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'cause love, we're like fire

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“This is the direst situation we’ve found ourselves in yet,” Zhao Yunlan declares, hands firm against the familiar grain of the central table. “The most disastrous moment in all of the SID’s history!”

“Zhao Yunlan. I’m sure this will resolve itself in due course, you oughtn’t waste your team’s time on something so frivolous,” Shen Wei says, measured and sensible from across the careful physical distance between them, and Zhao Yunlan makes a noise of affront he will neither confirm nor deny having possibly picked up from from Da Qing.

“Friv– there’s nothing frivolous about being unable to even touch my Xiao Wei’s hand!” he points out hotly, words proving themselves a moment later when he forgets himself enough to direct a gesture too-far across the table.

Bzzt! snaps the crackle of current in a black-tinged arc, and in the grander scale of things it doesn’t even hurt that much (yet) but Zhao Yunlan can’t miss the wince mirrored on Shen Wei’s face.

It’s enough to send some part of him back to right before everything had not-ended: Shen Wei sitting pale and ramrod straight in the same chair, lips drawn tight like whatever hurt afflicting him was immaterial if he simply denied it hard enough.

(Objectively the resemblance is only passing at best. Shen Wei had moved his usual chair across the table immediately upon their arrival this morning, all the better to keep its width between them, and even now the faintest curve of warmth remains in his expression where it’d been since yesterday evening, when they’d agreed to figure this out together.

Subjectively, though – the sight still lands in his gut like an overweighted brass knuckle. And he’s not unaware, either, of the considerable likelihood that Shen Wei had only agreed to that so easily because the shocks were also hitting at Zhao Yunlan in equal measure.

It’s not ideal, but that’s fine. He’ll work with what he can get, and it’s not like Zhao Yunlan himself is blameless on this front; at least they have time to work on it, now.)

“Sorry, sorry!” he says, shaking the remaining tingle out of his hand before reaching over to grab Da Qing – yowling in protest at the sudden manhandling – and deposit him in his lap.

Da Qing gives him a stink-eye, which Zhao Yunlan summarily ignores in favour of the greater good: namely, keeping his hands busy and therefore safely away from anything like proximity to Shen Wei.

The complete reversal from his usual MO would be enough to give anyone whiplash.

Zhao Yunlan perseveres nobly through the cognitive dissonance and nods at the popcorn gallery currently clustered in discussion around Lin Jing’s desk. “Besides. Either they’re my team, in which case I’m entitled to spend their time however I like, or they’re our team. Which would mean they’re obliged to help us anyway, no matter how you look at it.”

He smiles winningly, and is rewarded with an answering flicker of amusement. “I don’t think that’s how it works,” Shen Wei points out anyway, because of course he does.

It’s a good thing Shen Wei is as dutifully responsible a husband as he is a SID consultant, otherwise Zhao Yunlan would probably be… still head-over-heels for him, realistically speaking, but also a little put out by his priorities. Just a little.

Unfortunately responsibility and good sense looks on him not unlike how sleeve garters do: handsome where it would’ve been absolutely ridiculous on anyone else.

Da Qing swats him with an extremely rude tail when the head scritches peter out in his distraction. “You’ve got squeaky hamster wheels for brains, I swear.”

“Says the one with a head empty enough to make bells out of,” Zhao Yunlan grumbles back on reflex, but gets back to scritching anyway. It’s not anyone’s fault (except maybe the universe’s) that he’s already cranky from being Shen-Wei-touch-deprived after just one day.

Not to mention, he’d like to see anyone who could keep thinking straight after really looking at Shen Wei. If only to refer them to an eye doctor.

Zhao Yunlan tunes back into the wider not-Shen-Wei world just in time to catch the uncertain upwards drift of Xiao Guo’s voice.

"…maybe it’s something to do with Professor Shen not having to turn into the Envoy so often now? I mean, the way Chief Zhao described it kinda sounded like a static shock but bigger, so I was thinking– ow! Lin Jing-ge, that hurts!”

“You’ve got some nerve, still daring to call me that after spouting such nonsense!” Lin Jing’s hand stays hovering threateningly close even after he lets go of Changcheng’s ear, and Zhao Yunlan spares a moment to despair over how quickly this place has turned back into some unholy circus-and-kindergarten crossbreed within such short order of his return from the technically-dead. “What, does he look like a capacitor to you? Do you think I wouldn’t have noticed by now if dark energy worked anything at all like electricity?! Seriously, the respect I get around here – "

Zhao Yunlan pays no heed to the squabble it devolves into after that, too busy turning the words over in his mind alongside what the rest don’t have cause to realise with any certainty: that it’s not even a matter of how often.

