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Treaty-Bound

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*

It could have been a nice trip to the mountains.

They had even talked about it, getting away from everything for a little while now that matters in Dragon City seem to be settling. Yet even now they both have their duties to see to, so it had never become more than talk – and Shen Wei wouldn’t have chosen this particular area for hiking. Two hours further from Dragon City than their previous excursions brought them, there runs a vein of sandstone and the rock is unsettled in the area, prone to slope instability.

But when Liu Qinglian had come to him asking for help, all but twitching in fright but oh so determined, of course Shen Wei hadn’t said no. And Zhao Yunlan had – as usual – point blank refused to stay behind. In this case, his argument that portalling so far would make quite a dent into Shen Wei’s energy levels had been hard to circumvent. Besides, Shen Wei can never truly bring himself to regret having Zhao Yunlan at his side. Even months after meeting Kunlun as Zhao Yunlan for the first time, it still feels a little like a miracle, a privilege, to be moving in each other's orbit, Zhao Yunlan’s arm brushing against his own with every step. Not even the uneven footing or uneasy prickling along his back diminish that.

“Anything?” Zhao Yunlan asks.

Shen Wei glances at him. In a blatant show of nostalgia, Zhao Yunlan is wearing the same The North Face jacket he’d brought on the trip to get the mountain awl. He’s probably just waiting for an excuse to drape it over Shen Wei’s shoulders, too.

Shen Wei will let him, of course. He’s lived half a step into nostalgia for too long to abandon it now.

“Nothing concrete,” he says. “The ambient dark energy is disturbed here, but I can’t tell the cause yet.”

Zhao Yunlan squints down at his phone. The bright screen glare, competing with the sun, isn’t good for his eyes, but mentioning that will get Shen Wei nowhere – not when the phone displays the location of the Dixingren father and daughter they’re looking for. Or rather, the location of their phones. Shen Wei doesn’t claim to understand ‘GPS tracking’ – nor does he have a particular wish to – but Lin Jing fussed with Zhao Yunlan’s phone before they left.

“Still coming from straight ahead.” Zhao Yunlan looks up, shading his eyes with his palm as he gazes at the increasingly craggy landscape. The climb ahead of them looks steep, with the occasional overhang barring their way. “Is that where your disturbance is coming from, too? Could it be them?”

“It’s possible,” Shen Wei says, mouth drawing tight. He hopes that’s not the case. The times he’s previously encountered disturbed energy like this when centred around a person, it had almost always meant that something traumatic had taken place, causing a Dixingren to temporarily – or in the worst cases, permanently – lose control over their powers.

Liu Qinglian had said her husband’s power is soil detection, which is why he likes hiking in remote places to begin with, but Shen Wei isn’t entirely clear on what that means in practical terms. Dark energy powers are often unpredictable and while there’s surely a good reason Li Ye calls his ability ‘soil detection’, it won’t make perfect sense until the man himself can explain it to Shen Wei. If he wants to – it wouldn’t be the first time Shen Wei accidentally acquired a power without understanding it beforehand, struggling to make sense of what his hands wreak with it afterwards.

By the time they’re nearing the GPS location, they’re several kilometres from where Zhao Yunlan parked the jeep after finally admitting it wouldn’t take them any further, and Shen Wei’s mental sense of two other Dixingren has solidified.

So has his sense of unease. The air feels thick with something other than just dark energy, pressure pulsing behind Shen Wei’s eyes.

Lips pressing together, Shen Wei quickens his step a little.

Zhao Yunlan, most likely picking up on his disquiet, doesn’t protest and keeps pace with only minor huffing.

They round another outcrop of crumbly sandstone and finally there they are, father and daughter crouching on the ground, a clear match to the photo Liu Qinglian had shown them before leaving.

Li Ye’s leg is bent at an unnatural angle. The daughter, Li Hanrui, hovers over him protectively, expression caught between wariness and desperate hope.

“Liu Qinglian sent us,” Zhao Yunlan calls as soon as they’re close enough that he doesn’t have to shout.

In situations like this, Shen Wei happily leaves the talking to him.

He approaches slowly, keeping his hands visible and relaxed at his sides until he can crouch down beside the prone man. Shen Wei isn’t in his robes of office, having seen no purpose in expending the energy to maintain that form above-ground while hiking, but these days most Dixingren know his face. So does Li Ye, whose eyes widen, adam’s apple bobbing.

“Li Ye, will you let me heal you enough to return to the city? Your wife is worried for you.”

Going by his appearance (tense, white face, sweat beading on his skin and eyes barely focusing), Li Ye has been in pain for a while, overriding his clear wariness of the Envoy. He nods tightly.

Shen Wei wastes no time in calling on his most useful power, dark energy swirling in his palm until he hovers it over the injured leg, visualising the bone snapping back into place, tissue and tendons reknitting. It’s a bad break, and he doesn’t judge the man’s moans of pain as Shen Wei works. Distantly, he’s aware of Zhao Yunlan keeping Li Hanrui calm, voice soothing.

Eventually, the leg is, if not as good as new, then capable of bearing Li Ye’s weight, a recovery time of months reduced to weeks, at most.

“There is little I can do to help with blood loss,” he says quietly, rising and stepping back so Li Hanrui can step in and help her father to his feet. “But I fear we shouldn’t tarry here. The mountain is unstable.”

Li Ye nods, grim-faced still, though the lines of pain are easing from his face.

“I feel it too – the soil is already unsettled. It’s why we were hurrying back and I forgot myself enough to stumble badly.”

Shen Wei nods, acknowledging the man’s expertise in this area.

As they start moving downhill, daughter supporting father and Zhao Yunlan keeping a weather eye out for any stumbles on his other side, Shen Wei brings up the rear, unease mounting by the minute.

Something is building, he can feel it in the tension in the ground, the way the air seems to be waiting.

“We need to move faster,” Shen Wei says, clipped, and to all their credit, they do try.

He feels the moment it’s too late – tension snaps, like the ropes of a bridge suddenly dangling free.

The shield is all but instinctive, placing both his body and his power in the way of oncoming death, sheltering Zhao Yunlan and the Dixingren behind him.

The first few impacts are bearable, jarring his bones uncomfortably but not yet flaring into pain. Then the full mass of the rock avalanche hits and the onslaught drives Shen Wei to his knees. Dark energy use doesn’t nullify the universe’s basic constants: for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Shen Wei has to counter the combined force exerted by tonnes of rock and earth accelerating down the slope, and while his shield has held for a few precious seconds already, he knows with the same certainty as he can feel blood start to trickle from his nose that he won’t be able to outlast the mountain.

He also knows that when he falters, everyone with him will die. Zhao Yunlan will die.

That thought is as intolerable as it has always been.

Shen Wei grits his teeth, ignoring the blood pooling into his mouth, and reaches further.

Accessing more than one power at once is, by definition, impossible for most Dixingren. Even for Shen Wei, who has many powers at his disposal, using more than one at a time requires such a combination of focus and power that – well.

In any other circumstance, he would not have dared attempt it.

Agonisingly slowly, he keeps a hold of his shield with one hand, diverting half his attention to the other hand reaching backwards, pulling on a different power strand in his mind until his belief splits in two and he holds two separate realities in his head. In one, he maintains the shield that is all that stands between all of them and crushing rock; in the other, his outstretched hand twirls and calls a portal into being just behind their tightly packed group.

He’s only dimly aware of the portal ripping open, swallowing the father and daughter as it does. Pain screams through him, incinerating from within and then he feels the Guardian Treaty react, the bonds he swore to obey but broke in the flood of power necessary to maintain both shield and portal tightening around his torso, choking his breath, his heart.

