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Dixing's Candle

Chapter Text

The doors to the Special Investigation Division burst inward causing the cessation of normal investigative activity.  Two young men dressed all in black strode in and flanked the now open doors, immediately clearing the way for a similarly dressed man and woman. Their eyes swept the room professionally. When no one moved to attack, they stepped apart and faced each other to allow for the entrance of a striking figure.

She was dressed in the height of fashion, her lips painted a brilliant shade of red which in no way distracted from the stark white streak accenting her hairline above her left eyebrow and flowing through the shoulder length of her stylishly cut black hair. Two more dangerous looking young men followed in her wake.  She ended her dramatic entrance with an aggressive stance and an expectant expression.

“Sister Zhu, what brings you to the SID this morning?” Chief Zhao cheerfully greeted her with open arms.

Her security seemed to take offense at the overly familiar and possibly disrespectful greeting to the leader of the Yashou Alliance. She stopped the incipient fuss with a hand swiftly raised from a hinged elbow.

“Eh, I heard there was a new chief,” she shrugged one elegant shoulder. “How could I not come?”

“Right, right,” Chief Zhao dissembled, catching onto his mistake. He was finding it a little difficult to remember he was supposed to be impersonating his own nephew. He compensated by sticking a little formality into this phrasing, “Please, come to my office. I will prepare some tea for you.”

“Humph, as if,” she said doubtfully. She turned to address her entourage tersely. “You guys,” she jerked her head towards the rest of the room’s occupants, “make friends with the humans. And the ghosts.” She swept out of the central space and into the office.

Chief Zhao grinned at the collective room and gave them a pair of enthusiastic finger guns. This was to congratulate his subordinates on not attacking the delegation and encourage the Yashou to follow Leader Zhu’s orders.

Zhao closed the office door and was about to repeat his offer of tea, when he found himself with his arms full of Zhu Hong. He returned the hug patiently and waited. After a moment she sniffed dramatically, pushed him back a step and punched him in the shoulder.

“Oww,” Zhao Yun Lan complained per expectation, rubbing at the spot that was surely going to bruise. “You are so mean.”

Zhu Hong nodded in agreement like the queen she was.

"But just as pretty,” he remarked to make her smile, “I like the hair.”

She side-eyed him with a dismissive look and a wrinkled nose, “Shrapnel from that mess in Dixing damaged the follicles, I got tired of coloring it.” She curled a finger around the lock under discussion and tugged it gently. “All the boys find it attractive.”

Zhao Yun Lan waggled his eyebrows suggestively, “I couldn’t help but notice the eye candy.”

“Cute and lethal, just the way I like them.”

They smiled in complete sympathy with one another.

“So why are you here?” Zhao Yun Lan asked. Though her messenger had given him notice of her arrival, details about the purpose of her visit had been lacking. Not that he wasn't extremely grateful for the heads up. If Zhu Hong and her party had crashed in without warning things could have gotten bloody. The people who Zhao Yun Lan would forever think of as the new guys had only limited experience with Dixingren. Most of that experience was with the worst of those who had been trapped above after the doors between Dixing and Haixing closed. The Yashou were not Dixingren, however the SID was trigger happy enough that they might not have noticed the difference before things got out of hand. It was one of the many, many things he was trying to change.

“To see you, you dope.” Zhu Hong informed him impatiently. She was a bit irritated with Zhao Yun Lan’s inability to understand that he should have gotten in touch. Stupid Human, she might not have known he was back at all except Shen Wei had followed the proper forms and protocol by sending a letter and gifts. “Also I wanted to talk to Shen Ye Zun. We need to hash out Yashou access to Dixing.”

Zhao Yun Lan was surprised, “Is there that much interest?” He gestured Zhu Hong into a chair before seating himself at his desk, recklessly reclining backwards so he could prop his feet up.

Zhu Hong smiled at the familiar sight.

“Not really, but if they are denied access there will be a lot of griping. Better to set out the rules early.” She definitely wanted to get things straight with Shen Ye Zun before the recently formed Bureau of Interspecies Relations got involved. On paper it was a good idea, but Human bureaucracy being what it was she wanted an understanding between Yashou and Dixing before throwing Humans into the mix.

“I would have thought you guys would be focused on a Yashou door.”

“It hasn't reopened yet. His calculations put it out another several decades to a century.”

Zhao Yun Lan raised his eyebrows, “How much faith are you putting in the estimate?” The last time he had paid attention to that debate between Shen Wei and his brother they were speculating that the energies resulting from that last use of the collective Hallows might have destabilized the older doorways permanently.

Zhu Hong rolled her eyes, “He’s still Dr. Shen. It’s not like his exalted position made him forget how to add. As things stand, I’m happy to not have to worry about fortifying a back door into Yashou territory until we find out how well opening up travel between the realms is going to work." She grimaced briefly and changed the subject, "How are you and Shen Wei doing?”

“Shen Wei is great. The university fell all over themselves to have him back. And I am once again master of this place,” Zhao Yun Lan demonstrated the vastness of his domain with expansive hands.

She nodded, raised an eyebrow and added, "That isn't what I wanted to know.”

Zhao Yun Lan's head tilted in acknowledgement of his inability to distract her as well as her right to inquire. “Fine. We are both fine. Thank you for asking.”

“Okay, so why are you blinking like that?” Zhu Hong narrowed her eyes in sudden wariness and not a little disappointment. “You had best not be flirting.”

Zhao Yun Lan, who until that moment had not realized that his eyes were bothering him, abruptly froze in suspicion and concern.

“Zhao Yun Lan?” to be honest she had thought he was about to make her victim to one of his jokes. She watched, puzzled, as he turned to look over his shoulder and out the window.

“Still a sunny day, huh?”

“Yes,” she stretched out the word. “Zhao Yun Lan, you may not have gotten any older but you seem to have gotten even weirder.”

Zhao Yun Lan patted the air with a hand absently, thinking about pots and kettles as he pulled out his phone. He squinted at the display before poking at what he hoped was the correct icon, “Excuse me. Hey, Ghost,” he said into the phone, “quit trying to blow up the lab with Lin Jing and come in here a minute to talk with Sister Zhu.” Disconnecting abruptly, he peered at the screen for a second. He stared, first closing one eye and then the other, before giving up and putting it back in his pocket.

The words had been flippant, but Zhu Hong was well aware of how much her former chief hid behind his flippancy. “Zhao Yun Lan, you are starting to scare me.”

“Zhu Hong, meimei,” Shen Ye Zun greeted the seated woman as he strode in the door. He raised his eyebrows at her lack of enthusiasm to see him. Though they had been in communication for years, he was unsure if he was disappointed or relieved that she hadn't immediately jumped up to embrace him.

Zhu Hong smiled softly and took his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. Shen Ye Zun returned the smile, causing the skin around his eyes to crinkle. He squeezed back and she released her hold on him. His suit was cut per usual in the latest style, though his preferred pale palette was out of fashion at the moment. She was pleased to see he was wearing his almost colorless hair down. His hair had always been a reliable indicator of his mood. The present unrestrained style indicated he was feeling good about his visit to Haixing and things were going well with whatever he and Lin Jing were collaborating on.

Finished with their acknowledgments to one another, Zhu Hong gestured at Zhao Yun Lan with wide eyes.

Shen Ye Zun glanced to the other man and shrugged fractionally at Zhu Hong. He had seemed well enough earlier.

“Zhao Yun Lan?” he questioned the SID Chief.

“It’s getting kinda dark in here,” Zhao Yun Lan locked eyes with the brother of his better half. “Do you know where he is?”

Shen Ye Zun’s head twitched minutely to the side. He curled his hands in a gesture familiar, but not, as he called forth twin balls of dark energy to scan his surroundings. In the distance an alarm blared as Lin Jing’s instruments registered the use of power. Zhao Yun Lan figured it had to be a substantial blip because he had not realized Shen Ye Zun’s range could reach as far as the University.

For all the raw strength he possessed, Zhao Yun Lan had always thought Shen Ye Zun’s exercise of power seemed not as practiced or elegant as Shen Wei’s. He also did not close his eyes when he used it the way his brother did. This meant he was watching as Lin Jing burst through the office door, weapon at the ready. Closely on his heels were Zhu Hong’s entourage in addition to the on-site SID field agents. The door to the office was exceedingly full of people jockeying for the best position from which to intervene if necessary.

“He is out of the city or below,” Shen Ye Zun reported as he released the power. He pulled out his phone from breast pocket of his jacket, rapidly thumbing through screens.

Zhao Yun Lan made a cutting motion across his throat, and jerked his head slightly, signaling Lin Jing to cut the alarm. Lin Jing used his own phone to do so and proved his genius by shooing all the onlookers away complaining loudly about false alarms and the waste of his invaluable time.

“There is nothing on his calendar,” Shen Ye Zun reported as he pushed an icon to make a call. “Madam Liu, I apologize for interrupting your morning. Have you any idea where my absent minded brother has taken himself off to?”

Madam Liu, was one of Shen Ye Zun's favorite people. She was pleasant, polite, and super-efficient. Her official position was research assistant to Professor Shen Wei. Her actual job was keeping track of him and helping him interface with the modern world since Gege was even more technologically challenged these days.

Computers and communication had advanced apace with the meeting of the innovations above and the research into forgotten technologies below through the communication network Ye Zun had created with Lin Jing. Ye Zun was of the opinion that Gege’s reluctance to become more proficient with technology was due to habit rather than actual preference for older methods of handling information. Gege claimed he thought better with a brush in his hand and, by the way, exactly who was it who had found the book detailing the creation of green crystal matrixes in the dusty back reaches of the Hall of Records?

Madam Liu functioned as a much needed intermediary between Gege and his struggle with modernity. The university had appointed her to the positon after Shen Wei mentioned they might occasionally lose him to Dixing for a decade or so. Desperate to retain access to his brain, the research it produced, and the likelihood of his being a liaison between Dragon City University and the fledgling Dixing Academies they had shoved a tech capable body at Shen Wei hoping to keep him happy and productive. At a minimum, and provided the BIR (which really meant the SID) through the work of Drs. Shen and Lin could fix the current bandwidth issues between realms they hoped they could retain him to teach remotely. It helped immeasurably that she had actually been one of Professor Shen's students back in the day, and was thus well aware of what she was letting herself in for.

“Good Morning, Dr. Shen. He was supposed to be working in his office today. Hmmm, nothing has appeared on his schedule. I did connect him with a call from the darknet earlier, a Mr. Guo.”

“Ah, that must be it. If Guo Chang Cheng made a request, Gege would have gone to meet him.”

Zhao Yun Lan and Zhu Hong sat up in tandem at the mention of Xiao Guo.

“Should I mark him out for the rest of the day, do you think? Only he had office hours scheduled for this afternoon.”

“That might be best. I’ll remind him, again, that he should keep you apprised of his whereabouts. Thank you very much Madam Liu.”

If someone wanted to get Shen Wei or Hei Pao below for whatever purpose Guo would be the easiest led and the quickest way to go about it. But that would mean that Chu Shu Zhi would had to have been gotten around or disposed of first.

“Zhao Yun Lan?” he was asking for permission. Shen Ye Zun may be at the top of the food chain in Dixing, but above ground he was answerable to the Guardian. Anything less would disappoint Gege.

Zhao Yun Lan's mind made the connections just as quickly as his genius Ghost. The conclusions were not reassuring. His jaw firmed. “Find him,” he ordered, setting Shen Ye Zun loose upon Dixing.

The Dixingren wasted no time, spreading his hands and opening a portal simultaneously. A second later he disappeared into it.

“Dammit,” Zhao cursed, “He didn’t take me. Sister Zhu help me to follow.” He stood up and reached a not quite blind hand in her direction.

“Only if you tell me what is going on,” she said as she rose to help him. “Where are we going?”

“Gateroom, I can’t call a portal so I am going to have to go through the door," he said, thankful she was willing to walk and talk. "You remember when I went blind.”

“Yes," she shivered at the memory, "Shen Wei fixed it.” Zhao Yun Lan's hold on her arm tightened a bit in reassurance.

“He fixed it by sharing his ability to see with me,” that was a fairly simplistic if easy to understand explanation. “If he does not have enough energy to maintain my sight he is in trouble.” Technically he shouldn't be dependent on Shen Wei for his sight. His Professor thought it a quirk of memory as opposed to any real need. Maintaining his own vision was something Zhao Yun Lan was supposed to be working on but, if sharing sight was going to serve as an early warning system that Shen Wei needed help, he was fully on board with totally abandoning that idea. “And we have another problem.”

Zhu Hong paused for a moment and balanced Zhao Yun Lan when he missed a step so she could crook her finger for two of her security detail to follow. Shen Wei in trouble usually required something short of an army to sort out. “Of course, that’s just the way our luck runs. What is the problem?”

“I just sent Shen Ye Zun to find him.” He tallied the hazy group forming behind them. Two of Zhu Hong's security, two of the new guys, he was sure if Daqing wasn't catting around he would be joining the mix. He really hoped the Dixingren on the other side didn't mistake them for an invasion force.

“You doubt he can do it?” she asked incredulously as they stepped into the basement room containing the only currently active doorway between Haixing and Dixing. Lin Jing was waiting for them beside what Zhu Hong hoped was a thoroughly tested control panel. This was supposed to allow SID to control Human/Yashou access to Dixing in addition to giving them the opportunity to vet the Dixingren who wanted to visit or immigrate to Haixing.

“Hell, no. But he has two settings,” Zhao Yun Lan reminded her dryly, “null or total destruction." He waggled his fingers pointedly at the gate, visible to him now only because of it's size. The gate which existed solely because Shen Ye Zun had literally torn a hole between the realms the last time someone had thought it was a good idea to lure and trap Shen Wei below.

Lin Jing finished giving his minion instructions and watched closely as the junior scientist entered the sequence to open the door. Satisfied, he nodded and took his place with the retinue of travelers.

Zhao Yun Lan took a deep breath and prepared to lead the way forward.

"If I let his brother destroy Dixing, Shen Wei will never forgive me.”

Chapter Text

 

Shen Wei was feeling a bit apprehensive as he followed Guo Chang Cheng and Guo’s guide to where Chu Shu Zhi was supposedly waiting. He had gotten used to spending the majority of his time as the Professor and walking into what was obviously a trap was probably going to spoil his plans for the day. Jia-Jia was going to be so very annoyed he hadn’t thought to let her clear his calendar.

Additionally, as they trekked through increasingly remote and unpopulated areas of Dixing, he was experiencing the most curious sense of déjà vu. Since he could not quite discern what was causing the feeling, he bundled the thought away to be examined later. For now he needed to be prepared for an ambush. Whoever their adversary was, they had overestimated Guo’s naiveté and underestimated the friends he could, and more importantly would, call upon to aid in an uncertain and uncomfortable situation. Shen Wei doubted they had thought to draw Hei Pao into their schemes.

Their guide predictably disappeared once Chu was in range of sight. Shen Wei let her slip away into an inconspicuous tunnel without remark. The dismissiveness with which she had treated Xiao Guo marked her as someone from outside of the palace, therefore it was unlikely she knew enough of what was going on to be a useful source of information. Likely a little fish that having been paid was escaping the net or, depending on how serious a coup attempt this was, perhaps was on her way to being eliminated.

“Chu-ge!” Guo had exclaimed as they entered a rather larger than usual cavern and he spied his friend seated amidst what looked to be rubble from a quite substantial rockfall.

Because Guo was totally focused on his friend, he entirely overlooked the corpse. The body of a man who, from this angle, suspiciously resembled Guo. A serious attempt then.

Shen Wei reflexively caught his arm before Guo could rush to Chu’s side. “Wait a moment.”

Chu’s head had risen from where it had rested on crossed arms atop bent knees. “Stay back,” he called in warning. He did not look well. “It’s a trap!” He made a brief attempt to rise, but it was obvious something was holding him in place and the effort caused a visible drain on his energy.

