The feel and taste of blood in his mouth after one of his coughing fits had become familiar by now. The intense look of concern on Zhao Yunlan's face whenever it happened hadn't, and it never would; Shen Wei was sure of that.
"Here." Zhao Yunlan offered a tissue without further comment but his eyes said it all.
Concern, yes. But also guilt and sorrow, mixed with so much helplessness that it almost took away what was left of Shen Wei's breath. Since there was nothing to be said anyway, he took the tissue with a nod of thanks and dabbed away the blood that stained his lips.
A moment later there was a hand on his arm and an arm around his waist, carefully guiding him towards the sofa. Then glasses were taken off and carelessly put down on the table. He blinked at the sudden and unexpected disappearance of his last defense but couldn't find the energy to protest.
"Sit down, Shen Wei, before you fall down. The dishes can wait." Even Zhao Yunlan's voice had lost most of his exuberance and Shen Wei hated the exhausted resignation that had taken its place.
Somebody else would probably have marched back to the kitchen to do the dishes themselves but Zhao Yunlan just flopped down on the couch as if he was boneless.
Shen Wei loved him for that. Zhao Yunlan doing housework of his own free will would have been too much to bear.
"If you could you would hide even that from me, right?"
"There's no need for you to worry," he answered without thinking. A moment later he flinched, remembering how often Zhao Yunlan had told him that it 'doesn't work this way, Xiao Wei, how often do I have to tell you that you and your well-being matter?'
A frustrated snort but at the same time he was pulled into an embrace. Shen Wei followed willingly and didn't resist when his head was put on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. He closed his eyes with a soft sigh of pleasure.
"Of course I worry, baby. You have done the same when I wasn't even half as bad off as you are right now. Or are you telling me that this is not a relationship of equals? You are allowed to worry about me but I'm not allowed to do the same?"
Shen Wei winced. Put like that…
"I'm not used to being cared for or worried about."
There was a harshly indrawn breath and Zhao Yunlan's hold on his body tightened to an almost painful degree.
"Neither was I before you stepped into my life," he said eventually, and pressed a light kiss against Shen Wei's temple. "Apart from Da Qing but he's a cat so that's different. But then you appeared and took me home, put me to bed, made me food, and scolded me when I was being an idiot - so of course I'm going to repay the favor now that you've become so careless with yourself."
Shen Wei did have neither words nor energy to refute that. Despite the warmth in the apartment he shivered and a moment later Zhao Yunlan tugged a blanket over both of them.
"How bad is it really?" he asked quietly. "Just tell me the truth."
Shen Wei swallowed hard. If his eyes hadn't already been closed he would have done so now. The alternative - creating a portal to flee this conversation - had been off the table for while now. Even if Zhao Yunlan would have been willing to let him go, which he definitely wasn't, he didn't have the ability to create one anymore.
The truth then. Plain and unadorned, because there already had been so many lies and half-truths between them. He decided to start with the good news, because Zhao Yunlan deserved to have that little bit of relief.
"I'm not," dying, he almost said but changed his mind at the last possible moment, "leaving you." He never would now, not by choice, not after everything that had happened.
Funny, he always thought it would be hard to confess to the truth but the words came out easily and he relaxed fully into Zhao Yunlan's embrace. He was prepared for every reaction, or so he had thought, but not for the short, bitter laugh.
"You've been reassuring me of that ever since we came back up home." He had, hadn't he? And when had Haixing become 'home' for him? He had missed the moment but it undoubtedly was. "Always telling me that you're fine, that things are going great - all the while you're coughing up blood and getting weaker right in front of my eyes. In my arms. Things aren't adding up, Shen Wei. We've been there before and it almost cost you your life. I'm not willing to do that again. I can't go through that again. Never again."
Zhao Yunlan's voice almost broke at the end but Shen Wei ignored the words, even though they felt like a dull knife in his chest. Such a careless listing of his sins - he had thought that they were past all of that by now but he began to see that they had done more damage to Zhao Yunlan than he had ever thought possible.
Despite all the clear evidence to the contrary he was still struggling with the idea that he seemed to be as important to Zhao Yunlan as Zhao Yunlan was to him. Being cared for, being loved, was something he had to go without for so long after Kunlun left him and Shen Wei was as unprepared to accept love and affection as he had been back then. Maybe even more so now than back then.
He forced himself to not think about things better left in the past.
They were both here, now, Kunlun was back in his life in his true identity as Zhao Yunlan and it was so much more and so much better than Shen Wei could ever have imagined in those fleeting moments when he truly dared to hope that Kunlun's promise to meet again hadn't been a throwaway line.
