It was some while past midnight when Shen Wei gave up on sleeping and got up, cautious not to disturb Zhao Yunlan. Who tried to hold onto him even while deeply asleep, so that Shen Wei's progress out of bed was a full half hour of making small movements and waiting to be sure that Zhao Yunlan had readjusted without waking. But finally he stood, the hotel carpet coarse under his bare feet, and hesitated over the test he knew he needed to make.
He closed his eyes. Reached out with his dark energy instead, pushing his senses outwards as far as he could. Every human life in the hotel stood out vivid for him, sleeping or waking, and he felt the scrabble of the small lives of rodents in the foundations and the silvery flutter of nesting birds on the roof. A solitary someone walking the streets outside. The brushstrokes of air currents…
And yet it was all muted, all slightly out of focus. He should be able to see more, see further. Still with his eyes closed he donned his robes, and that slight use of his power pulsed through his dark energy like a heavy stone tossed into a pond, when it shouldn't have caused so much as a ripple.
He summoned a portal, watching its complex pattern-state bloom across his awareness and then carry him with it, a shortcut across the realm of solidity. Something changed nearby at the last second but he was already gone —
He arrived next to the Dixing portal, in bright moonlight painting the park in stark white and black. His eyes were open again and so he couldn't see it, but it was a nagging awareness in the other-sense part of his mind and he couldn't have failed to notice its presence. He took a moment to catch his breath (although he shouldn't have needed to) and then closed his eyes and again reached out.
Tightness gripped his chest that had no physical counterpart. He was so limited. That brief use of his power had siphoned off enough of his dark energy that only his immediate surroundings stood out in clarity to him — all beyond was an inky blur with unformed points of light. Even though this was what he had suspected, what he had in fact come out to test, it shocked him.
He opened his eyes. Stared at where the portal hung, invisible. If it came to it, he wasn't sure whether he would have enough energy to open it now. He instinctively shied away from the realisation, but he couldn't make himself unthink it.
He started at the voice. Hadn't he taken such care — But now he remembered that last-second flicker, too late to realise what it meant.
"Shen Wei, what are you doing?" Zhao Yunlan strode towards him, unlaced boots shoved on over pyjamas, his hair sticking up in all directions. He looked angry. "If you think you're going back to Dixing without me —!"
"No," Shen Wei said.
"So what are you doing? Because I know what this looks like." Zhao Yunlan waved a hand encompassingly and Shen Wei belatedly realised that it must indeed look a great deal like that — himself in his Envoy robes, standing next to the gateway. And Zhao Yunlan had rushed after him, ready to follow him to Dixing in pyjamas and with no backup, no weapon.
"I'm sorry for alarming you," Shen Wei said, contrite. "I tried not to wake you. I was only… conducting a test."
"Yeah?" Zhao Yunlan scrubbed a hand over his face, and shivered. Still annoyed. But some of the brittle tension went out of him.
"You're cold —"
"I'm fine. What sort of test?" And he'd been scared, too, as well as angry, Shen Wei realised. He must have woken just in time to see Shen Wei, robed, disappear. He could only have arrived here so fast by running most of the way, and the destination would have been only a guess.
"I was testing my dark energy," Shen Wei said.
"By going to Dixing?"
"No, only by travelling within Haixing. This place was just the first location I thought of."
Zhao Yunlan released a long breath and rocked back on his heels. "Okay. So other than giving me a heart attack, what did you discover? And take your mask off."
Shen Wei did so, with some reluctance. He would have liked to be able to continue to hide behind it. He noticed Zhao Yunlan shiver again. "Shall we walk back?"
"Sure," Zhao Yunlan said. His gaze was sharp even through the night. "I guess that answers my question about how you found making portals."
Shen Wei fell into step beside him, their rhythms easily matching. It was easier to talk like this, not having to look directly at Zhao Yunlan but with him still there, close. "My dark energy has continued to decrease," he said.
Zhao Yunlan reached for his arm, a quick touch. "Do you think if you rested for a while…"
Shen Wei shook his head. "The capacity of it is reducing," he said. "As if it drains faster than I can accumulate more. Slowly, but persistently."
"You thought before that it was an injury from Ye Zun," Zhao Yunlan said, and Shen Wei hated how he still flinched to hear the name. "But if that's the case, why would it keep on getting worse?"
"I don't know," Shen Wei said, tiredly.
"We'll get to the bottom of it, and fix it," Zhao Yunlan declared, with a confidence that Shen Wei appreciated even if he wasn't at all convinced by, and didn't think Zhao Yunlan was, either.
They walked most of the rest of the way back in silence, lit by the bright moon, waxing large over the city. "If you weren't trying to scare the hell out of me by making me think you were going off on some crazy mission on your own, why are you wearing your Envoy robes?" Zhao Yunlan asked, finally.
"Oh." Shen Wei felt mildly embarrassed. "I intended to be back before you noticed me missing, so I didn't dress first."
Zhao Yunlan grinned in sudden delight. "You mean you're also wandering around outside in your pyjamas? Hei-Laoge, I would never have thought it of you!"
"I'm not," Shen Wei protested, since that was the point of wearing his robes, but he couldn't dissuade Zhao Yunlan from his amusement. And they must have made an odd pair walking into the hotel as it was, although the staff member on the desk looked too half-asleep to notice.
Back in their room, Shen Wei let the robes dissolve back into his nightclothes, earning another told-you-so grin from Zhao Yunlan. "Shall we go back to bed?" he suggested.
"I'm awake now," Zhao Yunlan said, sliding coyly into Shen Wei's personal space.
Shen Wei kissed him back, and let his hands run up Zhao Yunlan's back, telling himself as Zhao Yunlan guided them gently towards the bed that he did want this, he must do.
But Zhao Yunlan paused with his fingers on the buttons of Shen Wei's pyjama top. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
"No," Shen Wei said, because nothing was wrong, except for him.
Zhao Yunlan sighed deeply. "Come here," he said, and stopped working on the buttons. Instead he just pulled Shen Wei into bed with him as they were and held him tightly, firmly, arms wrapped the whole way around him. "Better?" he asked, quietly.
Shen Wei nodded, feeling useless. He hated how Zhao Yunlan had been treating him for the last few days like he was about to break, and yet… it was uncomfortably close to what he needed. Being held now eased him, even as he felt guilty about it.
Eventually Zhao Yunlan shifted position and soon after that fell asleep against him, warm and soft and comforting. Shen Wei lay awake, wishing very much that he could sleep too, but grateful that at least he had Zhao Yunlan there with him.
The alarm went off and Zhao Yunlan reached for it with a groan, unable to remember now why it had felt like a good idea for him to promise to be back at work today like normal.
Shen Wei, unsurprisingly, was already up and dressed. "Good morning," he said, and laid a stack of neatly folded clothes onto the empty side of the bed.
Zhao Yunlan sat up with a yawn. Shen Wei looked entirely too awake for someone who had been wandering around Dragon City during the early hours. "You're going to the university?"
"Yes, I've got classes this afternoon," Shen Wei said.
"Want a lift?" Zhao Yunlan sifted through the clothes Shen Wei had set out for him, and then bundled them under his arm as he got out of bed. "I just need to grab a shower."
Shen Wei shook his head. "It's a nice day, I'll walk. But we could have breakfast together first."
"I'll be quick," Zhao Yunlan said, and was. When he emerged, hair still damp, Shen Wei was waiting for him with a new leather satchel slung over his shoulder, and Zhao Yunlan's new phone, wallet and keys laid out on the side. Zhao Yunlan put them all into the pockets of his jeans. The new key for the jeep had finally arrived yesterday evening and had been ridiculously expensive, but at least he could use his own car again now.
They walked down to the hotel's breakfast room together and Shen Wei did his best to hide his dissatisfaction with what was on offer. It made Zhao Yunlan freshly determined that they needed to find a new place as quickly as possible so that Shen Wei could have a proper kitchen again. He would have to print some listings out while he was at the SID, and they could look over them together later.
"Where would you like to live?" he asked, as they sat down. "In roughly the same neighbourhood, or somewhere else?"
"With you?" Shen Wei said.
It was half a question, and Zhao Yunlan stared at him incredulously. "Yes, of course with me. Unless — did you want to keep having your own place?" It hadn't occurred to him that Shen Wei might want to, but of course he'd never actually given up his own flat even if it had come to mostly serve the function of a walk-in bookcase-slash-closet.
"No!" Shen Wei said, quickly, his ears turning pink. "I do want to live with you."
"Well, good." Zhao Yunlan grinned at him, his heart surging — he had the sense that they'd just crossed some sort of relationship border. "Any location in particular?"
"Somewhere convenient for us both," Shen Wei said. "I don't mind beyond that."
"Okay," Zhao Yunlan said. He would interpret that as within walking distance of the university, since only one of them could drive. "We should start looking for apartments, then."
"Yes," Shen Wei said, and hesitated. "Or…"
"Or what?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "You want your own place after all?"
Shen Wei ignored the tease. "We could buy a house," he said, shyly.
"A house?" Zhao Yunlan paused with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth. They could. A house with a, a proper big kitchen, and a living room with comfy furniture, and a garden because maybe one of them would turn out to have an interest in maintaining it, and a study for Shen Wei upstairs, and a catflap on the door…
"Zhao Yunlan?" Shen Wei asked, looking anxious. About to walk the suggestion back.
"That sounds great," Zhao Yunlan said. "It sounds perfect. Let's buy a house."
Shen Wei ducked his head, smiled. "Really?"
"Really," Zhao Yunlan said. He grinned. "We'll look into it this evening."
"All right," Shen Wei said, smiling too — a small smile, but one that didn't leave his lips for the rest of the meal. He still wasn't eating enough to Zhao Yunlan's eyes, but it didn't seem the right time to call him on it.
Shen Wei left as soon as they were both done. Zhao Yunlan repeated the offer to drive him, but Shen Wei again turned him down. So they parted outside the hotel, and Zhao Yunlan went to get his car from the garage, and then drove to the SID alone. It was a sunny day. He felt happier than he had in a while.
Part of him was aware that maybe he should be less happy — that he should give more weight to the events in the middle of the night, to the terrible desolation in Shen Wei's voice as he'd talked about his dwindling power. But it was too much to think about constantly. He would come back to it at the proper time, and start dealing with it, but just then he thought he should be allowed to luxuriate in the delight of knowing that Shen Wei wanted to go on living with him, to buy a house together —
A familiar flicker from an alleyway made him jam the brakes on hard, provoking a horn blast from the car behind him. Zhao Yunlan ignored it and swung himself out of the jeep, already running. That was dark energy he'd seen. "Hey!" he yelled, narrowing in on the person running away from the shop with the smashed window.
A tendril of dark energy lashed out above his head, dragging down a hanging sign from another shop. Zhao Yunlan ducked to avoid it and used the seconds the thief had wasted on standing still to use his power to catch him up and tackle him to the ground. He searched his own pockets automatically for handcuffs before remembering he didn't have any on him. Well. He pulled off the thief's belt and used it to buckle his hands together behind his back.
"What were you doing?" he demanded. He pulled the thief up, and saw underneath him… shoes. Three pairs of high-end shoes. "These were worth blowing your cover in Haixing for?"
The thief shrugged. He wasn't much more than a kid, really. "I wasn't going to stay long."
"What, just long enough to grab some stuff you wanted?"
Another sulky shrug was the answer.
Zhao Yunlan sighed. "Idiot. You're lucky you ran into me and not Hei Pao Shi."
"I heard Hei Pao Shi's too weak to catch anyone these days," the kid said, in arrogant challenge.
Zhao Yunlan froze up. "What? Where did you hear that?"
"Dunno. Everyone knows it." The kid rolled his shoulders. "I'm sorry about the shoes, okay?"
"Not okay," Zhao Yunlan said, grimly. "You're coming back to the SID with me until we arrange to ship you back to Dixing." He hauled the kid upright. They'd attracted quite a crowd. "Who's the shoe-shop owner?" he called.
A man in a suit and tie pushed forwards. "Me."
Zhao Yunlan checked for collaborating nods from the other business owners. "I'm arresting this idiot. Is this all he stole from you?"
"Yes," the man said, eyeing the very expensive shoes now lying in street dust. "But how did he —"
"That's a matter for the police, not for you to worry about," Zhao Yunlan said. "Have a great day."
He hauled the Dixing kid through the stares and towards the jeep, where he shoved him into the passenger seat and buckled him in with his arms still secured behind his back. "Don't try anything, understand?"
"Who are you, anyway?" the kid asked, still sulking.
"The Lord Guardian of the SID," Zhao Yunlan said, grandly, and was gratified to see the kid gulp. "And the rumour you've heard about Hei Pao Shi isn't true, so when you get back to Dixing you'd best warn your friends in case they decide to be as stupid as you."
Zhao Yunlan drove the rest of the way in silence. When they arrived at Bright Street he opened the car door and waited for the kid to get out before taking him firmly by the shoulder and walking him inside the SID. "Morning, everyone," he said, loudly. He shook the kid slightly. "Idiot from Dixing. Petty thievery. Someone toss him in a cell for me."
Zhu Hong took the kid off his hands. Not that they technically had any cells, but the interrogation room did in a pinch. "Where's everyone else?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng are following up on a report of suspicious activity," Wang Zheng said. "Sang Zan's upstairs and Lin Jing's in the lab. Da Qing went out somewhere not long ago, but I'm not sure where."
"Not sure I want to know," Zhao Yunlan said. He tossed himself into a chair by her computer. "Do you know how to sort out insurance paperwork?"
She gave him a slightly pitying look. "Of course. For your apartment?"
"What can I bribe you with to do it for me?"
"Make him do it himself," Zhu Hong said, coming back into the main room.
"You do need to do it yourself really," Wang Zheng agreed. "I can help you, though."
"Acceptable." Zhao Yunlan put his feet up on the desk. "Any cases today?"
"Nothing exciting," Zhu Hong said. "I'm going to head off soon."
He waved a finger at her. "You can't just do the exciting parts of this job, you know."
She shrugged at him. "Of course I can. I've got actual Yashou business when I'm done with my community outreach project for the day."
Sadly he couldn't even claim to have taught her the sarcasm — as a snake it was innate. Or so it seemed to him.
He remembered. "Hey, have you heard any rumours from the Yashou about Shen Wei?"
She frowned. "No. Like what?"
"The kid I brought in claims it's common knowledge that Hei Pao Shi's too weak to be a threat in Haixing now." He hated saying it aloud. It felt like betraying a trust.
"No, I haven't heard that," Zhu Hong said. She looked like she was thinking carefully about to say next, but ultimately came down on the side of saying nothing at all.
Zhao Yunlan sighed. "Well. I guess I'd better get on with the arrest forms for him. And getting him sent down to Dixing."
"I'm afraid you also still have to finish writing up the reports for the Ministry on the arson case," Wang Zheng said, apologetically. "I've had an email reminder."
"Oh, good," Zhao Yunlan said, gloomily. "Are you sure we don't have any exciting new cases?"
"They'd just make more paperwork," Zhu Hong pointed out, with the delight of someone whose plans didn't include any.
Zhao Yunlan took himself off to his office and reluctantly settled down to work. He wasn't about to admit it, but the normality of filling in forms actually turned out to be something of a relief after all the recent stress. And when he got distracted he started idly checking out some estate agent websites. Just to see.
Lunchtime came and went, and then Lao-Chu and Xiao-Guo returned dragging two more Dixingren with them. Who had also dared to come up to the surface on the strength of the rumours that Hei Pao Shi was no longer an obstacle, but had then got into a fight, nominally about whether to stay or not but actually about their entire relationship. A fight which had involved dark energy, and a lot of bystander attention. Apparently they'd tried to continue all through the process of Lao-Chu and Xiao-Guo trying to arrest them.