“Stay still,” Shen Wei ordered in a curt manner he rarely used with Chu. He had a sinking realization of what this was and thus who was likely to be behind it. Not a coup attempt then, simply revenge. As stratagems went this was a good one. He was going to have to intervene soon to save Chu’s life which would place him squarely in the snare.

“Xiao Guo, can you make a phone call?”

Guo quit straining against his hold once he was given something concrete to do. He pulled out the device and did some things to it which Shen Wei presumed meant he was trying to do as requested.

“Umm,” Guo poked at the instrument some more. “No, signal. That’s really unusual. Zun-ge has been working so hard to get rid of the dead zones.” He clenched the phone to his chest, channeling his frustration at being unable to approach Chu-ge into his white-knuckled grip.

Shen Wei reached out with a hand, sending forth a bare whisper of power to try to get an idea of how wide the field holding Chu ranged. No way to call for aid. It was not safe to send Guo for help. That little fish could be waiting. Though it was more likely the instigator who was nearby, expecting Guo Chang Cheng to be a target easily eliminated in the distraction that would be caused by grief at Chu’s death.

Shen Wei crouched down outside of the danger zone, catching the eye of the puppet master. “Chu you need to try to relax, quit fighting the pull.” He could see Chu was making an effort to comply, but Shen Wei was well aware he was all but asking the impossible. Chu was stubborn and combative on a good day. He had to wonder if the corpse had been a corpse when Chu arrived, and how long Chu had been deceived by it.

Chu Shu Zhi was constitutionally unable to relax after someone had baited the scene with what looked like a helpless Guo in order to draw him within the range of peril. Now that he had brought the actual Guo into what was most likely going to become a more dangerous situation …. Shen Wei sighed internally. Chu’s instincts were to struggle, to rise in order to fight and defend. Unfortunately that was probably the worst thing for him at the moment.

Chu Shu Zhi was running out of time. One last thing to try.

Shen Wei stood and twirled his hands, drawing them apart. Between them appeared spider webs of power much like the strings Chu utilized. He set them loose, watching closely to see how they would react. The strands floated in the air for an instant before being pulled rapidly towards the area behind Xiao Guo’s doppelganger. He repeated the exercise to get a more precise location before turning towards Guo.

“Did you see where they disappeared?”

Guo looked from Shen Wei to the area in question. “One more time?” he requested timidly.

Shen Wei fashioned his demonstration again.

“Yes, okay, I see it.”

“Go and look,” Shen Wei directed, “Tell me what you see.”

Guo nodded resolutely and started towards the wall. Behind him he could hear Chu-ge frantically protesting. He didn’t look back, couldn’t look back. Because if he did he would be unable to do what Profesor Shen asked and he was sure Profesor Shen only asked because this would help Chu-ge.

“Chu Shu Zhi, be still,” Guo overheard as he stepped around the – ewww – poor dead man, “You know I would not endanger him.”  He could hear Chu panting in distress, so Guo made an effort to hurry up and find whatever it was he was supposed to find.

Behind the … body … and over some of the larger boulders Guo finally saw something that didn’t look like the rest of the rocks lying around. “Professor Shen,” he called, “It looks, it looks like some kind of metal has been splashed over the wall back here.” He turned around, carefully maintaining his perch to see that Professor Shen had allowed himself to be drawn into what Chu had called a trap. Chu’s head was resting on the Professor’s thigh and his color was weird and very un-Chu like. Chu-ge appeared drawn and tired and … diminished somehow.

“I don’t understand,” Chu said breathing like he had been chasing someone. The professor was gripping one of the prone man’s arms tightly.

“I know. If you had understood the danger, you would have been unlikely to be caught up in it. Xiao Guo is safe. He is Human and immune.” Shen Wei turned his attention from the now quiescent Chu towards the younger man, “You can come here now, Guo Chang Cheng.”

“You and I are vulnerable to whatever this is?” Chu was watching Xiao Guo’s approach despairingly. In spite of the reassurances, which he in no way doubted, Chu could not help but be concerned. Still, he was desperately grateful when Xiao Guo knelt beside him and took his hand.

“Yes. We are in a very great deal of trouble.” Channel established, and now that Chu was relaxed as he could be expected to be, Shen Wei released his hold on the other man’s arm.

“What are you doing,” Chu inquired. “I feel … better?” He shook his head slightly. That was not quite the right word, but he did at least feel less awful.

“The metal Xiao Guo observed is leftover material from the meteorite hit that destabilized relations between Dixing, Haixing, and the Yashou 10,000 years ago.”

“Like the metal in the Hallows?” Guo Chang Cheng immediately made the connection and sat up straighter at the revelation, without letting go of Chu’s hand.

“The Hallows were made from the tempered form, yes. I was hoping what is holding us in place would be an object that you could move.” Unfortunate that this was apparently a virgin site and as part of a wall unmovable. On the other hand, he suspected Didi and Lin Jing were going to be enraptured over the research possibilities. Even had he been able to send Guo for help, however, there was no way for him to round up enough Humans and digging equipment to extricate the material before his Dixingren friends died. He sighed and continued to clarify the situation, “The raw metal absorbs dark energy, and it is draining us. I am channeling the drain of my power through you, it should have lessened the strain somewhat.”

“Somewhat,” Chu agreed, beginning to consider the options. Xiao Guo going for help was out of the question. This was a trap, therefore someone was probably watching the trap. Meaning Xiao Guo would be unlikely to make it to help. He fought the instinct to fight when he felt his emotional struggle begin to increase the pull against Shen Wei.

When Shen Ye Zun returned to the palace, Chu Shu Zhi was reasonable certain his and Xiao Guo’s absence would be missed. Be that as it may, he wasn’t expecting that to happen in the near future. This was the first time Shen Ye Zun had had the opportunity to return above and consult with his collaborative partner in person since the door between Dixing and Haixing had been reopened. Shen Ye Zun, normally so reserved, had been observably excited about the trip above, looking forward to a break from his day to day duties and the chance to play with the better tech toys in the SID. Xiao Guo had most likely called Shen Wei instead of his brother for that very reason. Chu expected that the “sciencing” taking place in the SID was currently epic and so Shen Ye Zun could not be expected to return ahead of schedule. Shen Wei was draining himself to keep them both alive. How long could he possibly keep this up? Chu wondered as he felt the energy sear through him. How long before …

“Xiao Guo is going to be helpless.”

“He is not,” Shen Wei sounded insulted on Guo Chang Cheng’s behalf. “You have trained him well. Look there,” he gestured to GongGong lying safely outside of the hazard area. Xiao Guo preferred his energy stick but he was quite proficient with a staff. Chu’s frustration and helpless rage was again increasing the draw. “Please quit struggling so,” Shen Wei’s breath hitched on the request. “I understand. I understand your need to protect him.” Guo Chang Cheng burned so brightly and Chu was the candle that supported and protected the wick. What matter if the candle burns down so long as the flame illuminates? Shen Wei’s brother had once been such a flame, he suspected Chu Nian Zhi had been as well. He had hope that continued fraternity with Xiao Guo would continue to spark the brightness within Ye Zun, “But if you do not calm down we are both going to burn away before help can arrive.”

“What do we need to do?” Xiao Guo asked, pulling on Chu’s hand and giving him a hard look that the older man cringed upon receiving. Guo Chang Cheng did not often insist, which made his insistence all the more potent when he did.

“We wait, our absence and you being incommunicado will not go unnoticed.” Xiao Guo was a firm believer in keeping his friends updated on his “status”. Shen Wei pretty much remembered to carry his phone with him these days, but he was still difficult to reach because he turned it off when he was in class and often forgot to turn on again. It could be argued that he, perhaps, tended not to turn it on again because he was sure to be inundated with messages about Xiao Guo’s activities as well as everyone else’s responses to them. He preferred to have time and quiet to puzzle out the curious speech patterns and obscure references contained in their conversations.

Chu Shu Zhi, gripping his Xiao Guo fiercely, looked at Shen Wei’s steadily paling face as the energy continued to pour out of him. He was sustaining Chu even as he depleted himself. Shen Wei had a much deeper well of power than Chu Shu Zhi, but even a deep well could eventually run dry. He had a horrible realization of where this would lead.

“Do not sacrifice your life for me,” Chu made himself remain calm in the face of the knowledge that Shen Wei very probably already had. “Zhao Yun Lan will never forgive us if you die for me.”

Shen Wei looked down into the puppet master’s face and laughed. A bright, joyous sound that pierced the depressive mood.

“You sadly underestimate Zhao Yun Lan,” Shen Wei smiled at the doubting expressions on the others’ faces. “He will …, if I … succumb…, Zhao Yun Lan will mourn my passing and continue on. I am certain of his ability to cope with anything." Because Zhao Yun Lun was amazing. "And he would surely disagree with you on the matter of your worth, Chu Shu Zhi. I may have placed you in SID," Hei Pao reminded him, "but Zhao Yun Lan sees you as one of his people to protect." The professor had saved his best argument for last, "Also …, would you leave Xiao Guo without his guardian?”

Chu Shu Zhi was thinking that had he a say whatsoever in the matter, no he would not. Xiao Guo was far too willing to give of himself. Always available to sacrifice his time, his energy, his money. Shen Ye Zun had gone so far as to create a special fund at the SID specifically for the care and feeding of Guo Chang Cheng because he so often exhausted his salary in the aid of others. Xiao Guo was far too easy to take advantage of and while he was certain Ye Zun would do his utmost to protect his friend, his day job was pretty time consuming. No. He could not leave Guo Chang Cheng defenseless, and so at long last he stopped resisting Shen Wei’s efforts. Shen Wei nodded at him, the strain on his face easing a fraction as he rebalanced the outflow of energies.

Time passed, though it was difficult to calculate how much. Always problematic to measure due to the unchanging light of Dixing, Chu and Guo marked its passing with talk of inconsequential things. Shen Wei was measuring it in his ability to regulate the loss of his energy. Chu co-operating meant he was able to ever so slowly, ever so slightly lessen the outflow and thus increase the time before choices had to be made.

One of the hardest of which was determining the point at which he was going to have to sever his connection with Zhao Yun Lan.

The longer this went on, the more the pathways illuminated themselves in his other sight. He could see the flow from himself through Chu to the steaks embedded in the wall now glowing with dark energy. Could see and feel it seeking more power, grasping for another source. Zhao Yun Lan had been connected to him with the link forged by the Longevity Dial for decades now. If this greedy whirlpool anchored in his partner, Zhao Yun Lan too would be consumed. That could not be allowed. He was rapidly approaching the point where he would have to sever the tie that had helped draw Yun Lan forth from the Guardian Lamp after the Lord of the Guardians had sacrificed himself to save Dixing. The bond that had been a comfort and a boon to Shen Wei every day since.

The passage of time and energy continued and the three men settled in to wait. Chu closed his eyes but kept both his hands around one of Guo's. A restless thumb stroked back and forth. Guo had attempted to play a game on his phone, but discovered that all of the dark energy that powered it here in Dixing had been sucked out. That didn't really matter after all, as he was content to have his hand held and keep watch over his Chu-ge. The professor continued his calculations as the moments passed.

Shen Wei had worried it would be difficult to carve Zhao Yun Lan out of his heart when the moment came. Agonizing in its arrival, but all too quickly here, the time was now. And at the point of breaking it was oh, so easy because it was necessary to save Yun Lan’s life. It meant more pain, but really he was already in so much pain, one more ache even to his heart was not that much more to bear. He gathered the energy within himself, all that was bright and borrowed and hurled it back towards its source.

The connection abruptly severed with what he was surprised was not an audible snap. Though he missed it already, he could not help but be pleased Yun Lan was safe from this dissipation. The pain caused him to curl over the resting Chu, waking the puppet master from a light doze and causing Guo to exclaim in concern. An unfortunate side effect seemed to be a rapid backlash from the vortex trying to siphon him dry and it burned with an intensity he was trying to shield from Chu Shu Zhi.

“Brother Chu,” Shen Wei gasped, “would you be willing to sleep through this?”

Chu traded a look with Guo, unsure as to what had changed. “Would it make things easier?”

“Yes,” was all Shen Wei managed to say, irritated he did not have the breath to lecture and reassure.

“Okay,” Chu agreed almost immediately, however with one caveat, “You had better be here when I wake up.”

Shen Wei compelled a smile to appear on his face, though it was a grim and painful expression. “I will do my utmost,” he promised as he sent the mental command along with the energy he was bleeding.

A sleeping Chu Shu Zhi was easier to regulate. It did, however, really hurt quite a bit in a way he could not name. The closest in his experience was the pillar and this was not that. He could feel himself unraveling in a way that was most disturbing. Different than the agony of the pillar and exacerbated by the pain of his reappearing wounds. Damages inflicted upon his body in innumerable battles large and small, healed with dark energy and now dehiscing as his energy drained away. Hardly the worst injury he had ever received but the most irritating was turning out to be the shoulder wound that was a souvenir of his first encounter with Zhao Yun Lan. It hurt of course, but moreover it itched maddeningly as the nerve endings in that area were misfiring for some reason.

If he was going to go through 10,000 years of injury he suspected that he might not even leave a corpse. Which was a distressing thought, though excellent as a distraction from the struggle to regain control of the energy flow. He did not think it took too terribly long to slow the draw to a point that was low enough that he was certain the sleeping Chu would survive his passing through him should it prove to be the case that he had drastically mis-estimated the timing of their rescue. Satisfied for the moment, he opened his eyes to search out Guo Chang Cheng.

Xiao Guo was petting the sleeping Chu and regarding Shen Wei with no small amount of concern.

“Xiao Guo,” Shen Wei’s voice had become whispered rasp, “someone will be coming soon.”

Guo nodded but did not reply, sensing now was not the time to interrupt.

“If it is an enemy do your best to thrust them in this direction. They will become trapped and no longer a danger to you.”

Guo’s eyes darted towards GongGong. He could do that, he could defend his friends.

“If allies approach you must keep them from getting too near.”

“Then how can they help?” Guo asked a little desperately.

Shen Wei’s smile was now tinged with the blood on his teeth. “Didi will have no difficulties. Do you understand what you must do?”

Startled by the bloody smile, Guo still managed to answer, “Throw the bad guys in the trap, keep the good guys out.”

“Excellent,” Shen Wei allowed himself to relax against the stone at his back and close his eyes.

Guo was becoming alarmed at the blood beginning to seep through the Professor’s blue suit.

“Professor Shen,” he reached out a tentative hand to one of the darkening spots, pressing gently.

Shen Wei, startled at the touch, more in surprise than in pain. He was reasonably sure it was not possible to hurt any more than he already did. That itch might eventually drive him insane though. “They are old injuries. Do not concern yourself.”

“But …, you are bleeding.”

“Not much.” As a rule Dixingren bled much less than Humans or Yashou, due to … hmm … faster more efficient vasoconstriction.

“I have bandages.”

Shen Wei felt Guo release Chu’s hand to search through his ever present messenger bag. He didn’t see it because he had closed his eyes. When had he closed his eyes exactly?

“Thank you,” Shen Wei whispered. It really was not necessary, but it wouldn’t hurt. Well, it wouldn't hurt more than it already did and it would give Guo something to do.

Shen Wei was beginning to entertain the idea that this might actually kill him. But he wasn’t going to die yet. If he died now Chu would die. If he died now, Xiao Guo would be in danger from whoever was hiding in the shadows. So not yet. He just had to hold on long enough for them to come. This was most likely going to be ridiculously easy for Ye Zun to deal with. Shen Wei continued trying to relax into the draw, to not fight the pull, to incrementally reduce the drain. Didi was so much better at this sort of thing. He was able to go null in a way Shen Wei had never been able to achieve.

Something splashed on his face. He struggled to open his eyes. It seemed that Xiao Guo had discovered that while he could not pull his friends free he could at least manipulate them into a more comfortable position. Shen Wei found himself lying down, being rained upon by Guo Chang Cheng’s tears.

“Please don’t die.”

Maybe but, “Not yet.”