"My body is… adjusting," he said eventually, when he was sure that Zhao Yunlan was actually keeping quiet and waiting for him to speak. The truth, he reminded himself. "Unfortunately, that process is far more uncomfortable than I expected it to be."
"'Uncomfortable'," Zhao Yunlan echoed. "Uncomfortable. What the fuck, Shen Wei?! What the hell do you have to 'adjust' to anyway? Being alive despite all your carefully laid out plans for a grand exit? Being with me?" The last question was probably meant as a joke but the naked insecurity behind it hit Shen Wei harder than any wave of physical pain ever could.
"No!" he protested automatically. Quick and firm, trying to stamp out that particular train of thought before it could take root in Zhao Yunlan's mind and heart. "Never that. The chance of finally being with you is what keeps me going." In his haste to reassure he spoke too hastily and another coughing fit wracked his body.
Zhao Yunlan's hold around him became so tight it was almost painful but he didn't say anything. Shen Wei hated this passive waiting; he was supposed to shout, to ask all the questions, to shake Shen Wei in an attempt to get the truth out of him.
Shen Wei's body wasn't the only victim of his declining health and that, more than anything else, showed him how important it was that he finally told Zhao Yunlan.
The truth, he'd promised the truth. He didn't want to let go of the last big secret he'd been keeping but his time had finally run out. He'd always known that it would, eventually, but selfishly and in vain he had hoped to have more time. As if he didn't have more than enough of that in his overlong life that somehow even managed to keep on going after he was supposed to sacrifice himself for his people and not one but two worlds.
He'd been selfish and that itself was cruel to the man he loved more than he could ever find the words for.
What was the saying he'd heard again and again? To rip a bandage off quickly to minimize the hurt? He had no experience with that, not yet, but even he understood the principle behind it.
The truth then. Served as plainly as possible. He raised his head from its comfortable resting place on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder and made sure to speak the words clearly:
"My body is adjusting to functioning without Dark Energy."
He quickly hid his face again, afraid of seeing Zhao Yunlan's reaction. He'd never done that before but he has also never before felt this weak and helpless, dependent on another person to help him go through the day, to hold him together and tell him that it would be okay.
Zhao Yunlan would be shocked, that was a given. But beyond that? Shen Wei had no idea how he would react to the news of his changing physiology - one of, if not the biggest, reason he'd tried to avoid this conversation for as long as possible.
There was nothing, apart from a tightening of the arms around him, for a long time. Then a very quiet and very careful "Shen Wei? I need more of an explanation. You can't just drop a bomb like that between us and then hide in my arms for the rest of eternity."
Despite everything the words made him smile. "There is not enough space for anything between us right now, let alone a bomb," he said equally quietly. "We've done that, remember? I distinctly remember you being further away from me back then."
Further away in every sense of the word but not nearly far away to not be hurt in the possible explosion.
And wasn't that an apt description of pretty much all of their interactions for such a long time?
Yet more of those memories he tried not to dwell upon too often. Dying together with Zhao Yunlan was an awful thing to contemplate but living without him would be impossible. Hope of finding him again had kept Shen Wei going for ten thousand years, losing him would destroy him.
The realization that Zhao Yunlan felt the same in regards to him had been a hard one to take in and accept. Protecting him at the cost of his own life was a given for Shen Wei but to acknowledge that it went both ways… he was still working on that. Would do so for the rest of his life, however long or short it turned out to be.
He had to learn to actually take care of himself now, he realized, so he, in turn, could take care of Zhao Yunlan.
Another coughing fit kept him from saying anything more. This time it was Zhao Yunlan who dabbed the blood from his lips.
"You're really not dying?" he asked quietly and with desperate hope in his voice.
Shen Wei shook his head. "I'm not." He was sure of that, at least. He had run the tests on himself, over and over again, trying to puzzle out what was going on inside of his body.
Zhao Yunlan's sigh of relief made both of their bodies tremble.
"You know what Ye Zun's power was," he began and grimaced at the taste of blood when he swallowed hard and changed what he wanted to say. "When my brother brought me back," spat me out of his dying body, "he kept back mine. All of them." He still didn't know if it had been by design or accident - knowing his brother it was the first, but considering the last few moments of realization and reconciliation they'd shared there was a sliver of doubt - but the end result was the same.
"My physiology is changing." Not quite to a Haixingren, his DNA was still Dixigren, but in the end that didn't change anything. "I no longer have access to dark energy and my body has to learn to function without it."