"Maybe we'll be really lucky and this is our quota of stupidity out of the way for the rest of the week," Zhao Yunlan sighed, after this had all been explained. "Right. Lao-Chu, you did all the extraditions before Shen Wei was showing up in person, you still remember how?"
"Yes," Lao-Chu said, not looking very happy about it.
Well, tough. "Great, that's your job for the rest of the day. Take anyone else you need."
"You're not coming?"
"No. I've got paperwork to finish."
Lao-Chu shrugged, and went to sort it out. Zhao Yunlan sat himself back in front of his computer, and his phone rang. He didn't recognise the number.
"Hello?" he said.
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said, sitting forwards. Shen Wei's voice sounded slightly odd. "Are you okay?"
"No," Shen Wei said. "I… don't think so."
"What's the matter?" Zhao Yunlan demanded, already getting to his feet.
"I don't know," Shen Wei said, worryingly. "Can you come?"
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'll be right there."
"I'll go to my office," Shen Wei said. His voice was still all wrong.
"I'm on my way," Zhao Yunlan said. Gripping the phone tight enough to hurt his hand. "Ten minutes, okay?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, and hung up, and Zhao Yunlan ran.
Shen Wei reached the university in the morning at the same time as the incoming flood of students. Usually he preferred to arrive earlier, but he had been waiting for the shops to open. He had a new pair of glasses on his face as he climbed the steps, and with that mask he was able to face the well-wishes of colleagues and students alike who had been horrified to hear about the fire and his time in hospital because of it.
He had no classes in the morning, but plenty of work to catch up with that kept him busy in his office. He went to the cafeteria for lunch, which necessitated more small-talk with colleagues, which was mildly exhausting but also oddly touching. It was surprising how many people had been concerned about him. And still were — he was given a lot of sympathy and offers of help should he need them. He also had to listen to a couple of ghastly anecdotes about people who had suffered from smoke inhalation and seemed fine but then dropped dead shortly afterwards, and it took quite a lot of work to keep reminding himself that he was being told about this from a place of concern.
However, it was definitely a relief to finally flee to his own classroom. He closed the door behind him and breathed deeply in the empty room. This place was his, not even shared with the fearsome reputation of the Black-Cloaked Envoy. The chalkboard and desks and dusty windows wrapped themselves comfortingly around him, Professor Shen, like an entirely different sort of cloak.
He set his books out, and wrote his introductory notes on the board.
It was a lesson he enjoyed teaching, and he was genuinely happy to be back with his students. He finished the lecture quite cheerfully, and fetched himself a cup of tea during the break before the next one.
It started well. But after a while, standing before the board, he started to feel lightheaded, and then outright dizzy. He swallowed hard. He was not going to have another of those attacks of weakness in front of his class.
Except… he apparently was.
He stumbled to his desk and sat down, amid a chorusing of, Professor Shen, are you okay?
"We'll stop here for today," he said, trying to focus on something, anything. Trying to hide how unwell he felt.
He clearly didn't manage it, if the cluster of students around his desk was anything to go by. Their words passed back and forth over his head. You know he was out last week… Yes, he was in hospital… A fire… He's not well… What do we do?
"Professor Shen?" someone asked, directly. "Can we do anything?"
He struggled to think. He needed… help. He needed Zhao Yunlan, who would be there. "Is… Can I use a phone?" he asked, to anyone.
One was pushed into his hand but even squinting at the screen he couldn't make out the numbers properly and there was nothing to help him dial them by feel. He had to say them out in the end, and someone entered them for him. He kept waiting to start feeling less adrift but he didn't.
"Hello?" Zhao Yunlan answered.
Shen Wei gripped the phone tightly. "Zhao Yunlan?"
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said. "Are you okay?"
"No," Shen Wei said. He put his other hand flat down on the desk, trying to hold himself steady. "I… don't think so."
"What's the matter?" Zhao Yunlan sounded urgent.
"I don't know," Shen Wei said. He just felt wrong, and foggy, and he didn't know how to describe any of it. But what he needed was… "Can you come?"
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said, instantly, and Shen Wei closed his eyes in sheer relief. "I'll be right there."
"I'll go to my office," Shen Wei said. That would be better. And it wasn't far. He could manage it.
"I'm on my way," Zhao Yunlan said. "Ten minutes, okay?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, and lowered the phone, looking at it quizzically before the student who had lent it to him did something to end the call.
He had told Zhao Yunlan he would go to his office. He levered himself unsteadily to his feet. "Professor Shen?" someone asked again.
"I'll help him." An older voice. "Go off and give him some space."
The students parted for someone with more authority. Shen Wei squinted at the tall woman. Another professor? He wasn't sure. But he couldn't seem to make out the details of anyone's faces, and he didn't protest when she slung one of his arms over her shoulders. He wasn't sure he could do anything else — his body didn't really seem to be under his control any longer.
The woman walked him out of the classroom and down the corridor. After they turned the first corner they suddenly didn't seem to attract notice any longer, which was a relief. The small part of Shen Wei's brain which was still working on such a level burned in embarrassment about being seen in such a state. "Which way is your office?" she asked, and he did his best to guide them there.
Inside, she helped him sit down on one of the armchairs. He was becoming more alarmed. The previous attacks of weakness and disorientation had passed quickly, but this one wasn't getting better. Instead he felt worse. His head lolled down onto his chest and it took real effort to lift it. "What's your… name?" he asked.
She didn't answer. Instead she was looking around at the shelves. "Where's Ye Zun's mask?" she asked. "Is it here?"
He stared at her. Abruptly chilled. "You —"
"Where is it?" she asked.
He tried to stand. But he could barely move, and only succeeded in half-falling sideways.
She grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him upright again. "Where is it? Tell me!" Then she froze, and Shen Wei's heart buoyed, because he could recognise Zhao Yunlan's footsteps at the door, a moment before the handle turned.
Zhao Yunlan entered, and looked around with a slight frown.
"Zhao Yunlan —" Shen Wei's voice came out as more of a whisper.
Zhao Yunlan looked past him, through him. He turned, and left the office.
Shen Wei reached after him, his hand falling back almost as soon as he'd managed to lift it. "Zhao Yunlan…"
"Tell me where you hid Ye Zun's mask!" the woman snapped. "It's not here, is it?"
Shen Wei tilted his head towards her. "It's gone," he whispered. "It burned up."
She slapped him across the face. It made his eyes water, but brought him a moment of clarity. Enough that when Zhao Yunlan came through the door again at that moment Shen Wei was able to focus on him properly, could see the deep worry on his face.
He walked all the way into the room this time, even checking behind the desk before absentmindedly perching on a corner of it. "Shen Wei," he muttered. "Where did you go…"
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei tried to call again, hopelessly. He attempted to lift himself out of the chair, to crawl towards Zhao Yunlan if necessary, but the woman put a hand on his shoulder, easily pinning him in place. "Zhao Yunlan, help…"
Zhao Yunlan swept his eyes around the office, through Shen Wei without a pause.
"Do you want to keep him safe?" the woman asked. Confident that she wouldn't be overheard.
"He can keep himself safe," Shen Wei said, furious at the threat, and then frustrated that he couldn't summon the energy to convey his fury.
"Really?" she asked. "From me? You didn't notice me walk to the front of your class and put a drug into your tea — imagine what I can do to him."
"The mask burned," Shen Wei insisted. "In my apartment… there was a fire…"
Still frowning, Zhao Yunlan scribbled a note and dropped it on Shen Wei's desk. Then he left the room again, this time shutting the door behind him.
"You'll tell us sooner or later," the woman said. "Come with me."
She scooped Shen Wei up with an arm over her shoulders again. He was powerless to resist, though he tried. "Where are we going?"
"Dixing," she said, shortly.
"Why?" He tugged at his collar with his free hand, sliding his fingers around his neck. He could see Zhao Yunlan's note on the desk — Call me.
She didn't answer, pulling him forwards instead. He went with her, against his will.
They passed Zhao Yunlan again in the stairwell, speaking quickly and agitatedly into his phone. "— can't find him anywhere, I don't know what —"
Shen Wei tried to reach for him, and then turned his head as best he could, putting all the resistance he could summon into it. Then he was lolling bonelessly again, and being borne away.
Zhao Yunlan had managed to keep a lid on his worry until he reached Shen Wei's office and found that Shen Wei wasn't there. But the door had been unlocked, which was unusual. He checked the nearby bathroom, which was empty, and then traced the path to Shen Wei's classroom. Which was also mostly empty, even though there were still ten minutes before the end of the session.
A pair of girls were sitting on tables, chatting. They paused when they saw him.
"I'm looking for Professor Shen," Zhao Yunlan said. "Do you know where he is?"
"He ended the class early. He wasn't very well," one of the girls said.
"Do you know where he went?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"The other professor took him out," the same girl told him. "To his office, I think. He called someone to come and get him; Su-ge lent him his phone."
The other girl giggled.
"Which professor?" Zhao Yunlan asked, patiently.
They looked at each other, and shrugged. "I don't know who she is," the first girl said.
"But she's definitely a professor?"
She looked unsure. "Well, she wasn't a student…"
"What did she look like?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "I might know her," he added, since they were beginning to look uncertain at all the questions.
It was the second girl who answered. "About your age?" she suggested, although Zhao Yunlan knew better than to rely on teenagers' estimation of such things. "About as tall as Professor Shen, with very short hair. Kind of old-fashioned clothes."
"They left about ten minutes ago," the first girl offered. "Did you check his office yet?"
"Thank you for your help," Zhao Yunlan told them, and left them chatting again.
He back-tracked and arrived at Shen Wei's office again, with the door still standing open as he'd left it. He'd been entertaining a slight hope that they had just taken different paths and missed each other on the way, but it was still empty. He walked right inside and even checked behind the desk, which was stupid but he couldn't not.
Where else would Shen Wei have gone?
He perched himself on the edge of the desk, staring around. Aside from the unlocked door, there was no sign that anyone had been in at all. "Shen Wei," he muttered. "Where did you go…"
Sitting here was wasting time. Just in case Shen Wei did turn up here, Zhao Yunlan scribbled a note — Call me — and left it prominently on the desk. Then he left, closing the door, fishing his phone from his pocket.
He leaned against the wall in the stairwell and dialled Da Qing. "Shen Wei's missing," he said, as soon as Da Qing picked up.
"What do you mean?" Da Qing asked. "Didn't he just call you?"
"Yes, but I've got to the university and he isn't here. I've searched his office and classroom and apparently he was there a few minutes ago, but now he's not. I can't find him anywhere, I don't know what happened."
"Do you want me to join you?" Da Qing asked.
"Yes. Don't bring anyone else just now, I don't want to draw a lot of attention."
"Okay," Da Qing said, and Zhao Yunlan shoved his phone back into his pocket. He went over the path between the classroom and the office again, and checked all the rooms along the way just in case. And then he arrived back at Shen Wei's office again and opened the door even though clearly nothing had changed —
Shen Wei's jade pendant was lying in the middle of the floor.
Zhao Yunlan blinked at it for a moment. Had he missed — No. He couldn't possibly have not noticed it before. He crouched down and picked it up, letting the leather cord dangle from his fingers. He looked around as if he expected Shen Wei to materialise from the empty air.
But Shen Wei had completely vanished.
I'm glad everyone is a fan of cliffhangers! I have some more...
You may have noticed that the total number of chapters in this fic has jumped up by 2. I revisited my original chapter splits to make the story flow better, which added a chapter. And also when I originally counted up my chapters... I counted wrong. Whoops.
Thank you to Naye and Xparrot for reading and comments, and Skuld for advice on Chinese terms of address among cultists.
Shen Wei woke with a hard, uncomfortable surface pressed against his face. His head pounded, thumping dully along with his heartbeat.
Very cautiously, he opened his eyes. The light was dim and he was having trouble focusing.
Dixing? Dixing had their lantern now, it wasn't dark like this —
Rock underneath him. He was in a cave.
He felt a moment's frantic panic, which as it abated shocked him. No, this wasn't — They had got out, both of them, that had been real, this wasn't then. They weren't still lost in the dark with Zhao Yunlan dying by degrees.
But he was in a cave. And he could barely move.
A cautious test confirmed it. He lay on his side, his limbs sprawled out where he'd been dropped. He could move his fingers, sliding them over the rough stone, but trying to get more muscles to obey him left him gasping with effort, his headache worsening and being joined by a sick feeling in his stomach, but without achieving anything at all.
"He's awake." A foot dropped onto his chest and pushed. He rolled over onto his back. The motion jarred his aching head enough that he thought for an instant he might black out again, and would almost have welcomed it if he had.
"Hei Pao Shi," someone said, considering. "Not that impressive."
Shen Wei blinked, fighting for focus against the drug crawling through his veins. The cave stretched up and around, wide as a hall, or a temple. Sunlight filtered through cracks in the wall, high above, dimmed by distance by the time it reached the floor. No, not sunlight, Lantern-light. He was in Dixing. His body knew it. He could feel the difference through the air, through his energy.
"Ping-jie," someone said, "What if he told you the truth? If it was destroyed…"
"It wasn't," said a voice Shen Wei recognised. The woman who had taken him from the university. "He was lying."
"He was lying!" Ping-jie snapped, sounding almost frantic. "It wasn't destroyed! It can't have been!"
"I agree," someone else said. A man. Shen Wei tried to keep the voices straight, but he was having trouble.
"So, where is it?"
"Chao-di, you try with him." Ping-jie again.
Someone knelt down beside Shen Wei. A man, with shoulder-length hair tied back. "Hei Pao Shi," he said. "It's really you?" There was a tight tension to him, ready to explode at any moment.
"Yes," Shen Wei said, since there seemed no point in pretending. He was relieved to find he could talk, although his jaw and mouth felt numb. He wished he could at least sit up.
"You stole from us," Chao-di said. "Ye Zun's mask."
"Don't I have a better claim to it than you?" Shen Wei said. "He was my brother." His responsibility, even now.
A spasm of rage crossed Chao-di's face and Shen Wei barely had time to prepare before Chao-di drove a fist into his side. "You murdered him!"
Shen Wei coughed, turning his head as far to the side as he could. The taste of blood in his mouth. "He's still my brother."
"He is our family!" Chao-di snapped. "He renounced you! He was going to save us from this prison you trapped us in, and you killed him for it!"
"He was never going to save you," Shen Wei said.
A savage kick from one of the others, hard into his ribs. "You —"
"Ye Zun was never going to save you," Shen Wei repeated. He had to close his eyes because they stung. "You would have sacrificed yourselves to him, and he would have taken you, and kept on taking. He wouldn't have stopped." His eyes still stung, and then turned to warmth which trickled from the corner of his eyelids. Oh.
Someone else kicked him. "How can you say these things? You should be begging for your life instead."
Shen Wei caught his breath at the pain. But it was only pain. He coughed again, to clear his throat. "I won't say what isn't true."
He opened his eyes as he was hauled up by his lapels. Ping-jie dragged him to half-sit, propped against the cave wall. She crouched next to him and he struggled to hold his head up. "Tell me where the mask is," she said. "We're not afraid of hurting you."
"Why?" Shen Wei asked. He coughed again. "What do you want it for?"
She tilted her head, weighing up whether to answer. "We know how Ye Zun's first disciples sacrificed themselves to break his bonds," she said. "We will bring him back the same way. Enough life energy…"
"You'll kill yourselves for him?" Shen Wei asked.
"If necessary," Ping-jie said. "To save everyone else." Fear flickered in her eyes, but her resolution didn't waver.
"My brother did not deserve you," Shen Wei said, quietly.
This time he expected the pain that followed. Closed his eyes against it, in a small act of cowardice. Didi. I wish you'd better earned such devotion.
When the beating ended he was slumped on his side. Ping-jie pulled him back up and pieces in his chest ground together like the edges of broken glass. "Where's the mask?" she demanded.
"Somewhere safe," Shen Wei mumbled, slurred. Somewhere beyond them. That, at least, he could take comfort in knowing.
