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***

The thought downloads itself wholesale into Zhao Yunlan’s brain in the middle of Shen Wei looking him over for injuries. He has already lost his shirt so Shen Wei can fuss over the scrapes and bruises on his torso, and there’s that worried line between Shen Wei’s perfect brows, his mouth pinched unhappily. It makes Zhao Yunlan feel guiltier than he thinks he ought to be, given that getting in trouble is part and parcel of his job and he used to do it a lot more before Shen Wei started making a mission out of his safety.

Shen Wei’s cool fingers are skimming over Zhao Yunlan’s skin, raising goosebumps in their wake, tightening here and there over unaffected areas as if Shen Wei is afraid he’ll slip away, and Zhao Yunlan thinks:

Something to hold…

He draws in a sharp breath. Shen Wei’s hands still and he looks at Zhao Yunlan with a question in his eyes that Zhao Yunlan has no answer for. After a moment, Shen Wei returns to his ministrations, touch – though Zhao Yunlan wouldn’t have thought it possible – even more careful.

The thought persists, leaving him only half paying attention throughout Shen Wei’s gently pointed remonstrances about taking better care of himself and the need for backup in the field, and the dinner that follows.

Shen Wei likes tangible reminders. There’s the pendant he still wears (on a new leather cord) every day; the sleeve garters that he has not yet admitted out loud to making him feel safe; the glasses that replace a far more substantial mask. It stands to reason that he might like it if Zhao Yunlan wore something similar – something he can see and touch.

This Zhao Yunlan would wear – perhaps not often, but often enough that it needs to be something that suits him, too, as well as doing its purpose for Shen Wei.

The next day, when Shen Wei is at the university and Zhao Yunlan still on – entirely unnecessary – medical leave, he opens up his browser and begins to search. He briefly considered going to a sex shop – Dragon City does have at least two that boast serious pretentions at class – but in the end the greater variety and privacy of online shopping convinces him. And, anyway, it’s much harder to claim the excuse of an impulse buy if he actually goes out of his way to visit a store in person.

The variety is, in fact, somewhat too great, but in the end he settles on something simple, reasoning that if Shen Wei likes the idea but wants something that looks different, they can always buy another one together. A brief struggle with his impatience ends in a resounding loss, and he clicks on next day delivery. Thanks to Shen Wei’s powers, there is no longer a mark on his body, but perhaps his intention with this purchase will come across better if the recent incident is still fresh in both their minds.

The package arrives the following day as promised. Zhao Yunlan opens the brown cardboard box to find another box inside: discrete, unmarked black. He hesitates, then sets the box on the nightstand. This is for Shen Wei to open.

The man in question arrives back home a bare ten minutes later. Zhao Yunlan can see the exact moment Shen Wei notices the box – the apartment being clean and orderly enough these days that a new item immediately stands out – but Shen Wei doesn’t comment.

He always has had more patience than Zhao Yunlan.

Instead, Zhao Yunlan has to suffer through him preparing dinner and vibrates his way through actually eating it. Shen Wei, who’s been observing him with some amusement throughout, finally takes pity on him once the dishes are washed and drying on the rack.

He makes his way to the nightstand and picks up the box, turning to Zhao Yunlan with one side of his mouth curling upward. “I’m assuming this is what you’re so excited about?”

Zhao Yunlan nods, stretching out his legs a little further to enhance his sprawl on the stool. He doesn’t even try to school his expression into something less anticipatory. “It’s for you. Well, us.”

Shen Wei, predictably, tries to hand him the box, only halting in his steps when Zhao Yunlan waves his hands in a stopping gesture. “Ah ah ah, you are opening it.”

Shen Wei’s eyebrows creep towards his hairline, but he doesn’t argue. Zhao Yunlan watches avidly as Shen Wei flicks a line of dark energy through the two pieces of clear tape holding the top of the box to the bottom, and lifts the lid. He can pinpoint the exact moment when it registers in Shen Wei’s brain what he’s seeing: his eyes widen before long lashes sweep down to hide them.

Shen Wei’s fingers flex around the box.

“Is this what you were so distracted by the other night?” Shen Wei asks after a moment of silence. He’s still looking down at the collar.

Seeming to catch the surprise in Zhao Yunlan’s lack of immediate answer, Shen Wei looks up, dryness chasing away the last traces of his first reaction to the gift. “You were hardly being subtle, Yunlan.”

