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live by love (though the stars walk backward)

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As the sunny afternoon eased into evening, Shen Wei finally agreed to leave the bench and let Zhao Yunlan call a taxi. He tried to say again that he was fine and return to the solitude of his own apartment, but Zhao Yunlan was having none of it.

"It doesn't matter what bed you're sleeping in," Zhao Yunlan said, "I'm going to be there to make sure that's what you do." When Shen Wei steeled himself to insist, Zhao Yunlan must have seen the signs. "Please, Shen Wei. I can't…." The tears welling in Zhao Yunlan's eyes did what days chained to Ye Zun's pillar could not—it broke him.

He sagged. Zhao Yunlan was right there, throwing his arm around Shen Wei's waist, tucking his shoulders under Shen Wei's arm. "All right. Your bed," Shen Wei said.

The next thing Shen Wei knew he was sitting on Zhao Yunlan's bed, and Zhao Yunlan was on his knees, taking off Shen Wei's shoes. He smiled when he looked up. "Back with us? I'm never going to complain about your stubbornness to keep yourself upright again. We'd be sitting in the hallway if you'd completely passed out." He reached for the mug on the bedside table. "Can you manage this?"

It was just warm water but was the best thing Shen Wei had ever tasted. He hadn't realized until the first sip how thirsty he was. After draining the mug, he looked down at Zhao Yunlan, who was looking back with the softest expression he'd seen in this era. "I've got congee heating. Don't worry, you made it. It's one of the packages from the freezer." He paused for a moment and then frowned. "You're not arguing with me." He cupped Shen Wei's face. "Are you unconscious again?"

Shen Wei managed a huff of a laugh. "No. Food would be good. Edible food would be even better. More water would be wonderful."

"I can do wonderful," Zhao Yunlan said, putting on his cheeky grin. By the time he came back, Shen Wei had managed to remove his glasses and struggle out of his suit jacket. He dumped it on the floor at the end of the bed. Zhao Yunlan looked at it sharply as he handed Shen Wei the full mug.

"I’m burning it," Shen Wei said and downed the water. As he set the mug on the bedside table, he noticed Zhao Yunlan's smirk.

"You're like a plant. Give you a bit of water and you come to life again."

"I wish it were that simple," Shen Wei said, managing a small smile. "But I would like a shower."

"You're not going to let me help you, are you?" Shen Wei just looked at Zhao Yunlan; they both knew the question was mostly rhetorical. "You are going to leave the bathroom door unlocked, and I'll bring you clean clothes. Keys?"

Shen Wei nodded. It was a reasonable compromise. "If I still have them, they're in the jacket."

A quick search had Zhao Yunlan tossing Shen Wei's key in the air in victory. Then he held out his hand to help Shen Wei to his feet. Shen Wei clasped him at the elbow, pulling them into a close stance. He leaned, just a little, and Zhao Yunlan asked softly, "Are you sure you can do this?"

"I'll be—" He glanced up and saw the steely look he'd come to expect from the phrase. "I'd prefer to manage this on my own, but I'll call if I need help."

Zhao Yunlan squeezed Shen Wei's elbow and then left him to his ablutions. Shen Wei stripped off his trousers and shirt and left them in the pile with the jacket. His undershirt and shorts he left folded on the sink, and he was under the spray when he heard Zhao Yunlan come in. "Everything okay?" Zhao Yunlan asked.

"So far."

He was enjoying the soothing heat, but he knew his energy could fluctuate suddenly and he really didn't want Zhao Yunlan to have to rescue him from the tub. He washed his hair, that would deal with the worst of the sweat and sulfurous stink, and a quick lather over his body with something that smelled familiar and comforting. It was a relief when he managed to get out of the tub without incident.

The clean underwear and pyjama pants on the toilet lid were his, but the t-shirt was Zhao Yunlan's. He smiled, imagining Zhao Yunlan's outrage at the sight of his button-up pyjama shirts and took this small proprietary gesture for the care that it was.

Zhao Yunlan had changed into sleep clothes as well and was at Shen Wei's side before he managed to take two steps into the room. They exchanged looks—Shen Wei's ("I don't need your help") and Zhao Yunlan's ("Yes, you do. And you're letting me so that proves it.")—an exchange so familiar that Shen Wei wondered if Zhao Yunlan might have a point about his insistence on self-reliance. Zhao Yunlan led Shen Wei back to the bed and his previous seat, then handed him the bowl of congee. Shen Wei tried not to devour it the way he'd drank the water, knowing that his stomach wouldn't appreciate it, but he was very focused on it so that he didn't notice Zhao Yunlan on the bed until he was right behind Shen Wei.

"Can I dry your hair a bit more?"

Shen Wei nodded. Between the food, the exertion, and the soothing feeling of Zhao Yunlan's fingers in his hair, he felt like what little energy he had left was seeping out his feet. Zhao Yunlan reached over his shoulder and took the bowl from his hands. He must have drifted again, but at least the bowl was empty. He took the offered mug of water and was able to just sip it this time. Zhao Yunlan leaned closer to Shen Wei's shoulder for a moment and gave a little satisfied huff before returning his fingers to Shen Wei's hair.

"What?" Shen Wei asked. Hardly scintillating conversation, but he wanted Zhao Yunlan to know he was paying attention.

"Nothing." Shen Wei turned to give Zhao Yunlan a glare, but the fingers in his hair tightened just enough to keep him still. "I thought you would have used Daqing's body wash. He doesn't like 'stinky stuff' as he calls it."

"I like this scent."

