Zhao Yunlan was angry with him.
Well, no, not quite. Zhao Yunlan was blindingly, scorchingly, tremendously furious with him, and had been radiating that fury with every cell of his body ever since he caught Shen Wei in his kitchen with that knife.
It was, of course, Shen Wei's fault. He should have been more careful - he should've left for his own apartment the moment he put the freshly healed Zhao Yunlan into bed. Zhao Yunlan's bright white energy had begun pulsing in Shen Wei’s veins from the moment of healing, burning pathways through his blood vessels, scraping his nerves. While there was fierce, pleasing joy in this agony, in knowing what it was the price of, what it would be the price of, Shen Wei had known he'd need to deal with it, sooner or later - and so he should have left, and closed his door, and carved himself up in peace.
But just as Kunlun had done back then, Zhao Yunlan had always rendered him too weak for common sense or logic, and so Shen Wei had lingered. Watching Zhao Yunlan sleep, watching the rise and fall of his chest: unencumbered, peaceful, free of pain, free of worry. Shen Wei had stayed, and when the pain that rose in him became unbearable, he had gambled on being able to deal with it quickly and cleanly - and got caught.
He winced at the memory of the scene, at Zhao Yunlan's shock, at his insistence that his life had no value. Shen Wei's attempts to reason with the man only made it worse, and he didn't know how to fix it.
There was a price for every indulgence, and he was paying it now, hiking up the mountain path with Zhao Yunlan in miserable, tense silence.
Giving Zhao Yunlan some space to calm down might have worked out better, but the very next day the SID had gotten a case concerning a clearly Dixing suspect causing some trouble in Dragon City - a series of explosions in several department stores in a row. Luckily the damage was small enough that there were no deaths, but there were wounded, and such matters tended to escalate quickly.
Lao Chu and Guo Changcheng were still canvassing the witnesses and trying to find any information on their unknown suspects. Lin Jing found some chatter on the web that mentioned strange sightings in the caves around this region, concurrent with their suspect's use of energy, and they hoped to either apprehend the criminal there or find some further clues.
Shen Wei had a feeling Zhao Yunlan would've preferred going to check out the leads they had collected alone, but that was out of the question. Shen Wei had made it known that he would follow behind if he wasn't invited along, and so there they were.
They had to leave the car in the valley below since it was unsuitable for the narrow mountain trail, and Shen Wei couldn't teleport them to an unknown destination. It left them with around an hour to climb.
Shen Wei let Zhao Yunlan take the lead, to spare himself the indignity of wondering whether the man was staring at his back in rage or avoiding him altogether. It left him with an unobstructed view of Zhao Yunlan's tense, angry back, and the uncomfortable churn of warring energies in his blood, and his heavy, miserable thoughts.
He couldn't, try as he might, figure out the reason for Zhao Yunlan's rage. He had lied, of course, but Zhao Yunlan did not know the extent of this lie. What he had figured out was so small - he'd forgiven Shen Wei much heavier transgressions before - that it made no sense. Could Zhao Yunlan truly be worried about being beholden to him? Did he expect Shen Wei to demand some steep price, to call in the favor Zhao Yunlan would not want to deliver?
Kunlun had liked his Xiao Wei; ten thousand years, each of them heavy on Shen Wei's shoulders, could not erase his memory of Kunlun's frank regard, the warmth of his appraising stares, the gentleness of his hands. When they had met again in this lifetime, when Shen Wei took his hand and, like a fool, forgot to let it go, when Zhao Yunlan stared at him with curiosity and beginning of interest, he had thought that maybe...
And their interactions afterward, with Zhao Yunlan's scandalous and unselfconscious invasion of Shen Wei's personal space, with his care and his invitations and his obvious distress at Shen Wei's lies - well. It made Shen Wei hope, and hope was a feeling unfamiliar and glorious enough to revel in it, to hoard it.
But foolish, most likely. Zhao Yunlan invaded everybody's personal space without distinction. Zhao Yunlan had his hands and heart full caring for his team, squabbling children that they were And if Kunlun had loved Xiao Wei, all those centuries ago, well - Xiao Wei had been young, and bright, and full of purity and good intentions and big hopes, and hadn't resembled Shen Wei - the Black Cloaked Envoy, with his cold presence, and his shadows, his sins and his secrets - in the slightest. It was probably prudent of Zhao Yunlan to keep his distance and to recoil from the weight of Shen Wei's regard.
Zhao Yunlan didn't even know the full extent of it; he didn't even know just how much Shen Wei was prepared to do to keep him safe, just how little everything else mattered. If he knew, if he could truly look inside Shen Wei and see each of those ten thousand years of duty and service and waiting, waiting, waiting - oh, he would have run screaming.
Shen Wei wasn't sure he could hide it for much longer. Not with his brother's net tightening around them, with danger lurking in all corners and the blatant, worrying disregard Zhao Yunlan had for his own safety. Sooner or later the full weight of Shen Wei's obsession would be revealed. But then, it wasn't as if Zhao Yunlan's consent was necessary for Shen Wei to protect him; it wasn't as if Zhao Yunlan could stop him. It would be his company that Shen Wei would lose, the invitations to his apartment, the dinners together, the warm arm slung carelessly over his shoulder. But maybe those weren't his to keep either way.
In the grand scheme of things, what did it matter? Zhao Yunlan's energy, bright and beautiful, sang through blood and bones. Shen Wei would only have so much time; he would, he thought with a professor's habitual preciseness, only need so much time.
Enough to ensure, in the descending order of importance: Zhao Yunlan's safety and comfort, Dixing's safety, and Haixing's safety. And when his body would serve its last, secret purpose - guaranteeing that Ye Zun, his failure and his responsibility, would never harm anybody again - well. Then, perhaps, it would be for the best if Zhao Yunlan never got too close, and never had any reason for regrets.
