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It’s a slow weekday afternoon and the SID is closing the office (sort of) and going to the fancy bathhouse down the street, because it’s about as cold as Dragon City ever gets and because Zhao Yunlan’s people have been working as hard as they know how for longer than they should have been, and everyone deserves an afternoon off. He’s even talked Shen Wei into coming along.

Because Wang Zheng and Sang Zan can’t come with—although Zhao Yunlan suspects they’re looking forward to having the office to themselves all afternoon—for a while it looks like Zhu Hong is going to be the only woman there, and she’s muttering about it being no fun alone in the baths and threatening them with inviting Ya Qing (no need for drastic measures, jeez, at least try Li Qian or Cheng Xinyan first…) when help comes from an unexpected quarter: Tan Xiao and Zheng Yi are up on one of their regular visits to Haixing, and they’d like to come along.

“She can’t talk yet when we’re in Haixing,” Tan Xiao apologizes, one hand lightly on his little sister’s shoulder. “It’s going pretty well in Dixing, but we’re still working on it up here—“

Zhao Yunlan knows “we” includes at least some input from Li Qian and Lin Jing’s team; Shen Wei has been asked to provide a consulting opinion more than once, too. They owe Zheng Yi.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Lin Jing says cheerfully. “Zhu Hong sucks at small talk anyway.” The last word ends in a yowp! as she flicks his ear hard, but Zheng Yi is giggling silently, one hand to her mouth, and Lin Jing rubs his ear and looks pleased with himself.

“Some people could stand to talk a bit less,” Zhu Hong sniffs. “Come on, xiao meimei, we’ve got better places to be. I’ll wash your hair for you, how about that?”

Zheng Yi nods, not quite as solemn-faced as she was a year ago, and they go through the curtain to the women’s side without a backward look.

 

Zhao Yunlan had figured that even now, Guo Changcheng would have issues about stripping off in front of his various colleagues, but when it comes to it Xiao Guo is unexpectedly at his ease, wriggling out of sweater and polo and jeans without seeming to think twice about it. Next to him, Chu Shuzhi hands him his black scarf and he folds it with a delicate, familiar touch that goes a long way to explain why getting naked in front of other people isn’t such a big deal for him at this point. He balances himself against Lao Chu’s rock-steady shoulder with one hand while he steps out of his jeans, and Zhao Yunlan surprises himself by suddenly remembering the visiting Lion City ballet company that Da Qing had dragged him to a few years back (saying that ballet dancers were as close to cats as humans could get).

They scatter around the big room and its various tubs, almost empty this early on a weekday. Tan Xiao is in one of the lukewarm tubs, knees bent and eyelids drooping in sleepy satisfaction. Cong Bo, next to him, looks as if he’s bending his ear about something, until a look across the room from Lin Jing makes him stop mid-word, shrug amiably (or as amiably as that sharp face ever gets) and settle back in comfort. (Zhao Yunlan doesn’t even want to know what gives there.) Lin Jing himself is, not surprisingly, stretching out his ungainly height in the electric bath, getting his capacitors charged, Zhao Yunlan thinks with a brief grin (he knows better than to make that joke out loud to Lin Jing’s face, on account of the flood of technobabble he’d inevitably get in response).

And Shen Wei—okay, at this point Zhao Yunlan is a little conflicted, to be totally honest. It goes without saying that he’d rather have Shen Wei there than not, in any situation, certainly including this one; and he loves watching Shen Wei settle into the hottest tub, tilt his head back against the rim and close his eyes, eyelashes dark on his flushed cheeks and the graceful lines of his body going loose and relaxed under the water. Zhao Yunlan just feels a little defensive, okay: Shen Wei naked is so beautiful it makes his head swim, and he doesn’t want to share that with anyone. Not just the view of that gorgeous body itself, but Shen Wei unguarded like this, wide open--

One shower outlet over, the water goes off and he catches a glimpse of Chu Shuzhi’s expression, half turned away—watching Guo Changcheng, who’s on his far side, sitting under the shower with his eyes closed while the water spray washes the soap off his face and throat. To Zhao Yunlan, Xiao Guo just looks like his usual self, only wearing fewer clothes than usual—shy and awkward and incorrigibly sweet-natured, finally finding his feet and his strengths in life but still kind of a nebbish sometimes. The look on Chu Shuzhi’s face, though, clear as a bell—that same mixture of possessive desire and painful delight in something once all but lost—Zhao Yunlan very consciously looks away from the two of them, scrubs a hand across his own face, and runs the shower over his head.

