Shen Wei is sinking.
There is darkness all around, and though he is struggling against it with every ounce of his fading powers, it is closing in. He knows he can’t let it swallow him—isn’t sure of anything else, but even with his mind in tatters, the imperative to resist remains. He must hold on to this: the small, flickering flame that is the only thing pushing back against that devouring absence of light. It has become his entire existence—or has always been his entire existence; the one thing that must be protected above all else.
For one moment Shen Wei sees a figure in that golden light. It’s only a fleeting glimpse, but stirs in him sensations that are the sweet opposite of pain: the joy of an aching heart, the elation of lungs caught short of breath.
Before he can name the emotion, a shadow writhes its way past his defenses and steals his attention away. He tries to push against it, but it flows over and around him, engulfing him in soft whispers with razor edges. Words that wound and destroy, and Shen Wei’s defenses can only hold until they can’t.
Time has long since ceased to matter, but everything he is feels the shock of it as something that is turns into something that was—and then it’s gone. A laughing voice echoes in the empty place where something should be—something glowing warm and rich—and then there is nothing left but a cold, drowning dark.
Zhao Yunlan spins on his heel, convinced he heard someone calling his name. He stands still in the dim hospital corridor and listens, head cocked, but hears nothing but the hum of ventilation. And he’d tell himself it’s just the recycled breeze, but the icy shiver down his spine isn’t the kind of cold a warmer jacket could have kept out. “Shen Wei,” he breathes, because that voice—it couldn’t have been Shen Wei, who went off to Dixing alone and left Zhao Yunlan behind almost three days ago. It couldn’t have been. And yet, even though nothing has changed, the low-level background radiation of Zhao Yunlan’s worry for Shen Wei has spiked into a full meltdown.
Entering Wang Xiangyang’s room, Zhao Yunlan can barely remember what he came for. Keeping the erstwhile Master of the Merit Brush alive is certainly important—that is why Xiao Guo is sitting at his bedside, and why Lao Chu is lurking behind his young colleague. But Wang Xiangyang knows little of Ye Zun and nothing at all about the machinations taking place in Dixing. It was Shen Wei who realized what price Ye Zun was about to exact for use of the brush, and hurried to Dixing before the final seals could be broken. And it was Xiao Guo who went to get Lao Chu when Wang Xiangyang’s landlord was making noises about the rent being late, and so was allowed (well, “allowed”) inside where he found the photo album and the recording. Zhao Yunlan helped talk the poor bereaved bastard down, that is all. And now he is here to—right.
“Mr. Wang,” he says, keeping his tone formal. The man’s hurt goes too deep for words of sympathy. “Did Ye Zun ever direct you to use the brush around our headquarters?”
The man in the hospital bed blinks slowly, and Zhao Yunlan wonders what exactly is flowing through his IV. “It’s important,” he adds. “More people could get hurt if Ye Zun has some kind of way in.”
“No,” Wang Xiangyang says, his voice entirely flat. “He didn’t.”
“Thank you,” Zhao Yunlan says, and means it. Lin Jing will be pleased to hear there is no immediate risk of a dark energy discharge aimed at their shield.
“Xiao Guo,” Zhao Yunlan nods at the young man. “Do you need anything?”
“Oh, um. No! No, I don’t—I mean. Chu-ge, do you want anything?”
Chu Shuzhi shoots Zhao Yunlan a mildly irritated look for flustering Xiao Guo, and then shakes his head. “No.”
“Right,” Zhao Yunlan says, before Xiao Guo can report Lao Chu’s answer back to him. “Well, call if anything comes up. You might be here for a while.”
When he passes through that same hospital hallway on the way back, it seems to echo with a particular emptiness that raises the hairs on the back of his neck. No matter what the scans show, Zhao Yunlan thinks he’s given Shen Wei enough space to do his Black Cloak thing. It’s time to get him back here, one way or the other.
