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Metamorphoses

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The thing was, Zhao Yunlan wanted to blame it on the opera, except he’d found himself genuinely enjoying it. The first part, that is, before the attempt on his life. But he’d read that the second part led to a rather unhappy ending, so they were probably better off missing it anyway.

(Shen Wei didn’t find this assessment very funny.)

They’d gone out that evening to the Dragon City Opera House. A troupe called Daughters of the Pear Garden was visiting from the coast with a special performance of The Orange Blossom Fan, which adapted the classic to a contemporary style. This meant marionettes, acrobatics, face-changing choreography, even fire spitting... but it was still a historical drama.

(“Forty-four scenes?!” Zhao Yunlan whined, staring at the program that had arrived earlier.

“That is the summary you’re reading. They only perform a selection of those,” said Shen Wei. “And they do it in two parts, so you can stretch your legs halfway through.” The attendants flitted around him, constructing his hairdo.

Zhao Yunlan slumped over the chaise longue, pouting. “Are you absolutely sure this was my idea?”

“You added it to our calendar months ago, and said it was a good opportunity to appear in public and show our support for the arts,” Shen Wei replied, looking resplendent and implacably graceful. He met Zhao Yunlan’s eyes in the mirror. “Also, they will be serving tea and sweets, just like in any teahouse.”

“Well, you should have led with that,” huffed Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei grinned; one of the attendants stifled a giggle and blushed profusely.)

The opera house was a large courtyard complex south of the palace, featuring exquisite wood carvings and illuminated with red lanterns. It had been historically graced with royal patronage, ever since Queen An Mengrui had popularized theater outings some four dynasties ago during her revival of The Age of 1000 Tales. They’d arrived by carriage in suitable splendor, flanked by the security team of a dozen guards. The opera house proprietor and the troupe director came forth with deep bows of welcome. Zhao Yunlan traded initial greetings with them and then let Shen Wei take the lead. It was a pleasure watching him do his magic: thanking them for their hospitality, complimenting the premises, and expressing interest in the production, all with apparently effortless warmth and charm.

Even public scrutiny felt easier to bear in Shen Wei’s presence. They’d gone up to the royal box on the balcony which faced the stage erected at the far end of the courtyard, and the audience had immediately aimed their attention at them - as if they were the evening’s entertainment. Shen Wei had smiled at the onlookers at the tables below, exchanged pleasantries with the nobles sitting nearby, and exuded the perfect regal mix of composure and radiance. Once again, Zhao Yunlan thought how lucky he was to have him by his side.

Beyond his impeccable poise, Shen Wei seemed to be relaxed and truly excited about the performance. It was a good look on him, Zhao Yunlan thought. Things had been going well: there were no more secrets between them, and the previous week they had spent an amazing night together during a smaller mission. The alliance considered the crown prince a supporter, the suspects in the corruption case were getting rounded up (even though Minister Cho was still unaccounted for, to Zhao Xinci’s vocal annoyance), Zhu Jiu was no longer a thorn in their side, and Ye Zun was off recovering at the safe house under the alliance's supervision. Zhao Yunlan knew Shen Wei still carried a burden of guilt over his brother’s imprisonment and torture, not to mention their falling out, but... he seemed to be sighing less often. That felt like a cause for celebration in itself.

They had also been working together on a few proposals they planned to tackle at court in the coming days. One would improve Yashou infrastructure under the guise of developing tourism; another would redistribute food surplus via main supply routes to the schools in poorer regions across all three nations. Zhao Yunlan had a new fiery sense of direction, and was wildly in love. They were settling into their marriage, making plans for the future and enjoying the present. For the first time since his mother’s passing, the palace truly felt like home. And, while Zhao Yunlan may not have cared much for the opera, he enjoyed being out on the town with his beautiful husband.

Once the lanterns around the courtyard had dimmed and the drums sounded the beginning of the performance, attention shifted to the brightly lit stage. Zhao Yunlan had found himself drawn into the storytelling. The adaptation was dynamic and colorful, the actors excellent, and the scenes played with more humor and heart than he expected from the summaries. He laughed at the “duet” by a single performer with great vocal range and face-changing skills, then laughed harder when he met Shen Wei’s eyes, gleaming with mirth even as he looked at Zhao Yunlan with mock offense. They both applauded the impressive fight choreography between an actor and a marionette. The song of the ingenue touched Zhao Yunlan’s heart, her voice clear and fragile as spun glass. He couldn’t take his eyes off the singer’s earnest, hopeful face, iridescent under the lights, while the shadow play on the screen behind her spoke of turmoil ahead.

Zhao Yunlan barely noticed the venue staff in dark red uniforms, stopping by their box regularly to refresh their tea and replenish the delicacies laid out on the small table between them. So when an attendant yelped and dropped the tray to the ground, Zhao Yunlan saw with surprise that Shen Wei was on his feet, looking pale in the low light, hands hidden inside his sleeves. He'd called for the guards but kept looking at the attendant who had fallen to his knees. Only then did Zhao Yunlan see that the man was not cleaning up the mess: he was trying to get to a dagger that had landed under the table. Zhao Yunlan leapt from his seat and quickly stepped on the blade, trapping the weapon under his foot. The guards grabbed the man’s arms and began to haul him out.

Zhao Yunlan reached for Shen Wei, but before he could ask if he was all right, the man yelled: “Death to tyrants! Death to the Zhao dynasty!” Music had drowned out his words, but the people seated in the nearby boxes had noticed the commotion. A wave of whispers spread through the audience. The atmosphere buzzed with sudden anticipatory sense of alarm.

Shen Wei stepped close to Zhao Yunlan and looked at him over the silk fan he'd spread before his face. “We need to get out, now,” he said just loud enough for Zhao Yunlan to hear. “He may have accomplices.”

Zhao Yunlan instinctively put an arm around Shen Wei’s waist and walked with him out of the box, not making eye contact with any of their neighbors. The royal security team ran the extraction protocol like clockwork. Within moments they found themselves in their carriage, which immediately took off for the palace.

Zhao Yunlan sat across from Shen Wei. He studied him for a moment. “I’m pretty sure I saw blood on that man’s hand.”

Shen Wei’s lips tightened for a split second; it was a rare and worrying sight. “Officially, he cut himself on his own weapon when he fumbled the tray.”

“And unofficially?”

Shen Wei was silent, frowning at the darkness outside the carriage windows. Zhao Yunlan reached for the sleeve of his husband’s fashionable robes. There was a thin sharp blade inside a hidden pocket, and a spatter of blood on the inner fabric. “Are you...?”

“I’m not hurt,” Shen Wei waved him off, but his eyes were bottomless pits in the dim light.

“How did you even...?”

“His uniform didn’t fit. The opera house has a very strict policy on their staff’s appearance.”

Zhao Yunlan went over the few seconds of the scuffle in his mind. “So he approached with a tray, holding the dagger... underneath?” Shen Wei gave a quick, silent nod. “You saw, you took a swipe at the hand that held the weapon - ”

“ - and at the same time I reached from above, as if I wanted something off the tray. People have been glancing at us all evening. With some luck, to anyone who was looking at that moment, it appeared that I accidentally spooked him into dropping everything.”

Zhao Yunlan exhaled, shaking his head. “Your reflexes are a marvel. You saved my life, and even made it look like you didn’t mean to!”