"Not destroyed, then?" Ping-jie asked.
It didn't matter. It didn't matter. "You can't get to it," he said. Through half-open eyes he watched the Lantern-light through the gaps in the rock, glowing softly golden.
"What now?" Chao-di muttered.
"I know where it is," Ping-jie said. "Haixing's Lord Guardian must have it."
Shen Wei couldn't — couldn't prevent the pained noise which slipped out of him.
"You see?" Ping-jie said, in satisfaction.
"So what do we do?" Chao-di asked. "Hei Pao Shi was weak — the rumours were right — but the Lord Guardian won't be so easy."
"I saw him while he searched for Hei Pao Shi," Ping-jie said. "He'll come to us."
Zhao Yunlan was angry, and desperately afraid that he was making all the wrong choices. It had taken him a long time to call off the search at the university — what if he had missed a clue? Or would find Shen Wei tied up and stashed in a closet somewhere if he only looked a bit harder? But as soon as he finally admitted there was nothing to be found his guilt turned in the opposite direction — he should have moved on long ago, he'd been wasting time staring at dead ends.
Shen Wei's pendant was imprinted on his palm from how tightly he'd been gripping it all afternoon.
Now back at the SID, Zhao Yunlan badgered Lin Jing into searching for more security cameras he could get into the feed of. So far everything had come up blank, but he had to keep on hoping.
He had to.
The working theory was that Shen Wei had been abducted by someone from Dixing. It seemed improbable that a Haixingren would have much interest in kidnapping Professor Shen. Lao-Chu and Xiao-Guo had been sent out to canvass the route from the university to the portal, in case anyone had seen something the cameras had missed. Da Qing was lurking around the university, just in case, and Zhu Hong was putting out feelers among the Yashou.
If only they still had the Hallows, Zhao Yunlan found himself thinking more than once. Shen Wei would probably have been furious with him for even thinking of it, but if they could have helped…
Wang Zheng intercepted a courier delivery, and knocked on his office door. "Chief Zhao?" she asked.
He spun his chair to face her. "Yeah."
"The fire department sent this over for you. Chief Song said they'd collected it from your apartment building while clearing it, as per their protocol, since it was a weapon. But they eventually realised it must be yours." She smiled a little, and handed a parcel over.
Zhao Yunlan opened it, and grinned fiercely at the sight of his dark energy pistol. With… a cracked and blackened handle and barrel. His smile fell.
"Oh," Wang Zheng said, taking in its condition. "Um… is it safe?"
That was an extremely good question. Zhao Yunlan headed to the lab and put the pistol down on the table in front of Lin Jing. "Does this still work?"
Lin Jing looked at it, then at him. He raised his eyebrows. "What happened to it?"
"A fire," Zhao Yunlan said, shortly.
"Oh," Lin Jing said, in realisation. He looked at it more dubiously. "You want me to find out if it still shoots?"
"I believe that's what I pay you for," Zhao Yunlan said.
Lin Jing used a pen to poke it carefully. "I hope you don't expect it to be a quick process."
"What, just to tell me whether it works or not?"
"Feel free to fire it and see," Lin Jing said. "I'm certainly not going to until I know it's not going to take off my entire torso in a dark energy explosion."
"Is that likely?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"I have no idea!" Lin Jing exclaimed. "That's why I'm going to scan it first. Lots and lots of different scans."
"But you can fix it, right?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Maybe," Lin Jing said. "Seriously, maybe. I don't know what it's made of or how it works."
"Nor do I," Zhao Yunlan admitted.
"Right. So, come back later. Much later."
There wasn't much he could say to that — he didn't want his torso taken off in a dark energy explosion either. And Lin Jing was already putting on safety gear and setting up some of his equipment as Zhao Yunlan left the lab, so at least he was taking the request seriously.
More time passed and Zhao Yunlan was reminded of the similar maddening wait he'd endured before, when Shen Wei had extracted a promise not to follow him to Dixing. And then had suffered in chains by Ye Zun while Zhao Yunlan kicked his heels in the SID, useless. He told himself that it wasn't the same, he wasn't just waiting this time, he was working as hard as he could to generate leads — but it felt the same. The same hollow fear.
Da Qing returned, looking like he expected to be scolded for leaving the university, but Zhao Yunlan had known, really, that there would be no more answers there.
"Have you eaten?" Da Qing asked. "You haven't, have you?"
Zhao Yunlan shook his head.
"It's a good thing I'm back, then," Da Qing said. "I'll go order some for everyone."
Then the front door burst open and Lao-Chu broke in almost at a run, Xiao-Guo on his heels.
"What is it?" Zhao Yunlan demanded, sprinting towards them, because surely they wouldn't be moving so fast if they had nothing to report.
"We did a last pass back to the portal," Lao-Chu said. "A street musician waved us down just around the corner — we'd talked to him earlier. About half an hour ago someone gave him this envelope and told him to pass it to the SID. He didn't know what they meant but thought since we'd been asking questions we might want it."
Zhao Yunlan snatched the envelope out of Lao-Chu's hands, his heart pounding. He ripped it open and scanned the contents quickly.
"What does it say?" Da Qing demanded, and Zhao Yunlan thrust the letter at him. He took a couple of steps away as the team clustered around Da Qing, turning his back while he mastered his expression.
"Ze Yun's mask?" Lao-Chu growled.
"Don't alert others," Da Qing read. "Well, I guess that one's already broken."
Xiao-Guo's voice rose, wobbling. "Do you really think they'll let Professor Shen go, if…"
"Of course they won't," Lao-Chu snapped.
"Boss?" Da Qing asked. "What are you going to do?"
Zhao Yunlan took a deep breath, still not turning. "Go and get it," he demanded.
"Are you —"
"Get the mask!" Zhao Yunlan snapped.
Sang Zan was the one to fetch it. He placed the dark lacquer box very carefully onto the table and stepped back hastily, as if worried it might bite.
Zhao Yunlan stared at it for long moments. Shen Wei had been burned so badly saving it from the blaze of their home.
Maybe it would have been better if it had been destroyed.
He undid the catch and flipped the lid open. Everyone tensed as if they expected —
It was only a gold mask. An object, inanimate, and if it seemed to stare up with menace from the padded interior that was surely due to too much imagination. And not just his.
He closed the lid with a snap that made half his team jump. "Who's got a rucksack?" he asked.
"What are you planning?" Da Qing demanded.
"I'm going to Dixing," Zhao Yunlan said.
"Don't do something reckless," Lao-Chu said.
"Why not?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "What should I do instead? Wait?"
"You don't know what might happen," Lao-Chu said.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged — a tight, angry motion. "And what do you think might happen to Shen Wei if I don't do this?"
"Shen Wei will be furious if you rush in and get yourself killed!" Lao-Chu snapped.
"Fine, he can do that," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm still going after him."
"Not on your own?" Xiao-Guo asked, worriedly.
Zhao Yunlan took a deep breath. "No. Not on my own. I'm not stupid." He pretended he didn't see anyone rolling their eyes. "Lao-Chu, you're coming. And Da Qing."
"What, that's it?" Da Qing asked.
"We'll sort out more backup when we get there," Zhao Yunlan said, mentally adding, I hope. "And I can't empty out the SID for this. I need everyone else to keep a lid on things up here." He was already taking Lao-Chu, whom he trusted the most to have his back in a fight, and Da Qing, whom he plain trusted the most in general. "We're leaving in ten minutes."
"You still haven't eaten," Da Qing pointed out. "Nor have we."
The additional delay chafed, but Da Qing was certainly right to point this out. "Find something, then. Quickly."
He left them to it and headed to the lab, from which Lin Jing had not yet emerged. He gave a cursory knock on the closed door and strode inside. "Does my gun work?" he asked.
Lin Jing was frowning over a computer monitor. "I don't know yet," he said.
"I need to take it to Dixing," Zhao Yunlan said.
Lin Jing raised his eyebrows. "Seriously?"
"I got a ransom note for Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said. "Just tell me whether the damn gun is safe to fire or not."
"I don't know," Lin Jing said.
Zhao Yunlan glared at him. "Give me better than that."
Lin Jing raised his eyebrows. "Um. Probably?"
"It probably won't explode and kill you. It might even shoot someone. But I can't tell you for certain yet." He lifted it out of the current scanner it was in and placed it down carefully. He'd done something to it — lines of solder ran down the barrel over the worst of the cracks.
Zhao Yunlan pursed his lips. "Would you fire it? Right now?"
Lin Jing looked at him. "No."
"Well, can't be helped." Zhao Yunlan picked it up and shoved it into the holster he was optimistically already wearing.
Lin Jing's eyebrows climbed further towards his hairline. "Didn't you hear —"
"Yes, I heard you perfectly well. For use in desperate measures only."
Lin Jing threw up his hands. "I just want to make it clear that whatever happens is not my fault!"
"Noted," Zhao Yunlan said.
He left Lin Jing staring after him anxiously and made haste back to the main room. Where Sang Zan handed him a shoulder bag to carry the box in, and Xiao-Guo handed him a meat bun. Zhao Yunlan accepted both. "Everyone ready?" he asked.
"No," Da Qing muttered.
"Great!" Zhao Yunlan said. "Let's go to Dixing."
Shen Wei wasn't sure how much time had passed. Things kept going hazy and dark. He did his best to cling to consciousness, but he wasn't sure how well he was succeeding.
What kept bringing him back, over and over, was fear for Zhao Yunlan.
Surely Zhao Yunlan would know better than to allow his concern for Shen Wei to drive him… Surely he wouldn't let himself be played like a pawn…
He wished, now, that Ye Zun's mask had burned. He had let Zhao Yunlan come to harm, after all, during his blind attempt to save it — surely that should have stayed him. But it hadn't, and now when Zhao Yunlan appeared —
He realised that he was thinking of Zhao Yunlan's eventual appearance as inevitable. Fear, and a selfish wish, both wrapped up together.
Someone tipped his head back and the hard lip of a drinking vessel knocked against his mouth. He swallowed thirstily.
"Why are you wasting water on him?" someone asked.
"We don't want him to die yet, do we?" Ping-jie.
"He might die anyway. Look at him."
"Shut up," Ping-jie said. She tilted the cup to give Shen Wei more water. He drank again.
After a few moments, contemplatively, she said, "Hei Pao Shi?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said. Quietly — it was all he could manage.
"What happened to you?" she asked. She was looking at him closely. "Your legend is fearsome, but now…"
"I don't know," Shen Wei said. It was… an unexpected relief, to be asked it so bluntly, and to be able to give an equally blunt answer. It wasn't something which needed to be kept secret any more. "I suspect I took an injury from my brother. Something that continues to diminish me."
She considered this. "Maybe you should be pleased to be with us, then. At least your death will have meaning."
"I would prefer to choose my own meaning," Shen Wei said.
"Wouldn't everyone?" Ping-jie asked, with some degree of bitterness, and Shen Wei wasn't brave enough to ask her for her story, for who she'd been before Ye Zun had picked her out and reshaped her life's purpose around his own aims and ambitions.
It should have been someone's job to notice the swell of those dissatisfied, those lost. Ping-jie and Zhu Jiu and Dandan and all the others who had been moulded by their unhappy lives in Dixing into a shape vulnerable to Ye Zun's manipulation.
Maybe it should have been part of his job, and he had never realised.
He was drifting, becoming less lucid. He stared up through the rifts in the wall where the shafts of Lantern-light reached down towards him. He seemed to float along with the light, ebbing back and forth.
Thank you so much for all the comments! I've found it especially interesting to see a whole range of opinions on how much responsibility different people should be taking for Dixing's current state. And also of course I'm SO happy that people are enjoying this fic.
As always, thank you very much to my betas Naye and Xparrot.
Zhao Yunlan marched straight into Dixing Palace as if he owned it, trailing Lao-Chu and Da Qing. The guards had to jog to flank him — they hadn't realised quickly enough that he hadn't been planning on stopping before the entrance. "Lord Guardian —" one of them protested.
"I'm here to see the Regent," Zhao Yunlan said. "And Lord An. Both at once. Right now."
"If you'd let us send ahead —"
"Nope," Zhao Yunlan said. "I don't have time." He kept walking very fast through the exchange, not once pausing or looking around. That was key to forcing your way into somewhere you didn't belong — the confidence. Enough of it and you could knock everyone else off balance.
He swept into the throne room. Which was empty, but he could see that the throne dais was not. Excellent. He still didn't pause but headed immediately for the flight of stairs.
There was another guard at the top. Zhao Yunlan pretended not to see him until he literally walked into the man's rifle. "Get out of my way," he said.
"You can't just —"
"Do you know who I am?" Zhao Yunlan demanded. "I am the Lord Guardian of Haixing and I have urgent business with the Regent and the Lord of Dixing. This instant. Get the fuck out of my way."
He hadn't thrown around the Lord Guardian title once in the previous years he'd held the post. It had always sounded a bit silly to him. Pompous and old-fashioned. Now he leaned into every ounce of that gilded weight, staring into the guard's eyes and willing him to see how utterly serious he was.
The guard hesitated, and Zhao Yunlan shoved his rifle out of the way and threw the door open.
"Lord Guardian," An Bai said, looking up; he had clearly mastered the art of appearing unruffled.
Zhao Yunlan came far enough into the room that he couldn't be easily removed without causing a scene and gave a perfunctory bow to An Bai. His two teammates crowded in behind him. "Your Highness. Hello." He gave an even more perfunctory nod to the Regent.
"I take it you have something important to discuss?" An Bai asked.
"Yes, what is the meaning of charging in here like this?" the Regent demanded. "Surely you understand that protocol —"
"I don't care about the protocol," Zhao Yunlan snapped. "Shen Wei's life is in danger. He's here in Dixing, and we need to rescue him. Right now."
"Surely Hei Pao Shi is capable of looking after himself?" the Regent said, smoothly. He pursed his lips. "Of course, we have been hearing these disturbing rumours about his power lately…"
"Shut up." Zhao Yunlan pointed a finger at him. He was shaking with barely-suppressed rage. "Don't you dare pretend those rumours didn't come from you."
"You outright threatened to spread them!" Zhao Yunlan said. "And now as a result, suddenly in Haixing we're dealing with a flood of petty criminals who think they don't need to worry about anyone stopping them, and also your fucking Ye Zun cultists listened to them too!"
An Bai had been watching them both, his expression reserved. He was learning quickly, although Zhao Yunlan worried about who he was learning from. "Ye Zun cultists?" he asked now, frowning. "I thought they had been dealt with."
"Yes, I seem to remember someone assuring me of that," Zhao Yunlan said. "But it appears not. Given that they kidnapped and are currently holding Shen Wei."
"Are you certain?" An Bai said.
"Very," Zhao Yunlan said, grimly.
"I've also heard the rumours about Hei Pao Shi," An Bai said. He looked thoughtfully at the Regent. No prizes for guessing who he'd heard them from. "I'd hoped this was something he'd choose to discuss with us himself."
Zhao Yunlan barked out a sharp laugh. "I'm sorry, have you met Shen Wei?"
"Not really," An Bai said, slowly, with a frown. "It seems that's been an oversight."
It was true. And the oversight was by no means one-sided. Zhao Yunlan suppressed a wince as he thought about how Shen Wei had been avoiding Dixing since… Since. Hiding his weakness, too ashamed and scared to speak it out. And Zhao Yunlan too had been so keen to improve things for Dixing citizens and bring about improved cooperation between the realms, but he… hadn't come down here, had he, to really talk things over? He'd focused almost all of his efforts on Haixing's administration, since that was what he knew.
Between them, it was possible they'd all really fucked up.
The Regent stepped back in to try and regain control over the conversation. "We should gather more information," he suggested. "Not rush into anything hastily —"
"No," Zhao Yunlan said. "We are going to be rushing. Because we are going to get Shen Wei back alive, and if we don't then you can just give up on the closer relationship with Haixing that we've all been wanting."
