Zhao Yunlan moved in front of Shen Wei without even thinking about it. He caught a glimpse — Shen Wei's face, lit by the Dial, was grey, his eyes unfocused. He struggled to keep his head held up.
"Give the Hallows to me," the Regent repeated.
Zhao Yunlan drew the dark energy pistol from his holster in a quick motion. "That's not going to happen," he said. "I think you and your friends should leave. Before anyone gets hurt."
"You stole my position!" the Regent said. "I was only trying to help Dixing — that's all I've ever done!" His tone was wounded and wheedling at the same time. "I've never wanted to hurt you, or Hei Pao Shi. I just need the Hallows."
"What, so you can blackmail your way back into power?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He could picture it too clearly — the Lantern-light that Shen Wei had suffered and sacrificed for, dangled and withdrawn to keep the populace in line. "Forget it." He cocked the pistol, holding it up so they could all see it clearly in the Dial's glow. "I'm warning you, back off. You know what this is? The weapon of the Lord Guardian, made especially to kill Dixingren."
Okay, maybe that was laying it on a bit thick, but he could see uncertain fear in the face of at least one of the Regent's followers. And he wanted very much to avoid having to actually fire the gun. Lin Jing had been incredibly unhappy that he was still carrying it.
"You're outnumbered," the Regent pointed out. As if he thought Zhao Yunlan might not have realised.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged, and grinned, and hardened his heart against the small noise of distress Shen Wei made behind him. "Yes, but are your powers a match for my weapon?" Keep them talking, keep them talking. Soon someone would notice the unexpected cluster of lights here. It would be time for the dead guard's shift to end. Something. "What is your power, anyway?"
"I don't have one," the Regent said, with a smile that didn't manage to be as casual as its intent. "I've had to do without. But I like to think my other skills are well honed, even if I'll never match the renown of Hei Pao Shi." He almost spat Shen Wei's title.
The glint of a long knife. Zhao Yunlan had been focused too much on the Regent — one of the other men darted at him from the side, blade slashing —
He pressed the trigger. The gun fired; the man dropped.
Someone came from the other direction and Zhao Yunlan spun and aimed the gun again — but this time when he clicked the trigger nothing happened. He kept trying, again, again, and then tried to switch focus for a short-range fight but he'd left it too late and a club cracked against his arm, a boot against his head. Knocking him to the ground, someone pinning him heavily for a moment, wrestling away the gun from his clenched fingers.
"Give it to me," the Regent ordered.
Zhao Yunlan turned his head and Shen Wei was still kneeling, clutching the Dial to his chest, eyes glassy, his head drifting slightly from side to side as he utterly failed to track what was happening.
Zhao Yunlan looked back in time to see the Regent raise the gun, and aim at Shen Wei —
He shoved himself up as the gun fired, into the path of the dark energy projectile, and then the searing pain in his chest was a reward because it hadn't taken Shen Wei. His breath caught around that pain and he folded to the ground, airless, and Shen Wei's appalled eyes were locked on his and the moment became a mirror — they had been here before only that time it had been Shen Wei taking Ye Zun's killing blow for him.
This seemed… only fair…
But the Regent was raising the gun again, and Zhao Yunlan tried to move but couldn't, his body failed him now, he could only stare in horror as if he could hold Shen Wei's death back by sheer force of will —
The Regent fired.
The dark energy pistol blew apart.
A wave of un-light seared across Zhao Yunlan's eyes, rocked the ground beneath him, sucked the air itself into a brief vacuum. Would have knocked Zhao Yunlan over if he hadn't already been lying on his side.
And then it was gone, leaving inverse prints of light on the inside of his eyelids. Leaving him and Shen Wei alone, just outside the radius of the explosion. Everything in front of them was gone, a scooped-out shallow impression left in the rock, free of even dust.
Zhao Yunlan struggled and struggled to breathe. He ground his knuckles against his eyes, squinted until he could see properly. Agony spread out from his chest with each movement, but he moved anyway, forcing himself to roll over.
Shen Wei lay still, curled around the Dial. Zhao Yunlan pushed himself, again, reaching to Shen Wei's knee, the closest part of him. He tried to speak, but couldn't catch enough breath. He shook him instead.
No response. And the Lantern-ember overhead was still dwindling. Very soon it would be gone, the last of its energy recalled to Shen Wei, and what would happen after that? Not just to the Lantern, but to Shen Wei, when he ran out?
He knew the plan they had made together. He had to go on following it.