To his surprise, Shen Wei’s eyes flashed with anger.

“He got past our guards, Zhao Yunlan. All of them. Our security at every entrance to the building, the sweep, every checkpoint inside, the two guards standing watch in our box! And nobody noticed him.”

“That’s because nobody pays attention to details like the fit of a uniform the way you do, my love,” Zhao Yunlan said. He took his husband’s brilliant, dangerous hand and kissed it gently, but Shen Wei remained tense and quiet all the way home.

 


 

The news of the assassination attempt spread quickly among the public. Regular proceedings at the royal court had been suspended until the investigation into the matter was completed and new safety protocols put in place. Zhao Xinci yelled at the guards, at Lin Jing for not knowing of this traitorous conspiracy (which was unfair, since it turned out there wasn’t one), and at his son for putting a giant target on his own foolish back by going to the opera in the first place.

Lin Jing did make Zhao Yunlan laugh when he shared his findings about the general reaction to the news. It seemed that, while the crown prince was decently liked before, the attack had made the public care a great deal about his wellbeing. Incense burned throughout Dragon City and beyond for his luck and protection.

(Zhao Yunlan told Shen Wei about this increase in popularity over dinner. His husband didn’t find it amusing.)

The assailant’s name was Kong Jing. He was Haixingren, which made Zhao Xinci all the more furious. During the investigation, it was found that the man’s father, his only relation, had died a few months back. Due to the king’s decision to raise taxes on small businesses, he’d lost the pottery shop that had been in the family for generations, and then passed on shortly thereafter. According to the neighbors, his heart gave out; according to his son, the shame killed him. Since then, Kong Jing had been stewing in anger and looking for a chance to take revenge on the crown.

He had found out about the princes’ opera visit from the newspapers. That morning, he’d snuck in amidst the general bustle of setting up for the visiting troupe. He spent the day hiding in a pile of old costumes in the storage room. Then, in the evening, as one of the venue staff had walked by with a tray, he’d put a blade under the man’s chin and dragged him inside. The plan was to steal his uniform and tie him up, but the attendant tried to raise the alarm. Kong Jing stabbed him in panic. He’d expressed deep regret over taking an innocent life, and none whatsoever for trying to kill the crown prince.

Zhao Xinci had ordered a public execution for the following morning. Neither Zhao Yunlan nor Shen Wei attended the proceedings.

 


 

That had been a week ago. And Shen Wei was still... tense.

He had reached out to the alliance immediately to investigate the assailant through their channels, just in case the Haixing constabulary missed any signs of an organized plot. However, for once their findings turned out to be consistent. He’d also sent spies to look into the opera house and the visiting performers, but they just confirmed that nobody among them was involved.

Once the venue and the troupe were cleared, Shen Wei had put together white flower arrangements for both with personal handwritten notes of sympathy. It was typical of him, Zhao Yunlan thought, to address so kindly the impact of tragedy on the performers and the opera staff. His gesture went a long way to lift the shadow that the attack had cast onto the production (and the livelihood of all involved): the papers had stopped calling it “The Cursed Opera” practically overnight.

The slain attendant was treated as a war hero, his family taken care of by the crown. Zhao Yunlan attended the funeral with Shen Wei on his arm.

In fact, Shen Wei now rarely left his side. He walked with Zhao Yunlan to and from meetings, and accompanied him to events where the prince consort’s presence wouldn’t be unusual. He attended the exercises Zhao Yunlan ran with the troops, watching from the courtyard balcony of the officers’ meeting quarters. (Even if any of Zhu Jiu’s people were still among the palace soldiers, Zhao Yunlan had pointed out, their loyalty wouldn’t extend to antagonizing the Lord Commander, let alone to trying anything worse - but instead of reassuring Shen Wei, that argument seemed to inspire his regular attendance.) Shen Wei’s posture had become even more stiffly regal; Zhao Yunlan realized it was because of all the weapons he was concealing in his clothes.

At night, Shen Wei was sleeping less. Zhao Yunlan caught him getting back into bed a number of times after he’d gone to investigate the slightest noise. The tension had affected their lovemaking as well: Shen Wei’s embrace had become frantic, restless, as if he needed to reassure himself through touch that Zhao Yunlan was still there, still in one piece. He wouldn’t relax even after, fingertips tapping fitfully upon Zhao Yunlan’s skin, body curling around his as if he wanted to envelop him. Shen Wei would continue to hold on while they slept, and was probably roused whenever Zhao Yunlan moved. Every morning he was up first, looking tired. His beauty routine now included coverage of dark circles under his eyes. But all the cosmetics in the world could not make those eyes look less haunted.

“I can hear your mind whirring,” Zhao Yunlan said one night, speaking softly into Shen Wei’s hair. “What are you thinking about?”

Shen Wei’s fingertips stopped for a moment. “You won’t like it.”

“That shouldn’t matter. You should share things with me anyway. No more secrets, remember?” Zhao Yunlan pressed a kiss upon his husband’s forehead. Even in the near darkness of their bedroom, he could see the strain around Shen Wei’s eyes.

Zhao Yunlan heard him take a breath. “I keep thinking about the opera house. About what would have happened if I hadn’t noticed something was wrong.”

“But you did notice. And I’m safe and sound, thanks to you.”

“This time, yes. But what if another attack comes, and I simply miss the warning signs? It’s happened before. I nearly lost Ye Zun because I didn’t see what was happening to him, I didn’t notice...”

Zhao Yunlan swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat. “Shen Wei, you couldn’t have known - “

“But I should have. He is my brother. If I’d spent enough time considering other possibilities, other reasons why he could be gone for so long without a word... I should have realized he was in danger. I failed him. I cannot fail you.” Shen Wei’s arms wrapped around him more securely.

Zhao Yunlan’s heart grew heavy in sympathy. “You’re the one who always reminds me to focus on things I can control. The burden you are taking on is too much for any person to carry.”

“Some challenges may feel overwhelming at times, but that doesn’t make them less worthy, remember?” Shen Wei snuggled closer. “Let’s get some sleep. I’m tired.” He sighed, finally going limp with fatigue in their embrace, and Zhao Yunlan decided he should give him time to rest. Perhaps Shen Wei would look at things with more calmness and clarity in the morning.

 


 

Except his husband didn’t seem to be slowing down. Shen Wei had begun to make periodic checks of the security around their quarters and along Zhao Yunlan's usual routes through the palace. Whenever they took a walk outside, Zhao Yunlan would catch him looking around under his lashes, the sharp eyes of Crimson Lotus scanning the perimeter from the shade of a silk parasol. It was... well, it was a few rather interesting things, Zhao Yunlan admitted to himself. But it was primarily concerning.

Zhao Yunlan tried to reason with him.

“We know that there was no conspiracy. No accomplices, no plot to murder me specifically; just one man driven by grief,” he told Shen Wei over lunch. A table had been set for them in a pavilion in the water garden. Zhao Yunlan thought a meal amidst the flowers and the fountains would feel relaxing and perhaps less isolating, although the garden had been emptied of everyone but the guards that stood watch by the gates. “This is good news! It means I am not a target. So you can stop checking on the security detail every hour, my dear. Here, try one of these dumplings.”