Opening the door to Bright Street #4, Zhao Yunlan almost walks through Wang Zheng, who is hovering anxiously in the entrance. “Chief, please—come quick!”
Zhao Yunlan’s heart plummets. “What is it?” he says, swallowing back the syllables of Shen Wei’s name, because the chief of the SID is supposed to have other priorities than Dixing’s Envoy.
Wang Zheng wrings her hands as she ushers Zhao Yunlan towards Lin Jing’s lab. “We don’t know,” she says, sounding breathless though she doesn’t need to breathe. “But I can feel it, and Sang Zan too—and Lin Jing’s instruments, they are all much agitated.”
“Feel it?” Zhao Yunlan stops, because he did feel something back in the hospital.
Wang Zheng nods, firmly. “The shield helps. When it started, Lin Jing said he would turn it up. But it’s—bad.”
Zhao Yunlan takes a moment to close his eyes, and tries to separate the most recent pangs of worry from that creeping sense of wrongness that struck him so suddenly. And there it is—it hasn’t left. His internal Geiger counter is clicking a restless warning against unseen danger. Might this be what the energy spirits have picked up on? And if so, why is he sensing it so keenly himself? Too many questions, and he doesn’t have his usual source of answers nearby. So he continues on to the second best place for information.
The lab is crowded, with Lin Jing frantically scanning one screen after the next, Da Qing and Zhu Hong trying to follow along over his shoulder, and Sang Zan watching them all in alarm, hugging his arms to his chest. “Okay, right, so that’s not good but—Sang Zan! Does this make it better or worse?” Lin Jing hollers.
Sang Zan shakes his head, lips pinched. “B-bad!” he manages. Wang Zheng glides over to touch his shoulder, and they exchange wan smiles as he wraps an arm around her.
“Stop that, Lin Jing!” Zhu Hong scolds the scientist as he mashes a key on his keyboard. “Go back to the other setting.”
Wang Zheng winces. “Please.”
“But the readings are clearer when—”
“You heard the ladies,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Lin Jing startles.
“Chief!” He hastily taps another key, and Sang Zan and Wang Zheng both relax a bit.
“What’s going on?” Zhao Yunlan asks.
Zhu Hong and Da Qing step aside to let Zhao Yunlan get a clear view of the screens. Lin Jing gestures helplessly at the readouts. “Energy spike. Really, really big energy spike. Like—”
Zhao Yunlan clenches his fists. “The seals on the pillar broke,” he breathes. The seals Shen Wei went to Dixing to restore, or protect, or—whatever he went to do, it was to stop those seals from breaking. And keeping Merit-Brush Wang alive was supposed to help, but Shen Wei never did specify it would guarantee anything.
For a moment, nobody speaks into the chilling silence left by his words. Then Lin Jing clears his throat. “Well. We don’t know that. It’s a likely hypothesis, but Dixing has been unstable recently, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint—”
Zhao Yunlan uncurls one fist enough to put a palm out in a shushing motion, rather than make Lin Jing think he’s going to get a beating. “What else could it be?” he asks.
Lin Jing swallows, and looks to Da Qing and Zhu Hong for support. “Well,” he says. “It could be something to do with the fourth Hallow—the Guardian Lantern? We don’t know anything about its capabilities, and if someone beat us to it, it might—boost Dixing powers. Somehow.”
“None of the others had anything like this effect.”
“They’re all unique, Lao Zhao,” Da Qing ventures.
“Right. Okay.” It doesn’t feel right, or okay, but Zhao Yunlan has to consider all options right now. “Anything else?”
“A natural phenomenon?” Lin Jing offers a very pained smile.
“Ever recorded anything like this before?” Zhao Yunlan asks, knowing damn well that this is absolutely unnatural.
“No,” Lin Jing admits.
“Call Dragon City University. Geology department should have—” Zhao Yunlan grabs for the right word, fails to find it, and flicks his hand impatiently. “Those things they use. Science stuff. See if they’ve picked anything up, and make them ask any other department that might have any geological or atmospheric readings running.”