He wants to get in by Shen Wei, but the hot water will knock him out if he tries to spend that long in there—he doesn’t have Shen Wei’s Dixing tolerance for heat. Zhao Yunlan chooses the carbonated tub for the moment, and groans quietly with the pleasure of the fizzing water all over his body. Da Qing slides in across from him, walking his bare feet idly up and down Zhao Yunlan’s bare legs. “Damn cat,” he scolds lazily, but it feels kind of good, and since this is a public bathhouse and he can’t do the kind of things he’d like to do with Shen Wei anyway, he’s not going to complain at a bit of harmless cat snuggling. Da Qing has his bells twisted up as a kind of headband across his forehead, where they’ll stay mostly out of the way of the water, and they jingle softly under the hiss of steam.

Da Qing abandons him for the sauna quickly enough; eventually, Lin Jing and Guo Changcheng join him there and Cong Bo and Tan Xiao head for the massage chairs. Lao Chu is at the other end of the hot pool, all those impressive muscles on display, but his face as relaxed as it ever gets in public and eyes nearly (but not quite) shut. Shen Wei is still basking; when Zhao Yunlan eases himself in next to him, he turns his head and smiles, eyes closed. Zhao Yunlan makes himself comfortable, a little breathless in the heat, just close enough for the back of his hand to brush the soft-skinned solidity of Shen Wei’s thigh. Almost all his body is soothed to melting point by the hot water lapping him from toes to chin; the rest of him, not melting at all, will just have to hold on and wait until later on tonight, when he has Shen Wei to himself.

 

When the men emerge, Zhu Hong and Zheng Yi are sitting side by side on one of the wicker couches in the lounge, both eating soft cream, pale green pistachio and chocolate respectively. With no makeup and her suit jacket off, Zhu Hong looks young enough to be Zheng Yi’s big sister for real, a teenager taking a few hours off from exam study. Zheng Yi’s long fine hair is drawn back from her face in a series of interlocking braids and tied off with a pink ribbon that matches Zhu Hong’s rose-pink blouse.

They all have dinner down the street afterwards, an impressive array of dishes rotating around the table—more or less meeting even Shen Wei’s exacting standards, although he never eats all that much in company. Cong Bo and Da Qing between them more than make up for it.

Tan Xiao and Guo Changcheng are talking about the little experimental school in Dixing where Tan Xiao teaches science and Zheng Yi is a student; Shen Wei puts in a few quiet words here and there, and once in a while even Chu Shuzhi has something to say about the partner school for teenagers that Ye Huo has gotten involved in (apparently the ex-boxer’s default when he has a problem is to run it by Lao Chu, which sounds disastrous but seems to be working out all right so far).

Somewhere during their time in the baths, Zhu Hong has enlisted Zheng Yi as an ecstatic silent partner in her campaign to give Lin Jing hell on a regular basis. Lin Jing is whining and grumbling at being double-teamed and doing his best to give as good as he gets, but he’s very obviously delighted. Zhao Yunlan remembers the way, back before they found Wang Zheng, Lin Jing would always let himself end up as duty officer on Reunion Day, when anyone who could manage it took the day off for their families.

He decides reluctantly to make his second bottle of Deer Island beer his last, and—because he can, and it never gets old and never will—watches Shen Wei. Whose whole attention is focused just now on putting together a wrap of Xingdu duck—getting just the right proportions of the roast duck and the spring onions and the sweet sauce, folding the rice pancake around them with the same precision with which he irons his shirts or directs his dark energy. Between the lingering effects of the hot water and the beer, Zhao Yunlan is easily mesmerized by the whole thing, drawn into Shen Wei’s concentration, and so he’s somehow more surprised when he should be when Shen Wei turns to set the completed wrap delicately on his plate.

Zhao Yunlan has to clear his throat. “Thanks, sweetheart,” he says, too quiet for anyone else at the table to hear. Shen Wei smiles at him, there and gone and dazzling, and raises his glass to Zhao Yunlan before he takes a sip. Alongside his cup of hot tea, he’s drinking from a thimble-sized glass of plum wine, the same thing Zheng Yi has, while the rest of them drink beer. Zhao Yunlan raises his beer bottle and salutes him back before he takes a bite of the duck wrap, sweet and savory and crisp and irresistible.