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In darkness buried deep

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"So, Shen Wei and I need to go to Dixing," Zhao Yunlan cheerfully informed the assembled SID.

Shen Wei sighed, frustrated. "Zhao Yunlan, I need to go to Dixing. There's no reason for you to come along." He already suspected he'd lost the battle, however. Zhao Yunlan had been insistent from the minute Shen Wei had told him about the summons.

It was confirmed when Zhao Yunlan's mouth hardened. "Shen Wei, if you think I am letting you wander into Dixing by yourself ever again —"

They should have finished arguing about it in Zhao Yunlan's office rather than letting it spill out here in front of the others. But they had already made all these points to each other, around and around, and Zhao Yunlan was only digging in more firmly.

Shen Wei, under the pressure of an audience, reluctantly gave in, which he irritably suspected Zhao Yunlan had been counting on. "Fine. But you need to follow the rules."

Zhao Yunlan gave him a look expressing incredulity at the idea that he might not. "When are we leaving?"

"As soon as possible," Shen Wei said.

"Sure," Zhao Yunlan said, all agreeable now, and Shen Wei waited with his arms folded for him to give out duties to the others, shove a few things from his office into pockets of the jacket he insisted on wearing although the day was really too warm for it, and run back to Da Qing with a couple more last-minute instructions.

"Are you mad at me?" Zhao Yunlan asked as they left the building together.

Shen Wei… could never manage to sustain that. Not with Zhao Yunlan. "I'm worried," he said. "Dixing is still… complicated. And every time you've been there —"

"Hey," Zhao Yunlan interrupted. "You're the one who's been in trouble the last times you were there by yourself."

"Ye Zun is gone." And Shen Wei had acted previously towards a goal, even if Zhao Yunlan still didn't like to accept that.

"And all our problems with him." Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes, in case Shen Wei missed the sarcasm. "So how's our friend the Regent these days?"

"Fine," Shen Wei said. "He's the one who sent the message for me. Some unusual incidents on the outside of the city."

"They need you for this?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "I thought the Palace has its own people to sort out stuff down there, instead of recalling you from Haixing."

Shen Wei frowned, then quickly smoothed the expression away in case Zhao Yunlan thought it was directed at him. "Things are still very unsettled in Dixing right now," he said. "Ye Zun turned the Palace Guard first when he took over, and although a few were clearly coerced, with others it's less certain. A great deal of effort is still going into getting everything functional again. There isn't anyone trusted to spare for tracking down mysteries."

"I'm glad we're still useful for something," Zhao Yunlan said.

They turned into the park. Shen Wei found himself preoccupied with Zhao Yunlan's statement. He'd been wondering himself. Without Ye Zun and his lieutenants persuading criminals to the surface, would there still be such a need for the SID? Something to think about. Something to, unfortunately, talk to the Regent and An Bai about. "We're here," he said, gratefully.

"Huh." As he always did, Zhao Yunlan was squinting at the patch of air where the portal was hidden, looking almost offended that he couldn't see it.

Shen Wei began to gather his dark energy, and then paused. This was another reason he hadn't wanted to bring Zhao Yunlan. "It's more difficult to open at the moment," he warned Zhao Yunlan. "Don't be alarmed."

"Difficult how?" Zhao Yunlan asked, his expression instantly sharpening.

"All the entrances to Dixing sealed themselves for a while in reaction to the huge mix of energies and the Hallows," Shen Wei said. "They're reopening now, but slowly. It takes more effort to use them." It was even true.

"So it'll be difficult to travel through?"

"No, it shouldn't feel any different for you," Shen Wei assured him.

Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows. "Ok, now I'm worried about why you felt the need to warn me. Is it going to hurt you?"

"It might be harder than usual," Shen Wei admitted.

Zhao Yunlan gave him a very long-suffering look. "But I shouldn't be alarmed."

"No," Shen Wei agreed, and closed his eyes, reaching out with his dark energy and feeling for the edges of the portal. He hadn't lied to Zhao Yunlan. And indeed it was harder to find than it had ever been, shimmering unreally in his other sight but slipping away from his grasp. He caught hold of it finally and pulled, his dark energy flowing out of him to hold it. More than he would like, but he'd known that in advance.

One last gasp of effort and the portal finally materialised, shimmered, stabilised. Shen Wei opened his eyes, tasted blood in his mouth and swallowed it away. Zhao Yunlan's hand was braced against his back, just below his shoulder blade. Shen Wei allowed himself to lean into it for a moment, even though he could have coped without the support.

"Are you ok?" Zhao Yunlan asked.

"Fine," Shen Wei said. "It's stable now."

"Ok," Zhao Yunlan said, with one more long look at Shen Wei. He squared his shoulders. "Let's go to Dixing."

Shen Wei took his arm, not willing to leave their safe transit to chance. He led the way through.

"…I thought you said it was stable?" Zhao Yunlan asked, dryly, once they were on the other side. He turned on his heel to look around.

"This is where we need to be," Shen Wei said.

Truthfully, he had barely been able to remember visiting the edge of Dixing before, where the walls rose up jaggedly to the roof of the vast cavern where wisps of smoke and volcanic ash drifted like clouds. Now this place was also the boundary edge of the lantern-light, and deep shadows sliced the twilight from the crumbling piles of rock scattered across the landscape.

"Cheerful," Zhao Yunlan remarked. He kicked some scree. "So something's going on out here?"

"People have gone missing from the edge of the city," Shen Wei said. "There have been sounds heard from this direction, and lights."

"Hmm." Zhao Yunlan crossed his arms. "How many people? When exactly did they go missing?"

"Over the last couple of weeks," Shen Wei said. He frowned. "I don't know exactly how many."

"Mmm-hmm. We could really do with some better intel."

Shen Wei shrugged. "That was what was in the message."

Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows. "So we came straight out here instead of stopping at the palace first because you didn't want to talk to the Regent. Am I wrong?"

Shen Wei compressed his mouth unhappily but, honestly, he couldn't say that Zhao Yunlan was incorrect. No matter how much he'd have liked to. He had had exactly two conversations with the Regent, since… everything. He had taken care to be unfailingly polite.

"Ok," Zhao Yunlan said, after Shen Wei continued to fail to respond. "Let's poke about here a bit and see if we can find anything. Then decide whether we really do need to hop over to the palace for a chat. Agreed?"

"Yes," Shen Wei said. He hoped they wouldn't have to. And also, he would need to find some reason to explain why summoning a portal to take them there would still be harder than Zhao Yunlan expected, even within Dixing where Shen Wei was supposed to be stronger.

Maybe he wouldn't notice. He wouldn't have noticed anything on the surface, after all, if Shen Wei hadn't gone and drawn his attention to it.

Zhao Yunlan hopped up on top of one of the unstable rock piles, with an alarming disregard for his safety. "There's a big crack in the rock wall over there," he said, gesturing. "Could be a cave."

Shen Wei nodded. He turned in that direction as Zhao Yunlan slid down and caught up with him. "Did you see anything else?" he asked.

"Just rock and wasteland," Zhao Yunlan said. He shaded his eyes against the lantern light as he looked in the direction of the city. "You know, I thought things might have started to grow down here, now that there's light."

"People are beginning to grow plants in the city," Shen Wei said. He had seen some on his last visit — rare pots of flowers providing almost shocking bursts of colour. "But the soil out here has no seeds."

"Oh," Zhao Yunlan said. He was silent a minute. "Can't we bring some down from Haixing? Grass and, I don't know, the sort of things that can grow wild?"

Shen Wei stopped short in surprise. He attempted to picture it. This blasted plain, turned green… "You're right. We should try," he said. He knew less than nothing about growing things, but surely people who did could be found. A project like this had never occurred to him, and he wondered why not. Now that Zhao Yunlan had suggested it it seemed obvious.

Zhao Yunlan beamed at him. It still astounded Shen Wei, that he had the capacity to inspire so radiant a smile. And it was almost always unexpected when he did, which made it an even more precious reward. "I'll hold you to that," Zhao Yunlan said.

Shen Wei smiled back, although he knew his own expressions could never mirror Zhao Yunlan's intensity.

