The clouds over Dragon City University are low and dark. Zhao Yunlan looks up with a grimace – there’s already a thick layer of snow blanketing the ground, he’s not looking forward to more. He’d been unprepared for an afternoon out in the elements; they’d only been planning to interview a few students when they arrived on campus that afternoon.
They hadn’t been expecting their suspect to quite literally materialize before their eyes mid-interview, much less that they would end up chasing after him across the university grounds in an extended game of outdoor cat and mouse.
There’s an audible squelch with each step he takes; his shoes are well and truly soaked. He looks down at his watch with a sigh, wondering if he’ll have time to go home and change before any higher-ups notice his absence. He’d sent Da Qing on ahead with instructions to cover for him, and Chu Shuzhi is efficient, he’ll have time to book their suspect and drive the rest of the team to their annual appearance at the Haixing Inspectorate’s holiday party. He can trust them to represent the SID well even if he arrives late.
He pauses on his unpleasant trek back to his car to stretch, trying to get rid of the persistent stitch in his side. He’s standing there, watching his breath float up into the quickly-darkening sky, when he sees a familiar figure crossing the snow-covered lawn.
“Professor Shen – Shen Wei!” he calls, waving enthusiastically to catch his attention and ignoring the dark looks from passing students, no doubt concerned about his bad influence on their dearest professor. It doesn’t really bother him – Shen Wei turns towards him with a small, pleased smile, and that’s all that really matters.
His cramps and soggy shoes are rapidly forgotten in favor of watching Shen Wei make his way over. The winter weather hasn’t made him any less formal; he’s added a dark charcoal coat over his usual suit, and a red checked scarf that looks soft and warm. Zhao Yunlan looks down at his own attire in comparison – soggy shoes, visible splashes of slush on his jeans, a wet patch on his jacket where he’d slipped and landed on his shoulder – no wonder the students had been glaring at him.
“Chief Zhao.” Shen Wei greets him with a polite incline of his head once he’s close enough that he won’t have to yell. “I didn’t know you were visiting campus today.”
“Neither did I, I would have come to say hello if I’d had the time,” Zhao Yunlan says, an idea half-forming as they talk. “It’s good that I ran into you, though – I’m actually just leaving, the team is expecting me at a holiday party.”
“A holiday party? Did your budget increase get approved already?”
“Well,” Zhao Yunlan says, grimacing, “technically it’s not just our party – it’s the whole Inspectorate’s. But if I have to make small talk with vice-ministers for an hour and a half, so does everybody else.” He snaps his fingers as if something brilliant has just occurred to him. “You should come!”
Shen Wei gives him a long, silent look for a moment, then ducks his head with a quiet huff of something that might be laughter. “You’ve made it sound so appealing.”
Zhao Yunlan grins. “Well, give me a chance to sell it to you, first. It’s not so bad – it’s in that big historic mansion on the west side, the one they usually only use for official functions. Have you ever been?” Shen Wei shakes his head, Zhao Yunlan pushes on. “Well, now’s your chance! I hear they’ve outdone themselves with the decorations, this year. And the food is pretty good, and free – that’s what usually motivates the rest of the team to go, and to behave.”
Shen Wei just hums. Zhao Yunlan leans into his space slightly as they walk and flings an arm around his shoulders, Shen Wei’s wool coat warm and slightly scratchy beneath his fingers as he allows himself to be led towards the parking lot.
“Come on, Shen Wei, don’t leave me to supervise the kids alone. You’re practically part of the team now too, you should come! They’ll all be happy to see you—” or at least happy to have a reason to make fun of their chief some more, not that Zhao Yunlan intended to take note of the difference, or let it deter him – “and I’ll be so lonely without your good company, abandoned with just those bureaucrats to talk to. Come with me?”
Pressed against Shen Wei’s side as he is, Zhao Yunlan can feel the way his shoulders shake with quiet laughter at Zhao Yunlan’s wheedling, the hitch in his breath when Zhao Yunlan extends the invitation again.
“Alright,” Shen Wei says, finally. “It will be nice to see Guo Changcheng, at least.”
Zhao Yunlan clasps his hand to his chest with an exaggerated wince. “Aiyo, Shen Wei, you’re too harsh,” he tries to scold, but suspects his massive grin spoils the effect. Shen Wei’s answering smile is smaller but no less fond. “Well, my car is just over here – I’ll give you a ride.”
He’s still smiling with the small victory as he reaches into his pocket only to find that his keys are – not where he expects them to be. He pauses, pats down the rest of his pockets with a growing sense of dread.