"Is that a threat?" the Regent asked.
"You bet it is," Zhao Yunlan snapped.
"Enough!" An Bai said, sharply.
Zhao Yunlan fell silent, although he was nearly choking on his anger.
"Do you know where Hei Pao Shi is being held?" An Bai asked.
"No," Zhao Yunlan admitted. "Not yet."
"The Dixing Guard might know something," An Bai said. "A lieutenant from the Palace can introduce you."
"Lao-Chu, go and liaise with them," Zhao Yunlan said. He himself was planning on staying exactly where he was until something more concrete showed up. He didn't trust the Regent as far as he could throw him, and even less when the man was off unobserved doing who-knew-what. Spreading more horrible rumours, or working to actively sabotage the rescue efforts — Zhao Yunlan wouldn't put either of those things past him.
"What about me?" Da Qing asked.
Zhao Yunlan really needed some more local contacts, but at least they had one. "Go and talk to our friend with the bar," he said. "Maybe he's seen something."
The room emptied out. The Regent shot Zhao Yunlan a wounded look as if deeply hurt by his continued supervision. Tough.
"Zhao Yunlan," An Bai said. He sat himself behind his desk again.
Zhao Yunlan walked over and sat himself down on a corner of it. "Yes?"
"I could have you arrested for your actions today," An Bai said. In a mildly considering tone.
"That would be pretty stupid of you but sure, you could," Zhao Yunlan agreed.
An Bai leaned back in his chair and looked at him, for a moment wearing the calculating expression of a street-smart kid in his 20s rather than a lord of Dixing. "I think I'm not going to try," he said.
"Good," Zhao Yunlan said, and grinned.
The Regent radiated simmering unhappiness from the side of the room.
There wasn't much to do for a while. Although it was sooner than Zhao Yunlan had expected that Lao-Chu returned — and he was pulling a man along with him, whom he flung roughly to the floor.
"Who's this?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"He came to us," Lao-Chu growled. "Claims to have a message for you."
"I do," the man said. He was unkempt, his clothes dusty. "I came to bring the Lord Guardian."
"Bring me to where?" Zhao Yunlan asked. His heart in his throat.
"Do you have the mask?" the man asked.
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said. He hadn't let its containing bag leave his shoulder. "So you've come to do the exchange?" He did a show of looking around. "Funny, I don't see Hei Pao Shi."
"You can come to him, if you like," the man said.
"Oh, if I like?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "And what's the other option?"
The man held out his hand. "Give me the mask and we'll deliver him later?"
Zhao Yunlan laughed bitterly. "Yes, fine. You've made your point. Tell me where we need to go."
"I'll lead you."
"No, you can tell me."
"No," the man said, with certainty.
He hadn't really expected anything less. "Lao-Chu, come on. An Bai, how many of the Guard can we take? And can someone round up Da Qing?"
"You'll just give them what they want?" the Regent demanded.
"If necessary," Zhao Yunlan said. He had thought hard about this. "Ye Zun's mask is a thing, that's all. Ye Zun is dead. It doesn't matter."
"But can we risk —"
"We're going to," Zhao Yunlan said. His fury hadn't died away; it was just banked, waiting to roar forth when provoked. Shen Wei had said that Ye Zun was dead. He trusted Shen Wei.
He needed Shen Wei back.
After considering, looking unhappy but resigned, An Bai nodded.
It felt like he had been a rubber band stretched tighter and tighter by all the waiting, and now he was snapping back into shape, coming alert. And yet, as he walked through Dixing's stony streets alongside the man who was promising to take him to Shen Wei, he felt a strange sense of calm. Of inevitability.
He had felt similar travelling through the portal. No confusing jumble of memories this time, but there had been… a sense. Something not real, not even felt or thought or imagined, but still it had been… Shen Wei. Somehow.
They walked through the city, the small but well-armed group of the Guard just behind. Shadows short beneath the Lantern overhead.
Their destination wasn't too far. Another cave entrance, and Zhao Yunlan shivered at the sight. The remnants of Ye Zun riddled the walls of Dixing like rats. He stopped well short of the entrance. "Where's Hei Pao Shi?" he asked.
"Inside," the man said.
"Bring him out."
"The mask first," the man said.
Zhao Yunlan crossed his arms. "Absolutely not."
"If you like, you can bring it inside instead," the man said. "Alone."
"I've got a better idea," Lao-Chu interrupted. "How about we drag you back and throw you into the deepest cell we can find?"
The man stared at him. "Then I'll still have done my part," he said.
The conviction in him shook Zhao Yunlan. The lack of anything he could catch onto, to reason with. "Alone?" he asked. "Really? You expect me to go for that?"
"Boss," muttered Da Qing. "Boss, don't."
"Hei Pao Shi might not last much longer," the man said.
It was stupid. He knew it was stupid. He could practically feel the glares radiating off Lao-Chu and Da Qing. But he couldn't not. For Shen Wei. "Fine," he said.
"Zhao Yunlan!" Lao-Chu snapped.
He held up a hand. "I'm keeping my weapon on me," he said. "That's not negotiable."
Da Qing made an angry cat hiss.
"Stay here," Zhao Yunlan told the others. "Although if you hear anything that doesn't sound right, feel free to rush in."
Clutching the bag with the mask in to his side, he followed the cultist through the entrance.
The passage narrowed immediately, and sloped upwards, but although dark it was easy to navigate and he followed the sure footsteps of the cultist. Maybe a couple of minutes later it widened, and then opened out suddenly into a natural cavern, lit through high cracks in the rock.
There were about fifteen people inside — more than he had been expecting, unfortunately. And where was —
He spotted Shen Wei.
Shen Wei was crumpled on his side against a wall, maybe fifteen feet away. Zhao Yunlan instinctively started towards him, horrified by the bloody bruising across his face. He looked like hell. He looked barely alive.
And yet he opened his eyes, as if he sensed Zhao Yunlan's presence, and even across the space between them his expression lit up. Before abruptly turning to horror.
Zhao Yunlan made himself look away. "I've brought your mask," he said. "Now let me take him."
"No," Shen Wei called. Weak, rasping. "Don't…"
"Show me." A woman came forward. Tall, cropped hair. Zhao Yunlan recognised her from the description given by Shen Wei's students.
Trying to keep all the cultists in his sight, Zhao Yunlan slid the bag off his shoulder and pulled out the box. Then opened it to reveal the mask.
"Give it to me," the woman said.
"In a moment." Holding it in view, Zhao Yunlan walked deliberately towards Shen Wei and crouched down beside him. "Hey," he said, quietly.
Shen Wei swallowed. "Zhao Yunlan."
"Yeah, it's me. I'm getting you out of here."
"Don't give…" Shen Wei began, and swallowed thickly again.
"He doesn't have a choice," the woman said, addressing Shen Wei. "I'm afraid we need it and you."
Zhao Yunlan jerked up, and found that three of the cultists were pointing rifles at him. They were old and shoddy — surely leftovers from some ancient supply, and none of the cultists were holding them as if they were accustomed to weapons. He pulled out his pistol. "Sure you want to do this?" he asked, keeping his tone casual.
Without waiting for an answer, he fired. Three quick shots.
And… nothing happened. The trigger clicked emptily on each. He swore.
"Our turn?" the woman asked.
Suddenly the ancient rifles didn't look so harmless.
He put his hands up.
Shen Wei could only watch as Zhao Yunlan was surrounded and disarmed, paralysed by pain and horror. He wasn't sure exactly what had happened, why Zhao Yunlan's dark energy pistol had failed him, any more than he could accept why Zhao Yunlan had walked in here alone in the first place.
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan called, as Ping-jie took the dark box from him. "Shen Wei, it's going to be okay…"
Shen Wei couldn't seem to catch enough breath to answer. Fear for Zhao Yunlan locked up his lungs.
Zhao Yunlan's arms were wrestled behind his back by Chao-di, and tied with a cord. He strained sideways, trying to reach for Shen Wei. "What did you people do to him?" he demanded. "Shen Wei…"
Ping-jie gave a brief nod. Chao-di relaxed his grip on Zhao Yunlan's arm.
Zhao Yunlan responded instantly, stumbling off-balance towards Shen Wei and dropping down to his knees beside him. His eyes were wide, his mouth a taut line. "Are you — It's okay, it's going to be okay. Oh, fuck…"
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei gasped, and he at least had enough control to move this much, to put a hand on Zhao Yunlan's knee and feel him, solid, trembling. "You shouldn't have —"
"— I shouldn't have come?" Zhao Yunlan shook his head fiercely. "Don't say that. Don't ever say that. Of course I came."
Shen Wei swallowed against the constriction in his throat, the burning in his eyes. Yes. Yes, he knew. "But the mask —"
"I had to try," Zhao Yunlan said. "In case it worked. It's just a thing, isn't it? If it could have got you out of here…"
Shen Wei tightened his grip on Zhao Yunlan, as much as he was able to. Just a thing, yes, but also a rallying point, and a token of so much more to Ye Zun's followers here. "They think they can bring Ye Zun back with it," he said, his voice rasping. "If they feed it enough life energy."
Zhao Yunlan shuddered. He leaned forwards, whispering. "They can't though, can they?"
"No," Shen Wei said. "No, no, he's dead…" He had to close his eyes for a moment. Ye Zun's death was something he'd never felt strong enough to talk to Zhao Yunlan about. And Zhao Yunlan had given him space, and now they might never have time.
And he thought, which he'd also been trying to avoid thinking, What if I'm wrong?
Zhao Yunlan pressed close against him, which hurt but Shen Wei tried to move closer nevertheless, welcoming each stab of pain as the price of that bright contact.
"Come on, we're moving." Ping-jie came over, hauled Zhao Yunlan to his feet.
"Moving where?" Zhao Yunlan demanded.
"Up," she said.
Two of her companions lifted Shen Wei between them. The movement made him black out for a moment and he came back to see more rock walls sliding past. The sound of many people walking ahead and behind.
"My people will be coming in soon," Zhao Yunlan was saying, defiantly. Somewhere ahead.
"We can hold them off for long enough in these narrow passages," Ping-jie said, unconcerned.
Shen Wei lost some time again. And then he was lying on mostly flat rock with walls that fell away to the ersatz sky. He turned his head and found Zhao Yunlan, kneeling next to the passage entrance that must have disgorged them to this ledge. Under guard, of course.
Shen Wei wished he were closer.
Ping-jie crouched down beside him. She placed the lacquer box next to his head. It made only a small noise against the rock. She opened it, and lifted out Ye Zun's mask with a reverent sigh. The Lantern-light caught on the raised carvings, made it gleam.
He didn't realise what was about to happen until she laid the mask onto his face.
He — froze. Utterly and completely, without breathing. The shape was the same as his own black mask, the pressure of it was the same, but it was wrong, it made him recoil into himself, a tight knot of horror and panic. Couldn't breathe —
Any movement of his face, any breath, any blink would be a fresh reminder against his nerves of what was pressed onto his skin —
Any other thoughts were gone.
Zhao Yunlan had felt it as torture to be pulled away from Shen Wei, and then marched ahead of him into the narrow tunnel running out of the cavern so that he couldn't see him no matter how he craned his head. Not that he was able to do much of that. The uneven floor sloped sharply upwards and it was difficult to keep his footing without the benefit of his arms for balance.
He hadn't needed the cult woman's reminder to know how difficult it would be for his backup to mount a forward push through these passages. Even with those outdated rifles, one person could hold off a much larger force for a long time. Lao-Chu would be furious with him later for having put them into such a awful tactical situation.
Later. Later. He clung desperately to the idea of it.
They emerged onto a cupped ledge, high up in the walls of Dixing. Zhao Yunlan was still blinking in the glare of the Lantern-light when he was shoved hard to his knees. "Stay there," the cult woman said. She nodded at one of the men to stand guard by him — no rifle, but he was carrying a dangerous-looking club. If he'd had his hands free Zhao Yunlan might have given them even odds in a fight, but as it was… and he had no next step planned after that.
Shen Wei was carried through and laid down on the other side of the ledge. Zhao Yunlan's heart skipped several beats at the sight of him. He was grey-pale, which made the bruises stand out even more, and there was blood on his lips. Zhao Yunlan had to stare closely to reassure himself that he was still breathing. A few moments later Shen Wei's eyelids flickered and then opened. He blinked slowly, and then tilted his head, his eyes roving dazedly across the surroundings until they locked onto Zhao Yunlan.
Zhao Yunlan wished he could smile, could give Shen Wei even that bare comfort. But he couldn't make himself. He was too desperately afraid.
The cult woman lifted up Ye Zun's mask. "Get away from him!" Zhao Yunlan shouted, in sudden understanding.
His guard smacked the end of his blunt weapon against his head, sending him tilting and struggling to right himself as he gasped through the stinging pain. He looked up in time to see Ye Zun's mask settle on —
Ye Zun's face. Zhao Yunlan had a sudden shock of revulsion, seeing that gold over the too-familiar features — and then his vision cleared and it was Shen Wei again, obviously it was Shen Wei, his lips parted in a silent scream.
Zhao Yunlan wanted to scream for him but his breath was choked inside his chest. Blood trickled down from his hairline.
"Ye Zun," the cult woman said. "Take your brother's energy — take his life — and come back to us!"
Another man knelt beside her. He placed his palm, fingers spread, directly over Shen Wei's heart.
Zhao Yunlan did scream now, and struggle forwards, even as he was knocked back again. He saw the dark energy curl around the man's fingers, over Shen Wei's dirtied clothes, and Shen Wei's eyes were wide behind Ye Zun's mask, staring at nothing.
The dark energy pulsed down. Shen Wei convulsed, once. And fell still. Horribly, completely still. Not breathing. Eyes fixed open, sightless.
And the Lantern went out.
Thank you so much for the screaming, I really appreciated it <3333 This chapter has some answers.
Through void. Through an ocean of starlight and the electron shells of atoms and through incandescence.
He knows this place. He's passed through before. Occasionally he's lingered.
The place between. Between… everything.
A pattern-state reverberates around him, its echo slowly fading. His twin.
He's been here before and here he is nothing but energy, nothing but memory, and so he finally remembers. Remembers flickering, fading, letting go. Him and Ye Zun both. Not dying; they already died, they were already each other's death — but dissolving; dwindling in the draining wave of the energy surge that Shen Wei had let tear them both apart.
Ye Zun is barely a shadow now, an impression in the ether, no more. And Shen Wei had promised to go with him, to be there as they were lost in the dissipation of energy and brief, fading thought.
But suddenly, there had been light.
Light — a blinding, bonfire surge; the golden energy of the Hallows. Sparked and sustained on the blaze of Zhao Yunlan's soul.
Not to be mistaken, that. Shen Wei, even near-gone, even at the very last, could not fail to heed it.
Zhao Yunlan —
The Lantern would not have Zhao Yunlan. With every thread and fibre of his soul and spirit and being Shen Wei cried out against it.
Don't let him burn. Don't let me lose him.
Take me instead.
Zhao Yunlan opened his eyes wide, night-blind. He dropped to his front and rolled, mashing his bound hands painfully against the rock but getting away from his scrambling guard.
Was this their plan — But the cultists were shouting, alarmed, as shocked by the Lantern's extinguishing as he was.
Shen Wei was somewhere over there —
He collided with someone who yelled at him and Zhao Yunlan kicked them and then it was a desperate scrap in the dark where he lashed out with all the force he could put into his boots, and midway through he took several seconds to wriggle his arms over his feet so that at least his hands were tied in front of him and then he could make a better fight of it, there might have been more than one other person involved by then, and he thumped to the ground but only half his face hit it, he was right at the edge of the ledge and there was a sudden rush of air as one of the people he'd been grappling with made the same discovery only a crucial second slower and a foot too far in the wrong direction —
Then there was one left and he rolled again to get away from the ledge and he was pinned down by someone throwing themselves onto him and he hit out with his bound hands and kicked and rolled again and there was something loose that his fingers landed on and he knew that shape, it was his pistol that the cultist had dropped and he flipped it round and fired blind, on instinct —
There was a soft bang and the Dixingren dropped heavily.