“And yet, who knows how many others feel the same way as Kong Jing? Plenty have suffered under the king’s policies. Besides, since the attack was not organized, it is practically impossible to predict something like it happening again,” Shen Wei said, as if the state of constant vigilance made perfect sense. He had barely touched his food. All of the chopsticks at the palace had been recently replaced, every last one of them now inlaid with silver thread which, according to Zhao Xinci, would turn black in contact with poison. At least the royal poison taster must have welcomed the addition, thought Zhao Yunlan.

“Shen Wei, most people deal with such feelings by drinking and complaining to friends and neighbors,” he said. “Very few of them turn into actual enemies of the crown.”

“Like me, you mean,” replied Shen Wei, looking at him calmly.

Zhao Yunlan laughed. “You may have a point there. You know, given all the layers of protection around me these days, I’d say the only mind strategic enough to accomplish a successful assassination - might be your own,” he whispered dramatically.

Shen Wei glared at him. “Don’t joke about your safety, Zhao Yunlan.”

Zhao Yunlan reached across the table, took his husband’s hand and interlaced their fingers. “I’m just saying it took a lot of dumb luck for him to get that close. And it would have to take much more nowadays to get half as far. I doubt there’s anyone out there who truly hates me and could pull that off, you know?”

Shen Wei frowned. “I’ve spent a significant part of my life among people who are your enemies. As such, I fear we have very little chance of finding out if anyone harbors darker intent until they do something about it, luck or no luck.”

“Except the alliance likes me now, remember?” Zhao Yunlan gave him his most self-assured grin.

“It’s not that simple, and you know it. Nobody can tell when a person might break under pressure and turn to violence as a last resort.”

Shen Wei’s fingers had tightened into a somewhat painful clutch. Zhao Yunlan slowly disengaged, keeping Shen Wei’s hand in a loose hold instead, trying to make him calm down via touch.

“You can’t spend your life on high alert, my love. It’s already wearing you down.”

Shen Wei looked at him in confusion. “This isn’t about me. You’re the one who got attacked. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the efficiency of the night watch at the palace, and I have some ideas - ”

“Try this dumpling and then tell me all about it,” said Zhao Yunlan, adding food to his plate. Shen Wei gave him a conciliatory smile and complied. Zhao Yunlan figured that, at least in the short term, he might need to pick his battles.

 


 

A few days later, Lin Jing requested a private meeting with the crown prince.

Zhao Yunlan winced in sympathy as his chief of intelligence limped into the room. He’d taken a bad fall off a horse a few days prior, while trying to chase down a suspect connected with Zhu Jiu’s crimes. Zhu Hong had applied some medicinal yelling at him for trying to speed through an unfamiliar terrain at night, then prescribed treatment and exercise for faster healing of his bruises. Lin Jing sat down with a pained sigh.

“Your father asked me to look for a link between the assailant and your husband,” he said without preamble. “He heard that the prince consort made some suggestions to our chief security officer about the night watch. Now he thinks Shen Wei might have orchestrated the attempt on your life, so he could gain a say in the safety measures at the palace.”

Zhao Yunlan was almost too outraged to speak. “What - how dare he?!”

“That is how his mind works, I’m afraid,” said Lin Jing; he sounded tired. “He suspects that Shen Wei is playing a worried husband so he can use his position to somehow undermine security. And then Dixing would attack and overthrow the Zhao family and conquer Haixing itself...”

“Dixing, attack - ? He has gone mad!”

“He seems to think the rebels are planning to take him down. Oh, and Shen Wei must be on their side because he is Dixingren. That’s enough to make him a suspect for imaginary treason, apparently...”

Zhao Yunlan ground his teeth. “Where is my father now?”

But Lin Jing was shaking his head. “You can’t argue with him over this. You’re not even supposed to know about it. Just let me do my job, reassure His Majesty that there is no connection whatsoever between Shen Wei and the assailant, and we can all move on with our lives.”

Zhao Yunlan looked at his chief of intelligence. “Not that I don’t appreciate this update on my father’s state of mind, but there must be a more pressing reason you told me.”

Lin Jing returned his gaze. “Shen Wei needs to be more careful. This suggestion to update security measures? It was a misstep of a kind I don’t think he’s made before. He just practically reminded the entire palace that he is a warlord's son, with the strategic mind to match.” He leaned in, suddenly just a lifelong friend offering advice. “I believe he was shaken by the attack on you more than you realize. He is not thinking clearly, and at your father’s court that could put him in serious danger.”

Zhao Yunlan ran a hand over his eyes. “It’s not like I haven’t been trying to talk him out of it. What am I supposed to do, make him worry less by giving him more to worry about?!”

“That’s up to you and your relationship skills, such as they may be,” teased Lin Jing, but then his face turned serious again. “You are his husband; find a way. For his own safety, and yours.”

 


 

Zhao Yunlan decided to try an indirect approach first.

Chu Shuzhi eyed him with poorly concealed surprise. Or suspicion; it was hard to tell. “Of course we have extraction protocols. They were developed well in advance of His Grace’s arrival to the palace.”

Zhao Yunlan gave him an encouraging smile. “I’m glad to hear it. And you have been making adjustments, per the recent updates...?”

“Naturally, Your Highness. We have been closely following and adapting to all the changes.”

Zhao Yunlan winced. “Your familiarity with the security system at the palace is the sort of thing best kept quiet. I’m afraid there are still plenty of people at my father’s court who see you both as - outsiders, let’s say.”

Chu Shuzhi looked at him as if Zhao Yunlan just shared in secret that the sky was blue, and he had to be polite about hearing it. He expressed much while saying very little; Zhao Yunlan admitted to himself that he really liked the man.

He suppressed a smile and continued: “Anyway, I’m assuming these protocols of yours can be used in emergencies other than discovery of Shen Wei’s rebel identity? For example, heaven forbid, in case of a successful attempt on my life?”

Chu Shuzhi’s face froze, to Zhao Yunlan’s surprise. He didn’t think he’d need to clarify this possibility to someone as cautious as the bodyguard. “You know you’d both have to get away immediately if something happened to me, right? Before the king remembers that he blames Dixing for everything bad under the sun? Shen Wei wouldn’t be safe here.”

“Of course, Your Highness. Please rest assured that the appropriate measures will be taken, should this... unlikely event take place.”

Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes at him. Chu Shuzhi still looked blank, but he could spot the effort it took to make it so.

“You realize I’m asking you about this because I’d rather not discuss it with Shen Wei.”

A pained expression flew over Chu Shuzhi’s face. “How thoughtful of you, Your Highness.”

Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes briefly. “You brought it up with him already, huh? And the conversation went that well?”

Chu Shuzhi cleared his throat. “Let’s just say that the issue has been raised, and while I wish I had done so more tactfully, I do not believe it needs to be discussed further.”

Zhao Yunlan could imagine it too well. “Thank you. I’m sure you know he didn’t mean whatever it was that he, uh, sharply said to you.”

“That’s just it, he - ” Chu Shuzhi stopped, looking as surprised as Zhao Yunlan felt that he’d said anything at all. He gave Zhao Yunlan a strange accusatory look and, after studying his face for a moment, sighed and looked away. “He didn’t yell. He just... shut down. His eyes went empty. As if, after such an event, there would be - nothing of consequence left to consider.”

Zhao Yunlan felt cold dread descend upon him, while at the same time he clamped down on an awful, selfish, insecure fragment of his heart that leapt at the words (he loves me, he loves me that much!). He also fought off the sudden urge to lay a sympathetic hand on the bodyguard’s shoulder.

