‘‘The real warrior dares to face life directly as it is, no matter how gloomy it might be; and to look unflinchingly at one’s circumstances, no matter how blood drenched it might be’’ – Lu Xun
Zhao Yunlan is the gun and Shen Wei is the blade.
Zhao Yunlan doesn’t like that last part one bit.
“Alright that’s the plan,” Shen Wei proposes to them back in SID headquarters, as if he doesn’t keep a few dangerous back-ups churning under his skin.
As plans for infiltrating an enemy’s underground stronghold go, this one immediately goes to dogshit. Explosive dogshit.
It’s been five minutes. The white-haired bastard hasn’t moved from his facedown tableau on the garish stone floor and Zhao Yunlan’s entire body is a full-blown choir singing in pain. He had willfully dragged himself across the floor from point A to point Shen Wei but the important thing is: his hands staunching the flow of blood from Shen Wei’s wounds, Shen Wei’s warmth, the slow and sticky beat of Shen Wei’s heart.
Lin Jing is being helpful in his own way. He shouts about depleting energy sources, the ever-widening crack in Dixing, the whole world falling apart. Except Zhao Yunlan can only think about how Shen Wei shared his life force with him and how that pile of bull should be a two-way street.
“Boss, I think we really need to get out of here,” Da Qing says like he’s been repeating the same thing for a while, and there is a mess of limbs pulling at Yunlan and Shen Wei from different directions. Yunlan finally cooperates when Zhu Hong reassures him, “We’ve got the professor. Come on, let’s go,” with all her Snake Yashou confidence, and the ground shaking beneath him finally registers.
When their ragtag group emerges from one of Dixing’s passageways, the sky that greets them is startlingly blue. As if blown clear by the sudden dispelled energies from the white-haired bastard, the Hallows, and from Shen Wei (all the light and dark energies building up in pressure inside of him for quite some time now; Shen Wei who is not only the blade but also, ultimately, Dixing’s ticking bomb). Like the bright day after a typhoon breaks. A day like any other.
Zhao Yunlan hasn’t felt the impulse in a while but there’s the strong urge to go buy a pack of cigarettes so he can chain-smoke his way through this. He asks for some water to wash away the taste of blood in his mouth instead.
They put him up in one of the less crowded wards in Dragon City hospital, though he wouldn’t know this until a week later because his body then proceeds to shut-down—according to Lin Jing, some hinky rewriting of his body’s genetic makeup went on after the serum—and he keeps wading in and out of consciousness, only awake a few minutes each time.
For one moment or another he thinks he sees Shen Wei similarly laid out beside him, IV drip and all, and Zhao Yunlan entertains the small fantasy that oh man, poor Shen Wei has fallen terribly sick! Clearly he does not know the limits of his very professorial body! Did he stay up late far too many days in a row, grading papers, ignoring the sensible advice of his similarly-exhausted, very handsome and dashing comrade? And no sooner than he tries to imagine himself into this scenario, some version of Zhao Yunlan untouched by his mother’s death and therefore unaware of the existence of Dixing, he goes under again.
Other waking moments don’t treat him as well:
Shen Wei not by his side, possibly bleeding to death on some really tasteless flooring all the way down in the Dixing palace, and the stark despair floods him so completely he chokes on it. The image of Shen Wei back in Dixing just as Zhao Yunlan left him, wounded in so many places and so weak he can’t even stand without the support of his glaive. When the time comes that I have to use my injuries in exchange for everyone’s lives… It’s so unfair. Poor Shen Wei, most of his life spent fighting for others, making the necessary calculations and still end up thinking his own life was fitting payment in exchange for everyone else’s.
It’s almost comes as a relief when Yunlan slips back into the darkness quickly.