It took too long, and too much effort, but he managed to wriggle his arms out of the rucksack straps. Pull it around. Open it, fish inside. Find the wrapped bundle which was the Awl. Unwrap it.
Then he pushed himself up to sitting, which nearly made him black out. He reached for Shen Wei's shoulder now, shook him again. "Shen Wei," he whispered, with all the breath he'd managed to reclaim. The Brush lay just out of reach, where he'd dropped it, and he would pick it up in a moment…
Shen Wei didn't stir. Zhao Yunlan carefully unfolded his hands from around the Dial. Lifted it away from him.
He knew at once he'd made a mistake. The glowing Dial was only the size of his hand but it contained an immense weight of energy — pulled, after all, from the heart of a star. Leaking out, tugging on his awareness and focus and on him, his life-force. He could barely think around that golden, burning, suffocating presence and pressure.
He needed —
He couldn't think. He was lost.
Then Shen Wei's hand settled over his, turning most of the Dial's terrible focus onto himself. With his other arm he reached up, palm held to the sky. Wordless. And the Lantern came at his call.
It drifted down to him, feather-gentle, settling into his hand. A red-orange ember in its depths, no more than the last glow of a blown-out candle. Shen Wei held it out to Zhao Yunlan, who took it by one handle. And yes, this was right. He pressed his forehead against Shen Wei's and they both breathed together for a moment, neither of them able to speak.
Then Shen Wei took up the Awl and Zhao Yunlan felt for the Merit Brush with the fingers of his free hand, and gripped it tightly.
Shen Wei held the Awl to the Dial and the two Hallows seemed to merge for a moment. Then golden light spun from one to the other, coiling around the point of the Awl as it split the sun's energy away from the Dial.
Zhao Yunlan lifted the Brush and drew a character across the Lantern's glass, the mirror to the one so far above at the tunnel's mouth in Haixing. Shen Wei let the Dial fall to his lap and grasped the other handle of the Lantern and as they held it together he lifted the Awl as if it was now almost unbearably heavy, but his hand didn't shake. He drove the point of the Awl against the Lantern and it travelled through the glass and the captured sunlight streamed into the Lantern's heart and it didn't brighten but settled instead, condensing into a white-gold spark.
Shen Wei's hands dropped away and Zhao Yunlan pulled his arm back and with the last of his strength threw the Lantern up, up. Like a flaming arrow through the Dixing night, like a spear. Like a shooting star.
And the long thread drawn between realms by the Merit Brush snapped tight.
For an instant the entire length of its path was illuminated, not just the last portion through the air but the whole winding trail that Shen Wei had carried it along, that Zhao Yunlan had traced through the coils of the earth. A golden line, unbroken. Then the Lantern flared bright, drawing all that light back into itself; a blazing beacon becoming a sunrise, becoming a sun.
"We did it," Zhao Yunlan whispered.
Shen Wei was trying to hold him up, or he was trying to hold Shen Wei up, but neither of them had the strength for it. Rock underneath, and Zhao Yunlan could at least pull Shen Wei closer as they lay, could hold him tightly and be held by him.
Beneath Lantern-light; beneath sunlight.
Chu Shuzhi found them. After a while.
Before that, Shen Wei lay with his arm flung over Zhao Yunlan, fingers bunched in his collar. He could feel Zhao Yunlan's chest rise and fall like that; feel his heartbeat.
He hated being narrowed down to those two facts, when there was so much more of Zhao Yunlan he cared for and worried for, but they were the most important.
Zhao Yunlan was alive, and they had succeeded.
The Lantern blazed bright against his half-open eyes, as bright as it had always been meant to be, and Zhao Yunlan was alive, and the tug on his own heart where the Lantern had drunk from him so constantly was gone. Without it there was such a release of pain and heaviness he hadn't even realised he was carrying that he felt buoyant. Insubstantial. Too tired just then to even sit up, but he felt like he could have floated away.
That was when Chu Shuzhi arrived, running the last part of the distance. Shen Wei would have tried again to get up, except that it would have meant letting go of Zhao Yunlan, and also he knew he wouldn't be able to manage it. It was hard to hold onto his surroundings, hard enough keeping his eyes open. Chu Shuzhi was talking to him but the words just washed by like a river, a babble of indistinguishable sounds.
At least Chu Shuzhi understood without Shen Wei being able to tell him that Zhao Yunlan was terribly hurt, because his face was set in a deep frown and he had sent his puppet off almost immediately with a quick flick of its threads.