“You promised Chu-ge.”

Shen Wei nodded, or at least thought he did. He had promised. And he tried to keep his promises. Didi, being so much smarter, might have to keep this one for him. It was a longstanding joke between them, usually brought up when Ye Zun was mad at him for some reason. He was older but Ye Zun was smarter. Since they were children. Oh.

He reached out in an entirely uncoordinated manner to still one of Guo’s busy hands, “Xiao Guo. You should tell Didi.  I think this used to be the Midlands.”

“The Midlands?”

Shen Wei thought he pressed an affirmative squeeze to Guo’s hand. “Hmm, yes.” The Midlands had been a trading area. It might be useful again if they decided to open a physical path to Haixing.

“Okay, I will tell him.” He paused a moment and then asked uncomfortably, “Is there anything you want me to tell the chief?”

Shen Wei laughed breathlessly. “If Yun Lan is not aware of anything I might have to say, then I have done a very poor job as his companion.” He could not help but smile fondly. They were probably going to have words about this situation. But that was okay. He just had to wait. Ah-Lan was coming. They were coming.

Xiao Guo tried to think if there was anything he might have wanted to have said to Chu-ge before he went to sleep. If this was the last time they had to speak to one another. And it wasn't the last time. Chu-ge was just sleeping and help was coming and Xiao Guo would keep them from the danger until Ye Zun figured out what to do to fix it because that is what Ye Zun did, he fixed things.

Xiao Guo blew out a breath. No, there was nothing he had to say that Gege did not already know. There were a few things he would like to tell Zun-ge, but they were things his friend was not yet ready to hear. So he focused on his job, apologizing to the resting Shen Wei for continuing to drip on him and kept on bandaging because it was always better with something to do and Shen Wei said it wouldn’t hurt and he continued to keep an ear out for someone approaching. They just had to wait. Xiao Guo had faith. The rest of his family was on the way. Never the less, he did hope they could be a little bit quicker about it.

*****

In between one black, stumbling step and the next, an awareness that Zhao Yun Lan did not realize he possessed … left. What took its place left him breathless. So much, so much love and care. For all that he hid it in his gentle professor persona, Shen Wei’s love was a fierce and passionate thing. All of that, plus a surge of bright energy that burned away the darkness rushed into the sudden void and suffused his very soul.

“I’m going to kill him.”

“Who?” Zhu Hong was gripping his elbow, a steadying presence after the shock he had received.

“Shen Wei,” he looked at her.

”You can see,” she exclaimed, relieved and happy.

“Yes,” he responded grimly, “and the only reason is if he cut ties with me or died.”

“Died?!?” Zho Hong's cry was chorused by Lin Jing and the Palace lieutenant guiding them forward. The Yashou security and the new guys thankfully had no comment .

He nodded his head, unable to repeat the word. “In either case I am going to kill him. Let’s move.”

The blinder he had gotten, the slower they had had to move to accommodate his disability and the faster he had needed to get to Shen Wei. He had been frustrated beyond belief at the snail’s pace he had been forced to adopt while following the breadcrumbs left by the former Ghost of SID and present King of Dixing. Now sighted, Zhao Yun Lan could run.

 

Chapter Text

In general Shen Ye Zun hated using portals. Mostly because he was so very bad at them. He had no trouble creating them, but getting them to end up where he intended them to go was … frustrating. Mathematically he could plot them out easily enough, but the energy fluctuations inherent in Dixing and within the Dixingren created too many variables to ensure dependable accuracy upon arrival. So theoretically he could tell you how to get from A to B, and factually how you arrived at B from A.

Actual navigation through the threads of energy, on the other hand, one could only learn through experience. Gege had the experience necessary, and could surf the lines of dark power to get anywhere he desired. If he wanted to show off a bit, he could even take people with him. Ye Zun found it too unreliable a means of transportation. It was easier and less fuss to walk.

Nonetheless, if you wanted to go back and forth between Dixing and Haixing you needed to portal or use a gateway. Given that the SID gateway had been literally one floor below him when he left Haixing, it had been relatively easy to punch down into Dixing and follow that line of connection to arrive more or less where he expected. He realized that Zhao Yun Lan was probably quite irritated at having been left behind, but Shen Ye Zun would rather the SID chief follow through the gate with reinforcements that were unlikely to be involved in whatever the situation he was portalling into had degenerated.

Coasting parallel to the energy line demarcating the SID doorway had put him within striking distance of the pillar. Shen Ye Zun was highly satisfied that cracks in the edifice were beginning to show. Eventually his cumulative efforts would pulverize the damn thing. Today he only had time for the hit and run that served to announce his presence as he stalked towards the Dixing end of the gate.

He was relieved to see the columns indicating the gate’s width remained sentried only by the courtesy officers that had been stationed there when he went above. But then the guard had always been fairly well enthralled by Hei Pao. So, if a large group of them were not waiting to try and kill Shen Ye Zun upon his return, it was a good indication that he wasn’t facing an attempted coup. Arguably, the previous Justicar’s biggest mistake had been not subverting them totally before making his final move.

One of the sentries peeled off to follow Shen Ye Zun on his march to the palace while the other stayed in place with orders to bring Zhao Yun Lan and his party along when they came through. His parade through the city ended up attracting a couple of patrols in his wake, so that by the time he strolled into the audience chamber he had managed to pick up quite a retinue.

This was all to the good. When he finally found his wayward family he would likely be facing either a single traitor or a bunch of traitors. One on one shouldn’t be much of a problem, even with Shen Wei indisposed, but he might need the crowd to draw fire so as to better enable him to even up the odds if was going face a group of foes. Plus it always reassured the guard that they were kept around for something other than appearances.

Not entirely unexpectedly, Chu Shu Zhi was not where Shen Ye Zun had left him. The puppet master should have been in the audience room taking care of what minimal business needing taking care of during the holiday. A holiday that had been declared because Shen Ye Zun was trying to get Dixing accustomed to using a calendar.

Calendars were pretty useless things underground with no seasons, but the Dixingren were starting to better understand the concept of time as communications increased between realms and they had had to get used to regularity with which their aboveground contacts went on and offline. Declaring New Year celebrations in coordination with Haixing had seemed a good place to start.  The happy benefit of declaring a holiday for everyone else meant he could take one as well. Which, come to think of it, was probably why Xiao Guo had called Shen Wei instead of him.

Shen Ye Zun absently sent someone to see what had happened to Guo Chang Cheng’s minder. He kept hoping he wasn’t going to start the morning with a murder while trying to figure out how surprisingly conscientious bureaucrat Chu Shu Zhi had been dispatched.

Anyone trying to communicate a threat was no doubt aware that Chu Shu Zhi’s first reaction was most probably going to be physical. So in order to avoid instant and on the spot interrogation, it had probably been a letter. Something trite with a warning to burn after reading attached. Chu Shu Zhi had a respectable amount of paranoia and dependable backup, so he would have left behind a clue.

Shen Ye Zun’s gaze scanned through the room. Where would I … ? He laughed. Of course. Burn after reading. He twisted his hand, drawing the censer to his grasp and sure enough there was a paper inside. Dropping the censer with a clang, he read through it and found it to be just as trite as expected. There were instructions to use the enclosed map - Shen Ye Zun made a serious effort not to roll his eyes - which Chu Shu Zhi had naturally taken with him. Turning the paper over he found a copy of the map burned into the back by the puppet master’s strings.

“Clever boy,” Shen Ye Zun remarked as he ran his thumb over the markings. Tapping into a dimensional pocket space, he materialized his phone and used it to send a picture of the map to Zhao Yun Lan. By now he suspected the chief was completely blind but Zhu Hong could be relied upon to pick his pocket in order to get a look at the incoming message.

An earnest lieutenant came in to report that Luo Diu had been found tucked away in a wardrobe, drugged and unconscious. Relieved he wasn’t going to have to give Xiao Guo distressing news about one of his shadows, Shen Ye Zun thanked the lieutenant and sent him off to keep the incoming reinforcements from wasting time by visiting the palace.

“Let’s take a field trip,” he announced to the waiting guard, dismissing the phone to its pocket, and then led the way to the spot - again resisting the eye roll – that had been indicated on the map.

*****

When Guo Chang Cheng heard the echoes of approaching boots he dropped the bandages that were acting as more of a distraction for him rather than being any real help to the incapacitated Shen Wei, stood up, and dove for GongGong. Raising the weapon into a defensive position he took two steps forward and assumed his fiercest expression.

Shen Ye Zun entered the cavern first, followed closely by a group of the palace guard. Upon seeing Xiao Guo, Ye Zun’s eyebrows crawled up his forehead and the guards raised their weapons. He glanced behind Guo Chang Cheng in time to see the prone figure of Shen Wei assume his Hei Pao robes, the (he fervently hoped) unconscious form of his Lord Justicar, and a dead body.

Nope. He really couldn’t come up with a comprehensive explanation for this scene. The most obvious explanation for Xiao Guo’s attitude would be mind control. However, Shen Ye Zun had met with no one listed in the recreated Dijun Booklet with enough power to manage overcoming the natural resistance Guo Chang Cheng’s pure spirit gave him. Asking would be the next logical thing to do. So he did.

“What are you doing?” he inquired mildly.

“My job,” Guo Chang Cheng stated.

And Xiao Guo was looking very determined about it too, but more clarification was needed. “Which is?”

“Protecting you,” Guo Chang Cheng informed him in no uncertain terms. “You have to stay back.”

Okay, then. That cleared up everything nicely. Shen Ye Zun half turned to address the guards ranged behind him. He was viscerally opposed to them pointing guns at Xiao Guo. However, given Guo Chang Cheng’s overtly aggressive stance, the guards' concern could be understood and, more importantly for their continued well-being, excused.

Guo Chang Cheng was pretty good with a staff, as the guard were all certainly aware. Hei Pao had a particular habit of using them as practice dummies when he wanted to make a point in training about underestimating people. With a bladed weapon, Xiao Guo would be quite formidable. And of course they were upset that their hero and Justicar Chu were lying, seemingly abandoned, on the ground. All of which did not change one important fact.

“What good are those against him, hmmm?”

The collective looks of sheepishness on the guards' faces was amusing, because of course dark bullets were useless against Humans. He made a mental note to remind Guo Chang Cheng to remind him, Ye Zun, that since they were going to start having Humans traipsing through Dixing they were probably ought to begin thinking about weapons that would work on them. Perhaps equipping the guard with zapping sticks like Xiao Guo’s. Those would work on Dixing, Human, and Yashou.

“Guo Chang Cheng, I need your report on this matter,” he requested formally, turning back to Xiao Guo once the guards relaxed into slightly less threatening postures. Since no one was moving forward, Guo Chang Cheng relaxed as well.

Shen Ye Zun listened patiently as Guo Chang Cheng listed the day’s activities. Excellently, when Guo Chang Cheng could not find Luo Diu to accompany him on the suspicious journey insisted upon by a stranger, he had remembered his strict instructions not to wander through Dixing alone and suggested calling his friend Scholar Shen.

Scholar had been an exemplary choice of title and in keeping with Guo Chang Cheng’s custom of using respectful and appropriate references whenever possible. Even though Shen Wei was famous throughout Dixing as the instigator and former head of new school system, his identity as Hei Pao was not widely established outside of the palace. In this case, Guo Chang Cheng’s choice of address disguised the fact that a formidable companion had been requested as opposed to an ineffectual, no matter how respected, scholar.

Shen Ye Zun found it a continual fascination that the majority of Dixing had not yet made the connection between Shen Wei and Hei Pao. Haixing was closer to figuring out the truth. Their conspiracy forums were rife with speculation about the Envoy and even more theories abounded concerning the return of Dragon City University’s favorite, and apparently native of Dixing, Professor.  The matrixes that would allow for seamless computer connections between the realms was nearly complete and heaven help him when all those conspiracy theorists above started comparing notes with those below.

After Guo Chang Cheng finished detailing his experiences and conveyed exactly what he was so diligently protecting the Dixingren from, Shen Ye Zun got to work. He flicked his fingers at the area behind Guo Chang Cheng and the edges of the death trap illuminated for a fraction of a second. Calling his walking cane to hand, Shen Ye Zun drew a line in the ground and turned around to face the oncoming Zhao Yun Lan. He barred the Chief’s forward progress with the upwards raised cane. Xiao Guo resumed his aggressive stance. Zhao Yun Lan traded annoyed eyebrows with Shen Ye Zun but stopped and held his peace.

Ye Zun kept his the barrier in front of Zhao Yun Lan as he addressed the congregation of guards.

“Somewhere back there is Ding Dun.” The guards came to attention and practically quivered in anticipation of the hunt. Ding Dun was going to find that what was supposed to be a quiet assassination had drawn quite a crowd. “Find him, arrest him, and confine him to the prison. I’ll deal with him after I have dealt with this.” As they divided themselves between pursuit and guard duty Shen Ye Zun turned his attention to Zhao Yun Lan.

“You stay behind this line,” he ordered SID’s Chief in no uncertain terms. If Zhao Yun Lan could see he would not want to be sidelined, but the fact that he could see meant Shen Wei did not have time for Ye Zun to indulge in lengthy diplomacy. He turned to Zhu Hong. “You make sure he stays behind this line.” She nodded resolutely. Shen Ye Zun raised his voice to be heard by all, “Everybody not Human stays behind this line. Understood?” He actually had no idea how this would affect the Yashou, but now was not the time to research it and besides he needed Zhu Hong’s stubbornness to keep Zhao Yun Lun out of danger.

“Hey, I’m human,” Zhao Yun Lun predictably objected.

“That body you are wearing,” Shen Ye Zun reminded him of what Zhao Yun Lan had forgotten again, “is a construct of dark energy, memory and will containing the white energy of your spirit’s fire. We are definitely not testing that against a soul cauldron.” One of guards gasped as a name was put to the threat.

“How bad could it be?”

“Nothing could happen,” Shen Ye Zun tilted his head and resisted Zhao’s push against the cane as he entered lecture mode, “or the dark energy could get sucked out of you. Hopefully the end result of that is your soul fire wings its way back to the guardian lantern. Or you could cease to exist. Or, what is most likely to happen, is that the mix of energies results in an explosion which will certainly destroy everyone in this chamber, may extend to destroy Dixing itself and in the worst case scenario cracks the planet.” By the time his speech was ended Shen Ye Zun’s manner and voice oozed deference, and his head bowed ever so slightly in Zhao Yun Lan’s direction, indicating that he would of course abide by his former Chief’s decision.

“I’ll just stay here then,” Zhao Yun Lan responded sullenly, ceasing his efforts to push the cane aside.

Shen Ye Zun nodded in approval of his good sense and dismissed the cane. All he needed was for Zhao Yun Lan to stay in place, he didn’t require the man to be happy about it. “Xiao Guo, Lin Jing let’s go,” he commanded.

Guo tossed GongGong towards the earnest lieutenant who caught it in surprise and then straightened to hold it in reverence. Shen Ye Zun suppressed a sigh. That particular guard had always had a borderline unhealthy respect in regards to Hei Pao and his weapon. He hoped this wouldn’t ruin a young man who had matured into someone almost useful in spite of the overabundance of hero worship he had displayed when recruited.

Shen Ye Zun’s train of thought was suddenly derailed and he froze at the grip on his arm.

“Hey Ghost, don’t let it trap you,” Zhao Yun Lan cautioned, having anxiously examined the scene and come to approximately the correct conclusions. “You get stuck and then where are we?”

Shen Ye Zun blinked at him mutely for a second. People did not usually touch him. Zhao Yun Lan had always been an exception to that. Zhao Yun Lan was casually and equally opportunistic in invading everyone’s personal space. It was part of his efforts to push people in the direction he felt they should grow. His good intentions were the reason Shen Ye Zun tolerated it. However, since he was normally hyper aware of his surroundings, it was unusual for Shen Ye Zun to be caught by surprise and unprepared for the contact. And so he froze. Gege didn’t freeze. If caught unexpectedly, Gege would shrug you off or, if he didn’t recognize you as an ally, attack.