“Ah,” Zhao Yunlan says, eloquently. He’s suddenly struck with the memory of vaulting over a fence in pursuit of their suspect, maybe it had been then – or, no, probably when he’d slipped and fallen trying to make a too-tight turn on the ice – it could have happened when the kid had decided to turn and fight—
They could be anywhere, it’s a massive campus and he’d run across just about all of it, over the course of the afternoon. His mind is already spinning, thinking of the hassle it’s going to be to replace them. Not just the car keys, the keys to his apartment, too, and the SID, and the cells within – it’s a security risk at this point, he’s going to have to talk to someone higher up, possibly his father, as if he needed another lecture on responsibility, on top of everything.
“Zhao Yunlan?” Shen Wei is watching him patiently, in that intent way he has that makes it feel as if his entire field of vision has narrowed to only whatever expression is currently on Zhao Yunlan’s face.
“My keys, they – well. They’re… gone?” he says with a wince. “Ah, I’m sorry, Shen Wei, I have to – deal with this. Although I guess that probably works out pretty well for you, huh! You can get your evening back, no mandatory fun required.”
He tries for a bright laugh, the one that reliably reassures civilians, government officials, and occasionally even his team that everything is going exactly according to plan. Shen Wei, unsurprisingly, doesn’t look convinced.
“Where do you think you might have lost them? I’ll help you look,” he says, as if it’s the only logical option, as if nothing else could be expected.
“Oh, Shen Wei, that’s – I mean, thank you, but you really don’t have to do that.” Zhao Yunlan says reflexively, ignoring the greedy part of him that wants Shen Wei’s company, the way Shen Wei’s easy offer of assistance has so quickly pulled him away from thoughts of his father’s disappointed frown.
Shen Wei, perhaps predictably, ignores him. Zhao Yunlan tries to tell himself he’s not pathetically grateful for it.
“Come on,” Shen Wei says, already looking back the way they came, as focused as Zhao Yunlan has ever seen him when lecturing, or assisting on a case. “We’ll start from the quad and work backwards from there.”
He’d been warm enough, standing around in the student dormitories and then chasing after their suspect for who knows how long – but now that the adrenaline has faded, now that it’s started to get dark and they’re pacing the snowy grounds, slowly, so as not to miss anything, he’s starting to get cold. And it’s started to snow again, he realizes with a shiver.
When he straightens up to stretch, Shen Wei is there in front of him, close enough to startle. There’s a blur of motion and then he wraps something around Zhao Yunlan’s neck – his scarf, Zhao Yunlan realizes when he catches a flash of red out of the corner of his eye. It’s just as warm as it looks.
“You’ll catch a chill,” Shen Wei says, frowning at him. “You’ve been out much longer than me, and your coat isn’t suited for the weather. You ought to be more careful with your health.”
Zhao Yunlan doesn’t have it in him to protest, not when Shen Wei is standing so close to him, still, fussing with the scarf until it’s arranged to his satisfaction.
“Ah, Shen Wei,” he says softly, ducking his head to hide his smile, “you really are too good to me.”
They stand there for a moment longer, Shen Wei’s hands resting lightly on his chest, so close Zhao Yunlan can feel his breath against his cheek, until Zhao Yunlan can’t take the stillness any longer.
“Anyways,” he says, clearing his throat, and Shen Wei steps back as if he’s surprised to find them in such close proximity, still. “I don’t think they’re here. Maybe over by the fountain?”
When he realizes it’s almost completely dark out, and it’s started snowing heavily enough that his keys are almost surely buried, Zhao Yunlan stands with a sigh.
“It’s no use, Shen Wei, I’m pretty sure they’ll be gone until next spring.”
Shen Wei frowns. “I’m sorry, Zhao Yunlan,” he says, as if it’s a personal failing that he isn’t capable of instantly locating the needle of Zhao Yunlan’s keys within the haystack that is Dragon City University’s massive campus. “I can’t—”
“Hey, no, it’s alright,” Zhao Yunlan reassures, “it was a long shot anyways. Thank you for your help, really, I appreciate it.”
He can’t quite bring himself to flirt the way he usually would, not when he’s already mentally compiling a list of everything he’s going to need to fit into his already packed schedule in the next week to deal with this, sorting through the meetings he can afford to reschedule and the ones he can’t avoid. Just thinking about it is exhausting; he can feel his shoulders starting to slump.
But he tries to muster a smile for Shen Wei, who still looks faintly upset at the thought of giving up.
“You could call a cab? Leave your car here and come back tomorrow to deal with it, so you don’t miss the party.”
Zhao Yunlan's smile comes a little easier. “It’s a nice thought, but – well, I don’t think it would be here in the morning if I did. Your university parking staff have given me enough tickets over the years that I know even an Inspectorate permit won’t deter them. Thank you for helping me look, I really do appreciate it. But I won’t keep you.”