Shen Wei hasn’t taken his form as the Black-Cloaked Envoy at all since their return.

Zhao Yunlan would know; he hasn’t been able to bring himself to leave Shen Wei’s side for pretty much the same amount of time. And he’d noticed even before this, of course, but chosen not to push the question.

Right now their problems (aside from this one at hand) are purely Haixing-esque ones, headaches couched in bureaucracy of the non-stone-palace-and-lava variety. There hasn’t been any need for the Envoy’s help so far and likely won’t be for a while yet, with the Dixing portals still mostly unstable enough to make travel risky even for the desperate.

And practical considerations aside, Zhao Yunlan knows how he feels – can’t help feeling – about it, which makes up the other half of the reason why he’d decided not to bring it up before this. It still makes him faintly sick to recall how bloodlessly pale Shen Wei had looked after every time he’d called on his dwindling dark energy reserves, doubly so now that Zhao Yunlan has the unfortunate first-hand experience of what having your energy messed with really feels like. No matter how little regard Shen Wei habitually pays to his own wellbeing, it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be at least some level of unconscious association there, too.

That’s not even counting whatever happened during his time in the ether between worlds while Zhao Yunlan had been off doing his best candlestick impression.

Honestly, he wouldn’t even be considering this at all if not for the person who’d suggested it. The near-apocalypse seemed to have awakened something in Guo Changcheng’s instincts when it came to these matters, not that he displayed any awareness of being anything but his usual bumbling self. Shen Wei’s working theory was that it might be due to either Ouyang’s injection or the temporary connection to the Lantern.

Or both, given the kid’s luck.

To read between the lines of how Lao Chu told it, Changcheng had also been the one who came up with the idea that eventually got both him and Shen Wei back, and Zhu Hong agreed with his assessment. (So had Da Qing the one time he’d mentioned the events of the past year at all, but the look in his eyes had been enough to get it through even Zhao Yunlan’s thick skull to never bring it up with him ever again.)

And illogical as it seems on first glance, it doesn’t feel entirely implausible either. Sure, the reports from the few Dixingren still on the surface (scant as their known numbers were) hadn’t suggested any ill effects from the portals closing and thus cutting off the most readily-available source of ambient dark energy, without which most of them were unlikely to use their powers often anyway, if at all. Plus he’d personally confirmed earlier that touching Chu Shuzhi is perfectly fine, never mind the expression that’d strongly suggested the man himself sorely wished it otherwise.

But then again Shen Wei has never been quite like any other Dixingren after all, what with being unfathomable orders of magnitude more powerful and using dark energy in ways that Zhao Yunlan has never seen anyone else even come close to.

So it could make sense, that dark energy (or the lack of usage thereof) would have a unique effect on him too. Possibly?

…they might need to strike the Lantern-connection theory off the Xiao Guo list, because Zhao Yunlan has had far more quality time on that front and he’s still out of his depth here.

He chances a glance over at Shen Wei – who looks back, of course, but a beat slower than usual, gaze abstracted. From the slight draw in his brows Zhao Yunlan is pretty sure he’s already reached the same conclusion and gone ahead to conjectures unknown, with how quickly his mind works.

“Care to share with the class, Xiao Wei?” Zhao Yunlan keeps his voice light, low enough to avoid notice from the rest.

Shen Wei’s focus sharpens as he nods. “I don’t see any reason not to give it a try, at least.”

Maybe he didn’t, but Zhao Yunlan definitely did. “Is this going to hurt you in any way? By my standards, not yours.”

“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says in the particular inflection that means if I accede to this illogical request it will only be because you asked, but unfortunately for him Zhao Yunlan has nothing but variations on increasing stubbornness in this matter. “It should not cause me any harm, no.”

That leaves… a lot of room for other things that could still happen, but at least it sounds like an honest assessment. “Let’s try it. Once, and if you feel any discomfort at all we’re stopping and going straight home whether it works or not. Agreed?”

Zhao Yunlan lifts the lump of cat up onto the table at Shen Wei’s nod, which turns into fond amusement when he curls a finger around one paw briefly.