Zhao Yunlan shoved the pistol into his waistband. He scrambled away before the gun's sound could be investigated and peered desperately at the blurred line of the cliff walls through the dark. Tried to make an estimation of where he was.
He crawled, until he hit something. Raised suddenly shaking hands to touch. He found clothes, a hand.
"Shen Wei," he whispered, urgently. "Shen Wei." He ran his hands across Shen Wei's body and found his face, and the sharp edge of Ye Zun's mask. He ripped that off, breathless with disgust and fear. "Shen Wei!"
Shen Wei wasn't breathing. Zhao Yunlan pressed his fingers against his throat.
He took a deep breath, pushed down his horror and shock and panic, twisted his hands in their binding, and began chest compressions.
Shortly afterwards there was a roar of voices and pounding feet. Zhao Yunlan ignored it all.
"Boss — Lao-Zhao!"
He couldn't stop. His arms were aching and he was panting for breath but he couldn't stop.
Light sprang up and that made Zhao Yunlan finally jerk around but it was the wrong light. White flame, conjured in the centre of the ledge by one of the Dixing guards. In its sloped shadows Zhao Yunlan saw Da Qing, crouched staring on hands and knees, Shen Wei lying between them.
Zhao Yunlan kept going. Push and push and push —
And then Shen Wei inhaled in a creaking gasp.
Zhao Yunlan froze, his hands still resting on Shen Wei's ribcage, so that he felt Shen Wei's lungs expand, his chest rise and fall. And on the third breath the bruises on his face abruptly began to shrink and dwindle, the broken skin re-knit itself, ribs shifted under Zhao Yunlan's fingers, and the grey pallor of Shen Wei's face flooded with healthy colour. Zhao Yunlan was grinning fiercely and his eyes stung with tears.
Shen Wei opened his eyes and they were bright, so bright.
Then — a spark bloomed up in the blackness of the Dixing sky. A mere orange ember at first, but within seconds it lit to a flame and then a growing blaze.
And Shen Wei… dwindled. Zhao Yunlan could see it happen. As the Lantern brightened Shen Wei's face paled and his eyes lost their clarity and his head, which he had begun to lift, dropped back as if too heavy to hold up.
"Shen Wei!" Zhao Yunlan called, urgently. "Fight it — Come on —"
Shen Wei's eyes closed. His eyelids fluttered, twice, and then no more.
He was breathing. He was breathing, and his injuries were gone, and he wouldn't wake up even as Zhao Yunlan shook him and called for him louder and louder.
"Lao-Zhao — Lao-Zhao —" Da Qing pulled at his arms, positioning them so that he could work on the cord around his wrists. Zhao Yunlan let him, unable to take his eyes from Shen Wei in the heartbreaking brightness of the Lantern-light.
It was supposed to be me.
I thought it was me.
The knots gave, finally, and Da Qing unwrapped the cord. Feeling flooded back into Zhao Yunlan's fingers, along with pins-and-needles cramping. He flexed them, trying to relieve it. Lao-Chu stepped up next to him, silent.
He turned his head reluctantly to greet the leader of the Dixing Guard contingent. "We've rounded up all the Ye Zun worshippers who are still alive," she said. She frowned. "Is Hei Pao Shi — What just happened?"
"Hei Pao Shi's dark energy is what's powering your Lantern," Zhao Yunlan told her, bluntly. "He's been keeping it lit for you all this time."
She stared at him. "But that must use… a lot of energy."
"Nearly everything he has," Zhao Yunlan said. "He's still doing it."
He felt a pang. Shen Wei would probably want to keep it private, hidden. But Zhao Yunlan felt differently, particularly with the Regent's rumours swirling through Dixing about Shen Wei's infirmity. Shen Wei had been draining himself for Dixing, for months, and the least he should get out of it was the respect he was owed.
He was gratified to see that respect in the guard's expression now. "We should bring him to the Palace," she said.
"I'll carry him," Lao-Chu said, gruffly.
Zhao Yunlan nodded permission.
He tried not to mind seeing Shen Wei scooped up in Lao-Chu's arms, head tilted back, face white and slack.
He tried to remind himself, At least he's alive, but it didn't help as much as it was supposed to.
Ye Zun's mask glinted golden next to his boot. He stamped down on it, over and over, smashing it into slivers and dust.
The Lantern shone down on them all, mercilessly.
Shen Wei fought to open his eyes. They were heavy, so heavy. It took a while, like pushing a weight uphill, like holding back a river. But he persisted, and at last his eyes opened.
He didn't know where he was. He blinked, slowly, and fought now against the leaden weights that pinned down every limb, but this time he failed.
"Shen Wei?" It was Zhao Yunlan's voice, and a moment later the soft surface beneath Shen Wei dipped as Zhao Yunlan clambered onto it beside him. "Are you awake? Can you hear me?" He leaned over, his anxious face replacing the carved stone ceiling.
Shen Wei, at the sight of him, found that he was capable of at least some movement because his smile came instantly, easily.
Zhao Yunlan smiled back, and cupped a hand against his cheek. "There you are. You've been sleeping for a day and a half, how are you feeling?"
Shen Wei struggled. His body was breathing for him, but taking over that process to force air into speech required a colossal effort. "Zhao — " He had to stop, to recover.
Zhao Yunlan's smile faltered. He leaned closer. "Shen Wei," he said. "This is what's been wrong with you, isn't it? Your energy's been going to the Guardian Lantern. No wonder you've been —" He paused. "Did you know?"
Shen Wei couldn't shake his head, but with some more effort he found he could whisper. "No."
Zhao Yunlan's expression was a spasm of sorrow, but also relief — that Shen Wei hadn't been lying to him, again? He frowned suddenly. "Uh, you know what I'm talking about?"
Shen Wei took a deep breath, pulled back another fragment of strength. "Yes. I remembered." In that between-place.
Zhao Yunlan sat back next to him on the bed. Shen Wei managed to turn his head slightly to follow him. "Okay. That's good. Well, not good obviously, none of this is good." He ran his fingers through Shen Wei's hair with a hand that trembled slightly. Behind him sunlight fell in streams through a high glassless window.
No. Not sunlight.
"I'm sorry," Shen Wei murmured. "I wish… I wish I'd known before."
"Would you have done anything differently?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"No," Shen Wei said, immediately. He would never have let Zhao Yunlan make that sacrifice. Never.
Zhao Yunlan sighed, as if he'd expected that answer. "This is killing you," he said. "Look at you. You can't sustain this."
"I have to," Shen Wei said. Dixing needed the Lantern's light.
"You can't!" Zhao Yunlan said, forcefully. "You're giving it too much."
"It's not my choice," Shen Wei said. "It's taking… what it needs."
Zhao Yunlan looked angry now. "It doesn't need this much. Can't you stop it? Not completely, I know you'll refuse, but couldn't you take some of your energy back? You can't stay like this —"
He paused, and scrubbed the back of his hand across his eyes.
It was that naked pain in his expression which convinced Shen Wei to try. He closed his eyes.
When he concentrated, he realised he could feel the Guardian Lantern in the sky, feel how it was bound to him. He hadn't realised before, but then he'd not looked. Or spent enough time in Dixing these past months to tell.
He reached for the conduit between them, and pulled.
Energy flooded into him and his lungs filled without pain. He opened his eyes and sat up, easily, noticing for the first time the light robe he was wrapped in, the heavy brocaded coverings which had been spread over him.
"Hey," Zhao Yunlan said, delightedly, and took Shen Wei's hand, leaning forward from where he was sitting on the other side of the bed. He was still wearing the same clothes Shen Wei had last seen him in, although both they and he looked as if there had been time to clean up. "Your colour looks so much better — how do you feel?"
"Good," Shen Wei began, struggling to express the relief that was not having that leaden fatigue underly every movement, every moment. But he froze as, through the window, the golden light began dwindling, deepening fast into twilight.
Alarmed, he let his energy flow back towards the Lantern in its previous flood and the light brightened again even as the exhaustion and weakness returned in a surge of vertigo. Shen Wei slumped back but Zhao Yunlan had somehow got behind him and was there to catch him before he fell.
"Oh, baby," Zhao Yunlan said, holding him tightly, Shen Wei's head resting loosely on his shoulder. He sounded shaken. "But that worked, at least? We know you can hold your energy back."
"The Lantern needs it," Shen Wei mumbled. He felt dizzy and so, so tired.
"It doesn't need all of it," Zhao Yunlan said. He gripped Shen Wei tighter for a moment. "It doesn't need all of you. Dixing can cope with a slightly dimmer Lantern while… while we work out what to do next."
It was true that Shen Wei was next to useless in this state, to weak to be of help in planning, let alone in acting. And Zhao Yunlan would be needed too, while right now he was in this chamber looking after him.
Shen Wei took another breath. And let the conduit bearing his energy towards the Lantern narrow, agonisingly slowly. Bit by bit he felt strength return, and pushed himself away from Zhao Yunlan's support so that he could gauge it more accurately. And at the same time he watched the light through the window as it slowly dimmed. His pulse was beating in his throat and he hated his presumption to take in this way from everyone who had thought the light was a new certainty, a new beginning.
He glanced at Zhao Yunlan when he felt ready to stop, but Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes and shook his head. "Keep going," he ordered. "You need more than the minimum level of functional."
Chastised, Shen Wei took yet more, until the light had dimmed to what would be evening in Haixing, just after sunset. "This is enough," he said, and stood up to prove it. The stone floor was warm under his bare feet. He pulled back just one more sliver of energy, guiltily, to ease the shakiness he felt.
Zhao Yunlan looked at him critically. "And if you need to use one of your powers?"
Shen Wei hesitated. "I will try not to." He had healed himself — he didn't remember it, but it was clear. The energy lost in that might yet return to him.
Zhao Yunlan looked less than happy about that, but Shen Wei would not be moved. He wasn't going to risk darkening the Lantern any further.
There was a knock on the door of the chamber. "Come in," Shen Wei called.
It was a nervous-looking servant. "Hei Pao Shi!" he said. "Um, the Lord Guardian was sent for. And you, if you were awake." His expression suggested that his being so was somewhat unexpected.
Shen Wei looked down at the sleeping-robe he was wearing. "I will require some clothes," he said.
"There are some in the cupboards," Zhao Yunlan said. "I checked earlier. I assume we're to go to the Throne Room?"
The servant nodded.
"Okay, we'll be right along. We can find our own way, just give us a few minutes."
"Yes, my lord," the servant said. He glanced at the window, and then at Shen Wei. He bowed. "Black-Cloaked Highness. Thank you for the light." He backed out of the room quickly, as if alarmed by his own boldness.
Taken aback, Shen Wei looked to Zhao Yunlan as the door closed. "He knows —?"
"Probably everyone in Dixing does by now," Zhao Yunlan said. He sighed, with an air of bracing himself. "I'm sorry, I should have warned you."
"They all know?" Shen Wei asked, dismayed.
"I'm not sorry about that," Zhao Yunlan said. He stepped in close, put his arms around Shen Wei. "They needed to know. What you've been doing for them."
Shen Wei shook his head in disagreement, but Zhao Yunlan kissed him before he could say a word. And that felt so good and right — the slight scratch of Zhao Yunlan's beard, and the warmth of his skin, and his hands firm on Shen Wei's back, and the pressure of the kiss itself.
He hadn't expected to ever have this again.
Zhao Yunlan kept a very careful watch on Shen Wei as he dressed. He was pale still, but it was worlds better than he'd looked lying unconscious in the ornate bed. Or struggling to move, his face grey. Now he moved as if he was tired from a late night, but no more than that, and listened attentively as Zhao Yunlan summarised what he'd missed.
The clothes in the Palace guest room were all old-fashioned robes and sundries, nothing modern at all. Thinking of the way the Dixingren on the city streets dressed made Zhao Yunlan frown. It was another way in which the rulers of Dixing set themselves apart. And he thought a little more and wondered — who were the guests that this room was all set up to receive? Isolated as it was, Dixing certainly didn't receive diplomats or ambassadors. He couldn't picture anyone from the city being invited for an overnight visit. Maybe this room and the contents were no more than a relic to propriety.
He liked the effect on Shen Wei, though, of the long dark green robes he had chosen. (There was no black on offer, perhaps so that no guests could try to emulate the Envoy.) Shen Wei did up the multitudes of ties and fastenings with no hesitation, and then looked at Zhao Yunlan in mute appeal. Zhao Yunlan grinned at him and allowed his eyes to rake up and down. "Very nice," he said, and enjoyed the slight flush he brought to Shen Wei's face — even now, after everything that had happened.
The clothes really did suit him, and Shen Wei wore them as naturally as a character from a historical drama. His short hair was incongruous, of course, but somehow hat just made Zhao Yunlan appreciate the effect more. He would have quite liked to see how his glasses went with the outfit too, but they had been lost somewhere in all the chaos.
"Should I change too?" Zhao Yunlan asked at the last moment, suddenly dubious as he looked down at himself. Someone had cleaned his own clothes, possibly with a Dixing power of doing laundry, while he'd had a quick bath in a geothermal-heated pool to get rid of the dust and blood, but that had probably been more than a day ago by now. He'd slept in them since, or tried to anyway, lying beside Shen Wei's unconscious form.
Shen Wei looked him over closely. "If you want to, but you look fine," he said, with a fond smile. So he was definitely hopelessly biased, but also Zhao Yunlan was pretty sure that if he put on the formal robes then he'd look less like Shen Wei did, a model of otherworldly authority, and more like a kid in an amateur drama club.
"Okay, I'll stay like this," he said. "Are you ready to go?"
Shen Wei looked at the door and straightened his spine. "Yes."
"I hope you know your way through the palace," Zhao Yunlan said, cheerfully. Still watching Shen Wei closely, in case this would turn out to be too much exertion for him.
"Of course," Shen Wei said.
He was breathing more heavily than usual as they reached the throne room, as if they'd jogged there rather than walked sedately, and took a moment to allow himself to steady. Zhao Yunlan touched his elbow briefly as they entered, indicating to him the possibility of support but leaving it as his choice.
Shen Wei gave him a slight smile.
They were ushered up the stairs to the throne dais. More private than the large hall. An Bai stood up behind his desk as they entered and indicated a chair that Shen Wei should take. Shen Wei sat, and Zhao Yunlan stood next to him, his hip pressed against the arm.
The Regent stood to the side, glowering.
"Lord Envoy," An Bai said. "Are you recovering?"
"Yes, thank you," Shen Wei said.
"Good." An Bai picked up a pen, put it down again. "The group of Ye Zun worshippers have been rounded up, as you've probably been told."
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said. "Again."
"The problem was larger than it appeared on your last encounter with them," An Bai said. He glanced very briefly towards the Regent.
"Who would have expected so many people to follow the mad ravings of the Envoy's brother?" the Regent said. He let that hang in the air for a moment. "Even yourselves, clearly, didn't foresee this."
"No, you're right," Shen Wei said. "I wasn't looking."
"There," the Regent said, smiling.
"I wasn't here," Shen Wei said. He had gathered himself; his voice was perfectly steady. Steely. "You accused me of that before, didn't you? Of not spending enough time in Dixing."
"That's to say —"
"It's true," Shen Wei interrupted. "My role has been based in Haixing. You are the ones who live here." He leaned forward slightly. "Ye Zun operated by feeding on the pain in peoples' lives. Where did they have to turn, when he was gone?"
An Bai frowned at him. "You don't agree with them?"
"Of course not," Shen Wei said. "But after Ye Zun's defeat we talked about reform. Schools, hospitals. Where are they?"
"These things take time," the Regent said.
