Zhao Yunlan stood at the back of the lecture hall, Jiajia at his elbow. He looked down at her to distract himself from his own bout of nerves and saw her tiny fists were clenched together despite the ruthlessly cheerful expression on her face. He rested a hand on her shoulder. "It will be fine," he murmured. "This is a good thing."
She turned her face up to him. The last months had aged her a bit, the way they had everyone who loved Shen Wei, but her smile was still quick and bright. Instead of saying anything, she took Zhao Yunlan's hand and squeezed tightly.
Shen Wei entered the lecture hall and the murmur of voices in the room turned off like a stopped spigot.
He stepped to the lectern at the front of the hall, smiled cautiously and adjusted his glasses. He was carefully armored in his double-breasted blue suit. The white dress shirt underneath was unadorned, buttoned to the top. Hidden beneath was an angry red scar at the base of his throat, a cut across his metal phase meridian which stubbornly refused to heal.
Zhao Yunlan swiped his hand across his mouth.
"Hello," Shen Wei said quietly. If anything, the noise level in the hall dropped even further. There was no scuffing of feet or shifting in chairs. The very room seemed to hold its breath. "This is course IB 161, Population and Evolutionary Genetics. I will be your instructor, and my name is Shen Wei. Those of you on the waitlist, I am sorry that –" he stopped and blinked. The applause that had begun as he introduced himself swelled through the small lecture hall. Students began to stand, clapping with vigor. Jiajia joined in along with Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei caught Zhao Yunlan's eye at the back of the room. He adjusted his glasses again and finally ventured a smile. Zhao Yunlan clapped until his palms ached.
So it was a bitterly unwelcome surprise ninety minutes later to get a frantic text from Jiajia, begging him to meet her outside Shen Wei's office. Zhao Yunlan bolted to his feet, dropped his milk tea into the trash and took off at a jog. He should have stayed for every last word of Shen Wei's lecture, but oh no, he had slipped away to a campus coffee shop once he could no longer understand more than one word in ten. He called Jiajia as he ran. "I'll be there in two minutes. What happened?"
"It's probably nothing, but you said I could call if anything—"
"You did the right thing." Zhao Yunlan bounded up the staircase to the front entrance of the bioengineering building, navigating his way around students. "What's going on?"
"Zhou-jiaoshou was waiting for Shen Wei when he finished his lecture. He said they needed to talk in private, and Shen Wei sent me away, but oh, Zhao-ge, he looked so unhappy."
Shen Wei's mentor, Zhou Duan? Zhao Yunlan had never heard anything bad about him, but he was not going to cut the man any slack for upsetting Shen Wei on his first day back.
He galloped up the stairwell to the third floor, taking the steps two and three at a time, burst into the corridor and found Jiajia pacing outside Shen Wei's closed office door and wringing her hands. He put his fingers to his lips, and when Jiajia nodded in understanding, he dropped his hand to the knob and flung open the office door. "I thought we were going to meet at the coffeehouse!" he shouted, letting the door slam shut behind him. "Oh, excuse me," He continued in mock surprise, giving a little half-bow. "I didn't realize you had company."
Shen Wei and Zhou Duan were facing each other across the desk over steaming cups of tea. Shen Wei looked exasperated by Zhao Yunlan's antics but not unhappy to see him.
Zhou Duan turned to Zhao Yunlan with a slight frown creasing his brow. Not a man accustomed to open rudeness, but Zhao Yunlan refused to feel guilty. "You will please pardon us," Zhou Duan finally said with a hint of querulousness. "Shen Wei and I are still talking."
Zhao Yunlan dropped into the chair next to Zhou Duan and slouched. He didn't have a lollipop yet, but was certainly holding them in reserve. "Oh, you're excused. Don't mind me!"
Zhou Duan ruffled like an aging rooster, and Shen Wei hastily interrupted. "In fact, Zhou-jiaoshou and I have concluded this discussion." Zhou Duan blinked in surprise, but whatever he read in Shen Wei's expression must have convinced him there was nothing to be gained by digging in his heels. He set aside his teacup and allowed Shen Wei to escort him to the office door. "I will call you. We can discuss this further."
"You must forgive me, but no." Shen Wei's voice was soft and clear. "My answer is final." He shut the door on him and then stood with his back against it as though the other professor might come bursting right back through. Zhao Yunlan was on his feet in an instant.