The others he summoned were there soon — presumably soon; time was difficult to keep track of. Da Qing grabbed at Zhao Yunlan possessively, and then was gently pushed out of the way by the palace physician, Dr Lu. She put her hand on Zhao Yunlan's chest and frowned deeply in consternation before directing a stream of healing energy into him, and Shen Wei found that he himself could breathe a little easier at that. Then she turned to Shen Wei, touching his pulse and meridians before frowning again but this time shaking her head in negation. She spoke to Chu Shuzhi and Shen Wei caught a word shaped on her lips. Time.
He didn't feel much of anything.
Chu Shuzhi, very carefully, pried Shen Wei's fingers free from Zhao Yunlan. Then lifted him onto a litter. The motion of it made him dizzy so Shen Wei closed his eyes most of the way, across the plain and through the city, except when he was driven to seek out Zhao Yunlan, also being carried, Da Qing curled up against him.
The same palace room around them that they had shared before. Shen Wei was slipping in and out of understanding what was happening but he struggled to focus while Dr Lu checked over Zhao Yunlan again, and then him. Sleep, she kept telling him, but he shook his head stubbornly although the effort of doing so exhausted him.
Finally she threw up her hands in frustration and poured more healing energy into Zhao Yunlan, who stirred groggily awake while Shen Wei's heart leapt. Zhao Yunlan turned his head, seeking him out, and then his smile was brighter than the Lantern, brighter even than the sun above. Shen Wei, he murmured, his voice a buzz against Shen Wei's fractured awareness.
Dr Lu said something, too fast to follow. Shen Wei lay and drank in the alertness of Zhao Yunlan's face even as he fretted over the pallor of it, the way that lines of pain creased around his eyes.
Then Zhao Yunlan turned back to him, his mouth quirking. "Shen Wei," he said, low and loving. And Shen Wei could catch those words, finally; could understand him. "You need to sleep, to get better. Sleep, okay, baby? For me." He laid a hand against Shen Wei's cheek.
Shen Wei wasn't capable of refusing anything Zhao Yunlan asked of him. Not just then. He closed his eyes, and slept.
He continued to sleep, mostly, but there were some moments when he was more aware. He first half-woke to find Zhao Yunlan clinging to him like a limpet and snoring softly, head tucked in against Shen Wei's shoulder and an arm wrapped tightly over him.
Then he woke briefly to find that Zhao Yunlan was missing, which had Shen Wei come more awake with worry that something had happened. He rolled over, intending to try to get up and look for him, but somehow that small effort was enough to exhaust him into falling back asleep.
Zhao Yunlan was there again the next time, smoothing down Shen Wei's hair and supporting him to drink something vile-tasting from a cup. Then he coughed, and put a hand to his chest with a wince of pain, and Shen Wei struggled to sit up in alarm.
"No, no, I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan assured him. "Lie down, okay? I'll be here with you."
That was a better prospect than more of the medicinal drink and Shen Wei allowed himself to be pulled back into the bed. Zhao Yunlan curled up against him.
"Don't go," Shen Wei mumbled.
"Not allowed to if I wanted," Zhao Yunlan groused. "I've been put on bed rest too…"
He approved of Zhao Yunlan getting proper rest. That contentment made it easy to drift away again.
He was vaguely aware of other times, maybe before, maybe after — the weight of blankets over him, or being pressed to drink, or a hand on his pulse or in his hair — but they were a blur.
Then he finally woke up and felt awake. Sat up easily, and took a few slow breaths.
The room was empty, which was mildly disconcerting. Shen Wei pushed back the brocaded covers and stood carefully, braced for dizziness that didn't come. The stone floor was warm under his bare feet, and the Lantern-light shone bright and golden through the latticed windows.
With no direction, and not wanting to sit around uselessly, Shen Wei dressed in a dark burgundy robe from the closet. His glasses were on a stand by the bed and he put them on too. Then he went in search of — anyone, he told himself, but really Zhao Yunlan.
He found people in the small room with the table, behind the throne dais. Shen Wei opened the door and hovered there for a moment, and then Zhao Yunlan saw him and stood up so fast he banged into the table and nearly upended it. "Shen Wei!" he called, loudly, barely noticing. "Are you —" and he closed the space between them and didn't even bother to finish his question before he had his arms around Shen Wei and was drawing him into an urgent kiss.
Shen Wei kissed him back — relief that Zhao Yunlan was safe and well, and oh he'd missed this, missed feeling good and loved and well and —
He broke off abruptly as he suddenly remembered that they had an audience. Zhao Yunlan made a little disappointed sound as Shen Wei's face heated up in embarrassment.
"Hi," Zhao Yunlan said, with a wide, soft grin.
