The ropes were coarse and unevenly made, and Zhao Yunlan was sure Shen Wei could have gotten free of them if he'd made an effort. Even now, ten thousand years ago, he still had enough powers that it should take more than that to hold him. Especially for a group of Dixing rebels hardly more than bandits—a ragtag bunch who'd fought over the leftover food in Zhao Yunlan's pack. If not for that one guy with the teleportation—one of Zhao Yunlan's all-time least favorite powers—they would never have captured Shen Wei in the first place. But now...
Zhao Yunlan tried to shake off the hands grasping his shoulders. Kneeling on the cavern floor with his arms bound behind his back, it was a futile gesture of defiance. He knew it, but it still felt good to hear the growl of disapproval from the fox-faced fellow who'd been quick enough with a dagger to get most of the rations from Zhao Yunlan's pack.
The other man who'd been holding him moved, and a moment before the kick landed, he saw Shen Wei's eyes widen in alarm. "No!"
The word echoed around the rough stone walls just as the pain spread in sharp waves out from Zhao Yunlan's kidney to the rest of him. He hissed with it. Managed to raise his head, and found Shen Wei's worried gaze waiting for him. "Don't listen to them, Xiao We—ah!" Another kick had Zhao Yunlan doubling over around a gasp.
Fox-Face pulled him back upright by a hand in his inconvenient long hair. "Traitor. If you want your Haixingren to live, you will stay still. Understand?" That threat again, and again it was followed by that greasy dagger's sharp edge laid against Zhao Yunlan's neck. At first it was just a tickle, and then it made another nick, splitting the skin open. It wasn't near enough the carotid artery to worry him, but it stung like a shaving nick stuffed with red chilis, and sent another trickle of blood down to soak the fur at his collar.
"I understand," Shen Wei said, with a furious dignity so frosty it should have been freezing the balls off the two Dixingren assigned to loom threateningly on either side of him.
"Lao Liu," the man holding Zhao Yunlan said, and the bulkiest of his fellows stepped forward. But not to deliver another beating. He wasn't looking at Zhao Yunlan at all—he was looking at the cavern ceiling with its scattering of stalactites. Inexplicably, he raised his hands to the empty ceiling with intent—and a row of stalactites came down, as neatly as if they'd been drawn with an ink brush on smooth paper. They flowed into the cavern floor, partitioning off the shallow wedge that made up the inner half of the cave.
"In there," Fox-Face told Shen Wei, presumably indicating the new rock cell. He pressed the flat of his dagger against the soft flesh under Zhao Yunlan's jaw for emphasis, hard enough to keep Zhao Yunlan from working his mouth open. So he couldn't warn Shen Wei that he should take his chances now, that it would be too dangerous to let them cage him—but they had him well and truly pinned. He tried to convey all of that with a look, but Shen Wei's eyes never left the blade against Zhao Yunlan's flesh. He just allowed himself to be led in behind the stone bars. Stood as still as he had been bid as Lao Liu did something with liquid stone that locked his wrists behind his back like he'd been fitted with a person-sized wheel clamp.
Then Lao Liu called down one last stalactite, and Shen Wei was sealed in.
The fact that Fox-Face hadn't needed to explain his plan to any of the others made Zhao Yunlan suspect this probably was not the first time they had done this together. Possibly not even the first time they had done it in this particular cave. It was not a good realization, and not only because the only reason they’d spent the night here at all was due to Zhao Yunlan wanting a roof over his head.
Zhao Yunlan had liked it better when he thought that the force they were dealing with was completely undisciplined. But maybe they'd just been really hungry and cranky, and willing to indulge in a bit of squabbling over snacks before getting on with their jobs. Which included splitting up captives in a way that left Shen Wei unable to directly interfere, and Zhao Yunlan alone out here, tied up and surrounded by five hostile Dixingren.
As observations went, this one came with a fair amount of terror. It wasn't the worst possible scenario, but it was not good. At all.
"Now," Fox-Face said. "We have some questions for you. If you answer all of them, we might let you live."
"That sounds great," Zhao Yunlan said with forced cheer. "I like living."
The statement drew a round of derisive laughter from the Dixingren rebels, and Fox-Face's grip on Zhao Yunlan's hair relaxed a fraction at the same time as his dagger moved a few centimeters away.
"We have a deal, then."
"Sure," Zhao Yunlan said.
"First of all—we have no use for Haixingren, but our leader is generous in accepting all with powers to his cause. What is yours?"
The question was aimed at Shen Wei, but Zhao Yunlan beat him to it. "You saw it," he said, before Shen Wei could take a noble stance of not sharing information with the enemy. "He can summon weapons." It was close enough to the truth that Shen Wei could probably stick to it, even if he was an even worse liar now than in Zhao Yunlan's time.
The statement was met with impressed nods, and a few murmurs of approval. Good. He was very invested in them all wanting Shen Wei alive. Their briefings indicated the Dixing rebels' leader had mind control powers—that he was somehow turning even their own people to his cause when they fell into his hands. That could be a problem later, but for now the important thing was that those who didn't get recruited got killed. And that there would be no fixing.
"Second—where is your coward leader? The betrayer, Hei Pao Shi."
Pressed against the stalactite bars, hands sheathed in stone behind his back, Shen Wei looked at Zhao Yunlan with alarm.
Zhao Yunlan's mind was spinning, trying to see the best way out here. The good news was that these guys didn't know who they had just caught. With just the two of them sharing a bedroll last night, Shen Wei had been without his mask in the morning when they were attacked. It must be tucked away somewhere in the folds of his robes, or they would have found it rifling through their packs. Without it, Shen Wei could be any other Dixingren member of the alliance.
The bad news was that Zhao Yunlan was entirely sure that Shen Wei would reveal himself in a heartbeat if he thought it would stop them hurting Zhao Yunlan. Which it wouldn't. It would exhaust Zhao Yunlan's usefulness as leverage, and leave Shen Wei in a stone cage, all manacled up like a present for the Dixing rebels' leader.
Zhao Yunlan wet his lips. "Hei Pao Shi is...back in camp, I guess?"
The kick wasn't less painful because he expected it. Same guy as last time—Zhao Yunlan still hadn't gotten a good look at him. His boots were muddy, and he was probably doing the kicking at some signal from Fox-Face.
"Hei Pao Shi left your pitiful forces two days ago and hasn't been seen in camp since. He has, however, been seen scouting this area."
"If you know where he is then why are you bothering us about it?" Zhao Yunlan's voice was breathier with pain than he'd like.
Fox-Face ignored him. "You." The word echoed loud, and Zhao Yunlan saw Shen Wei flinch at the direct address. "Where is your leader?"
Shen Wei shook his head mutely, eyes locked on Zhao Yunlan.
"We have no use for your Haixingren. Give us an answer, or he will suffer for it."
"Don't listen to them, Xiao Wei," Zhao Yunlan snapped, trying to get as many words as possible in before another boot to the gut stopped him. "Just take them out."
Chipped fingernails caught in Zhao Yunlan's hair as his head was pulled into a vise-tight grip. "Answer my question or be quiet." The dagger point was digging into the hollow of his throat.
"You will regret it if you hurt him again," Shen Wei snarled. Zhao Yunlan had become so accustomed to his sweet, unguarded smile that it was almost shocking to see it replaced by this feral ferocity.
"Will we?" Predictably, Fox-Face found the threat amusing. He laughed, and the tip of his dagger dug another bloody divot in Zhao Yunlan's skin. He couldn't even swallow, much less try to move.
Across the few steps that separated them, Zhao Yunlan could see Shen Wei's wide-eyed fear. Ai, he really was too easy to read without his mask.