Shen Wei frowns at him. “What will you—”
“I’ll just call roadside, they should be able to send someone to make a new key. And Da Qing can let me back into the apartment. Really, Shen Wei, I’m just going to be waiting around, you don’t need to stand out here with me. It’s nearly the end of the semester, I’m sure you’re busy and I’ve taken up enough of your time already,” Zhao Yunlan says, shooing him away and forcing down the selfish part of him that wants desperately for Shen Wei to stay.
Shen Wei falters, for a moment, fixes him with one of those faintly mulish looks that tend to mean he thinks Zhao Yunlan is doing something stupid and he intends to do something about it. But after a long silence he nods, once, then turns to leave. It’s what Zhao Yunlan had wanted him to do, but it doesn’t feel much like a victory.
“Goodnight,” he calls, but the snow must be muffling the sound more than he thought because Shen Wei doesn’t respond.
Zhao Yunlan watches him go until he can’t see him through the snow any longer, then fires off a few texts to Da Qing, letting him know he won’t be making it after all and that Da Qing will need to keep an eye on everyone for him and make apologies on his behalf to some of the senior officials. Da Qing, predictably, sends back an inscrutable series of emojis that could mean anything but are probably an insult.
The path Shen Wei had taken wasn’t the one he would choose if he were going back to their building – it leads back to the teacher’s dormitories, Zhao Yunlan thinks, looking absently in the direction he'd disappeared. So he’d interrupted Shen Wei, earlier; he’d clearly had plans of some sort, or at least a destination in mind before Zhao Yunlan cornered him and needled him into going to the Inspectorate’s party. Maybe a holiday gathering of his own, with friends of his own. And he had just – what, dropped everything? Just to help Yunlan look for his keys, which had been lost on account of his own carelessness?
It really is getting cold, he thinks, pulling his coat tighter around himself and realizing as he does that Shen Wei’s left his scarf behind. Zhao Yunlan can’t bring himself to feel guilty about it – it’s terribly warm where it wraps around his neck, and it smells faintly of something familiar that he can’t quite put a name to but has always associated with Shen Wei, with the quiet calm of his office and a shoulder he had leaned into while half asleep, once.
It feels foolish, now, that he had ever been suspicious of Shen Wei, when for all his secrets, for all the blatant lies practically begging Zhao Yunlan to push for more, he’s clearly, at the core of him, so good. Even more foolish, suspecting as he does what Shen Wei has really been hiding for him. To think that the Black Cloaked Envoy would spend an afternoon—
But he can’t know for sure, still, he can’t assume no matter what he thinks he knows, and anyways if he thinks about it too long in the context of his own continuing actions, the way he’s behaved and has kept behaving, despite his suspicions, he’ll really start to feel embarrassed—
He’s startled out of his thoughts by the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow. Footsteps, that, instead of passing by as he expects, slow to a stop just in front of him.
Something warm is pressed into his hands, and he looks up, confused. “Wha—”
Whatever it is he’d meant to say, he doesn’t finish, because in front of him is Shen Wei. He’s looking down, at the mug in Zhao Yunlan’s hand, and Zhao Yunlan thinks the tips of his ears might be red but it’s hard to tell, in the dim light.
“Hot chocolate,” Shen Wei says, looking up to meet his eyes through those impossibly thick lashes, blinking snowflakes out of his eyes. “I thought you might – that is, I thought it might help, with the cold. And that maybe you could wouldn’t mind some company while you wait.”
“Shen Wei, you’ve done more than enough, you’ll get cold—”
“It’s alright,” Shen Wei says with a small smile, “I don’t get sick easily. Please, drink.”
Zhao Yunlan stares at him for a moment and Shen Wei stares right back. There’s an incredulous huff that he belatedly realizes is coming from him. He follows Shen Wei’s instructions.
It is, as most food items Shen Wei presents him with are, delicious – rich and creamy and comforting in the cold weather, warming him from the inside out. There’s whipped cream, too, thick and just sweet enough, like the kind his mother used to make from scratch back when he was young enough that someone regularly made things like hot chocolate for him. He can feel his eyes widening as he drinks, and looks up at Shen Wei in disbelief.
“Where did you get this? Is there some secret coffee shop you academics have been hiding away from the rest of us?”
Shen Wei’s breath is visible in the cold air when a surprised laugh escapes him. “There are no secret coffee shops on campus, Zhao Yunlan – and if there were I’m certain they wouldn’t be able to stay secret from you.”
“Then – you—”
“I may not live in the faculty dormitory anymore, but I still have access to the staff kitchen,” Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan hadn’t been certain before but there’s definitely a flush creeping up Shen Wei’s cheeks now.
