When Wang Zheng went to make a call, the phone rang before she could even pick it up.
"Wang Zheng from the SID speakin-" Her sudden silence attracted a few curious glances from her colleagues. "Ah. Yes, chief Zhao. No problem, we'll manage on our own. Yes. Don't worry and take care, both of you."
"What's wrong?" Zhu Hong asked as soon as she hung up.
Wang Zheng wore a solemn expression. "Professor Shen Wei is ill."
Everyone held their breath in disbelief while Da Qing joined his hands together, faking prayer—probably directed at his master rather than the professor—and Chu Shuzhi scoffed.
"This bastard of a chief really took a day off to take care of him. Heipaoshi isn't that weak, he can deal with a little cold on his own."
Not like Zhao Yunlan was going to be of much help anyway. The SID members all knew how incompetent their boss was at looking after himself; how could he ever nurse someone else back to health? Especially Shen Wei, considering how the professor could turn into the most stubborn man anyone could face, not allowing anyone to show him concern, not allowing himself to show affliction.
But maybe his Honour Heipaoshi could, in fact, not deal with a little cold on his own.
• • •
Shen Wei coughed under the sheets, drawing in air to replenish his burning lungs. A deep sigh followed right after, betraying his troubled mind.
Shen Wei had never fallen sick before. Actually, it had never dawned on him that he could.
Throughout the millenniums of travelling between Dixing and Haixing, he had obviously witnessed civilians falling victim to a given disease or faced Dixingren violating a law of the Underworld in the name of a sick fellow. Although his position taught him to make use of empathy, albeit fairly and only for justice, imagining what it felt like to be overcome by illness revealed itself to be harder than expected. Understanding someone's pain was one thing; being able to share it without having experienced it was another.
At least Zhao Yunlan's apartment could provide him with the peace he needed to heal. Behind the half-open ivory white curtains, the day seemed to be well underway, yet not much noise from outside penetrated the flat. Perfect quietude to keep his throbbing headache from worsening. Additionally, to allow some air circulation, a window was left ajar. A gentle breeze was blowing, certainly bringing in scents of early spring he could not detect because of his stuffy nose.
The atmosphere was nice and homely. In spite of the place's questionable arrangement—nothing new, although Shen Wei remembered whipping the apartment into shape a few days ago. So cozy he could just drift off to sleep again...
His moment of tranquillity was suddenly interrupted by another coughing fit, shaking him awake. Apparently, slumber would have to wait.
Struggling to breathe, the ill man attempted to sit up. In vain; his arms could barely hold him up without trembling violently, threatening to let him down.
"Xiao Wei, Xiao Wei, Xiao Wei."
A dishevelled Zhao Yunlan darting worried round eyes at him rushed to sit by his side. From the kitchen he just exited wafted a faint strange smell.
His usual scruffy outfit was hidden behind a light brown apron Shen Wei had forced him to wear when Zhao Yunlan had told him he was going to cook. Even in his current state, it was Shen Wei's second nature to remind the bearded man of the little things the latter often omitted, knowing how clumsy he could be. Especially in a kitchen.
"Let me help you up!"
As he grabbed the sick man from under the blankets, Zhao Yunlan disregarded Shen Wei's slurred mumbling probably reproaching him.
Despite not knowing much about how to properly recover from a cold—he usually just downed two or three painkillers depending on the severity and called it a day, Zhao Yunlan swore to himself that he was going to get Shen Wei back on his feet. No matter how annoyingly headstrong the latter could be. It sure had been a struggle just to get the spectacled man changed and comfortable in bed as he justified himself with the silliest excuses. But Zhao Yunlan was just as obstinate and it required more than that for him to give up.
So, gathering all the memories he had collected about the times Shen Wei had nursed him when he had fallen sick (and that was a lot), Zhao Yunlan attempted to freshen up the ill man a little bit.
"Stay put," he told him despite knowing full well Shen Wei was too exhausted to object.