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei said, trying to be disapproving because they were in public, but he couldn't quash his own smile.
There was a polite cough from the direction of the table. "Perhaps this would be a good point for us to stop for the evening?" An Bai suggested.
"Sounds great," Zhao Yunlan said, and cheerfully towed Shen Wei out of the room.
Shen Wei cast an apologetic glance over his shoulder and was encouraged to see the range of Dixingren seated around the table, including many faces he didn't know. "Is this the new council?" he asked.
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said. "The start of it, anyway. But it'll get there." He continued to draw Shen Wei down the hallway, holding onto his arm tightly.
"Where are we going?" Shen Wei asked.
"Anywhere we can be alone," Zhao Yunlan said, and tried a door. "Okay, here looks good."
It was a tiny antechamber, with a balcony. Zhao Yunlan let the door close and then wrapped his arms around Shen Wei again. This time Shen Wei didn't object — he pressed close to Zhao Yunlan in turn and raised a hand to his face, smoothing his fingers down Zhao Yunlan's brow, his cheekbone, his jaw. "You're all right," he said, mostly to reassure himself.
Zhao Yunlan turned his head quickly to kiss Shen Wei's fingers. "I'm sorry I wasn't there when you woke up," he said. "I would have been back soon — we didn't know how much longer you'd sleep for, and —"
"How long was it?" Shen Wei asked.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged slightly, a softening motion which didn't detract from the tight expression on his face. "Nearly a week? Six days."
"Oh," Shen Wei said, in considerable startlement.
"I guess you needed it," Zhao Yunlan said. "You look so much better."
"I feel so much better," Shen Wei assured him. "And you, are you really —"
"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan insisted. "Dr Lu made me stay in bed too for three days. Which would have been fine if you weren't asleep."
"I'm —" Shen Wei began, but Zhao Yunlan put his fingertips over Shen Wei's lips before the word sorry could emerge.
"None of that," he said, sternly, and drew Shen Wei to sit with him on a padded bench. "I'm so happy right now to have you awake again. And how's your energy?"
Shen Wei had become so accustomed to the ache of denying himself access to his dark energy that he hadn't even thought yet to check. Or had been too afraid to, and hiding it from himself. He took a deep breath and reached down, into his core, and there it was — bubbling up as if from a spring, refilling him. Not yet to the level he had previously maintained, but it was rising still. Without the Lantern's constant drain it would continue to do so.
Zhao Yunlan was still watching him anxiously. In answer, Shen Wei let a portion of his energy gather in his hand, billowing around his fingers. It came instantly, without effort or pain. He smiled.
Zhao Yunlan let out a long, relieved breath. "Good," he said. "That's good, right?"
"Yes," Shen Wei agreed. He let it slide back into his skin, settling deep inside him. "Zhao Yunlan — thank you."
"You're welcome, but what for?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Shen Wei struggled to shape it. "For… your support," he tried, finally, although that was far too stiff and formal and didn't at all convey what he meant.
Zhao Yunlan, though, beamed at him as if he understood anyway, and put an arm around him. "You're welcome," he said.
Shen Wei pulled back a little. "I don't remember everything clearly," he admitted. "But at the end…"
"We saved the day?" Zhao Yunlan suggested, looking decidedly uncomfortable all of a sudden.
"You stood in front of your own gun for me," Shen Wei said. "Didn't you?"
"It's lethal to Dixingren," Zhao Yunlan said. His face set stubbornly. "You. Not me."
"Did you know it wouldn't kill you?" Shen Wei demanded.
Zhao Yunlan ran a hand through his hair. "If I say yes, will you believe me?"
"You could have died!" Shen Wei protested.
"And if you had died, who would have re-lit the Lantern?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
That was debatable, but — "That's not why you did it," Shen Wei said.
"No," Zhao Yunlan admitted, softly. "No, I wasn't thinking about that at all. I just knew I couldn't let you die." He clung to Shen Wei's hand tightly. "I couldn't live with that."
Shen Wei wanted to protest, but he found that he couldn't. He understood only too well. Hadn't he made the exact same choice? He held onto Zhao Yunlan in return.
Then he looked up, and was abruptly on his feet, breathless, heart clenching. "Zhao Yunlan —"
"What is it?" Zhao Yunlan stood quickly, caught his arm, alarmed. "Shen Wei, what's wrong?"
"The Lantern," Shen Wei gasped. "It's fading —"
"No! No, it's not like that!" Zhao Yunlan's hands were tight on his shoulders. "There's nothing wrong, it just darkens every night now. And comes back!"