Zhao Yun Lan released Shen Ye Zun hastily, raising the hand a bit in apology. Shen Ye Zun’s present force of personality tended to make you forget the monosyllabic and notice-me-not attitude he had had when Zhao Yun Lan first took over as SID chief. The Ghost’s tendency to hide out in the basement server room or lurk about the main floor, along with his pale wardrobe and hair, had earned him his nickname. Shen Ye Zun had come so far out of his shell, it was hard sometimes to remember he had a past that made catching him by surprise problematic.

Shen Ye Zun recovered himself quickly and decided to be complimented by the fact that Zhao Yun Lan seemed unwilling to let him rush into peril as a tradeoff for the return of Shen Wei. Also surprised. Xiao Guo, recognizing and disapproving of this attitude was discretely tugging on his robe, reminding him that yes they had a job to do, but people other than his brother did in fact care about whether he lived or died, and the SID did not trade in lives. Which of course was a blatant misrepresentation of facts. They were all of them, and apparently himself included, stupidly self-sacrificing.

“Don’t worry, I doubt this substance has an appetite that could match mine,” Shen Ye Zun finally responded. Which served as notice that he was indeed almost uniquely qualified to deal with this threat even as it reminded people of past uncomfortable events. He crossed the line, waving his companions forward with an expansive gesture.

Entering the field generated by the meteorite fragments was a little disconcerting. At the edge of the field it felt like tingles of intense static electricity, weird but not distressing. Closer in the pull against his core energy became noticeable. And painful. Shen Ye Zun imagined Chu Shu Zhi had been baited forward past the point of no return by the staged body. His haste to get to who he supposed to be Guo Chang Cheng had led to his downfall. Shen Wei had had no such excuse. He knelt down beside his brother amidst the detritus of abandoned bandaging. Xiao Guo’s previous efforts at first aid were no longer visible and the signs of any injury hidden by the robes, but the smell of blood hung heavy in the air. Xia Guo knelt by Chu Shu Zhi, checking him over quickly, and arranged the man’s arms over his chest. Shen Ye Zun touched the insensate man, reassured to find him under a command of sleep but not unconscious. His energy pathways were decidedly odd, however. Lin Jing stood uncertainly in the background, waiting for an indication of how he could help. Shen Ye Zun released his hold on Chu Shu Zhi and turned to deal with the matter of Shen Wei.

“You had to have known what it was,” Shen Ye Zun scolded his brother gently, staring at a reflection of his own face that, sans mask or glasses and combined with the out of fashion long hair, appeared absurdly young. Shen Wei had originally found the reference in his ongoing research of the Hallows. Had brought questions to his Didi who had a much better understanding of metallurgy and the calculation of the forces involved. Had started yet another research project, enlisting the assistance of Ding Dun in searching through the archives for more information. “How did you let yourself get caught in it?”

Shen Wei huffed quietly, “Chu Shu Zhi was already ensnared when I got here.”

That Shen Wei had not bothered to open his eyes revealed how bad things were. When Shen Ye Zun finally put his hands on his brother he realized how severely he had underestimated the situation. Shen Wei had not assumed the robes of Hei Pao in some misguided effort to reassure the palace guard, he had lost the form of the Professor.

Realizing just how much of himself Shen Wei had sacrificed, Ye Zun admitted, “I don’t know if I would have done the same.”

That sparked a reaction. Shen Wei opened his eyes to stare at his brother with a direct and pointed gaze.

“Liar,” he countered, flatly rebuking this blatant untruth.

Shen Ye Zun sneered haughtily, covering his appalled distress, “I would have figured out a better way. Without getting myself trapped.”

“I concede the possibility,” Shen Wei nodded slightly and closed his eyes again. “The silver lining is that I believe we have discovered the source of your network dead zones.”

Shen Ye Zun caught the concerned gazes of Xiao Guo and Lin Jing. They could do nothing to help here. He indicated with an up tilted chin that they should deal with the unfortunate corpse. Guo Chang Cheng grimaced and pulled Lin Jing away.

“It cannot be anything this reactive,” Shen Ye Zun commented to continue the conversation, distracting Shen Wei, as he attempted to feel out how his brother was protecting Chu Shu Zhi. “We would have noticed the bodies I think. The dead spots are most likely coming from some small long-forgotten refined bits. Lin Jing will need to invent a detector.” Shen Ye Zun addressed SID’s resident genius as he and Xiao Guo returned from depositing the first victum of this trap within the guards' reach. “Maybe you should think about moving down here for a bit.”

Lin Jing shook his head, “No way is Sha Ya giving up her stargazing. Or her current concert gig.”

“You could ask,” Shen Ye Zun was frowning, most of his attention on the energy he was mapping through Shen Wei, “Perhaps she’d like more time to see her sister.”

“Maybe her sister would like to escape hydroponics for a bit and visit above,” Lin Jing replied, trading a worried look with Guo Chang Cheng at Shen Ye Zun’s continued distracted expression. “Chill, Ghost. I can commute if you need me that badly.”

Shen Ye Zun finally shook his head in exasperation and bemoaned, “What a mess you have made of yourself, Gege.”

“Hmm,” Shen Wei agreed and immediately changed the subject, “Did Xiao Guo tell you I think this is the midlands?”

“Yes, he did. I’m not sure how you worked that out, good brother, but your brain is ever full of the most boring stuff.” A very, very, very long time ago the midlands had been a commerce area, physically reachable from both Dixing and Haixing.

“Not boring. Useful.”

“Possibly, but it is not exactly relevant to the current issue. All right, I see what you have done.” It was an interesting solution that Shen Wei had settled on. Shen Ye Zun had no doubt Gege could at one point probably have blown himself free from the energy undertow, but that likely would have killed Chu Shu Zhi. If he had tried to reabsorb all the energy back from the source of the draw that probably would have done the same thing. SID did not trade in lives, but Ye Zun was very afraid Gege might have made this one. He gave the shoulder under his hand a last pat and stood up.

“Wait for my signal, grab Chu Shu Zhi and pull him to safety.” He waited a moment for Lin Jing and Xiao Guo to get a firm hold on the puppet master in preparation, and then Shen Ye Zun walked forward placing himself between Shu Zhi and the meteorite remnants draining his life. The faces of his audience when he turned around, with the exception of Shen Wei’s, were gratifyingly appalled. This time he gave in to the urge to roll his eyes. Exactly what had they been expecting?

Shen Wei had basically turned Chu Shu Zhi into a tunnel, feeding his own power through the puppet master to spare him as much as possible. Shen Ye Zun used his abilities to insert himself into the chain so that it now ran from Shen Wei through Chu Shu Zhi through Shen Ye Zun to the meteorite fragment. Then he fashioned a counter field creating a null bubble that he pushed back up the chain into Chu Shu Zhi. He expanded that into the narrow range of the sleeping man’s vicinity, surrounding him in a field that gave the fragments nothing to grab onto. The energy river from Shen Wei then flowed around a Chu Shu Zhi shaped “stone” and through Shen Ye Zun. Trying to balance the energies without pulling from Chu, or pulling more from Shen Wei was difficult but better than the alternative. There was enough tasty, tasty energy behind him, that if he started eating it, he was afraid he would be unable to stop. So balance, zero out the equation, nullify. He nodded to the waiting Humans.

From the perspective of Lin Jing and Guo Chang Cheng, who could only see a brief flash of dark light reflecting the most intensive of Shen Ye Zun’s manipulations, it appeared as though he was practicing some weird sort of martial arts move that involved only the top half of his body as he waved his hands and arms about.  At Shen Ye Zun’s nod they quickly pulled the insulated Chu Shu Zhi to his waiting friends. Eight steps to safety and Shen Ye Zun let the field fall.

Shen Wei was smiling at him, “Impressive, Didi.”

Shen Ye Zun pretended he wasn’t preening at the compliment and watched the scurry of movement around Chu Shu Zhi behind the safety line. “Wait and be impressed when we get you out.”

Xiao Guo and Lin Jing trooped back for hopefully the last time. “This is going to take a bit more concentration,” Shen Ye Zun warned them. “Give me a minute and then pull him out.”

“What about you,” Guo Chang Cheng and Lin Jing spoke on top of one another, almost achieving a chorus.

“I’ll follow you out,” Shen Ye Zun assured them, sparing a nod and a smile in response to Xiao Guo’s suspicious look.

Shen Wei grunted as result of Guo Chang Cheng and Lin Jing’s efforts to get him ready to move. While the three idiots were occupied with a round of apologies and counter apologies, Shen Ye Zun began crafting the neutral zone required to get Shen Wei to safety. Though it was a broader area to cover, it required fewer gestures on his part. Vastly more complex calculations, however.

One step towards safety.

Two steps.

He quickly found he had once again drastically underestimated the situation. All his concentration had to remain on the maintenance of the field, he was unable to physical move. But then he didn’t need to, the field followed his will and thoughts. He ignored the grasping whirl behind him and focused on starving its connection to the figure in front of him.  

Three.

Four.

The further Shen Wei was moved from him, the thinner the line of draining power connecting them was forced to become.

Five.

Shen Ye Zun zeroed out the power he allowed to flow out of himself.

Six.

The line of Shen Wei’s power flowing into him attenuated to nothing …

What was he doing again?

Enduring. Must stay balanced. Too far in and the risk of dwelling in memory, regret, guilt, and anger became ever greater.  From there it was oh so easy to find himself falling down into the hungry biting fangs of insanity. Too far out and he would brush up against the edges of the pillar’s containment field. Stay balanced, null, float until Gege visits.

Interactions with Gege were worth the pain, and it was not as though he was undeserving of the prison the Hallows had made and cast him into.

Chapter Text

Placed into the greedy hands of Zhao Yun Lan, Shen Wei could spare him no more than what he hoped was a reassuring glance because his Didi had not followed him out. Guo Chang Cheng had also noticed that Shen Ye Zun remained out of place. Having confirmed that Chu Shu Zhi was still sleeping but no worse off, Xiao Guo was preparing to rush back into the danger zone. Shen Wei did not have enough air to call a warning and no energy to reach out himself. Fortunately Zhu Hong was right there so, discomfited by the rudeness even as he excused himself due to the necessity, he nudged her with an uncoordinated and flailing knee.

Gaining her attention he mouthed Xiao Guo, while attempting to regain control of his respiration. Panic at this stage would aide no one. Zhu Hong was, as always, quick on the uptake and she put out a hand, catching Guo Chang Cheng before he could dash away. “Wait,” she cautioned.

Xiao Guo responded with what was the hardest look he had most likely ever given to his Sister Hong. She darted her eyes to Shen Wei. Recognizing that he was struggling to impart something urgent, Guo Chang Cheng bent over to listen to the raspy whisper Shen Wei’s voice had become.

“You need to get his attention,” Shen Wei advised slowly. If he spoke too quickly, if he breathed too deeply, he was going to cough. If he coughed, he was not sure how much of his right lung he would end up expelling. That injury predated Kun Lun and had been rather horrific. “You must not touch him.” His gaze penetrated into Xiao Guo’s, trying to impress upon him the vital importance of this.  “You are immune from the effects of the meteorite fragments. You are not immune to Ye Zun.”

Guo Chang Cheng’s expression reflected his horror at the thought. If he allowed himself to get injured, Zun-ge would never forgive himself. But he knew what to do, even if he couldn’t touch him. Shen Ye Zun didn’t like to be touched anyway. Except that he liked to have his hand held sometimes. Chang Cheng was very proud to have taught him that it was okay to want to have his hand held sometimes.

Guo Chang Cheng went through his bag hurriedly and pulled out a notebook. He smiled encouragingly at Shen Wei, waving the book a little, “I know what to do.”

Shen Wei sort of returned the smile, and fell back into Zhao Yun Lan.

Xiao Guo got up and went to stand before Shen Ye Zun. He recognized that look. Shen Ye Zun was not in a good place mentally and Chang Cheng was going to help him out of it. And it was going to be easy because he knew all of the important things about Zun-ge.

Shen Ye Zun was King of Dixing and, just like his twin, a genius. He fixed things. He enjoyed mathematics and computers, tea ceremonies and shopping. And he liked to listen.  No one that Guo Chang Cheng had ever met listened as well as Shen Ye Zun. And Ye Zun heard all of the things that weren’t said as well. The things that Xiao Guo had to have explained to him because he never got “subtext”. Guo Chang Cheng had never known anyone who liked to listen to all he had to say, but Shen Ye Zun did. He listened to thoughts and worries and suggestions and then Ye Zun did something about them or explained why they weren’t going to do something about them because Zun-ge had reasons for everything and was willing to tell Chang Cheng all about it if Cheng-ge wanted to know. Or he gave Guo Chang Cheng something to do if they didn’t know enough.  So Xiao Guo opened the notebook and turned the page to the current list of things he had questions about or had found answers to and started talking so that Zun-ge could start listening.

“There are currently 14 requests to come downside … “

Zhao Yun Lan listened with half an ear as Xiao Guo started babbling at Shen Ye Zun. Shen Wei had been deposited with very little ceremony into his lap and Zhao Yun Lan was preoccupied with trying to find out where the blood was coming from. Damn it, had he been in a fight down here? The robes were disguising the source and he couldn’t find any holes, but there were shiny patches everywhere coloring his questing fingers red.

“… on the anonymous server. I think maybe they are scared of the SID. Do you think Sister Hong and the Yashou would be willing to give them an escort? That might also solve her problems with Yashou complaining about access.”

Shen Wei managed to latch onto a searching hand that wandered in the vicinity of his lax one. “Stop now,” he requested breathily. ”You can’t fix this.”

“The Primary and Secondary schools decided they want an upside field trip at end of all the grades, oldest to last year of Primary.”

Zhao Yun Lan regarded Shen Wei with disbelief. Well maybe he couldn’t fix it, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t damn well going to try.

“After that they think trips only at end of the Primary and Secondary curriculum. And they definitely want the Orientation to be done here not at the BIR. Madame Liu suggested partnering with the DCU Education School for guides and chaperones.”

Shen Wei’s fingers tightened a bit on Zhao Yun Lan’s hand. “It is okay, Yun Lan, it doesn’t hurt very much.”

“Master Lin is really happy with the wood samples but he is not understanding the rate of exchange and is worried he is cheating the woodsman and he is going to lose his source. He is having trouble with the idea that sapphires are valuable upside. I was thinking …”

Zhao Yun Lan took a deep breath and tried to get ahold of his temper, “Xiao Wei, I want you to think very carefully about how you would feel if I said that to you,” because losing his temper with Shen Wei usually meant he lost the argument, “and you knew I was lying.”

 “… we could maybe partner with a gemologist upstairs and just convert everything to money. He understands that. We can ask Madame Liu for help. But maybe we are going to have to find someone to act as an agent of Dixing upside … “

Shen Wei didn’t want to think, he hurt, but he tried to follow Zhao Yun Lan’s wishes as much as he was able, hurting should not make a difference and perhaps he could use the thinking to distract from the hurting and … oh!

“… because we can’t keep asking her for everything. Ji Wei Wei could probably do it, but I don’t know if Ji Bai would be willing to go back upside. His photography business is doing really well and he likes it down here.”

Shen Wei blinked slowly in wide-eyed realization. His voice was very small as he volunteered, “It hurts.” Surprisingly, admitting it did not make it hurt any worse.

Zhao Yun Lan laughed darkly at him and gave up on trying to find the source of Shen Wei’s leakage. He threaded his fingers through the fingers of his love and looked up to see how Xiao Guo and the Ghost were getting on.

“Wen Li thinks he might can put some power in the pen nibs and use them for engraving but he needs to find a different alloy… “

Zhao Yun Lan really, really wanted Shen Wei to get on with healing himself but he knew the stubborn man wouldn’t get serious about it until everyone was safely on this side of the cavern. “What is he talking about?”