"Will we regret it as much as you will, watching him bleed?" Fox-Face asked, sounding good-humored
Shen Wei in a fight was almost impossibly fast and strong, with abilities these amateurs hadn't even guessed at. If he didn't let the dagger at Zhao Yunlan's throat hamstring him he might take them all, even from behind stone bars and with hands trapped. If he would only try attacking—but no. He was lowering his gaze in defeat, shoulders stiffening as he prepared to speak.
Zhao Yunlan drew a breath.
Shen Wei's mouth opened.
Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes and jerked forward.
The dagger didn't pierce his windpipe. It skidded sideways, slicing deep. Zhao Yunlan could feel pain that made the previous cuts pale in comparison, and the strange sensation of blood pumping out of him like he was a slashed tyre leaking air.
Shen Wei screamed, a sound of pure anguish.
Muddy boots kicked Zhao Yunlan so hard he keeled over on the hard rock of the cave floor. The kicks kept coming for a bit after that.
The next thing he knew, he was being hauled to his feet.
After kneeling so long, and the intermittent beatings, it wasn't entirely easy to figure out how to stay standing. That, and maybe blood loss? He was so light-headed. The pain radiating from his neck was in excruciating sharp focus while everything was going fuzzy. The way it was turning his already soiled furs into a sticky mess was irritating.
Shen Wei was still shouting. "Kunlun!"
Oh. Shen Wei had been shouting his name. He only figured that out at Fox-Face's confused grimace. "Didn't we kill their general Kunlun?" he asked.
"Nope," Zhao Yunlan corrected. They hadn't killed him at all. Which was...bad? His head felt every single one of the kicks that had landed on it as if they were still happening. He gagged on the taste of blood.
Fox-Face and Muddy Boots the enthusiastic kicker dragged Zhao Yunlan over to Shen Wei to press him up against the stone bars. It was supremely uncomfortable, but allowed him to be close enough to Shen Wei that they could have kissed again. That was nice to think about. Though this close he could see the sheen of tears over the panic and fury in Shen Wei's pretty eyes, and that hurt. To see Shen Wei looking so upset.
"It's okay," Zhao Yunlan tried to say, but there was something wrong with his mouth. Besides, he remembered what he needed to tell Shen Wei. It was important. "Don't tell them, Xiao Wei."
He must have missed another question or a threat somewhere, because the dagger in his side was a surprise. At first he thought someone had gotten hold of Xiao Guo's electric stick, but then he felt the tooth-searing sensation of a blade tugging free of his rib. So stabbing, then. Not electricity at all.
Over a high ringing in his ears, he heard Shen Wei's gasp.
The hands that had been holding Zhao Yunlan upright let him go. He fell forward. The stone bars were as hard as they looked, but slowed him down as he crumpled to the ground. He tried to keep looking at Shen Wei. The black robes flowed out in a puddle around him as he crashed to his knees, unable to catch himself with his rock-encased hands still behind his back. But Shen Wei didn't even flinch at the impact, only put his shoulder between two bars as if he could squeeze out between them.
Reaching for Zhao Yunlan.
Sluggishly, Zhao Yunlan tried to grab him before he could hurt himself ramming against that very hard stone, but his arms wouldn't move.
Xiao Wei. Stop, calm down. The words didn't come out properly, either.
A boot between his shoulder blades rolled him over and pinned him down.
Ah, fuck. This was bad.
"Kunlun." Shen Wei's voice was breaking, and that was too much for Zhao Yunlan's heart to take.
"Yunlan," he whispered. Where I come from, those who love me call me Yunlan. He should have said that before. Should have given Shen Wei that much. But he always thought—what had he thought?
That he'd have more time.
If he could just put his head in Shen Wei's lap—his stomach hurt so bad, and his head, and everything felt heavy and aching and he always felt better when he rested on Shen Wei.
Straining, his forehead nudged Shen Wei's knee.
The world went white with a thunderclap.
The hairs on the back of Zhao Yunlan's neck stood up. His skin crawled and tingled. His heartbeat came wrong, backwards, hurting—and then he blinked and wondered what the fuck just happened.
The pain was gone.
The rebels were gone.
Good fucking riddance but—how?
He scrambled to his knees, bound hands still throwing him off balance. Looked around. Tasted bile as he took in the five crumpled bodies strewn on the ground where they had hit the cave walls and bounced off. Given the configuration of their necks and limbs, they were probably dead. They were definitely not a threat anymore.
That established, Zhao Yunlan could finally focus on the most important thing in the cave. He turned, expecting to see Shen Wei breaking through the bars, all that magnificent strength making short work of what those assholes thought could keep him trapped.
But that combined feat of defending and healing Zhao Yunlan all at once looked like they'd taken a toll—Shen Wei was still on Zhao Yunlan's level. On his knees, head resting between two stone bars.
"Xiao Wei?" Zhao Yunlan scooted closer. He had to stoop down to peer into Shen Wei's face—
"What the fuck." He said it out loud with absolute horror, and then he was gripped by an even more intense terror. He shoved his own body against the bars, trying to rouse Shen Wei. Wishing he could hold him, shake him. Take his pulse. "Shen Wei, baby—come on, talk to me. You're okay, right? Come on, say something. Xiao Wei!"
Zhao Yunlan had never been happier to see those long lashes fluttering. Shen Wei was opening his eyes. Slowly, too slowly—Zhao Yunlan was still trying to get answers from him as he looked Shen Wei up and down, trying to understand.
Shen Wei was losing blood from a deep gash in his neck. His lips were split and swollen, his face covered in abrasions. And his hand—his hands were free, Zhao Yunlan realized, which was good. One of them was curled loosely around the bottom of a stone bar, while the other was pressed against his side, where it did very little to stem the bleeding coming from a wound somewhere below damp layers of black.
Zhao Yunlan knew those injuries—all of them. Looking closely he could see the first two fine cuts on Shen Wei's neck, where Fox-Face's dagger had pressed into Zhao Yunlan's skin.
His injuries. Now on Shen Wei, who opened pain-drenched eyes and smiled. "Kunlun."
"Xiao Wei." Zhao Yunlan's voice wavered. However it had happened, Shen Wei was hurt. (Your hurts, echoed in his head.) Shen Wei needed him. Zhao Yunlan summoned something like an answering smile. He couldn't even touch Shen Wei with his bound hands. He needed to get them loose, and then get Shen Wei out, and then fix this.
"Shen Wei," he said, glad that Shen Wei was still awake and aware enough to react to his name. "Can you get this off me?"
It took a few moments until Shen Wei processed the request, even after Zhao Yunlan turned around and lifted his bound hands so Shen Wei could see the rope lashed around his wrists.
"Bastards," Shen Wei mumbled. The edge of his anger was in no way dulled by the thick syllables. "Yes. If you. Closer?"
Zhao Yunlan did his best to squeeze the ropes through to Shen Wei. He was expecting nimble fingers to pick at the rough knots, but instead the entire rope frayed and scattered into fiber fragments when Zhao Yunlan pulled his wrists apart with a wince. He should have told Shen Wei not to use his powers—not in his state. But there was no time to scold him now.
The bars made an embrace impossible, but Zhao Yunlan shoved his hand between them and touched Shen Wei's cheek. It was cold and sticky, but Shen Wei pushed into the touch, sighing. "Hang on, Xiao Wei. I'll get you out and we'll get you healed. Okay?"
"Kunlun." Shen Wei blinked up at him. Zhao Yunlan didn't know if it had been the beginning of a question or a statement, because Shen Wei's blinks were coming slower, eyes falling shut.
"No. No, no, baby. You can't go to sleep—you have to stay awake and heal yourself, okay?"
Shen Wei stirred. He looked at Zhao Yunlan, his gaze unfocused, and coughed. Blood trickled between his lips.