They stopped some metres away from where the crack in the cavern wall rose up in front of them. It zigzagged far upwards, and widened at the base enough for maybe three people to walk abreast, with no fear of scraping their heads. The dust at the entrance held the prints of multiple feet, overlaid, going in both directions. A well-trodden path.

"I guess we're going in there," Zhao Yunlan said.

Shen Wei nodded. "Unless you would prefer to remain out here on guard."

Zhao Yunlan gave him a decidedly you-can't-be-serious look. And, frankly, Shen Wei hadn't expected for a moment that he would be taken up on that. Satisfied that an argument wasn't forthcoming, Zhao Yunlan fished in his pocket and came up with a small electric torch. "I brought it for those gloomy windowless rooms in the palace," he said.

Shen Wei had assumed he had mostly been bringing lollipops, but decided not to mention that. "Let's go," he said.

Zhao Yunlan didn't speak as they entered the cave. Shen Wei, too, preferred not to make noise. He reached out with dark energy — here in Dixing he should have plenty to spare — but his perceptions were baffled by the layers of thick rock.

There was, however, only one way to go. They took it. Zhao Yunlan walked close beside Shen Wei, shoulders touching and parting and touching, the torch throwing a small circle of white light on the rocky floor just before their feet.

"Just to be clear," Zhao Yunlan half-whispered. "If we find a really big threat — a monster nest or something, or a rebel army —"

"We retreat," Shen Wei said. "And return with a contingent of the Guard."

"I'm glad we're on the same page here."

Shen Wei did not remind Zhao Yunlan of any of the times he had behaved far more recklessly himself.

It felt like they had already walked deep into the mountain, if that was even the correct term. Although they hadn't been walking for long enough to truly have gone very far. Shen Wei kept his senses extended — not far, but enough that there was still nothing he could physically perceive beyond their little circle of light when he touched Zhao Yunlan's arm. "Stop."

Zhao Yunlan stopped immediately. "Something ahead?" he whispered.

"I think so," Shen Wei whispered back.

Zhao Yunlan flicked off the torch. Shen Wei closed his eyes for a few seconds to restore his night vision, then opened them. Ahead, a very faint glow reflected from the damp walls. Zhao Yunlan tapped the back of his hand. He could see it too.

Cautiously, Shen Wei continued moving forward down the tunnel, Zhao Yunlan matching him step for step. The sickly light gradually grew. Shen Wei had already ruled out 'unknown bio-luminescence' in favour of 'fire' before they turned the last corner and could see it.

It was only a small fire, burning almost smokelessly — there must be good ventilation from somewhere. Four people slept around it, three men and a woman, all bearing evidence of having lived in a cave away from civilisation for some time. And on the far side of the cave, bound at wrists and ankles but still looking much cleaner and tidier than his captors, a young Dixing man. Also apparently asleep, although the blood-soaked rag tied around his throat offered other possibilities.

Zhao Yunlan pointed to the young man and raised his eyebrows.

Shen Wei concentrated for a moment. Alive, he mouthed.

Zhao Yunlan made a come-on-then gesture.

Shen Wei nodded. He pointed warily at the sleepers and shook his head. They didn't look like especially strong opponents, but looks could be deceiving where Dixing powers were concerned. Far better to avoid waking them up.

Shen Wei stepped a careful path over the rock floor, avoiding loose stones and placing his feet down gently. He knew Zhao Yunlan would be doing the same just behind him. He tried not to breathe loudly.

Ahead of them, the cave system continued, splitting into fissures down which the light from the fire didn't reach.

The sleepers by the fire didn't wake.

They reached the boy, and Zhao Yunlan crouched down beside him first. He had his pistol in his hand, and rested it on his knee before reaching out and clamping his hand over the boy's mouth.

The boy didn't stir.

Zhao Yunlan frowned, and shook him — gently at first, then harder. Shen Wei knelt down as well, and placed a hand on the boy's chest. This close, it was now obvious that the boy was barely alive. His life force was dwindling, possibly already beyond recall.

He couldn't not make the attempt. Shen Wei checked that Zhao Yunlan was keeping watch — he was — and then did his best to heal.

It was no use. He could tell that quickly. There was simply too little left — too little energy, too little blood. There wasn't enough that Shen Wei could do to patch him together. He tried, hard, but all he could achieve in the end was to make certain there would be no pain.

He came back to himself, eyes stinging at the young man's loss and his own failure. He looked up at Zhao Yunlan and shook his head. Zhao Yunlan gave his shoulder a sympathetic squeeze.

It wasn't enough to return like this. Not when they had so few answers. Shen Wei got to his feet and moved towards the small jumble of items at the back of the cave, trusting Zhao Yunlan to follow.

There were some stocks of food and large jugs of water — some of the group must have been back to the city recently, for them to be here. Behind the supplies, a white cloth was spread on the ground. A sharp knife glinted there, beside —

Shen Wei's breath and heart both stuttered for an instant. Beside the knife was a golden mask.

Ye Zun's. He could never have mistaken it.

Zhao Yunlan recognised it at the same time — he jerked back with a faint hiss.

They couldn't leave it there. Shen Wei was certain of that. He knew that it was only a mask, it couldn't do anything. But it was a symbol, and as such it was dangerous.

And he didn't want to touch it. Only a mask, but…

Zhao Yunlan shot him a look that was far too understanding and sympathetic of his hesitation, and bent to pick it up.

The moment he touched it, one of the men sleeping by the fire sat up with a shout.

Shen Wei turned in time to see the others rouse also. The woman flung a hand towards them. Shen Wei shrugged off her attack, but next to him Zhao Yunlan froze like a statue, Ye Zun's mask dangling from his fingers, gun in his other hand partway though being levelled.

Shen Wei stepped forward quickly. "Who are you?" he asked. "What are you doing here?"

"Who are you?" the woman demanded.

One of the men nudged her. "I think… I think that's Hei Pao Shi," he muttered.

She blanched. "No. No, it can't be."

"I assure you, I am," Shen Wei said. He kept his voice calm. "Why are you out here? Instead of in the city?"

"The city?" The man on the left spat. "Live under that blasphemous light? Don't we have a choice?"

"Why are you abducting people?" Shen Wei asked.

No one took that as an unreasonable accusation, which was a bad sign. "We revere the night," the man on the other side muttered.

Zhao Yunlan coughed, and cleared his throat. Apparently his mouth was working again, although the rest of him remained frozen. "Let me guess. You're kidnapping people and sacrificing them to Ye Zun's creepy mask, in the hope that's somehow going to bring him back?" Shen Wei could see the tendons strain in his neck as he fought to move any other part of his body. "I've got bad news for you. That won't work."

Shen Wei stepped in before there could be an argument. If it came to a fight… "It ends now," he said. "You've killed your fellow Dixingren, and I can't allow that." He summoned his glaive, and all four of them quailed back slightly at the sight, despite their bravado. Good. "Come back with me now."

He was partly bluffing, but he had them, holding them with the weight of his reputation. A defeated edge was creeping into their expressions.

Then — footsteps, and a light blooming in the tunnel to the outside. Another woman entered the cave, and dropped her bulging cloth bag to the ground as she took in the scene. From her shoulder strap she swung around a gun and raised it up. One of the rifles used by the Palace Guard, and handled with the ease of regular use. "Who are they?" she demanded.

One of the men answered. "Hei Pao —"

Her eyes widened, and she fired before he finished speaking.

Shen Wei flung up dark energy instinctively to shield them. He felt the shudder of each bullet he stopped, one-two-three-four, ears ringing from the gunfire in the enclosed space, and then his shield tore. He had patched the rip a second later with a lurch of effort, and the guard must run out of bullets soon —

Zhao Yunlan was on the floor. Bleeding.

Shen Wei's world narrowed to a moment of pure panic before he saw that Zhao Yunlan was breathing, was struggling to sit up. Was staring at him, eyes wide, shocked.

Shen Wei threw out a handful of energy, a small trick to douse the part of the cave in front of them in black fog. He grabbed Zhao Yunlan, hauling him up to his feet and getting his arm over his shoulders. "Run," he said. Zhao Yunlan nodded tightly, and Shen Wei pulled him towards the nearest tunnel.