“He has been refusing to talk to me as well, no matter how I tried to approach the subject,” he said instead. “But for what it’s worth, I find great comfort in knowing you’d do whatever it takes to keep him safe. Please let me know if there are any arrangements I can help you make to ensure your success, should the need arise.”

Chu Shuzhi glanced at him, his expression softening slightly. “We are all set, but thank you. Let’s hope we never have to use that protocol. For all our sakes.”

To hell with it, Zhao Yunlan thought and clasped his shoulder. “I do believe that is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Lao Chu.”

The bodyguard gave him a respectful bow, murmured: “Don’t let it go to your head, Your Highness,” and took his leave. Zhao Yunlan grinned; Chu Shuzhi already sounded like a friend.

Alone again, Zhao Yunlan faced the same question he’d been trying to answer for days: how was he supposed to make Shen Wei let go of the worry that had begun to jeopardize his own safety? Conversations didn’t seem to work; the passage of time was not bringing relief. For all that Shen Wei stayed close to Zhao Yunlan from morning through night, he seemed elsewhere - preoccupied with the security of their surroundings, or with the thoughts whirling in his head, or both.

Zhao Yunlan himself wasn’t unaffected by the experience. In the days after the attack, he’d felt trepidation slither through the back of his mind, a delayed reaction to his brush with death sneaking up on him from time to time. But he was already shaking it off, grateful to be so well protected and certain that any possible future threats would meet an even greater resistance.

Zhao Yunlan thought back on what he knew of his husband’s strategies for dealing with strife. He remembered how Shen Wei once described his missions as Crimson Lotus, especially the physical experience that accompanied the mindset change in him: excitement turning into energy, tension into focus, bodily strain into a momentum that kept him going. He also thought of the desperate need with which Shen Wei wrapped himself around Zhao Yunlan every night, as if afraid he might fade away into nothingness if not for Shen Wei’s embrace. Zhao Yunlan turned these thoughts around in his head, until they began to grow into a plan.

 


 

The afternoon’s cavalry exercises for cadets in training included a casual game of polo for all units. Zhao Yunlan had invited Shen Wei to come along, hinting that it was common for the Lord Commander to step in for a match or two. They’d both ended up joining the game and playing for over an hour, moving through the full lineups of a few teams. Zhao Yunlan had been delighted to discover that, while naturally competitive and good riders, they both happened to be rather subpar at the sport.

Perhaps it was this lack of pressure that made the activity so lighthearted. After a somewhat awkward first round, during which the cadets tested out just how aggressively they could play against the royal couple (and especially the prince consort), the game had turned into pure fun. Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei teased the soldiers and each other over bad shots, laughed about the stubborn horses, and grew pink-cheeked in the fresh air. Time flew by, and both were surprised when the whistle sounded the end of the exercise.

Zhao Yunlan suggested that they join the troops for dinner. It was a habit he’d tried to maintain at least weekly through every level of his military career. Shen Wei spent the mealtime mostly quiet, watching and listening as Zhao Yunlan chatted with the soldiers. But the simple, hearty food was more than satisfactory after the game, and Zhao Yunlan noticed that Shen Wei’s appetite seemed to be returning.

On their way out of the barracks, a tall young woman wearing a captain’s insignia saluted them in passing and started: “Excuse me, Your Grace...”

Shen Wei turned to face her, in the process taking a step that placed him smoothly between Zhao Yunlan and the newcomer. It was so natural, Zhao Yunlan doubted anyone else recognized the protective maneuver for what it was - Shen Wei himself included.

The captain took a bow. “On behalf of my unit, please allow me to offer my gratitude, Your Grace. We are deeply thankful for the providence by which you thwarted the recent attempt on the Lord Commander’s life,” she said, sounding more nervous with every word. Zhao Yunlan hid a smile; he’d seen many otherwise self-possessed people stammer when faced with his husband’s beauty up close.

Shen Wei gave her the half-modest, half-embarrassed grin Zhao Yunlan had often seen on his face in recent days. “I cannot take credit for a purely accidental action, but I too am very thankful that my clumsiness had such a lucky effect,” he replied.

The captain’s eyes widened. “Perhaps that’s what it felt like in the moment, Your Grace, but surely it was heaven that guided your hand,” she said earnestly. Then, as if realizing she’d just contradicted a royal, she rushed to add: “May such favorable fortune and divine guidance ever light your way.” She performed another deep bow and bid them good evening. Shen Wei thanked her quietly.

As they walked across the palace grounds to their quarters, Zhao Yunlan could feel the ease of their spirited afternoon fading away. That wouldn’t do. He threw a casual arm around Shen Wei’s shoulders.

“My troops have taken a liking to you,” he said. “A few of them might even pick you to be on their team, next time there’s a free-for-all polo exercise.”

Shen Wei quirked an eyebrow. “I doubt that. They were just surprised that I knew how to play, but they could tell I wasn’t much good at it.”

Zhao Yunlan huffed. “For the record, their expectations twisted their perception. You see, they assumed I would excel, and when I didn’t, they decided my playing was awful! Whereas with you, there were no expectations whatsoever, but then they perceived your bare competence as some kind of astonishing skill. And we both know we’re equally bad! It’s unfair, if you ask me.”

Shen Wei laughed. Zhao Yunlan wished to capture the sound, pour it into a bottle like liquid stars, and save it forever.

“They picked on you quite a bit, didn’t they? Some cheek, addressing their Lord Commander that way.”

“Well, everything they said was arguably... supportive,” Zhao Yunlan grumbled. ”I couldn’t exactly penalize them for wishing me better luck next time. Over and over and over again.”

“Oh, I know what you mean. Like that precocious young woman playing defense on my team in round three, who thanked me for making her look good.”

“She said what?!” Zhao Yunlan crowed, even as he made a mental note to put the cadet in question on latrine duty for a week.

Shen Wei chuckled. “But I think the best comment was from the soldier who watched you wield the stick against him in the second round. And when you missed the ball, he complimented your moves as great swordplay...”

“He said, probably great swordplay,” said Zhao Yunlan under his breath, and Shen Wei laughed again. Zhao Yunlan couldn’t help but join in, his heart filled with light.

 


 

“I’d say we need a very thorough bath tonight,” said Zhao Yunlan once they’d arrived back to their rooms. Shen Wei rang for the attendants. They were both efficiently undressed, scrubbed down, soaped up and splashed clean. As soon as the attendants had finished their task, Shen Wei walked down the steps into the pool. He leaned back against the tile on the far end and closed his eyes with a sigh.

Excellent, thought Zhao Yunlan. He wrapped himself in a towel and motioned for the attendants to leave them. “I’ll join you in a moment, my dear. Let me just get us something to drink,” he said and walked out.

He took his time brushing his teeth, then rang for fresh drinking water and some spare towels. He wanted to give Shen Wei a chance to unwind on his own as much as possible.

When Zhao Yunlan walked back into the bathroom, dressed in a white robe and carrying a stoneware pitcher, Shen Wei’s eyes were already on the door. He was waiting, Zhao Yunlan realized, as he had been doing recently whenever Zhao Yunlan was out of his sight.

“There you are,” Shen Wei said with a smile, the tinge of worry in his expression fading away. He looked Zhao Yunlan up and down, taking him in through the haze of steam in the room.

