably ugly as a mud fence under his stupid mask or the guises he preferred to use.

 

The only good things were the drugs he provided. They might not be able to strengthen her ability, but they filled up her internal reservoir within seconds and let her appear much more powerful that she really was. The feeling of being drained had become almost foreign to her. It was just, with her underperforming in her duties there had been no more payments for quite a while and she had grown so dependent on the little pick-me-ups that the thought of going without them for even one day was unbearable.

 

And that meant she had to deliver that other water user and the lightning user requested as fast as possible to restock her supply.

 

She just had to figure out how to reliably pin it on someone else. And if it had to be Ming Fan who by now ran after her like a mute, lonely puppy.

 

---

 

At the same time Shen Jiu had just left Yue Qingyuan’s office, slamming the door behind him.

 

People were leaving the base in droves which was good and according to plan. Not good was that Qi-ge had first refused to let him leave for Jinlan and now panicked at the prospect of having Cang Qiong disband right under his nose.

 

That was the fucking point!

 

First of all it would prevent people from being hurt in possible attacks or abducted by the Wen clan or any suspicious third party out there. And secondly would it free Qi-ge from his responsibility and give Shen Jiu the chance to get this blockhead out of here and to safety.

 

And for safety he needed information from the outside, hopefully provided by his useless brother who by now should have figured out that something went wrong on this end. They had made a list with meeting places and dates in advance, so he could only hope Shen Yuan would show up at the next one in a few weeks. It would be their last chance to meet up before winter made any kind of traveling impossible.

 

The worst case scenario right now would be Shen Yuan and his two idiots showing up on their doorstep. He had enough difficulties with keeping his own mind as blank as possible in front of Meng Yao. Additional risks were not appreciated.

 

The only reason why a tiny part of him wished for this to happen anyhow was to confirm if Shen Yuan’s group had anything to do with the explosion and if a certain someone was still alive. He had no doubt that his brother was still alive and unharmed. Probably.

 

If not he would find Luo Binghe and Liu Qingge to show them what real pain looked like!

 

He bit back the uncharacteristic growl at the thought of something happening to his brother and stomped in direction of the warehouses. Time to check the books and their remaining provisions. It would not do if they were left with nothing to live off and bargain their way into another base when everything was said and done.

 

He would make sure that at least a certain mind reader would not be able to track them down again at this point. His usefulness was already mostly inexistent after he had served as a sufficient bogeyman with Shen Jiu’s questionable support behind him.

 

Sometimes it was pretty useful to have the reputation of a monster.

 

 

Chapter Text

Carefully Hua Cheng observed the people coming and going in the dining hall. One of the cooks had ultimately taken him and Xie Lian under her wing, waving the concerns away that came with their peculiar powers. She was a less powerful fire user which made her predestined for her job as she said herself. Sometimes several times a day if she felt like it.

 

Right now she had given both of them a carrot to munch on and proceeded to give out food with a smile. It was not bad to live with her, but her bedtime stories were not half as good as those of a certain other person. And even while he loathed to admit it, he somehow missed the five men. Not, that he wanted to stay with them instead. It was just that Xie Lian liked them a lot and they treated them like normal people despite knowing how dangerous they could become.

 

This for him had honestly taken some getting used to. Since long before the virus he had been able to tell when something bad was about to happen. Someone had told him it was called intuition or gut feeling. But, whenever it appeared it had ended up with people around him getting hurt or having bad luck and he alone was left unscathed.

 

He had tried to warn people, even without knowing what exactly it was they should try to avoid. It had always ended with the bad thing happening anyway and over time others had started blaming him for his pranks or treated him like he was cursed. The people closest to him were the worst off. His father had left them when he was six so everything fell on his mother, making her lose job after job until she had difficulties to pay the rent, let alone bring a decent meal to the table. In the end she had given her children up to public services and also vanished without a trace.

 

After his eldest brother had been caught cursing and beating him up, he had been separated from his siblings. There had been three, no, four foster families, but all of them had capitulated within the first few weeks, the most determined holding on for not even two months. The social workers had been baffled and could only put him in an orphanage where he learned to obediently shut his mouth and just watch things happen. The elderly nun had been very convincing in her threats to squelch his misdeeds and nonsense once and for all.