"Not this much time," Shen Wei said. "Not to begin them."
The Regent scowled sourly at him. "I wasn't aware you wanted to be so involved in Dixing's day-to-day running."
There were plenty of sarcastic retorts Zhao Yunlan wanted to make, but Shen Wei glanced at him and narrowed his eyes slightly, so he remained quiet.
"I know you've been doing your best to keep me out of it," Shen Wei said. "Spreading rumours. Sending Dixing criminals to cause trouble in Haixing. Making threats."
"Interesting accusations," the Regent said. "Do you have any proof?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said. He stood up abruptly. Zhao Yunlan forced himself to remain still. "I have my testimony. As the Black-Cloaked Envoy. You threatened that if I moved against you then you would have Zhao Yunlan killed. With my power so reduced I would be unable to prevent this, you told me."
Zhao Yunlan's breath caught. He looked sideways at Shen Wei, who didn't look at him.
"Lord An," Shen Wei said. "Your court contains a snake."
An Bai stood as well. "I've heard you," he said.
The Regent took a couple of rushed steps towards the desk. "My Lord, you can't believe —"
"I can," An Bai said.
The Regent changed tack. "I have only been doing what is necessary!" he wheedled. "The best interests of Dixing have always been in my heart!"
"Funny," Zhao Yunlan drawled, "I wouldn't have thought there'd be room for them next to the best interests of yourself." He accepted Shen Wei's mildly irritated look. He had been trying to stay out of it, but there were limits.
An Bai acted as if he hadn't spoken, which was probably for the best. "I didn't want this role," he said. "My lord Regent, you forced me into it. But I did want to make my city better." He frowned. "You encouraged me in that wish, but you didn't tell me how I would be a thrall to the throne. If that power hadn't been broken, that's still all I would be."
"My Lord —" the Regent protested.
"You've had power in Dixing for too long and you've done nothing worthy with it. Leave." He sat down abruptly.
The Regent stared. "You can't —"
"I believe you've been fired," Zhao Yunlan said.
"Lord An —"
Zhao Yunlan caught An Bai's eyes, and raised his brows questioningly. An Bai nodded.
"Leave," Zhao Yunlan said. He took hold of the Regent's upper arm. Beneath the robes he was thin, an old man, all bones. "This way out." He marched the Regent towards the door, and opened it with a kick.
The guards outside stared uncertainly. One of them peered through the door.
"This man is no longer in my service," An Bai said, loud enough to carry clearly. "He has no title. He will leave the Palace immediately."
"I'll help him do so," Zhao Yunlan said, and walked the no-longer-Regent along the corridors that were becoming familiar to him. One of the guards trailed behind.
In an anteroom just before the main entrance he found Lao-Chu, his feet up on an ornate sofa, who stood up very quickly. "Chief Zhao, what's happening?"
"The Regent's been fired," Zhao Yunlan said, with relish. "I'm just helping him find the way out."
Lao-Chu gave the Regent a shark's grin. "Good riddance," he said.
The Regent glared at them both. He didn't try to protest any more but hunched over, looking weak and frail. It didn't affect Zhao Yunlan one bit. He waited for the gates to be opened, and gave him a parting push to send him on his way. "Spread the news," he told the guard. "Make sure he's not allowed back in."
"Yes, Sir," the guard said, with the pleased air of one who expected to be bought a lot of drinks that night in exchange for gossip.
Lao-Chu stood with Zhao Yunlan, and they watched the Regent disappear into the shadows of the streets. "He could still be trouble," Lao-Chu said, quietly.
"I know," Zhao Yunlan said. "Do you think we should have locked him up?"
"What made An Bai act?" Lao-Chu asked.
"He'd threatened Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said. "With me. That he'd kill me." The implications were raw. It wasn't like it was a surprise that he could be used to injure Shen Wei, to hurt him worse than anything else could — he had always been aware of that, always felt guilty about it. But to know that Shen Wei had believed the Regent's threat was credible, that he had felt that he couldn't protect Zhao Yunlan… they needed to talk about that.
"The mood will be against him, then," Lao-Chu said. "Hei Pao Shi's a hero right now. If people hear the Regent was acting against him they won't be sympathetic."
"We'll have to make sure they hear, then," Zhao Yunlan said. "Get on it with Da Qing. Where is he?"
Lao-Chu gave him an irritated shrug.
"Don't look at me like that, find him," Zhao Yunlan ordered. "I'm going back inside."
The guards on duty saluted him on the way in.
Shen Wei sat down in the quiet that fell. Only he and An Bai were left in the room.
An Bai sat as well. His expression was guarded. "Are you planning on taking over?" he asked.
"Of course not," Shen Wei said.
"You have a clear path to it," An Bai said.
Shen Wei stayed silent, waiting to see where he was going. He wasn't ashamed of his anger, though… he wished now that he'd talked to Zhao Yunlan ahead of time, and told him about the Regent's threat. It had been easier to tell himself that he would deal with it when he felt stronger, and push it way down out of his thoughts.
"Shen Wei," An Bai said. Carefully. It was the first time he'd used his name. "What I've heard about the Lantern. Is that true?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said. He resisted the urge to turn his head and look out through the dais screen, where the Lantern-light brushed over the hall. "I didn't remember until… the connection suffered a shock. But it is using my energy to make its light."
An Bai nodded thoughtfully. "When it faded, that was when you woke up?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, again, and didn't mention how it had been a conscious choice to claim back that energy. "My power levels are too low right now to sustain it fully." Despite everything he still hated admitting it, but he was sure that no flicker of expression betrayed his feelings on that score.
"Dixing owes you," An Bai said.
"It is my duty," Shen Wei told him.
An Bai abruptly leaned forward, and put his elbows on the desk. It make him look much younger, suddenly. "What do you want?" he asked.
"What do I —"
An Bai pursed his lips. "I've been the so-called Lord of Dixing for less than half a year," he said. "It was never my choice in the first place. Frankly, Shen Wei, I hoped you would want to involve yourself."
Shen Wei sat back, eyes widening in surprise despite his attempts to remain impassive. "You want my advice?" he asked.
"You've been a leader," An Bai said. "Haven't you?"
"In war," Shen Wei said, startled. "I haven't led a nation."
"I've done less than you," An Bai said.
"You lead your friends," Shen Wei said. "You showed leadership there. That's why the old Lord chose you."
"Does that really qualify me to run Dixing?"
Zhao Yunlan entered, alone. "'Scuse me for overhearing," he said, not looking particularly sorry. "Why do you think you need to do anything alone?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, seizing on this tack. "You will be able to find advisers —"
"That's not what I meant," Zhao Yunlan said. He came and pulled himself onto the corner of the desk nearest Shen Wei, then twisted round to face An Bai. "Dixing needs ministers. Departments. A government. Not just two people plus the Envoy."
Shen Wei frowned at him. "But that's…"
"Oh, it's been working so well?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "How long was the Regent in power for? What were the checks on him?"
Shen Wei felt his face heating. "Me," he said, finally. "And that was… by accident." Because he'd woken from beneath the earth. Which no one had expected; certainly not the Regent.
Zhao Yunlan raised an eyebrow, and waited.
"We can change things, you mean," An Bai said, slowly. "How, though?"
"Haixing can help," Zhao Yunlan said. "I mean, don't let them think they're in charge or you'll never convince them to back off, but we've gone through our own turmoil thanks to Ye Zun. Minister Guo is about as trustworthy as you're likely to get in a politician, especially since his beloved nephew developed a Dixing power by accident. And let me tell you, I've been in a lot of meetings lately and one of the sticking points over our potential relations with Dixing is your lack of what we consider a modern political system."
"It is?" Shen Wei asked, in surprise. "They didn't say…"
"Yeah, well, it's not like anyone's put it that explicitly," Zhao Yunlan said. "You didn't realise?"
Shen Wei shook his head. He was uneasy that he had missed that nuance. Zhao Yunlan's political abilities were far more developed.
"Well, we can start the ball rolling," Zhao Yunlan said. "And then get on with setting up the important things — the schools and everything. I bet Haixing would support you with that, too, if you just asked. I'm sure you'd find some Haixingren teachers who feel particularly intrepid, and then they can train Dixingren."
He was running away with enthusiasm. Shen Wei cleared his throat.
Zhao Yunlan grinned at him. He pushed his fingers through his hair. "Okay, yeah, one thing at a time."
"Yes, that sounds like a good idea," An Bai said.
Shen Wei opened his mouth, and his stomach growled. He cleared his throat again, embarrassed.
Zhao Yunlan, however, looked appalled. "Shen Wei, you haven't eaten!" he exclaimed. "I'm sorry, I should have —" He looked around as if expecting a bowl of rice to materialise.
"It's fine," Shen Wei said.
"It's not," Zhao Yunlan insisted. "You need to build your strength. An Bai, can you arrange something?"
"Of course," An Bai said, either not noticing or not minding the drop in formality. He rang a bell.
"You don't need to fuss," Shen Wei muttered quietly to Zhao Yunlan, as a servant entered to confer with An Bai.
Zhao Yunlan set his mouth stubbornly. "I do," he said, and Shen Wei couldn't change his mind.
The three of them ate in a small dining room. Shen Wei admired how Zhao Yunlan was getting An Bai to talk — drawing him out, listening to him. At the same time, he was clearly keeping a close watch on Shen Wei, measuring how much he ate.
And Shen Wei surprised himself by eating more than he could remember in weeks. He wasn't sure whether it was that he felt physically better, or that it was just the relief of knowing, finally, what was the matter with him that brought his appetite back. He was warmed by the look of approval from Zhao Yunlan, even though it wasn't necessary.
Soft light fell through the latticed walls, to paint muted patterns over the floor and table. It should have been a bright blaze, of course, but perhaps soon he'd be strong enough again… Shen Wei considered sending a little more of his energy to brighten it now, as a trial, but decided that on balance it would be more prudent to wait.
Near to the end of the meal there was a knock and a servant slipped in. "Lord An," he said. "There's another petition. The same."
"The same request?" An Bai asked.
"Yes. A different person, again. They weren't aware of the others."
An Bai frowned. "Thank them, and tell them no," he said.
"Yes, my Lord." The servant retreated.
"What's all that about?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
An Bai glanced from him to Shen Wei, and looked uncomfortable. "It's the third person to offer," he said. "To fuel the Lantern, and so remove the burden from the Lord Envoy."
Shen Wei stood, so fast he risked upsetting the table. "No," he said. He felt lightheaded. Horrified that anyone would volunteer. "You can't let one of your people do that!"
Zhao Yunlan had risen in the next moment and was hovering with a hand beneath Shen Wei's elbow. Which wasn't needed, but he clung on steadily when Shen Wei tried to shake him loose.
"I already said no," An Bai pointed out. "It wouldn't work, anyway, would it? If it's draining you this much, surely no one else could sustain it without dying."
"Shen Wei can't keep sustaining it either," Zhao Yunlan said.
"I can manage as long as necessary," Shen Wei said, stiffly. Since Zhao Yunlan still wouldn't stop trying to support him while he was standing, he sat down again.
"It's not a long-term solution," Zhao Yunlan said, irritably, sitting as well. "How about no one gets burned up by the Hallow?"
"So what do you propose?" An Bai asked.
"I don't know why you're both looking at me," Zhao Yunlan said.
An Bai raised his eyebrows, in a very Zhao Yunlan expression. Shen Wei tried not to smile.
"I'm just saying, there must be another way," Zhao Yunlan said. "Shen Wei. Do you know how the Lantern was supposed to work?"
Shen Wei frowned, thinking. "Not all my memories from that time are clear," he said, apologetically. Some stood out as sparks — the days with Kunlun shone brightly across time and distance. But his responsibilities and tasks had been very little concerned with the Hallows. "The sacrifice, though… I believe that was a last resort, rather than the original intent." He shook his head, frustrated. "There was supposed to be a wick."
"Made out of what?" An Bai asked.
"I don't know."
"It's a place to start," Zhao Yunlan said.
"We should focus on the current situation in Dixing," Shen Wei reminded him. "The Lantern is less urgent."
"We'll do both," Zhao Yunlan said, with a sunny smile.
Shen Wei had much less optimism, but he still smiled back.
There was a lot to do. Zhao Yunlan fizzed with enthusiasm, even though he recognised that he couldn't take the lead. Dixing's problems needed to be solved by Dixing's subjects if the solutions were to be sustainable. Still, he was there contributing ideas as An Bai pried out Palace officials from the stone depths — a librarian, a Master of Ceremonies, a guard captain — and sounded them out for support. Chu Shuzhi hung around the throne room somewhat sardonically and Da Qing had managed to get his paws well into the city gossip to track down those who had taken a lead in encouraging their fellow citizens to stand against Ye Zun.
It was as good a basis for the beginnings of a new government as any.
And it was something of a surprise when Zhao Yunlan suddenly knew that he had done everything he could, and it was time to hand the situation over to his superiors. Also a relief, because he'd been in Dixing for days now, and although a couple of messages had passed between him and the SID that wasn't the same as being able to be there himself.
He wasn't the only one who'd been getting twitchy. When he suggested that Shen Wei accompany him, as a Dixing representative already in good standing, Shen Wei had leapt to agree.
"I need to check in with the university," Shen Wei said. "The way I left —"
"Dr Cheng sent a medical certificate to say you were still suffering the effects of the fire and need more time to recover," Zhao Yunlan said. Wang Zheng had arranged it.
Shen Wei's mouth opened in alarm.
"Would you really rather explain to them about being kidnapped?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"I suppose not," Shen Wei said, reluctantly, after a moment. He gave a sigh which suggested his reluctance wasn't merely due to the falsehood. "In that case, maybe I should remain here."
"No, you should still come," Zhao Yunlan said. "I need you to talk to the Ministry and the Bureau, remember?" But even more than that, he wanted to steal Shen Wei away with him. Just for a short while. Because Shen Wei might be carefully avoiding using his powers, but Zhao Yunlan felt he still needed a rest. His opinions and agreement and presence were constantly demanded, and if he was looking a good deal more healthy than he had done before his kidnapping (and wasn't that a terrible thought) he still looked tired.
"All right," Shen Wei finally said.
Not wishing to lose the momentum, Zhao Yunlan got everything arranged as quickly as possible. Chu Shuzhi would remain as the representative of both the SID and the Envoy. ("Good thing you already wear the right colour," Zhao Yunlan had joked, to a very deadpan look.) Da Qing would also remain because he was apparently having fun.
It was when the portal flickered open for them, summoned by one of the civilians who was now on the makeshift council, that Zhao Yunlan suddenly stopped short. "I guess we know the reason for the memory thing now," he said.
Shen Wei looked nonplussed. "The memory thing?"
"How I've been getting bits of your memories when I've travelled through the portal with you."
"Oh," Shen Wei said, and looked concerned. "Yes, I suppose it must be an effect of the mixing of the energies of the portal with my conduit to the Lantern." He reached to adjust his missing glasses, the first time in days Zhao Yunlan had seen him make such a gesture. "Would you prefer to travel separately?"
"Why on earth would I prefer that?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "Unless you don't want me to see —"
"No!" Shen Wei reached for his hand. "No, I — I do."
"Okay," Zhao Yunlan said, and was prepared this time when they stepped into the portal, still with their fingers entwined.
Perhaps it was that anticipation, but the memories this time were more coherent, more complete. Kunlun's smile and Kunlun's hand running through his hair and the pressure of Zhao Yunlan's grip as he shook his hand, the warmth and presence of it stunning him into forgetting to let go, and a kiss, so careful —
Zhao Yunlan turned to find Shen Wei's hand still in his. It was dark. Shen Wei's face was a pale glow. "Hey," he said, and followed that phantom memory of a kiss with a real one, just as gentle.
"It's late," Shen Wei said, once they'd broken away. "Do you know what the time is?"