Zhao Yunlan stopped suddenly, startling him. Shen Wei blinked behind his glasses, jerked out of his unwilling reverie, and saw that they had reached their destination. The cave mouth loomed before them, and he could feel the touch of its damp, cold breath on his cheeks.
"Let me take the lead," Zhao Yunlan said, tersely, and Shen Wei silently gestured at him to go ahead. Shen Wei put a hand on the rough wall of the cavern, and discreetly let a pulse of dark energy roll through the stone, race through the branches and tunnels ahead, searching for living presence, Dixing or Haixing. Nothing big; just silvery, slippery lives of small fish, and darting presence of bats, and the curious thoughts of a fox, curled up in her burrow on the other side of the mountain. He twitched his shoulders, shedding the fox's inquisitive presence, and followed Zhao Yunlan in.
The last time they were in a cave, Zhao Yunlan had learned his secret. This time, Shen Wei hoped, he would keep all that was left for him to keep.
The tunnel was wide and high enough to allow them to walk unimpeded. Shen Wei trailed behind the wavering beam of Zhao Yunlan's flashlight, unable to ignore the weight of the stone over and around him, mounting up and up. Caves did not bother him, not after millenia of his people's voluntary exile underground. It was only after coming to Haixing that he realized just how much he had missed the sun and the sight of clear skies over his head.
They hit the first intersection, and Shen Wei paused, unsure of whether or not to offer his assistance. Normally he wouldn't bother trying to spare Zhao Yunlan's pride, knowing just how sure the man was of himself and his skills, but right now everything between them felt too fragile, too uncertain.
Zhao Yunlan solved the dilemma for him. He turned around, and Shen Wei, attuned as he was to the nuance of Zhao Yunlan's expressions, saw the split moment where he rearranged his face from pinched anger to the studied insouciance he presented to the world at large. It hurt more than he expected, being treated as one of Zhao Yunlan's marks.
"So, Brother Black," Zhao Yunlan said, and grinned at him, "ideas? Could you work your magic and find us a way?"
Fake or not, an olive branch was not to be wasted. Shen Wei smiled at him, and nodded, and sent his energy out again, openly this time, reaching into the tiny, excited minds of the bats in the far reaches of the cavern.
It took Shen Wei a while to sort out the confusing jumble of impressions - he made himself let go of the solitary solidity of his body, splinter into hundreds of separate existences, see everything at once, and the effect was exhilarating and nauseating - but finally he found it: a trickle of a small underground stream, a pitiful little pile of possessions, afterimages of human presence.
He let go of the flock and slammed back into his body, staggered, his arms and legs too big and unwieldy for a moment, and Zhao Yunlan caught him before he could fall. His arm was a scalding line of warmth across Shen Wei's back, and Shen Wei shivered with longing.
If Shen Wei could only lean into Zhao Yunlan - if he could turn around, and tell him - show Zhao Yunlan the extent of his hunger, his desperation - for a moment he felt insane enough to do it, in that forgotten darkness under the mountain.
Then Zhao Yunlan saved them both by stiffening and disengaging, setting Shen Wei firmly on his feet and stepping away. Zhao Yunlan's voice was light, professional (in his meaning of 'professional,' at least, careless and irreverent): "Doing okay here, professor? It's only us here, I need to know what we're working with."
It took Shen Wei several embarrassing moments to relocate his voice before he could answer. "I know where we need to go. Follow me, please."
The refusal was on the tip of his tongue - he could conjure his own light, brighter and softer than the flashlight's narrow, blinding beam - but he swallowed it. Even the infinitesimal amount of energy spent on maintaining it could prove crucial at some point in the future. Technology would do.
Shen Wei took the light from Zhao Yunlan and led him forward. He and Kunlun had walked like this once, on a raid for - he didn't remember. His memory of those days had been worn soft, names and dates and places slipping away. Only two things remained in perfect untouched clarity: Kunlun, and his brother. Kunlun, walking behind him carelessly, cracking inappropriate jokes under his breath. Ye Zun, face twisted with rage, falling into the darkness.
(Shen Wei didn't remember being buried at all; couldn't remember anything but waking up, lungs full of dry soil, straining towards the air.)
They went on; the cave twisted, branched, turned in on itself around them. Some of the passages required them to turn sideways and squeeze through, some to crawl on their hands and knees. The monotony of it played strange tricks on his mind: he kept expecting Kunlun's voice, Kunlun's touch, but it was Zhao Yunlan behind him, silent, watching him like one watches an unpredictable danger.
Finally they reached their destination. The tunnel spit them out into the bigger cave, the one Shen Wei had seen through the bats' eyes. He heard a trickle of water before he saw the small waterfall at the far wall, water falling from the crack in the wall and collecting into a natural basin before draining somewhere unseen.
"Huh," Zhao Yunlan said, coming to stand next to him, and Shen Wei barely contained a flinch at the sound of his voice. "Look at those lights."
Shen Wei clicked the flashlight off and realized he didn't need its light to see; the walls of the cavern were sewn through with veins of quartz giving off soft, diffuse light.
"I'm not a geologist or anything," Zhao Yunlan said, "but I'm pretty sure those rocks shouldn't be doing this."
"No," Shen Wei agreed, and stepped towards the nearest wall to touch the crystals. They hummed softly under his fingers, the energy contained within familiar, but not quite. "It looks like somebody charged them, but they do not quite feel Dixing."
Zhao Yunlan walked past him toward the small waterfall. He leaned over something half-hidden behind the water basin. "And here's the lair. Who would choose to live like that?"
Shen Wei abandoned the crystals, somewhat reluctantly, and went over to join him. The sight of their suspect's belongings was indeed pathetic: a low wooden pallet, a pile of dirty rags serving as the bedspread, a wooden vegetable box with a handful of dried meat snack wrappers inside, their bright colors incongruously modern in this time-forgotten place.
Zhao Yunlan knelt next to the pallet and rifled through the rags. His face became intent and calm, a hunter's face, and Shen Wei allowed himself to look his fill and savor the moment with Zhao Yunlan in his element, doing what he was so good at.