Shen Wei saw truth in his face and struggled to master himself, to push down the utter panic which had swept over him. "It's fine?"
Zhao Yunlan put his arms around him, holding him tightly. "It's fine," he said, soothingly. "They think it's to do with the connection, that it's weaker when the sun is behind the planet relative to the anchor point in Dragon City. Everyone's having to get used to Dixing having a proper day and night, but it's all okay."
Shen Wei took a shaky breath. "I thought —"
"I know," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm sorry, I should have warned you."
"No," Shen Wei protested, and managed a smile at Zhao Yunlan's look of exasperation.
Zhao Yunlan drew back as Shen Wei's breathing levelled off. He reached up a hand to straighten Shen Wei's glasses, and then ran an appreciative eye up and down him. "You do look good like this, I was right," he said. Then he frowned. "But you've lost weight."
"I'm fine," Shen Wei said, automatically. Then, interrupting the beginning of Zhao Yunlan's eye-roll — "Although, I am hungry."
"We'll fix that easily," Zhao Yunlan said, and began immediately shepherding him towards the door. "Then afterwards —" He grinned. "We could go back to our room, perhaps? I've missed you, baby."
"I've missed you too," Shen Wei said, and held him on the threshold for a kiss.
The front door had a cat-flap. That was a promising start.
Zhao Yunlan waited for the estate agent to find the right key, stepping closer to Shen Wei. "What do you think?" he asked, quietly.
"We haven't even seen inside yet," Shen Wei said, in a mildly quelling tone.
Zhao Yunlan just grinned at him. "I've got a good feeling about this place already." He liked the location — tucked away against one of Dragon City's parks, and within walking distance of the university. It was slightly further to the SID, but the direction would make it easy for him to drop off and pick up Shen Wei when he didn't want to walk. Shen Wei could always just portal himself, of course, and Zhao Yunlan hadn't actually suggested sharing the journey yet, but he thought it would be nice.
The door unlocked and Zhao Yunlan entered eagerly on the estate agent's heels, Shen Wei trailing at a more dignified distance. They took off their shoes in the entranceway and Zhao Yunlan got out his phone, snapping photos as they went. The agent gave them a brief tour, and then left them to look around on their own.
There was a good-sized living room. A nice kitchen. A little garden at the back, which didn't look too intimidating to manage. A bedroom and guest room upstairs. All unfurnished. "I don't think much of the colour scheme, though," Zhao Yunlan commented.
"Oh?" Shen Wei asked.
"Yeah, it needs more of a feel to it, you know?"
"…No?" Shen Wei said, looking a little overwhelmed.
"It's okay, you can leave the style to me," Zhao Yunlan said, remembering the impersonal edge to Shen Wei's old apartment.
Shen Wei looked slightly less worried as the prospect of being called upon to have interior decorating opinions diminished. "I do like the kitchen."
"Good, I'm glad." Zhao Yunlan put his arms around Shen Wei from behind as they looked out of the bedroom window. "So, can you see us living here?"
Shen Wei considered it. "I think I could," he said.
"So can I," Zhao Yunlan said. He kept his arms around Shen Wei, who laughed slightly as Zhao Yunlan burrowed his face into his hair. He pictured them living here as they continued working between the SID and the university, and liaising with Dixing as the bonds between the realms continued to strengthen. They were due to be at a Dixing council meeting tomorrow morning, in fact — there were so many things to do, and maintain, and plan. Developing Dixing's fledgling government. Building those schools and hospitals. Sharing out some of the responsibilities which had weighed down Shen Wei.
He'd thought, so many times, that they wouldn't get this. This future. This happiness.
"We need to take a photo outside," he said. "Both of us, with the For Sale sign. If we're going to go for this house, that is."
"We need to?" Shen Wei queried.
"Definitely," Zhao Yunlan told him. "What about the house, though? Are we going for it?"
Shen Wei thought carefully before answering. "Yes," he said. "I would like to live here. With you."
"Good," Zhao Yunlan said, and spun him around. "I'd like that too, very much."
They took their photo in front of the sign. Several photos, actually, since Zhao Yunlan wanted to get one which was perfect. The estate agent held the phone for them patiently.
"It's a pity the sun's not out," Zhao Yunlan commented.
The corner of Shen Wei's mouth twitched. "Take one more," he said, and a golden shaft of sunlight suddenly shone down on them through a rift in the clouds.
Zhao Yunlan pulled him close. "Using your power frivolously?" he asked, grinning.
"No," Shen Wei said, "Not at all," and that last photo caught the fullness of his smile.