"Too late to bother anyone," Zhao Yunlan said. The clocks in Dixing might work, but he had lost track of how they mapped to Haixing's day-night cycle. "Let's go back to the hotel."
It felt strange walking back into their room after the ornate stonework of Dixing Palace which he had somehow become used to. In these surroundings Shen Wei's robes suddenly stood out, after having become no more exceptional than his suits.
"How do these come off?" Zhao Yunlan asked, and then when Shen Wei went to do it — "No, stop. Let me. Please?"
Shen Wei gave him a look of mild puzzlement, like he couldn't work out why Zhao Yunlan would make such a request.
"I've missed this," Zhao Yunlan said. He brushed a kiss against Shen Wei's cheek. "I've missed you. Having you with me."
"I've been with you," Shen Wei pointed out.
"You know exactly what I mean. It's not the same."
"It isn't," Shen Wei agreed. He caught Zhao Yunlan's hand and held it for a minute as if examining it, before pressing a kiss to his knuckles.
"You know," Zhao Yunlan said, "In this new system we're building in Dixing, you can delegate a bit. Have a deputy. Someone to cover you when you take holidays."
"Holidays?" Shen Wei asked.
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said. "With me. Somewhere hot?" He grinned, picturing it. "Or we could do a staycation if you'd prefer. Get all the DIY work done on that house we're buying. Whatever sounds good."
"A staycation?" Shen Wei asked, in a tone suggesting that he didn't understand the word but already disapproved of it on principle.
"I'll explain later," Zhao Yunlan said. He was still working on extracting Shen Wei from his robes. "I swear the things you wore in the past didn't have this many layers."
Shen Wei laughed, and tried to help, and Zhao Yunlan batted him away. This was his job right now.
A quieter mood passed across Shen Wei's face. Zhao Yunlan paused. "What is it?" he asked.
"Did you see my memories in the portal again?" he asked.
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said. "Good ones, though." He grinned slyly. "At least, you were kissing me, so I assume they were good ones."
Shen Wei smiled a bit.
"Did you see any of mine?"
"No," Shen Wei said, which was a relief but also a disappointment. He frowned, his lips moving as he struggled to find the words. "I saw…"
Zhao Yunlan paused, waiting.
"The Lantern," Shen Wei said, finally. "I think… I almost understood something." He shook his head irritably. "I don't know. It was gone too fast."
"It'll come to you," Zhao Yunlan said. He reached up to Shen Wei's face, smoothed away the frown. "Leave it for now. Be here with me."
"Yes," Shen Wei said, and brought himself back with an effort.
Zhao Yunlan did his best to help him stay.
The curtains hadn't been closed quite properly, and a beam of early morning sunlight snaked through, across the floor and trailing onto the bed. Shen Wei lay and watched its slow progress. He would rather have watched Zhao Yunlan, but Zhao Yunlan was inconveniently facing in the other direction with the duvet pulled up over him. So it was the sunlight he watched instead.
The Lantern couldn't be suffering for his absence — he would have learned before now if it weakened when he left Dixing. And if he concentrated he could still feel the faint tug where his energy was being drawn away.
Zhao Yunlan stirred, and rolled over, and Shen Wei got to see him blink into wakefulness and his sleepy smile when he saw Shen Wei. "What time is it?" he mumbled.
"Just before seven," Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan rolled towards him and burrowed against his chest, which Shen Wei had learned was the equivalent of a good-morning hug when he hadn't quite come awake enough for that level of coordination. Not that Shen Wei was often still in bed when Zhao Yunlan woke — normally he was preparing breakfast, or otherwise getting ready for the day. But on the rare occasions when he wasn't, as now, it was deeply satisfying to feel Zhao Yunlan so warm and relaxed against him.
He was reluctant to bring it to an end, but finally he made himself get up, sighing fondly at the bereft noise Zhao Yunlan made. "I'm going to have a shower," Shen Wei said.
Showers were one of the things he missed while in Dixing. One of the many things. He was Dixingren, undeniably, but he wondered why in all these years he had never fully expressed to himself how Haixing was the realm which felt like home. Maybe because of how it conflicted with his responsibilities, his duties, and the image of himself he had carefully built around them.
But he had grown from childhood under the sun. Dragon City was where he had spent most of his life since awakening. It wasn't where most of his people lived. Yet, it was where he lived.
The unexpected shift in perspective lingered through his preparations, and then through the day. Through the meetings which made up most of their schedule. Shen Wei kept it at the back of his thoughts, turning it over and over like a smooth stone in a pocket.
Zhao Yunlan was in his element, and he shone. He spun cloud-palaces in his enthusiasm, but all his ideas were grounded in a logic and sense which was undeniable. Shen Wei found himself nodding along, and he watched more and more of the ministers and Bureau officials become gradually convinced.
After all, Ye Zun's attack was still fresh in everyone's mind, and he and his followers had been but a symptom of the troubles at the heart of Dixing's society. If closer links to the undoubtedly excellent example of Haixing, and Dragon City in particular, could help to mitigate such future threats… Zhao Yunlan was reasonable, and charismatic, and above all he was extremely persuasive.
They finally emerged in the late afternoon and headed into the SID — Zhao Yunlan insisted on stopping on the way to purchase a veritable mountain of deep-fried food, which he claimed to be in withdrawal from. When he got back into the Jeep with it he also handed a new pair of glasses to Shen Wei, with an extremely pleased expression.
The food was certainly given a good reception by the team. Who had been missing their chief — Shen Wei saw that immediately in the way they clustered around Zhao Yunlan — and also worried about him. Which was unexpected, and confusing to deal with.
Zhao Yunlan touched his arm briefly, making a small space that was just for the two of them. "Do you mind if I tell them about the Lantern?" he asked.
Shen Wei had been braced for him to launch into it. He was uncomfortable by how quickly the story had spread through Dixing, gaining momentum in the telling so that now he saw this addition to his already vastly inflated legend reflected in the eyes of everyone who spoke to him. He accepted that Zhao Yunlan had felt it necessary, as part of turning public feeling against the Regent, but in its way it was just as hard to cope with as the much more true rumours about his loss of power.
The unexpected kindness of Zhao Yunlan asking, however, almost undid him. Shen Wei stared, because obviously Zhao Yunlan was going to tell the SID anyway — but no, he had a sudden understanding that if he refused to give permission then Zhao Yunlan would try to keep this secret for him, for as long as possible.
With that realisation Shen Wei felt able to accept a small portion of the gift Zhao Yunlan was offering. "I would prefer to be somewhere else while you do," he admitted.
"Sure," Zhao Yunlan said, like he understood completely. "You can… um…" He bit his lip, thinking. "Why don't you have a look in the library in case we have anything in there about the Lantern's original wick?"
"I'll do that," Shen Wei agreed. Privately he was sure he would find no such thing in the SID's library, being already familiar with all the texts which were genuinely old enough for the insights into the Hallows they offered to be potentially reliable. But it was as good a pretext as any, and he ascended the stairs gratefully.
A quick search of the library proved as fruitless as expected. The transcriptions of ancient scrolls, all of which Shen Wei had read previously, continued to contain more in the way of mystical hints than useful facts. There was little even pinned down about the Hallows' nature. Sculpted from the essence of a star which fell sounded grand but left Shen Wei no nearer a solution.
When he decided that enough time had passed return downstairs it was to find that the food had nearly all gone. "Did you find anything?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Nothing helpful," Shen Wei said. He met the eyes of the SID team with some reluctance, but there was no immediate reaction from any of them on seeing him. He let himself relax slightly.
"Well, can't be helped," Zhao Yunlan said, bracingly, but with a shrug indicating that he wasn't surprised by this result either.
"Professor Shen, won't you eat something?" Guo Changcheng asked.
Shen Wei was dubious about the quality of the food, but he found that he was quite hungry. Wang Zheng appeared at his elbow with tea, which helped to wash down the deep-fried grease. And Zhao Yunlan grinned at him, apparently taking the same unaccountable delight he always did in persuading Shen Wei into eating street food.
"What are you going to do next?" Lin Jing asked Zhao Yunlan.
"We need to get back to Dixing and report on the conversations we've had with the bureaucrats," Zhao Yunlan said. "I guess sooner rather than later." He didn't look hugely enthused by the prospect, now that we was back with his people.
"We could stay another night," Shen Wei suggested, for his sake.
"No, we might as well do it now," Zhao Yunlan said, with a sigh. Then he frowned. "But the portal —"
"I can manage it," Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan looked even less enthused. "Really?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said. "The days in Dixing have let me begin to build my reserves of dark energy again. More than enough for this."
"Even though you've been gradually letting the Lantern brighten more and more?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Shen Wei hadn't realised he had noticed. The Lantern was still far from full brightness. "I didn't give it much more. Just enough to improve the light."
Zhao Yunlan looked predictably unhappy about this, which was why Shen Wei hadn't explicitly mentioned it. He sighed. "I don't suppose I can persuade you otherwise."
"No," Shen Wei agreed. He wanted to make Zhao Yunlan happy, of course he did, but on some things… he couldn't. And this was one of them. Although he had compromised, holding back the energy he himself needed and then some extra. For situations like now. "When would you like to return to Dixing?" he asked.
"Not until you've finished eating," Zhao Yunlan said, sternly.
It was in fact a while after that. Wang Zheng made Zhao Yunlan go through a mountain of mostly-filled-in forms which needed his signature — "Can't you just forge it?" he whined — and Guo Changcheng wanted extensive reassurances about how Da Qing and especially Chu Shuzhi were doing, and Zhu Hong had a list of questions about the current political situation so that she could either share the answers with the Yashou tribes or hold them over their heads as needed, and Lin Jing dragged Zhao Yunlan into the lab to have an extensive argument with him over something, from which they both emerged looking grumpy.
But finally they were ready, and Zhao Yunlan insisted on calling a taxi to take them to the portal since he didn't want to leave his jeep in the park but also insisted Shen Wei conserve his strength. "It won't make a difference, there's no reason not to walk," Shen Wei insisted, but Zhao Yunlan looked so unhappy about it that he let himself be overruled.
In front of the portal, however, he didn't say a word — just gave Shen Wei's hand a quick supportive squeeze and then stood back and smiled at him.
Shen Wei took a deep breath, and couldn't quite manage to smile back. He hadn't tried to summon his dark energy in days, and he was almost afraid — but when he flexed his hand it flowed easily around his fingers and when he reached out to the portal and tugged it came glinting into existence.
"How do you feel?" Zhao Yunlan asked anxiously.
"Fine," Shen Wei said, more than a little surprised to discover that it was true. Summoning the portal had been an undoubted effort but a straightforward one, his dark energy managing the task without having to rip through his body for extra resources.
Zhao Yunlan smiled at him again, and took his hand. "Ready to go?" he asked. "Wonder which of your memories I'll get this time."
That reminded Shen Wei of the feeling he had had inside the portal before. That he had been on the very edge of grasping something, but it had been too fast, too fleeting. Maybe if this time he was prepared, and stepped into the portal with his mind wide open and receptive…
"I'm ready," he said, and closed his eyes but opened his dark energy vision as wide as possible and, with Zhao Yunlan, stepped through.
And usually he would expect this to be near-instantaneous, this shortcut passage through reality between here and there. But with his senses thrown wide, tuned to the pulse of energy that is his conduit to the Lantern, he…
Alone, alone, though he can feel around him the bundle of energy that is Zhao Yunlan, see where he overlaps the energy that is part of Shen Wei and absorbs just minuscule fragments of it, enough to share moments and memories in this timeless void. And the last echoes of Ye Zun fading, still fading, though nothing here will ever be quite lost.
And he turns and follows his own conduit to the Lantern, to the energy of it, the idea of it, the shape of it. Star-spun, and it yearns always to burn bright like a star itself.
Shen Wei reaches out to it, across aeons and fathoms and heartbeats.
He reaches out to it, reaches it, is reached by it. And he
Getting near the end now. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone following along with this! I do apologise for the sad lack of cliffhangers on the last couple of chapters.
Zhao Yunlan had been on tense alert since Shen Wei opened the portal, in case his estimation of how much it would drain his energy should prove inaccurate. But they travelled through smoothly enough, and arrived just outside the Palace gates, where they had left from.
Shen Wei's eyes were closed. "Hey," Zhao Yunlan said. "Are you okay?" When that got no answer he touched Shen Wei's shoulder, anxiously. "Shen Wei?"
Shen Wei blinked, slowly, and it took a couple of moments before his face really looked inhabited. "Zhao Yunlan," he said.
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said. "What just happened?" Because something clearly had.
Shen Wei focused on him, gaze abruptly intense. "I saw what the Lantern needs," he said.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan demanded. "You mean, you know how to separate your energy from it?"
"I believe so," Shen Wei said. "I need to think… I need to speak to An Bai."
He set off walking quickly, with Zhao Yunlan lagging behind him for a couple of seconds before he caught up. Shen Wei's expression was tightly focused, and Zhao Yunlan didn't want to interrupt whatever thoughts were spinning through his head.
No one tried to stop either of them from just walking into the palace — they had become an acknowledged part of it. Still, Shen Wei paused as the entered the room beside the throne hall which was now beginning to be used for meetings, set with a large low table as the centrepiece and floor pads all around it. An Bai was in deep conversation with the librarian and one of the new civilian representatives, but looked up immediately as they entered. "You've returned."
"Please excuse our disturbance," Shen Wei said, and waited until An Bai gestured before he came closer. He took one of the places by the table, and Zhao Yunlan slotted in beside him.
"I'm glad you're back," An Bai said, and he did actually look pleased to see them. The kid had gone up considerably in Zhao Yunlan's estimation with how he had handled everything since finally growing a spine and kicking out the Regent. "How is the situation in Haixing?"
Shen Wei had already opened his mouth to start speaking, but he paused and glanced at Zhao Yunlan. "Promising," Zhao Yunlan said, answering An Bai's question. "But Shen Wei has other news too that you'll want to hear."
Shen Wei gave him a little nod and turned his gaze back to An Bai. "I believe I understand the Lantern better now," he said. "I think I know a way to distangle my energy from it, whilst keeping it alight."
An Bai leaned forward. "How?" he asked.
"Using the other Hallows," Shen Wei said. He frowned slightly, and his words faltered as if he was seeing somewhere else, piecing it together as he spoke. "The Lantern can build a, a connection to Haixing's sun. Haixing's star. I saw how it can be done."
"You saw it?" the librarian asked. Her fingers idly toyed with wisps of her hair. "I don't know anything about this…"
"They… the Lantern showed it to me," Shen Wei said. "When I travelled through the portal." He frowned more and touched his fingertips to his temple. "It's difficult to explain in words. But they're all connected, forged from a star which fell. The Dial can hold the energy until the Awl splits it out, and the Merit Brush can draw the path." He sighed. "Although it may be a long endeavour. This connection can't be brought through a portal, and I know no other way to travel from Haixing to Dixing."
The librarian cleared her throat. "Actually, I do."
There was a faintly stunned pause, which she looked well-satisfied by. Zhao Yunlan took the opportunity to pour a cup of tea from the pot on the table and slide it in front of Shen Wei, who took it gratefully.
"Why don't I know about this?" An Bai demanded.
"It's a last resort," the librarian said. "It's been held along with my post for thousands of years. A passage upwards through the rock. The end is blocked, and hidden, but I believe it was built in the early days, in secret, should the population of Dixing ever need to evacuate." She met An Bai's eyes, and coughed delicately. "Whether due to natural disaster, or tyranny."
"Ah," An Bai said, understanding. "So we can unblock the Dixing end? How about the Haixing one?"
"I believe that's merely well-hidden," the librarian said. "I have records showing the location. They mean nothing to me, but to Hei Pao Shi —"
"Please, show us," Shen Wei said. "And thank you. If I'm permitted to take the Hallows, then I will attempt this —"
"Tomorrow," Zhao Yunlan cut in. "And I'm coming with you."