Lin Jing’s eyes widen. “Good idea, boss.”
Zhao Yunlan shrugs. The university is part of Shen Wei’s life, so of course that’s where his mind would go right now. “But don’t waste any time on it. We need more information—more details. I want all you have on this, laid out so even a damn cat can understand—”
“Hey!” Da Qing protests.
“And I want it within the hour.”
“Would thirty minutes work better for you?”
Lin Jing swallows, and turns back to hunch over his keyboard. “I’ll have it for you in an hour, boss.”
“Da Qing. Zhu Hong.” The two snap to attention. “It’s too dangerous to split up, but I need to know what the Yashou make of all this. Go to Fourth Uncle, and make sure to get reports on if there’s been any activity near the known passages to Dixing.”
Da Qing and Zhu Hong both nod. “Yes, Chief.” Then they’re on the move, without any further encouragement. Zhao Yunlan exhales slowly, before turning around and calling after them, “And be careful!”
That bastard Ye Zun is up to something. Something big. Something bad. Zhao Yunlan can feel it, and he can admit that right now, he is afraid.
Fifty-nine minutes later, a wild-haired Lin Jing sticks a tablet under Chief Zhao’s nose, interrupting his busy time staring into space while trying not to chew his lollipop to splinters.
“It came from Ye Zun’s pillar. Almost certainly. So the seals broke. Probably,” Lin Jing summarizes.
“Fuck,” Zhao Yunlan says, softly but with great feeling. Shen Wei. He breathes in, exhales. Ye Zun free. Dixing must be in chaos—more chaos than usual. And Haixing, his city… “How bad is it?”
Lin Jing winces, and brings up clusters of data on the tablet. “So far? Not bad—not here, at least. There was that spike, but modelling the available data shows that the energy is already dissipating—no way yet of knowing if it will go back to normal levels, but at least the trends indicate—”
“Lin Jing,” Zhao Yunlan interrupts.
“Oh. Right. Um.” Lin Jing flips through his information and pulls up a map of the city. “There is some minor damage here and here—you’ll notice a correlation with the location of the known portals to Dixing—and it’s being reported as an earthquake. I have Wang Zheng keeping an eye on the monitors in the lab, just in case. We were thinking—Sang Zan said if this was the precursor to anything, there would probably be scouts, first. So the systems are on high alert around the portals, and I’ve got the scanners running to see there’s any unusual pattern in emergency service responses.”
“Good work,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Lin Jing stands a little straighter. “Get Cong Bo to scan social media, too. He knows what to look for, and he’s got his own sources we can use.”
Lin Jing doesn’t even make a face at Cong Bo’s name. “Right away,” he says, and beats a hasty retreat to his lab, leaving Zhao Yunlan to make a couple of calls to coordinate their efforts, advise the Haixing Ministry, and be generally useless.
Shen Wei. None of what Zhao Yunlan is doing is getting him any closer to unravelling the tight knot of tension in his chest. But there’s nothing any of them can do about it from up here. Lin Jing’s instruments can’t track specific dark energy in Dixing any more than it can track a particular puff of carbon dioxide exhaled in Haixing. No, someone will have to go down there and gather intelligence. Find out what the state of the pillar is.
And if, in the meantime, someone should take the opportunity to look for their missing consultant—well, that would only be right and proper, seeing as he’s a valuable member of their team. It’s a good plan. An important plan. Now all Zhao Yunlan needs is to get Lao Chu to open the familiar passage to Dixing.
“It’s not that easy,” Lao Chu says brusquely.
“What are you talking about?” Zhao Yunlan tries to keep his voice down, as they are clustered in a hospital hallway. “If it weren’t easy, would Haixing be so full of renegade Dixingren?”
Lao Chu, a presumptive renegade Dixingren, scowls. “It’s not a revolving door, Chief.”