“Hello again,” Zhao Yunlan said. He walked over and filled a cup with cool water from the pitcher. “Thirsty?”

“Yes, please,” said Shen Wei as he took the cup and drank it down quickly. It made Zhao Yunlan glad to see these moments of new private freedom, a contrast to the dainty image Shen Wei had maintained before him in the past.

Zhao Yunlan refilled his cup and sat down on the edge of the pool. The warm water felt blissful around his calves. “This reminds me of our wedding night,” he said. “Ah, if only we knew then what we know now.”

Shen Wei smiled at him softly. “It would have been a very different night.”

“Oh? So if we’d met earlier, and courted properly and got to know each other - really know each other - and I’d have joined you in the alliance sooner...”

Shen Wei gave him an amused look. “You’re saying you would have knowingly proposed marriage to the Black-Cloaked Envoy?”

“I’m saying I would have proposed to you for many reasons beyond wanting to secretly spite my father,” Zhao Yunlan said with a grin, stretching his legs in the water in front of him until his toes appeared over the surface. “But then, if you’d said yes, we would have ended up right here. Just like this, just like before. Only we’d be free of secrets, and we’d know that we like each other... and you’d still be a shy virgin,” he added with a suggestive wiggle of his eyebrows.

Shen Wei’s eyes dropped, but Zhao Yunlan could see amusement curling the corners of his lips.

“I would, but... we probably wouldn’t have ended up sleeping in separate rooms.” He looked up at Zhao Yunlan through his lashes. “Since there wouldn’t be any secrets between us.”

Zhao Yunlan licked his lips. “Your Grace, are you saying you would’ve let me take off my robe and join you in the bath?”

Shen Wei’s eyes twinkled in the candlelight. “I’m saying I might’ve even peeked, Your Highness.”

Zhao Yunlan laughed. “That, I’d have to see to believe.” He reached for the belt of his robe. Shen Wei kept his eyes on Zhao Yunlan’s face, but with every slow blink, his demure look slid discreetly down Zhao Yunlan’s body. Zhao Yunlan chuckled and shook his head at the slyness; his husband replied with an innocent smile, but the tips of his ears had turned red.

The robe fell off Zhao Yunlan’s shoulders, and Shen Wei’s expression shuttered. Zhao Yunlan silently cursed at himself. Since the attack, Shen Wei had come to view the scar on his collarbone as a palpable reminder of another too-close call. No matter; Zhao Yunlan would just have to work a little harder to distract him.

He finished taking off his robe and leaned back on his arms, palms flat on the tiled floor behind him. “You know, I would have expected a bit more blushing at this point from my virginal husband.”

Shen Wei ducked his head. “I’m just glad you’re here.” There was a quiet, profound note in his voice that Zhao Yunlan needed to do away with as soon as possible.

“So am I,” he replied cheerfully and, with a whoop, pushed himself into the water. He’d used enough force to land toward the middle of the pool. The attendants had secured Zhao Yunlan’s braided hair into a pile atop his head, but the splash had certainly gotten some of it wet.

He saw Shen Wei’s smile, and noticed as his lips parted when the impact of Zhao Yunlan’s jump reached him underwater. This gave Zhao Yunlan an idea, which he carefully stored for later.

He swung back to his starting spot on the side of the pool and leaned his back against it, elbows resting on the edge, head thrown back. He sighed loudly and closed his eyes.

Zhao Yunlan waited, letting his body soak up the warmth, until he heard Shen Wei clear his throat. “So, Your Highness, what would you have done next?”

Zhao Yunlan hummed. “This feels pretty good.”

“Oh, I see. How patient of you,” Shen Wei said with a teasing note in his voice.

“Hey, I would have been very patient,” protested Zhao Yunlan, not opening his eyes. “This way we could both take some time to loosen up a bit. Weddings are exhausting, don’t you think?”

He heard a chuckle and a soft splash, and then felt drops landing upon his face. He raised his head, astonished, to see Shen Wei flicking his fingers over the surface, sprinkling him. “You already look quite loose to me,” he said, a mischievous smile on his lips.

“Well then,” said Zhao Yunlan, pushing off from the wall. He walked slowly through the water toward Shen Wei, whose eyes turned hungry at his approach. “I was going to make small talk until my new husband stopped feeling nervous, but since that doesn’t seem to be an issue…" He had stopped close, careful not to touch. "I would probably offer to wash your back.”

Shen Wei blinked. “How romantic. You wouldn’t want to kiss me?”

Zhao Yunlan grinned and reached over Shen Wei’s shoulder for the tray of bath toiletries placed on the floor behind him. “Everything in due time,” he said, picking up a sponge. “Now turn around.”

Shen Wei glanced at his lips, hesitating, but then faced the wall of the pool. His hands rose to hold lightly onto the edge, in an obliging gesture that sent a sudden flare of lust through Zhao Yunlan. He swallowed, then sunk the sponge below the surface, soaking it with warm water.

Shen Wei’s hair had been wrapped into a neat knot, fastened under a cylindrical leather ornament. Except for the thin black cord of his pendant, his neck was bare, wet from the bath, and looking so tender that Zhao Yunlan barely managed to keep his lips away from it. He ran the sponge over it gently, then focused on Shen Wei’s shoulders and back. He kept his movements repetitive, increasing pressure whenever he felt tension through the porous texture, easing his touch as Shen Wei relaxed. He continued to rub him down with measured strokes, the water around them whirling lazily with each move.

“I don’t think you need to be so thorough,” Shen Wei murmured over his shoulder. “The attendants did good work already.”

Zhao Yunlan got distracted for a moment by his profile, the flush on his cheeks and the dark sweep of lashes over his barely open eyes. He leaned in to whisper into his ear: “This is not about getting you clean. Now stay still, I want to try something.”

Shen Wei sucked in a breath, leaning back slightly as if drawn to his voice, but obeyed. Zhao Yunlan set aside the sponge and, keeping a delicate distance, moved his palms at an angle through the water an inch away from Shen Wei’s skin, as if sculpting the body before him.

“Oh!” Shen Wei half-exclaimed, half-sighed at the motion unfurling against him.

Zhao Yunlan grinned. “The physician at my post out west showed me this when I got sunburned once. Nice, isn’t it?”

Shen Wei hummed in agreement. Zhao Yunlan added quietly, “It’s better when you relax and just let yourself feel it,” and his husband swayed a little but stayed in place.

Zhao Yunlan kept running his hands as if he was shaping the water around Shen Wei, letting the sensuous impact spread as far as he could reach. He made himself breathe evenly and move rhythmically, watching the slow change in Shen Wei’s posture: he was sinking into the sensation that swirled against him from all sides. He inhaled in surprise as Zhao Yunlan’s palms pushed through the water on either side of his torso, one up and one down. The break in symmetry seemed to bring on awareness of intangible contact everywhere the water touched him. Shen Wei moaned softly, as if he’d felt caressed everywhere at once - yet not enough.

Shen Wei turned around and looked at him with heavy-lidded eyes. “I really think you should kiss me now,” he said, sounding breathless. Zhao Yunlan smiled at his impatience. “If you insist,” he said and took Shen Wei’s face in his hands.

At the moment their lips touched, Zhao Yunlan stepped forward and pressed the full length of his body against him.

Shen Wei’s mouth fell open in a groan. Zhao Yunlan drank it from his lips, kissing him deeply. The solid touch of naked skin, after all the hypnotic almost-touching, made them both suddenly feverish for each other. Desire spiked, sharp and demanding.