 

He had mostly avoided the other children and kept to himself after that. His odd eyes with the left so dark it was almost black and the right one red like an albino’s in the light had frightened most of them off anyway. Ugly was the kindest description he had gotten for them. The other insults were quickly suppressed by the promise of washing out the children’s mouths if a curse word was heard. It had done wonders in terms of keeping things civil.

 

He still had attempted to hide his face whenever possible.

 

With the outbreak everything changed. There had been soldiers and strange men and woman in white lab coats who took them away after talking to the caretakers in private for a while. The older children had presumed they had been sold to someone while they sat in the van on their way to an unknown destination. An assumption that appeared even more accurate when they reached the huge complex in the middle of nowhere.

 

Here they had been forced to wash themselves and change their cloth into the same white as really everything was painted in. Afterwards they were sorted into age groups and brought to closed off rooms full of toys and books that held six beds each.

 

In his room there had been Shi QingXuan, a girl with way too much energy who instantly clung to the second girl, He Xuan, a gloomy, pale one who seemed to barely tolerate the constant pestering and questions after her elder brother Shi WuDu and another best friend called Ming Yi. Hua Cheng had tried to give them a wide berth from the start, only marking He Xuan down as someone he might get along with if it were not for the extra.

 

The other three were a stiff, girly looking boy with light hair, who tried to play meek but seemed tempted to role his eyes at every second word the loud one next to him said. That one would have had a hard time in the orphanage with his foul mouth and bad temper. Mu Qing and Feng Xin. Hua Cheng had marked the latter one down for a kick in the shin if he ever dared to gripe at him like that.

 

Only the last one, the beautiful boy who sat next to them with the look of helpless exasperation on his face, instantly caught his attention. He seemed so gentle and soft and the smile he had given Hua Cheng in passing had been full of so much warmth.

 

He longed to be his friend and to protect him from whatever was going to happen to them. The only problem were his two self-proclaimed bodyguards who tried to keep him away as much as possible. And especially Mu Qing was surprisingly strong for his appearance.

 

Not, that they had much time to get to know each other and be friends. They were only given a few days to settle in and get used to their new environment. During this time there were already several medical examinations which involved being stripped completely naked and taking blood samples. The doctors and scientists left no doubt that they were looking at them as test subjects instead of human beings.

 

Within the first week he was twice taken to a dark chamber with circles and strange markings on the floor. He still remembered how the air had been heavy with smoke and strange scents. Incense was a word that came to mind afterwards. They had given him a red shirt and black pants to wear and forced him to sit in the middle of the circle surrounded by candle light. Then the monotone chant started. It had made him feel dizzy until he closed his eyes.

 

Memories had flooded his brain that were not his own. Towns that looked nothing like the modern city he had grown up in. People in traditional clothes. Swordfights and something that looked like a war. It was all jumbled and made no sense to him. As did the strange voice that followed him around and spoke in a language he had never heard before. Though, judging from the tone it tried to convey something urgent and important.

 

By the fourth time he found that he was losing ability to write properly. By the seventh the faces of his family had vanished completely. After the twelfth time he was unable to remember his own name and every time he tried to remember it was replaced by Honghong-er, Hua Cheng or San Lang. And with it the names of the other children around him also changed.

 

At first calling the beautiful boy by the name Xie Lian or the title Dianxia had been strange. He knew, all of them were named different before. But whenever he tried to use their old names during the brief times they were allowed to play in a big group on the strange playground outside they became a blur or static in his ears. And over time it just did not matter anymore. They were who they were. The strange voices had merged with their thoughts and memories speaking clearly of who they had been in a time long past.

 

The scientists seemed satisfied with the progress. Unlike other rooms they had not a single failure, mostly resulting in a violent death somewhere along the road. And with that the visits to the dark room ended, only to turn into other experiments instead, leaving them aching and exhausted to the bone.

 

These he refused to remember. He only knew all of them dreaded the moment they were called out again. Especially Xie Lian looked hardly able to hang on, a haunted look in his eyes and plagued by nightmares. Thus, when someone came into their room late at night, offering to get them out, there had been no hesitation.