Zhao Yunlan holds up his hands in surrender. “Yes, all right, I did think of it then. I just thought you might appreciate a slightly more… solid reminder sometimes.”

He nods towards the collar in an attempt to get things back on track. “What do you think? I went with something basic, but there were lots of options if you don’t like it.”

Shen Wei makes a considering noise. Zhao Yunlan’s eyes are glued to Shen Wei’s fingers as they explore the collar, brushing along edges, feeling the softness, testing the sole d-ring fastened to the front, and inspecting the buckle with a slight air of discontent for all that it was the slimmest model Zhao Yunlan could find. The contrast between the black leather and Shen Wei’s pale fingers is doing something to his brain, which has started to offer helpful suggestions as to what the collar might look like around his own neck, now that he’s seeing it in person.

The shiver that goes down his spine is very much of the good kind.

Eventually, Shen Wei seems satisfied with his inspection and looks up at Zhao Yunlan. His eyes are very dark and deep, and if Zhao Yunlan had ever thought that he might build immunity to that look over time, Shen Wei keeps proving him wrong.

“Is this just for my sake?” Shen Wei asks quietly, and Zhao Yunlan would groan in despair if it weren’t so fucking sad. It’s an ongoing argument, whether they can – and in fact should – do things ‘just’ for Shen Wei sometimes, that it’s okay to, say, want to go see the bears at the zoo even if Zhao Yunlan isn’t generally one for zoo trips, and unfortunately not one Zhao Yunlan is close to winning. Yet.

“I want it too, Xiao Wei,” he says, letting himself be open in body language and expression, walls down. Shen Wei is good at breaking through them regardless, but he deserves to be met without artifice in this. “I wouldn’t have got it otherwise.”

Shen Wei’s gaze lasers through him, always serious when it comes to Zhao Yunlan’s well-being (which, come to think of it, is at least 60% of the reason how they ended up here). “You’ll be comfortable wearing it?”

“I’m 95% certain,” Zhao Yunlan says truthfully, cocking his hip a little for added effect.

Shen Wei raises a brow. “And the other five percent?”

Zhao Yunlan grins, gesturing grandly with one hand. “Purely in deference to the scientific sensibilities of my dearest, over-smart love. He gets a specific pinched look whenever someone claims something is 100% certain without having tested the hypothesis thoroughly first.”

For a moment it looks like Shen Wei will keep his composure, but then he huffs out a breath through his nose, lips twitching. “How very considerate you are. I do appreciate rigorous testing.”

“Should get on that, then,” Zhao Yunlan says with his best come-hither look.

Still, Shen Wei hesitates, looking down at the collar in his hands and then up again. “There are certain… connotations.”

Perhaps Zhao Yunlan shouldn’t be surprised that Shen Wei is aware of that sort of kinky sex, given how long Shen Wei has lived and how much he as presumably seen, but he still is, a little. They haven’t done anything like that themselves and he truly hadn’t bought the collar thinking of submission in that sense. (He’s thinking about it now.)

Zhao Yunlan slides off the stool. Some things are easier to show than tell, and he’s done waiting. “Forget about the connotations. We can talk about it later if you want, but we’ve always done our own thing, haven’t we? It’s about how we feel, not what anyone else might have to say about it.”

Shen Wei smiles, small and brilliant like the far-off sunrise, and Zhao Yunlan’s heart skips a beat in his chest, breath stuttering. While he’s staring dumbly because his Xiao Wei is just too beautiful sometimes, the smile disappears again, replaced by a less obvious but no less powerful intensity.

“Take off your shirt,” Shen Wei says, even and decisive, and Zhao Yunlan is halfway through pulling it over his head before his brain catches up. Shen Wei is rarely commanding with him – Zhao Yunlan always figured he gets enough of that in his night job – but when he does break out that voice, Zhao Yunlan would challenge anyone not to obey immediately.

It doesn’t stop Zhao Yunlan from dropping his shirt on the floor, though, just to see the tiny sigh Shen Wei heaves even in the middle of that smouldering look.

“Come here.”

The near-whisper exerts a magnetic pull. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t fight it, stepping closer until he’s within arms’ reach and can see the subtle bit of colour dusting Shen Wei’s cheekbones, the cluster of freckles on his neck.