(Not that he can even imagine the thought process that led to Da Qing demanding a pinky promise from Shen Wei of all people, but was he ever going to let that slide after finding out? Fat chance, especially not when it seems to hold better than anything else. At least for the important occasions.)

Da Qing huffs in annoyance, but gets up and pads obligingly across the table before Zhao Yunlan can make good on the gestured threat of bodily shoving him over. “You just want an excuse to knock off early for the day,” he grumbles over his shoulder, then promptly turns polite as he offers a paw to Shen Wei because Zhao Yunlan apparently affords no respect in his own house. Department. Whatever. “I hope this works, Professor Shen. I can’t take much more of Lao Zhao being cranky like this.”

“Oi,” Zhao Yunlan protests halfheartedly.

“Which is to say, even crankier than usual,” Da Qing adds, unbothered, and flicks his tail at the team’s desks after Shen Wei lets go. “I’ll keep them out of your hair.”

“Thank you, Da Qing,” Shen Wei says softly, though it’s really nowhere near necessary; all that’s needed for it to feel like they’re the only two people left in the world is for Shen Wei to look at him like that.

Zhao Yunlan knows the smile on his face probably looks all sorts of ridiculous right now, but he can’t be bothered. “Hey.”

“Hi,” Shen Wei says back, corners of his eyes crinkling before his eyelids flutter closed and he calls forth the Envoy’s form for the first time in more than a year.

Zhao Yunlan finds himself suddenly and nonsensically needing to know precisely how long it’s been; it’s swiftly followed by the thought that Da Qing needn’t have bothered distracting the rest anyway. Even with his gaze rapt on Shen Wei he can feel the hush falling over the room like a physical thing, without even Guo Changcheng’s inane comments this time.

Just like that first summoning – and how long has it been, since then?

How do you measure a lifetime?

He doesn’t even realise he’s been holding his breath until Shen Wei blinks his eyes open again, clear but not in that too-sharp way they’d been when he’d had hurt to conceal, and reaches a hand tentatively across the table.

A third, halfway; no reaction snapping at his fingers, still, and abruptly Zhao Yunlan throws himself forward to close that distance, lunges to catch Shen Wei’s hand and holds on. Keeps holding on, even as his other hand comes up to scrabble at the mask and pull it away.

Behind its shadow Shen Wei’s eyes are wide, impossibly bright even after he reaches up to push his hood back.

Zhao Yunlan’s grin has probably upgraded itself to weapons-grade and possibly a little concussed to boot.

“Hello there,” he breathes, running his free hand along the curve of Shen Wei’s face in lieu of kissing him senseless in front of his – their – entire team. Not that Zhao Yunlan himself is in any way against that, but Shen Wei is, and also he probably shouldn’t scar them for life right after they’ve just solved a life-and-death matter without causing any property destruction.

You’re supposed to positively reinforce the behaviours you want to encourage, Zhao Yunlan vaguely recalls. That’s biology, right? Shen Wei would know.

Not that he seems to be in any state for a lecture right now, or much of anything besides the increasingly tight grip on Zhao Yunlan’s hand.

Which Zhao Yunlan personally has less than zero problems with. “Right, that’s it,” he declares without so much as a glance over his shoulder. “Well done, Xiao Guo, you’re getting Lin Jing’s bonus for the next three months.”

“But Chief!" overlaps with a stammering “I d-don’t need…"

“Then – " it can always be forfeit entirely, Zhao Yunlan is about to say, except that he’s beaten to it.

“Yunlan,” Shen Wei says, apparently having singlehandedly (ha) rediscovered his capacity for speech owing to the pressing need to uphold justice and defend the only-somewhat-deserving. Which figures, really.

Though he’s pretty sure all those principles have nothing to do with the way Shen Wei’s other hand steals up to curl around Zhao Yunlan’s wrist.

“Fine,” he concedes. “But I am taking the rest of the day off, nobody call me unless the world is ending. Again.”

“I knew it,” Da Qing remarks dryly. “Lin Jing! You can use that newly-recovered bonus to buy me supper at your place for the rest of the week, there’s no catflap big enough that I’d–"

The rest of the words are lost to echoing resonance as Shen Wei pulls them directly into a portal, and Zhao Yunlan doesn’t need to see the other end to know where they’re headed: home, restored in full now with the warmth clasped firmly between his hands.