 

Shi QingXuan, Mu Qing and Feng Xin had been caught on the way out. He had no idea if they were still alive or not. He Xuan vanished on the road without a trace. Hua Cheng wished the pale girl had taken them along when he woke up in the next research facility soon after. And then, after several weeks or months of being a lab rat again, Mobei Jun had come along and taken them with him.

 

So, yes, life right now was good. In fact better than anything he had known before and he intended to keep it that way. If not for himself then at least for Xie Lian who had finally found his smile again. After all that happened there was much more of the child left in him than in Hua Cheng himself, though, his petulant nature could not be denied.

 

A little grin tugged at the corners of his mouth while he observed Xie Lian trying to carry an empty food tray that was much too big for him. He slid off his seat to help him and ignored the praise of the woman, what little gentlemen they had turned into. The only thing that gave him a warm feeling was the thankful smile Xie Lian gave him.

 

---

 

After a long day full of being allowed to simply act like children, something that sounded like an explosion interrupted one of the best dream he had in a while. Xie Lian stirred in his arms, just as startled as he felt, and a quick look at the darkness outside their window told them it was still in the middle of the night.

 

There were no screams yet or the smell of something burning, so a fire it was not. The two boys shared a look and when they got up from the bed another loud bang ripped through the silence.

 

Now the yelling started and when Hua Cheng stuck his head out of the door he saw people running in direction of the northern barrier closest to the forest. Xie Lian took his hand and together they followed the crowd. His friend went, he knew, in hopes he would be able to help. Hua Cheng himself just wanted to know what was going on before doing anything. The only thing he could tell right now was that it looked more like an attack than an accident.

 

The hunch reaffirmed itself when the lights some people had brought along revealed two holes in the thick wall. A high squeal was the only thing that warned Hua Cheng and he managed to pull Xie Lian out of the way of a giant wild boar just in time. A few others caught in its path had not been so lucky. One lay motionless on his back with a gaping hole in his side just a few feet away.

 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian murmured and Ruoye began to uncurl itself from his arm. But Hua Cheng refused to loosen the grip on his arm, shaking his head. He knew what Xie Lian was planning to do and he refused to let him endanger and reveal himself like this at the same time. He just had to find another way to stop the boar who had turned around and was facing them with beady, bloodshot eyes. Both of them could take these beasts down, but it would result in what Shen Yuan and later Gongyi Xiao had warned them time and time not to do.

 

He grit his teeth, still hoping that the stupid pig would look for another target as another squeal sounded behind them. This time there was more pain than anger and the jolt of fear over a second attacker turned into grim satisfaction. That meant, if they managed to avoid this one, they could just leave it to the adults.

 

The boar appeared to have other plans, one hoof pawing the ground as it got ready to charge again.

 

When it did, Xie Lian jumped in front of Hua Cheng, arms outstretched to brace the impact. Ruoye also slipped forward, but did not manage to bind the animal’s legs in time. Instead, heat brushed their faces and two naked feet engulfed in blazing flames crashed violently into the boar’s side.

 

The noise it made came close to a whine and after a punch to its head all movement ceased.

 

Gongyi Xiao was still in pajamas and sported a bedhead, but in the light of his own fire he still looked like a hero. When he turned around to them he brushed a few strands of hair out of his face and gave them a friendly smile.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

 

Chapter Text

There had been even more beast to clean up before someone had managed to properly close the holes in the wall again. The efficiency was honestly impressive on some level and for once Hua Cheng realized that the strongest people might have gone on one of their trips again, but the remaining people also were nothing to scoff at.

 

The way Gongyi Xiao had organized the chaos in a calm manner showed that he knew exactly what he was doing, despite his only 20 years of age. Quick reaction times due to the tight chain of command had prevented any casualties beyond injuries and even those had been handled to the point that nobody would be absent for more than a few days.

 

It was like a safety net every member of the base could rely on. And it was structured in a way that prevented anyone from slacking off because they did not feel as important or underappreciated. Everyone had their place and was useful in their own way. Even the people without special powers were integrated to the best of their abilities.

 

While Hua Cheng pointedly ignore the tongue lashing of their surrogate mother he still marveled about how different two well organized places could be, just because one treated human life as disposable and the other cherished and protected it at all cost. He could not help but feel good about becoming part of the latter. Not the fuzzy ‘I love the people around me and want to protect them’ kind Xie Lian tended to show, of course. But still good in a way that made him want to stay for a while longer.