Just like he had to learn to live without the powers that had been his to command for millennia. It was a hefty price to pay for survival and without the promise of having Zhao Yunlan at his side he honestly wasn't sure if he would be willing to pay it.
He had never pretended not to be a selfish man.
"I can't drag you to the hospital to get you checked out, no matter how much I want to, right?"
The idea made Shen Wei smile. "Probably not a good idea if you want to keep me." It had been easy to fool the doctors, when he had all of his powers, but now? He couldn't neutralize whatever medicine they might give him and he had no idea what it might do to his weakened body.
In response, Zhao Yunlan tightened his hold even more. "So I have to trust you that you're telling me the truth now and not dying a painful death right in front of me."
It hurt that Zhao Yunlan couldn't trust him fully but Shen Wei knew that he only had himself to blame for that. Too many lies and half-truths and not enough time to rebuild the trust he had so carelessly squandered when he had been so sure to not be alive for the inevitable fallout.
"Not dying," he repeated dutifully, carefully leaving the door open for further inquiries.
"But painful," Zhao Yunlan concluded correctly.
Shen Wei nodded and pressed his face against Zhao Yunlan's neck.
"My body is burning through the last remains of Dark Energy and trying to access more. That process is… painful and getting more so as the reserves dwindle. I'm confident my condition will improve as soon as they have run completely dry. I will adjust. In the meantime… as you know I am very well acquainted with pain."
A frustrated sigh. "Yes. Far too much, for my taste."
Zhao Yunlan was silent after that, probably busy working his way through the new information he had been given. Shen Wei was content to let the silence reign, he had nothing more to add, apart from:
"Sorry," he said, surprising himself. "For not telling you sooner."
His plan, his brother, his condition. Everything. The path had seemed so clear back then but looking back it was shrouded in darkness and Shen Wei couldn't understand how he had ever made his way through it.
"It's okay," Zhao Yunlan said. "No, actually, it isn't, but I get it. Just don't do it again, okay? No more secrets between us, no matter how mundane. I want to know when you bang your knee while standing up, okay?"
Shen Wei didn't even try to keep his laugh at that in. "So you can go down in front of me, inspect my knee, and make sure that I haven't done irreparable damage to myself?"
Zhao Yunlan snorted. "So that I can laugh at you for being clumsy like the rest of us mortals." There was just the slightest hitch in his voice at the last word and Shen Wei knew that the conversation wasn't over, dumb jokes none withstanding.
"Later," Zhao Yunlan said to Shen Wei's great surprise, "you will tell me everything about this 'condition' of yours. You'll show me whatever tests you have run on yourself in secrecy," - oh, his love really did know him well, didn't he? - "and you'll give me a rundown of the exact timeline of what happened and what you think might happen when your body runs out of Dark Energy for good."
This was the director of the SID in all his glory, making connections, making plans up on the spot, caring far too much…
"Later?" Shen Wei echoed. In his confusion he raised his head from its comfortable resting place to see what was going on. He'd already prepared himself for a lengthy interrogation and the reprieve seemed out of character for Zhao Yunlan who liked to charge at problems head-on and without regard of safety, subtlety, or even all the information at hand.
"Later," Zhao Yunlan repeated firmly. "Rest first." He put his hand on the back of Shen Wei's neck and, with light but inescapable pressure, guided his head back down into its former position. "We'll figure it out later."
Exhausted and hurting as he was, coupled with the relief of finally letting go of his final secret, Shen Wei could do nothing but obey.
"Together," he murmured into the fabric of Zhao Yunlan's shirt.
"Always," Zhao Yunlan promised. "See? That's what happens when you actually tell me stuff, baby. Things seem better afterwards."
Shen Wei huffed a laugh but couldn't find any even halfway plausible argument against the words. "You've won," he conceded grudgingly.
Zhao Yunlan laughed and kissed his temple. "Finally, you see the truth. Took you long enough."
Almost too long. Shen Wei banished the unwelcome thought and concentrated on the here and now, on being held by the man he loved und who loved him in return.
His weakness would pass and he would adjust to being powerless. He had no other choice if he wanted to stay at Zhao Yunlan's side and he was willing to pay any price to finally get what he had always dreamed of yet not dared to hope for.
"I'm glad you're not dying," Zhao Yunlan confessed in a whisper, the levity of a moment before gone. "I wouldn't know what to do without you in my life."
Blindly, Shen Wei reached out and searched until he found Zhao Yunlan's hand. He grabbed his wrist and held on with all the strength he had left.
"You won't have to," he promised and swore to himself that this was a promise he would never break.