"Good to know." He could hear Zhao Yunlan's smile and it suddenly hit him why he liked it—it smelled like Zhao Yunlan. It was pleasant on its own—herbal with a light zing of citrus—but he picked it because as soon as he opened the bottle, he knew he wanted the aroma around him.

"I think I need to lie down," Shen Wei said, suddenly feeling like his bones would no longer support him. Zhao Yunlan quickly flipped the covers away from the pillows and Shen Wei just tipped over. He tried to help with the rest of the arrangements, but Zhao Yunlan managed to get the blankets out from under him none the less. Zhao Yunlan leaned in as he pulled the covers over Shen Wei, clearly telegraphing a kiss to his cheek, temple, forehead, somewhere other than where Shen Wei wanted to be kissed.

Shen Wei turned his head, catching Zhao Yunlan's lips before they got close enough to meet skin. Zhao Yunlan paused in surprise and then kissed him: softly, sweetly, oh so sweetly. If Shen Wei could have moved his arms, he would have pulled Zhao Yunlan closer, deepened that gentle kiss into something more satisfying. And longer. Shen Wei sighed as Zhao Yunlan moved away.

"I'll make up the couch—"

"No!" Somehow, Shen Wei had grabbed a fistful of Zhao Yunlan's t-shirt. Zhao Yunlan looked down and then looked up with an amused raised eyebrow. Shen Wei flattened his hand but left it against Zhao Yunlan's chest. "I was alone for too long."

He meant while he was chained to the pillar but there was a deeper truth behind the statement which he hoped Zhao Yunlan didn't recognize. Zhao Yunlan nodded, then kissed Shen Wei again before pulling away. "I'll be right back."

Of course, he had his own needs to see to. Shen Wei chided himself for not recognizing that and what Zhao Yunlan had risked, going to Dixing and arranging the rescue. He had told Zhao Yunlan not to follow, he should be angry, but all he could manage was relief that he would be able to see Zhao Yunlan again, touch him again, kiss him….

The movement on the bed startled his eyes open. "Go back to sleep," Zhao Yunlan said quietly, worming his way under the blankets. Shen Wei had turned onto his side in the few moments he'd dozed so it was an easy matter to grab Zhao Yunlan's shirt again and encourage him to keep wriggling closer. "You need to sleep," Zhao Yunlan said, amusement in his voice, but he still settled far too far away.

"I need to feel something other than cold stone and colder steel."

Zhao Yunlan inhaled sharply through his teeth and then shifted close enough so that Shen Wei only had to lean to close the distance. He moved his hand from Zhao Yunlan's t-shirt to drape it over his waist. Zhao Yunlan took the hint, wrapping his upper arm around Shen Wei while shifting the other between Shen Wei's shoulder and his pillow. He pulled them into a tight hug, and Shen Wei finally felt like he was home.

Shen Wei had been avoiding moments like this for exactly that reason. He had kept their contact to occasional heated touches and kisses, but nothing this…intimate. He didn't trust how long it might last. Would he have it snatched away again when Zhao Yunlan went back in time to give his younger self a similarly tempting taste of what it was like to live in the eyes of another person? However, the past few days had shown him that either one of them could be ripped away at any time. He raised his head from where he'd tucked it into Zhao Yunlan's neck to look into his eyes. Zhao Yunlan smiled, and Shen Wei found that he didn't care what might happen in the future. He knew what he wanted to happen now.

He kissed Zhao Yunlan, an answer to the one he had been given earlier. Just as gentle, hopefully just as sweet, but Shen Wei had no intention of stopping at just one. When they eased apart, he hummed his approval and chased Zhao Yunlan's lips for a second kiss. Zhao Yunlan grinned for an instant and then kissed him back. Easy, soft kisses that simply said, "I’m here."

By the fourth, or maybe the fifth, Shen Wei could feel the heat starting to build; not the sparks and flames of their previous encounters, but something banked, warm and welcoming. Zhao Yunlan was feeling it more acutely and he tried to put some space between his growing erection and Shen Wei. That was unacceptable. Shen Wei shoved his knee between Zhao Yunlan's and then hooked his ankle around Zhao Yunlan's calf to keep them close.

"Shen Wei, you are too exhausted for that."

"It's still nice," he sighed. "I like knowing that you want me."

Zhao Yunlan did the kissing now. Shen Wei almost sobbed for the feelings that flooded through him. He remembered kisses likes this, tender with carefully restrained passion. It filled him with such longing for everything that usually followed. The provocative touches, the delectable tastes, the closeness, the ecstasy. And the love. So much love.

"We should stop," Zhao Yunlan said against Shen Wei's lips. "You should sleep." He pulled back, and Shen Wei could see the concern, which only increased as Shen Wei blinked away the tears that had gathered in his eyes. He also felt sleep pulling on him, attempting to drag him into the cold dark where there was no Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei was rapidly becoming fed up with "shoulds".

"If we stop, I'll just lie here thinking about kissing you again and it will keep me awake," Shen Wei said, channelling as much of his guileless younger self as he could manage.

Zhao Yunlan snorted a disbelieving laugh, then he threaded his fingers in the hair at Shen Wei's temple and kissed him. "Fine, I'll kiss you until you fall asleep." And Zhao Yunlan—his Yunlan—kissed him again.

"And when I wake up?" Shen Wei really hoped he would wake up, and if he did, he was not going to put off living anymore. Zhao Yunlan must have seen some of that on Shen Wei's face, because his eyes darkened further as he continued to gently brush Shen Wei's temple with his thumb.

"Oh, yes. I'll kiss you then, too."