Shen Wei slid against him, his kisses turning frenzied. His arms went around Zhao Yunlan; he was urging their hips closer together, seeking more pressure against the hardness at his groin. One of Shen Wei’s knees went up and bent around the outside of Zhao Yunlan’s leg, like a vine trying to climb on. Zhao Yunlan put a hand under Shen Wei’s thigh, dazed with want, and pulled it up over his own hip. Shen Wei grabbed his shoulders and lifted himself, wrapping his legs around Zhao Yunlan’s waist. Zhao Yunlan’s hands moved below, grasping handfuls of firm flesh to help hoist him up. Shen Wei felt lighter, buoyant in the water. Zhao Yunlan didn’t let go.

Shen Wei clung to Zhao Yunlan for purchase and ground awkwardly against him; his erection was trapped low between their torsos. Zhao Yunlan stepped forward and pushed his back to the pool wall, pinning him to the tile. Shen Wei’s mouth fell open and his eyes closed, the flush on his cheeks spreading down his neck and chest. Zhao Yunlan felt himself harden fully, cock rising to meet the cleft of Shen Wei’s ass. He moved by instinct, his arousal sliding along the dip, his hips finding a rhythm as smooth as the water surface around them.

They’d pleasured each other in the bathing pool before, water echoing their movements and making every touch slippery and weightless. But tonight everything felt more intense. Shen Wei quivered in Zhao Yunlan’s arms. “I need you,” he said in a husky voice, his hands running over wet skin as if he couldn’t get enough.

Zhao Yunlan forced himself to slow down and remember his plans for the night. He eased his motions into a mellow grind, then licked at the drops of water on Shen Wei’s neck.

“Now that we’ve - kissed,” he said with a low chuckle, “I think it would be time to take my new husband to bed. Don’t you agree?”

Shen Wei opened his eyes. “You don’t want to... stay here?” he asked, the blush in his cheeks deepening. He rubbed the side of his face against Zhao Yunlan’s as if to hide it. “You could take me like this,” he uttered, breath hitching at the brazen invitation.

Zhao Yunlan’s hands tightened around the curves he was still holding up underneath, inadvertently spreading them further. His cock blindly aimed up to the center of the crease and pushed against it. He shut his eyes and growled into Shen Wei’s shoulder. “You don’t know what a temptation you are,” he said with some difficulty, then straightened to look up at him. “But I want us to take our time tonight. Will you do it? For me?” he added, knowing he wouldn’t be denied. Shen Wei swallowed and nodded.

Zhao Yunlan gave him a leisurely kiss as they untangled from each other. Then he led Shen Wei up the tiled stairs out of the bath.

He stopped there with a towel in his hand, staring as the water sluiced down his husband’s bare skin, glistening over the curves of lean muscle, his nipples and erection dark brown in the candlelight. Shen Wei’s eyes were ravenous, traveling over Zhao Yunlan in return; then he smiled coyly. “We could have stayed in the pool.”

Zhao Yunlan took a bracing breath. “Stop trying to distract me,” he said and tossed the towel at Shen Wei, who caught it and laughed in surprise. “Come on, get dry so I can seduce you all over again.”

“I’m sure this is all very proper wedding night etiquette, my lord,” said Shen Wei and stepped around him to dry Zhao Yunlan’s back.

 


 

Attendants were much more efficient at this, Zhao Yunlan thought as they finished rubbing each other down with soft cloths; then again, their work didn’t include stolen kisses and lingering touches. Even so, Shen Wei had managed to rush them through the process, and soon they walked into the bedroom, hand in hand and naked from head to toe.

Zhao Yunlan had left only one lantern by the bedside, its light low and muted. Next to it was a small bowl of oil, a larger one of water, and a few towels. The bed was unmade and cozy pillows piled upon it like a makeshift oasis. Along the edges was a trail of red rose petals, their fragrance drifting up from the sheets.

Shen Wei was wide-eyed, taking in the sight. “You did this?”

Zhao Yunlan stepped behind him, put his chin on Shen Wei’s shoulder and wrapped his arms around his waist. “The past few weeks have been rough. I thought, what if we let ourselves have the wedding night we would have had, if things were a little different and a lot less difficult?”

Shen Wei turned around in his arms and looked at him thoughtfully, his eyes shadowed. “You want to fix our past? Take… my lies out of it?”

“No, my love, not at all,” Zhao Yunlan said and cupped his face. “Everything we went through, every hardship and obstacle we had to overcome along the way only served to bring us closer together. And every step is all the more precious for having been a choice and a challenge, for both of us.” He dropped a chaste kiss onto Shen Wei’s lips. “I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. I just want to look back on the past, celebrate the good that was there all along, and let go of the painful parts of it.”

Shen Wei’s expression softened. “I’d like that.”

Zhao Yunlan smiled, then leaned in to whisper in his ear: “And yes, I want to take my time with you, as I would have with a virgin in my bed on our wedding night. Will you let me?”

He felt Shen Wei shiver at the words. “Yes,” he breathed and offered his mouth to Zhao Yunlan again.

Zhao Yunlan lowered him into the sheets, kissing him sweetly. Their skin felt dry after the long soak, and they dipped their fingertips, still wrinkled from the pool, into the oil, spreading it onto one another with caresses as they rolled in a lazy embrace. Zhao Yunlan eased up whenever Shen Wei’s touch began to feel desperate. They traded long kisses, losing themselves in the rhythm of their mouths and the slow grind of their bodies. Zhao Yunlan had pulled out the pin from Shen Wei’s hair and let it down, running his fingers through the silky weight of it, rubbing at his scalp gently until the last trace of anything constrictive on Shen Wei’s body was gone.

Shen Wei sighed in Zhao Yunlan’s arms, and turned onto his belly with little encouragement. Zhao Yunlan moved Shen Wei’s hair to the side so he could kiss the back of his neck. “Is this all right?” he asked, running his hand down the length of Shen Wei’s spine, and saw him nod against the pillow.

“Anything you want,” Shen Wei said, closing his eyes, and Zhao Yunlan had to kiss his temple and cheek and the corner of his mouth.

“I want you, I only ever want you,” he said, sounding hoarse to his own ears. “But you have to tell me if you wish to stop at any point, all right?”

Shen Wei frowned in confusion, but nodded easily. Zhao Yunlan reached for more oil.

He peppered kisses along Shen Wei’s shoulders while he slowly opened him up, muttering promises and praise. Zhao Yunlan watched the tension melt away from him again like it did in the pool, but there was a new strum of anticipation in his body. After a few minutes of Zhao Yunlan sliding a finger into him, Shen Wei bent one of his knees, canting his hips toward Zhao Yunlan’s hand. “Give me more... please,” he added, his ears turning red.

Zhao Yunlan pushed in carefully with two fingers, and then paused. “I wouldn’t want to cause my new husband any discomfort,” he said. “So I’ll stop if I see you tensing up. As long as you’re relaxed, I’ll keep going. Deal?”

“Deal,” Shen Wei replied, making himself go boneless under Zhao Yunlan’s ministrations.

“And you can make as much noise as you want,” Zhao Yunlan added, knowing from experience that staying still and staying quiet were often at odds with each other.