They stumbled through darkness for the first few turns. Somehow Zhao Yunlan got his torch out, and then there was that small pool of light beneath their feet which at least made it easier not to fall. The cave system branched and branched and Shen Wei took turns at random, a voice in the back of his mind screaming at him, but he was unable to spare attention to heed it. Zhao Yunlan part clung to him, part hung off him, breathing raggedly. He still held Ye Zun's mask. It bounced from its strings against Shen Wei's chest.

He stopped when Zhao Yunlan finally gasped a protest at him. As soon as they halted he started to buckle, and Shen Wei hastily helped him down to the floor.

"We lost them?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He was panting for breath.

Shen Wei listened carefully. He couldn't hear pursuit. "I think so," he said. "Let me look at your injury."

Zhao Yunlan wordlessly handed him the torch. When the light was turned back on him his face was white, drawn tight with pain. The bullet wound was in his side. Beneath his jacket, his shirt was soaked with blood. "How bad is it?" he asked.

It had been made much worse by running, that was certain. Shen Wei held his hand over it, concentrating. He had enough energy — he would have enough energy —

It came reluctantly, slow as treacle. He forced the larger blood vessels to seal where they had ruptured; began the process of knitting flesh back together. And then, as abrupt as finding the next step down in a staircase was simply not there, his flow of energy cut off. He unbalanced, catching himself jarringly with his forearm against the floor. He pushed himself back upright immediately, ignoring a swirl of dizziness.

Zhao Yunlan had his eyes shut, mercifully. "That feels better," he said, opening them. "Still — ow — sore."

"I'll do more shortly," Shen Wei said, fighting to keep his voice level. He firmly swallowed down on the blood in his mouth.

"Ok." Zhao Yunlan sat himself up more, seeming properly conscious of the surroundings for the first time. He looked around, and then at Shen Wei. "So, running deeper into an unknown cave. Interesting choice of action." His voice was very measured.

Shen Wei hesitated. "It seemed…"

"…Really stupid?"

"I know," Shen Wei said, wretchedly.

"You couldn't portal through the rock?"

"No," Shen Wei said, gratefully grabbing this excuse. "I'm sorry…" For getting Zhao Yunlan injured, above all else. He should have prevented it.

"If you can't, you can't," Zhao Yunlan said, but he was still eyeing Shen Wei closely. "So do we have a plan now?"

"There might be another way out," Shen Wei said. "Or we might be able to wait until they let their guard down and get out the way we came in."

"I'm not sure which is more realistic," Zhao Yunlan said. "That woman seemed trained."

"Yes," Shen Wei agreed. "I think she belongs to the Palace Guard."

"Great," Zhao Yunlan sighed. "Seems like you were right not to trust them."

"It's only a few of them," Shen Wei felt compelled to remind him, uselessly.

"Right." Zhao Yunlan sighed again. "Unfortunately, she's between us and our exit. Assuming we can even find our exit."

That was Shen Wei's cue to say something reassuring, he knew. After all, he had been the one leading them. Unfortunately, the cold fear which had been growing in him was reaching a point where he couldn't hide from it any more. "I think…" he began, and then trailed off. Ashamed.

When he didn't continue, Zhao Yunlan made a prompting noise. And waited.

"I don't know which way we came," Shen Wei admitted.

Zhao Yunlan's expression told him that he had expected as much. "You don't have some sort of wayfinding power?"

"No," Shen Wei said.

"Pity. That would be really useful."

Shen Wei hung his head miserably. He hadn't been thinking. Or, to be precise, his thoughts had been fully occupied by fear over Zhao Yunlan's injury, and the need to get him to safety as quickly as possible.

Zhao Yunlan reached out to squeeze his arm, and then dropped his hand to interlace their fingers. "Hey," he said, quietly. "It'll be ok."

Shen Wei really hoped he was right. "You should rest," he said. "I'll go and scout for the way back."

"No!" Zhao Yunlan said, loud and fast. His hand abruptly tightened.

"You're injured," Shen Wei pointed out.

"No," Zhao Yunlan said, more calmly. "I'll come with you. I'll be fine." He swallowed. "Just… please don't leave me in the dark on my own."

Oh. "Sorry," Shen Wei said, quietly. "I didn't think."

"I know I'll slow you down," Zhao Yunlan said. He smiled a bit, but his expression was still strained.

And Shen Wei should have been able to heal him more completely. But he couldn't. And he couldn't apologise for that, because — He slipped himself under Zhao Yunlan's arm instead. "Ready?"

"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said, and although he wobbled a bit at first he managed to stand steady on his feet. "Yeah, I'm good."

"I think it's this way," Shen Wei said, rather hopelessly. He waited in case Zhao Yunlan had any objection, but he didn't. They started walking.

Shen Wei didn't set a fast pace to begin with, but almost immediately he found himself slowing down. Zhao Yunlan hadn't said anything, but it was clear by the sound of his breathing and his uneven steps that he was in pain. He was still the one holding the torch, and as well as lighting their feet he kept swinging it in wide arcs off the walls and roof. Each time Shen Wei looked hopefully for something that looked familiar, but without luck.

He stopped when they came to a fork in the tunnel. "Anything?" Zhao Yunlan asked.

"I don't know," Shen Wei said. He closed his eyes, and reached out with his dark energy — or tried to. His energy barely stirred, and the effort sent him reeling, lightheaded.

"Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan said, sharply.

"It could be either path," he said.

"That's not what I meant," Zhao Yunlan said. "Are you ok?"

"Fine," Shen Wei said. Maybe he had felt a flicker of something from the left-hand fork. "Let's try this direction." He started walking, which meant that Zhao Yunlan came with him.

"You know," Zhao Yunlan said, conversationally, "I seem to remember other occasions when you've tried to keep secrets from me for my own good. How did they work out?"

"What do you mean?" Shen Wei asked. With Zhao Yunlan pulling him sideways he had to concentrate to keep his balance.

Zhao Yunlan abruptly stopped walking. "If I asked for more healing, what would you say?"

Shen Wei clenched his jaw. From deep inside himself he forced up a remnant swirl of dark energy. Heal, he ordered it, and sent it settling into Zhao Yunlan, piecing together more of the damage inside him. Still not enough, not yet, but —

The floor tipped away from him, spinning madly. He reached out to find his balance and rock pummelled him in the side. His body told him he was lying flat but he still felt like he was sliding at an angle. He pressed his fingers against the cold stone, breathing heavily. He coughed, and coughed, and rubbed away wetness with the back of his wrist, remembering too late that he was trying to hide it.

Zhao Yunlan was shouting, shaking him roughly. "Shen Wei! What the hell — Shen Wei, answer me —"

Shen Wei pushed himself to sitting, ignoring the vertigo. He wasn't sure his eyes were working properly but it was hard to tell with the agitated way Zhao Yunlan was shaking the torch around. "I'm ok," he said.

"Like fuck you are," Zhao Yunlan snapped. He sounded genuinely furious. "What did you just do?"

"I…" There was still blood in his mouth. Shen Wei swallowed again. "My dark energy… was depleted."

"Oh? All of a sudden, with no warning?"

The edge of sarcasm in Zhao Yunlan's voice cut deeply. "No," Shen Wei admitted, since there seemed to be no way round it.

"Right." Zhao Yunlan took a deep breath. "So, instead of having an honest conversation about it, you decided to make yourself pass out instead?"

Shen Wei pressed his knuckles to his forehead, where a pounding headache was building. He didn't know how to give an answer that Zhao Yunlan would be happy with.

Zhao Yunlan shifted to sit close against him. "Sometimes I don't understand you at all," he said. "You must have known that would happen."

"I hoped it wouldn't," Shen Wei said.

"Right." Zhao Yunlan sighed. "Well, I do feel a bit better. So thanks. I guess."

Despite everything, Shen Wei smiled.

Zhao Yunlan pointed the torch straight at him. "Don't," he warned. "Don't look pleased with yourself. I am still so angry with you, Shen Wei."