Zhao Yunlan presses his lips together against an unfair imprecation and glances off to the side until he can control the urge to shake Lao Chu into changing his mind.
“I know it’s important,” Lao Chu adds, quietly. “But I alone do not possess the ability to work the portals.”
Zhao Yunlan narrows his eyes. ”Alone? Could we help?”
A strange, savagely bereft look crosses Lao Chu’s face. “You?” he says tonelessly. “No.”
Zhao Yunlan has spent their entire time as colleagues respecting Chu Shuzhi’s choice to be taciturn and mysterious, but there are limits. The threat from Dixing now is too great—as is his fear for Shen Wei. “Explain,” he orders.
Lao Chu’s body goes rigid with barely contained violence, his posture and expression those of a man under attack. Zhao Yunlan quirks his lips in a humorless smile, because he can’t tense up in response, but he also can’t let Lao Chu forget who is calling the shots. “Well?”
Xiao Guo slips into Lao Chu’s personal space, satchel hugged to his chest as he looks from Lao Chu to Zhao Yunlan with the wide-eyed air of a toddler witnessing its parents fighting. "Chu-ge."
Hearing the sound of his name, Lao Chu darts an almost panicked look at Xiao Guo, who responds by putting a hesitant hand on Lao Chu's arm. Zhao Yunlan gathers his patience, lets the two of them communicate without words until Lao Chu softens a fraction. Still looking like Zhao Yunlan kicked him in the nuts, he bites out, "I had someone. Calm, clever…” Lao Chu chokes, and Xiao Guo's face scrunches up in pain.
Zhao Yunlan swallows at the dreadful finality of that sentence. To have had someone, to no longer have them...
“Without my little brother,” Lao Chu grates out, “There’s things I can’t—things that require more than a puppet.”
A person is more than a puppet. Not Zhao Yunlan, of course—he is no brother to Lao Chu. But Lao Chu and Xiao Guo have become quite close, haven’t they? Zhao Yunlan watches Guo Changcheng radiating concern while rubbing Chu Shuzhi’s back in a way neither of them seem to register as forward. More than a puppet. It could work. It would be worth a try. Zhao Yunlan could order them—Lao Chu still owes him for reporting on him to the Black-Cloaked Envoy behind his back, and Xiao Guo would eat his notebook at a word from his chief.
The temptation is so strong that Zhao Yunlan opens his mouth around the first syllable of a command. It is so strong that when he fails to vocalize it, his lungs can’t seem to fill with oxygen, his entire body rebelling against the wasted chance. But he can’t. Ye Zun alone is too dangerous, and Ye Zun free in Dixing is a danger he cannot order any of his people to face. Not when they could be protecting Dragon City, rather than plunging into the darkness below simply to ease the ache in Zhao Yunlan’s heart.
Zhao Yunlan blinks and finds the two staring at him with nervous worry and grim consternation. “Chief Zhao?” Xiao Guo ventures timidly. “You look like… Um. I mean. Did you have something you wanted to say?”
“No,” Zhao Yunlan says. “Just a thought. Probably nothing.” He smiles, and Xiao Guo nearly ducks behind his Chu-ge for some reason.
“Spit it out,” Lao Chu says, understandably unsympathetic.
Zhao Yunlan chuckles. “Ah, no,” he says. “I just had the thought that Xiao Guo here might be better than a puppet. But that’s a stupid idea.”
“Oh.” Xiao Guo blinks, as if he’s not sure whether to be pleased Zhao Yunlan thought he might be useful, or upset that thought has been deemed stupid.
Lao Chu is staring hard at Zhao Yunlan, weighing something in his mind. “It’s not the same,” he says finally, and Zhao Yunlan nods.
“No, I know. It was just—”
“But. It might be possible.”
Zhao Yunlan’s spine stiffens. “It’s too dangerous. Even if it worked—taking Xiao Guo to Dixing—”
“I want to help,” Guo Changcheng pipes up. He ducks his head when Lao Chu turns that stare on him, but forges on, hiding behind his satchel. “I do! For Professor Shen, if there’s anything we can do—and for Dragon City. For Haixing. That’s our job, right? To protect Haixing.”
