Not enough air. He couldn't —
He struggled, gasped, lungs pained and straining and wrong.
Voices, hands, shouting. What's wrong — What's happening — He didn't answer. Didn't know.
Breathe. Breathe. It was getting easier.
Other sensations slowly filtered in. Rough hardness under him, with sharp points of stone. Sulphur in the air.
Dixing? That fit. He remembered… Dixing…
He fought his eyes open, breathing still uncomfortable and foreign, and blinked until the faces above him came into some sort of focus. Chu Shuzhi, whom he recognised, and a woman he didn't.
"Are you all right?" Chu Shuzhi demanded.
No. He remembered… dying. Being certain that he was dying. And it hadn't mattered, he hadn't cared, because — "Shen Wei," he ground out, knowing that this would hurt worse than anything so far but unable to stop himself. "Shen Wei, is he…"
Lao-Chu's face went through a range of indecipherable expressions. Finally he said, "Zhao Yunlan?"
"Yes?" Zhao Yunlan asked, baffled by the incredulity in his tone.
"You're Zhao Yunlan," Lao-Chu said again, this time stating it flatly.
"Shouldn't I be?" Zhao Yunlan asked. His vision had come into better focus now and he could confirm that he was definitely in Dixing — the blocky lowering architecture was unmistakable. But it was all bright, almost sun-lit.
Had the Lantern been set alight after all? But he was still here. Still here, when he had never expected to be. Hadn't even wanted to remain so, at the end.
"You —" Lao-Chu began, and then cut himself off. "Not here. We need to get somewhere safe."
The woman next to Lao-Chu had been staring at him all this time, confusion giving way to curiosity. She wasn't very old, maybe Xiao-Guo's age. "Who are you?" Zhao Yunlan asked, bluntly.
"I'm Han Xia," she said. "You —"
"Not here," Lao-Chu repeated, more forcefully. He frowned at Zhao Yunlan. "Your friend with the bar might still be around and willing to hide us. We can hope, anyway."
Zhao Yunlan sat up. Or tried to — his body didn't seem to be working properly, was responding only sluggishly to his commands. And he frowned down at himself — he didn't expect to be wearing a neat button-up shirt under a jacket that was smarter than any he recalled owning, even with Shen Wei's influence on his wardrobe.
He'd… he'd lost some time. Clearly. This didn't follow from his last memories, even though he was still in Dixing.
"Come on," Lao-Chu said, and slung one of Zhao Yunlan's arms over his shoulder, taking most of his weight. Zhao Yunlan leaned against him, unsteady on his feet.
The streets were very quiet, but still they tried to move furtively, keeping to the edges of the roads. There was shouting in the distance, multiple voices raised in anger.
"What's happening?" Han Xia asked, quietly.
Lao-Chu made a no-idea noise.
Zhao Yunlan's head was spinning. He felt that there was something very important that he was missing, that he should know but was failing to grasp. "Where's the rest of the team?" he asked.
"Haixing," Lao-Chu said.
Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth to ask further questions. "Stop talking," Lao-Chu ordered. "We don't know who might overhear us."
Zhao Yunlan obediently shut up. Not least because it was taking too much of his concentration to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Finally a building entrance that Zhao Yunlan recognised loomed in front of them. He should probably have recognised the landmarks along the way as well, but his brain was another part of his body still not fully cooperating.
Lao-Chu paused in front of the door. "Should we knock?" Han Xia asked.
"No," Lao-Chu decided. "If it's not who we're expecting, that'll just give them warning." He tried the handle, and the door opened.
"We're closed," someone called hastily from the dimness inside. A familiar voice.
"Wen-ge, is that you?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He had had enough of Chu Shuzhi banning him from speaking.
Quick footsteps, and the bar owner came closer, eyes widening in disbelief. "Chief Zhao? But I thought all the Haixing portals were sealed!"
"They are, it's a long story," Lao-Chu said, before Zhao Yunlan had a chance to answer. "Have you got a back room? Chief Zhao's injured."
"Am I?" Zhao Yunlan asked, and Lao-Chu glared him into submission.
"The front door's supposed to be locked when I'm closed," Wen Sheng muttered. "This place is neutral ground."
"Weren't you standing up against Ye Zun?" Zhao Yunlan demanded. "What do you mean, you're suddenly neutral?"
"Lao-Zhao, shut up," Chu Shuzhi snapped. "Ignore him," he said to Wen Sheng. "He's — We'll explain in a minute. But we've only just arrived, and the portal shut again behind us. We need to catch up on the situation here."
"Who's she?" Wen Sheng asked, pointing at Han Xia. "I know you two, but she's new."
"She's SID," Lao-Chu said, and elbowed Zhao Yunlan sharply in the ribs before he had the opportunity to comment.
Wen Sheng nodded, satisfied for the moment, and led them through the main room to a small door behind the bar. There was a back room with a low sofa, and Lao-Chu deposited Zhao Yunlan onto it.