"Sorry," Shen Wei said, since it seemed an appropriate response.

Zhao Yunlan made a low noise of pure frustration, but didn't otherwise reply.

Silence stretched out in all directions, strung through the dark tunnels. The stone around them was cold, leeching heat as they sat there. They might be bringing the only heat and light to the stones in millennia.

"We should keep moving," Shen Wei said.

"Can you?" Zhao Yunlan demanded, but Shen Wei demonstrated that he could stand steadily, now that he had got used to the missing-tooth sensation of being unable to reach his dark energy. It depleted him, of course, with the ongoing headache being the most obvious manifestation, but he should be able to manage for long enough.

He gave Zhao Yunlan a hand up and was distressed to realise how much he still wasn't properly healed, judging by the small sounds of pain he made and tried to suppress. "Be careful," Shen Wei told him.

"Don't think I've forgotten about this," Zhao Yunlan warned him.

"We should concentrate on finding our way out first," Shen Wei said.

"Fine."

At least Shen Wei was certain this time which direction they had been facing in before they had stopped. Which would, of course, help not at all if they had already taken a wrong turning.

"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said, quietly, after a period of time in which their footsteps within the endless tunnel was the only sound to hear.

"Yes?" Shen Wei asked.

"How long were we running for?"

Shen Wei drifted to a stop. Zhao Yunlan's arm was still around his shoulders, and concentrating on the warm weight of it suddenly felt like the most important thing in the world. "Not this long," he said. Quietly.

"But we were moving faster. So we covered more ground."

He remembered hauling Zhao Yunlan, only partially conscious and unable to move with anything like the speed Shen Wei had wanted. "We weren't moving that fast."

Zhao Yunlan didn't reply. "Say it," Shen Wei insisted.

Zhao Yunlan squeezed his shoulder. "It's not your fault," he said.

"We're lost," Shen Wei said, since Zhao Yunlan wouldn't.

"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan agreed. "I know."

He was being very calm. It was Shen Wei's fault, and they both knew it, and Zhao Yunlan was being kind about it.

"We should retrace our steps," Shen Wei said. "We took the wrong turning somewhere. Or missed a turning."

"Ok," Zhao Yunlan said.

They turned back over the ground they'd just covered. And Shen Wei realised immediately that they should have been marking their route all along, because now he wasn't even sure how to find the way back to the place they'd stopped earlier.

"Better late than never," Zhao Yunlan said when Shen Wei told him this, and used a sharp piece of stone to scratch into the wall at the next junction they came to.

They walked some more, and then Zhao Yunlan called a break. Shen Wei helped him carefully sit. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Hurts, but I'm managing," Zhao Yunlan said. "How about you?"

"I'm fine," Shen Wei said. "I'm going to check your wound."

Zhao Yunlan fisted a hand in his shirt, preventing him. "Not until you give me a better answer."

Shen Wei sighed. "I can't access my dark energy yet," he said, reluctantly. "It needs more time to recover."

"That must be affecting you."

"It's tiring," Shen Wei admitted. "But aside from that I'm fine."

"Ok," Zhao Yunlan said, with only a small amount of scepticism. He finally let Shen Wei lift his shirt.

The wound looked better than Shen Wei had feared, although it was clearly still bleeding in fits and starts as it was aggravated by the walking. It was red and angry, though, and Shen Wei badly wished they had the supplies to clean it. Or the energy for better healing. Unfortunately he had neither. "Should we keep moving?" he asked. "Or do you need to rest?"

There was a long pause. "Let's keep moving," Zhao Yunlan said, finally.

"Are you sure?" Shen Wei asked.

"Yes. Yes, we should —" Zhao Yunlan started to rise, and slumped back with a groan. "Dammit. Maybe a short rest."

Shen Wei compressed his lips, worried.

"Don't give me that look," Zhao Yunlan said. He flicked off the torch, plunging them into darkness. "We should be saving the batteries," he said.

It was eminently sensible, but also the blackness surrounding them was instantly unmooring. Shen Wei found Zhao Yunlan's knee by touch and then kept his hand there. Zhao Yunlan put his hand on top of Shen Wei's, interlocking their fingers. "I'll keep watch," Shen Wei said.

"No need," Zhao Yunlan said. "I just want a couple of minutes."

"You can —"

"Shen Wei, I'm fine."

Shen Wei closed his mouth unhappily. He forced himself to close his eyes and relax, breathing slowly, hoping that his dark energy would begin to replenish soon.

Sure enough, it was only a few minutes before Zhao Yunlan clicked the torch back on. "I'm ready to go," he said.

"Are you feeling ok?" Shen Wei asked. He reached for Zhao Yunlan's pulse but Zhao Yunlan pushed him off.

"I'm fine, come on," he said, shortly.

Shen Wei didn't really believe him, but he also didn't want to end up in another argument and Zhao Yunlan seemed all too ready to go that way if pushed. He helped Zhao Yunlan to his feet instead and they continued.

They came across another junction, and Shen Wei left Zhao Yunlan leaning against the wall while he explored a little way down all of the openings, looking desperately for any feature in the stone that seemed familiar, or a mark of their previous passage. But the dark rock was the same everywhere — sheeted and cracked, but not so as to be uniquely memorable. Too dry and hard for footprints.

Zhao Yunlan must have read the despair on his face when he returned, because he pressed Shen Wei's hand gently. "We'll find it," he said.

It seemed to Shen Wei that he could see Zhao Yunlan less well than he had been able to a few minutes earlier. He turned the torch bulb-up. Its previous white light was fading into orange. Dimming. Wordlessly, he pointed it towards Zhao Yunlan for him to draw the same conclusion.

"We should turn it off before it dies completely," Zhao Yunlan said. "Save the last of it for an emergency."

"Ok," Shen Wei agreed, but he used an extra few seconds of light to steal a last careful look at Zhao Yunlan's face. And Zhao Yunlan was doing the same with him, and smiled to meet Shen Wei's eyes.

It was enough to keep a spark of warmth going inside him when Shen Wei turned off the torch and put it carefully into his pocket.

Zhao Yunlan took a deep breath in the darkness. "Well. At least I've done this before." But his voice wasn't entirely steady. He put his arm around Shen Wei's shoulders again and held on tight. Shen Wei leaned his head against Zhao Yunlan's for a second before he reached out, finding the cave wall with his fingers.

Feeling their way, they stumbled on. Shen Wei thought that their willingness to keep going probably spoke more than anything else about how utterly lost they both knew they were — like this they might not even notice places where the tunnel split. But staying where they were was to admit defeat. No one was coming for them. No one knew where they were.

In the blackness it was easier to become absorbed in if-onlys. If only he hadn't been too cowardly to face the Regent. If only he had prevented Zhao Yunlan from joining him. If only he had his usual dark energy reserve, and could simply transport them away. If only he hadn't let Zhao Yunlan get shot. If only he had… told the truth…

Almost hoping that Zhao Yunlan wouldn't hear him, he said, "I haven't been honest with you."

"What about?" Zhao Yunlan asked, after a slight pause.

"My dark energy." Shen Wei stopped, trying to find the right words. Not being able to see made it easier. "It's not been — I expected it to recover. After what happened. After…" He trailed into silence.

"And it hasn't?" Zhao Yunlan asked. Quietly.

"No." He braced himself.

"You lied to me then, didn't you?" Zhao Yunlan said. "About why opening the portal was difficult."

"Yes," Shen Wei admitted. It would have been no problem at his full strength, even at his full strength in Haixing.

Zhao Yunlan breathed in very deeply, and let it out. "Shen Wei," he said. "Why didn't you just tell me?"

"I —" Shen Wei swallowed hard. He couldn't manage to say any of the things which jumped to mind.

"I'm sorry," he said, finally.

Zhao Yunlan didn't answer for a while.

"Are you angry?" Shen Wei asked, when the lack of a reply finally became too much.

"Of course I am," Zhao Yunlan said, although he didn't sound it, really. He sounded frustrated, and very tired. "How could I not be? We're supposed to trust each other, right? But you couldn't trust me with this?"