With a last, desperate effort, mind whitening out under the strain, he recalls the shield, letting its dissipating energy push him backwards into Zhao Yunlan, and both of them through the portal.

They fall.

The world splinters.

Zhao Yunlan’s desperate voice. Screaming for him.

Shen Wei!

Blood in his mouth, in his lungs. Burning lines on his skin.

Warm hands on his face, tilting it until blood can dribble freely.

Shen Wei!

Zhao Yunlan’s presence, an anchor. Safety.

Shen Wei falls further.

*

Snatches of consciousness. The rumbling of a car engine, Zhao Yunlan’s hand gripping his thigh with desperate strength, crusted blood in his nostrils.

His mind is clearing – a little; enough to think – but the pain remains, deep and burning. At another time in his life, he might have been afraid, but the past year has taught him what it feels like to slowly rip apart from the inside out, light illuminating dark in agonising tendrils. This, by comparison, is straightforward.

He could do without the seatbelt digging into one of the biggest welts, though.

Shen Wei opens his eyes.

The world is blurry, out of focus, even when he tilts his head slightly to look to the side, gaze instinctively searching for Zhao Yunlan.

“Shen Wei?”

The car breaks to a stop, digging the seatbelt further into abraded skin, and Shen Wei swallows a moan. The taste of iron and copper rolls down his throat.

“Shen Wei!”

Zhao Yunlan’s voice is urgent. Even with most of his higher brain functions scattered to the four winds, Shen Wei can hear the fear that his blurry eyes can’t see. Hands are patting at his arm, his leg, anything Zhao Yunlan can reach.

He blinks. Speaking would require effort he doesn’t wish to spare, but nothing else will reassure Zhao Yunlan.

“Ov..er,” he whispers, voice grating out over bloodied gravel, “ex…te…nded. Will… fine.”

The blurriness is getting worse, so he closes his eyes again. If he can’t see Zhao Yunlan’s face, the rest of the world isn’t worth straining for.

The rim of a water bottle hits his lips. He does his best to swallow a few mouthfuls. They do little to quench the pain, but the dizziness lightens infinitesimally.

“All right,” he hears Zhao Yunlan say, “all right, rest. We’re getting you home.”

Shen Wei’s mind fades back into static.

*

He’s distantly aware of the quiet sounds of Zhao Yunlan talking to Li Ye and Li Hanrui, followed by the thudding sound of doors falling shut, but Shen Wei doesn’t rouse enough to open his eyes until the noise of the engine cuts off. In the sudden silence, the pounding in his head seems even louder.

“Xiao Wei?”

Zhao Yunlan’s fingers brush his forehead, surprisingly cool. He’s usually so warm.

Shen Wei manages a hum.

“We’re home,” Zhao Yunlan says, voice hushed. His hand is now lingering on Shen Wei’s arm. “But we still need to get upstairs. Do you think you can manage or should I call someone to help?”

Shen Wei makes a protesting noise, hand sliding down to finally free himself of the entrapping seatbelt. Bad enough that Zhao Yunlan keeps seeing him so… discomposed. Weak. He knows, as clearly as he knows his own gifted name, that Zhao Yunlan doesn’t judge him for it, but old habits die hard, if they ever do, and Shen Wei’s habits are older than most.

Zhao Yunlan sighs quietly, but doesn’t argue. He knows Shen Wei well enough by now to realise that it wouldn’t get him anywhere. Instead, he slides back out of the driver’s seat. Shen Wei blinks after him, taking far too long to understand why Zhao Yunlan is leaving.

The passenger side door opens, bringing with it a rush of fresh air. Combined with Zhao Yunlan’s watchful look, it clears his head enough to start moving his legs.

He tries not to think about the fact that he would’ve ended up face-first on the pavement if Zhao Yunlan hadn’t been there to catch him, propping Shen Wei up with more strength than he used to have. Maybe Shen Wei’s attempts at getting him to eat healthily and take care of himself more are paying off.

“Just a few more steps,” Zhao Yunlan says, the sound of his voice reaching Shen Wei’s ears as if through water.

It’s sheer stubbornness – and unwillingness to make Zhao Yunlan attempt to carry him up the stairs – that has Shen Wei putting one foot in front of the other even as he wavers unsteadily, Zhao Yunlan’s firm grip around his shoulder all that’s really keeping him upright.

He has never before wished so fervently that they lived on the ground floor; or had taken the time to move out of Zhao Yunlan’s small apartment into a house, like Zhao Yunlan keeps mentioning off-hand. By the second flight of stairs he tastes blood again, his instinctive reaching for the dark energy that usually bolsters him thickening it. Between having depleted his energy earlier and the hold the Treaty still has on him, only the fact that he’s too weak to truly grasp for it saves him from worse backlash.

“Almost there, almost there,” Zhao Yunlan keeps encouraging, strain clearly audible even to Shen Wei’s distorted senses.

They shuffle along, Shen Wei distantly glad that none of their neighbours are around to witness his state, until finally their door swims into view.

Zhao Yunlan manoeuvres it open without once letting go of Shen Wei, and finally the familiar atmosphere of their shared apartment soaks into his senses, a sudden balm.

When Zhao Yunlan makes to steer them towards the bed, Shen Wei croaks, “Bathroom, please.”

Zhao Yunlan makes a protesting noise, eyebrows drawing together, but when Shen Wei pointedly raises a shaky hand to pluck at his blood-encrusted shirt, he gives in.

“Will you at least let me help?” he asks, voice tight as Shen Wei sits down on the closed toilet lid rather heavier than intended, the world buzzing around him.

If Zhao Yunlan stayed, he would see the welts the Guardian Treaty has burned into his torso. He’ll have questions and more worry, and Shen Wei doesn’t currently feel capable of dealing with either.

He looks up, doing his best to project a steadiness he doesn’t feel. “Could you… make tea? And please, eat something.”

Zhao Yunlan almost growls. “It’s not me who needs – ” He breaks off, meeting Shen Wei’s best attempt at an unwavering gaze. “Fine. Fine. I’ll make you tea. But don’t take too long or I will assume you’ve hit your head in the shower and come rescue you.”

Shen Wei nods solemnly, ignoring the way the motion makes the world spin even worse.

Zhao Yunlan stomps out, but the door closes gently behind him. Knowing that Zhao Yunlan is entirely serious in his threat, Shen Wei makes himself move, slowly pulling the stiff long-sleeved shirt over his head. The marks across his torso protest, but there’s little he can do about that now. At least the shirt has no buttons, seeing as he dressed for hiking.

The rest of his clothes follow, each item slower than the last, and he hates how heavy he’s breathing by the end of it.

Much as he’d like to linger under the hot water once he’s managed to actually get into the shower cubicle, he merely does his best to clean blood from his skin and hair, ignoring the stinging of water on welts that he already knows will make lying down unpleasant at best.

He can’t heal the marks while his energy is so low and restricted besides – which is, of course, rather the point of the punishment.

Stepping out of the shower ends with him clutching at the edge of the cubicle, but he doesn’t actually fall, so he counts it as a win. The medicine cabinet yields a mostly odourless cooling salve that he awkwardly slathers over the welts he can reach – while the marks seem to burn on his skin, radiating into his flesh, they don’t act like burns, so at least he has little qualms putting on clothing over them without a bandage.

Shen Wei likes to shower at the end of the day, so he keeps a spare set of pyjamas in the cupboard next to the toilet. He has only just managed to pull on the pyjama bottoms, leaning against the wall for steadiness, when the door bangs open. To Zhao Yunlan’s credit, he is carrying a cup of tea in one hand, gently steaming.