Zhao Yunlan pushed himself upright. He felt fine—unhurt save for the slightest rope burn around his wrists. There had to be something he could use to get Shen Wei out. Those stalactites hadn't been all that massive, and drawing them out like that—they had to be brittle. Were they even real rock? That was the logic behind grabbing a dark chunk of stone and smashing it against the bar furthest away from Shen Wei, at least.
The rebound vibrated through Zhao Yunlan's arm. He bashed it again, and then one more time.
His stone split. The bar had scuff marks on it, but remained as solid as ever. Zhao Yunlan started cursing out the powers of the man who had made the bars. It wasn't fair, taking something that looked so breakable and making a dark energy construct stronger than steel. It wasn't natural.
Taking a shaky breath, Zhao Yunlan looked around. A stone wasn't working. What else—
His dark energy gun was right there where it had been discarded when they went through their stuff, its shape too alien to register as anything but a curious piece of loot. It was right there, and it wasn't natural either.
Tossing his stone aside, Zhao Yunlan picked up the revolver. "Shen Wei, you might want to cover your ears," he said.
Shen Wei didn't move.
Zhao Yunlan fired the gun at the same slender stone pillar he'd been hammering away at. It shattered. Bits of rock flew everywhere, and Zhao Yunlan couldn't tell if his ears were ringing or if the sound of the gunshot was still echoing around the cave. He didn't wait to find out. Three more rounds in quick succession made a gap in the remaining bars large enough to step through, coughing and blinking at the dust filling the cave.
"Xiao Wei?" Zhao Yunlan threw himself down next to Shen Wei. He was covered in grime sticking to sweat and blood. Zhao Yunlan cradled Shen Wei's face in his hands, heart stopping as it lolled limply and for a moment where everything swayed around him, his mind racing—no, Shen Wei had to be fine, he must be, he had lived to meet Zhao Yunlan again for the first time—but what if Zhao Yunlan had failed and this was it, what if Shen Wei was—
Shen Wei's swollen lips pressed against Zhao Yunlan's palm in a weak kiss.
"Kunlun," he croaked when Zhao Yunlan gasped and stared at him. He sounded terrible, he looked terrible, but the expression he made—shy and pleased—was all Xiao Wei. "It worked?"
"What?" Zhao Yunlan was busy feeling his entire circulation system unfreeze in one huge rush of relief, and also propping Shen Wei up with his back to the bars.
"You're. Not hurt."
It took Zhao Yunlan a moment to catch up. It worked? That question was Shen Wei asking about what he'd done. And not with the rebels—that had the look of an uncontrolled burst of pure dark energy. But what he had done to save Zhao Yunlan from his injuries.
Transferred them. Taken them for his own, leaving Zhao Yunlan whole and healthy and wishing he could shake some sense into Shen Wei. Yell at him. Confront him like that night in the kitchen to say it wasn't fair, it wasn't right, Shen Wei shouldn't have left Zhao Yunlan to helplessly watch him bleed. But that night in Zhao Yunlan's past and Shen Wei's future, that had been one cut. This was—worse.
So much worse.
"I'm not hurt," Zhao Yunlan finally choked out, giving Shen Wei the confirmation he needed to relax against the bars.
"Mother's gift," Shen Wei said, his voice a warm whisper of wonder. "It worked."
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said, as soothingly as he could while he tugged his sash loose. "It worked. You did good, Xiao Wei."
He kept up a low string of encouragements as he shoved Shen Wei's layers out of the way and used what he could of their clothes to make bandages. It was wholly inadequate, but all he had. And Shen Wei stayed awake for it. Helped by shifting over and holding the fabric Zhao Yunlan wound about him in place. Smiled at Zhao Yunlan's praise.
It took effort not to curse him for what he was putting Zhao Yunlan through. If only he'd waited—with his powers, Shen Wei could have healed Zhao Yunlan up and then portalled them somewhere safe. But no. Shen Wei had done this instead, and now the improvised bandages were already showing stains where blood was continuing to seep from both wounds. Because Zhao Yunlan had no healing powers and no first aid supplies so could do nothing to fix them. He hadn't even been able to clean the cuts, because the rebels had drunk the last of their water, and Zhao Yunlan wasn't about to leave Shen Wei here where more enemies might come looking any moment while he went to fetch more.
Not that Zhao Yunlan being here would do much to protect Shen Wei. They'd both had enough proof of that. "We've got to get out of here," Zhao Yunlan muttered.
Shen Wei's expression twisted with concentration. A small gasp of pain escaped him, and Zhao Yunlan hurried to wrap an arm around his shoulders. "Xiao Wei?"
There was fresh blood on Shen Wei's lips. "I can't—the portal, it won't—"
Shen Wei twitched at Zhao Yunlan's vehement exclamation, face falling.
Zhao Yunlan took a deep breath, and stroked Shen Wei's rock-dust-strewn hair. "Don't try, okay? Don't strain yourself. I'll get you back. Just—if you can, try healing? But nothing more. I need you to stay with me, Xiao Wei. Can you do that?"
"Yes!" Shen Wei's muddled gaze sought Zhao Yunlan's, and he nodded for emphasis. "Stay. With you. Yes."
Having empirical data to go off of, Zhao Yunlan could say with confidence that it had hurt less to be stabbed than to see the devotion in Shen Wei's eyes now. To fear that Shen Wei wouldn't be able to keep that promise, and to know that he himself would not.
Not for another ten thousand years.
"Alright. Good." Zhao Yunlan slung Shen Wei's arm over his shoulder and wobbled to his feet. Shen Wei inhaled sharply, and Zhao Yunlan had a visceral flash of how much that dagger had hurt going into his own body. Wincing, he knew that if it had been him, he wouldn't have been able to stand.
Shen Wei stood. With Zhao Yunlan taking the weight on his uninjured side he even managed to walk.
Zhao Yunlan only stopped to pull out the discarded waterskin from their small pile of gear. It wasn't safe to linger. He led Shen Wei outside under the gray sky, and scanned their surroundings. If he picked the wrong path here—he couldn't afford it. He'd gotten pretty confident at navigating the wilderness, but he had a moment's absolute despairing panic when he couldn't remember if they'd come to the cave from above or below. He tried to recall, but he couldn't be sure if he was thinking of this cave or any of the million other ones he'd been in recently. And closing his eyes, the only memories that came to him were of last night, with Shen Wei so sweet and eager in his arms.
"Kunlun." Shen Wei's voice was a whisper now, as it had been when they were curled up under the same blanket.
Zhao Yunlan opened his eyes.
"Kunlun. Down," Shen Wei said. His lips quirked with a pale ghost of the smile he reserved for whenever they were alone, and Zhao Yunlan went to him for help with something any child of the alliance could do.
"Oh. Yeah." Looking again, those thorny bushes did look familiar. And up close, it was clear someone had recently hacked at them.
The descent was both steeper and narrower than Zhao Yunlan remembered it. It took all of his focus to keep his footing and also support Shen Wei's weight. Every time they had to take a jarring half-leap down, Shen Wei choked back sounds of pain at the impact. Each of them drove through Zhao Yunlan's heart like another dagger.
Why, Xiao Wei? Why had Shen Wei done it? If he'd been able to take the rebels out, why not just wait until he could take care of Zhao Yunlan? Shen Wei was useful. He could fight and heal and open portals over long distances. If Zhao Yunlan were relying on him rather than the other way around, they'd be back with the alliance by now.
And Shen Wei had said it was his mother's gift? His mother's power. He'd never talked much about how he and his lost brother had survived when his parents died, but Zhao Yunlan had a sinking feeling he knew how it had happened.
That Shen Wei had chosen to repeat the same kind of sacrifice that had saved him, instead of just…
Zhao Yunlan didn't want to understand it. But even before the next stifled whine, he knew he would have done the same. If he could have taken all of Shen Wei's pain into himself—of course he would have. And not just because it was his to begin with. "Shen Wei, you idiot," Zhao Yunlan murmured.