"Hm," Zhao Yunlan said, and turned to him, with something in his hand. Shen Wei hastily focused on the thing presented. A photograph; he leaned lower and adjusted his glasses to see better.
The two middle-aged women in the photo were holding hands and gazing at each other with such obvious adoration that Shen Wei felt like averting his gaze in embarrassment; just looking at the photo felt like he was intruding.
"Let's see if Lin Jing deserved that raise he wheedled out of me, and if my phone will actually work this far underground after he's fiddled with it," Zhao Yunlan said, and snapped a picture of the photograph. He focused on his phone for a while, muttering under his breath, and Shen Wei got distracted again by staring at his face, the decisive motions of his hands.
The expression on the women's faces, he thought, was familiar: if he were to stand in front of a mirror and think about Zhao Yunlan, he would find it on his own face. But what had happened to them?
"One of them is probably our suspect," Zhao Yunlan said, as if reading his mind. "If the only thing you take with you into such a shitty lair is a photograph, you're going to be in that photograph."
Shen Wei nodded. "Your crime reports said the damage looked aimless, accidental. Random places, random victims. Do either of those women strike you as being prone to violence for the sake of it?"
"No, but we do know that people are often not what they seem," Zhao Yunlan said; his gaze was sharp and merciless on Shen Wei. "Having a lovely face doesn't mean that much."
It looked like their temporary truce was over. Shen Wei turned away from him, trying to make the gesture seem natural, and went back to studying the crystals. Zhao Yunlan's stare burrowed into the center of his back, the nape of his neck; for a moment Shen Wei absurdly feared that those eyes were gazing right inside of him, into the violent churn of warring energies in his blood, that Zhao Yunlan knew...
Zhao Yunlan turned away. Shen Wei risked a glance out of the corner of his eye and saw him lean over the woman's belonging again, rifling it for more clues.
The crystals, then. Quartz's natural properties made it a perfect repository for excess energy: Dixings whose powers included light, energy or imbuing things with different properties used the mineral a lot. If the woman was Dixing, as the damage she had inflicted indicated, and her powers laid in this area, she could theoretically have charged them to provide light - but something about the structure of the energy didn't quite fit the suggestion. It felt haphazard, disordered. Or even - unintentional. Not quite like the person charging the crystals didn't know what they were doing, but more as if they didn't know that they were doing it.
The phone's chime broke his concentration. He turned to see Zhao Yunlan squinting at his screen, and walked over, reluctance warring within him with the relief of having an excuse to come.
"Lin Jing managed to find records on one of the women - Dai Xia, 39, Haixing - but the other one might as well not exist for all the documentation she doesn't have."
"She must be one of mine then, and the one responsible," Shen Wei said, and swallowed around an unexpected sadness.
Shen Wei had kept the peace for centuries, steeled himself to be an unmovable jury, judge and executioner, but bringing his wayward flock home to face the King's justice never brought him any joy. With time he had decided to leave alone those who slipped through the cracks and created no problems under the sun. Why would that woman from the photo, with her calm, pale face, with that adoration shining in her eyes evident even on the folded and faded paper, turn violent now?
Zhao Yunlan was frowning at his phone. "I don't like it," he muttered, "something’s not adding up here." He typed furiously for several minutes, sending, Shen Wei guessed, further instructions to the team.
"She wouldn't be the first to cope badly with the surface," Shen Wei said, unwillingly. "Not everybody adjusts well. If Haixing proved to be too much for her..."
"Is the society really that different?" Zhao Yunlan asked, with a sharp glance Shen Wei couldn't interpret. "You'd think the laws will be similar enough."
Despite everything, the note of earnest interest in his voice made Shen Wei's heart beat with unexpected warmth. "It's not that," he said, and adjusted his glasses. "For some of them, the freedom does go to their heads, and so they make trouble. But for others, just living under the sun proves to be too difficult. The light itself, the energy of the living beings here, it's..."
Shen Wei's own body chose this moment to remind him of the truth of his words with a sharp spike of pain. He bit his tongue, hard, tasted blood, but made his face stay still with an effort.
Zhao Yunlan was watching him, the furrow between his brows familiar and frustrating; Shen Wei's fingers itched with the completely inappropriate urge to smooth it out.
"We've dealt with a lot of Dixings, though, and most of them did pretty well here."
"Confirmation bias," Shen Wei said. "It depends on the person's abilities, control, energy level, luck... The ones who can't stand living here don't come. If there would ever be space for Dixing under the light again, a lot of my people would be unable to leave the old city."
He turned away, pretending to clean his glasses, swallowing a familiar spike of guilt.
For all of his brother's machinations and whispers of unrest, the dissent against him in Dixing is not fully unjust. It was Shen Wei's decision, back then; his will that had exiled his people and trapped them in the darkness. He believed it had been the best possible solution then, and he believed it now. It was the only way to preserve their world from the all-consuming war - but generations of children came into the world, lived and died without ever seeing sunlight.
And he would be a hypocrite not to admit (and he had to be so very careful to keep his lies transparent to himself) that this life he'd allowed himself once he'd found Zhao Yunlan, Professor Shen's life, with its mundane pleasures and morning coffee and walking home every day through the university's gardens under the warm rays of the setting sun - oh, that life was sweet.
Shen Wei had learned to love Dixing, over the years: its stark and menacing beauty, the murmur of underground streams in the far tunnels, the glittering of the ice in the deepest reaches. He had shared the exile with his people voluntarily for years and years after Kunlun's disappearance, before his duty demanded him to shift from internal politics to being the gatekeeper between two worlds.
But his soul was forever given to sunlight, the sunlight under which he first saw Kunlun, disheveled and weirdly dressed, grinning at him in confusion and unexpected delight over the bloody bodies strewn between them; the sunlight that let him see Kunlun so clearly.
Millenia, and still the children who never saw the sun tried to reach for it; what right did he have to blame them?