First, the bearded man made sure to wipe the sweat off his forehead with a clean towel he had left on the nightstand, moving his damp bangs aside. As he did, he could feel Shen Wei's piercing, ardent eyes on him. In the silence of the room, he could almost hear Shen Wei repeating Zhao Yunlan's name in his mind.
The situation was different but the feeling of it still reminded Zhao Yunlan of that night at the hotel in the mountains.
"Careful not to lose your soul this time," the bearded man could not help but chime in, mischievously wanting to bring this inglorious moment back to the surface of Shen Wei's memory.
He had to admit it: it was unbearably tempting to tease him as the half-conscious man sat there, never moving his unblinking hooded eyes away from him.
Similarly, Zhao Yunlan had had his fair share of encounters with sick or injured people he had had to interrogate at the city's hospital. Some were plainly unresponsive, which did not hinder his ability to obtain answers. Others behaved in a violent manner, outraged by his straightforward questions. However, most of them were thankfully cooperative.
But Shen Wei was none of those. With strong features softened into a mild sulky expression, he rather looked like a wolf turned into a sleepy puppy. That was devastatingly endearing.
Although Shen Wei did not appear to react much to his teasing, it was all the validation the bearded man needed to continue anyways. And so, as if he had not noticed his fixed gaze, Zhao Yunlan went on, readjusting the long-sleeved shirt he had lent Shen Wei—a shirt that was slightly ill-fitting, considering his broader shoulders—and the sheets underneath his elbows, leaving his gaze unreturned. Unexpectedly, his playfulness only contrived to draw a low growl from Shen Wei.
Yes, Zhao Yunlan knew he should be thinking about how to answer the sick man's needs. Shen Wei probably wanted to tell him something but could not due to his irritated throat that had made him lose most of his voice. But honestly, at that moment, Zhao Yunlan's single Shen Wei-powered brain cell was only focused on how hot that groan sounded.
Hot like the pot he had left on the stove.
The bearded man snapped his head up, finally looking at Shen Wei who only gave him a tired knowing look.
Zhao Yunlan hastily got up, sprinting to turn the heat off before he managed to burn the apartment down.
He would never hear the end of it if that happened. Between Shen Wei having to summon his powers, while he was still ailing, to turn the fire off because Zhao Yunlan would have conveniently forgotten where the extinguisher was stored, and his subordinates at the SID nagging him for trying to do something he was never good at, namely, cooking. On second thought, he could live with a half-ravaged apartment and Shen Wei scolding him, but he will not allow the other guys to have another reason, on top of so many previous ones, to harass him.
And he had not even cooked; the meal in question was only a reheated portion of congee Shen Wei had placed in his fridge not so long ago. Just in case the busy man could not tend to Zhao Yunlan falling sick again because of his bad eating habits.
So, no way in hell was he going to let an accident happen over something so stupid. Oh, but he did not feel bad for making up such indecent thoughts about Shen Wei just now, just for having them at an inconvenient time.
As much as Shen Wei loved Zhao Yunlan, he was still one of those who believed that cooking and him could never exist together. These two terms should not even be pronounced in the same sentence. The bearded man could accidentally murder the person he was trying to help with his execrable cooking skills.
So when he brought him a bowl of fuming congee, Shen Wei was secretly glad he had left him this extra ration of rice porridge. Now was not an ideal time to test how poisonous Zhao Yunlan's dishes could get. Learning to cook was going to have to wait. And so was teaching him how to if Shen Wei did not actively work on getting better.
As soon as Zhao Yunlan came back within his range of vision, Shen Wei watched him carefully waddle his way towards him. He settled down, balancing in both hands the bowl on a plate acting as an improvised tray.
"Here, Xiao Wei~"
Only when the warm bowl found its way in his hands did he avert his eyes. The heat of the ceramic spread through his arms. It seemed to calm his chills by a notch, resulting in the ill man's body slumping a little.
"Eat up quickly," Zhao Yunlan encouraged him while fishing a lollipop out of his apron's front pocket. He really had candies everywhere. "That'll get you back on your feet in no time! I mean, if it works with me, then it must work with you too, right?"
He was probably right. To a certain extent. But as Shen Wei blankly stared at the bowl, the congee suddenly did not appear especially appetizing.