“Oh,” Zhao Yunlan says, suddenly faintly overwhelmed, before remembering his manners. “Well. Thank you, then. You didn’t have to do that. To do any of this, honestly.”
“I wanted to, though,” Shen Wei says, looking at him intently again, another long silence stretching out between them. Then he seems to catch himself, clearing his throat awkwardly before taking a sip from his own mug. “Besides, you only just got over your cold from last time.”
There’s a sort of stubborn set to his jaw as he says it, the same look he fixes Zhao Yunlan with when he somehow just knows Zhao Yunlan hasn’t eaten all day, or when they run into each other in the hallway of their apartment building and his eyes instantly fix on the latest bruise or scrape in Zhao Yunlan’s collection.
But Zhao Yunlan barely notices, because he’s been distracted by the spot of whipped cream stuck to Shen Wei’s upper lip, teasing him, distracting him—
Zhao Yunlan wants to taste it off of him.
His brain abruptly catches up with his own thoughts and he chokes on his drink. He freezes, stuck staring at the offending dash of white and wondering if being out in the cold for so long has started to impact his mental facilities.
It’s not as if it’s that far off from the thoughts Shen Wei tends to inspire in him. But this feels – different. More intimate than his usual surface-level appreciation of Shen Wei’s good looks, more familiar than his shameless flirting. More familiar, perhaps, than he has a right to be.
They’ve been dancing around each other for so long, and for all that part of Zhao Yunlan wants to wait until Shen Wei trusts him enough to let go of the secrets he’s still so obviously keeping, he also just – wants, badly.
“Zhao Yunlan?” He’s been standing still for too long, staring at Shen Wei’s lips, and Shen Wei is starting to look concerned and the damned whipped cream is still there—
Zhao Yunlan leans forward before he can think better of it and swipes his thumb across Shen Wei’s lips, wiping it away. His hand lingers against Shen Wei’s jaw longer than he can reasonably excuse – as if his initial reason isn’t flimsy enough to begin with. The air around them feels charged; Zhao Yunlan is suddenly hyperaware of every scant inch between them. It would be so easy to close that distance. Natural, the only logical conclusion. Shen Wei’s eyes are huge as he stares at him, like a deer in headlights, except—
It’s not just Zhao Yunlan’s imagination. Shen Wei really is caught in the glare of headlights. He’s torn, for a moment, between cursing any listening gods for the interruption or thanking the universe for preventing him from doing something reckless.
Well. Something more reckless, anyways.
“Must be the locksmith,” he says, stepping away with an attempt at one of his easy grins. It doesn’t quite sit right on his face. He wonders if Shen Wei notices. Wonders if he could play it off as his usual flirting, with the right combination of laughter and teasing winks, or if Shen Wei had felt that same current in the air.
He absently licks his thumb as he turns to greet the technician, only realizing what he's done when Shen Wei makes a choked noise behind him.
The locksmith, as it turns out, needs very little of Zhao Yunlan’s assistance. When it becomes clear that he will not be quite the distraction Zhao Yunlan was hoping for, he sidles back around to where Shen Wei is leaning against the back of the car, staring intently into his mug as if it contains the secrets of the universe.
He’s not sure if Shen Wei is ignoring him, or if he’s just lost in thought and hasn’t noticed – so Shen Wei stands looking at his mug and Zhao Yunlan stands looking at him, the way the streetlight casts harsh shadows across his face, the way the snow catches in his hair.
“Sorry,” Zhao Yunlan blurts out, finally, and Shen Wei’s head snaps up – he really had been distracted, then. “If that was – too far, before. Unwelcome.” It comes out more honestly than he’d intended, gives away too much. He has to suppress a wince. Shen Wei just blinks at him.
“It wasn’t,” he finally says, “you just – surprised me.”
The wave of relief is unexpected; caught up in it, Zhao Yunlan, who has never learned to let a matter rest, finds himself speaking without thinking again.
“Well, I couldn’t let any of Professor Shen’s hard work go to waste,” he says with a wink, regaining his balance.
“Ridiculous,” Shen Wei mutters, shaking his head, but when Zhao Yunlan opens the passenger side door for him he slides in without hesitation and Zhao Yunlan knows he’s been forgiven, or, even better, that Shen Wei hadn’t thought there was anything to forgive in the first place.
Zhao Yunlan knows he’s grinning as he walks around to the driver’s side, too wide to be anything but pure, heady delight, and in other company he might be embarrassed but with Shen Wei he doesn’t want to stop, doesn't think he could if he tried. He puts the freshly-cut key in the ignition and turns the heat as high as it goes, but he doesn’t really need it, anymore – he’s already plenty warm.