In that tense hour before they stormed Ye Zun’s stronghold, Da Qing, apropos of nothing or perhaps just to move away from the dark spiral of their losses, asks about SID’s plans if they manage to come back from Dixing. All of them are in the middle of last-minute preparations. There are people to contact, to coordinate plans of attack with, last resorts to stash and secret away (Zhao Yunlan with the serum, the half-knowledge about the nature of the wick and the Guardian lamp tucked in the back of his mind, his loaded gun).
“We will all come back. No excuses,” Yunlan says, a little sharper than usual. Da Qing gives him a wider berth on the couch, maybe due to his tone, maybe because he’s holding a gun. Zhao Yunlan lets out a heavy sigh. “Personally, I want to get really drunk after all of this.”
Zhu Hong nods. “Drinking party once everyone comes back. Chief pays for everything.”
“I’ve never heard of a better plan,” Old Chu agrees, the most enthusiastic and sociable he’s been in years.
“Wait now,” Yunlan looks up from his gun. “I never said anything about me paying!”
Even well-meaning Guo Changcheng who would normally bring up questions like “Shouldn’t we stop Hong-jie from chugging two cases worth of beer?” seems excited about the prospect of free food, cheap booze, and the high probability of him having to do disgusting clean-up after.
Zhao Yunlan needs some back-up. Turns around from his position in the couch and calls out, “Shen Wei! My subordinates are bullying me! Don’t you also think it’s unfair that I’m only one person paying for everyone?”
“It would be very costly for you,” Shen Wei concedes, trying to match the atmosphere.
Zhu Hong then directs her gaze to him. “Professor Shen Wei is invited to the drinking party too.” She must’ve seen something pass over Shen Wei’s face because she’s shaking her head. “We know the professor doesn’t drink but won’t you want a front seat view of the chief becoming even more of a disaster?”
Yunlan feels a hand settle on his shoulder. Shen Wei has moved closer it seems and Yunlan leans into it, always greedily taking the morsels Shen Wei lets himself offer. “Wouldn’t want to miss that.”
When Yunlan properly comes to, it’s with the suspicion that not all of his senses and thoughts are to be trusted. Yeah right, of course there’s Shen Wei in his long-sleeves, sleeve garters, no tie, sitting by his hospital bed and catching up on his peer-reviewed journal reading. Surely this is one of his fever-dreams. And if this is Shen Wei with the top three buttons of his collar undone, oh boy, it might even be that kind of a hot fever-dream if Yunlan is lucky.
“Is your collar undone?” He croaks out for good measure, only half-serious, and there’s a passing second where he thinks his voice sounded really weird. Then Shen Wei’s head snaps up from his reading and he stares at Zhao Yunlan with such an openly broken face- Oh. Oh no. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m such an idiot.” He wants to reach out to him but he has no strength in his arms.
Shen Wei, who usually holds himself up with so much resolve and restraint, now the steel stripped out of him, bending to take Zhao Yunlan’s hand, pressing his mouth into the rough skin of Zhao Yunlan’s palm. “You are an idiot. We thought we lost you.”
No, I thought I lost you, Yunlan doesn’t say.
They refuse to discharge him. He’s also under some kind of news blackout policy. Shen Wei may visit him but he remains tight-lipped about what’s happening outside. Try as he might to charm the nurses and his doctor for a week, they wouldn’t let him go online or watch tv, and the lone transistor radio in their ward goes only between morning calisthenics music or some sort of Top 40s station on repeat.
“Took your own damn time getting here, huh,” Zhao Yunlan says from his bed when his team finally decides to visit him, trying to look dignified even if his bum feels too cold and too exposed under his hospital gown. He is still their leader after all.
The whole world isn’t falling apart. Yet. Lin Jing scratches at the back of his neck, dodging questions about jumping into conclusions without scientific proof and the suspicious quality of his intellectual integrity and such. But:
“He’s still right. The energy reserves are indeed running too low that Dixing won’t be able to stand by itself much longer,” Chu Suzhi offers up, and what Zhao Yunlan thought to be his usual scowling expression when he arrived is actually that of tight weariness. “For the past week his honorable Black Cloak Envoy and the Yashou have been evacuating the people remaining underground to the surface. They can’t predict when the whole place is going to cave in.”