“… The pens he is making are great and selling well, but I think the ink is just weird.” Usually Guo Chang Cheng would check off the things he talked about and add notes from Ye Zun, but he was not paying attention yet so Xiao Guo just kept moving on to new subjects.

Shen Wei smiled, “This is how Guo Chang Cheng helps Didi manage Dixing.” Guo Chang Cheng had an official title of Minister, but most people assumed he was the King’s pet Human and possibly a secretary. Xiao Guo trailed behind as His Majesty kept telling him to write things down, or was seen reading out notes in his book.

“Xiao Guo has an inquisitive mind and a propensity to focus on and point out the most important things without regard to politics.” This was good, the conversation was giving him something to focus on and strangely having to determine when to inhale and when to speak was making it easier to breathe. “And you taught him to be a good investigator. He can go out and research things. People find him approachable and like to talk to him.”

“They don’t try to take advantage?” Zhao Yun Lan was surprised. Xiao Guo had “easy mark” written all over him.

Shen Wei almost laughed, but given the state of his lung that would have been inadvisable. What most people didn’t understand was that Guo Chang Cheng did not mind being taken advantage of as long as some good came of it. “He has a couple of aides who guide and shadow him. They take care of the worst offenders. I suspect after this Didi will increase their number.”

Ye Zun blinked, noticing someone in front of him and promptly lost track of the numbers inside his Luo Shu.

“There you are,” Guo Chang Cheng was so pleased. “Hey, good job. Chu-ge and Shen Wei are safe, so now you need to come out too. Okay?”

Ye Zun was confused. And mildly irritated he had lost his place in his calculations. But he remembered it was important not to think too much. He need to stay null. It was too dangerous otherwise. Very, very bad things happened when he didn’t stay null.

“Not all the way back yet, huh?” Xiao Chu nodded. “Okay, maybe you should just follow me out.” Guo Chang Cheng took a step backward.

Ye Zun did not quite panic at the prospect of being left behind. It was still very important to stay null. He lurched forward a step.

“That’s great,” Guo Chang Cheng encouraged as step by step they moved back across the line in the ground Shen Ye Zun had drawn to mark the safe zone.

Finally, with everyone on the correct side of the cavern, a sigh of relief passed through the congregation of Dixing, Human and Yashou. Shen Ye Zun was still not quite tracking - and knowing that he usually required a poke to finish waking up - Guo Chang Cheng looked down at Shen Wei to provide it.

Shen Wei curled the hand not holding Zhao Yun Lan’s in a shaking but elegant attempt to call up a ball of dark energy. He succeeded in producing a few sparks and found out that he had been quite mistaken in his belief that it was not possible to feel any worse than he had before.

Zhao Yun Lan caught the descending hand before it could fall to the ground. He had never seen Shen Wei fail to call up his power. And he could see Shen Wei was suffering. Tears were leaking from his eyes and his labored breathing was starting to stutter.

“One. of. you. wake. Chu,” Shen Wei commanded, clenching his eyes shut and desperately clinging to the hands that held his. He suspected he was done with speaking. In addition to new and respiration stealing levels of pain his shoulder was, with maddening consistency, still itching. And also, something was very wrong with him.  

Above him there was an eyebrow war taking place for possible sacrificial victim to an unexpectedly awoken Chu Shu Zhi. Lin Jing lost, mostly because Zhu Hong was supporting Zhao Yun Lan who was supporting Shen Wei. Lin Jing mumbled a quick prayer for the protection of technological geniuses and crouched down to shake the puppet master by the shoulder, fully prepared to jump to safety if he came up swinging. 

Chu Shu Zhi came awake with a start but no flying fists. He quickly looked over the area to assess the situation, immediately dismissing all the witnesses standing around as non-threatening and recognizing the Envoy to be in safe hands. Xiao Guo gave him a merry wave and tilted his head towards Ye Zun. Chu Shu Zhi recognized the problem and huffed as he tapped into his power, weak but there, to create a string ball. He sent it soaring towards Ye Zun. Sometimes just the approach of it was enough. But not this time, it impacted right in the middle of his forehead.

Shen Ye Zun slapped a hand to his head and rubbed the spot in annoyance. He hated the mild stinging of those things with a passion, which of course was what made them such an effective defensive training tool. How had he managed to let one through? He looked up to find Xiao Guo frowning at him and recent memory returned with a vengeance. Oops.

“I miscalculated,” he admitted as he finished rubbing the sting away. Regretfully he knew he would wear the badge of an irritated red mark for a day at least. Thankfully Guo Chang Cheng seemed to accept his explanation as reasonable. He had only ever seen Cheng-ge truly angry once. It was not an experience he wished to repeat.

“All right everybody is here and safe,” Zhao Yun Lan reported to Shen Wei with trademark terrible humor, “you have a captive audience. Time to quit lying about and get busy healing, Professor.”

Unfortunate that Zhao Yun Lan had apparently been fooled by the sudden relaxation in Shen Wei’s body, thinking that whatever spasm he had been having was past. Wrong, Shen Wei was thinking, something is very wrong. Still he managed to open his eyes and smile bittersweetly at his beloved.

Zhao Yun Lan could read the regret in Shen Wei’s eyes as he looked down into that tender regard. Shen Wei didn’t want to go, but he didn’t think he could stay.

“Shen Wei, no,” Zhao Yun Lan whispered in agony, hands giving up their grip on lax fingers to clench demandingly in the black robes - sliding through the blood soaked there - as though he could physically hold Shen Wei’s life in place. Somehow anchor it in the here and now, batten his soul onto that of Zhao Yun Lan. The sense he had had for years, the internal compass that fixed on Shen Wei as true north and that he had sorrowfully not noticed until it was gone, tried to latch on to him but there was no matching energy. He was grabbing for a connection that was no longer there.

“I don’t understand, why can’t he heal himself?” Zhao Yun Lan looked urgently to Shen Wei’s pale likeness for an explanation.

“Sorry,” Shen Wei apologized with an almost unintelligible puff of air, “I’m sorry.”

“Stop that nonsense right now,” Ye Zun ordered, dropping to his knee next to his brother. “Hard to believe this hasn’t come up before, given your tendency throw yourself into injury,” he looked up to address Zhao Yun Lan, “but if you want to kill a Dixingren you have to do it by draining their power. Or by wounding them enough that they burn through their power trying to fix themselves.”

Dixingren, in general, bled less than Humans or Yashou but it was pretty instinctual to try to heal the wound. However, it would not be the blood loss that killed you, it was the power drain trying to stop the blood loss that finished you off. Experienced or trained Dixingren knew that in order to slow the drain you had to quit repairs. Heal yourself later in a controlled, non-panicked setting. The rule was fix until functional and then you slowly regenerated back to baseline health. The inexperienced and untrained got caught in a cycle of repair/drain/repair. That’s why dark bullets were so effective against Dixingren, unless you purged the destructive energy of the bullet – which was not at all easy to do - it just kept on wounding you and you eventually ran out of energy trying to heal yourself.

“He said these were old injuries,” Xiao Guo volunteered.

“Old wounds reappearing is the definition of not good,” Shen Ye Zun expounded, “It means he is so far below the threshold of self-repair, repairs already made are reopening.  He’s caught in a cycle of trying to fix himself, not having enough energy to do so, and then depleting his energy in the attempt.” Under normal circumstances Shen Wei was far too experienced make that mistake, but this had been far from a normal day.  “So, I’ll just give him a boost.”

With unusual care, Shen Ye Zun called up his power. Too fast an application of energy this far into the cycle and Shen Wei could literally disintegrate. Dark power floated towards Shen Wei, but instead of flowing into his head as directed, it seemed to spread out over his body. Wisps of it rose up and dissipated, looking a lot like evaporating black smoke. Ye Zun froze. “Gege?”

Shen Wei nodded, closed his eyes in order to better concentrate, and tried to find a channel to open.

Ye Zun, settled his shoulders and tried again. Small things, tiny uses of power were hard for him, but he knew he had gotten this one right. He had spent a great deal of time teaching Wang Yike the technique so that she could help her Jie. He could do this one in his sleep. The power evaporated again. Frustrated, Ye Zun attempted to go at it from the other direction. He took up one of his brother's hands. “Try, Gege,” he encouraged, staring down into the now barely open and so very weary eyes.

The effort cost Shen Wei a whole body shiver, but no energy was absorbed. Concerned Shen Wei was sabotaging himself, Ye Zun requested another effort. “You won’t hurt me. I’ve got power to burn, you know I do. Take what you need.” Shen Wei made the endeavor again, his body undergoing a sustained shudder as he tried, tried to do as his Didi asked.

“Alright, stop now,” Ye Zun instructed, “Don’t hurt yourself anymore.”

Subtle but there, Chu Shu Zhi read the fear on Shen Ye Zun’s face. He responded by seeing if he could help. He settled a hand on Shen Wei, better at reading people by touch than by an energy scan. He didn’t have that much to spare in any case. What he felt had his gaze snapping up to Shen Ye Zun’s face in appalled horror.

Zhao Yun Lan saw Chu Shu Zhi’s reaction and he felt his heart literally stop for the period of several beats. And now that he was paying attention to the puppet master, he noticed something else that was alarming.

Chu Shu Zhi looked like someone who had been through an ordeal. His color was bad, his eyes were sunken and overall he looked exhausted. Shen Wei … Shen Wei looked like an idealized suffering historical drama actor. Artfully bloodied and porcelain skinned, Shen Wei was beginning to look like an airbrushed picture of himself and Zhao Yun Lan was absolutely terrified.

Shen Ye Zun provided an immediate distraction by getting right up into Chu Shu Zhi’s face. Teeth bared, he seemed to be daring the puppet master to say a word that would break the soap bubble of Shen Wei’s existence. Chu Shu Zhi remained unfazed by the apparent threat, but upon reading something hidden in Shen Ye Zun’s demeanor gave him a supporting nod before settling back and allowing his own countenance to return to its’ normal setting of Chu-stoic.

Shen Wei had been correct, it was unlikely that Zhao Yun Lan would be able to fix this. But it was equally likely that Shen Ye Zun could, if given enough time to do so. That made it Zhao Yun Lan’s job to convince Shen Wei to live long enough for his brother to figure out a solution.

Zhao Yun Lan shifted his hold, curling downwards and aligning his face with Shen Wei’s. One hand held Shen Wei’s unmoving one with a  demanding grip, the other - fingers stained with Shen Wei’s own blood - caressed a cheek.  “You are not going anywhere,” Zhao Yun Lan insisted.  His searching gaze locked with Shen Wei’s beleaguered one. “Stay,” Zhao Yun Lan ordered.

Bleeding, hurting, body thrumming with some strange vibration that reminded Zhao Yun Lan of nothing so much as the way his fingers felt when he had played his violin too long - Shen Wei met his demand with a not quite focused stare and a bloody grin that promised game on. Zhao Yun Lan returned the expression gleefully.

Shen Ye Zun watched the interaction gratefully, Zhao Yun Lan had bought them a reprieve so now he need to get to work. He snarled at himself to think because he was not going to lose. Why wasn’t Gege’s body accepting dark energy? Shen Ye Zun stared at the two of them, totally preoccupied by one another … oh, he was an idiot. Because it wasn’t dark energy his body needed. So, scientist, let’s test that theory.

“Xiao Guo.” Ye Zun was just now noticing the man kneeling beside him was holding his hand.  “Can I try using a bit of your energy?”

Guo Chang Cheng was, as always, wide-eyed and eager to help. “Of course,” he agreed, nodding frantically, “Any of it. All of it.” Chu Shu Zhi responded to that last statement with a bit of a growl.

“Don’t be absurd,” Ye Zun chided gently, trading an exasperated look with Chu Shu Zhi agreeing upon the need to protect self-sacrificing idiots. “we don’t want to immolate him. I just need just a touch.”

Shen Ye Zun smoothly detached himself from Guo Chang Cheng and focused. He attracted the white energy of Xiao Gou towards his hand with a small twitch of his fingers, pulling just the smallest amount free and, so that he didn’t get burned by it, immediately deflected it into Shen Wei. As before the energy seemed to spread out over his frame, but this time the energy outlined his figure briefly before Shen Wei’s body sucked it in. Whereupon he rolled to his side and began dry-heaving.

Shen Ye Zun grit his teeth in thwarted annoyance and held out a hand to scan his brother while the prone man was occupied spitting out a mouthful of blood. Well, at least he had gone from actively dying to not dead yet.

“Why are you so determined to work against me, brother,” Ye Zun complained.

Shen Wei responded with a breathless laugh, as ever unsure if he should be appreciative or dismayed that Didi seemed to have modeled his latent sense of humor on Zhao Yun Lan’s. He was so, so tired. He stayed on his side, clutching at Zhao Yun Lan with what little strength remained in his fingers. He relished the relief brought by the ending of that vexatious itch and, though his breathing was a strained pant, he thought maybe his lung was intact again. Perhaps they would leave him alone here in Zhao Yun Lan’s lap. It was not as though Shen Wei was looking forward to dying except as it meant an end to the agony, but if the choice was between ending the hurting and enjoying the comfort he found here in Zhao Yun Lan’s arms, he would endure the pain.

“Ghost?” Zhao Yun Lan was cradling Shen Wei with determination and resolve.

Shen Ye Zun sighed mightily. “So what his body is craving, apparently, is white energy. Which of course Guo Chang Cheng has in abundance. However, Gege seems to be manifestly allergic to him.”

Zhao Yun Lan contemplated that for a moment, “Can’t you use me?

“I am fairly positive it is you he is addicted to, however between your unusual,” Shen Ye Zun waved a vertically sweeping hand indicating the chief’s body, “construction and his unstable condition there are too many variables for me to be certain it would work.”

“We have to try!”

Shen Ye Zun nodded in agreement, “I think we should try using a Hallow.”

“What?!”

“I never would have thought that would be the safer option, but here we are.”

“Okay, which one?” Zhao Yun Lan was thinking out loud, “Technically I am the Guardian Lamp but the actual Hallow is upstairs. The Merit Brush might stabilize him, but likely won’t fix him. The Awl is a hard no, the last thing he needs is more holes in him. So that leaves … Oh shit, where is it?” His directional reckoning, a little wonky because he had been blind when they started the journey here, placed it on the complete opposite side of Dixing.

Overall the King of Dixing was quite happy that the Guardian Lantern now resided above, thus reducing the chances of a catastrophic conjoining. With the Hallows separated between realms, up until now his main concern regarding them was finding a way to make sure knowledge of what they were and how they could be used was not lost over the next - hopefully - 10,000 year interval before they were required to be brought together again. Together they were a powerful force for good or ill, but even separated their individual capabilities could tempt misuse. The Longevity Dial was the farthest one out because it was the one most people would want to find and exploit, not understanding the dangers and tradeoffs involved. Unfortunately, he was somewhat positive Gege didn’t have a great deal of time before he destabilized again. So they needed the Longevity Dial here, and they needed it posthaste.

One of Ye Zun’s adopted abilities was moving quickly, but he could not sustain it across the breadth of Dixing. Well, not across that distance and back. He started a mental review of the Dijun booklet. Spend a few thousand years mostly formless and trapped in a pillar and you developed a functional eidetic memory. Shen Wei viewed this recall ability like he had a grain of sand in his eye. Shen Ye Zun had no sympathy for his attitude, after all Gege could learn to do it if he wanted to. So who in Dixing these days was blessed by speed and from that list who was activated by something useful and where were they at the moment.

Gege had the best luck.

Shen Ye Zun turned to the earnest lieutenant who was still holding his brother’s guandao. “Zhu Jiu.”

Zhu Jiu’s already alert form quivered to straighter attention.

“Zhu Jiu, may I adopt your ability?”

“Step right up,” Lin Jing encouraged, escorting the man over and relieving him of Gonggong.

“How may I serve, Your Majesty,” Zhu Jiu bowed and swallowed nervously.  

“Relax, just as with Guo Chang Cheng, I only need to absorb a little. It shouldn’t even hurt.” Shen Ye Zun tried to appear harmless and unthreatening, it wasn’t his best look.