 

“This really is out home now, isn’t it?” Xie Lian asked when they were tugged under the blanket again with an unnecessary kiss on the forehead. Hua Cheng was barely able to make out his eyes in the darkness. He still nodded to see white teeth flash with an obvious smile. “Home…”

 

Xie Lian repeated the word a few times, almost too quiet to hear, and burrowed himself in Hua Cheng’s arms with a satisfied sigh. This alone also brought a smile to the younger boy’s face. “Gege,” he murmured.

 

Xie Lian was eleven now. There had been a small celebration when he casually mentioned it. Just because the last one was anything but an occasion to be happy about. His tenth birthday had not been mentioned. Not even at the promise of a belated present. When he calculated back it really had been enough that it was the day they were rescued. Rescued… Yes, that was really the right expression in more than one way, as strange as the word felt on his tongue.

 

He hugged Xie Lian a bit tighter and burrowed his face in the other’s hair. Home started to feel like a very, very good thing. He could get used to this.

 

---

 

The punishment of helping out in the greenhouse relativized this statement within the next few days. He had no problem helping anyone out when asked. Or more precise when Xie Lian asked him. No problem at all. But now he was forced to lug around buckets of water and dirt for a few hours a day and already lamented the fact not to have Xie Lian’s physical strength and stamina. Child labor was illegal for a reason! As should sore muscles be for that matter…

 

He grimaced at Qin Wanrong who rubbed some dirt from his cheek unasked. “My sister is right. You’re so cute,” she cooed, almost prompting him to break his promise.

 

This Supreme was anything but cute, thank you very much. Xie Lian’s smile when another worker rubbed his head could be considered exactly that on the other hand. He felt a pat on his crown and looked up with a scowl only to earn another adoring noise. He did not pout, regardless of what the girl squealed before calling everyone for lunch.

 

In a heartbeat he grabbed Xie Lian’s hand and pulled him outside as fast as possible to just get away from the ensuing madness. Since the first day he knew that the female workers only waited for the opportunity to drop their work and shower them with affection. This was even more exhausting than the work itself. Not to mention extremely annoying, since it cut even more into his time alone with Xie Lian. The novelty of this should have worn out on day the at most in his opinion.

 

“They just like you, San Lang,” Xie Lian had said when he complained about it on the evening of the first day. Right now he just chuckled and followed Hua Cheng obediently, casually swatting one of those annoying squirrels out of the air when nobody was looking. Those also seemed to multiply by the day much to the cooks’ delight and healers’ frustration.

 

There had already been the order to check the roofs, walls and towers three times a day and some of those little bastards still managed to slip through. Though, by now most people almost appeared to develop a sixth sense when it came to unexpected things falling onto their heads. As long as nothing started to assault their feet next they should be able to get this somehow under control with time. Looking up while leaving a building was already a reflex engrained in almost every member of the base.

 

He was just about to switch his attention to the topic of food and ask Xie Lian what he was hoping for when the sound of a car came from the main gate. Both of them looked over at once and as soon as they spotted the familiar jeep Hua Cheng was the one pulled in a different direction until they were both running.

 

The only strange thing was that there were two cars instead of one again and when the men got out both Liu Qingge and Mobei Jun carried an unconscious person wrapped in ropes over their shoulder. The huge bird perching on a tree near the gate made the situation even weirder.

 

“Sorry, later,” Shen Yuan just said and sprinted off in the direction of Gongyi Xiao’s office while the others marched off to the old maximum security unit.

 

Only Shang Qinghua stood a bit lost next to the second jeep before he spotted them. Despite his haggard appearance that reminded Hua Cheng of the first day they had met, he gave them an honest smile. “Hey, good to see you. How have you been?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Was there a huge crime in his past life he did not remember? Had he offended some mischievous deity out there who now took revenge on him in the worst way possible?