"It's not that," Shen Wei hastened to explain. "It…"

"It doesn't really matter what the reason is," Zhao Yunlan said. "What matters is that you didn't tell me."

He didn't know what to say to that. It was true.

More walking, on and on. It became hard to believe they were moving at all rather than stepping on the same piece of rock over and over, endlessly, scraping the back of his fingers over the same patch of wall.

"I want to sit down for a minute," Zhao Yunlan said. He sounded more tired than before, and breathless.

Shen Wei helped him down to the ground, and guided him to lean against the wall. He frowned, unseen, and patted across Zhao Yunlan until he found the pulse at his throat, beating rapidly. He searched up to Zhao Yunlan's forehead, pressing his hand there.

"I know," Zhao Yunlan said, with a deep sigh. He leaned limply against Shen Wei.

"You're feverish," Shen Wei said, because he felt he had to. "You didn't say anything."

"Oh, you're throwing stones now?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "We can't do anything about it."

It was, horribly, true. "You can try and sleep for a bit," Shen Wei said. "Give your body a chance to fight it."

He was more worried when Zhao Yunlan immediately acquiesced to that, which showed only too well how he must be feeling. He slid sideways down the wall until he had his head pillowed in Shen Wei's lap. "You rest too," he said.

"Yes," Shen Wei said.

He felt Zhao Yunlan relax, and fall quickly into restless sleep. Shen Wei kept a hand on his head, smoothing his hair and checking his temperature. It was already high.

Shen Wei closed his eyes and took a series of meditative deep breaths, reaching deep inside himself. His energy was repleting, just far more slowly and to a far shallower level than he was used to. There was a trickle available. That was better than nothing. He could use that, and rest until he had more, and then use that, and rest again. Whatever it took.

Heal, he thought, and sent the thread of his energy wending into Zhao Yunlan. Let all of it go, without worrying. He was already sitting in the dark, so the dizziness didn't matter. He let the rock wall take his weight. Tried to keep breathing steadily, and focused on his hand against Zhao Yunlan's forehead.

When he had more energy to give, he gave it.

Time passed, and Shen Wei didn't keep track of whether he was conscious or not as it all blurred into one. Zhao Yunlan shifted against him restlessly as his fever continued to climb, increasing and increasing despite all of Shen Wei's efforts. It radiated off him. "Shen Wei," he muttered. "Shen Wei."

"I'm here," Shen Wei said, and Zhao Yunlan clung to his hand tightly while Shen Wei's other hand spread against his chest, feeling the rapid flutter of his heart.

"It's so dark…"

"I know, but it's ok," Shen Wei said.

"No!" Zhao Yunlan moved like he was trying to rise, and then fell back with a sob of pain. Shen Wei tried to hold him still. "Shen Wei, it's not ok. You mustn't!"

"What is it?" Shen Wei asked.

"You mustn't — the Dial — you need to be careful. Promise me you won't. We'll find another way."

For emergencies only, they had agreed about the torch, but Zhao Yunlan was agitated and getting more so. Shen Wei decided that this classed as one. He switched it on, turning the beam of light on himself. "Zhao Yunlan, look. You're not blind. It's just dark."

Zhao Yunlan gave another half-sob and reached up with shaking fingers to touch Shen Wei's face. "You didn't — Shen Wei, don't do that for me. It's too much."

"It's all right," Shen Wei said, feeling useless at the desperation in Zhao Yunlan's voice. He took advantage of the light to lean over and check Zhao Yunlan's wound again, and found it as he expected — red, angry, frighteningly hot even before he touched it. So far the infection was winning the race against Shen Wei's dark energy.

He straightened up and vertigo washed through him. He tipped sideways and tried to catch himself with his arm, but it didn't support his weight. He heard the torch clink as it bounced away but he was pressed against the rock and against Zhao Yunlan, held down by the sensation of spinning uncontrollably.

"Shen Wei, what's wrong?" Zhao Yunlan was patting at him urgently.

"Nothing," Shen Wei managed.

"Shen Wei —"

The torch had rolled some distance away. Shen Wei could see it by the muted orange beam falling over the slab of the floor. It petered out at the edge of the wall. He raised himself up and crawled towards it. Even that brought more vertigo, and his head pounded.

"Shen Wei!" Zhao Yunlan was still calling, making scrabbling sounds that suggested he was searching for him.

"Stay there, it's ok," Shen Wei said. The uneven floor pitched under his knees like the deck of a ship. He reached the torch, finally, and spent a couple of precious seconds of light swinging it around in desperate hope that he would see — anything. But there was nothing. Only ever the cave system, dark and featureless and stretching away. He turned it off.

Without the light, it was as if his entire body became unmoored, unbalanced. Shen Wei toppled, half caught himself so that he crumpled down instead of falling. He clawed his fingers into the uneven floor, holding on tightly.

"Where are you? Shen Wei!"

It was Zhao Yunlan's voice which pulled him back, a tether. Zhao Yunlan, alone in the dark, delirious, terrified. It was enough to fill Shen Wei with determination, to push him to his knees again and steady himself as he listed sideways. He was clammy, shivering.

"Shen Wei — Ow —"

"Zhao Yunlan, stay where you are!" Shen Wei snapped out. He fumbled back towards him, his arms shaking but holding him. If what he could hear was anything to go by then Zhao Yunlan completely refused to listen — Shen Wei hated that he was navigating primarily via small gasps of pain he could hear ahead of him. Finally his questing hand touched cloth and was immediately seized and held tightly. "I'm here, it's ok," he said.

"Don't do that," Zhao Yunlan demanded, low and pained. "Don't leave — Don't —"

Shen Wei half fell next to him. "I'm here," he said. "Zhao Yunlan, I'm right here."

Zhao Yunlan wriggled up against him, putting his arm around Shen Wei and holding on tightly. His other hand landed blindly on Shen Wei's face and stroked back sweat-dampened strands of hair. Despite everything, Shen Wei closed his eyes and leaned into the comfort of it. He felt sick and shaky and wrung-out, and Zhao Yunlan was still burning with fever and they were lost, lost, lost.

He reached for the dribble of dark energy which had refilled and sent it to Zhao Yunlan. He sank again into a deeper darkness.

Again.

Again.

He roused, some fractured and indistinct time later, when Zhao Yunlan shook him. "Shen Wei?"

Groggily, Shen Wei reached towards where he heard Zhao Yunlan's voice. He missed, his hand falling confusingly through empty air, and then found Zhao Yunlan's face. He felt cooler; Shen Wei could tell that immediately, and gasped in relief.

"Shen Wei, talk to me," Zhao Yunlan demanded.

"You're feeling better?" Shen Wei asked.

"Yeah, I think so," Zhao Yunlan said, and then paused. Went rigid. "Shen Wei, what have you been doing?"

Shen Wei didn't pretend not to understand. "Your fever was dangerous," he said. "I had to do something." He struggled to sit up, and found Zhao Yunlan helping him. He was grateful for the darkness, which could hide how much he needed that help.

Zhao Yunlan was quiet for a moment. "You could have asked me first," he said.

"But you might have refused," Shen Wei argued. "And you needed —" He had a sudden intuition about how Zhao Yunlan was taking his words, and stopped talking.

Zhao Yunlan let his hand slide to the back of Shen Wei's head. He took a couple of deep breaths, and very pointedly said nothing. Shen Wei wished he could see his expression.

The place where he was sitting wasn't comfortable. Shen Wei shifted, and then reached to remove the stone digging into him — except it wasn't a stone. He recoiled.

"What is it?" Zhao Yunlan asked.

Shen Wei ran his fingers over Ye Zun's mask. In the darkness it was a twin to his own. Unable to speak, he passed it across to Zhao Yunlan, holding onto it but letting him feel it too.

Zhao Yunlan was quiet for a moment. "We could leave it here, you know," he said, eventually.

Shen Wei shook his head, and then remembered that wasn't enough. "No," he said. "I can't just… leave it down here in the dark."

"Ok," Zhao Yunlan said. He hesitated. "Want me to look after it again?"

"Yes," Shen Wei said, "Please," and surrendered it gratefully.

"We'll decide what to do with it when we get out," Zhao Yunlan said, and then paused. "That's still the plan, isn't it?"