"Mm?" Shen Wei was getting less expressive. And it made sense Shen Wei hadn't heard that last thing, but hadn't he been struggling to follow other things Zhao Yunlan had said? Wait—shit. Had Zhao Yunlan had a concussion? He tried to remember—they'd kicked him in the head, so—yeah, maybe.
Perfect. Just what Shen Wei needed, on top of everything else. Another thing Zhao Yunlan couldn't fix for him.
"What?" Shen Wei mumbled, and Zhao Yunlan's attention snapped back to him. "You said…"
"Later," Zhao Yunlan sighed. Giving Shen Wei a piece of his mind could wait until he'd recovered.
"But—" Shen Wei lifted his head to retort. He missed his step, and his knees buckled. Zhao Yunlan barely managed to yank them both backwards in time to keep from pitching over the edge of the trail and down a very lethal-looking gully. Falling rocks made a clattering racket, and landed in a giant puff of displaced dust.
Zhao Yunlan could feel Shen Wei's breath against his neck, wet and harsh. He was swallowing back faint whimpers with every exhalation, and it was tearing Zhao Yunlan's heart into shreds that he couldn't do anything to ease his pain. "Xiao Wei," he said, helplessly. They needed to get back up. Needed to keep walking. Though how long Shen Wei could manage…
Carefully easing Shen Wei over on his side, Zhao Yunlan pushed himself into a crouch to check up on him. There was sweat beading on Shen Wei's face, which was ashen under the dirt. His lips were so pale they were almost blue. A strand of long black hair was sticking to his neck where new blood was trickling out from under the insufficient bandage of ripped blue robe. His chest was stuttering visibly to his ragged breathing. One hand was pressed against the wound in his side—the other was splayed on the rocky surface of the path, arm trembling as he began to push himself up.
"Wait, Shen Wei. Careful. Here, let me—" Zhao Yunlan wrapped an arm around Shen Wei's waist.
"No," Shen Wei panted.
Zhao Yunlan yanked his hand back, afraid that there had been some other injury he hadn't seen—that he was hurting Shen Wei more. "What's wrong?"
"You go." Shen Wei stared at him.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan didn't understand.
"I'll. Manage," Shen Wei said. He underscored the statement with a wobbly nod. "You go."
Zhao Yunlan laughed at the absurdity of that. "Baby, you can't even stand."
Shen Wei's eyes clouded over with a different kind of hurt. "Slowing you down."
Oh. Oh, that's what Shen Wei had meant. Not for Zhao Yunlan to stand up and wait, but to leave Shen Wei behind. Leave him alone, stabbed and concussed and bleeding. Zhao Yunlan laughed again, softly. "No. No, I'm not leaving you behind, Xiao Wei."
Instead of arguing further, Zhao Yunlan slid his arm back around Shen Wei, and heaved them both to their feet. "I'd get lost after ten paces," he said loudly, drowning out a mumbled protest. "You know that, Shen Wei. You can't expect me to make my way back all alone."
To himself, however, Zhao Yunlan had to admit that it might be fair of Shen Wei to expect that Zhao Yunlan wouldn't get them both safely back into allied territory. It was still early morning, and he—while as whole and healthy as he'd ever been—was exhausted and hungry and parched. They had walked along a river for a bit on the way here, but he had no real idea of how far away it could be. As he helped Shen Wei take one step after the next, he scanned the dry valley and jagged horizon for threats, and for sources of water. He was hoping to find the signs he'd learned to spot—greener, denser plants or animal tracks leading to a waterhole.
Instead what he found was the silhouette of an armed, armored figure against the sky. As he stopped to stare, the figure hastily ducked out of sight.
"Fuck," Zhao Yunlan said. He couldn't even hope it was someone from the alliance, because they wouldn't be hiding from him. Or if they did, they wouldn't be doing it so poorly.
"Shen Wei," he murmured. "We might need to speed up a bit."
"Kunlun?" Shen Wei stopped so that he could raise his head and look at Zhao Yunlan, who gently urged him into motion again.
"I think we might be getting company." Their not-so-sneaky observer was probably not a scout by occupation, not making that kind of rookie mistake. Which meant that they were either being tracked by a single armed Dixingren—something that could be enough of a problem, depending on their power—or else there were more armed people waiting nearby.
A shocked inhalation told him Shen Wei had processed the information. "How many?"
"Maybe just the one guy," Zhao Yunlan said truthfully. "Come on. If we get on the other side of that cliff we might have some options for cover."
Shen Wei had been trying hard before, but now he pulled on reserves that should have been depleted, matching Zhao Yunlan's steps at a pace brisk enough to nearly be a jog. Zhao Yunlan led the way to where the valley narrowed into little more than a ravine. He recognized it as a good spot for an ambush, but knowing they had an enemy behind them there was no time to hesitate.
They squeezed between the rocks and dry shrubs, Zhao Yunlan cursing as Shen Wei's cloak caught on thorns like it never usually seemed to do. Shen Wei didn't need anything more slowing him down. After a quick tug failed to free the dirty hem, Zhao Yunlan simply slipped it free and left it to the bushes. "Sorry, Xiao Wei. Owe you a new cloak," he said at Shen Wei's confused expression. He grabbed Shen Wei by the wrist and pulled him forward—and almost plunged them both into the foaming brown water of the river he'd been hoping to find.
Shen Wei clutched at him, and they teetered there for a moment before Zhao Yunlan recovered his balance and staggered them over to the narrow path that ran between the river and the ridge above. It had seemed less terrifying when he could trail a hand along the rock wall and not awkwardly try to balance Shen Wei without pitching into the river.
Shen Wei, who twisted slightly to listen to something behind them. "They're coming," he said in a small voice.
Zhao Yunlan tensed. Heard the roar of the river—and above that, the sound of feet scuffling over rock. They would be coming through the ravine. He needed to get Shen Wei—
A flash of dark energy raised a puff of dust run through with black sparks right next to Zhao Yunlan's foot. "I see them!" The excited shout came from above, up on the high ridge.
Zhao Yunlan's eyes met Shen Wei's. Shen Wei's chest was heaving, his palm out, arm locked and trembling. He looked so afraid—and that's when Zhao Yunlan realized that the attack hadn't been meant to hit the path next to him. Shen Wei had saved him. Again.
It was Zhao Yunlan's turn to protect them. He grabbed Shen Wei's hand and tugged him in close with his left arm. With his right, he aimed his gun.
The man on top of the ridge was spinning another sphere of dark energy in his palm, arm drawing back to release it. The angle was bad, but Zhao Yunlan didn't miss. The man collapsed out of sight without a sound.
"Okay. Let's go." Zhao Yunlan dragged Shen Wei along the path, splitting his focus between his footing, the ridge, and the rift in the cliffs they had just come through.
There was no warning when the first of their pursuers made it there. One moment Zhao Yunlan found it empty. The next, a wiry woman was hurtling down the path towards them. She'd made it halfway when he shot her.
Her body tumbled past them into the river and was swept under and away, every trace of her gone just like that. Zhao Yunlan drew a shuddering breath, and pulled Shen Wei's arm around his shoulders. They needed to move.
A pebble bounced down onto the path. Zhao Yunlan swung his gun up, but whoever was stalking them there had learned some caution. The same could not be said for the two large men in matching pieces of armor and long ponytails who squeezed out on the path.
"Kunlun," Shen Wei said, trying to tug free.
"Yeah, I see them." The two Dixingren were looking excited. At least someone was having a good day.
Shen Wei shoved weakly at Zhao Yunlan with the hand he'd been keeping pressed to the bandages. "Go," he pleaded.