Maybe it was the fever that was making him lose his appetite. Or was it the fact that the meals he cooked suited Zhao Yunlan's taste and not his own? Shen Wei satisfied his hunger with very little and, often, food that the bearded man would classify as bland. So the times he spent behind an oven or a kitchen counter were mostly for Zhao Yunlan, not himself.
Zhao Yunlan must have noticed his lack of interest because he did not wait to take a spoonful of rice porridge and place it before Shen Wei's lips. The sick man only lifted what could have been round eyes, if his eyelids were not so heavy, to frown at Zhao Yunlan. The latter wore a probably sly, definitely amused grin on his face. His chuckle came out breathy because of the lollipop in his mouth.
Apparently, Zhao Yunlan seemed particularly eager about spoon-feeding him. Whether he was hungry or not.
"Are you gonna eat it," he asked, now smirking, "or do you need me to shove it in your mouth like I did with that lollipop 10000 years ago?"
Finally, Zhao Yunlan was able to get a reaction out of Shen Wei: reddening ears, and fever was not the cause of it. Oh, and a round of coughs.
Smiling apologetically, Zhao Yunlan hurriedly proceeded to pat the ill man on his back to appease the fit. He also got a hold of the bowl as to not make a mess on the bedsheets.
Unlike that provocative night in the hotel, Shen Wei recalled that memory of the old times surprisingly well, despite how ancient it had become. It only served to show how dear he held it. Of course Zhao Yunlan would tease Shen Wei for his 10000-years crush on him to shake him up a little. A little too much perhaps.
Straightening back, the sick man threw at Zhao Yunlan a dead glare that held both playful exasperation and infinite fondness. Without a word, he then grabbed the bowl of congee and the spoon from him—without failing to make their fingertips brush—and started eating. The tip of his ears remained crimson for a while. His chin propped in his hand, Zhao Yunlan observed him with tender affection.
"Where have you been after work lately?" Zhao Yunlan inquired after several minutes spent in comfortable silence. As he talked, he brought the palm of his hand up against Shen Wei's forehead, gauging his temperature. He was not sure whether to feel concerned or not about the momentary flare of heat that rose from his skin at the touch. "You haven't come over in a while and this is how you greet me?" Zhao Yunlan teased. "Has Hei Lao Ge been so busy he forgot to take care of his health?"
Shen Wei kept eating without glancing at him, though not ignoring his questions. The bearded man gave him some time to finish up his meal and think about his answer, taking this opportunity to go make a cup of honeyed lukewarm water for him.
Zhao Yunlan knew how strong-willed and powerful Shen Wei was; his unique immune system was not going to wither because of a little cold. Yet, it still pained him to watch the man, thought by all to be invincible, be so vulnerable despite himself.
Normally, Shen Wei would disappear in the shadows until his strength was restored—that could easily need multiple days. Zhao Yunlan had not expected this time to be different.
In fact, on the eve, he had not missed Shen Wei's abnormally pale complexion; even in the darkness of a room, his wan skin and lips had stood out, his cheekbones protruding. Moreover, the professor needing to stop anything he was doing once in a while, pain veiled as a pronounced frown wrinkling his serene features, had only reinforced his concern.
Zhao Yunlan had known there would be no hope in asking him what was wrong but the adamant SID chief had still tried to find his way in Shen Wei's mind walls. After the latter had ignored his constant pestering, Zhao Yunlan had reluctantly stepped back to avoid pushing him away as a result and gave him space, all the while saddened by the fact Shen Wei would choose again to hide his troubles from him instead of sharing them.
Who knew Shen Wei would actually come home the following morning after a whole night of missed calls, sweating and panting like he had been running away from someone, and burning from what Zhao Yunlan, in the middle of panic and frustration, recognized as a fever?
Shen Wei pondered as he put the last spoonful of rice porridge in his mouth. He had an inkling Zhao Yunlan suspected something about this whole incident. The SID chief was not a fool after all.