Lao Chu has wound a threatening fist in Xiao Guo’s shirt front, but doesn’t seem to know what to do with his face. Zhao Yunlan, on the other hand, is laughing in astonishment. Their Xiao Guo is growing up so fast! The laughter shakes something loose in his chest, and he takes his first deep breath in hours. “Yeah,” he tells Guo Changcheng, and taps Chu Shuzhi on the shoulder. “He is right, you know.”
Lao Chu blinks, and carefully smooths out the wrinkles in Xiao Guo’s shirt.
“I don’t know if I can be useful at all. But I—but we. We can at least try?” Xiao Guo smiles encouragingly.
Zhao Yunlan slings an arm around his shoulder. “We can.”
By the time everything is arranged for their expedition—Zhao Yunlan is refusing to think of it as an attempt, because those can fail, and this can’t be allowed to—night has fallen again. He hasn’t seen Shen Wei in three days and four hours, and he is beginning to run out of lollipops.
Lao Chu has been alternating glaring at Zhao Yunlan with doting on Xiao Guo, who has been in good cheer either from the attention, or from the prospect of doing something useful. The two are currently standing as still as statues in front of the portal. Or what should be the portal. Without Shen Wei there to lend Zhao Yunlan the ability to peer into his world, it looks like they are just staring really hard at a patch of bushes.
Zhao Yunlan has no insight into whatever passes between the two men. Xiao Guo’s face is caught in a wince from the grip Lao Chu has on his shoulder, but the expression is frozen, unchanging. Zhao Yunlan would give them anything in his power to allow them to succeed, but Lao Chu has very pointedly excluded him from the preparations. So all he can do is continue to wait, while the gulf of minutes and hours deepens between him and Shen Wei, and that pitiless worry gnaws at his belly. Please, he thinks, because he has no other words. Please open. (Please be alright.)
And then, as easily as if the words were a spell, the portal appears where Zhao Yunlan can see it too. Xiao Guo staggers, and Lao Chu catches him and doesn’t let go even when the young man regains his footing.
“Shall we?” says Zhao Yunlan, only barely managing to keep from flinging himself bodily through the open gateway in a heady mixture of relief and terror that it might vanish at any second.
Lao Chu nods, and hauls a pale Xiao Guo forward—and then Zhao Yunlan is inside and through it.
He comes out the Dixing side feeling like a cat that’s been rubbed the wrong way—bristly and jumpy and with his hair in disarray. He can’t say if it’s the difference between the Chu-Guo portal and Shen Wei’s, or the current state of Dixing, but the result is thoroughly unpleasant.
That, or it could be that they’ve been dropped off in plain sight right by the steps up to the palace. Fuck.
Zhao Yunlan gives a casual grin and wave at a passing couple of Dixing denizens as he straightens from his crouch. They react with vague suspicion, but might have let it go if Lao Chu and Xiao Guo hadn’t picked that very moment to come tumbling out of midair. Zhao Yunlan’s grin grows pained. The locals’ eyes grow wide. But while they’re not entirely sure what the protocol for finding random intruders on the palace steps are, Zhao Yunlan is quick to act. He grabs the nearest sleeve, trusting Xiao Guo and Lao Chu to stick together. “Run.”
They do. Not very fast—Xiao Guo is still wobbly, and Lao Chu has to prop him up—but well enough to put a few twists and turns of narrow alleys between themselves and the palace plaza. Curious onlookers turn to stare at them as they jostle through the first few streets, but after that they grow more sparsely populated, and Zhao Yunlan shoves the other two into an abandoned-looking courtyard where they can collapse against a wall out of sight of the gate.
“Can you find your way to the pillar from here?” Zhao Yunlan asks, eyeing the rows of dead windows all around them. He remembers that eerie, glowing monolith from his previous visit, but the path he took to get there is strangely nebulous in his mind.