“Probably sink in a not insignificant portion of the city’s real estate too,” Lin Jing adds.
The fun just never stops, does it? Zhao Yunlan curbs the impulse to yell. “How are the Dixingren?”
“Some of them are staying in my uncle’s lands though it’s not enough space, and not all of them have been cooperative,” Zhu Hong says.
“And what does the Ministry think about all of this? How’s your uncle?” Yunlan directs this to Guo Changcheng, who of course starts fidgeting with the strap of his messenger bag. Never a good sign.
“T-They’re reassigning uncle to another government position after he kept insisting on how the Hallows should stay with SID.”
“Perfect.” Yunlan rubs an aggressive hand all over his face and wills himself to not have a headache. “Please ask the front desk to extend visiting hours.”
Aim and fire. Even mostly bedridden, Zhao Yunlan can at least do this much.
Although sometimes it feels as if it’s just constant loop of changing and moving targets.
They still refuse to discharge Zhao Yunlan a week later so he chooses to do all the discharging himself. He’s fine. He can stand on his own two feet now for like a solid three hours. All he really needs is to know where to point his gun and pull the trigger.
Shen Wei is livid.
“I asked Chu Suzhi to back me up. Yunlan, what are you doing here?” Here being yet another nondescript warehouse at the edge of the city. It’s very much a déjà vu situation except they’re not fighting rebellious Dixingren this time, more like an anti-Dixingren faction in Dragon city who didn’t like the Black Cloak Envoy’s face and somehow got hold of some serum samples.
Shen Wei is uninjured but he’s sweating under his mask from all the exertion. His lips are too pale. Zhao Yunlan has missed all the signs that Shen Wei is still in recovery too and gets a little livid himself.
“Well, I am part of that back-up,” he bites out, unwilling to be talked out of it, five shots fired in quick succession at the poor Shaya rip-off who managed to catch them at such an inconvenient time.
After the fight their spat is continued in the privacy of Zhao Yunlan’s apartment because Shen Wei is so hung up on attending to the tiny baby cut under Yunlan’s left eye even when Shen Wei’s the one out of breath—“Okay fine, sorry I was careless for one second and didn’t see the punch coming, but isn’t this overkill?”
“Why is it that you always take your own life so lightly? You’re not expendable,” Shen Wei says, voice so hard he sounds like he’s having thoughts of decking Yunlan too and giving him another shiner. Yunlan wants to shout back if Shen Wei’s been listening to himself, he’s nowhere near expendable too.
Then he catches that broken expression on Shen Wei’s face and he hates that he’s familiar with it, Yunlan wondering if he himself has worn that same look too, that time in Dixing when he keep pressing on the open wound on Shen Wei’s chest and thought that he lost him completely.
“What a strange pair we make,” Yunlan says instead. And because he’s so tired, so done with losing Shen Wei and with facing the constant threats of losing him, he gives in and decides to live a little, grabs life by its wrinkled collar (and relishes Shen Wei’s delicious gasp, the warm and reassuring puff of his breath over Yunlan’s lips) and kisses him.
Another moving target. Another world’s end. Zhao Yunlan will aim and fire until he runs out of bullets as Shen Wei continues to fight with his blade. Sometimes conflicts and wars don’t have a clear beginning, middle, end.
The SID team pushes through with their big drinking party. Zhao Yunlan is thoroughly sloshed within the first hour and everything is just ok.
“Please go steady with me, Professor Shen Wei,” he says again, because he doesn’t think Shen Wei truly gets it, Yunlan’s been single the past twenty years and he’s willing to do household chores now just to end that streak.
Zhu Hong despairs. “I didn’t think he’d be this much of a disaster.”
“It’s fine,” Shen Wei says, pink-cheeked, even if Zhao Yunlan knows for a fact he’s only been sipping water. “I’ll take him home.”