However, as much as he wanted to, Shen Wei could not bring himself to tell Zhao Yunlan he had been looking for a way to replenish his dark energy after all their misadventures consumed most of it and weakened him. It could not be the reason for his illness anyways, could it? But again, Shen Wei had never so severely run out of dark energy, neither had he ever fallen sick...
The empty bowl cupped in his hands was replaced by a cup of tepid water. Its fragrance somehow managed to be strong enough for him to smell it. Pleasantly sweet.
On his right, the mattress bounced and sunk under the weight of Zhao Yunlan joining him on the bed. The sound of curtains being closed accompanied the comical squeaking of the bed's structure.
The bearded man then sighed in relief as he lied down, one arm behind his head, swinging his lollipop around. "Now, down this and let's rest. Looking at you being so quiet and sleepy is having a much-welcomed effect on me." He chuckled softly, shifting Shen Wei's attention away from the cup.
Maybe Zhao Yunlan did not need an answer to his questions after all. He must have figured it out by himself and preferred to focus on recovery.
And so, the sick man did as he was told. Almost choking in the process because of how saccharine the drink tasted. Zhao Yunlan really could not even measure simple ingredients right. But at least, it seemed to soothe his sore throat a little.
Biting back a remark about being so disorderly, Shen Wei let Zhao Yunlan place the cup, and his once again wrapped lollipop, on the wooden windowsill behind them. And as his eyes began to droop, Shen Wei let him tuck him back under the sheets. He let Zhao Yunlan caress his hair ever so gently, fixing his bangs over his forehead, petting his head. He let Zhao Yunlan watch him close his eyes, unconsciously slow his breathing down to a relaxed rhythm.
And he let himself finally doze off to sleep. Before sensing the other man sliding under the blankets and hug him sideways.
Shen Wei frowned slightly, resisting the urge to deepen the embrace. Wasn't a cold contagious?
"Don't come too close...," Shen Wei said ever so softly. It barely came out as a whisper but the bearded man understood his mumbling.
The latter only clung tighter, audibly pouting. "I read somewhere that body warmth can help cure a sick person of their cold. I'm only testing."
Shen Wei rolled his eyes under his eyelids, visibly unconvinced. However, he did not say anything to refute his statement.
He let Zhao Yunlan cuddle him. He let himself hold his hand, intertwine his own cold fingers with Zhao Yunlan's warm ones.
Without realizing, Shen Wei had already started to feel better. Much more quickly and more effective than in his hideout in the darkness.
When he was hit with this cold the night before, for once, the shadows had not seemed appealing or comforting. They had appeared colder, harsher, more indifferent than usual. As waves of chills had overtaken Shen Wei's already icy body, he had never felt so helpless when confronting such minor issue.
In his panicked feverish state, one name had come to his mind, one place more comfortable than the shadows he saw as shelter. A name that brought him warmth and peace.
He had not considered the events that would follow his impulsive decision of appearing in front of Zhao Yunlan's apartment and quite literally forcing the bearded man to take care of him.
It was for the best, that was for sure.
• • •
The next day, the office phone vibrated with its typical ringtone.
"Wang Zheng from the SID speakin-"
An abrupt silence filled the room for a couple of seconds.
Then, mirroring the frantic, yet firm tone on the other side of the line, the ghost quickly reached for a pen and a piece of paper, writing down a list of things while silently nodding. A few heads turned her way, watching her agreeing with a quiet "yes" to whatever was being said.
"What's the deal now?" Zhu Hong blurted out once the conversation was over.
Wang Zheng's concerned expression changed into a sheepish one.
"Chief Zhao is ill..."
A few eye rolls and sighs followed her statement. Nobody minded Chu Shuzhi laughing by himself.
"Serves him right," the man spat, only to receive a gentle glare from Guo Changcheng.
Wang Zheng added while extending a hand holding the paper she had written on, "Da Qing, errand time. Professor Shen informed me he wants you to buy all of these."
The black cat whined for being disturbed in the middle of enjoying his dried fish snack.
"Maybe you should have prayed more seriously," Lin Jing commented from his desk. That earned him a slap behind the head from the Cat Yashou.