"Who knows," Zhao Yunlan said, seriously and earnestly, "perhaps they would adjust in time? Or perhaps the worlds would just mix. I bet there are people in Haixing who would love Dixing, caves and all. Aren't there people who spend half their lives spelunking? Or scientists, or artists..."
He stopped, abruptly, as if remembering the rift of anger between them, and Shen Wei didn't quite manage to swallow his smile. Around Kunlun, it always was as if his face forgot how to obey him, betraying him at every turn. If Zhao Yunlan could be moved to console him without thinking, perhaps -
Shen Wei turned away just in case, because the last time he'd smiled that way at Zhao Yunlan, it didn't go well at all, and that saved him from getting caught unaware when something moved in the tunnels outside - something that felt like a hungry void, something that took hold of his already aching insides and pulled, wringing him out. He smothered a moan into his hand and felt the familiar copper taste in his throat.
Zhao Yunlan's phone rang in the silence; he picked up while Shen Wei was still trying to voice his warning, and Lin Jing's excited, tinny voice filled the air between them. "Chief, you were right, it's weird - we sent Xiao Guo to ask people, and it turns Dai Xia and Li Ming, the other chick, had lived together for a year, seemed happy and very close to each other, like comrades, but get this: Li Ming is the one who was always sickly and quiet. She didn't go out much, never caused any trouble. It's Dai Xia who became odd, pushy, got into quarrels with her neighbours, began wearing sunglasses at all times, and there was some weird damage - small at first - "
"Lin Jing," Zhao Yunlan said, sharply, cutting him off, "where's Li Ming now?"
"Disappeared," Lin Jing said, "they had this big fight a week ago and she left, nobody knows where she went. The neighbours liked her."
"Shit," Zhao Yunlan said, and Shen Wei finally managed to swallow the blood, to turn to him fully. "Do you think..."
Shen Wei's be careful turned into a groan when another wave hit; he staggered, almost going to his knees - whatever it was, it felt like fish hooks in his stomach, twisted tight and pulling until he expected to look down and see his own bones amidst the shredded flesh - and before he could fall, Zhao Yunlan was by his side, holding him up, his face terribly concerned.
"Shen Wei? Brother Black?"
"She's here," he mumbled. "I don't think she's one of mine."
The woman they had come to find was standing under the stone arch, staring at them in round-eyed terror. He could barely see her face - her simple, lined, Haixing face, neither a villain nor one of his black sheep - he could barely see her beyond the merciless darkness swirling around her, something almost alive in its avid hunger.
"Hands up," Zhao Yunlan barked; his revolver was in his hand already, aimed at her, and Shen Wei saw, barely, the woman trying to comply. A plastic bag with a gaudy supermarket logo fell by her feet, spilling bright boxes of packaged food.
"Please," she said, "please, I just wanted to help her, I never wanted to hurt anybody - he said it wouldn't hurt her - please, don't - "
She - the thing around the woman - was devouring Shen Wei's energy, thread by thread; he tried to make sense of her words and couldn't. This time Zhao Yunlan wasn't fast enough to catch him when he crashed to his knees. Cough tore at his throat, burned in his lungs; there was no hiding the bright splatter of his blood on the rough stones.
"Shen Wei? Shen Wei! What the fuck are you doing to him?"
"I'm not! I don't want to! Help me, it hurts, help - "
Their voices, high and desperate with anger, washed over them, blurring into indistinction; the only solid point of reference was Zhao Yunlan's fingers, clenched in Shen Wei's shoulder. His glasses went skittering somewhere; he tried to push himself up and it triggered another wave of coughing. More blood.
He dragged his head up; the woman staggered towards them, her hands outstretched and clawing at the air, her face twisted. Each of her steps echoed in his bones, scraped him from inside out.
He made his vocal cords work, made himself ask,"Who... gave it to you? Did you want to hurt her?"
She stopped, stared at him in dismay. "Never, I would've never hurt her, my treasure. She couldn’t bear the sun, and he said - the man with the brush, he said it would help, that I would only take a little, and I did! She was better!"
Zhao Yunlan sucked in air over Shen Wei's head, full of dismayed understanding. "The Dixing energy? Are you stealing it?"
"I can't stop! It grew stronger, and it continues - and it hurts, it hurts, it hurts now, what are you? What are you doing to me?"
"Stop," Zhao Yunlan said, suddenly cold. "Step away, slowly. Shen Wei?"
Shen Wei paid Zhao Yunlan no attention, in a way he rarely allowed himself. He could see through the woman now, could see the violent swirl of warring energies within the flimsy contours of her body; he knew now what had happened to her, and knew what was happening to him, and what was to happen to all three of them in several moments, when his stolen energy, taken unwittingly all at once, would prove to be too much for her frail frame.
It couldn't be allowed to happen. Time split into choppy, brisk fragments. Shen Wei surged to his feet in one, moving his body detachedly, like a puppeteer would; saw her begin to glow, her face twisted in uncomprehending horror, in the other; hit Zhao Yunlan's arm in the third, spoiling his aim.
There was no stopping what was to come, and he did not want the woman to die, the one who loved one of his people enough to make ill-advised bargains for her; and so he gathered the last vestiges of his energy to him - agony, but what did it matter - and pulled her glowing form towards himself and Zhao Yunlan, just as he put her under sleep.
Shen Wei flung all three of them into the corner of the cave, and managed to throw up an energy shield around them a second before the stolen power burst from the woman and the mountain fell on their heads.
It crushed them; there was no way it wouldn't have, the sheer weight of the dirt and stone, when he was already so badly spent. But Zhao Yunlan was with him, and Zhao Yunlan was not allowed to die, not while Shen Wei still drew breath - and so it didn't.
He held; he held; he held. He choked on the blood flooding his mouth and coating his tongue; it poured from his nose and his eyes. He blinked at Zhao Yunlan's face, scant inches from his own, indistinct through the red haze - the man was kneeling across from him, hands on his shoulders, shouting at him but Shen Wei couldn't hear him. Even Zhao Yunlan couldn't compete with the acid agony eating through his veins, splintering his bones and dissolving his sinews.