“All right?” he asks, eyes flitting over Shen Wei’s form as if to assess whether he managed to do himself any damage while alone in the bathroom.

Shen Wei nods and doesn’t protest when Zhao Yunlan’s free arm comes out to support him over to the bed. He knows that if their roles were reversed, helping would make him feel better, too.

He can also feel his last vestiges of physical energy draining at an alarming rate and consequently sits down hard on the bed as soon as it’s in reach.

Zhao Yunlan’s silence has taken on a rather grim cast, lips twisted unhappily. Shen Wei would quite like to reassure him, but once again his body fails him, tilting backward into the pillow before he can convince his mouth to open. The welts on his back throb angrily, but he finds he’s too tired to care much about it.

The blanket is arranged around him, light touches travelling over his arms and brushing his hair out of his face.

“Sleep, Shen Wei.”

Just before he drops off, he thinks he hears Zhao Yunlan add, in a quiet whisper that pierces his heart, “I need you to be well.”

*

Shen Wei wakes again to deadened limbs, a fuzzy head, and Zhao Yunlan’s quietly urgent voice.

“ – been sleeping for ages now and he looks like he’s half dead, what am I supposed to do here – ”

It takes a moment for Shen Wei to realise that Zhao Yunlan is talking on the phone – presumably to Da Qing, given the content – and not to him. The worry cloying every word makes his chest grow tight, and he instinctively reaches for his dark energy to ease some of the hurt still lingering in his nerves. Overnight, his store of energy has replenished enough that he can feel it comfortably above the nearly drained risk level he’d driven it to the day before, but as soon as he reaches for it the welts across his torso flare up, the Guardian Treaty tightening its grip on him once more. With a quiet gasp he lets it go, eyes squeezed shut through the rush of dizziness. Of course. How had he forgotten? The Treaty would continue its punishment for his overstep for as long as laid out in the original text. It’s a safeguard for Haixing; should Dixing’s ambassador turn against them, they would have some time to overpower them while the treaty binds their power. Sensible enough, from their point of view, though in retrospect a clause for legitimate emergencies might have been a good idea. What had it said – two days for every second he pushed past the limit? He doesn’t think it had been longer than five seconds, perhaps significantly less, but his sense of time had already been… impaired when he reached for his portalling power.

“No, no, you don’t need to come by, just keep the SID running while I’m out, yeah?” Zhao Yunlan steps out from behind the kitchen isle, eyes widening as he catches sight of Shen Wei sitting up in the bed. “Gotta go. Don’t call me unless the place is on fire.”

Zhao Yunlan stuffs the phone into his back pocket and crosses the space between them in two big strides.

“Shen Wei,” he breathes, eyes flitting over Shen Wei’s face. “How are you feeling?”

Shen Wei opens his mouth to say ‘I’m fine’, looks at the set of Zhao Yunlan’s mouth, and thinks better of it.

“Tired,” he admits. He fights down the urge to reach for his dark energy again, amply reminded of the consequences. The question would come up sooner or later, so he adds, “I shouldn’t use my dark energy for a while.”

Zhao Yunlan reaches out, hand wrapping warmly around Shen Wei’s. The concern in his eyes is almost unbearable. “Did you drain yourself?”

Shen Wei nods. It’s the truth, even, though a simple draining would be taken care of in a day or two, now that Zhao Yunlan’s light energy is no longer poisoning his energy structure.

As for the rest of it – he knows Zhao Yunlan would want to be made aware, but…

There’s nothing he can do about Shen Wei’s current problem, and Shen Wei is loath to worry Zhao Yunlan even more than he already is. Or (worse) perhaps Zhao Yunlan would think there’s something he can do, and it would probably involve storming the Xingdu Bureau and demanding to set the Guardian Treaty on fire, and Shen Wei is tired. Tired of fighting with Dixing and Haixing both. This aspect of the Treaty implicates no one but himself and in all his years as Heipaoshi he has never before been even close to reaching past its bounds.

No one needs to be saved from it.

Zhao Yunlan, he suspects, wouldn’t see it that way, his bafflingly generous nature having somehow extended to Shen Wei almost since the day they met.

Shen Wei has no intention of keeping the secret forever, but for now, while his head pounds in time with his heart and he couldn’t fight a mouse, let alone the Haixing Government on Zhao Yunlan’s behalf, it’s safer to deflect.

It dawns on him that he’s been silent for too long when Zhao Yunlan makes a noise, palm coming up to feel Shen Wei’s forehead as he scoots closer on the bed.

Recalling what the question had been, Shen Wei summons up a smile. “Yes, my reserves are low. I have previously found that drastically limiting my use while I recover works best.”

Zhao Yunlan nods with slightly perturbing force. “We’ll just have to make sure you can relax. No envoying and no dealing with university issues, Professor ‘my students constantly need my time' Shen.”

Perhaps he has been on campus a lot the last couple of weeks, but his students do need his time; that’s why they’re at university – to learn (and some, he thinks in his less charitable moments, do appear to be incapable of thinking on their own when they first arrive in his class).

It suddenly occurs to him that he has a lecture on Wednesdays and he doesn’t even know whether it’s still Tuesday.

“What day is it?” he asks, earning himself a frown.

“Wednesday, just past lunchtime.”

Shen Wei jerks forward, only to find himself arrested by an arm across his chest. “Don’t even think about it,” Zhao Yunlan growls. “I already called you in sick for today and tomorrow, and given that you still look like a strong breeze will flatten you, we’re having a pyjamas day.”

Shen Wei blinks at him. “… Pyjamas day?”

“Something my mother used to do when I was sick as a kid,” Zhao Yunlan says, small smile lighting up his face. “We’d both stay in our pyjamas all day, laze around, watch movies, maybe build a blanket fort.”

“That sounds… nice?” Shen Wei says tentatively. He doesn’t quite have the necessary reference to imagine what it would be like, but he’s certain Zhao Yunlan sounds wistful.

“It was. Always made me feel better.” Wistfulness recedes as Zhao Yunlan grins. “I faked being sick a couple of times just so we could have a pyjamas day.”

“Didn’t she realise?”

Zhao Yunlan shrugs. “Probably. But I think she knew that if I went so far as to fake being sick to get a day with her, I really needed it.”

“Ah, so it doubled as a diagnostic system.” Shen Wei nods. It’s clever, really.

Zhao Yunlan laughs a little. “I don’t think she thought in those terms, Professor Shen.” He slaps a hand on his thigh. “It’s decided then. I’ll get back into pyjamas and you won’t get out of yours and we’ll have the quietest day we can manage.”

Guilt pricks. “But my lecture – ”

“Your TA is perfectly capable of giving a lecture in your stead. Especially since I know for a fact that you left copies of all your lecture notes with the department after you ended up missing a few days last year.”

Shen Wei closes his eyes, only partly because his head is spinning again. “I have been missing too much class.”

Zhao Yunlan sighs, grip tightening on Shen Wei’s hand. “You literally saved the world, Xiao Wei. Cut yourself some slack, huh?”

Shen Wei knows he isn’t going to win this argument, not when peeking out from mostly closed lids shows Zhao Yunlan’s brow furrowed seriously, his jaw set in stubborn lines. He doesn’t know why he’s even arguing about it in the first place – much as he hates it, it is quite evident that he isn’t in a condition to go teach today.

He doesn’t slump obviously, but Zhao Yunlan seems to read his acquiescence anyway, for he makes a satisfied noise and rises from the bed.

“I’ll make you some tea, and you can decide what you want to eat for breakfast, if you’re up for it.”