Shen Wei did not protest. Instead, he might even have looked grateful. "Yes," he agreed.
It actually took two days to have everything arranged. To get permission on the Haixing side to enter a no-go section of land outside Dragon City, which was barricaded off because it had always been barricaded off; a directive passed down for much longer than anyone had realised.
There had been the suggestion of an entourage, but Shen Wei had refused. Had said that they should do this quietly. Zhao Yunlan knew that he was afraid that this wouldn't work after all, and wanted to keep the circle of people who knew about it small to minimise the number of people who felt let down should his fears prove to be the case. Zhao Yunlan went along with that because he didn't see how more people could help. It was Shen Wei alone who could carry out the main part of it, after all.
"Thank you for your assistance," Zhao Yunlan said to the armed Inspectorate guard who had unwound several lengths of chain and unlocked four padlocks, before finally managing to open the rusted-shut gate with a hearty shove from his shoulder.
"You're really supposed to be locked in and left?" the man asked doubtfully.
"Yep," Zhao Yunlan said, with a sunny smile.
"Well, okay, if you say so… and my orders…" He waited for them to step through and tugged the gate back into place with a horrible screech.
Shen Wei set off calmly through the dense undergrowth, summoning his sword as soon as they were out of sight of the guard to cut thorns and clinging vines from their path. He headed towards the low rocky cliff they had glimpsed from the road. Zhao Yunlan followed close behind.
When they reached the cliff they saw the cave entrance immediately. Narrow and barely high enough for them to walk through with scraping their heads. It had been boarded across, but so long ago that most of the boards had split and lay mouldering on the ground. Zhao Yunlan gave the last few a good kick and they splintered immediately. He took a torch out of his pocket and shone it into the cave. The passage sloped downwards, curving away. "Looks like the right place," he said.
Shen Wei nodded.
Zhao Yunlan put his rucksack down and gently lifted out the cloth-wrapped Dial and Brush, careful not to disturb the Awl for now. He also checked their supplies for the hundredth time. Food, water, spare torches, spare batteries, incense cones. (Their best estimations of how long the passage would take to walk had come to about a day, but it was inexact since no one in living or written memory had done it.) He passed the Dial to Shen Wei and didn't miss Shen Wei's concerned attention as he unwrapped the Merit Brush himself.
He reached up and painted the character Shen Wei had shown him over the cave's arch.
To him there seemed to be no effect, although Shen Wei gave a small pleased nod — until he lifted the Brush away and felt a faint tug, as if it had been tied to a ball of thread which unspooled as he pulled. "I can feel it," he said, surprised.
"Good," Shen Wei said. He uncovered the Dial, and grasped it firmly in one hand.
"Wait," Zhao Yunlan said, catching Shen Wei's arm.
"What is it?" Shen Wei asked, already with his forehead creased as he gathered his attention.
"For luck," Zhao Yunlan said, and kissed him. Only gently, although he lingered with it — time enough for Shen Wei to get over his surprise and return the kiss.
When he pulled back Shen Wei smiled at him slightly before he lapsed deep into concentration. He raised the Dial and —
— drew down the sun.
Zhao Yunlan felt it, that rush of energy. Warm, bright, burning, spiralling down through the eddies and air currents, searing a path through the wind and the upper atmosphere and the reaches of space and starlight beyond. Coiling around the Dial, which for a moment was too bright to look at — and then the energy settled, or was absorbed into the meteorite metal, and what lingered was a steady glow, pulsing with sparks. He put a hand under Shen Wei's elbow as Shen Wei rocked under the impact, but he found his balance again after a moment.
"It worked?" Zhao Yunlan asked, quietly, needing the confirmation.
"Yes," Shen Wei said. Awed. "This is… Yes."
"Shall we go?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Shen Wei nodded, and stepped into the cave entrance. They didn't need the torches at all; the Dial shone bright as a beacon as they began the descent.
The Dial pulsed in his hands, softly, gently. Like a heartbeat. Like he was cradling a living thing. Shen Wei found it hard to tear his gaze away as he started walking, Zhao Yunlan at his side. Then he stumbled on the first few steps, not considering the unevenness of the stony floor, too distracted with the living golden sunlight he held.
"Are you okay?" Zhao Yunlan asked, and slipped a hand under Shen Wei's elbow.
"Yes," Shen Wei said, embarrassed to have so lost focus. He stood up straight, away from Zhao Yunlan's support. Looked deliberately up and down the passage, blinking as he tried to regain some of his night vision. But the glowing Dial was constantly drawing his attention, and it seemed that he would have to be content with seeing only as far as was caught in its weave of light.
He looked to Zhao Yunlan, who held the Merit Brush firmly in his hand. It was at right-angles to his body, less as if he was painting with it and more as if it were a spindle from which he unwound new-spun thread with each step. Which was what he was doing — using the Brush's power of amplification to draw an unbroken line, a conduit, down from Haixing to Dixing for the bright energy leased from the sun to stream along, once they had shown it the way. "How is it?" Shen Wei asked.
Zhao Yunlan followed his hands to the Brush. "It feels odd," he said. "Like I'm painting on paper I can't see." He nodded towards the Dial. "How about for you?"
"Odd," Shen Wei said, musingly. That was a good way to describe it. As the sunlight had poured into the Dial it had burned hotter and brighter until he had been afraid that he wouldn't be able to hold it at all, but then mercifully it had diminished. But it was still… a weight, glowing in his subconscious even though it was merely warm and light while cradled in his hands.
He became aware that Zhao Yunlan had been speaking. "Sorry. What did you say?"
"I said, I wonder how long this tunnel has been here?" Zhao Yunlan said, not sounding annoyed at having to repeat himself. "And how do you think it was dug out? Seems too convenient to be natural."
"It was made with a Dixing power," Shen Wei said. "I can still feel very faint traces. Hardly anyone can have walked this path in the years between, for them to be so undisturbed." He tried to imagine the vast expenditure of energy the tunnel represented. The slow was steep enough for his calf muscles to already be grumbling, and it would go on for miles. It would take him many days to do something like this with his full powers. This must have been a long, slow, secret project, carried out maybe in hope, maybe in fear. "I can't tell how long ago it was. Hundreds of years at least, the librarian said."
Zhao Yunlan looked around appreciatively. "You know, I don't think we've yet looked into the potential of employing Dixingren to work on large-scale projects. The engineering sector would love to meet the person who could do this."
That surprised Shen Wei into a laugh.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan asked, suspiciously.
"You're so focused," Shen Wei said, fondly. "On the integration. You always said you hated politics, but you're extremely good at them."
"Oh," Zhao Yunlan said, sounding pleased and bashful at once. "Thank you."
They walked quietly for a while, their footfalls thudding softly. The tunnel was too low and narrow for echoes, and muffled their sounds instead. Shen Wei watched the play of golden light over the rough stone. Their path curved gently with no branches, tracing one long coil. Like a snake burrowing deep beneath the earth.
It was Zhao Yunlan who kept track of time and called for a break, sitting himself down immediately. Shen Wei sat down beside him and was surprised to discover that a couple of hours had already passed. He held the Dial against his chest with one hand while he accepted a bottle of water and some food from Zhao Yunlan's bag. Zhao Yunlan had placed the Brush carefully on the ground just behind him, and when he picked it up again after their stop was over it was tensely, holding his breath. But he relaxed at once. "Still there," he said, with a grin. "Guess I was worried about nothing."
"No one has done this before," Shen Wei reminded him. He himself couldn't countenance the thought of putting the Dial down. The idea felt… wrong.
They continued walking. Zhao Yunlan had apparently been suffering during the recent silence because he started chattering idly, sharing gossip he had picked up from Zhu Hong, wondering what mischief Da Qing was getting up to, speculating again over what sort of house they would buy together when this was sorted out. The last topic made Shen Wei warm with happiness. He wasn't contributing much to the conversation but he was enjoying listening, and he was glad that Zhao Yunlan recognised that and didn't stop.
They walked, and took a break, and walked, and took a break.
"Are you doing okay?" Zhao Yunlan asked, sitting next to him with their shoulders and hips pressed together. "You're looking kind of pale."
Shen Wei thought about it. Distracted himself by looking down at the Dial, before he remembered and looked up again. "I'm fine, just getting a little tired," he said. He drank some more water, and breathed deeply. The air smelled loamy, dry.
"Remember that you can call breaks too," Zhao Yunlan said. "It shouldn't always be me."
"Yes," Shen Wei said, meaning it.
But it was… harder to remember while he was actually walking. Lulled by the sunlight glow nestled against his heart. The light reached out in front of them but behind them was blocked by their bodies so that only shadows fell that way. The floor and walls and ceiling of the tunnel sloped on unbroken and it became hard to believe they were moving at all, other than when the light caught a smooth reflection on a polished surface or splintered with a sparkle of quartz. But those markers were few and far between, and quickly passed.
He took a step and his knee didn't hold him up. It folded under his weight and he pitched to the ground, too surprised to catch himself.
"Shen Wei!" Zhao Yunlan helped him to sit up, pulling him to lean against him. "What happened? Did you trip?"
"I don't know," Shen Wei said, still in mild surprise. He was breathing heavily. Zhao Yunlan's hand hovered near to his, and when he reached out one of his own hands to grasp it he saw that his fingers were trembling.
Zhao Yunlan pressed a warm hand against Shen Wei's forehead, and Shen Wei leaned into it. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing deeply.
"How much of your energy are you sending to the Lantern right now?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"The same," Shen Wei said.
"Mmm." Zhao Yunlan was frowning, looking concerned. "I think you may want to be sending less. You don't look well."
"You must be tired too," Shen Wei said, which he should have considered before. "The walk —"
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "I don't think it's just that," he said. "Is holding the Dial — is it affecting you? Draining your energy?"
Shen Wei looked at the Dial, and again found it hard to look away. Its weight went well beyond the physical. "I think… it might be," he said. Wondering why he hadn't noticed.
"Shall we take a longer break?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "Or is there anything I can do to help?"
"I can manage it," Shen Wei assured him. He shut his eyes, concentrated. Narrowed the conduit to the Lantern, just a fraction. Enough to give him a fresh wave of energy, enough to get himself to his feet.
They continued. Zhao Yunlan insisted on walking beside him now, even though it was a tighter fit, ready with a moment's support whenever Shen Wei stumbled. Which he occasionally did, although he didn't think the floor had become any more uneven.
Down, down through the depths. The sharp smell of mineral damp.
Their surroundings suddenly flared up with reflected light. Shen Wei was startled to a stop, while Zhao Yunlan beside him gasped, and whispered a low, "Wow…"
Around them the walls of the tunnel dropped away, flaring out into the twisting boundaries of a deep-river cave. Water gurgled below them, cutting a chasm across their path only a couple of handbreadths wide but far, far more deep before it swelled out into a pool on their left, black and shining. Stalagmites stood in frozen fountains awaiting the slow drip from their brethren reaching down towards them from the roof. In the Dial's light it all gleamed, streaked with oranges and reds and purples.
"This is amazing," Zhao Yunlan whispered, his voice awed.
Shen Wei stood still and simply stared, solemn in the face of this unexpected wonder. It was a moment before he could bring himself to move forward, and then he was mostly drawn by the wish to see more of this cavern. There was no danger of becoming lost — their path ran clear, raised an inch or so from the surrounding floor.
They both walked slowly, keeping their footfalls soft. The trapped sunlight from the Dial danced and played across the glistening space — crystals growing slowly in the walls, concentric basins of slow-accumulating stone surrounding the smallest leaks in the roof. Stalactites hanging down like frozen vines.
When they finally reached the other side where their path ran into a new tunnel, once more contained and smooth, Zhao Yunlan paused and turned back to face the cavern, eyes open wide as if he was trying to commit all of it to memory.
"We could stop a while," Shen Wei suggested, with a smile.
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan agreed, slightly guiltily. He gave Shen Wei unnecessary help to sit down, and then rummaged through his bag to find his phone and turn it on. No signal down here, of course, but he was soon taking photos, cautiously unwilling to leave the path for fear of damaging the beauty he wished to capture.
Shen Wei, leaning against the wall, closed his eyes for a moment.
He slept without meaning to — woke to find something soft under his head and Zhao Yunlan curled close against his back. And the Dial still cradled within the curl of his body.
He sat up carefully and Zhao Yunlan came immediately awake too, yawning. "I'm sorry," Shen Wei said. "I didn't mean to —"
"Don't apologise, it was about time for a proper rest," Zhao Yunlan said, rubbing his eyes. "I filled our water bottles, too. If the water down here isn't purified, no water in the world is. Here, drink some." He passed a bottle over and Shen Wei drank. It was only his imagination which imbued the cold taste of it on his tongue with particular significance, with stillness and clarity, but he drank deeply.
"Are you hungry?" Zhao Yunlan asked, sorting through their supplies — mostly various energy bars and ration packs.
"Not really," Shen Wei said, but that answer made Zhao Yunlan frown, so he did his best anyway to eat the food pressed on him. It was thick and cloying in his mouth and he got it down only with continual swallows of water.
When he stood up he swayed, lightheaded. Zhao Yunlan caught him, and held onto him tightly. "Take it easy," he said.
Shen Wei nodded, holding onto Zhao Yunlan as he tried to steady himself. When the weakness didn't subside he pulled back another fragment of energy to himself, until he was able to take his own weight again.
Zhao Yunlan didn't move away this time. He remained under Shen Wei's elbow, supporting him, while they both took one last look at the glory of the cavern and then left it for the narrow passage downwards.
The journey became more unreal than ever after that. Shen Wei's head ached, and dizziness became a constant presence. Down they went, and down, and Zhao Yunlan's arm was underneath his shoulders as Shen Wei stole more slivers of power from the Lantern and tried not to think about how the light in Dixing would be fading.
But the golden glow held in the Dial was as constant as ever. And Zhao Yunlan continued to draw the Brush along their path, an unbroken thread. Shen Wei looked back once and saw it glinting, before realising he was seeing with his dark energy without meaning to. But it was beautiful — a trail of light through the deep darkness.
Other things were blurring together. The hard lip of a plastic bottle, and the taste of cold water. A mouthful of tasteless protein bar which he chewed and chewed but choked on when he tried to swallow it, and ended up retching and spitting it out instead while Zhao Yunlan rubbed his back and murmured to him comfortingly. The endless tug on his muscles as he walked and walked and walked.
He was taking more power. He had to. Each time he knew he couldn't keep up his efforts he narrowed the conduit again, holding back yet more for himself. The connection faded in his awareness, from a rope to a string to a thread. But he couldn't take too much — he needed to keep that connection to the Lantern open, however thinly, or all of this would be in vain.
His head was on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder, and Zhao Yunlan was holding him up, pulling him along. His voice a soothing litany. "Nearly there," he murmured, although on what basis Shen Wei couldn't tell. "You can keep this up, I know you can, just one step at a time, we'll make it…"
And then — there was a widening, as the light from the Dial suddenly ran out of rock to reach. The passage opened, walls and roof flung wide to the larger roof of Dixing.
Dark, all dark. Except for a faint, firefly glow high overhead. The last ember of the Lantern.
Shen Wei breathed out, pure relief. They had made it. He sagged, and Zhao Yunlan helped him drop to his knees.
"I thought there'd be someone to meet us —" Zhao Yunlan began, and then he half-whispered, "Oh, fuck."
The Dial's light played over the body of one of the Palace Guard. Dead; his neck broken.
Flame bloomed among the rocks close by. Torches held by maybe five or six people — they wavered in Shen Wei's vision, overlapping and blurring.
One of the figures stepped forward. "Give the Hallows to me," the Regent said.
Well, this is the end! Thank you SO MUCH to everyone reading this. This story (all three parts) has been a joy to write and especially to share. I have treasured every kudos and comment!
Huge thanks are especially owed to Xparrot and Naye for support, encouragement, and advice all the way through writing this. This story is so much better because of them.
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.