If he died, the second explosion would've killed Zhao Yunlan for sure. And so, he didn't; his shield held, and, an eternity later, the mountain settled down around them.
Shen Wei didn't dare to lose consciousness. His grasp on his own existence was so thin he wasn't sure he would keep it if he allowed himself even a moment of slipping away. But he went into a gray, trancelike state while the mountain groaned, while the stones slid and settled off the sides of his shield, while the earth moved around them and under them and above them in ways it wasn't supposed to. It reminded him of - something - it reminded him - his brother was falling, just a moment ahead of him, always just a moment, and the fear on his face was harder to bear than his hatred, and the earth moved...
He didn't lose consciousness, but he forgot, for a while, who he was and where he was. He was the energy, he was the lattice of brightly dark lines stacked with stones, he was pouring out into that dark, the will and the intent: they would not die.
They did not die.
"...Wei. Xiao Wei. Xiao Wei! Wake the fuck up, Xiao Wei, please, come on, Xiao Wei..."
His joy at the pet name came back to him faster than his memory or sense did.
"Oh thank fuck," Kunlun - no, no, it was now, Shen Wei was under the earth but it was now - Zhao Yunlan said, and laughed in a way that was pure relief. "Damn, Xiao Wei, you scared the shit out of me."
Shen Wei's shield chose this moment to flicker out of existence; he heard the stone groan over the resulting empty space above their heads, and harmlessly settle into a rough dome. Dust and chips of basalt rained down at them.
Zhao Yunlan swore.
"It's... fine," Shen Wei said, and coughed, bringing up more blood; it felt like it was coming up from his toes. He'd spent too much time feeling invulnerable among soft-skinned Haixing, he decided, to get so unused to the sensation, and didn't share this observation with Zhao Yunlan.
Shen Wei wanted, very badly, to clean the blood off and look less frightful, and maybe smile at Zhao Yunlan, now that the man was calling him Xiao Wei again, and maybe was not mad at him. Wanted to reassure him, and soothe him. But he was barely able to feel his body; he was slumped over, kneeling, Zhao Yunlan's arms the only thing holding him up. Any kind of movement was out of question.
"It will hold," he said instead, and hoped Zhao Yunlan would understand that he didn't need to worry about the mountain anymore. "I'll try to... send you out, you and the woman, later. After I..."
That was, apparently, a wrong thing to say. Zhao Yunlan's voice went from relieved back to the seething fury of their kitchen conversation. "Me and the woman? After you rest a little, maybe? You're covered in blood! You keep coughing up more blood! You look like a goddamn three-day-old corpse!"
It stung a bit, for all it was not unjust. Shen Wei had let Zhao Yunlan down; he wasn't at his full power. They had survived by the tiniest of possible margins, the sharpest sliver of a chance. "I apologize," he said, uselessly. "It will take time, but I will transfer you safely..."
Zhao Yunlan made a sound of inarticulate rage, then took a deep breath. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
An awkward pause fell. Shen Wei tried not to notice just how much everything hurt.
"Brother Black. Professor Shen. Buddy. How many fucking fingers?"
Shen Wei closed his eyes, a beat too late; Zhao Yunlan's fingers found their way to his face, tugged a slack eyelid up. His voice fell into a whisper. "Can you see at all?"
He shook his head. "It's just... burst vessels. Temporary. I won't need my eyes to - "
Evidently he wasn't to finish any of his sentences today. Zhao Yunlan's fingers laid against his lips, stunning him.
"Unbelievable," Zhao Yunlan said, and sighed. "Okay. Stop talking, shhh, don't talk anymore, don't move, don't do anything. If you even think about teleporting us out, I will shoot you in the leg."
If Shen Wei laughed, he'd begin coughing again, and he couldn't spare any more blood. His lips still moved himself into a smile without his conscious input. "Understood."
The world went hazy and indistinct again, for a while. Zhao Yunlan's hands were on him, unbearably warm against his chilled skin; he was moved, or maybe the world moved around him. Zhao Yunlan was talking, but not to him. The sound of the small waterfall filtered into his consciousness, incongruously loud. He could feel the soft, exhausted shine of Dai Xia’s energy, still deeply asleep under the weight of his command. It was good, because if she woke up and pulled more power from him, they were all done for.
Everything hurt. Zhao Yunlan was alive and angry with him. Everything was all right for a moment.
When Shen Wei surfaced to sharper clarity again, he was leaning against something warm and leather-stiff - oh, Zhao Yunlan's jacket. He was slumped against Zhao Yunlan, bracketed by Zhao Yunlan’s spread legs, his head on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder. His thoughts were slow and unwieldy, swimming around his head like blind, pale underwater fish.
"Xiao Wei," Zhao Yunlan said over his head, softly, "are you with me?"
Zhao Yunlan's hand was combing slowly through his bloody hair, scratching a bit against his scalp, the only pleasant sensation amidst the sea of bright, battering pain.
Despite it, despite everything, his heart sang with joy.
"I have grading to do," he said, inanely. "For the class tomorrow."
Zhao Yunlan's laughter was quiet and fond, and danced around his face like fireflies. "Oh, Professor Shen. How irresponsible of you."
He tried to move and couldn't hold back a moan. Zhao Yunlan's fingers tightened in his hair for a second, a warning.
"I told you not to move. We're fine, I managed to get Lin Jing, he's called in reinforcements and they'll dig us out sooner or later. There's a bit of air getting in with the water, I think. Just hang on, okay?"
Shen Wei nodded, or at least approximated a nodding motion the best he could. He wished futilely he could move at all; the blood on his face and neck was drying in maddeningly itchy, crusty swaths.
Something must've shown on his face, because Zhao Yunlan said "Hey," and smoothed the hair off his forehead. "Wait a minute, okay?"