Shen Wei’s stomach jolts at the mere mention of food, nausea threatening. Thankfully, Zhao Yunlan has already turned toward the kitchen and doesn’t see the way he blanches. Even so, he briefly considers attempting to get up while Zhao Yunlan is distracted – lying around in bed all day seems slothful however he looks at it – but in the end decides he doesn’t want to push it, both for his own dignity’s sake and because Zhao Yunlan will likely be more inclined to let him do things later if Shen Wei isn’t obstreperous now.

Soon, the smell of fresh ginger permeates the air.

But instead of bringing Shen Wei a cup immediately, Zhao Yunlan starts rummaging in the small storage closet by the door, eventually emerging triumphant with a noise of satisfaction Shen Wei usually only gets to hear when Zhao Yunlan has figured out the crucial clue to solve a case.

Shen Wei eyes the broom in Zhao Yunlan’s hand with some confusion. He’s pretty sure he isn’t hallucinating, but it’s not an implement Zhao Yunlan ever touches, as far as he’s aware. Then again, sweeping doesn’t involve wedging the broom in between the bed and the window sill so that the handle sticks out over the bed. Then Zhao Yunlan digs out a clean sheet – proving once and for all that he does know where those are kept – and starts a complicated dance that involves fastening a fold of the sheet to the cat swing with clothes-pegs, draping it over the broom handle, stuffing excess sheet behind the metal headboard and finally letting the rest fall down the side of the bed until Shen Wei is encased in a light blue tent.

He blinks up at the cloth, trying to discern a purpose to this contraption.

The overlapping folds looking out to the rest of the room part to let Zhao Yunlan squeeze through, tray with Shen Wei’s tea and some slices of oranges and biscuits balanced in one hand and the other clutching a tangled ball of fairy lights that are already giving off a soft, warm glow.

“One cup of tea, with a side helping of cosy blanket fort,” Zhao Yunlan says, grinning, and deposits the tray on Shen Wei’s blanket-covered lap so he can arrange the fairy lights at the bottom of the mattress.

The result is somewhat haphazard, and charming with it.

“This ‘fort’ isn’t made from blankets,” Shen Wei points out dryly. Structurally it makes sense of course – blankets are far heavier than a single sheet and would require more sturdy means of keeping them aloft. Also more lighting.

Zhao Yunlan shrugs, then crawls up the bed to rest next to Shen Wei in a manner that might have roused desire if Shen Wei’s body didn’t still feel like it had been put through the wringer.

“Eh, go with it. Improvisation is a time-honoured tradition when it comes to blanket forts.”

Shen Wei takes a sip of the ginger tea, hiding his smile. “I’ll take your word for it.”

As he lowers the cup again, a tremor goes through his arm, liquid almost sloshing over the rim. He sets it down with more force than intended, fingers cramping around the ceramic.

Zhao Yunlan’s sharp eyes hadn’t missed the uncharacteristic motion. “Shen Wei?” he asks, worry already back in his voice after the brief playfulness brought forth by the blanket fort.

Shen Wei breathes out slowly through his nose. Closes his eyes.

“It’s fine,” he says, because he has already learned that saying “I’m fine” when one is clearly not only enrages Zhao Yunlan.

“It’s not fine!” Zhao Yunlan snaps, but when Shen Wei reaches out a hand that still trembles faintly, he takes it immediately, cradling Shen Wei’s palm like something precious.

Shen Wei doesn’t say anything, and for the next while neither does Zhao Yunlan. Their fingers lock together around the cup, moving together to lift it to Shen Wei’s mouth again and again until the last of the tea is gone. Though he feels a little guilty for Zhao Yunlan’s effort, he doesn’t make a try at the oranges and biscuits.

He doesn’t consciously remember falling asleep again, exhaustion too graven into his bones to register an increase.

*

Shen Wei’s bladder wakes him. He stays prone for a few moments longer, trying not to think about how this is another function of his body dark energy normally allows him control over. He usually does well enough at avoiding self-pity, but full bladders at inopportune times are certainly something he can do without.

The fairy lights are still glowing gently at the bottom of the bed, but the rest of the room is shadowed by the natural darkness of night.  In their light, Zhao Yunlan’s slack face is cast into sharp contours and Shen Wei’s fingers itch to reach out and smooth across the raised cheekbone. But there are dark circles under Zhao Yunlan’s eyes, smudged by worry and – no doubt – too little rest while Shen Wei has been incapacitated.

Quietly, he pushes out of the blanket tent, pausing only to make sure his movement hasn’t woken Zhao Yunlan. As soon as he straightens to his full height, dizziness sends the room spinning. Beneath him, the floor moves like a flag in a gale. Biting back sudden nausea, Shen Wei takes two weaving steps until he can lean against the wall next to the bathroom door to steady himself.

His teeth grit, sending a jolt of pressure through his jaw.

Straightforward pain he can deal with, work through. This unsteadiness? Robbing him of every ounce of strength, laying him low like no enemy blow ever has? He hates it.

When he reaches out for the door handle, it takes him two tries to actually grasp it. If he were attacked while he’s like this, his defence would be woeful.

He carefully sits on the toilet, for much longer than emptying his bladder calls for, breathing in the quiet darkness. His elbows dig into the flesh just above his knees as he kneads his temples, but without the aid of dark energy, the heavy dizziness in his head refuses to fade.

The Treaty is nothing if not effective in its punishment.

It takes a long time to return to the bed, attempting to keep unsteady movements quiet, but he is rewarded by the sight of Zhao Yunlan still deeply asleep, stirring only faintly when Shen Wei crawls back into the bed, close enough that their arms brush.

Shen Wei keeps track of Zhao Yunlan’s breathing through the rustling of the blanket and sheets as he settles himself, ignoring the way renewed pressure makes pain flare through the welts on his torso. His current state may be hateful, but there is no regret in his mind or heart. If he had not defied the Treaty, then Zhao Yunlan would be dead – and Zhao Yunlan’s life is worth any amount of pain and discomfort.

*

The next time Shen Wei wakes, the sheet has disappeared from over the bed and Zhao Yunlan is humming quietly to himself in the kitchen. He feels almost normal. Lines of dull pain across his chest and back, easy enough to ignore. Some nausea still settled in his gut. Pressure in his head, that might flare into more once he moves. Not perfect, but an improvement. At this rate, he should be able to go back to work at the university on Monday.

He eases upright carefully, blanket pooling in his lap, and swipes at the strands of hair falling into his face. Moderately slow movement also seems acceptable at this stage.

Shen Wei makes it all the way upright and two still slightly wobbly steps away from the bed before Zhao Yunlan turns and catches sight of him.

“Shen Wei! You’re awake again!” In his enthusiasm, Zhao Yunlan spins around, the long spoon with which he’d been stirring the contents of a pot on the stove splattering soup all over the counter.

“Oops,” Zhao Yunlan says, and then has to lunge forward to catch Shen Wei, who had made the mistake of trying to jump for the counter to stop any more soup spillage. Through the ensuing dizzy spell, all Shen Wei can concentrate on is Zhao Yunlan’s arm cradling his upper body, the grunt of exertion being blown out near his ear, the warmth of Zhao Yunlan’s chest. Also, the wet smack of the spoon hitting the floor, but he’s too disoriented to worry about that further.

“Easy there,” Zhao Yunlan murmurs, voice a little strained. “That was too much already, huh?”

Shen Wei forces his throat to move. “It appears so.”

His head is steadying again, allowing him to take more of his own weight. Zhao Yunlan helps by shuffling them towards the kitchen island, until Shen Wei can prop himself up on the counter edge. He doesn’t, however, remove his hands from Shen Wei’s body entirely, not that Shen Wei is complaining.