He doesn’t look away from Shen Wei’s face, not even to watch those fingers gently cradle the collar in their grip. On one level, Zhao Yunlan is aware of his uneven breathing, the small background noises of the apartment, the soft crinkling of Shen Wei’s shirt as he moves. On another, nothing exists but Shen Wei, a presence folded around and into Zhao Yunlan, electric where they touch.

Zhao Yunlan almost misses the moment that Shen Wei raises his hands, going still when fabric meets the soft skin of his throat

“Breathe, Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says quietly.

Zhao Yunlan blinks because there’s a smile in Shen Wei’s voice, and when his eyes focus he finds a look of such open fondness directed at him that his inhale of breath comes around a smile of his own. Shen Wei’s fingers are still holding the front of the collar to Zhao Yunlan’s throat. He swallows, feeling the motion push his adam’s apple further into the cool, soft pressure.

“Continue?” he asks, and doesn’t even feel embarrassed at the way his voice comes out slightly breathy.

Shen Wei nods, and then Zhao Yunlan is distracted even from his love’s perfect face by the way leather starts sliding along his skin, curving around his throat and neck. Shen Wei’s thumbs are brushing against his nape as he threads the fastening through the loop – and of course he doesn’t even have to see what his fingers are doing to do it perfectly – and Zhao Yunlan feels –

He feels.

There’s a weight around his neck that could’ve been stifling but only feels grounding, every breath reminding him of pressure, but still sitting loosely enough that it doesn’t feel constricting. And there are Shen Wei’s hands, cupping Zhao Yunlan’s neck over and around the collar, laying the same claim.

Zhao Yunlan opens eyes he doesn’t remember closing and finds Shen Wei gazing at him intently, probably searching for any hint that Zhao Yunlan is uncomfortable. Zhao Yunlan’s smile banishes what tension there had been in Shen Wei’s expression.

One of Shen Wei’s hands shifts, until his thumb is gently rubbing under Zhao Yunlan’s chin, just above the edge of the collar. Zhao Yunlan shivers a little, goosebumps racing outward. Shen Wei’s hands never seem large, until they’re wrapped around some part of Zhao Yunlan that his own hand span would fail to cover.

Shen Wei’s voice has gone low. “How does it feel?”

Zhao Yunlan’s breath expands his throat into the collar, deflates again, the leather shifting minutely with his movements. “Do I have to put it into words?”

Shen Wei’s eyes twinkle. His grip still hasn’t left Zhao Yunlan’s neck and Zhao Yunlan doesn’t want it to. “You’re usually good at talking.”

Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes, but he does give the question serious thought because the answer is important and it feels –

“It feels like you in all the ways I need it to feel like you.”

It’s Shen Wei’s intake of breath that Zhao Yunlan hears now, Shen Wei’s expression that he sees break open into something so vulnerable it almost hurts to behold, Shen Wei’s heart that Zhao Yunlan can feel racing under his fingertips when he reaches out.

Yes, this was definitely a good idea.

*

When Shen Wei asks whether Zhao Yunlan is specifically attached to the collar he bought or whether an alternative would also be acceptable, Zhao Yunlan expects they’ll spend some time scrolling through webpages together – not that Shen Wei is a fan of the process – or go to a store in person, though he also can’t quite picture Shen Wei in a sex store. Or, well, he can, but that train of thought leads down some roads he has to hastily abandon lest he find himself with a situation in his trousers while at work (he’s been having some Thoughts, ok, as to where they might take their sex life next given how well the collar had gone over, for all that hadn’t been (and still isn’t) a sex thing; collar-adjacent possibilities have opened up, is all).

He doesn’t expect to be greeted by a plain box sitting in the exact same place on the nightstand Zhao Yunlan had placed the first one. The mere possibility that Shen Wei had gone onto the internet, alone, and actually bought something has him blinking, tired brain trying to catch up with events.

He turns to Shen Wei. “You bought a collar online?”

“I did not,” Shen Wei says, sounding unfairly prim about it. His brows are scrunching together a little as he looks Zhao Yunlan over. “The food is ready. Did you resolve the crisis at work?”

Zhao Yunlan snorts, but lets himself be herded to the kitchen island. The so-called “crisis” had been Lin Jing murking their computers while ostensibly upgrading the system. That in itself would’ve been annoying but not too much of a problem, but it just so happened that it was also the week that they were supposed to implement a whole slew of new directives from the ministry and start training two newbies, so the whole thing had turned into a headache and a half.