"What the hell was—" He was much louder and angrier than he had meant to be. Shen Wei straightened, his eyes hooded, and Zhao Yunlan took a step back. "Jiajia was worried. She called because she thought you looked unhappy."
Shen Wei huffed faintly, dropped his shoulders and set about collecting the half-empty tea cups. "I will endeavor to smile more frequently."
Not an answer calculated to calm Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei probably realized the same thing because he continued, "There is still some tea. It has steeped a little too long but should still be palatable."
No, he didn't want tea, but it was an offer to sit together and talk, and Zhao Yunlan would never refuse that. He pulled Shen Wei down beside him at the tea table instead of permitting him to retreat behind his desk. "Perfectly drinkable," he declared after a sip he barely tasted. "So what did the professor want from you? Hasn’t he retired?"
Shen Wei put down his teacup. "He was injured at the government research laboratory during those unsettled times before open war broke out. He elected not to return to work, but it seems now he has been hired out of retirement by a private laboratory."
"No reason he shouldn't work if he wants. Why do I get the feeling there is more to it than that?"
"He has invited me to join him."
Zhao Yunlan sat back. "Seriously? He hunts you down on your first day back, just to ask you to quit? Does he have reason to think you'd want to leave teaching?"
"He does not. Zhao Yunlan, you know I have been working with the university administration throughout my recovery in the hopes of finally being able to resume at least some of my teaching responsibilities. This opportunity is very dear to me.”
"I thought so! So that's the end of that. Why are you still frowning?"
"I am not frowning," he said and hid his face behind his tea cup.
Zhao Yunlan waited, only fidgeting a little.
"He tells me his new employers are researching the industrial uses of dark energy."
Zhao Yunlan sat back, honestly shocked. If that was the bombshell Zhou Duan had dropped on Shen Wei outside his classroom, no wonder Jiajia had been concerned. He groped for something to say and finally managed, "What does that even mean? Just, dark energy itself? Dark energy apart from the Dixingren who actually have it in their bodies?"
"I know no more than that. I was so taken aback I did not question him as thoroughly as I ought." A genuine smile finally touched the corner of his mouth. "And then upon your arrival, Zhao Yunlan, all conversation ceased."
"Right, sorry about that." He wasn't. "You and Zhou Duan have known each other for a very long time. Does he know about old Brother Black as well?"
Shen Wei closed his eyes, shaking his head. "I have never disclosed my full identity to him. He knows I am Dixingren, of course.“
After the war, Shen Wei had revealed himself to his colleagues as Dixingren. Outside the higher echelons of the Planetary Bureau, however, there were very few Haixingren who had even heard of the Black Cloaked Envoy. Further revelations had seemed…unnecessarily complicated.
His ordeal six months ago at the hands of a religious fanatic had been explained as a terrible instance of anti-Dixingren prejudice. Not really so far from the truth.
“Zhou Duan told me that his employers were very eager to meet me, and when I demurred, he chided me for my lack of vision."
"Bitter old goat," Zhao Yunlan muttered. Shen Wei protested but then Zhao Yunlan sat up straight. "Your teaching assistant! Poor Jiajia is probably still waiting out there."
As he had predicted, she had remained a lonely sentinel in the corridor across from Shen Wei's office, her normally cheerful face pinched with dismay. "Come see," he gestured her in broadly. "Your professor is well."
Shen Wei met her with apologies. "I am very sorry you were worried. After the troubles of the last two years, I know any deviation in routine can seem a cause for concern."
She regarded him seriously, brow creased, even the pink ribbon in her hair seeming to droop. "You always say you are all right, Shen-jiaoshou, even when you have been so sick or hurt that you could have died. I texted Zhao-ge because you would just tell me you were fine no matter what!"
Shen Wei was taken aback by her vehemence. "But Jiajia, I am fine."
Zhao Yunlan took pity on them both. "That is why you did exactly the right thing by contacting me, Jiajia. Fortunately as you can see, he is indeed well."
Her sharp eyes darted back and forth between Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei. She relaxed cautiously.
"Jiajia," Shen Wei said gently. "I know you have other responsibilities this afternoon. I will see you again on Wednesday at eight so we can finalize the lab schedule for this section."
She finally allowed herself to be shown out of the office. Zhao Yunlan turned back, grinning. "Nothing gets past that one. Shen Wei, I'm afraid she has your number for certain!"