The poor man standing in front of him probably had every story and rumor he had ever heard about the King’s power running through his head. He looked about the right age, he had probably had the misfortune to witness some of it. Gege’s need was critical but he could spare the moment necessary to assuage the lieutenant’s fears. Hei Pao would have insisted upon it, if he were able.

Zhu Jiu swallowed again and decided on giving his assistance, “What do I need to do?”

Shen Ye Zun smiled approvingly, the palace guard was not there simply for appearance’s sake. “Give me your hand.” He could easily pull the ability out of him, but that tended to startle people unpleasantly. And Gege thought it was just rude. Zhu Jiu offered up a hand hesitantly, and Shen Ye Zun was rather relieved that he seemed to be more hesitant at touching the King’s person then afraid the King was going to devour him.

A moment, a surprised blink from the lieutenant, and it was done. Shen Ye Zun released him with a small bow and a “Thank you.” Zhu Jiu returned to his place in the audience, receiving shoulder bumps and trading wide eyed looks with his compatriots before shrugging his shoulders and taking his place in formation. Shen Ye Zun expected the young man would not have to buy his own drinks for the foreseeable future.

“Guo Chang Cheng I need a light for this to work.”

“I think I’ve got a flash light,” was the excited response.

Before he could search in his bag, Shen Yen Zun unceremoniously swept the surprised Guo Chang Cheng up in his arms. He squeaked a bit, but didn’t protest and wrapped his arms around Ye Zun’s shoulders. “Xiao Guo, you are the brightest light in Dixing.”

Everyone except Chu Shu Zhi, who had seen it all before, was stunned silent at the manhandling of Guo Chang Cheng.

“Be right back,” and the King of Dixing winked at the onlookers.

Zhao Yun Lan blinked rapidly and found his voice after a moment, “How long …?”

Shen Ye Zun set Guo Chang Cheng back upon his feet, holding on to an arm as the man pivoted away trying not to throw up. In particular, he did not want to throw up on Ye Zun. Xiao Guo had managed his tendency for motion sickness pretty well on the trip out, but the trip back seemed to be his undoing.

“Sorry,” Ye Zun apologized, “May I?” Guo Chang Cheng nodded and Shen Ye Zun settled his stomach for him with a waft of dark power.

“Thanks,” Xiao Guo smiled and handed the Longevity Dial to Zhao Yun Lan.

Zhao Yun Lan nodded his own thanks, rocked Shen Wei onto his back and wrapped a limp hand around the Dial before finally covering it with his own.

“Hey, Shen Wei,” Zhao Yun Lan called softly to catch his attention. He was relieved to see focus return to Shen Wei’s gaze as it fixed on the Dial.

Shen Wei moved his head slightly in a negative gesture which totally confused Zhao Yun Lan until the thread of his voice gave his reasoning, “Don’t want to injure you.”

“Yes I know,” ever and always that was Shen Wei’s first concern, but Zhao Yun Lan needed him to get past that, “Now get with the program and share with me,” because – and he was blaming the Longevity Dial for this - he could see with something not his eyes that Shen Wei was literally dissolving.

Shen Wei looked up at him, still not convinced. And okay, maybe that was a little bit his fault considering the disagreement they had had the last time they did this.

So Zhao Yun Lan gave him his best and most powerful argument, “This right here, you disappearing before my eyes, is worse than anything.” Zhao Yun Lan was not above begging, “Please, Shen Wei.”

Shen Wei completely quieted, his gaze fixed and his breathing stopped and even the strange trembling vibration halted. For a horrible moment that lasted approximately one thousand years Zhao Yun Lan thought he had died. But no, he was just unnaturally still in the normal way he got when his brain was processing so much input it forgot to let him breathe.

Zhao Yun Lan’s words had touched a truth deep within Shen Wei. A lesson he had learned over 10,000 years ago and not one he should have forced Yun Lan to remind him of. He had watched Kun Lun disappear before his eyes and Zhao Yun Lan was correct, there was nothing worse. They were better together - through any horror, fear, pain, tedium, peace, excitement, pleasure, joy – life was better together.

The Longevity Dial flared to life between them and the connection Shen Wei had first made to save Zhao Yun Lan’s sight and then severed to save his life enveloped them. And then morphed into something new. Shen Wei’s last thought before he lost consciousness was that he hoped the peace and contentment he was feeling was something Zhao Yun Lan was getting to savor as well.

Zhao Yun Lan was indeed enjoying a sense of peace and contentment and completion. He could feel, and was unconcerned by, Shen Wei’s passage into unconsciousness as his body began righting itself. Zhao Yun Lan was curiously exploring his new sight, a gift he was sure was from Shen Wei, which allowed him to “see” the energy channels Shen Wei had meticulously closed off to stave off the power drain that had threatened Chu Shu Zhi. The ends looked dusty and crusty. So working on instinct, Zhao Yun Lan blew gently on one to see what would happen. The tendril appeared much happier and started pulling in the dark energy that saturated Dixing. Zhao Yun Lan drew a deeper breath to blow them all open, so ecstatic to see Shen Wei soaking up the power that he failed to notice the wind that whipped through the chamber. Enormously pleased with himself as he experienced Shen Wei’s smooth transition from unconsciousness to deep sleep, Zhao Yun Lan looked up to see how everyone else was doing.

Everybody else seemed to have taken a step backward. And they were looking a bit disheveled.

“What?”

Shen Ye Zun was the first to adapt to the new normal. “Xiao Guo.”

Guo Chang Cheng started a bit and moved forward to take the Longevity Dial into his possession. His had always been the safest hands with which to handle the Hallows.

“Seriously what?" Zhao Yun Lan demanded impatiently, "I think I’ve had about enough drama for the day.”

Shen Ye Zun nodded in agreement. “Do you want a stretcher to get him back to the palace?”

“The palace?” Zhao Yun Lan wanted to take him home. Tuck him into bed. No, bath first. Shen Wei was a little OCD about unnecessarily dirty sheets.

“He’s going to need to stay underground for a bit.” Shen Ye Zun held up a palm in the face of Zhao Yun Lan’s objection. “It will mean he recovers quicker.”

Okay, that made sense. He could suck up all the dark energy he needed down here. DCU would just have to deal without their favorite professor for a while.

One of the more useful side effects of being Guardian of the Lamp, was that Zhao Yun Lan was just as strong as he needed to be. So, declining the offer of a stretcher, he rose and - mindful of the hair - picked up Shen Wei in his arms. Then he stood there waiting for crowd to get moving.

Lin Jing looked at him beseechingly, “Boss, please tell me I can take a picture.”

“Go for it,” Zhao Yun Lan agreed almost immediately. It would serve Shen Wei right for scaring him like this. He would have to deal with his offended dignity either by convincing Shen Ye Zun to find a way to get rid of the evidence, and he doubted the Ghost would be very cooperative, or buckle down and learn how to do it himself. Either way, a righteous lesson.

“Curses!” Lin Jing, Gonggong held in the crook of his arm, was poking at his phone dispiritedly. He was beyond disappointed to find that his trips near the meteorite fragments had eaten the power reserve in his phone battery. He resolved to figure out a shield along with the requested detector because he much preferred the better and longer lasting dark energy batteries.

Zhu Hong smiled serenely, “I’ve got this," she assured everyone as she whipped out the phone she had lifted from Zhao Yun Lan earlier.

Zhao Yun Lan hefted Shen Wei a bit higher in his arms and smiled beatifically for the camera.

Chapter Text

The first thing Shen Ye Zun, King of Dixing, did after:

  • sending Shen Wei and Zhao Yun Lan off to rest and recover
  • getting Lin Jing started on his research and calling for one of the Human’s favorite Dixingren technicians to help
  • formally greeting Her Excellency Zhu Hong, Leader of the Yashou Alliance, and directing her to accommodations complete with a bevy of servants in order to be properly pampered
  • promising his friend Zhu Hong that everything would be okay and he would visit with her later
  • giving Guard Commander Meng Qian Xue (belatedly in attendance after being recalled from holiday) instructions regarding how all their guests should be treated, what to do with the criminal now in custody, and how they should secure the still dangerous site

was to retreat to the royal chambers, throw everyone out, sit down against the back wall and try to have a nice, quiet panic attack in peace. He was unsuccessful.

Xiao Guo was a natural born busybody and Zhi-ge had picked up the habit from Guo Chang Cheng. So here he was sandwiched firmly between the two of them, having his hands held and his back intermittently rubbed as they talked him through an exercise to help him get his breathing back under control.

It was not easy being the King.

Frustrated, he began knocking his head against the wall. He managed it twice, before Chu Shu Zhi inserted his hand, cradling Shen Ye Zun’s skull even as he harshly admonished, “Just because you are King, does not mean you are allowed to break the rules.”

Shen Ye Zun frowned, but stopped. Self-punishment was forbidden. Normally it was Shen Ye Zun doling it out to Chu Shu Zhi, but the puppet master had been known to reciprocate.

Witnessing the interaction, Guo Chang Cheng reflected that his partners’ relationship could best be described as “complicated”. He didn’t really understand it as he had zero inclination that way himself, but as long as they followed the rules he just shrugged his shoulders and let them have at it. He was insistent that he not be left out of the aftercare, however. Chu Shu Zhi usually found his catharsis during, Shen Ye Zun tended to break down after and then Guo Chang Cheng was allowed to take care of them and spoil them both rotten. That was everyone’s favorite part anyway.

Thinking he had the main problem that was worrying Zun-ge identified, Guo Chang Cheng tried offering reassurance, “I am sure Shen Wei is going to be all right now.”

Shen Ye Zun made a sound that was supposed to be a laugh, but couldn’t quite make it past his efforts to get his breathing back under control. He widened his eyes at Chu Shu Zhi and tilted his head back towards Guo Chang Cheng.

Chu Shu Zhi patted Shen Ye Zun on the shoulder before going back to holding one of Ye Zun’s hands in both of his. He inhaled deeply and dropped the bombshell news.

“We are pretty sure he died.”

Guo Chang Cheng blinked at them speechlessly. “I think I would have noticed …?”

Shen Ye Zun made that sound again.

“Xiao Guo, you haven’t even noticed you are probably immortal yet,” Guo Chang Cheng accused with mild irritation.

“I have too.” By the Haixing calendar Guo Chang Cheng was 56 this year and he looked exactly the same as the day he started working at the SID. He had noticed. His Aunt and Uncle had noticed, which was why he had stopped video calling them and only sent them letters anymore. “I just kind of assumed we all were.”

Exposure to the Hallows could have unpredictable effects. Shen Ye Zun had gotten stuck in the pillar for 10,000 years. Shen Wei had sort of napped his way through that, waking periodically in concert with the ebb of the Hallows’ power and his brother’s need. Da Qing had lived through 10,000 years, even if he didn’t really remember a lot of it. Zhao Yun Lan was now part of the Guardian Lantern and Lin Jing, Zhu Hong, and Guo Chang Cheng seemed to have stopped aging. He assumed Chu Shu Zhi had stopped as well though it was harder to tell with Dixingren because they already had a much longer lifespan. And if he hadn’t, Guo Chang Cheng knew where the Longevity Dial was kept.

Chu Shu Zhi shrugged at him. “After you got Ye Zun out, I touched Shen Wei,” he frowned at the memory. “There was nothing there, it was a shell.”

“But …,” Guo Chang Cheng waved a hand in the vague direction of Shen Wei and Zhao Yun Lan’s palace apartment. Where, when he had inquired, Zhao Yun Lan had informed him that Shen Wei would probably sleep and soak up dark energy for a week but overall he was fine, thank you very much.

Shen Ye Zun nodded at the unspoken refutation. “Gege is just that stubborn.” He drew in a deep breath which seemed to finally settle the worst of his anxiety. “It helped that Zhao Yun Lan was there, refusing to let him go.”

Guo Chang Cheng thought Ye Zun had probably helped as well, but he was unlikely to think that. Zun-ge had a huge blind spot about himself. “And he promised,” Xiao Guo said instead.

“Promised what?” Shen Ye Zun asked, “To who?”

“He promised Chu-ge to be there when he woke up.”

“That would help as well,” Ye Zun agreed. “Gege does like to keep his promises.” He theorized some of that was due to guilt over his “abandonment” of his Didi. Shen Wei’s resolve to keep his promises had caused some friction between Zhao Yun Lan and himself when he could not in good conscience join the SID due to conflicting allegiances. Consult with them yes, but he could promise them neither obedience nor loyalty.

“So, if we are all accidentally immortal because of the Hallows,” as so often happened, Xiao Guo’s curiosity was drawn to the most important issue, “what do you get when you use a Hallow to connect a piece of another Hallow with the stubborn vestige of someone already affected by the Hallows?”

“I am not entirely certain. However, given Zhao Yun Lan’s newfound ability to create weather underground, perhaps …,” Ye Zun shrugged eloquently, “accidental gods?”

Xiao Guo contracted his hands comfortingly around the one between his. No wonder Zun-ge had had a panic attack.

“What else is worrying you?” because something was. Ye Zun had that distracted, eye wandering expression he always got when he was having difficulty coming to terms with something.

“I am fairly certain I am going to have to execute Ding Dun.”

Well, shit. Killing someone, either accidentally or on purpose, was pretty much Shen Ye Zun’s greatest fear. There was a reason he tried not to use his abilities very much. He was terrified of them. Guo Chang Cheng had tended to him and held him as he wept after he had gotten brutally mugged, so relieved he hadn’t sucked the life out of two thieves who didn’t know who they were dealing with that he couldn’t hold back the tears. Xiao Guo had made him get his cane electrified after that. And convinced Chu Shu Zhi to teach him to non-lethally defend himself.

“Are you sure?” Guo Chang Cheng asked very quietly.

Chu Shu Zhi snorted. “Ding Dun committed murder, attempted murder, and if you hadn’t saved his stupid ass” – Chu-ge nudged Ye Zun – “it would have been regicide. I’m sure.”

“I’m not going to have a choice,” Shen Ye Zun had just about resigned himself to it. “People already think I am a monster. If I don’t come down hard after an attempt on the life of the Justicar and an inadvertent attempt on Hei Pao, they are going to wonder if I can be deposed.”

Shen Ye Zun would go along with that idea in another few centuries or so. Unfortunately the way the political factions were aligned at the moment meant the next King would most likely halt travel between the realms, might even stop all communications. Dixing would become insular again and with no outlet for growth, creativity, or change it would stagnate and become a breeding ground for those coveting what was known and inaccessible above. The whole stupid, vicious cycle would start again. He had to punish Ding Dun to hopefully prevent anyone else from making an attempt to destabilize the government.

“You are not a monster,” Guo Chang Cheng insisted. “Say it.”

Shen Ye Zun set his jaw. “I don’t want to be a monster.”

Chu Shu Zhi nudged him again. “Close, but incorrect. Say it.”

Shen Ye Zun stared at the ceiling briefly. “I am not a monster.” He really wished he could believe it. “But I am King. And the King sometimes has to do unpleasant things.”

Guo Chang Cheng didn’t want to suggest it, he didn’t like the idea of anyone killing anyone, but it was technically part of his responsibilities, so “Hei Pao …?”

Shen Ye Zun shook his head. “I would be surprised if Hei Pao can stand up on his own at the moment. And this needs to come from the top down. I’m going to have to do it because they need to remember how I got this job.”

Chu Shu Zhi leaned his head against the wall, “It should probably be public. Maybe even broadcast.” He turned his head a bit to regard Ye Zun, “That means it will get out, the news will get above.”

Shen Ye Zun dipped his head once, “That might not be a bad thing. We have opened the door but we don’t want a massive wave of tourists down here. We want the scientists and researchers and those who need to come below the way some down here need to go above.”