"Of course it is," Shen Wei said, although he couldn't muster up much hope to go into his voice. When they got out. Getting out. Yes, of course it was still the plan. Even if.

Zhao Yunlan leaned against him. "I could probably try walking again," he said.

"I don't think I can," Shen Wei admitted. He was surprised by how calmly he managed to do so. "If I rest a bit —"

"Was it worth it?" Zhao Yunlan asked, and then cut himself off instantly. "No, don't answer that. Don't."

Shen Wei closed his jaw obstinately.

At least, although clearly irritated with him, Zhao Yunlan didn't move away. Shen Wei didn't think he could have coped without him — that solid point of warmth and stability, grounding him in the dark.

"Why?" Zhao Yunlan asked, after a long while. "Why don't you tell me things?"

Shen Wei closed his eyes, miserably. "I'm sorry," he said.

"That's not an answer," Zhao Yunlan said. "Your dark energy's not been working properly for how long — a few months? And you didn't say anything?"

"It's not that it's not working properly," Shen Wei said. "But the level of it is… much lower."

"You're still being vague," Zhao Yunlan said. "How much lower? And since when?"

"Since Ye Zun held me," Shen Wei admitted. He could still feel the chains in his memory, around his wrists and across his chest. Agonising at a level that went directly to his nerves. Leeching his power slowly but surely. He'd already been suffering the effects of mixing Haixing energy with his own, but the injury those chains had done to him went beyond that. He'd expected his dark energy to recover, sure that the depletion had been temporary — but it hadn't.

Zhao Yunlan put an arm around his shoulders as he explained. Held him tightly in a manner Shen Wei hadn't realised he needed so desperately. "So everything you've done since then —"

"It's been harder, yes," Shen Wei said. He had managed to get around it, most of the time, simply by being more frugal with his power than he had ever been accustomed to. But some things had been… an effort.

"Does anyone know?" Zhao Yunlan asked.

"No." It was one of the reasons he'd been avoiding the Regent. He was afraid his lack of power would be deducible.

"Shen Wei." Zhao Yunlan lowered his voice. "What we are to each other — why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you let me help?"

"I —" Shen Wei began, and stopped.

Zhao Yunlan held him closer, gave him time.

Finally, Shen Wei dragged the words out of himself. "I was ashamed," he said. "And afraid. I've been so afraid." Hating it, he heard his voice crack.

"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said, again. "That's what I'm here for. So you can tell me things. Things like this."

"I know," Shen Wei said. He turned so that he could press his aching head against Zhao Yunlan's cheek, against his hair. "I'm sorry."

"Please just —" Zhao Yunlan paused. "I feel telling you not to do this again is going to be futile." He sighed. "I can't really be mad at you for saving my life, can I?"

"It was my fault you were injured," Shen Wei said. "I couldn't hold the protection —" He remembered, viscerally clear, the feeling of the bullet shredding through his dark energy shield on its deadly flight towards Zhao Yunlan. "If I'd been stronger —"

"You mean, if you'd told me your dark energy was low, so we could have taken precautions other than relying on it as Plan A?"

It was the truth he had somehow been avoiding. It closed around his heart like ice. "Yes," Shen Wei said. He felt sick.

Zhao Yunlan could have pressed that point. He didn't. He reached up to touch Shen Wei's clammy forehead instead. "I wish I could see you," he said.

Shen Wei was glad that he couldn't.

Zhao Yunlan continued to stroke his hair back. "You sound terrible," he said. "I'm worried about you."

He definitely felt terrible, but it would pass. "You're the one who was shot," Shen Wei said.

Zhao Yunlan sighed very deeply. "Ok. So I still don't feel great. Where I was shot really hurts, but it's better than before and at least I can think clearly again. Also I would kill for a drink of water, but that doesn't seem likely anytime soon." He patted Shen Wei on the shoulder. "Your turn."

His voice was beginning to sound like it was coming from some distance away. Shen Wei struggled to think coherently about an answer. "I don't feel good," he said.

Zhao Yunlan waited. "What, that's it?" he said, eventually.

Shen Wei nodded, and regretted it as the movement was enough to unbalance him. He clung desperately to Zhao Yunlan.

"Hey," Zhao Yunlan said, "Hey…" He supported Shen Wei, gently laid him down. "Not good. Yeah, I believe you."

"I… I just…" His words were fragmenting, along with his thoughts. He couldn't catch them.

"Shen Wei." Zhao Yunlan kept a hand on him. "I think you need to rest, ok?" He paused. "And no more healing, or I swear I won't talk to you for a month."

Shen Wei tried to cling to consciousness. He focused on Zhao Yunlan, warm against him, and the slow replenishment of his dark energy inside him.

He failed at some point to hold on. Drifted. Dreamed he could see the whole cave system lit up; ancient lava tubes and cracks splintered from the roots of the earth eons ago, before Dixing existed to nestle within the largest cavern of all. Dreamed he knew the way — this tunnel, then turn here — for them to float home like soap bubbles.

"Zhao Yunlan," he whispered. His dry lips cracked.

"I'm here," Zhao Yunlan said, thickly, sounding as if he had been stirred from sleep.

Shen Wei reached for his wrist, held onto it tightly.

"What are you doing?" Zhao Yunlan asked, sharply suspicious.

If he had let his energy build naturally, without passing it constantly to Zhao Yunlan, then he could have done this before — but Zhao Yunlan had been so ill, he might not have made it this long —

"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said.

Shen Wei closed his eyes, and took everything he had inside him, and concentrated on his grip on Zhao Yunlan, and that soap bubble feeling, and he moved them.

Dusty sand under his skin. Light against his eyelids.

"Shen Wei!"

He spasmed, curling inwards as he coughed wetly and choked on blood.

"Shen Wei — Just — Please —"

He fought his eyes open. Indistinct shapes.

Zhao Yunlan. There. Calling for him.

Behind him the barren plain around Dixing, lit bright by lantern light.

Zhao Yunlan was right. It needed green growth, and flowers.


He woke — somewhere. With a black lacquered ceiling, and sheets under him.

He turned his head.

"You're awake." Zhao Yunlan, sitting in a chair beside him, leaned forwards. "How are you feeling?"

"Where are we?" Shen Wei asked. He sat up carefully. His skin was gritty with dust. Zhao Yunlan, too, was still wearing the same clothes, dirty from the tunnels.

"Dixing palace," Zhao Yunlan said, and now Shen Wei could recognise the familiar decor in all its oppressive heaviness. "We've only been here a couple of hours."

Alarmed, Shen Wei swung his legs over the side of the bed and pushed himself to his feet.

Zhao Yunlan caught him under his arm before he could fall. "Shen Wei, sit down! You still look awful."

"No, I can't," Shen Wei said. "I need to see the Regent." He spotted his shoes next to the bed.

Zhao Yunlan put both hands on his shoulders and pressed him firmly back down to sitting. "You need to rest," he said. "That's what the palace doctor said."

"The doctor?" Shen Wei asked. From the little he'd interacted with her, she'd seemed competent. "Did she help you?"

Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes at this lack of faith. "Yes, look, I'm all better now." He tugged up the hem of his shirt to show how the bullet wound had closed up into a purplish scar, and then brought Shen Wei's hand to his forehead to demonstrate his lack of fever. "See?"

Shen Wei closed his eyes for a moment in relief, and squeezed Zhao Yunlan's hand tightly. "I'm glad you're ok," he said.

"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan said. "Apart from worrying about you, that is. Please will you lie down again now?"

"I can't," Shen Wei said. He met Zhao Yunlan's eyes as he stood up again, holding onto the bedpost for discreet support. "I need to show the Regent and the Lord that I've recovered."

"You haven't recovered," Zhao Yunlan said, stubbornly. Shen Wei waited patiently for him to get past his resistance. Zhao Yunlan eventually groaned. "Ok. Ok, I get why you want to do this."

Shen Wei nodded, grateful for his understanding. "What happened while I was unconscious? What did you say?"