Lao Chu shrugs, gazing at Xiao Guo who is slumped against his shoulder panting for breath. “I can find it. But the most direct route might not be safe.”
Sitting around here might not be safe, either. Zhao Yunlan, still cat-jumpy, has seen glimpses of movements behind those empty window squares. “Xiao Guo. How are you holding up?”
“Fine, chief,” Xiao Guo says without opening his eyes.
“Liar,” Lao Chu scolds him.
“I-I can walk,” he protests weakly. “Um. Maybe not run, though.”
Zhao Yunlan nods, trying to keep guilt at bay—guilt that he’s dragged Xiao Guo down here, and guilt that he’s ready to ask yet more of him. “If we have to run, I’ll carry you,” he says. Can’t hide him away—it wouldn’t be safe, and it might trap all of them down here if they split up. Not that Zhao Yunlan has any plans of returning without Shen Wei, but if Shen Wei isn’t—if Shen Wei can’t—well. They need a backup plan for the portal.
Lao Chu shoots him a dark glare, obviously ready to claim the right to carry Guo Changcheng anywhere he needs to go. “Eh? You’d rather let me fight, then?” Zhao Yunlan says to that silent challenge, and Lao Chu concedes the point with ill grace.
Zhao Yunlan helps Xiao Guo up, and Lao Chu leads them through Dixing, following either memory or some other sense. Zhao Yunlan can’t tell—all he’s getting is that bone-deep unease that’s coming from everywhere at once, and a pressure like the air is heavier than it should be. Though—Zhao Yunlan squints. “Are we getting close?”
Lao Chu gives a noncommittal twitch of his shoulders as he peers around a corner. “We should be.”
The feeling is definitely getting more intense. Zhao Yunlan sympathises with Xiao Guo, whose resolute limping is getting slower and slower, as if he is wilting under the pressure of the Dixing gloom. The buildings they’re passing are getting more dilapidated, and they turn a corner to find them scattering into a field of ruins. Zhao Yunlan exhales a long breath. He knows this place—they’re almost there. The pillar, where Shen Wei was going—and he might have remained nearby, if something went wrong, so maybe… “Alright,” Zhao Yunlan says, patting Lao Chu on the shoulder. “Well done. We should be right about—”
“Halt!” An order barked from behind, half a dozen of the palace guards coming up behind Zhao Yunlan and Xiao Guo.
“Why don’t you halt?” Zhao Yunlan calls back, keeping his hands off his gun. “We’re friends of your Lord Black Cloak.”
“The traitor,” the leader says, and actually spits. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t like the man’s tone at all, not when talking about Shen Wei. But he’s not being mocked for seeking a dead man, and despite everything else he can’t help relief from tugging his lips into a smile.
“Lao Chu?” Zhao Yunlan murmurs, and while the guards still think they have the long-range advantage, Chu Shuzhi’s threads strike.
Zhao Yunlan’s revolver takes two of them out, and then a deep groan of pain from Xiao Guo throws his aim off. Zhao Yunlan whirls around in time to see the young man sinking to the ground with his hand clutched over his shoulder, the red of his blood the brightest thing in Dixing. Zhao Yunlan only barely catches him. They have no bandages, but Zhao Yunlan manages to wind Xiao Guo’s torn sweater around the wound.
Lao Chu makes short, efficient work of the remaining few guards, and throws himself down at Xiao Guo’s side. “He’s still breathing,” Zhao Yunlan says, because he’s not sure Lao Chu is in any state to process that sort of information. His hands are busy fixing the young man’s belt around the bundle of fabric stopping the bleeding. The result isn’t pretty, but makes a decent makeshift tourniquet. “Help me get him up—we’re so close.”