“Good thing I’m not planning to spill any more soup over your nice kitchen,” Zhao Yunlan says, voice full of brittle humour. “And before you worry more, I just used one of the soups in the freezer, I didn’t try to cook.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Shen Wei returns – truthfully, since it hadn’t occurred to him yet to be worried about the composition of the soup, though it possibly should have.

Zhao Yunlan gives him a Look that says quite clearly that he’s aware of the direction of Shen Wei’s thoughts, which Shen Wei counters with an innocent look as he’s being ushered into a seat.

“It’s done anyway, just let me get you a bowl.”

Shen Wei opens his mouth.

“And yes, I’ll get myself a bowl too.”

Shen Wei closes his mouth, refusing to feel embarrassed about being so transparent when it comes to Zhao Yunlan’s welfare.

His head has settled enough that the thought of food doesn’t cause immediate nausea, so he carefully starts to eat when Zhao Yunlan sets a gently-steaming bowl in front of him.

“Everything is quiet at the SID?” Shen Wei asks in between spoonfuls – apparently not subtly enough, for Zhao Yunlan sighs, for all that it’s a fond sound.

“Yes, everything is quiet, no, I don’t need to be at work.” Zhao Yunlan’s lips twitch. “All I’m doing today is attempt to make you eat your own cooking so you don’t end up even thinner than you already are.”

Shen Wei doesn’t quite manage a glare, but he comes close. “Of the two of us, only one person desperately needs to put on some weight to avoid comparisons with beanpoles.”

Zhao Yunlan dramatically rears back, clutching at his chest. “Such wounding words from my baobei! Well, it’s a good thing then that my long-suffering partner has decided to make it his life’s mission to stuff me full of his delicious cooking.”

“I did think you seemed a little stronger than you used to be when you helped me up the stairs,” Shen Wei says, blandly innocent, and then it’s his lips’ turn to twitch at Zhao Yunlan’s shocked expression that quickly morphs into suspicion.

“Are you complimenting me or dissing past me?”

Shen Wei takes a sip of tea, in exactly the manner Professor Zhou had once taught him to insult through politeness when stuck in a tedious engagement. His mentor had called it ‘insouciant’.

Zhao Yunlan makes an inarticulate noise and taps Shen Wei’s bowl pointedly. “Less cheek, more eating.”

Shen Wei smiles down at the soup. His stomach still feels uneasy, but Zhao Yunlan isn’t wrong about the need for sustenance. The soup is light – originally intended for times when Zhao Yunlan’s stomach bothers him – and goes down his throat easily.

Zhao Yunlan watches him eat another two spoonfuls before he speaks again.

“You really don’t need to worry. Your stunt on the mountain has made the rounds – from what Lao Chu says, Dixingren in the city are talking of little else. The day Heipaoshi stopped a mountain from falling.”

Shen Wei covers his wince, stomach drawing tight. He sets the spoon down in the bowl with a little splash. “Then you must be extra vigilant. If it is known that I have exhausted myself – ”

Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan interrupts, “they are grateful. You saved two people’s lives. Four, if you count us in the bargain.”

When Shen Wei doesn’t say anything in reply, Zhao Yunlan frowns. “Is it so hard to believe that not all your people hate you?”

Unease prickles down Shen Wei’s back. He knows he has tensed up, instinctive battle-readiness invading their quiet morning. His head throbs in protest and he takes a deep breath to relax his muscles again. “Hate? No. But most do fear me, and for good reason. Respect of me and my position was necessary to do my duty – but respect is hard to foster without fear when one is powerful and no personal exchanges take place.”

“Shen Wei…” Zhao Yunlan’s eyes are darkly solemn, and when he reaches out to lay a hand on Shen Wei’s arm its heat immediately leaches into cold skin. “I don’t think that’s quite true. Outside of Ye Zun’s manipulations, what I’ve seen is gratitude and admiration more than anything else. Sure, there’s some fear, too, but people fear all sorts of things they don’t quite understand. That’s not on you.”

Sometimes Zhao Yunlan’s mere existence is enough to make him dizzy – and then sometimes he opens his mouth and attempts to tilt the entire axis of the world while Shen Wei desperately tries to keep his footing.

It’s wondrous and warming, even if it’s also a little bit infuriating, and also hard enough to deal with when he isn’t already physically reeling.

Shen Wei drops his eyes and takes another bite of soup.

*

Much of the weekend passes like this; quiet in a way Shen Wei would cherish if he weren’t feeling quite so beleaguered by the existence of his body. Zhao Yunlan makes no move to return to the SID, instead steadfastly remaining by Shen Wei’s side amid constant attempts to make Shen Wei ‘more comfortable’, often featuring blankets and tea.

Shen Wei, for his part, feels off-balance enough that he lets himself be bullied into doing very little over the two days, spending a lot of time ensconced on the couch with Zhao Yunlan reading to him – since his own eyes refuse to focus distressingly often and Zhao Yunlan cottoned on to that fact early on – or telling him little anecdotes about anything and everything.

In return, he bullies Zhao Yunlan into at least letting him cook through sheer refusal to accept a different answer, so they can stop subsisting entirely on leftovers.

It’s both easy and hard to let Zhao Yunlan take care of him. Easy, because it’s Zhao Yunlan, whom Shen Wei has always trusted – will trust even with his weakness for all that he wishes it weren’t so evident – and always wanted near. Hard, because he simply isn’t used to it; for so much of his life, Shen Wei had been on his own, relying on no one but himself as any sign of vulnerability could have had catastrophic consequences. It takes even Zhao Yunlan time to unravel the tightly-bound strings of Shen Wei’s self-sufficiency with gentle hands.

Nonetheless, Shen Wei is very much looking forward to the return of all his faculties. He may be safe with Zhao Yunlan, but Dragon City is another matter.

On Monday morning, Shen Wei announces that he’s going to campus and Zhao Yunlan’s mouth flattens unhappily.

For several long heartbeats, he doesn’t say anything. Watches Shen Wei with narrowed eyes, as if trying to discern the truth of his health through sheer visual intensity.

“You’re sure you’re improving?” he finally asks, crossing his arms in front of his chest,

“Yes,” Shen Wei says, entirely honestly. Soon, the entire point will be moot anyway, but he does also feel a little better every day. Movement still occasions bouts of dizziness, but his normal workday at the university doesn’t necessitate much moving around, so he doesn’t expect it to be an insurmountable problem.

Zhao Yunlan doesn’t look like he quite believes him, but only clenches his jaw and doesn’t argue.

“I’ll drive you,” he eventually says – a condition Shen Wei is happy to acquiesce to.

*

Two hours into the workday, it has already become evident that making it through to the afternoon will be more of an effort than Shen Wei had anticipated. Several students have noticed the way he moves a little slower, more careful, if the worried whispers that reach his ears are any indication. It would probably be around campus by noon that Professor Shen still isn’t feeling entirely well. Aggravating, but there’s little anyone can do about the speed of gossip at any given university.

His day isn’t improved by returning to his office after the seminar and finding it already occupied. For once, he allows himself to be rude, pushing past the familiar figure to sit in his chair before uttering a greeting.

Having Zhao Xinci in his office would be trying on the best of days. On a day where any quick movement is still liable to make him dizzy amid concerning instances of double vision, it’s downright aggravating – especially when there’re only two reasons why the Director General of Xingdu Bureau might seek him out, despite detesting Shen Wei’s very existence. The timing makes it pretty clear this conversation isn't going to be about Zhao Yunlan, so Shen Wei isn't surprised when Zhao Xinci opens with this:

“You overreached your mandate, Heipaoshi.” There’s a dangerous glint in the man’s eyes, the iron will behind his placidly unmoved expression at work. “The Guardian Treaty document recorded it.”