He kept at it, pausing whenever he noticed Shen Wei’s muscles going taut, waiting for a grunt of frustration as Shen Wei made himself relax again, then continuing. At some point, Shen Wei’s breath had begun to match the motion of his fingers: deep and even, gasping whenever Zhao Yunlan pressed at the sensitive spot of pleasure inside him.

“So good,” Zhao Yunlan spoke into his skin, his hand moving in a continuous rhythm. “You’ve been taking such good care of me, protecting me, looking after me. Now it’s time I take care of you.” Shen Wei shuddered and his hips twitched. Zhao Yunlan slowed down for a moment, then went on.

“Don’t chase pleasure. Let me bring it to you,” and he curled his fingers, drinking in the noises Shen Wei made with every targeted stroke of his fingertips. His body yielded to Zhao Yunlan’s attentions; slowly but surely, his will followed.

Zhao Yunlan kissed his cheek, then withdrew his fingers and got himself ready. He braced himself over his husband’s prone body, bracketed Shen Wei’s legs with his knees, and saw the flutter of his eyelashes in profile against the pillows.

“Stop thinking. Just let yourself feel,” he said and positioned himself. He felt his erection dip towards the rim, softened and slick with oil. A tentative push, and his cockhead sank inside with little resistance, both of them groaning at the feeling.

Zhao Yunlan blinked through the overwhelming pleasure and reached for Shen Wei’s hands, interlacing their fingers. He rocked against him with little circles of his hips, going deeper slowly. The plush pillows underneath them gave way with each forward motion, echoing the give of water in the bath, and of Shen Wei’s supple body beneath his.

“You’re so good, so good,” Zhao Yunlan whispered into his hair, taking the time to feel for any strain. Shen Wei moaned at Zhao Yunlan’s thrusts, keeping himself relaxed and receptive.

Zhao Yunlan had aligned their limbs as if covering Shen Wei’s body with his own. Then he pushed hard and deep all the way in, and lowered himself fully, knowing that Shen Wei could take his weight. He paused, letting him feel pinned down, inside and out.

He felt the shift in Shen Wei as his body gave in, gave up to him completely. Lust was thrumming through Zhao Yunlan’s nerves like a primal call for movement, but he kept it at bay. He waited to be sure, listening to Shen Wei’s shallow breaths, feeling him stay docile and still as if in a trance.

“My love, you’ve done so well,” he murmured. “Now, can you do something for me?” Shen Wei hummed in assent; his eyes were closed. Zhao Yunlan rubbed his thumbs against the backs of those trustful hands in a calming motion. “You've been a weapon, a shield around me; but you're also my husband, a man with a wonderful, soft heart." He placed a tender kiss behind Shen Wei's ear. "I want you to take everything that’s been weighing on your heart, everything that worries and scares you, and release it all - just as you’ve let go of tension. I’m here, I’ve got you, you can let it all go,” he repeated against the smooth skin, and felt it as Shen Wei’s mind began to stir.

“It’s all right, you can let go,” he kept on, but Shen Wei’s breathing had gone irregular, his muscles tensing. Zhao Yunlan moved his elbows onto the bed and shifted some weight off him, subtly setting him free while still staying inside him and maintaining skin-on-skin contact.

“I... I can’t,” Shen Wei choked out. He was blinking fast, his face harrowed. In a quiet, reedy voice he added: “I’m sorry.”

The words cut through Zhao Yunlan’s heart. “Shhhh,” he whispered, nuzzling at the side of Shen Wei’s face. “You have nothing to be sorry for, my darling. Nothing at all. There are things that hurt you and those close to you, and it is all right to feel the hurt itself. But it is not your fault, do you understand? None of your fault, and none of your doing. You can let it go.”

Shen Wei swallowed with difficulty, his eyes shining in the dim light. “I don’t know if I can, it’s too much...”

“I’ll help you. We’ll do it bit by bit. Do you trust me?”

“Yes,” Shen Wei breathed, and Zhao Yunlan kissed his face again, almost overcome with tenderness, before he started to change position.

Shen Wei let out a quiet, unhappy whimper as they began to separate. Zhao Yunlan sprawled over him again, touching everywhere, and took a breath to steady himself; he had underestimated the comfort of skin. “I’m right here, you got me. Let’s do this together, all right?”

He snaked an arm under Shen Wei and circled his waist, tight and secure against his own body, before he began to raise himself again. Eventually they’d both gotten their knees under them, still joined, Zhao Yunlan half-sitting on his heels with Shen Wei in front of him, thighs spread and back arched against Zhao Yunlan’s chest. His hips were cradled tightly in Zhao Yunlan’s lap, and his head rested back on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder. Shen Wei’s long hair fell between them like a dark wave.

Zhao Yunlan kept his arm around him, feeling him lean into their embrace even as Shen Wei shook with the effort to stay calm. Under Zhao Yunlan’s palms, tension spiked through him uncontrollably. It felt broken down compared to his state over the past days, yet the shards of it still appeared through his body, edges of anguish rising under lovely skin like the weapons hidden in the silk of his garments. Zhao Yunlan held and caressed him, letting their bodies sway back and forth, the small repetitive motion soothing like warm ripples. The contrast of Shen Wei’s strength and fragility, perfectly bare in his hands, made Zhao Yunlan’s head swim with emotions. He forced himself to focus.

“We'll go slow, my love,” he said gently. “Let the pressure rise, then release it, little by little until it’s all gone.”

He felt a tremor go through Shen Wei at his words. He reached down as far as he could touch and ran his palm slowly upwards: over Shen Wei’s thigh, hip, belly and chest, hand stopping around his throat carefully for a moment to feel Shen Wei’s breathing slow and deepen to match his own. Zhao Yunlan finally cupped his chin and turned Shen Wei’s face toward his own for another kiss. He tried to pour into it every protective, loving, reassuring feeling that had been quietly bursting inside his heart, and hoped with all his might that his husband’s trust in him wasn’t misplaced.

“Ready?” he asked, and Shen Wei nodded.

Zhao Yunlan lowered his hand to Shen Wei’s hardness, at half-mast after their repositioning, and brushed his fingers against it. Shen Wei cried out and his cock jumped at the touch. “Easy,” Zhao Yunlan said, his own erection responding inside Shen Wei’s body. He extended his forefinger and slowly rubbed its side over the length of Shen Wei’s cock, which quickly stiffened at the slight stimulation.

“There you go, just like that...” he said, and watched as a bead of precome appeared at the head. Shen Wei panted, tense as a bowstring. His cock jerked again and Zhao Yunlan moved his hand away.

“Let go, darling, just feel it,” he said. A sob swelled through Shen Wei’s body as he made himself go limp against Zhao Yunlan’s chest. Shen Wei’s eyes were closed, but there was a trace of wetness at his temple. Zhao Yunlan kissed the salty drop off his face and waited as their breathing realigned. He had to slow his own as well; the experience of Shen Wei’s sensitivity had made him a little dizzy.

“Are you ready for more?” he asked, and Shen Wei nodded shakily.

Zhao Yunlan reached down and touched him again, this time running the flat of his palm along the underside of his cock. After a few strokes he heard Shen Wei’s urgent gasp and stopped, just before a minor spurt coated the head with pearly liquid and dripped onto the sheets. Shen Wei frantically pushed back against him as if trying to impale himself deeper. Zhao Yunlan grabbed his hips and pulled him as close as he could. “Let go, that’s it,” he breathed into his ear, and Shen Wei sobbed as if something was torn out of him, going lax in Zhao Yunlan’s arms. Tears slid free from the corners of his eyes, as if they too had been waiting for Shen Wei to give up control. Zhao Yunlan held him close, helped him breathe through it.