Together they get Xiao Guo up on Zhao Yunlan’s back, and set out to the plain of ruins. It doesn’t take long for the pillar to show up against the flickering background of the storm—a luminous, accusing finger raised to stab Dragon City above. Walking out here feels terribly exposed, but at least that means there aren’t too many places to miss Shen Wei. If he’s still out there.
They’re within shouting distance of the pillar when Zhao Yunlan realizes that he doesn’t have to scan every rock and crevice anymore—that he’s found what he’s been looking for. A trick of Dixing geography seems to bring the pillar closer between one step and the next, and the general outline dissolves into crystal-clear details: chains strung to the pillar, dark energy dancing eerily over their links. And a figure slumped against them, his silhouette unmistakable even though Zhao Yunlan can’t see his face. Not in his formal Envoy robes, but in that blue suit Zhao Yunlan likes so much on him. “Shen Wei!”
Carrying the unconscious Xiao Guo, Zhao Yunlan can’t run. It takes effort not to simply throw off the weight holding him back—Xiao Guo wouldn’t mind, Zhao Yunlan thinks in a brief second, wild with fear. He’d want to help Shen Wei, right?
Instead Zhao Yunlan carefully carries the young man all the way to the steps leading up to the pillar, trying not to trip over his own feet as he stares at the motionless figure caught in the chains above.
The moment he stops, Lao Chu is there to slide Xiao Guo’s body to the ground, making sure not to add any concussion to his list of injuries. After that, a platoon of soldiers could be bearing down on them and Zhao Yunlan wouldn’t know, as everything in him is completely focused on Shen Wei, and nothing but Shen Wei.
Rushing up the stairs, Zhao Yunlan tries to quell the terror of the little treacherous whisper in his mind. What if it’s already too late? It took so long to find Shen Wei, and now he looks—he looks unconscious. That’s it. Just because his head is lolling forward and his entire body is resting against the chains pulled tight around him doesn’t mean anything, except that being trapped in Dixing for however long it’s been down here has exhausted him.
Heart beating louder in his ears than the thunder chasing across the desolate plains around them, Zhao Yunlan reaches Shen Wei; reaches for Shen Wei.
The chains make it impossible to take Shen Wei in his arms. All Zhao Yunlan can do is brush his fingertips against the exposed skin of Shen Wei’s throat, words deserting him as he hopes. He hopes, and when hope is confirmed he has to fight a wave of relief so powerful it almost topples him. Shen Wei’s skin is cool, but no cooler than usual, and Zhao Yunlan can feel the rapid fluttering of his pulse. “Shen Wei,” he whispers. “Hey. Shen Wei.”
Zhao Yunlan takes Shen Wei’s head in his hands, tilting it up. The glasses are askew, and Zhao Yunlan swallows and tries to nudge them back into place. It doesn’t help much at all. Shen Wei’s face is drawn and pallid, dried blood matted in his hair and crusted in the corners of his mouth. His lips are so pale they’re almost blue, and his eyes are closed. But he doesn’t seem to be fully unconscious—his breathing is coming in shallow gasps, and his brows are drawn tight in distress.
“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan says again, louder this time. “Shen Wei, wake up!” He can’t grab him, can’t help Shen Wei’s body down from the chains. He moves in closer to take some of Shen Wei’s weight, and the chains—Zhao Yunlan recoils. They feel wrong. Even through his clothes they’re… cold. No. It’s not that they’re cold, it’s that they are leeching heat from him, stealing his energy and leaving a freezing numbness wherever they’ve touched him. The sensation is so repellent it’s forced Zhao Yunlan half a step back from Shen Wei before he can get his body back under control. And Shen Wei has been here—how long?
Zhao Yunlan closes the distance between them again, fighting the urge to flinch from the chains, and props Shen Wei’s body against his own to give him some relief from the terrible bonds he’s been trapped in. For a moment, Zhao Yunlan thinks he feels Shen Wei tense, but there’s no other reaction. Not from the body in his arms. Zhao Yunlan’s own heart is tumbling in freefall, and so he leans even closer.