"Xiao Wei," Zhao Yunlan sighed. "I'm not—"
There were tears in Shen Wei's eyes when he swung around to place his bloody hand on Zhao Yunlan's cheek. Tears, as there hadn't been even when his wounds made him weak and wobbly. "I will hold them back." It was the first full sentence Shen Wei had spoken since using his damned power. "Kunlun. Go."
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "No," he said. "I told you. I won't leave you." He hated that he knew Shen Wei was right, from a tactical perspective. One person could hold a larger force here for a while. But there was absolutely no way he was leaving Shen Wei to fight until some mysterious rescue got him to Zhao Yunlan's time safe and sound. He wasn't going to let Shen Wei's last look at him be his back vanishing in the distance as he ran away. Especially if the future wasn't set.
Especially if there might not be a rescue.
He fired the revolver over Shen Wei's shoulder.
The man he hit laughed.
What the fuck. Zhao Yunlan knew he had hit him, knew it, and yet there he was with his head thrown back, chortling.
Just like the other man. Same pose, same armor—same guy. Somehow.
Zhao Yunlan fired again, this time at the other one of him.
That made the guy stop laughing. His ponytail whipped around him—both of him—and he stared at Zhao Yunlan with a predatory intensity, completely unhurt.
Zhao Yunlan would just have to shoot him both. Faster. He could do it. He just needed to steady his next breath.
"Watch out!" Shen Wei's exclamation threw him off completely.
A monstrous Dixingren covered with bristling spikes—quills?—rose on the ridge above them. As the figure straightened, arm lifting over her head, Zhao Yunlan guessed that it was a woman, from the way the strips of leather revealed the contours of her body even as it let terrifying clusters of sharp points stand out in all directions.
At the same time as Zhao Yunlan fired on her, the spiky woman let her arm fall in a cutting gesture. And of course those spikes were detachable and of course they could fly through the air like so many darts. Shen Wei raised his hand, a shimmering indigo shield growing like an unfolding umbrella—and then vanished while spikes were still rattling off of it onto the path. Zhao Yunlan acted as fast as he could, raising his arm to shield Shen Wei from the worst of it. He felt a stinging impact, and heard Shen Wei cry out.
A quick look showed the double Dixingren in motion now, taking advantage of the spiky one distracting them to attack.
"Go," Shen Wei mouthed. His face was deathly pale, and splattered as he was with red blood from Zhao Yunlan's arm he looked like a ghost after a fresh kill.
"No, Xiao Wei." Zhao Yunlan said, gripping his shoulder tight. Swallowed, and secured his revolver inside his robes. "Not without you." He cast a glance up at the woman, who was grinning and slowly raising her arm again. Two sets of footsteps in perfect stereo sounded far too close behind them.
Ignoring them all, Zhao Yunlan swept Shen Wei's arm over his shoulders again. "But I'll go anywhere together. It's not safe, but—"
Shen Wei inhaled a quick, shuddering breath. "The river."
"Together," Zhao Yunlan nodded. "Ready?"
"Kunlun," Shen Wei said, brokenly.
Zhao Yunlan took it for an affirmative, and propelled them both off the path with as much force as he could.
Hitting the river was bad.
It was hard. It was cold. It wanted to swallow him whole. But Zhao Yunlan wasn't about to let it, and Shen Wei drained his reserves keeping them together and afloat, somehow. It was a blur of gasping breaths and white foam, water in his eyes but none of the crush of the stream touching him at all, as they whirled downstream like a fallen pair of leaves.
At some point Shen Wei became a dead weight in Zhao Yunlan's arms, and the currents tried to suck them under. But he kicked them into the shallows where he could grab a low branch and stagger ashore with Shen Wei and roll him into the recovery position under the shelter of a tree.
Shen Wei was retching weakly. At that proof of life Zhao Yunlan went limp and dizzy with relief, folding a comforting arm around Shen Wei.
This river bank had trees, not tall cliffs. Good. They'd managed to cross the river.
They'd even, he reflected with a giggle, gotten something to drink. Things weren't as bad as all that.
That was probably when he'd passed out.
He was still wet when he came to again, so he couldn't have been out that long. There was a knot of fear in his gut. He felt terribly chilly, and he ached all over, and there was something holding him down.
A jolt of adrenaline had him bucking Shen Wei's weight off his chest before he realized what he was doing.
"Kunlun?" It was a raw whisper, and Zhao Yunlan surged to his knees, pawing damp strands of hair from his face so he could see properly. Shen Wei had fallen back in a startled sprawl, limbs akimbo, drenched and even paler than he'd been before Zhao Yunlan had thrown him in a river. But he was alive, and he was talking, and the worst of the fear that had gripped Zhao Yunlan faded.
"Xiao Wei." Zhao Yunlan smiled in exhausted relief, and went to help Shen Wei up. Or tried to. His right arm shocked a curse out of him when he put weight on it, red-hot prickles of pain lancing through it and dancing in his vision. He blinked, and looked at his sleeve. It was perforated with half a dozen neat round holes. Despite the soaking, he could still tell that the fabric was more red than blue. At least none of those spiky quills were still stuck in him, but they'd pierced deep.
Shen Wei made a distressed sound, and Zhao Yunlan shook off his distraction. Shifted forward using his other arm, and crushed fallen leaves with his knees as he made it to Shen Wei's side. There, he ignored Shen Wei's feeble attempts to grab his limp arm, and used his left hand to check on Shen Wei's makeshift bandages.
They were wet and bloody. With a growl of frustration Zhao Yunlan realized he had no idea what that meant. Other than that Shen Wei had somehow absorbed his own stab wound and then Zhao Yunlan had thrown him in a river. He looked up at Shen Wei's worried face, and cupped it gently, his heart squeezing painfully at how that made Shen Wei light up. "Kunlun."
The rest of him looked so very terrible in contrast to the joy in his eyes. Those bruises darkening on his face, the swollen cuts on his lips—a visible reminder of every other hurt Shen Wei had taken into himself. Which included serious blood loss, and—okay, maybe Zhao Yunlan wasn't quite so relieved anymore. He dropped his hand to Shen Wei's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "How are you feeling?"
"Alive," Shen Wei said. And then he made a tiny motion, like ducking his head. "Together." His smile was so pleased. Then it clouded over and vanished as he curled forward, one hand to his side.
Zhao Yunlan resisted the very real urge to point out that maybe hurt should have been higher up on Shen Wei's list of priorities. It wasn't like he didn't know about the injuries. And even knowing, it wasn't like he could do anything. "Ah, Xiao Wei," he murmured.
Shen Wei looked up at that, mouth stubbornly set against the pain. "Kunlun. Your arm."
"It's nothing. Just a few pinpricks."
Shen Wei didn't seem to believe him, but Zhao Yunlan didn't really care. He busied himself picking bits of twigs and leaves from Shen Wei's wet clothes. Tried not to think about how their little swim might have gone if Shen Wei had still been wearing his cloak. He had barely managed to tow Shen Wei as he was—the added weight of all that wet cloth...Yeah, no. "Thanks. For the river. You saved us."
Shen Wei tried to protest, so Zhao Yunlan nodded emphatically. "You did great. And now we're far away from those assholes, and—what do you say? We continue downstream? That's gotta take us back into friendly territory, even if we're on the wrong side of it for now."
"For now?" Shen Wei tilted his concussed head, brow furrowing as he tried to parse Zhao Yunlan's ramblings. Zhao Yunlan could have kicked himself for not taking better care to explain so Shen Wei could follow. But as he opened his mouth to apologize, Shen Wei nodded decisively.
"South," he said. Zhao Yunlan stared at him. "Yes," Shen Wei added emphatically when Zhao Yunlan just kept staring.