He shifted, moved around; there were rustling sounds that Shen Wei was too exhausted to interpret. He waited, breathing shallowly, and hazily mourned the absence of Zhao Yunlan's hands.
Then something soft and freezingly cold touched his check and traveled downward. Shen Wei's lips opened in an involuntary ahh, and Zhao Yunlan laughed quietly over him in the darkness.
"You're like a big cat, I swear. No wonder you're getting on so well with Da Qing. Hold still."
The rag moved against his skin in gentle circling movements, cleansing and soothing in turn. He thought, fleetingly, that Zhao Yunlan's hands must be freezing with how often he rinsed it out, and couldn't find it in himself to voice an objection. He felt tattered, spent; every touch of the cold water washing the blood away felt as if it was stitching him back together.
Shen Wei closed his eyes; it didn't make any difference, but, alone with Zhao Yunlan in the dark, exhausted and shattered, he felt - safe.
A little while later, just before Shen Wei could finally allow himself to slip into uneasy, pain-filled dreams, Zhao Yunlan, his fingers still gentle in Shen Wei's hair, began talking about the case. "What's going to happen to Dai Xia? She can't spend the rest of her life asleep, and technically she's in my jurisdiction, not yours."
Shen Wei made himself focus, swam back up through the black water of his dreams. "She needs to be isolated from anybody Dixing, ideally shielded. I might be able to figure out how the ability was gifted to her, and remove it, and then she'll be able to continue life as usual."
"Do you think her gal pal is alive? She said she didn't want to hurt her."
"If she returned back underground, I'll be able to find her. If not..."
Shen Wei hoped she was alive, if only to spite the fate that insisted on ridiculous sacrifices and ended stories in tragedy. Away and recovering in Dixing; perhaps she would be happy to know that her partner had not wanted to hurt her, had been unwise and foolish but not hurtful.
Zhao Yunlan was silent for a while, and his fingers stilled; Shen Wei, barely alert, had to stifle a whine that rose in him at the absence. Then Zhao Yunlan said, "What happened in the end, though? I got that she pulled out your energy and it was more than she could handle, but the reports from before didn't mention this type of damage at all, it was all about light, blown fuses, blown fixtures, things like that."
"It's not about her ability," Shen Wei said, drowsily, "it was just that Haixing and Dixing energies should not mix, and when they do, they damage the carrier. Had I not put her to sleep, she would've died in the blast; and had we not found her, she would have died eventually anyway."
A heavy, pointed silence fell. Shen Wei's exhausted brain scrambled to make sense of it - he could barely recall what he had just said - and Zhao Yunlan's fingers continued their gentle motion.
Zhao Yunlan said, deceptively mildly, "What I find interesting is that you've been definitely unwell before we came to these caves. All those little stumbles, and the way you just won't heal... And using my flashlight instead of your energy... You didn't even pull out your sword when she came out, my fearsome Black Envoy."
Shen Wei's entire body tensed, quite against his will; he had to quell the panicked, mindless urge to just teleport away from this conversation. His heart beat hard and fast, and the copper taste came back to his tongue.
"So what I'd like to know, I guess," said Zhao Yunlan, tender and merciless, "is whether you ever had the slightest intention of telling me you had returned my sight at the cost of your life?"
Shen Wei felt like a butterfly, pinned to a corkboard by the careful, loving hands of its collector. He opened his mouth to lie, and he was so bad at lying to Zhao Yunlan, and hated it so, and yet.
And yet, it seems, he was caught. And Zhao Yunlan was expecting an answer.
"I'm much stronger than this woman," he said, finally, hoping to appease Zhao Yunlan with a piece of an unquestionable truth. "I'm not going to die anytime soon."
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan sighed, "it's going to take the team a really long time to dig us out, you get it, right? Hours and hours. And you're stuck here with me. Can’t you save us both time and grief and tell me the truth?"
"Please," Zhao Yunlan said, and his voice, unexpected, rang with raw sincerity. "I'm scared shitless, Xiao Wei. Please don't lie to me."
How helpless Shen Wei has always been before Zhao Yunlan. He felt exhausted, weighted down by centuries of grief and waiting. The time allowed to him to be by Zhao Yunlan's side was going to be so short; it felt unsurmountable to waste it on arguments.
"It won't be soon," he said, quietly. "I was just - unprepared, today; I will recover, and I will stay by your side for as long as needed. When I will... When it will happen, it'll be with a purpose. Don't trouble yourself, Zhao Yunlan."
Zhao Yunlan jerked as if shot, jostling him; for a blinding moment, Shen Wei was struck with a panic himself, thinking they were attacked again, but Zhao Yunlan's hands soothed him even as the man began cursing in the dark.
"Damn your ancestors for eighteen generations. Damn you. Shen Wei, Xiao Wei, how fucking could you?"
Shen Wei shrugged his shoulders the best he could, hoping it would convey his how could I not without having to speak.
He could hear Zhao Yunlan breathing behind him, too harsh and too fast, loud over the murmuring of water. Sharp, hitching breaths, as if he was, improbably..
Shen Wei was horrified. "Are you crying?"
"Of course I am, you fucking asshole," Zhao Yunlan said; his voice was thick with tears and phlegm, and Shen Wei made a monumental effort to raise his right hand and find Zhao Yunlan's against his chest, pat it clumsily. He was probably leaving bloodstains.
"Please don't," he said, helplessly. "There's no need."
Zhao Yunlan's forehead pressed against the back of his head; Shen Wei could feel the heat of tears falling against his bare neck, and shivered.
"Sometimes," Zhao Yunlan whispered, "sometimes I don't understand you. If I'm such a bad friend to you, if I'm such a bad person as you must think I am, why would you risk so much for me? Why would you protect me so?"
Hot anger spiked through Shen Wei, automatic and immediate. "Don't!.."
Zhao Yunlan laughed, short and unhappy. "Here you go again. Protecting me from myself?"
"Don't," Shen Wei muttered, quieter, out of breath, "say such things about yourself. You are - you're a good person. You are..."