“Shen Wei, come on. I’m here. Shen Wei, please…” Zhao Yunlan murmurs the words into Shen Wei’s temple, tasting blood mixed with bitter Dixing dust in the matted hair. It doesn’t help, and Zhao Yunlan can barely think through the numbness left by the chains and the panic. He slides a hand down to cup Shen Wei’s cheek, brushes a kiss against the cracked lips. “Xiao Wei.”
Under his, Shen Wei’s mouth opens with a gasp. Zhao Yunlan startles, but he’s already grinning. He keeps a warm human hand on Shen Wei’s shoulder, supporting him. “I didn’t know that kisses worked on Black-Cloaked Envoys as well as princesses,” he drawls, waiting for Shen Wei’s breathing to even and his eyes to focus so they can get him down from the creepy pillar and out of Dixing. Zhao Yunlan should maybe call for Lao Chu, but he can’t spare the breath right now.
Shen Wei slowly lifts his head, finally manages to meet Zhao Yunlan’s gaze—and shies away, like he’s trying to bolt. Zhao Yunlan forgets how to smile. “Shen Wei?”
Shen Wei’s eyes hold a mix of anger and fear, and Zhao Yunlan doesn’t understand. This is not how Shen Wei looks at him; this is never how Shen Wei looks at him. “Shen Wei, what’s—” Zhao Yunlan moves closer, to reassure both of them, and this time there can be no mistaking it. Shen Wei jerks his head back, almost bashing it against the pillar behind him with the force of the motion.
“Don’t,” Shen Wei breathes, and when Zhao Yunlan feels him tremble under his hand it’s like all of Dixing has come crashing down. Though at least that would make some kind of sense; at least the world crumbling he could understand. What Shen Wei is saying—that, Zhao Yunlan can’t.
He slowly lets his hand drop from Shen Wei’s shoulder, and licks his lips. “It’s alright,” he says, and his voice doesn’t crack. “Look. It’s me. We’re here to get you out.”
Shen Wei stares at him, slowly shaking his head. “No.”
Zhao Yunlan chokes out a laugh. “Don’t tell me you don’t recognize your own boyfriend?”
“You?” Shen Wei is so tense his body is shivering, and Zhao Yunlan aches to do something to make it stop. To make Shen Wei stop hurting. But he doesn’t know what’s wrong, only knows that right now, his touch isn’t welcome. So he smiles, and doesn’t move, and waits for Shen Wei to continue. “I recognize you, Zhao Yunlan.”
The way he says it hits Zhao Yunlan like a physical blow, and he has to turn away for a second, just to catch his breath and try to put some other expression than panicked desperation on his face. “Okay, is this amnesia?” Zhao Yunlan looks around, as if some cosmic script writer might appear and help him out. “Is that it? Because if so—uh, we have a lot to cover, so maybe help me out and let me know what you do remember?”
“Everything,” Shen Wei spits out, without hesitation.
“Really?” Zhao Yunlan says, as if having Shen Wei look at him like that isn’t making him want to crawl out of his own body to get away from the wrongness of it all. “Because I’m starting to think maybe you don’t.”
“I remember what I believed. Only now I finally remember what you did.”
Zhao Yunlan presses his lips together, and nods to himself. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like amnesia.”
“No,” Shen Wei agrees.
“Someone’s been fucking with your mind,” Zhao Yunlan says—and he’s pretty sure he knows who. He swallows against the rage stirring in him, because that wouldn’t be helpful right now.
“Someone—what?” Shen Wei’s brows knit in confusion, the expression so dear and familiar Zhao Yunlan feels a bit better, just having seen it. Even if everything else is wrong, at least Shen Wei is here. Alive. And Zhao Yunlan will get him out and fix him.
“Trust me,” Zhao Yunlan says.
Shen Wei actually huffs at him, as if he is being so patently ridiculous that fear-tinged fury would be too dignified an answer. “How can I trust you?”