After a frozen moment, Zhao Yunlan exclaimed, "Ah, what would I do without you, Xiao Wei?" He'd meant for it to be light-hearted, but there was nothing light about his heart, or about his love for Shen Wei. It was all-encompassing, and kept slipping through the cracks in his defenses.
Shen Wei blinked at him, wide-eyed. Maybe it was the concussion making it hard for him to follow. And maybe that expression wasn't confusion but surprise at whatever he had heard in Zhao Yunlan's words. "Anyway," Zhao Yunlan said quickly, after clearing his throat. "Let's get moving."
It would have been easier if his injured arm hadn't grown at once numb and hot and almost impossible to move. But he managed to prop Shen Wei up enough to hobble along. This side of the river was fortunately less full of steep cliffs and narrow ravines. Keeping within sight of the water, Zhao Yunlan didn't even have to worry about getting them terribly lost.
He just had to worry about Shen Wei's slowing pace. About how the overcast sky was getting darker, and them without shelter and still not dry. Shen Wei didn't complain, only kept going, though Zhao Yunlan had to repeat himself to get Shen Wei to notice obstacles they needed to clamber over or dodge around.
But even with all of Shen Wei's toughness and fortitude, he could not keep going forever. And neither could Zhao Yunlan. When Shen Wei folded over without a word, Zhao Yunlan had to use all of his strength to tug him into the relative shelter of a pile of large boulders. It felt better to have something more solid against their backs than just those shrubs they'd been fighting through. A fire and blankets and food would have felt so much better, but for now the only thing Zhao Yunlan could provide was something to drink. He limped down to the river and got his boots wet getting them water.
When he got back, Shen Wei's eyes were tracking him. "Kunlun." It was barely loud enough to be a whisper.
Shen Wei fumbled with the waterskin, badly enough that Zhao Yunlan had to bring his own hand up to steady Shen Wei's. He thought he'd been worried before, but fear bit down hard on his heart when he felt Shen Wei trembling, and saw what the simple act of swallowing was costing him. He pressed himself tightly against Shen Wei's uninjured side, and wrapped his good arm around Shen Wei's back.
With a small sigh, Shen Wei leaned his head against Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. It was a sound of utter exhaustion, but also satisfaction. Zhao Yunlan pressed a kiss to his hair. It was still damp. Struggling through the terrain had kept them warm, but the overcast skies and the proximity to the river hadn't given them a chance to dry out. Now it was getting dark, and the chill was seeping through his skin, pulling it tight with shivers. His stomach was knotted with worry and hunger, and his pincushioned arm ached hot and cold.
And yet he knew the pain he was in was nothing compared with what Shen Wei was suffering through in silence. If Zhao Yunlan had still had his original injuries, he'd be—Well. He would be dead. Shen Wei must have managed to heal himself at least a little, because he wasn't. But there was a very real yet lurking after that sentence in Zhao Yunlan's mind.
And that—no. He couldn't allow it. Shen Wei had saved him, and together they had gotten this far. It couldn't all be for nothing—they still had their future together to get to. To return to. So that Zhao Yunlan could hold Shen Wei—his Shen Wei—alive and whole in his arms again. Not trembling with tension, breathing ragged with pain. Zhao Yunlan gave him a careful squeeze, and Shen Wei sighed again, turning his head so he could nestle into Zhao Yunlan's neck. The gesture of trust nearly undid Zhao Yunlan. He'd never seen Shen Wei this hurt and this far gone, and still he not only let himself be held, but sought to get closer together.
Close enough that even with Zhao Yunlan so chilled and damp, he noticed that Shen Wei's skin felt cool and clammy. That couldn't be good. If Zhao Yunlan had thought to bring some of Ma Gui's medicine—if he had any kind of gift for healing, like Shen Wei did, then he could have done something. Now he couldn't even lift his hand to stroke Shen Wei's head, only murmur endearments into his tangled hair as he tried to think.
It was harder than it should be. His mind was sluggish, sinking into the quagmire of reliving the moment he had convinced Shen Wei they should shelter in the cave, and then the attack where he'd been used against Shen Wei. It had been a trap—Zhao Yunlan had led them into a trap. And now Shen Wei was cold, and it was dark, and they were hiding.
Hiding from the Dixingren that had tried to kill them—but they hadn't seen anyone for hours, had they? Zhao Yunlan strained to wrestle meaning from the way his brain had snagged on those facts.
When it came to him he sat up straight so quickly it jostled a moan out of Shen Wei, and a numbing spike of pain from his arm. He had it. It was the hiding. They were doing it wrong. They didn't want to be hiding. They wanted to be found.
Being found by the wrong people would be bad, but trying to shiver out the night with no food or cover, with nothing to help Shen Wei regain even a little of the strength he had been bleeding away all day—that would be a different kind of bad. And even if they made it through the night, then what? He'd barely been able to rub two braincells together to get a thought started. Would he be able to navigate both of them back, even if Shen Wei could still walk? Would he be able to support Shen Wei's weight the way he'd done today with only one working arm? Less than one working arm—the pain had crawled past his elbow shoulder and was flowing down his clavicle. He didn't particularly want to look at what was going on there, but it couldn't be good.
It would be worse in the morning. Everything would be worse in the morning. They couldn't just rely on luck, on someone to come by and save them by chance. They needed to signal.
Fire. Shen Wei could set a fire. It only took a tiny spark of dark energy—maybe he would be up for it?
"Shen Wei?" The face against Zhao Yunlan's neck didn't move. Zhao Yunlan gave Shen Wei a light squeeze. That got him a faint murmur.
"Xiao Wei?" Wanting to get a better look at Shen Wei in the gloom, he risked shifting slightly. But it startled Shen Wei, who slipped off Zhao Yunlan's shoulder and then kept sliding. Zhao Yunlan grabbed for him, seeing flashes of red-hot pain at the aborted attempts to get his injured arm to help take some weight.
Blinking away tears, he got Shen Wei onto the ground without making the concussion any worse. Shen Wei was mumbling something, too low to be heard, his restless hands seeking to clutch at Zhao Yunlan. He was panting, chest rising and falling under those leather straps, and he kept trying and failing to raise his head—he was trying to sit up.
As gently as he could, Zhao Yunlan caught Shen Wei's flailing hands. They felt ice cold as he gathered them into his own, and he brought them to his lips, trying to warm them with his breath, with his kisses. Shen Wei protested, completely insensible but still struggling weakly against the grip. "It's okay, Xiao Wei. It's me. Kunlun. You're okay, you're okay—"
Shen Wei was shaking his head, trying to tug his hands back. Worried that he would get so worked up he’d hurt himself worse, Zhao Yunlan let him go. Instead he stripped the damp furs from his shoulders, and lifted Shen Wei's head to slide them in under him. It should keep him from knocking his skull open on any of the rocks. At least he wasn't in any state to get back on his feet and fall over. Small favors.
But he wasn't going to start any fires for them. Zhao Yunlan stroked Shen Wei's hair, which seemed to calm him a little at least, even though he was wracked with shivers. "Hang in there, Xiao Wei. I'm going to…" What was he going to do? Even if he'd had anything to set a fire with, he could hardly have used the time-local methods with only one good arm. Again with being so incredibly useless—and now it was dark enough that a spark of light would really stand out. Could bring rescuers—if the rescuers knew to look for them…
Zhao Yunlan's hand flew to his chest, and he exhaled a breathless curse of relief. His gun. It was still there. Noise carried at night, and it would be loud enough to attract attention. Hopefully good attention. But if not, he could still protect Shen Wei.
He could also set a fire. Theoretically. Every time he had fired it he'd seen that muzzle flash—he'd never tried to use it as a lighter, because even he had never been that desperate for a cigarette. But in this situation—well. If he could get some flammable stuff together he could do this.