Shen Wei keeps his breath even, his stare direct. Doesn’t clench his fingers where they’re anchored on the desk to help his body stay still. “If I hadn’t, your son would be dead. Two innocent Dixingren would be, too.”

Something tight spasms across Zhao Xinci’s face at the mention of Zhao Yunlan. “So that’s enough to let you get away with it? If the integrity of the Treaty is at risk, the consequences could be beyond both of us.”

Shen Wei raises a brow, ignoring the stab of pain behind his temples. “It isn’t. The Treaty already enacted the agreed punishment. As long as Zhao Yunlan doesn’t find out, the Treaty will hold.”

“As long as Zhao Yunlan doesn’t find out,” Zhao Xinci echoes. The question buried underneath his acerbic tone is clear.

“Zhao Yunlan is steadfast in his beliefs,” Shen Wei says, matter of fact. He has no need to be smug about his knowledge of Zhao Yunlan in front of the man who consistently demonstrates that if he knows his son at all, he doesn’t care enough to use that knowledge with kindness. “One of his beliefs includes that I should not be hurt, by anything. If he learns of that clause of the Treaty, I cannot imagine he will react favourably. Especially since this recent disaster has shown that it’s not fit for purpose in all things.”

Zhao Xinci scoffs. “Not fit for purpose? The purpose is to make sure a lone Dixingren can’t decide to influence the course of a whole people because no one can stop you.”

“At the expense of letting innocents die in a natural disaster like this one?” Shen Wei fires back, voice still calm but eyes flashing.

“Yunlan wouldn’t even have been there if he hadn’t taken up with you!” Zhao Xinci returns, words torn out of him in a way that would garner sympathy from Shen Wei under other circumstances.

“His choice.” Shen Wei catches Zhao Xinci’s gaze, holds it. Ignores the way sweat is threatening to bead at his hairline. He can’t afford to show weakness in front of Zhao Xinci. “I do my best to keep him safe, but Zhao Yunlan will do as he wills. As it should be.”

Tension crackles between them for another moment before Zhao Xinci’s shoulders slump ever so slightly.

“That boy certainly has always done as he pleases.” It’s a concession without quite being one. Very Zhao Xinci. So is the follow-up: “See that you don’t breach your limits again. Xingdu Bureau won’t overlook it a second time.”

Shen Wei smiles, tightly polite, but doesn’t reply, only watches as Zhao Xinci takes his leave with precisely controlled movements and a face that’s smoothed of all expression again. They both know that if Shen Wei broke the Treaty again, there would be little Zhao Xinci could do to him, politically speaking. The Treaty regulation of him is near personal in its privacy; it’s a completely different kind of proposal to risk another conflict with Dixing over the censure or even detainment of its ambassador.

*

The next day, he makes it through his morning lecture without visibly showing strain, but isn’t stubborn enough to keep to the meeting with one of his fellow professors he had arranged some time ago, instead calling her with his apologies and rescheduling for next week. At least it’s early in the term still, so he’s unlikely to have any students knocking on his door with questions about assignments, grading, or bits of reading they’d failed to understand.

Yet, a knock does come.

Cheng Xinyan isn’t the last person Shen Wei would’ve expected to politely but implacably barge into his office, but she very much isn’t at the top of the list either. She has never previously met him here, for a start.

“Shen Wei,” she greets, gaze assessing. “Hard at work as always?”

Suspicion as to the reason for her visit crystalises.

“I’m merely reviewing a colleague’s book draft,” he says mildly, putting the manuscript aside. When he reaches for the cup, he realises with an internal sigh that his tea has gone cold while he had been engrossed. Cheng Xinyan watches him do it with an amused glint in her eye – some things, a decade doesn’t change.

After a moment’s consideration, he decides to just be blunt. “Did Yunlan send you?”

“He did drop by,” Cheng Xinyan admits easily. She sits neatly in her chair, a doctor’s manners ingrained. “He’s worried about you and, given my particular expertise, he came to me. By the looks of you, he isn’t wrong to be concerned either.”

“Your particular expertise,” Shen Wei repeats dryly. Among Haixingren, her expertise might, in fact, be unique – not because she knows much about treating Dixingren, but primarily because she officially knows Dixingren exist. And she’s one of the few Haixingren who now know who Shen Wei really is.

“Don’t distract from the question,” she says sternly, but the amused glimmer is back in her eyes.

He raises an eyebrow. “You haven’t yet posed one.”

“All right then. “She leans forward. “What is wrong with your health?”

Shen Wei considers the question. Sitting down, the majority of the symptoms don’t impact, but he dreads standing up and finding himself too dizzy to keep his balance again.

“Aftereffects of overusing my powers five days ago,” he says, catching her gaze. “I’m already through the worst of it and expect to be completely recovered by the end of the week.” He smiles. “I have told Yunlan as much.”

Cheng Xinyan snorts. “I can’t imagine why he’s still worried. It’s not like you’ve never once admitted to being sick in the entire time I’ve known you.”

“That’s because I don’t get sick, as a rule. Very few viruses have evolved to survive in a dark energy-rich environment."

Interest lights her eyes “Are the ones you have proportionally more devastating?”

Shen Wei smiles. Cheng Xinyan’s quick mind had been one of the things that drew them together when at university. “Many of them are, yes, though we do have a few benign sicknesses as well. Thankfully, those which are dangerous are also rare, and can in most cases be combatted with enough power. Otherwise, the Dixingren population would have been decimated long ago.”

Cheng Xinyan hums thoughtfully, no doubt filing away these new insights among her growing understanding of Dixingren health issues. She taps her fingers on her knee.

“What I’m hearing in this, Shen Wei, is that you’re immune to almost anything, but if you do have health troubles it’s likely to be disastrous. If Zhao Yunlan has figured that out, too, then it’s really no wonder that he’s worried.”

Shen Wei is pretty certain Zhao Yunlan would worry either way, just like Shen Wei worries about Zhao Yunlan as easily and reflexively as breathing, but telling him about the Treaty’s effects on Shen Wei really won’t assuage that worry. The opposite, in fact, is more likely.

When his silence draws out, Cheng Xinyan sighs. “I’m not going to get into the middle of this, and I believe you when you say this is temporary, but I would recommend you talk to him again.” Then she smiles. “I know how stubborn you are about keeping your secrets, Shen Wei.”

“Ever one of my faults,” Shen Wei agrees solemnly, and delights in the way she laughs in response.

*

He comes home to find Zhao Yunlan pacing between the sofa and the kitchen. If Cheng Xinyan had talked to him, it clearly hadn’t assuaged his worries.

“Zhao Yunlan?” Shen Wei asks, concern rising. There’s a barely leashed anxiety in Zhao Yunlan’s movements, like a wild animal trapped between four walls and failing to find a way out.

Zhao Yunlan’s eyes glisten when he turns to look at Shen Wei. “Just tell me,” he says, quietly intense in a way that has Shen Wei freezing in place, “that you aren’t dying again. Shen Wei, tell me that, because I couldn’t bear it a second time.”

Horror curdles in Shen Wei’s veins. Had he been this inattentive to Zhao Yunlan’s mood? Worry, yes, certainly, but Shen Wei hadn’t seen this deep-seated fear; had neglected the scars from the last time he lied to Zhao Yunlan about his health.

“Zhao Yunlan,” he whispers through the constriction in his throat, urgency pushing the syllables forward.  “I’m not dying, I promise you. I’m already improving, I will be well again in a handful of days. My dark energy is fine.”