"A guard patrol found us," Zhao Yunlan said. "I gave them the gist of it — No, I didn't say anything about your powers, don't worry, I knew you wouldn't want it getting out. And I didn't want to give the Regent any ammunition."

"Thank you," Shen Wei said. He sighed. "He might have guessed by now." The Regent had the sort of squirrelly mind that was far too good at recognising deception in others.

"Which is why you're so keen to show him there's nothing to worry about," Zhao Yunlan finished.

"Yes." Shen Wei pushed his feet into his shoes, one at a time. Zhao Yunlan grabbed his arm, steadying him. He looked down at his rumpled, dirty clothing in dismay and considered changing into his Envoy robes — having the security of a mask to hide behind had never been more tempting. But it would also show that he was hiding. He took a deep breath, and pressed his fingers firmly into his temples for a moment. The brief rest hadn't done anything for his aching head.

"You know, you won't help your cause if you pass out in the throne room," Zhao Yunlan said.

Shen Wei threw him an irritated look. "I don't intend to."

Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes. "If you're going to meet the Regent then I'm coming with you, you know." He handed Shen Wei his glasses.

"Thank you," Shen Wei said.

Without him needing to say anything, Zhao Yunlan dropped his stabilising hand as he opened the door of the guest chamber. Shen Wei led the way through the palace — he wasn't walking nearly as fast as usual, but at least with concentration he was able to keep his steps steady.

The audience with the Regent was, as expected, formal and excruciating, with many solicitous enquiries as to the Envoy's health which Shen Wei tried desperately to parry. He wished beyond anything that he could have avoided being carried unconscious into the palace — except that Zhao Yunlan had needed medical attention, so it couldn't have been avoided. At least the audience also yielded some good news. The Palace Guard had just finished sweeping out the nest of Ye Zun supporters, and had managed to apprehend the one who was a guard herself. Shen Wei glossed over their experience deep in the cave system as much as possible while the Regent tried to prod at it without ever being so rude as to demand direct answers.

"We need to return to Haixing speedily," Shen Wei said, as soon as politeness allowed. "I'm afraid I've kept the Lord Guardian here too long, away from his many duties there."

"Of course, of course," the Regent said, with a very supercilious smile that Zhao Yunlan returned in kind. "We must have you back soon, though, to discuss more matters relating to today." His smile sharpened.

Shen Wei bowed through precisely the fraction that was proper. "I will certainly return when I can." And it did need to be soon, in case the Regent started encouraging rumours in his absence. He straightened, and turned to Zhao Yunlan. "Are you ready to depart?"

"What, from here?" Zhao Yunlan asked. Shen Wei desperately hoped the concern in his voice wasn't audible to anyone else. He began gathering his dark energy, praying that it would be enough.

"Ah, allow me to open the portal for you, my lord Envoy," the Regent said. He left a tiny pause for Shen Wei to object. And Shen Wei badly wanted to — but he couldn't afford to turn down the offer. If he failed to open the portal it would result in a much greater loss of dignity.

When Shen Wei said nothing, the Regent extended his hand and summoned the portal with a showman's ease. Shen Wei nodded to him, ignoring the undertones with great effort, and Zhao Yunlan followed his lead. He took Zhao Yunlan's arm and stepped through.

It was drizzling rain in Haixing. On the path in the park, Shen Wei turned his face wordlessly to the sky and closed his eyes as the dampness beaded on his face. He took a deep breath of the cool, air, free of dust.

Zhao Yunlan swapped their grip over, so that he was again supporting Shen Wei. "We'll find a taxi," he said.

Shen Wei had already been preparing to open the portal out of Dixing. Compared to that, the route between here and their shared apartment was familiar. Well-worn. He had enough power to do it.

At the last moment, though, he glanced at Zhao Yunlan, and it occurred to him that Zhao Yunlan might not give it the same weighting, especially with no warning. "I can take us there directly," he said. "I'd prefer to."

Zhao Yunlan gave him a long look. "You'd prefer to?"

"Yes." He still didn't really like travelling in motor vehicles, and he was desperate to be home. Knowing that he could be there instantly made the delay feel more grating.

Zhao Yunlan looked less than happy, but he shrugged. "Ok. If that's really what you want."

Shen Wei nodded, and let the portal open and pull them both through. It was well worth the wash of exhaustion to be able to take a couple of steps and sink down onto the sofa. Home. Home.

With his eyes closed, he felt the cushion dip as Zhao Yunlan sat down next to him, and reached for his shoulder. "Shen Wei," he said. There were too many layers in his voice to unravel. Shen Wei leaned against him tiredly instead.

Zhao Yunlan, though, shook him slightly. "Shen Wei," he said, again. "Tell me how you are. If you're going to just pass out on me again I'm going to be mad at you."

Shen Wei opened his eyes reluctantly. "I'm just… very tired," he said. Now that he had sat down, it seemed impossible to think of moving again.

"Yeah." Zhao Yunlan looked at him, and sighed softly. "Let me get you something. Tea? Water?"

"Water, thank you," Shen Wei said. He should get up and get it himself, really, but he was grateful as Zhao Yunlan immediately went and filled a glass for him. He used both hands to steady it as he drank, aware of Zhao Yunlan watching him carefully.

"Food?" Zhao Yunlan asked.

Shen Wei shook his head.

"Ok, can you tell me how you're feeling?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "Because I've got to say, you look terrible."

Shen Wei shook his head again, to fill the gap while he searched for words. He felt utterly drained, the adrenaline which had sustained him through the audience with the Regent gone with nothing to replace it. He knew he should really eat something, but the thought of food made him feel sick.

"Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan's voice was beginning to fill with worry, and Shen Wei knew he should act to alleviate it, but he couldn't think how. Zhao Yunlan touched his palm to the side of Shen Wei's face and Shen Wei turned his head, too slowly, to lean into it. "Ok. Come and lie down."

Shen Wei looked down at himself, distressed by how grimy he was. He could feel it against his skin, under his clothes, and shook his head. "I want —"

"Tell me," Zhao Yunlan said, when Shen Wei didn't finish. "Shen Wei. Let me help."

"I want to get clean," Shen Wei said, in some frustration, because he couldn't quite picture standing up for long enough to take a shower, but he also hated the idea of going to sleep like this, of bringing the darkness and terror of the cave into bed with them.

"Ok. We can do that." Zhao Yunlan smiled at him, looking strangely happier for Shen Wei making demands of him. "Come on." He stood up, and pulled Shen Wei to his feet as well.

Shen Wei got through the first steps, and then vertigo swallowed him, cold sweat breaking over his skin. Blindly, he leaned on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder and kept stumbling along. When his knees gave way it wasn't entirely unexpected. Zhao Yunlan made an alarmed sound and broke his fall onto the tiles.

"Ok. Ok." Zhao Yunlan's deliberately calm voice was something he could focus on. "Shen Wei." His forearms were solid for Shen Wei to cling to. Zhao Yunlan pushed him back a bit, until he could lean against the wall. "Shen Wei, hang on ok? This was a bad idea."

"No," Shen Wei protested, at the distress in Zhao Yunlan's voice. "No, I… I…" He bunched his fingers in Zhao Yunlan's shirt sleeve.

"Shit," Zhao Yunlan whispered. He tapped Shen Wei's face. "Hey, hey, look at me, ok?" He beamed when Shen Wei did so, although his forehead was creased and his jawline was tight with worry. "Ok, that's great. There you are." He brushed Shen Wei's hair back from his forehead. "Now, seriously, you've got to talk to me properly. How do you feel?"

"Sick," Shen Wei said, miserably.

"Right." Zhao Yunlan hooked the plastic bin with his foot and pulled it over. "There. Next problem?"

Shen Wei managed to smile, a bit. "I'm sorry."

Zhao Yunlan stilled. "Which part are you sorry for?" he asked.

"For —" Shen Wei paused.

"Right," Zhao Yunlan said. "Stop there until you've got a better answer. You still really want a shower?"

Shen Wei nodded.

"Ok." Zhao Yunlan was touching him a lot, hand pressed briefly against his shoulder, his cheek, his hair. "I got this, ok? Let me look after you."