Shen Wei didn't return the smile and retreated behind his desk. "I must insist you cease deputizing my students. Jiajia should not be made to feel she is responsible for my safety."
"I have not deputized anyone on this campus, present company possibly excepted. She is the one who asked for my cell phone number! Besides, we both love you and feel responsible for you. It is too late to do anything about that."
Shen Wei appeared ready to argue this absolutely unassailable truth, so Zhao Yunlan changed the subject. "Did Zhou Duan give you any other information about this private laboratory? Because they sound like a group the SID should have their eye on."
"There's a business card." Shen Wei inclined just his head towards the desk as if unwilling even to pick it up. Zhao Yunlan had no such qualms. The card was matte black, the print silver and confoundingly difficult to read. He tilted it back and forth under the light and his breath caught when he finally read "Heipaoshi Ltd."
But then he blinked and saw it did not say that at all. The company name was actually Hei Nengliang.
Black Energy Ltd.
The rain on his face awoke him. Zhao Yunlan blinked, rubbed a hand over his head, and tried to decide what was going on. "Shen Wei?" It was dark and cold and none of this made sense. He felt grit under his cheek as he pushed himself up. A thunderclap boomed. A flash of lightning revealed the cloud-shrouded night sky. Between Zhao Yunlan and the sky, Shen Wei stood on air with his arms outspread and his face towards the lowering heavens.
Another flash of lightning. The blue silk pajamas Shen Wei had worn to bed were plastered to his body in the rain. His hands were spread open wide, as though he had already gathered dark energy and cast it outwards. Zhao Yunlan screamed for him but Shen Wei didn't look down. Another flash of lightning and Zhao Yunlan finally saw the shimmering barrier around them both, something smooth and black that whirled through the dark rain.
Zhao Yunlan pushed himself up. He was in boxers, and the surface under his bare knees felt like asphalt and tarpaper. Shen Wei must have whisked them here straight from bed. Was this the roof of their own apartment building? Zhao Yunlan had no idea what Shen Wei was defending them from, or even if that whirling barrier was Shen Wei's doing.
An edge of the impossible barricade dipped, scraping the roof of the building. A sharp crack like breaking glass. Something skittered and rolled across the roof to Zhao Yunlan. Another flash of lightning revealed a broken obsidian blade. He stretched out his fingers and gasped at the heat when he touched it. He snatched his hand back before he realized the blade wasn't hot at all, but blisteringly cold, with an edge so keen it had cut the tips of his fingers. Also, it was not obsidian. He and Shen Wei were surrounded by a cyclone of honed black ice. At the next crack of lightning, he saw the blood from his cut fingers running down his hand.
Zhao Yunlan staggered to his feet, still trying to see Shen Wei in the air. He caught glimpses of his silhouette in the rain, and then Shen Wei finally looked down. Immediately he was at Zhao Yunlan's side. "You are wounded," he cried and reached for his hand.
"What's going on?" Zhao Yunlan screamed back, and Shen Wei blinked.
The whirlwind of black ice collapsed all at once, shattering magnificently and covering the roof of the building in lethal shards that immediately began to melt under the pouring rain. A portal opened on the spot, reality splitting like a broken geode, and Shen Wei pulled him through.
An instant later they were in Zhao Yunlan's apartment, dripping water from their wet hair and night clothes. Shen Wei took Zhao Yunlan's hand and healed his sliced fingertips. Zhao Yunlan held his tongue and allowed him to do it, and only then demanded in a soft, furious voice, "What the fuck was that?"
The dark eyes that rose to meet his own gave nothing away. "Are you hurt anywhere else, Zhao Yunlan?"
"I'm fine. Just wet and cold and confused."
A gesture, and Zhao Yunlan was dry.
"I'm still confused, and you didn't need to do that. I can change my own clothes." Shen Wei continued to stand there in his own drenched pajamas. "But please, get yourself dry before you catch your death of cold."
Shen Wei stumbled heavily instead. Zhao Yunlan caught him and guided him down to the sofa, grabbed a quilt and wrapped it around his shoulders. He leaned over him, hands on both of his draped shoulders.
"I'm sorry. First things first. Are we under attack? Do I need to call the SID?"
Shen Wei shook his head. His wet hair dripped in his eyes.
"Are you hurt?"
Again, Shen Wei shook his head.