The worst part was leaving Shen Wei helpless on the ground, out of sight as soon as Zhao Yunlan was a few steps away from their boulders. It made him feel sick, heart racing as he hurried to grab whatever handfuls of dry grass he could reach and go back to wedge them between the rocks and check on Shen Wei. He stroked Shen Wei's cheek, adjusted the furs under Shen Wei's head. Told Shen Wei what he was doing, even though he knew Shen Wei couldn't hear him anymore.
The bushes were a pain—literally—to try and snap with his hand, but stomping worked pretty well. He didn't know how long he'd be able to keep a fire going, but the more broken twigs he could stack together with his grass the better. Rushing back and forth between the trampled bushes and the boulders warmed him up, but he couldn't stop feeling chilly and shivery.
Not just a little, either. Bad shivery. Like he'd better do this soon or he might not be able to pull his revolver and shove it muzzle first into the kindling. He'd arranged the little pile at an angle away from Shen Wei. But it would still be loud. Alarming.
"Don't worry, baby," he murmured as he stumbled over there. "It'll be okay."
There was of course the risk that he'd blow his entire hand off with his first attempt, but Zhao Yunlan didn't let himself think too hard about that. At least it wouldn't be his right hand? He drew his revolver and thrust the muzzle into the stack of kindling. Gritted his teeth and closed his eyes.
Pulled the trigger.
The sound was shockingly loud in the night’s stillness. Zhao Yunlan jerked away from it, and for a panicked moment he couldn't tell if the adrenaline spike was hiding something, something worse—but when he looked down his hand was fine. Scratched to hell from all those sharp twigs, but still attached to his arm.
There was no fire. Before his heart could sink too far, he went for an extra few handfuls of dry grass. He used a flat rock to press it all more tightly together, and took a deep breath. This time he kept his eyes open, and saw the flash that told him his gun was still doing everything it was supposed to. With that shot still ringing in his ears he fired again, and again, and—he blinked. The muzzle flash seemed to hang in the air, suspended—
No. Moving, turning red and hungry. If he'd had more energy, he would have whooped in triumph. But he just managed to slide the gun back into his robes and remain upright for long enough to confirm that he'd made a fire. Then he rounded the boulders, blinking against the after-images of flames making him night-blind. He sank down and found Shen Wei by touch. Shen Wei's shoulder, Shen Wei's neck, Shen Wei's pulse—fluttering, fluttering against his fingers, and the relief was like surfacing from that drowning river.
"That's good, Xiao Wei. You keep doing that. You hang in there." Zhao Yunlan felt like he was going to topple over from exhaustion, but he didn't want to let go of Shen Wei. Wanted to wrap himself around his lover's body—but then they'd be vulnerable. Like they'd been when all this started, as they shared blankets in that cave.
And besides, he couldn't put any weight on his injured arm without excruciating pain, so there was no point trying to get comfortable. Zhao Yunlan used Shen Wei's armor straps to awkwardly tug his head and shoulders into his lap. He clutched his revolver and let the boulders behind them take some of his weight. Exhaled a shivering breath. "Hang in there."
It's what Zhao Yunlan tried to do himself. Hang in there. The fire was still going. He should watch it. Watch Shen Wei. And he did, allowing himself to be distracted by the way Shen Wei's dark eyelashes stood out against his pallor, the way his forehead seemed permanently creased in a familiar frown even in sleep. And then Zhao Yunlan remembered that he should be keeping watch, too, not just gaze at that beloved face.
He should watch for danger. There was so much of it, here. He had known, of course, but he hadn't really realized...It had all seemed so temporary, his stay in the past. Other than worrying that he might not get back at all, it hadn't occurred to him that something could happen to Shen Wei. Something permanent.
Zhao Yunlan would give anything to keep that from happening. Anything. But he had nothing left with which to fight the tidal wave of sleep that dragged him under.
It came and went in fits and starts. Shen Wei was breathing. Zhao Yunlan relaxed. Shen Wei was moaning, and Zhao Yunlan tried to get him to drink. The fire was still burning, and then it wasn't. The white noise of the river became static in the Jeep's radio, and then the background hum of the city pouring in through Zhao Yunlan's window. He was in his bed, and Shen Wei was there. The sheets smelled freshly laundered, and he luxuriated in the warm softness. It was a perfect night—and then it fractured at the ominous cry of a black bird outside.
Zhao Yunlan swung his gun up to try and track it before he remembered that the Yashou Crows of this time were not the enemy. "Hey," he croaked, sounding more crow than man himself. He couldn't see anything in the night sky, and he didn't get a response. With a silent apology at Shen Wei for the noise, he fired the gun at the river below.
A loud "Caw!" sounded from above—and somewhere close a voice rang out.
"It's them! General Kunlun and Hei Pao Shi!"
Friendly forces. Friendly. Zhao Yunlan put the revolver away, and contemplated at least getting up to greet them. It would make a good impression on the forces if General Kunlun was standing on his own two feet after having to be rescued. But even if he had been sure he wouldn't fall over (which he really wasn't), he didn't want to put Shen Wei back on the cold, hard ground. Shen Wei, who didn't react at all when Zhao Yunlan called their rescuers over and gave them a first, quick brief.
Zhao Yunlan worried about him—and then there were more people around, and torches, and someone grabbed his arm to help him up and things got very vague and fractured for a long while. He knew they were being moved, and that Hei Pao Shi was with them—people kept telling him that, for some reason. Then someone was saying, "This is going to hurt."
It did, but only until he passed out.
Drifting awake, there was that familiar moment when Zhao Yunlan firmly expected to open his eyes to his apartment ceiling. To blink away this impossible dream of the past. But his senses told him he couldn't be inside—and unless he'd passed out in a park or something, that meant this still wasn't a dream. He struggled to get a look at his surroundings. He felt weak and shaky, and his head spun when he pushed himself to his elbow. He'd expected another cave—guilt rammed through him at the memory of last night, or whatever it was by now. But it was too light, too airy—he was outside? No. That smell, that drafty stuffiness—A tent. He was in a tent, and Shen Wei was—where?
Zhao Yunlan snapped out of his hazy thoughts about where he was. That didn't matter. The only thing that did was Shen Wei. He did his best to sit up and turn around. He managed it sluggishly, and his arm ached dully with every movement he made, but he gritted his teeth and made it to a position where he could see more than the geometric patterns woven into the canvas above him.
Shen Wei. Shen Wei was resting on a bedroll just an arm's length away. Close enough that the panic started fading like a bad dream. Not only was Shen Wei there, but the cuts and bruises on his face were gone. It looked like someone had used Ma Gui's ointment on him. Seeing that damage—his damage— reversed lifted a stone from Zhao Yunlan's heart. With renewed energy he ignored the twinges coming from his arm and half shuffled, half fell over onto Shen Wei's side of the little tent. It wasn't big enough to stand in, which suited him just fine. He wasn't up for standing yet. He'd just been too far away from Shen Wei.
Zhao Yunlan didn't want to wake Shen Wei, he just needed to check. Shen Wei was covered in a blanket, and wrapped in clean robes below. They were a soft blue, so unlike Shen Wei's constant black that Zhao Yunlan at first thought something was wrong. It made it hard to breathe, that fear that the healing hadn't been enough, that Zhao Yunlan hadn't gotten help fast enough. He checked Shen Wei over but saw nothing but the chest under the tidy robes rise and fall in an easy rhythm.
Relief drained Zhao Yunlan. He'd been propping himself up on his right arm, but despite being uninjured it suddenly felt like an overcooked noodle. And maybe he should have rolled away, but instead he let himself do a controlled collapse against Shen Wei, and pressed himself closer wherever they weren't touching. Shen Wei stirred, and the prickle of guilt in Zhao Yunlan's conscience was quickly smoothed out by the rush of giddy love as Shen Wei broke out in a smile the moment his eyes focused. "Kunlun?"