He moved away without waiting for a response and Shen Wei reached after him before letting his hand drop to his lap, strangely bereft. He felt incapable of ever moving from the floor. It was frightening, to be so helpless.

Zhao Yunlan returned with a couple of folded towels and without his boots or socks, and knelt down next to him. He took Shen Wei's glasses off and placed them carefully on the floor. Then he began to undo the buttons of Shen Wei's knit vest. Shen Wei reached to help, but Zhao Yunlan caught his hand and replaced it gently by his side. "Shen Wei. Let me?"

Shen Wei nodded, and made himself relax. Zhao Yunlan pressed a gentle kiss against his forehead then undid his watch, then the sleeve garters, and then the buttons of his shirt. He eased Shen Wei forward to lean against his shoulders while he took off the shirt and vest, and then pulled the undershirt up his back and over his arms. He carefully leant Shen Wei against the wall again. It was cold on his back.

"Sorry," Zhao Yunlan said, as he didn't quite repress a shiver. "Let me get you a towel —"

"It's fine," Shen Wei said, but Zhao Yunlan had already grabbed one, and was tucking it around his shoulders like a cloak.

"That's better," Zhao Yunlan said, sounding pleased. He pulled Shen Wei's shoes off next, and then his socks, before undoing the fastening on his trousers. "I might need your help here," he said, and Shen Wei obediently assisted in wriggling out of his trousers and boxers together. Zhao Yunlan slid them off his legs and piled them with the rest of his clothes, then returned and put a hand on his arm. "What about —" he asked, and touched the pendant questioningly with his fingertip. Shen Wei nodded, so Zhao Yunlan undid the fastening carefully and laid the necklace next to his glasses on top of the pile.

"Right," he said, looking from where they were to the shower. "Are you ready to try moving?"

Shen Wei nodded. Zhao Yunlan hauled him upright, holding him so as to take as much of his bodyweight as possible. Shen Wei clung to him, dizzy, and was grateful that the shower was only a few steps because he barely made it. He sank down the wall, black spots circling in his vision, and leaned over to throw up in the shower drain. It was mostly blood.

Zhao Yunlan made a distressed noise and stroked the back of his head, pulling Shen Wei's forehead to lean against his chest. "Next time I'm not listening to you," he said. "You could be lying down in bed right now."

Shen Wei shook his head.

"Have you considered not arguing?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He leaned Shen Wei back and stood up to unhook the shower head before kneeling again as he turned it on, letting it wash the blood away while the water warmed. "Yeah, I know. It's you."

"I don't feel —" Shen Wei began. He swallowed. "I didn't expect this."

"I know," Zhao Yunlan said. He plucked the towel from around Shen Wei's shoulders and tossed it out of the shower, replacing it with a spray of warm water over his skin before Shen Wei had time to start shivering. "Look, I understand it's scary for you to suddenly have limits. But you've got to respect them. You can't just drain yourself into this state."

For a minute there was nothing but the rattle of the water against the tiles.

"What if my dark energy doesn't recover?" Shen Wei asked. Very quietly. He hadn't dared to put this into words before, even to himself.

"Then we'll figure it out," Zhao Yunlan said.

"But if — If I can't —" He couldn't picture that future as anything but failure.

"Then what?" Zhao Yunlan demanded. He turned the shower head, rinsing the dust methodically from Shen Wei's skin. "You think you're less valuable with less power?"

"Less useful," Shen Wei said, tiredly. He had so many duties, and it was becoming an increasing struggle to be able to perform them all. "The Regent —"

"I don't give a damn what that man says," Zhao Yunlan snapped. He hooked the shower head back to the wall, letting it rain down indiscriminately. Seemed not to notice that he too was getting drenched to the skin, while still in his t-shirt and jeans. "Nor should you. What's he going to do, fire you? The saviour of Dixing?"

"That's not the point," Shen Wei protested.

"No? So you're just worried about what he thinks?" Zhao Yunlan began to rub shampoo into his hair, his hands gentle, contrasting with his tone.

Shen Wei sighed, and leaned into Zhao Yunlan's hands, his eyes closed. "How can I not?" he asked.

Zhao Yunlan sighed too. "I know. I know."

Shen Wei kept his eyes closed while Zhao Yunlan rinsed the soap out of his hair, and then started carefully working over first his face and then his body with a washcloth. Between the falling water and the soothing pressure of Zhao Yunlan's hands he began to drift.

"Hey. Shen Wei?"

He blinked. The shower had stopped. Zhao Yunlan was tucking a towel around him, lifting up the top edge of it to tousle his hair dry. "Don't go to sleep yet," Zhao Yunlan said. "In a few minutes, ok?"

"Ok." Shen Wei reached out, took a corner of Zhao Yunlan's sopping t-shirt in his fingers.

"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said, and grinned wryly. "I'll sort it in a minute. I don't want you to get cold."

"I'm fine," Shen Wei protested, but Zhao Yunlan gently ignored him, rubbing the towel carefully over his skin.

"Don't argue, remember?" Zhao Yunlan said.

"Sorry," Shen Wei said. He gave Zhao Yunlan his best smile, and Zhao Yunlan returned a much better one.

"I'll get you pyjamas," Zhao Yunlan said. "Stay there." He stepped out of the shower, stripping off his soaking clothes and kicking them into a corner on his way out of the bathroom. Shen Wei let his head drop forward and did his best not to fall asleep, but it seemed no time before Zhao Yunlan was back, now wearing pyjamas himself and carrying a set for Shen Wei which he set to the side on a dry bit of floor.

"Hey," Zhao Yunlan said. "Do you think you can stand up?" He paused. "Please give me a real answer, I don't want you collapsing."

"I think so," Shen Wei said. And with Zhao Yunlan's support he was able to, leaning between him and the wall as Zhao Yunlan helped him dress. Still, the effort was enough to make him dizzy again and he leaned against Zhao Yunlan's shoulder, taking steadying breaths.

"Come on," Zhao Yunlan said. "Come and lie down."

Shen Wei nodded. Zhao Yunlan again supported him to walk slowly through the apartment to the bed and threw back the covers with one hand before sitting him down. "Could I —" Shen Wei began. "Would you fetch me some water, please?"

"Sure," Zhao Yunlan said, and refilled his glass from earlier. He brought over a pack of plain crackers too, and perched next to him on the bed. "You should really eat something."

Knowing he was right, Shen Wei ate his way through two, washed down with sips of water. "Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome," Zhao Yunlan said. "Isn't it easier, when you do let me look after you?"

Shen Wei put his hand on Zhao Yunlan's knee. "I'm sorry for not telling you about my dark energy," he said. Looking at the floor. "I wanted to. But…"

Zhao Yunlan put one hand over Shen Wei's, and his other arm around Shen Wei's shoulders. "But it was hard, right?"

"Yes," Shen Wei said. He dropped his head.

"Remember what I told you," Zhao Yunlan said. "Whatever happens, we'll figure it out. Together, ok?"

"Yes," Shen Wei said, only partly resigned, and Zhao Yunlan kissed the side of his head.

"Everything will look better after you've slept," he said.

"Mmm," Shen Wei said. "In the morning." He finally lay down, rolling over to leave space for Zhao Yunlan.

Zhao Yunlan huffed a laugh. "If you think I'm letting you get out of bed at any point tomorrow, you're mistaken. You need proper rest."

Shen Wei smiled and shook his head slightly, but didn't press the argument. Right now the softness of the bed was too compelling, and became more so as Zhao Yunlan got up briefly to switch off the main lights and then climbed into bed himself. He left the side-lamp on, though, and Shen Wei was glad of it.

Zhao Yunlan wrapped an arm over Shen Wei, burrowing against him. Shen Wei relaxed into his familiar warmth, and brought a hand up to touch Zhao Yunlan's forehead. He brushed him with just a touch of dark energy — not enough for even Zhao Yunlan to be annoyed at him for wasting it, just reassuring himself that Zhao Yunlan was healed, not in pain, no touch of fever.

"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said, muffled. "Please stop worrying so loudly."

"Sorry," Shen Wei said. He put his arm around Zhao Yunlan, smiled at his contented sigh.

And slept, dreamless.