Ye Zun was hoping the gateway would prove to be a safety valve for both societies. If that wish came true, he suspected Gege was right and the Midlands could someday be used to physically connect the realms. Just as in the past, it might provide a shared space for the three races to live and work together. He took another deep breath, he was ready to do what was necessary, “Okay, we have a plan. Let’s get to work.”

His companions did not move. Shen Ye Zun was pushing himself too hard. Sometimes as King he had to do that. Sometimes it was duty. Sometimes it was habit. Sometimes it was an effort at distraction from memories that were riding him too hard. Sometimes it was atonement. Always it was up to Chu Shu Zhi and Guo Chang Cheng to make sure he didn’t burn himself out being King. Sometimes he needed to be told to stop, and just be their friend Ye Zun.

“Tomorrow,” Chu Shu Zhi insisted.

“It can all wait until tomorrow,” Guo Chang Cheng agreed.

*****

It was very odd for Shen Wei to so passively remain in bed. However, it did provide Zhao Yun Lan with the opportunity to delight in being on the receiving end of sleepy snuggles from the love of his life. A week after his encounter with what the Chief of the SID fervently hoped were the last remnants of that ancient meteorite, Shen Wei’s energy reserves were still low. Under normal circumstances the two of them in bed meant a round of energetic coupling and then Shen Wei would pet and cosset his lover until Yun Lan fell sleep. Going on the theory that people usually give what they would like to get, Zhao Yun Lan used the excuse of Shen Wei’s recovery to be the primary giver of cuddles. And maybe he was satisfying his desire to play with the hair. As impractical as it was, he really had a kink for long-haired Shen Wei.

“I’ve missed this,” Shen Wei commented drowsily as Zhao Yun Lan finished tying off the braid. The last person to do his braids for him had been Kun Lun.

“Still kinda mad at you,” Zhao Yun Lan said, continuing to stroke the dark tresses. They should probably have this conversation now that they were far enough from the main event their tempers would not burn so hot.

Shen Wei shifted slightly to more comfortably rest against his Yun Lan pillow, “Can you tell me truly you would have done any differently than I did?”

Zhao Yun Lan snorted. “No.”

Shen Wei propped his chin on Zhao Yun Lan’s chest so he could raise his eyebrows at him. “Which of course is why I get so upset with you, when you recklessly disregard your health and safety for an uncertain goal.”

“Whereas you,” Zhao Yun Lan waggled his head back and forth, “just risk your health and safety for a certain goal.”

“Exactly,” Shen Wei smiled.

“That is an infuriating argument,” Zhao Yun Lan smiled back.

“If you are still all that upset,” Shen Wei’s smile turned into a playfully evil expression, “you could punish me for it later.”

Zhao Yun Lan’s brain went offline for a minute as it contemplated the possibilities. “That is a totally underhanded way to win an argument,” he complained good-naturedly, and a little bit ambitious on Shen Wei’s part. Considering Shen Wei had spent the majority of the week in bed, quietly soaking up energy, bedroom games were wishful thinking at the moment.

Shen Wei laughed and rolled off his pillow and onto his back, the better to reach and hold onto Zhao Yun Lan’s hand. “But completely fair when you do it.”

“Yes, definitely,” Zhao Yun Lan kissed the hand that held his captive. “This is a one way street Professor.”

“Hmm, not anymore,” Shen Wei’s tone was reflective, watching as Yun Lan tried to decide if he wanted to keep kissing fingers or move on to other body parts.

Zhao Yun Lan glanced at him in confusion. He seemed to have totally lost the thread of the argument.

“Haven’t you noticed?”

Shen Wei was about to go all professorial on him. With the long hair no less.

Shen Wei moved their joined hands to poke him gently with a finger in order to focus his attention. “Look inside.”

Okay, that was a fairly simple exercise. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the connection between them. He hadn’t really done any admiring of it lately as he had been busy admiring the living, breathing Shen Wei. But now that he was paying attention he could see that it had changed. What had once been a cord binding them together was now a taijitu.

They didn’t need a cord. They were white and dark energy curling around each other, each nurturing and protecting the core of the other. Yin and yang, separate but forever together in orbit around one another.

“This is great,” Zhao Yun Lan pronounced smugly, “You can’t ditch me next time.”

Shen Wei huffed at him, “I didn’t this time.”

“One phone call Shen Wei. That’s all it would have taken,” Zhao Yun Lan disagreed with a mild glare, “I was literally upstairs from the Door. You could have called and I would have met you there.” He was becoming impatient with Shen Wei’s failure to acknowledge his argument. And a little hurt.

“Yun Lan.” Shen Wei sighed and capitulated gracefully. “You are correct.”

Zhao Yun Lan did a small double take. He knew he was right, he just didn’t think Shen Wei was going to admit it.

“I’m sorry I did not think to call you for help.” Shen Wei’s thumb was rubbing across the back of Zhao Yun Lan’s hand. “My only excuse is that for a very long time I was the help.” He looked up into Zhao Yun Lan’s eyes. “There was no one with more ability. No one with more knowledge. No one with more authority.” Shen Wei’s gaze skittered away. “No one,” he said softly, like it was some sort of shameful admission.

Zhao Yun Lan forgot at times that this particular issue was fighting against 10,000 years of inertia.  Zhao Yun Lan had had Shen Wei at his back from practically the first moment he had met him. Both times. Before and after Shen Wei he had had a team of people to help him, along with family and friends and superiors to guide him.

Shen Wei had had himself. Too young he had lost his parents, his world, his brother. Too young a champion for the oppressed. Too young a general at war. Perhaps after so long alone, he was too old and set in his ways to behave any differently.

“Hey,” Zhao Yun Lan reached over with his free hand to lay his fingers against his partner’s cheek drawing Shen Wei’s gaze back to his own, “you have me now. And apparently we are inseparable. So you are going to have get used to having me tag along on your adventures.”

Shen Wei smiled the special smile that Zhao Yun Lan had only ever seen directed at himself. It was soft and bright and his eyes reflected warmth and love and happiness, the whole effect making him appear both impossibly young and eternally knowledgeable.

Shen Wei covered Yun Lan’s hand with his own, “I do.”

So naturally, having reaffirmed their vows to one another - they were interrupted by a knock upon the door.

“Aaraargh,” Zhao Yun Lan’s head dropped in aggravation.

Shen Wei had the audacity to laugh at him. “Answer it. If they think we aren’t here they may take the opportunity to barge in and clean up after us.”

“After me you mean,” Zhao Yun Lan shamelessly declared his guilt.

Servants waltzing in and out of their apartment was yet another reason Zhao Yun Lan wanted to go home. But they were stuck here until Shen Wei soaked up enough dark energy to fully recover. So Zhao Yun Lan metaphorically put on his big boy pants and abandoned the comfort of the bed and his bed warmer to answer the damn door.

Zhao Yun Lan was expecting one of the maids, or maybe one of the errand runners with a message or a snack depending on who happened to be thinking of them at the moment. Instead the open door revealed Yu Huian, who was effectively the director of palace affairs. A little bit surprised because he couldn’t recall a recent screw up of protocol bad enough to rate a visit from her, Zhao Yun Lan stepped back to let her enter.

She bowed precisely first to Zhao Yun Lan and then to the reclining Shen Wei. She remained respectfully inclined forward as she addressed Shen Wei.  “With apologies, gracious Lords. The King is ill and not receiving visitors.”

Zhao Yun Lan observed Shen Wei’s polite attention become laser focused.

“Or allowing the servants to attend him,” her tone held muted distress. One of Yu Huian’s primary responsibilities was seeing to the comfort of the King. It was a duty she took seriously, and seriously enjoyed after so many centuries of a rapid succession of monarchs who completely lacked any interest in or appreciation for things other than administrative matters. “Perhaps his brother would be so kind as to pay a visit.” Her bow deepened in supplication.

“I would be honored to pay my respects to His Majesty.” Shen Wei responded formally. “If you would wait outside a moment, I will be with you shortly.” Shen Wei waved a hand dismissing her in practiced manner that never failed to catch Zhao Yun Lan by surprise. He was a regular guy and the conventions of Dixing sometimes struck him in a way that made him think he had hit his head and was dreaming of an alternate universe.

Yu Huian again deepened her bow even as her body posture relaxed. She smiled as she straightened and retreated to the passageway.

Zhao Yun Lan began silently cursing. Shen Wei was going to get up and exert himself when he should still be resting and enjoying his turn at being pampered. It wasn’t as if he did not understand why he was going to do it, Shen Ye Zun was his twin after all. However, he could admire and respect Shen Wei for doing his familial duty while at the same time resenting him for hurting himself. Which he knew would be Shen Wei’s exact reaction were the situation reversed. As frustrating as it was, sometimes you had to just stand by and wait to pick up the pieces.

Shen Wei levered himself upright slowly. As he scooted himself to the edge of bed Zhao Yun Lan took note of and bit his tongue against commenting when the movement caused a slight drain of color from his face. Too thin, hollow eyed, and far too easily exhausted - frankly, Shen Wei looked terrible. As resilient as he had been in his recovery he still looked fragile. Despite his poor appearance, Zhao Yun Lan preferred it to the weird perfection Shen Wei had attained under the influence of the meteorite fragments’ malignant drain.

Shen Wei paused a moment in his efforts to rise from the bed, took a fortifying breath and spoke, “Zhao Yun Lan. Help me.”

“Wow!” Zhao Yun Lan remarked softly. And then with delicate curiosity asked, “Did it hurt to say?”

“No,” Shen Wei huffed at him with a small smile. “But it is something I had to learn to do.” Shen Wei’s expression turned earnestly serious, “I am sorry it took so long.”

“Stubborn, stubborn man,” Zhao Yun Lan’s smile was broad, so proud of Shen Wei’s continual efforts – technology excepted - to learn and grow. “Let’s go help your brother.”

Zhao Yun Lan rummaged through the wardrobe to find Shen Wei’s scholar robes and some shoes. Helping him into the robes he couldn’t help but notice the similarity the deep blue color had to the Professor’s favorite suits. As Shen Wei stood, Zhao Yun Lan straightened the cloth across the shoulders so the folds fell correctly, twitching his fingers free after the calluses caught against the embroidery. Light being intermittent and strange in Dixing, texture instead of gilt or precious stones were the signs of wealth or status.

Zhao Yun Lan gave Shen Wei his arm to lean on, thinking how strange his companion looked dressed for public but with the long hair. Even in Dixing, maybe especially in Dixing, Shen Wei usually wore his glasses and his hair short as he was under the impression they made him seem more approachable. Zhao Yun Lan suspected that, by leaving his hair long and loose, Shen Wei was kink catering. He planned to enjoy the thoughtful gesture to its fullest and he would be sure to show his appreciation later. Which was probably the exact goal ever canny Shen Wei had in mind.

Except when there was an entertainment happening or Shen Ye Zun was in the process of plotting with or against the court, corridors this deep in the residential section of the palace were usually sparsely populated. Today, instead of minions running hither and yon doing the King’s business, it seemed like everyone was standing around, looking mildly anxious, and bowing with even more respect than usual to Shen Wei. They obviously expected him to fix something.

Shen Ye Zun was ill. How exactly did that happen? Outside of recent events, Zhao Yun Lan had never seen Shen Wei ill. Okay, he had managed to give himself alcohol poisoning that one time. He hoped they weren’t dealing with poison. They had just barely dealt with a murderer. You’d think the schemers would give it at least a week.

“Was your mother very upset about dinner?” Shen Wei asked, nodding at the next bowing figure in the seemingly unending line.

“Dinner?” Zhao Yun Lan, deep in his musings, was a bit blindsided by the non sequitur.

Shen Wei stopped suddenly, much to the consternation of the shepherding servants. “We were supposed to have dinner with your mother tomorrow night. You did call and make our apologies.” Shen Wei said it as a statement instead of a question. As if that would help make it true.

“Umm.” Yeah, Zhao Yun Lan had totally forgotten to phone his mom. He was in so much trouble. Shen Wei had reminded him and everything - disappointed and regretful and begging Yun Lan to make abject apologies on his behalf because he wasn’t yet recovered enough to return to the surface.

“Zhao Yun Lan.” Shen Wei’s disappointed look was a fearsome thing. “When was the last time you talked with your mother?”

“Last week?” A great deal of trouble. Because the cardinal rule, set in metaphorical stone by his late and not always lamented father, was that she was not allowed to call. It was a rule established before phones could be easily silenced and so ingrained she’d never been able to break it.

“So the only news she has heard about you in a week,” Shen Wei’s tone had attained that dry delivery that meant Zhao Yun Lan was in even more trouble than he had previously suspected, “is what has been reported in the news feeds and papers or what has been discussed and dissected on the news broadcasts.”

“Ah.” Zhao Yun Lan squeezed his eyes closed as he realized just how deep the hole he had dug for himself was. All he had to offer was the lamest excuse ever. “I’ve been a little busy …?” his intonation going up with his shoulders, his expression a combination of apology, cringing guilt, and hope that he would be forgiven. Soon.

Shen Wei knew it was in fact true that his partner’s time had been thoroughly occupied. When Zhao Yun Lan had not been doing his very best to look after Shen Wei, he had been popping up and down all week long dealing with the buildup and fall out of Ding Dun’s trial and execution.

In the end, they had collectively decided against broadcasting the events, but Cong Bo had been allowed access to the proceedings as a representative of the Haixing media. The news and information had quickly gone viral. While everybody had heard about the door opening, because the two realms had been communicating for thirty years with increasing consistency, it had been seen as a gradual expansion of business as usual. Reaction to restricted travel between Dixing and Haixing had been some mild interest and even milder concern. So mild that the topic had relatively quickly been supplanted in the news cycle. Murder, however, was always good copy.

With Da Qing still catting about and not at SID to help ride herd on all the new members, Zhao Yun Lan had had to bear the brunt of the media’s scrutiny. The damn cat griped at him for years to come back topside, and just as soon as he did had taken off in a snit. He wondered if curiosity at the news would win out over the other aspect of his cat nature, having gotten what he wanted he then had to pretend he didn’t want it, and get him to come home.

Yu Huian was all but quivering to get Shen Wei moving so - with an exasperated roll of the eyes towards Zhao Yun Lan - he obliged her. Upon reaching the royal chambers they found Chu Shu Zhi in a silent standoff against Guard Commander Meng.

The Guard Commander smiled upon seeing him, “Physician Shen.” Chu Shu Zhi huffed and moved to the side to allow Shen Wei to meet her face to face.

Shen Wei nodded at the least used of his titles, “He has forbidden friends and family, hasn’t he?”

She bowed respectfully.

“I’ll see to it.” He materialized his staff, a lovely piece of wood easily the length of his Gonggong that Ye Zun had sent him. Since Didi had chosen it, it naturally coordinated well with his scholar’s robes. He leaned on it instead of Zhao Yun Lan.

“Call your mother Yun Lan, she worries,” Shen Wei not quite ordered as he was allowed through the door, past the relieved expression of Meng Qian Xue and the grumpy acceptance of Chu Shu Zhi.

Entering the sleeping chamber, Shen Wei was immediately struck by the aroma from latest results of an upset stomach emanating from a bin by the bed. He banished the mess promptly and stirred the air to disperse the smell.

“Should you be doing that? Should you even be out of bed?” Shen Ye Zun complained, looking at him balefully from his own resting place. “You’ve lost weight.”

Shen Wei sent a thread of energy - which Shen Ye Zun absorbed thoughtlessly along with the information it contained - as he made his way slowly across the room.

“Hmmfpf,” Ye Zun commented. Gege still looked ill, but his energy was almost fine. He could push his body through to full recovery now, which is what he usually did, even though it was always better to take it slow. His jaw literally dropped when he figured it out. “You are indulging Zhao Yun Lan.”

“He’s had a hard week,” Shen Wei smirked. He propped his staff up against the wall next to the bed. “Budge over.” Ye Zun obligingly rolled away as Shen Wei climbed onto the surface, laying down against the bolster. Ye Zun then rolled back, sprawling over his brother and suffering his hair to be stroked. Allowing himself to be held and comforted in a way they had not often found the time and peace to enjoy.