"I'm such a good person you would die for me after knowing me for less than a year, but you don't expect me to be upset over it? I should just say uh-huh, okay, see you at your funeral?"
Shen Wei could practically taste the guilt in the air between them, and he hated it, hated its acrid taste. He should have lied; he should have lied in the face of each and every bit of evidence, and convinced Zhao Yunlan to believe, just to avoid it.
"It's not your fault," he said, with as much conviction as he could muster; he wished he could look at Zhao Yunlan, could control his face properly. "Not your... responsibility. Don't hurt yourself with it."
Zhao Yunlan huffed an amused, annoyed, broken breath into the nape of his neck. "For somebody so smart you're so stupid, Professor Shen. How can you - Xiao Wei. How can you not know how devastated I will be to lose you?"
Shen Wei couldn't help it: his why tore out of him, free and unbidden. He knew his own heart, and knew who did it earn for, with each its cell and tiniest vessel. But this grief, and this anger of Zhao Yunlan's, not just for a colleague or a friend or a comrade, as if -
Zhao Yunlan shifted behind him, slowly and torturously careful, tugged him higher up and sideways against his chest, and gently turned his head.
Shen Wei moved with him, as well as his battered body allowed him, still lost - and then Zhao Yunlan's mouth was on him, tender and careful and yet completely unhesitant.
Shen Wei's mind dissolved into white noise. When it returned, he was kissing back - he could not have stopped himself if the mountain began to fall again, if the world around them crumbled and fell. He tasted his own blood and the salt of Zhao Yunlan's tears on Zhao Yunlan's lips and groaned into Zhao Yunlan's mouth, delirious with longing. He had imagined - had dared to imagine - he had dreamed about it so many times, about saving Zhao Yunlan and winning a kiss from him, about dying for Zhao Yunlan and begging for a kiss from him as a farewell boon, about somehow, improbably, impossibly, being allowed to -
A century too soon, it was over. He panted, confused and full of horrible thirst, cursing his stolen sight, his eyes that wouldn't let him see Zhao Yunlan's face. This was - it had to be a mistake. A moment of respite, and Zhao Yunlan would tell him so.
Zhao Yunlan's hand stayed on the nape of his neck, steady and fever-hot. "I wanted to do it from the moment I saw you," he said. "Oh, how I wanted to. I was afraid to scare you with how much I wanted you."
"You could never scare me," Shen Wei said, automatically, even though Zhao Yunlan terrified him, in all his human fragility, day in and day out. "You - what?"
"I wanted to kiss you," Zhao Yunlan said, "and I wanted to hold your hand, and I wanted to follow you home, and I wanted to take off your clothes, and I wanted to lie with you, and I wanted to buy you a house, and I wanted to learn all your secrets, and I wanted - and I still want - everything. How could you not know?"
"Ah Lan," Shen Wei breathed out. "I couldn't hope."
His head was aching; he could feel the beat of blood in his temples, the cough clogging his lungs.
Zhao Yunlan settled Shen Wei against his chest again, soothed his hand down the side of his face. "Looks like we've both been fools, have we not? And now we are not - now that I know I could - you're telling me you already traded it all away?"
Something was happening to Shen Wei's eyes; it took him a moment to realize what the hot, itchy feeling behind his eyelids meant. He hadn't cried for at least a century.
"I'm sorry," he said, heavy with grief.
"Do not," Zhao Yunlan roared, so loud that dust and tiny chips of stone rained on them again, "be sorry! Tell me how to fix it, Xiao Wei."
Zhao Yunlan laid his fingers against his mouth again. "No. No. I will not accept it. Tell me what you did. Tell me everything. Let me help."
There was a familiar panic in Shen Wei's chest: all his secrets, scuttling into their dark corners. If he told anything to Zhao Yunlan, if he let him get hurt trying to save him..!
He licked his lips and tasted Zhao Yunlan's tears again, and tried to reconcile his colliding worlds: the one where Zhao Yunlan wanted him, where Zhao Yunlan mourned him, where Zhao Yunlan saw him - where Zhao Yunlan would be hurt by his absence.
He was so tired.
Shen Wei leaned back, let himself felt Zhao Yunlan's solid, living warmth behind him, let his head fall on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. Found Zhao Yunlan's hand and took it between his own.
"Please," Zhao Yunlan breathed into his ear.
"Ten thousand years ago," he began, and shivered in fear and exhausted relief, "I had a brother..."
It was surprisingly easy to talk, once he began, slumped safely in Zhao Yunlan's arms. Shen Wei avoided mentioning Kunlun, out of superstitious fear that talking about him would break whatever tenuous connection there existed, left those parts of the story blank with an apologetic disclaimer Zhao Yunlan had accepted with surprising grace.
But the rest of it poured out of him like wine spilling from a broken gourd, unstoppable and painless. He talked about war, about years of skirmishes and raids and desperate almost-last stands, about the responsibility he accepted unwillingly and could not shirk, about his people dying under his command, about the daily grind and wear of fighting, about the dull, unending fear of being never quite enough, about the slow dwindling of hope. About how much he ached, body and spirit, day in and day out, protected and locked away behind his mask and robes, until - until you saw me, until you smiled at me, until you saved me - until the peace.
Zhao Yunlan listened quietly, carefully, almost reverently; one of his arms stayed around Shen Wei, steady and warm, and the other smoothed down his shoulder, over and over.
Under its reassuring, hypnotic caress Shen Wei told him about his brother. He began at the end, because perversely talking about Ye Zun's face, mirror-white, twisted with rage and hatred, was easier than remembering the shy, sweet boy he's done such a horrible work of protecting.
He told Zhao Yunlan about the Hallows, and that final battle; about falling, about losing sight of Ye Zun, about years of stone and darkness and silence and regret that passed before he was able to find his way back.
Zhao Yunlan made him stop there and whispered to him about how well the dome over them held, how the air trickled in with the water, about how Lin Jing with the rest of the team was making their way to them with all possible haste, and Shen Wei didn't have it in himself to chafe under that coddling instead of soaking it in.
