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Whumptober: Bruises & Aftermath

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I didn't sleep well, after they cut me down from my brother's pillar and brought me home to the sunlight. My battered body couldn’t seem to settle into any position that remained comfortable for long. I could hardly lie still for an hour or two before I woke, tangled in blankets, stiff and sore and haunted by nightmares.

I dreamt of darkness and cold. Of heavy chains that wrenched my shoulders behind me. Chains that draped my torso and bound my legs with the weight of despair. Chains that surged with a cacophony of pain, forcing me to scream and writhe and thrash and, inevitably, collapse into their supportive net until the agony of such direct contact drove me to struggle again. Of my brother's laughter and taunts and the lash of his whip.

I didn't sleep much at all.

"It's fine," I tried to tell Yunlan the third morning when he cornered me by the SID coffee. "I'm recovering. Thank you for your concern."

He raised an eyebrow and studied me sidelong, worrying his lollipop with his tongue. It was extremely distracting. Usually it was awkward to converse with him while trying not to blush as intimate memories vividly presented themselves. Now, I was… not in the mood. I blinked and looked away.

"Uh-huh," he said wryly. "You're as ragged as something Da Qing dragged in, ge. Prove to me how well you're doing. Let me hang out on your couch tonight to make sure you rest." He wagged a finger at me. "I'm Consultant Shen's boss, you know. I'll put you on medical leave if I need to."

I had to smile a little. "Chain of command can be so complicated, don't you think, Lord Guardian?"

He grinned and rolled his eyes. "Try me. I know how to use the Human Resources computer."

I started to gesture around at the kitchen machinery. A deflecting comment about the mysteries of modern technology died on my lips as my muscles seized up. I folded into myself with a grimace. Shame washed through me, hot and queasy. I didn’t want him to see this. What could I possibly do for him when I couldn’t even move without creaking and cramping?

His arm curled around my shoulders, steadying me. I stiffened. This was fine. This was safe and good.

That, more than the nightmares, I hated: that Ye Zun had subjected me to torture and deprivation such that any touch, however kind, felt dangerous.

"Let me help you," Yunlan pleaded softly. "Hell, ge, you've just been through-- Let me help."

I closed my eyes. His gentle hands felt so good and so frightening and so unreal.

I didn't want to talk about this. I didn't want him to see it. I didn't want--

"Lao Zhao," Shuzhi called from the doorway. "Your scientist is about to set shit on fire in the lab again. Your turn to deal with it."

"Today it's your problem," Yunlan snapped back without turning from me.

I could hear the shrug in Shuzhi's voice. "He's in one of his manic moods. You want to do the paperwork to clean up after him, that’s on you."

Yunlan muttered imprecations under his breath. "Your place, tonight," he told me. "Or mine if you like, just give me time to change the sheets for you." He gave my shoulders a light squeeze that set every damaged muscle screaming, and trotted off toward the lab.

I took a pair of slow, deep breaths before realizing I wasn't alone.

"You're not stretching enough," Shuzhi quietly informed me.

"I-- what?" I turned toward him with the smooth little movements that I had discovered were easiest.

"Your muscles." He nodded once to indicate the whole of me. His voice was rough, oddly hollow. "They were… strained.” He looked down, rubbing the back of his neck, and swallowed. “A body isn't meant to be forced into one position for extended periods like that. You have to stretch, after, or it hurts for a lot longer."

Silence hung heavy and awkward between us. I remembered our first meeting: him newly cut down from a different pillar, covered with bloody lashes and burns, his eyes hard and feral.

I had been imprisoned for less than a week. He had been for decades.

Shame flooded through me again. He lived with that every day, and was… changed, certainly, but competent and strong. I had to get myself there again as swiftly as possible.

"Thank you. I’ll do that."

"Hm." He lifted his eyes to give me an appraising look. "I can show you. Whenever you want, my lord." His face clouded. "Just give me a little lead time. Changcheng…"

I nodded. "Of course. How is he?"

"Recovering."

I smiled. “Good. I’m grateful to hear it.”

His smile bloomed and then faded as his gaze slid away from mine. He shifted his weight back and forth. He crossed his arms over his chest.

I waited.

“I’m sorry,” he said gruffly. “For--all of that. I owe you so much, and when you needed me I--” He grimaced and hung his head. “I’m not a good man. ...Anything you need, just ask.”

I blinked. “Shuzhi, I’ve said it before and it’s still true: I don’t believe you owe me anything. You have been so good to me over the years. We are equals in my eyes.”

He laughed, a raw and bitter sound. “Maybe my lord does need those professor’s glasses.” He drew a shuddering breath and gazed skyward. “I almost killed him. He would have died down there, if you hadn’t drained your last scraps of energy to intervene.” He turned away, blinking back tears. “And I owe you my life and my freedom and I barely looked at--you were--” He broke off, shaking his head. “I already couldn’t repay you in this lifetime. Now I’ve failed you on top of that. It's inexcusable.”

I stepped closer, dared myself to touch his shoulder. (This is safe.) "Ye Zun is masterful at exploiting every weakness. I watched him torment you." It was mostly true. I had been half-conscious at the time, but it was enough to remember some hazy impressions. The cheerful mimicry of his long-dead brother. The forced choice between hostages. His agonized scream when Ye Zun withdrew the choice and made him watch Xiao Guo suffer.

Didi, didi, I failed you. You should never have been in a position to learn such cruelty.

A broken smile flashed across Shuzhi's face. "You're generous." He moved to clap me on the shoulder and caught himself short, turned it instead into an awkward sweeping gesture. "Stretch. I'll help if you'd like." He snorted. "I'd recommend drinking to help you sleep, but."

"Perhaps not." I smiled wryly. "Shuzhi… thank you. Truly."

He nodded, looking away. "It's. You know."

I did know. I nodded.

"It gets easier," he said.

"Thank you," I murmured.

We stood together in a silence that thrummed with unspoken things.

“I’ve got to, uh,” he said finally, and jerked his head toward the main workroom.

I nodded. “Of course. Have a good day.”

I took my time with my tea, after he left, and felt less alone.