“How long are planning this indulgence to last?” Ye Zun asked as he burrowed into his brother’s side.

“Intellectually he knows I am close to fine,” Shen Wei’s hand passed through the length of Ye Zun’s hair, gently detangling the snarls, “His heart needs a little more reassurance. He will eventually run out of things he thinks he needs to do for me, even broken up as it has been by his trips above.”

Ye Zun puffed out an amused breath, “He outed himself rather spectacularly.”

“Hmm,” Shen Wei continued his grooming efforts, “He never thought it was a good idea to pretend to be his own nephew. The administrative bureaucrats are somewhat annoyed their plans have been thwarted. However, they have had to bend to the public acceptance of him. The rumor mill seems to have helped pave the way there.”

“Been admiring yourself on the social media platforms?” Didi snickered.

Shen Wei suppressed a smile, letting him have his fun. The notoriety from the photo of Hei Pao being carried by the Lord of the Guardians was annoying, but he did not worry about his image the way everyone seemed to think he did. And he was always pleased to have another picture of Zhao Yun Lan to add to his collection.

“I’ll know he’s reached the end of his ideas when he offers to cook.” The twins shuddered in concert. Zhao Yun Lan had a great many accomplishments. Cooking was not one of them.

“I don’t know why I am sick,” Ye Zun offered quietly. Usually he knew. Usually it was his lungs causing the problem, or a reaction to the medicine meant to aid his lung function.

“Your brain is unhappy with you, so it has convinced your body that you have been poisoned,” Shen Wei clarified for him. “The body’s primary reaction to poison is to expel it, hence the sickness.”

Ye Zun expelled a deep breath from his cooperative lungs, “I wish there had been another way.”

“You could have let me do it.”

“You could barely stand up.” Ye Zun had been quite concerned Hei Pao was going to pass out before the end of the trial. Not, he suspected, as concerned as Zhao Yun Lan had been. Shen Wei had solved the problem by picking a dramatic moment to summon his yanyuedao, slammed it on the ground with a clang that reverberated through the chamber, and leaned on it until everything was concluded. “Dixing needed to witness the deterrent. If this demonstration can make it unnecessary to repeat the exercise, then it will have been worth it. But …”

Shen Wei felt the shudder that traversed Didi’s body. “But …”

Ye Zun’s voice was small and ashamed, “I enjoyed it.” And he was mightily afraid he might reawaken his addiction to it.

“Did you execute him because you wanted to?” Shen Wei’s voice held no censure, only a mild curiosity. Because he knew any other reaction would end this conversation immediately. And Didi needed to have this conversation.

“No,” Ye Zun answered positively. He had racked his genius brain trying to find a way around it.

“I have killed a great many people, Didi.”

Ye Zun glanced up at his brother in surprise. Gege was staring at the ceiling fiercely, even as he held his sibling in gentle arms.

“In battle. For the purposes of justice. In defense and attack. Sometimes accidentally. Or mistakenly.” Shen Wei swallowed down against his own nausea. “And I have hated myself for the blood I have spilled.”

Ye Zun repressed the urge to reach up and touch the tear trail on his brother’s face.

“I have never killed because I wanted to. But if I had known the rebel general I strategized against during the war was the man who had kept you from me,” Shen Wei looked down to hold his brother’s gaze, “I would have hunted him down and killed him with a great deal of satisfaction.”

Gege was crying. Gege should not cry for him.

“So I just wanted revenge?” Ye Zun wasn’t sure believing that would make having done the deed any easier to bear.

“Did you?”

Ye Zun explored the concept. “He hurt you.” Killed you, he thought, there had only been a whisper left. Less than that, Shen Wei had been an idea held in place by determination and love. “He hurt Chu Shu Zhi. He would have killed Cheng-ge.”

“Yes. I imagine your gratification in his death is not a particularly welcome feeling,” Shen Wei’s countenance held nothing but patience and acceptance, “but I think it not at all unusual you should feel this way. Do you need me to justify the execution?”

Ye Zun could not look at his brother’s unconditional love any more. He hid his guilty face against Gege’s chest and gave the tiniest of nods.

“His crimes were manifest,” Shen Wei began his lecture with a dispassionate tone, “the evidence clear, supported by testimony of accomplices and witnesses. He admitted his guilt during the trail. The Justicar and the Envoy agreed upon the sentence. It was witnessed and sanctioned by the Lord Guardian, representing the Humans, and Her Excellency Zhu Hong, representing the Yashou Alliance.” He took a breath and hugged his trembling Didi. “But this isn’t the exoneration you are looking for.

“What has you so terrified that you are making yourself ill is the thought you might start indiscriminately absorbing those around you.”

Ye Zun bent his head further into Shen Wei’s robes. It was his turn to cry.

The Nightmare Master had given him an all too believable vision of what he could have become after 10,000 years isolated in the Pillar - an insane raging monster. Ye Zun had raged, oh how he had raged the first couple of millennia. And then Gege was there and Ye Zun had raged at him. Probably about the midpoint of his confinement he had stopped raging and started to listen. To allow Gege to tell him he had never been abandoned. Accepted his companionship until Hei Pao was required above to find the missing Hallows. Gege had broken the pillar rather than leave him behind.

Shen Wei waited until Didi had tired himself out. “Tell me brother, would he have stopped?”

“What?” Ye Zun sniffed.

“If,” Shen Wei relentlessly laid out the speculation, “you had pronounced the judgement as mercy, as you did the last time he stood before you, if he declared himself remorseful and willing to atone, if he had served out some sentence - would he have then killed again?”

That was a most difficult question because it forced Ye Zun to review what he had seen when he had devoured the mind of Ding Dun along with all of his energy. Having to do a task he most definitely did not want to do, Ye Zun had tried focusing on the revenge aspect in order to just get through it. He had thought of Chu Shu Zhi drawn into a trap by the murder of a man for no better reason than he had looked like Guo Chang Cheng. Guo Chang Cheng almost led to his death had he not thought to request Shen Wei’s accompaniment. Shen Wei bleeding out energy to protect Zhi-ge. Ye Zun had allowed himself to get angry, then fostered the anger in order to wring every last ounce of revenge possible and so in the course of absorbing the essence of Ding Dun he had ruthlessly examined the man’s life and thoughts.

Ye Zun was intimately aware that the mind of Ding Dun had hungered for more death. The man had killed and enjoyed it. Had plotted and planned and enjoyed that. Had watched the spring of his trap and rejoiced. Ding Dun had until the very end relished the chaos and destruction and death.

Ye Zun, in his detailed dissection of Ding Dun, in his absorption of his essence into himself, had been very much remined of how that had felt and was terrified he would be desirous of it again. It was a powerful and intoxicating feeling to be able to manipulate those around you.

Ye Zun scrambled over his brother to hurl into his bin. By his point he was only able to expel a bit of bile before his efforts to turn himself inside out degenerated into dry heaves. Exhausted and heart sore he fell down against his Gege.

Ye Zun wondered sometimes what would have happened all those millennia ago when he knelt at his brother’s feet, if he had been truly repentant and not just focused on the murder of or being murdered by him. Would he have been executed for his crimes the way he had executed Ding Dun?

Shen Wei again dismissed the mess. He stroked his hand across Didi’s forehead and hair soothingly. “Your reservations and this reaction is why I am not worried. You already know you don’t want to be like him, quit making yourself sick thinking you have to be him.”

“I was,” Ye Zun admitted miserably. “I was exactly like him. I should have the same fate.”

“10,000 years imprisoned in the pillar, my brother,“ Shen Wei sighed, “I think everyone would agree you have paid for your transgressions.”

“Some things can’t be paid for,” Ye Zun countered wearily.

Shen Wei nodded unseen by his guilt ridden brother. “Why did you go to work for SID?”

Ye Zun did not understand why Shen Wei wanted to talk about this now, so he provided the most basic answer. “They wanted me.”

He’d been flattered really. They had asked for him specifically. He had suspected at first Gege had put them up to it, but Gege couldn’t lie to save his life so the lack of awkward silences and passive acceptance of governmental security when Ye Zun discussed job offers meant the SID had truly desired him based on his own merits.

“So did many others,” Shen Wei remarked.  “You could have stayed at the University. You could have moved into the private sector for research or development. Of all the offers you had, you chose SID why?”

“I thought it might help you.” Which while true, was not the whole truth.

The SID had been recruiting to fight the scourge of monsters and had had no idea they were engaging one. Ye Zun had enjoyed the irony. And he had thought it would not be boring infiltrating and spying on the Guardians. Maybe he had been under the influence of too many dramas, a form of entertainment not available in Dixing at the time, but he thought it would be interesting and exciting working for the SID.  And if it turned out they were too terrible, he would tell Gege and Gege would take care of it.

However, it proved to be that the SID was not targeting all Dixingren. They were after the predators and the breakers of the peace. So Ye Zun did his job and watched and assisted from the edges. And then Zhao Yun Lan had come and the SID had changed, and Ye Zun thought maybe he should truly help and started entanglingly himself with Lin Jing’s inventions.

“Since you have been able to choose,” Shen Wei said carefully, treading lightly on reminders of past unpleasantness, “not a prisoner of situation or circumstance, since you have been able to conceive of a path other than survival or simply moving forward - you have chosen to help.”

Ye Zun resisted the impulse to disparage that tedious therapist Shen Wei was surely quoting. When therapy with someone demonstrably less intelligent than them had proved to be a failure, Gege had made him read the research. Familiarity with the literature, however, did not actually make him feel any better about it.

Shen Wei reflected on the fact that both of them had been relatively young when the Hallows came into their lives. Ten thousand years had physically matured them into adulthood, but he thought emotionally they had only recently got there.

“And in helping you have allowed others into your life who would like to help you in return.” Shen Wei tapped a gentle finger against Ye Zun’s forehead to turn his thoughts away from self-flagellation. “You don’t have to do this to yourself. Or by yourself.”

Ye Zun thought about that for a moment. “Even when I hated you, I knew you were there.” He had needed his hatred. It had given him a goal, a reason to live through another in a lifetime of horrible days. “For a little while I thought you were going to die and leave me alone, and I got an idea of what you felt then.” When Gege had believed his Didi was dead and he was alone in a world gone mad.

“And …?”

“Didn’t like it.” That was the grossest of understatements.

“But even if one of us dies,” Shen Wei declared, “neither of us is alone anymore.”

“Zhao Yun Lan.” Ye Zun acknowledged his brother’s husband.

“Guo Chang Cheng and Chu Shu Zhi,” Shen Wei countered, as Didi’s companions came as a set. “Beyond them we have an extended family in Da Qing, Zhu Hong, Lin Jing, even Zhao Yun Lan’s mother. All of these people will help you, but like I had to learn to ask, you are going to have to learn as well. Maybe we could start by asking Xiao Guo to come in?”

“Maybe.” Ye Zun tentatively agreed, his hold tightening on Shen Wei.

“You have to know what would happen,” Shen Wei patiently returned to stroking his brother’s hair, “if your nightmare came true.”

“You would stop me.” That had been part of the nightmare as well, what Shen Wei would do to himself, sacrifice of himself to put an end to an out of control beast.

“I would. But you also know that Xiao Guo and Chu-ge would reign you in as well.”

Ye Zun plucked unhappily at the bedcovers, “Maybe Guo Chang Cheng is …”

Shen Wei immediately cut off that idea, “Hmmpf, no one but me has come to visit because they have not been asked nor allowed to come. Your palace retainers have followed your instructions to bar friends and family.”

Ye Zun rocked his head back to look up at his brother. His only family, here in attendance.

Shen Wei smiled at him, “You forgot to forbid a physician and your guard commander was happy to exploit the loophole.”

“I didn’t know they cared,” Ye Zun returned in bafflement.

“Of course they do,” Shen Wei scoffed. “They love you.” He continued in the face of Ye Zun’s disbelief, “They have a king who actually acknowledges their presence, allows himself to be looked after, and is courteous.” Shen Wei pulled a braid in the childish reminder of an older brother to younger to always mind his manners. Guo Chang Cheng would need to redo the braids soon, that would settle them both done nicely. “When I arrived I found Chu Shu Zhi at an impasse with Meng Qian Xue. He is currently guarding the door to make sure you are undisturbed and I estimate you would have had another day at the outside before Guo Chang Cheng succeeded in badgering someone enough to allow him to sneak in and demand to know why you are hiding yourself away.”

“Oh.” Ye Zun was astounded.

“Yes, ‘Oh’. Do you want me to save him the trouble and send him in?”

“Yes, no, yes.” Ye Zun could not make up his mind, so he changed the subject. “I told him about what we think you are becoming. Are you worried about it?”

“I have had a lot of time to contemplate,” Shen Wei began. “I do not believe in coincidences, but I do believe in serendipity.” Not following his brother’s reasoning, Ye Zun raised his eyebrows at Shen Wei.

“What is the likelihood of that meteorite being a naturally occurring metal?”

Still unsure as to the direction of the conversation, Ye Zun answered, “The universe is vast.”

“So some dying or emerging star sends this thing out into the universe,” Shen Wei speculated. ”What is the likelihood it lands on a settlement of people most likely to die from its effects?”

“Gege,” Ye Zun gasped in horror.

“Our people came here by space ship,” Shen Wei reminded him. “If you get on a ship and travel, why do you stop?”

Ye Zun began listing the possibilities, “Arrival at destination or goal reached. If you are exploring, you liked the look of the place. If you have an accident, you have no choice. If you are trying to hide ...,” he was beginning to understand it was this last possibility that was worrying Shen Wei, “That implies pursuit. But it was such a long time ago.”

“We are a long lived race," Shen Wei pointed out, "How much longer did we live before coming here and adapting to this environment?”

It was Ye Zun’s turn to speculate, “The meterorite landed when Dixing, Human and Yashou were working together, were just beginning to make great advancements together.”

“What we are trying to do again,” Shen Wei concluded his warning to the King of Dixing. He was thinking he and Zhao Yun Lan would need to take a wander after he finished straightening out SID. They would need to determine what their abilities and limits were in order to better be prepared in the circumstance that someone was watching. In any case there would be time.

Shen Wei broke the temporal bubble that he had encased himself and Ye Zun within, allowing them enough time to talk without further upset on the part of servants. He looked to the door in anticipation, as he had aligned the bubble with Zhao Yun Lan’s desire to break in and tell them something.

“Ma, Ma, Ma,” Yun Lan was expostulating as he burst through the door, “I will. Right now. Gotta go, bye.” Zhao Yun Lan put his phone away and took a deep breath as he looked at Shen Ye Zun contritely. “Okay so I made my excuses for missing dinner, but I don’t know when we are going to get back up topside and she wants to see that Shen Wei is okay and being adequately looked after and I may have invited her here to visit.” His audience was speechless. “Sorry?” he apologized sheepishly.

Shen Ye Zun sat up abruptly. “You invited your mother.”

Zhao Yun Lan nodded, hoping the smile would help sell the idea.

“You invited your mother here,” Shen Ye Zun pointed down at his bed emphatically, but clearly he meant invited to Dixing.

Zhao Yun Lan kept nodding, turning up the wattage on his smile.

“OMG,” Shen Ye Zun exclaimed, “There is so much to do! Where is Xiao Guo?”

Shen Wei laughing delightedly as his Didi almost literally bounced out of the room.

Zhao Yun Lan was a bit confused, “Wait. What?”

Shen Wei continued laughing, this time at Zhao Yun Lan. “Your mother and he are great friends.”

“Really?” Zhao Yun Lan thought back, “All those years, every time he sent his respects to my mother he really meant it? He was not just being polite?”

Shen Wei shook his head tolerantly still chuckling to himself. An attempt to pull his staff to his hand reminded him that he may have overextended himself. But that was alright, he motioned Zhao Yun Lan over to assist him. He had Madam Zhao’s visit and her effect on Didi to anticipate and Zhao Yun Lan to lean on.

He could hardly wait to see how their story would go on.