After the next nod, Zhao Yunlan placed his fingertips softly along Shen Wei’s cock, moving them up and down the silky length until he felt a single throb under his touch. More precome spouted out, and Shen Wei moaned at the reflexive tightening of his body, letting it blaze through him, and melted against Zhao Yunlan without guidance this time. “Oh, well done, well done, my love,” Zhao Yunlan whispered against his cheek and held him, overwhelmed with gratitude that Shen Wei trusted him enough to do this, to let himself feel this way. He held down Shen Wei’s quaking hips until they’d settled once more.

They did it again and again, Shen Wei’s body releasing tension on wave after wave of pleasure, Zhao Yunlan muttering praise into his ear and holding him throughout. Each touch brought on a reaction until Zhao Yunlan’s hand grew sticky with it. Shen Wei was shivering in his arms and convulsing around him, his face wet, eyes closed and body open. Zhao Yunlan felt like they’d been suspended on the edge of climax for hours; it was harder and harder to get his own breathing under control.

Then Shen Wei rasped: “Please, please - I have to...”

“All right, darling, let me...” Zhao Yunlan said, grabbing a silk pillow. He placed it squarely before Shen Wei and laid him down on his stomach. He added more oil to the place they were joined, then grounded Shen Wei’s body with the shelter of his embrace, letting him feel Zhao Yunlan’s weight again. Shen Wei trembled underneath him, sinking into the sheets. “Like this?” Zhao Yunlan asked and waited for the hum of acquiescence. Then he began to move.

“You’ve been so good, my love, so good. Now let it all go. I’m here, I’ve got you.” Shen Wei’s face was wet under Zhao Yunlan’s lips. Zhao Yunlan kept the drag of his cock inside him slow and smooth for a while. Shen Wei took it, pliant and still, breathing in gulps like he was on the very brim - of tears, or pleasure, or both, sensation and emotion flowing through him freely in an intoxicating stream.

Zhao Yunlan began to fuck him harder, knowing that with every thrust he pushed Shen Wei’s oversensitive erection against the pillow beneath. Shen Wei’s gasps turned into moans, almost continuous as Zhao Yunlan kept the pace, his hips relentless.

He nosed at the back of Shen Wei’s neck, where strands of hair had stuck to his skin with sweat. “Can you let yourself go like this?” he panted. Shen Wei only responded with another broken moan. Zhao Yunlan grabbed his wrists and instinctively bit the back of his neck, holding him in place there too as he pounded him into the bed, and Shen Wei sobbed with relief and fell apart, clenching around Zhao Yunlan’s cock as his release began to roll out of him, in waves that felt as endless as the ocean.

“Oh, that’s it, like that,” Zhao Yunlan groaned and kept fucking him through it, losing pace, feeling Shen Wei’s climax as it rippled through them both. He had been so focused on Shen Wei’s needs that his own peak surprised him: on the next stuttered push of his hips he tumbled over the edge, pulsing deep inside the tight heat, the crest of intense pleasure overwhelming his senses.

 


 

Zhao Yunlan opened his eyes next to Shen Wei’s face, so near that their noses touched. Shen Wei’s eyes were closed, mouth slack and cheeks wet; his breathing was tremulous. Zhao Yunlan touched his lips wherever he could reach with minimal movement, and stayed inside him until he began to feel too sensitive.

“Take a deep breath, love,” he said, “and now exhale.” He pulled out as Shen Wei obeyed, then curled around him, continuing to press sweet kisses upon his face. Keeping one arm around Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan reached for the bedside table. He used a few wet cloths to carefully clean them both, then pulled the covers over them.

Shen Wei had laid his head on Zhao Yunlan’s chest, eyes still wet. His hair was a tangle of black silk on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder. There was a frail unbound quality to the way his body relaxed, solid and present, in Zhao Yunlan’s embrace. Zhao Yunlan couldn’t stop touching him, couldn’t stop moving his palms over Shen Wei’s skin in comforting circles. He waited.

Shen Wei swallowed, then spoke in a hushed voice, brittle and ragged. “That night when you were attacked... fear took hold of me, and I didn’t know how to break away.”

Zhao Yunlan pressed a kiss to his forehead and kept listening.

“I kept imagining things. Threats and hazards that could appear anywhere, waiting around every corner. And even as I knew many were nonsensical, impossible, I didn’t know how to, how to get them out of my mind...”

Zhao Yunlan tightened his arms around him. Shen Wei took a shaky breath and continued.

“The memory of that night kept coming back to me, and it kept twisting into visions of other attacks that could happen tomorrow or next week or next year... and I was caught between that past moment and that imaginary future, waiting for whatever might happen, frozen in the middle and afraid I wouldn’t reach you in time...”

Zhao Yunlan nuzzled at his temple.

Shen Wei turned his head to look at him, fresh wetness in his eyes. “I can’t lose you, Yunlan. Not when we just - we just found each other.”

“You won’t lose me.”

He felt Shen Wei’s hand glide up to his collarbone, fingertips tracing the jagged mark of a danger survived. “How can you be so sure?”

Zhao Yunlan reached for Shen Wei’s hand and pressed his lips to the scar on his palm. “Because look at all the troubles that fate has thrown in our path, and we still found each other. I have faith in us, my love, no matter what comes our way.”

Shen Wei let out a tearful laugh. “You’re the one who escaped near death, yet you’re reassuring me. Don’t you need comforting too?”

Zhao Yunlan smiled. “I have everything I need right here.” He lowered his head and kissed him. Then he leaned back on the pillows, making Shen Wei snuggle closer and rest his cheek again upon Zhao Yunlan’s chest.

“I’ve canceled all our appointments for tomorrow,” Zhao Yunlan murmured, picking a stray rose petal out of Shen Wei’s hair.

“Oh?”

“I think we should stay in bed all day. Maybe get up to bathe again - no attendants this time, just the two of us - and if you let me, I volunteer to wash your hair. I promise I’ll be gentle with the comb. What do you think?”

“Will you shave my face too?” Shen Wei asked. Zhao Yunlan felt his grin and knew he intended the question as a tease, but there was a note of unmistakable yearning in his voice.

“Of course I will,” he said softly, dropping another kiss onto Shen Wei’s head. “Also, the cooks will be making our favorite dishes all day and having them sent here whenever we ring for them. Otherwise we won’t be disturbed.”

Shen Wei let out a sigh. “That sounds wonderful.”

“I’m glad you agree. I think we both need a day off.”

A moment passed before Shen Wei replied, “Yes... I think so too.” He sounded dazed. Zhao Yunlan hummed in agreement and then went quiet, not wanting to disturb him. Within minutes, Shen Wei was soundly asleep in his arms.

Zhao Yunlan watched him for a while, bending his head with care to kiss away the salt crystallizing in the corners of his eyes. He reached slowly for the lantern and extinguished the light, then curled himself more comfortably around Shen Wei. He felt the warmth of bare skin against his own, listened to his peaceful breathing in the dark, and let himself float into sleep in the arms of the extraordinary man he loved.

Tomorrow was going to be wonderful.