He told Zhao Yunlan about finding Ye Zun imprisoned in Dixing, a malevolent, brooding presence; about Ye Zun's hunger, his ability and desire to devour everything that lived under the sun.
Shen Wei stumbled there, caught between his promise of honesty and instinctive, almost painful desire to lie, to shelter Zhao Yunlan - but Zhao Yunlan rescued him from the dilemma.
"Wait. Wait, Shen Wei. So when you've talked about your death being 'of use,' did you mean - did you seriously mean letting your brother eat you?"
Shen Wei winced. "I most sincerely hope the pillar will confine him, but he's tenacious, and - "
"You know it's unfair, because I can't shake you properly right now. You made a plan about getting eaten. I'm getting angry with you all over again."
"If he gets the Hallows," Shen Wei said, quietly, "he might become too strong to stop otherwise. And he's my brother. My responsibility."
And I am dying anyway, he did not say, because he could not find it in himself to be cruel to Zhao Yunlan, but Zhao Yunlan heard him anyway, and pressed a fierce kiss into the back of his head.
"It's not going to happen," he said, and Shen Wei could hear the quiet, molten anger in his voice, could feel the heat of it against his skin. This was Zhao Yunlan as only a few knew him, the one shining through his laughter and carelessness and studied ease, the one who cared about those he - those he loved, Shen Wei told himself, and bit the inside of his cheek in joy and terror - so much.
He said it and Shen Wei almost believed him. Almost.
Shen Wei shivered; he could recognize his body reaching its limit, slowly but inexorably. What would've been fever in a human being stole through him with frost and winter, freezing the blood in his veins.
"It's fine," he said, by a force of long, long habit, and then, recklessly, "I'm cold," and Zhao Yunlan tugged him closer, held him tightly as if trying to meld them together.
Pain filled him slowly, creeping back in alongside with with the cold, squeezing him out of his own skin, piece by piece. He fought, because he wanted to stay within his body, to savour being held, but it was like trying to fight the tide.
Eventually the pain won, and he floated, weighted, somewhere in-between. He drifted, in and out, and when Zhao Yunlan called for him, sharp and frantic, Shen Wei found himself rambling about his brother, his baby brother Ye Zun, trusting, careful, solemn until Shen Wei made him laugh. About hungry and joyful days of traveling and scavenging and avoiding the anger of adults, about falling asleep, curled around each other, alone but never lonely.
Once he surfaced enough to realize Zhao Yunlan was wiping his face, and couldn't figure out how it could've gotten bloody again. His cheeks were wet.
Then he ran out of words, and breath, and will; he listened to Zhao Yunlan humming a snatch of melody over and over, a simple sequence of notes, and let himself fade away.
He woke up - when did he fall asleep? - to a frustrating riddle of moving without moving, to feeling his heavy, unresponsive limbs and dank cave air breathing against his skin. There shouldn't have been enough space in their little enclosure to - he wasn't sure how -
Shen Wei realized, sluggishly, that he was slumped against somebody's back, somebody's arms clamped securely under his thighs, his nose buried in the tickle of hair on the nape of somebody's neck.
He inhaled and felt it again, this unfamiliar feeling of safety, of utter security, and the confusion dispersed; there was only one person in the world it could be.
He mumbled something indistinct into Zhao Yunlan's skin, and heard the relief in the other's voice. "Shh, Xiao Wei, keep still. We're almost out, the cavalry arrived while you were lazing about."
A sliver of guilt shivered through him; Zhao Yunlan must been so tired, and hungry, and cramped up, after hours and hours of sitting in their tiny refuge. "I'm heavy," he said, and tried to make himself move, achieving something of an uncoordinated flail. "Let me..."
Zhao Yunlan actually pinched his thigh. "Xiao Wei," he said, "you stop it," and there was just so much easy, natural affection in his tone Shen Wei's toes curled in completely inappropriate - or, he guessed, appropriate now? - happiness.
Shen Wei subsided and let Zhao Yunlan carry him through the tunnel; he could now hear Da Qing and Lin Jing bicker in front of them, could hear a whisper of Zhu Hong's scales and smell a whisper of her perfume. He wondered which one of them was taking care of Dai Xia. Even if they got attacked, Zhao Yunlan was in the middle of the group, well-protected. Perhaps Shen Wei could afford to just - be carried.
He went away again, this time falling into half-sleep instead of slipping all the way down. One time he woke up when Zhao Yunlan put him down, and whispered to him, "Just figuring out a bend ahead, sleep, sleep." The other to bumping his head on a stone outcropping and Zhao Yunlan's frantic apologies. The red-tinted black behind his eyelids began showing blurry streaks of grey-white light, hazy silhouettes.
The ache of his body and the sweetness of Zhao Yunlan's dirty, scratched skin reached some sort of equilibrium; he drifted, free to think of nothing in past or future, content to be held so dearly.
"Hey," Zhao Yunlan said, quietly, and he woke up and turned to the call; when he was dead, he thought, when he was finally dead, buried, done, he'd still wake up and turn to the sound of Zhao Yunlan's voice. "We're almost out, Xiao Wei. No more caves for you, how about that? A little bit more, and we'll be in a nice soft bed. I'll change the sheets and everything."
Shen Wei hummed in response, distracted and pleased by this innocuous "we".
"With me on that? Good, Xiao Wei, good, good. We're going to get home, and wash, and you’ll stay in bed for as long as needed, and I'll order good food, and you'll get better and," and Shen Wei has to raise his head at the sudden, sharp resolve in Zhao Yunlan's rambling voice, "and then we're going to make everything right. I swear to you."
Shen Wei opened his eyes; through the thin film of water standing in them he saw the line of Zhao Yunlan's nose, the sharp curve of his cheek - and beyond Zhao Yunlan, at the mouth of the cave, sunlight.
"Yes," he said in giddy surrender, to everything. "Let's go home."