“Lin Jing fixed everything at the eleventh hour, so business as usual,” he says, through a mouthful of noodles. “Xiao Guo and Lao Chu took charge of the new meat, and I gave the ministry the run-around until we were presentable again. No harm done, in the end, but all our overtime is coming out of Lin Jing’s paycheck.”

“I’m given to understand that “these things happen” where technology is concerned,” Shen Wei says guilelessly, but Zhao Yunlan can tell he’s gearing up for a defence of Lin Jing’s bad timing. Those two have had some strange sympatico thing going on since Ye Zun nearly killed them all. “The university needs a whole department to deal with all the issues that crop up.”

He says the last with a distinct air of vindication, as if Shen Wei’s technology phobia has anything to do with system failures. Zhao Yunlan is about to say as much when a massive yawn tears his mouth open.

Shen Wei’s gaze softens. “Finish your meal and then rest. You look like you need a good sleep.”

“But the – ” Zhao Yunlan waves in the direction of the alluring box.

“You’re too tired,” Shen Wei returns, far too reasonable. “It’ll wait till tomorrow.”

Zhao Yunlan, naturally, has every intention of sneaking a peek nonetheless – at which point they might as well get to the rest, too – but Shen Wei is terrifyingly efficient when he wants to be, and somehow Zhao Yunlan finds himself in bed with his eyes already at half mast before he’s managed to even lay a finger on the box.

Recognising defeat when it stares him in the face, he goes to sleep with only a token grumble.

*

“This time, you should open it,” Shen Wei says quietly. He’s standing by Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder, expression sliding into the same intent look he’d worn the last time. In the morning light, the scene is cast into sharper relief, losing some of the comfortable dimness that had characterised the last time Zhao Yunlan had worn a collar, but gaining a clarity that sears into his brain.

Either way, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t need to be told twice. He slides the cover off, breath paused in anticipation.

In the box lies another leather collar, this one in a shining, dark green. The outer side is decorated with stitching reminiscent of the Envoy’s hood, running along both edges in a subtly lighter shade of green. The leather itself proves to be buttery and soft, only just stiff enough to keep its shape. It’s intricate work, and so unique that Zhao Yunlan has to swallow through a lump in his throat.

“Xiao Wei…” He turns his head to find Shen Wei still watching him intently. “Did you make this?”

Shen Wei dips his head in a nod – casual, as if just anyone can make a beautiful piece like this. For the first time, Zhao Yunlan wonders if Shen Wei had created his own robes and armour, or at least had a hand in it.

“It’s beautiful,” he says honestly, leaning in to press a kiss against the edge of Shen Wei’s smiling mouth. “Not quite sure how you expect me to wear it though.”

Shen Wei raises a brow, smile turning into a smirk that, quite honestly, does things to Zhao Yunlan.

Ignoring that for now, he picks up the strip of leather, waving it in the air a little. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that there’s no buckle.”

“There is no way to affix a buckle that doesn’t make it… bulky,” Shen Wei says, voice bland, and clearly he has some kind of solution to this and is just enjoying tormenting Zhao Yunlan with curiosity.

Except, instead of continuing to reflect amusement, Shen Wei’s expression grows serious. He reaches out to tap a finger against the leather lying across Zhao Yunlan’s palm. “The collar is made of ordinary leather,” he says. “There are shears in the kitchen that will cut through it without much trouble.”

Zhao Yunlan blinks at him, trying to figure out where this is going. “Ye-es?”

The fore- and middle finger of Shen Wei’s right hand tap on the collar. A spark of dark energy jumps into the leather. Zhao Yunlan watches in fascination as the ends of the band start moving on their own, forming a circle and then fusing together until not even a line remains, the collar unbroken.

Shen Wei’s fingers tap again, and the ends unravel into their original state.

Zhao Yunlan’s lips twitch into a smile. It’s so very Shen Wei – effortlessly elegant and a little bit mad. When Shen Wei demands trust, he doesn’t do it by half measures. Except, of course, he isn’t demanding, he’s offering, dark eyes waiting for whichever answer Zhao Yunlan will give.

As if his answer was ever in question.

He holds out the collar to Shen Wei. “Put it on?”

It settles around Zhao Yunlan’s neck like it had always been meant for him, soft and sure and exactly right.

“Something to hold onto,” Shen Wei whispers, and draws him in for a kiss.

***