“But you haven’t used it!” Zhao Yunlan bursts out, still sounding so afraid despite the desperate gleam of hope now lighting his eyes. “Not at all, not once since the mountain and I paid a lot of attention. You haven’ taken your shirt off around me, either, or even just rolled up the sleeves. What was I supposed to think?”

Shen Wei winces. Put like this, it seems obvious why Zhao Yunlan’ might’ve thought… but it simply hadn’t occurred to him. Those wounds are greater in Zhao Yunlan’s psyche than his own, and he’s been unforgivably distracted by his current circumstances. He hadn’t wanted to burden Zhao Yunlan with the knowledge of what the Treaty is capable of doing to Shen Wei, but it's becoming abundantly clear that while Zhao Yunlan trusts him, only the absolute truth will truly set his mind at ease. And if that’s the case, then Shen Wei will give him the explanation, political fall-out be damned.

“There are limits to what I can do in Haixing, set out by the Treaty,” he says quietly. “To maintain both the shield and the portal I had to exceed them. My current state is the resultant punishment.”

“Punishment,” Zhao Yunlan repeats flatly. His eyes are blazing, every muscle tense. But he doesn’t shy away when Shen Wei reaches out, allows Shen Wei to rub soothing strokes into his skin. “What exactly does that entail?”

Shen Wei’s hands don’t pause. “The goal is to incapacitate me – dizziness, issues with depth perception, tremors. I am unable to access my dark energy without worsening the effects for the duration.”

“Is there more?” Zhao Yunlan asks, eyes hard.

Shen Wei sighs. “Some marks on my torso; a physical representation of the Treaty’s hold on me, if you will.”

Zhao Yunlan reaches out with steady fingers, a counterpoint to the twisting expression on his face. Shen Wei holds perfectly still, lets Zhao Yunlan slide button after button out of their holes until his shirt gapes open, all the damage laid bare.

Zhao Yunlan’s sharp intake of breath is loud in the silent air. His gaze is fixed on the largest welt, neatly bisecting Shen Wei’s chest. There’s rage there, a fury Shen Wei has seen before when Zhao Yunlan had found him injured – in this, they’ve always been matched.

“These don’t look healed at all,” Zhao Yunlan says quietly, fingers carefully smoothing around the edges of the welt along unblemished skin.

Keeping himself still is a little harder when his skin pebbles under Zhao Yunlan’s feather-light touch, the urge to lean into it ever-present. “They won’t heal until the Treaty releases its hold on me.”

Even with Zhao Yunlan’s eyes lowered to Shen Wei’s chest-height, he can see them flash. “And when will that be?”

“I’m… not entirely certain,” Shen Wei says, forging on before the outraged expression on Zhao Yunlan’s face can morph into words, “Two days for every second that I reach past the limits imposed on my power. I do not believe I did so for more than five seconds.”

Zhao Yunlan stares at him for a long moment, expression pinched. It’s as if he’s searching for something, some reaction, that Shen Wei isn’t giving him. Finally he says, “And you’ll recover fully at the end of that period?”

“As I understand it, yes.” Shen Wei’s smile is, perhaps, a little lop-sided. “In all the years I have been awake in modern Haixing, I have never before breached the limit, so I lack personal experience in this. However, the measure is intended to give Xingdu Bureau time to answer any perceived threat against them, not incapacitate the Dixing Ambassador forever.”

Zhao Yunlan’s lips twist into something ugly. His hands flex. “You’re saying this is a safety measure? Against you specifically?”

When Shen Wei nods, Zhao Yunlan hisses out a breath between clenched teeth, then visibly breathes deeply to calm his own anger. “Explain to me exactly how the Treaty affects you.”

There is no room for negotiation in his tone, just a flat expectation of being obeyed more akin to Shen Wei’s mannerisms as Heipaoshi than Zhao Yunlan’s usual demeanour.

Shen Wei obliges. “Much of it doesn’t, beyond declaring the necessity for Dixingren on the surface to return underground. However, when I woke and assumed the role of Heipaoshi officially, my operating in Haixing was only agreed to with a few caveats. I cannot hold my form as Heipaoshi for very long and my powers are curtailed. Exceeding that limit occasions punishment.”

Zhao Yunlan listens with a stony expression, arms crossed in front of his chest. Shen Wei has no doubt he’s already brewing plans.

“And how exactly does the Treaty enforce that? How does it bind you?”

“I signed it,” Shen Wei says. “As for the precise mechanism… that is unknown to me, though I believe the Hallows were used in some form during the first ratification of the Treaty.”

“Can you unsign it?” Zhao Yunlan demands, one hand dropping to clench around the edge of the countertop.

Shen Wei blinks. Why would he – “Not while I hold my position.”

And there’s no one else who could replace me, echoes in the air between them, unsaid. Zhao Yunlan’s stony expression finally breaks open, twisting into something pained that has Shen Wei reflexively reaching out, cupping a bearded cheek with his hand.

Beneath his fingers, Zhao Yunlan’s jaw moves. “So you’re telling me that this could happen again any time.”

Shen Wei’s thumb strokes along the ridge of Zhao Yunlan’s cheekbone. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t pull away.

“In several decades it has only happened once.”

Shen Wei. If this were anyone else affected, you’d already be arguing to do something about it!” Zhao Yunlan says with such sudden heat that Shen Wei drops his hand in surprise.

Zhao Yunlan catches it, grip tight around Shen Wei’s fingers. “Please tell me you see that, at least.”

Shen Wei’s jaw clenches. Of course the idea of Zhao Yunlan being constrained in such a way is displeasing, the thought of him being in pain due to a Treaty he hadn’t even seen signed even worse. But Shen Wei isn’t Zhao Yunlan, and he has seen what limitless power can do.

“And if this were someone else in my role, some Dixingren you don’t know and love, would you not feel that they should not be allowed to act without limits?” he asks quietly, and Zhao Yunlan’s fingers spasm where they still grip Shen Wei’s hand.

“I for fucking sure wouldn’t want them punished for saving lives.”

Shen Wei smiles. He can’t help it – every fibre of his being already knows that Zhao Yunlan is a good man, but reminders like this nonetheless flare warmth in his blood.

*

Ironically, it seems that knowing exactly what’s afflicting Shen Wei has made Zhao Yunlan less reluctant to leave his side.

He takes a call – Shen Wei only now realises the phone must’ve been on silent the whole weekend – which ends with him turning to Shen Wei as he pulls on a jacket. “I’ve got some paperwork I’ve been neglecting, and the new admin is yelling at me.”

Before Shen Wei can open his mouth, Zhao Yunlan has grabbed Da Qing – who had come by in search of food on a tide of grumbling about how ‘Lao Zhao can’t just keep everyone from Shen Wei’s cooking forever, it’s not like he’s on his death bed’ – and deposited the fluffy cat in Shen Wei’s lap.

“Stay there.”

It’s unclear whether it’s directed at Shen Wei or Da Qing.

Zhao Yunlan breezes out the door.

Man and cat exchange a look.

Da Qing’s ears twitch in a gesture that Shen Wei has come to think of as meaning ‘eh, might as well’ and starts purring.

Shen Wei gives in to his fate graciously and applies himself to petting the cat in his lap in all the places he knows Da Qing likes.

*

Perhaps Shen Wei should’ve expected something like this to happen. Zhao Yunlan suggesting a walk in the park – slow, of course, so as not to tax Shen Wei’s still beleaguered system – is fairly unusual to begin with. Shen Wei hadn’t missed the pointed look at Da Qing either, who’d proceeded to disappear through the open window at speed, for all that that particular sequence of events is usually a precursor to something rather different than an invitation to the park.

But the sun is shining, spring is rearing its fragrant head, and Shen Wei is feeling steadier in his movements than he has in days, so he sees no reason to refuse. A walk and some fresh air would probably do him good, and they can swing by the market on the way back to stock up on fresh produce.