Zhao Yunlan took a deep breath. He walked to the bathroom for a couple of towels, turning on a lamp on the way back, draped one towel over Shen Wei's head and began to gently pat his short hair dry. Shen Wei sat quietly. Zhao Yunlan wondered if he were bracing himself for further questions, or was simply too exhausted to do anything else. Outside the storm was moving away, thunder receding in the distance.
"That's better," Zhao Yunlan said at length. "Just sit still for me a minute more." He returned to the sofa with a dry pair of pajamas. Shen Wei sat where he was, listing slightly to one side. Zhao Yunlan unwound the quilt from his shoulders and began to unbutton his wet pajama top.
"So those icy razor blades were pretty cool. How come I've never seen those before?"
"They are difficult to control," was the quiet answer. "Fragile and very energy intensive."
The line crossing the meridian at the base of his throat had reopened. Wisps of dark energy coiled about the old injury. Zhao Yunlan sighed to himself, said nothing out loud and continued unbuttoning the wet top until he could ease it from Shen Wei's shoulders. His chest was very white in the dimly lit room. Zhao Yunlan wrapped the dry towel over his shoulders and leaned forward to embrace him. Shen Wei came easily.
"Sit here for me just a little bit longer," Zhao Yunlan whispered before he released him.
This time he retrieved their basket of wound care supplies from Zhu Hong. He unsealed one of the poultices and laid it carefully across the red line at Shen Wei's throat. He drew one of Shen Wei's hands up to hold the poultice in position while he unwound a long muslin bandage and wrapped it over Shen Wei’s shoulder, across the base of his throat, under his opposite arm and then back again until the poultice was secured. "That will work as long as we don't get into a wrestling match," he pronounced at last. "Which is a damned shame, you have to admit. Do you want your pajama top?"
Shen Wei shook his head. "It is uncomfortable over the bandages."
"I know. Bear with me just a little while longer and let's get these wet britches off. Can you stand up?"
"Of course," Shen Wei said, but he took Zhao Yunlan's arm when he offered it. He was able to ease the pajama bottoms off his hips by himself, allowing them to puddle at his feet and then taking Zhao Yunlan's arm again to step out of them. Zhao Yunlan kissed the tip of his nose. "Thank you. Will you turn around so I can check that other meridian?" There was another wound which was proving frustratingly slow to heal, and when the meridian at his throat opened, the one at the back of his thigh tended to do the same.
Shen Wei met his eyes.
"I know. Once again, not nearly as much fun as either one of us deserve." That earned him a fleeting suggestion of a smile as Shen Wei turned. A line bisecting the water phase meridian at the back of Shen Wei's thigh had indeed opened again. There were a few smears of blood down the back of his leg and a telltale coil of energy, moving like a shadow over Shen Wei's flesh.
"Let's get some good snake magic on this as well," Zhao Yunlan said with forced cheer. The position of this injury, just under the swell of his buttock, made it difficult to bandage, but unfortunately Zhao Yunlan had plenty of practice by now. Shen Wei braced himself against the back of the sofa and Zhao Yunlan wrapped the muslin around his upper thigh to hold the second poultice in place, and then walked Shen Wei to the bed. The covers were still in place, the pillows showing the indentation of their heads.
Zhao Yunlan got him settled, detoured back through the apartment to throw the towels and wet pajamas in the laundry and turn off the lamp. Then he crawled into bed after Shen Wei. He pulled him into his arms, partly out of necessity. The bed was small and they had not gotten around to finding a new apartment, but this was no hardship. He really wanted to hold Shen Wei. "Comfortable?"
"With you, always," he murmured in response. Zhao Yunlan kissed the back of his neck, finding it still a little damp and cold.
Zhao Yunlan himself was wide awake, anxious and full of questions. They had been dealing with unusual appearances of Shen Wei's dark energy throughout the long process of recovery, but tonight Shen Wei seemed to have been mounting an actual defense, not simply manifesting random energy patterns as the meridians healed.
Zhao Yunlan eventually started humming to stop himself from asking any of his questions, and when Shen Wei did not object, he graduated to soft singing. Pop songs of his teenage years, mostly, with lots of humming and improvisation when he couldn't remember the words. Shen Wei relaxed further in his arms and eventually Zhao Yunlan whispered very quietly, "Did you have a bad dream?"
Not quite asleep, because Shen Wei murmured in response, "They were coming for you." His body tensed beside Zhao Yunlan's and then relaxed into sleep at last.
But Zhao Yunlan was awake for a long time afterwards.