"Shen Wei. You're okay? You're feeling okay?" Zhao Yunlan's words came out raspy, running together in excitement.
"Yes I am...well." Shen Wei blinked, as if puzzled by this. He shifted—fingers touching the place where the stab wound had been. Then he seemed to shrug that off. "And you? What happened? I—I can't remember...it got dark? And...?"
"The Crow Tribe scouts. They found us," Zhao Yunlan explained. Shen Wei started nodding, then the assured expression clouded over, brows drawing together.
"What is it? Are you okay? Should I move, am I—" Zhao Yunlan started rolling away, but Shen Wei's hand wrapped around the back of his neck in a startlingly intimate touch.
"No!" As quickly as he had reached out, Shen Wei snatched his hand back, abashed. "I mean. If you wish to go, then—"
Zhao Yunlan didn't waste any time wrapping himself around Shen Wei again, breathing in the smoky scent of his hair. It was too much for him to say he wouldn't go—not knowing what he did—but at least he could show that he wanted to stay here, now. "I'm here," he said. "Where were we?"
Where they were was Zhao Yunlan cuddling Shen Wei close enough to give him beard burn. But Shen Wei just dutifully reminded him, "You were explaining how we got to camp."
Right. Zhao Yunlan did remember that. It had made Shen Wei frown. "And was there something you didn't like about it, Hei Lao-ge?"
"The Crow Tribe scouts," Shen Wei said. "They don't fly at night." He didn't quite sound suspicious, but he was putting all the pieces together and finding that they didn't fit right. Zhao Yunlan was in love with the most clever, most gorgeous man, and his heart did a little dance of pride even as he wished maybe they could be doing other things while snuggling than debriefing.
"Well," Zhao Yunlan said. "They do if someone makes a lot of noise and lights a fire."
Shen Wei turned to look at him, and Zhao Yunlan had to move his head back a bit to be able to focus. "A fire? Noise?" If not quite the stern Zhao Yunlan, what did you do voice that he'd gotten from Shen Wei in his own time, it was still pretty close.
"I showed you how my gun works, right?" Zhao Yunlan bit down on a follow-up comment about guns that he knew Shen Wei wouldn't appreciate right then.
Shen Wei nodded, and of course he did nothing so base as go for the obvious double-entendre. "Yes."
"Well, turns out it works as a lighter!"
"That sounds dangerous." Shen Wei's voice was so anxious that Zhao Yunlan propped himself up to get a proper look at him.
"Xiao Wei," Zhao Yunlan smiled at him. "I'm fine. It was fine."
Shen Wei looked up at him, mouth an unhappy line. His eyes were bright, but not with an answering smile. "Kunlun…" His lips trembled.
Zhao Yunlan's felt his heart being torn to shreds. He couldn't survive that expression for another second, he knew he couldn't. So he closed his eyes and kissed it away.
Shen Wei's lips were chapped and chilly against his own, and at the very first expressed nothing but startled stillness.
Moments later they parted with a sound that sent heat rushing through Zhao Yunlan's body, and he tasted the bitter aftertaste of medicine and then there was just Shen Wei. Shen Wei's hand tangling in his long hair, Shen Wei holding him close, kissing like they were back underwater and could only find air in each other.
Zhao Yunlan was almost surprised to find that they couldn't. A wave of that noodle-armed dizziness swept over him, and Shen Wei exclaimed in alarm and lowered him down to the bedroll. They were face to face now, which was nice. Zhao Yunlan liked seeing Shen Wei's face. It was beautiful. He laughed softly, and petted Shen Wei's hair as if that could smooth out the tension in his face. "Ah, Xiao Wei. You're so pretty you take my breath away."
"Kunlun!" Shen Wei gasped, looking mildly scandalized. But he didn't withdraw from the embrace, staying right there with Zhao Yunlan in his arms.
"You are," Zhao Yunlan said very seriously. He stroked Shen Wei's cheek, shuddering at the too-recent memory of doing the same to try and keep him conscious. "And brave, and strong, and—"
"Kunlun." This time the protest was very quiet, but no less desperate. "I'm not—I wasn't—"
That expression of despair again. It made Zhao Yunlan's heartache flare, but apparently he couldn't just kiss it all away. "Hush," he said, and squeezed Shen Wei in a full-body hug. "You were magnificent. You saved my life."
"No. No, I only—"
Zhao Yunlan knew only too well how Shen Wei could let himself get pulled under by the dark flood of guilt. He had to stem the tides of it now, at once. "You said it was your mother's gift. And you used it on me."
Startled, Shen Wei pulled back enough to look at him. "I said that?"
"Xiao Wei." Zhao Yunlan licked his lips. He knew some of what Shen Wei had done—would do—for him. Knew he'd never convince Shen Wei he wasn't worth it. But he also knew he could never go through anything like the past day again. "Thank you for saving my life. And promise me to never use that power on me again."
It was a question that made Zhao Yunlan infinitely sad. He shook his head. He didn't have the right words for this. For Xiao Wei, for his Shen Wei, to explain how precious he was—Zhao Yunlan could talk to anyone about anything, but all the terror he had felt watching Shen Wei suffer, watching Shen Wei get weaker and weaker...he wanted to scream at Shen Wei, but this time he didn't allow himself that relief. Instead he pressed his lips to Shen Wei's forehead. When he drew back, he said, "Because it hurt you."
Shen Wei blinked at him again, confusion writ large on his face. "But if I hadn't—I couldn't reach you. I couldn't get out, I couldn't heal you. I had to—"
Zhao Yunlan didn't say You didn't have to—he understood Shen Wei too well for that. But he shook his head, interrupting the excuses. "Shen Wei. Please?" Shen Wei wasn't the only one who could do beautiful wordless pleading. Zhao Yunlan did not hold back. "For me?"
Shen Wei swallowed. Reluctantly he said, "You have my word."
That made Zhao Yunlan feel like a sunrise was bursting through his chest, making him radiant with joy. If there was one thing he could trust, it was Shen Wei's word. "Thank you," he said. Then he wriggled a bit closer, letting a hand drift over the soft fabric of Shen Wei's borrowed robes to see if there was a gap he could—
Bright light flooded the tent, and a gasp was followed a sudden return to dimness. Shen Wei went stiff. Zhao Yunlan giggled.
"Well?" An old woman's voice, impatient, came from nearby.
"They. Uh. They. They're awake!" The stuttering reply came from a much younger woman.
The old woman muttered something that sounded less than flattering, but Zhao Yunlan had stopped paying attention—just as he hadn't been paying any attention at all to what was going on outside after he focused on Shen Wei. Who was now trying to scramble away from Zhao Yunlan, an absolutely adorable flush making his cheeks and ears glow pink.
"Well," Zhao Yunlan sighed. "I suppose it is time to debrief the others. Though if they want any cuddles they'll be disappointed."
Shen Wei stopped in the middle of brushing out imaginary wrinkles in his already neatly aligned robes. "Kunlun!"
"What? Are you saying I should share?" Zhao Yunlan grinned as Shen Wei spluttered something so flustered as to be incoherent. "Don't worry," Zhao Yunlan whispered. "The cuddles are a Hei Pao Shi exclusive benefit."
Shen Wei had been doing his best to glare at Zhao Yunlan, who was having none of it. But that made him smile—a true smile, and Zhao Yunlan felt glorious. He obediently scooted back to his own bedroll. Then he reached out and gave Shen Wei's hand a quick squeeze.
"We'll do more debriefing after this," he promised. "Just you and me. With benefits."
Shen Wei was still blushing when the healer bustled through the tent flap, followed by her assistant carrying a basket of supplies. And Zhao Yunlan was still smiling.