 

Whatever it was, Meng Yao was done with all of this. He was supposed to collect information about the Wen Clan for his father. He was supposed to be in the capital to find ways to undermine Wen Ruohan’s plans and search for possible allies. This was only made out to be a small test to show his loyalty, though the logic behind sending him alone still eluded him. Not that he expected any logic behind Wen Chao’s decisions after all he had seen of the young man. Calling him not the sharpest tool in the shed would be insulting to the real tools in there.

 

The only problem was, he had decided to go through the insufferable peacock to get to his father.

 

Flattering had worked at first. It had been easy to learn his likes and dislikes, organize food, drink, women… Even his probably illiterate girlfriend had started to like and rely on the efficient and humble servant who jumped at her every whim. Slowly he had started to show other talents, climbed the ranks until he was closer to the idiot than anyone else.

 

A few hints dropped. Unassuming questions about the higher chain of command. Some interest shown in meeting Wen Chao’s esteemed father. He had been careful and allowed his achievements to be taken advantage of, as much as he hated it. The possibility to take the next step had been right within his grasp. So easy and clean.

 

Then this stupid idea had popped up after he had unfortunately mentioned his brief stay in Cang Qiong base. Wen Chao had obsessed over presenting a new vassal to his father. There was no talking to him after he had made up his mind and a few days later Meng Yao found himself on his way to meet his old friends.

 

At this point he had thought it would be easy to get back to the partnership of convenience they had agreed on. The first step had been to find Yue Qingyuan and get into his good graces again. His mother’s death had been enough to garner some sympathy, after he had told them before, he wanted to look for her whereabouts.

 

He had still believed these were smart, reasonable people back then. Now he knew he had been a complete fool.

 

The first cracks had shown themselves when he agreed to help interrogating a potential spy to find a rare, valuable ability instead. Idiots. He had delivered the person to Wen Ruohan’s doorstep to hopefully garner some goodwill. At the same time he informed his father to give him the chance of snatching the young man back with some luck and good planning.

 

A week later the very same research facility, the apple of Wen Ruohan’s eye and deliverer of new, powerful soldiers for his private army, had gone up in flames. And with it the clairvoyance ability vanished that could have been an immeasurable advantage for any faction out there.

 

There was no real clue on who had done it. With only a crater and no witnesses left, it might have been a horrible accident for all they knew.

 

The Wen Clan, of course, had taken the opportunity to throw shade on some of their rivals, claiming it had been sabotaged and the complex blown up by people who wanted to see the world burn. That there had never been a cure for the virus was secondary. Nobody needed to know those details.

 

It also meant that all his work in this direction had been worthless. His father was unnecessarily aggrieved about the loss and the higher ups of the Wen Clan probably chalked it up as another casualty. Their seat of power was steady enough to not rely on one flimsy ability that could not be controlled properly.

 

It had been back to square one again. No, less than that after he got Shen Jiu on his side, too.

 

People had started to mistrust his motives, claimed he would read and manipulate minds without a second thought. And when someone vanished in the dead of night it was automatically him who had become suspect number one.

 

Yue Qingyuan and Shen Jiu were his puppets, the Wen Clan pure evil – well, they were not completely wrong about that one – and now people left the base like rats a sinking ship. Weeks wasted on useless nonsense and false promises. If he would still be prone to read other people’s minds at a whim he would search for information on if and how he had been played. But this he would never risk again without being able to guide said thoughts.

 

Back in the beginning he had once made the mistake to try and read one of the Shen twin’s minds. The result had scarred him indefinitely. The picture of Luo Binghe’s naked backside and enormous manhood had haunted him for weeks! Not an option! Never again!

 

Sadly it was still guilty until proven innocent when it came to things he could not provide convincing evidence for.

 

And with this he was trapped in this place he had dubbed his personal hellhole, to present an empty place instead of a signed contract to his would-be master, if things went on like this. He had no way to prevent it and obviously lost all credibility for reasons he could not completely grasp.

 

Was it Qi Qingqi? Shen Jiu? Someone from the outside? Or perhaps an unobtrusive member of the base who held strings like the web of a spider in their hands? He could not tell and it frustrated him to no end. He only knew there would be three crosses behind the date he would be able to leave this chaos behind, his spy work be damned!

 

There were certainly other ways to get out of Wen Chao’s reach and into the good graces of his father without subjecting him to… this. Death was still too good for these insufferable people and their stupid little games!