Zhao Yunlan is whistling as they amble along in comfortable slowness, though he’s definitely still keeping a weather eye on Shen Wei’s progress, walking close enough that their arms brush with every step.

They make it through half of their favourite park round before Shen Wei catches sight of a group of people heading towards them and stops.

“Before you get all suspicious,” Zhao Yunlan says in response to whatever expression has appeared on Shen Wei’s face, “they wanted to thank you. Da Qing and I just facilitated.”

Shen Wei smooths his glare into something more friendly, dipping his head at Liu Qinglian, Li Ye and Li Hanrui in greeting.

“You’re well?” he asks, and receives three simultaneous nods in response.

“All thanks to you, Daren,” Li Ye says.

“I do not need nor desire thanks,” Shen Wei says, hoping he sounds less uncomfortable than he feels. Being thanked is not an entirely new experience, but it certainly doesn’t happen often. He prefers simply slipping away before anyone could think to offer them. An inclination that Zhao Yunlan, currently beaming away at Shen Wei’s side, clearly wants to circumvent. “I merely did what I could.”

“Others would not have, at such great expense to them,” Liu Qinglian says staunchly. “That does deserve thanks, and we will make sure that others hear of Heipaoshi’s efforts.”

Shen Wei almost protests again, but from what Zhao Yunlan has told him, that horse has already bolted and there’s little point trying to call it back.

Li Hanrui shoves something in his direction. “Here,” she says brusquely. “We made this.”

As soon as Shen Wei takes the wrapped item, Li Hanrui turns to her parents, pulling on sleeves until all three of them retreat with a bow.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Zhao Yunlan says, sotto voce, and Shen Wei turns to glare at him. Undeterred, Zhao Yunlan nods towards the gift. “Want to unwrap that?”

Shen Wei almost tucks it away into a pocket because the biggest punishment for Zhao Yunlan is to deny his curiosity, but in the end he can’t resist the sparkle in Zhao Yunlan’s eyes. He undoes the string wrapped around the paper, which easily falls apart in his hands to reveal a little ball of resin. Inside, a few pieces of rock catch the light, reflecting in different colours when Shen Wei turns the ball this way and that.

“Pretty, if a little morbid,” Zhao Yunlan opines. He casts a glance to the side. “Though you might have to hide it from Da Qing if you want to keep it.”

Shen Wei looks up to find Da Qing in cat form, pupils dilating as he watches the reflections skittering outwards from the ball of resin.

*

In the middle of reading Shen Wei the novel they’d both decided on when Zhao Yunlan got tired of scientific papers, Zhao Yunlan pauses, socked feet twitching along Shen Wei’s calves where they lie entwined on the sofa. In deference to Shen Wei’s still aching torso – at Zhao Yunlan’s insistence – they’re sitting at opposite ends, only legs meeting in the middle. Of all the things the Treaty’s punishment is imposing, not having Zhao Yunlan regularly in his arms might be the thing Shen Wei resents the most.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

The only surprising thing about that question is that Zhao Yunlan waited a day to ask it.

Shen Wei makes himself meet Zhao Yunlan’s gaze, deeply glad that the dizziness has already diminished enough over the past two days that he can. “I knew that it would pass within days. I didn’t want to worry you further when there is nothing you can do to help.”

“Nothing I can do to – Shen Wei.” Zhao Yunlan throws up his arms, expression scrunching somewhere between anger and despair. “If I know what’s wrong, I can at least try to take care of you as you deserve. I know that between the two of us you’re the undisputed leader in the caring department, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t – ”

He bites off the rest of the sentence, half turning away from Shen Wei for only a moment before turning back again, as if dragged by the same magnet that pulls on Shen Wei’s bones whenever Zhao Yunlan is within reach.

“Zhao Yunlan, you did take care of me. Are taking care of me.” Shen Wei smiles, putting all his love into his eyes. “I want for nothing.”

“You want for a sense of self-worth,” Zhao Yunlan snaps quietly, and then immediately looks as if he regrets his words.

Shen Wei only blinks slowly at him. It’s not a new argument.

“And if I had told you,” Shen Wei says evenly, “would your first urge not have been to march to the ministry and set the treaty document on fire?”

Zhao Yunlan opens his mouth. Closes it again. “That’s not fair, Shen Wei. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have wanted to do the same in my stead.”

“I would,” Shen Wei immediately agrees. “Which is how I was certain you would, too.”

Zhao Yunlan continues to look mutinous. Shen Wei sighs.

“Now is not the time to start a conflict with Xingdu Bureau. Especially while I’m not fully functional.”

Zhao Yunlan’s mouth twists, but he can’t refute Shen Wei’s point. Sometimes it feels like all of Dragon City and Dixing alike is still holding its breath after the violence only so recently past. A single match might be enough to set the entire atmosphere on fire again, and there’s already been too much fighting.

Shen Wei can read the defeat in his slumped shoulders, little as he personally wants to. For now, Zhao Yunlan will follow his lead.

*

When Shen Wei wakes the next morning, it takes him a little while to realise that the reason he feels different is because there’s no pain haunting his skin, no pounding in his head, no nausea pooling in his gut even when he sits up at a speed that would’ve had his head spinning just two days ago. He doesn’t rip at his pyjama top, instead deliberately undoing each button until he can look down at unblemished skin. No hint of the welts remains. Dark energy pools in his hand, sparkling and roiling for several moments before he banishes it again. No change – the Treaty truly has let him go.

Next to him, Zhao Yunlan shifts, awakened by Shen Wei’s movement. He lifts onto his elbows, hair mussed, and sleep-lidded eyes widen when he catches sight of Shen Wei’s chest.

Zhao Yunlan leans forward and a soft shock of sensation tingles along Shen Wei’s nerves as slightly rough lips start pressing gentle open-mouthed kisses against newly-healed skin.

“It’s over?” Zhao Yunlan asks in between nuzzling, voice as rough as his lips, and Shen Wei stops resisting the urge to bury his hand in the wild mop of hair currently tickling his abdomen.

“Yes.”

Zhao Yunlan sighs against his skin, melting into Shen Wei’s touch. “So you were right then. It was temporary.”

Shen Wei’s hand stills. “You doubted it?”

“I believed that you thought so,” Zhao Yunlan says, turning his head until his ear rests against Shen Wei’s skin, “but I was less certain of the Haixing Government’s honesty. Or the Treaty’s for that matter.”

It’s a grim assessment of his own superiors – though not one Shen Wei finds himself inclined to argue with.

“You know I’m not going to let this go,” Zhao Yunlan says quietly, peering upwards until their gazes meet.

Shen Wei takes a moment to simply feel his chest rise and fall into that warm weight, easy breath flowing into his lungs. Unrestricted.

The curls at the back of Zhao Yunlan’s neck are soft underneath his fingers.

“I presumed.”

“I don’t care if it means badgering An Bai into making an official complaint, or getting the Regent to outslime the politicians up here,” Zhao Yunlan continues, voice quietly fierce. “The Treaty is due a re-working anyway, and I’m not watching you go through that again the next time someone needs saving from an impossible situation.”

Branches of the future twist out in front of them.

Shen Wei breathes out. “All right.”

Zhao Yunlan makes a pleased sound, his grip around Shen Wei’s waist tightening minutely. “But first, a lie in. We’ve got some catching up to do.”

Shen Wei refrains from pointing out that he’s been doing rather more lying down and sitting than usual the last week. Instead, he keeps holding Zhao Yunlan close and revels in the way his dark energy dances along their skins in tiny skitters.