He sat up with an effort, propping himself between the sofa back and arm. "Can you both stop looking at me like that?" he demanded of Chu Shuzhi and Han Xia. "Did I hit my head or something? I realise I must have forgotten some stuff…" How much, that was the question. He wasn't sure he was ready to find out. He swallowed suddenly short of breath. "I remember… the end of the fighting… Ye Zun was gone…" And he'd been trying to light the Lantern…
"That was over a year ago," Wen Sheng said. "And we heard you were dead." He looked suddenly hopeful. "But, you're not. So is Hei Pao Shi also —"
The question Zhao Yunlan had been unable to voice so bluntly. He felt lightheaded as he stared at Lao-Chu, as Lao-Chu glanced at him to meet his eyes and then shake his head.
"A year," Zhao Yunlan said, hollowly. A year, and Shen Wei was dead. And he'd thought he would be, too… "What happened?" he demanded.
"Chief," Lao-Chu said, and he sounded like he was trying to be gentle. Like he had news he didn't want to break.
Zhao Yunlan looked down at himself. At the unfamiliar clothing, sort of his style but distinctly smarter, down to the boots. Han Xia, a new SID recruit, whom he had for some reason chosen to bring to Dixing over someone like Da Qing. A year which he didn't remember. "Zhang Shi," he said, very quietly. It was suddenly hard again to get enough air. He tried not to let it show.
"You died," Lao-Chu said. "You chose to be the one to light the Lantern."
"And my father knew what to do if I succeeded. I talked about it with him. Yes." He could remember that conversation, clear and sharp-edged in his memory, as opposed to the gaping hole since. Some stupid urge for his death to mean something. "So he — Where is he?"
"Zhang Shi?" Lao-Chu asked. "I don't know. We stepped through the portal and you fell down and had a seizure. And when you woke up, you were you. I haven't seen Zhang Shi since."
Was Zhang Shi still inside him but incapacitated somehow? Why had he never asked his father more details about their arrangement? Asked whether he could feel Zhang Shi's presence inside him even when he wasn't taking charge? Zhao Yunlan tried, but all he could feel was a deep and growing panic.
"So… Chief Zhao was actually someone else all this time?" Han Xia asked, in a tone of deep consternation.
At least it wasn't just him this was coming as a surprise to. At least —
Zhao Yunlan started laughing, high and hysterical, and then he was choking on it.
"Calm down," Lao-Chu said, in a surprisingly gentle voice, leaning close to fill Zhao Yunlan's field of vision, a hand on his arm. "You're fine."
He did his best. He was not going to fall apart in front of Lao-Chu and a rookie and Wen Sheng, who had been listening to all this with an air of distinct alarm. "I'm okay," Zhao Yunlan said, trying to control his breathing and make it true. "I'm okay, I'm okay."
Everyone was looking at him kind of doubtfully.
"So… how did you make the portal open?" Wen Sheng asked, at last. "We all thought Dixing was completely cut off now. It's caused a lot of problems. Shortages."
"The portal has been emitting more dark energy for a while now," Lao-Chu said. "Our scientist has been monitoring it since it sealed, and he detected the change. He said it was like it had been recharging all this time. So we waited for it to be strong enough to bring a small party through."
"Then it shut again behind us," Han Xia said. "Neither of us could detect it anymore."
"There was also a distraction at that point," Lao-Chu said, dryly.
"You're Dixingren?" Zhao Yunlan asked Han Xia.
"Half," she said. "My father. I grew up in Dragon City, though, and he wasn't really around. This is the first time I've actually been to Dixing."
"And all our information is a year old," Lao-Chu said. He turned to Wen Sheng. "What's been happening here?"
Wen Sheng shrugged. "Lots of tensions," he said. "Like I say, I'm neutral ground. The Palace is contested, but everyone still drinks here. No politics indoors."
"Who's contesting the Palace?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"The Regent's faction against Lord An's." He shrugged again. "No idea who's going to win."
"What happened to Ye Zun's supporters?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Wen Sheng laughed, bitterly. "What supporters? Ask absolutely anyone and they'll tell you how they stood bravely against him."
"Ah," Lao-Chu said, expressively, which also summed up Zhao Yunlan's reaction. He could see all too easily how that must have gone.
"You mentioned shortages?" Han Xia said.
Wen Sheng gestured expansively. "We don't exactly grow a lot down here. Nearly everything was supplemented by smuggling from Haixing."
"How do you still have alcohol, then?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Mushrooms, mostly," Wen Sheng said. "We haven't been short of that, it's most of what I was selling all along."
"Lovely." Zhao Yunlan pressed his fingers against his forehead. He was still trying to get all of him properly online. And there was almost too much to slot in. Zhang Shi, simmering tensions in Dixing which were just skirting outright animosity if he was properly reading between Wen Sheng's lines… his head ached fiercely.
"You don't look good," Lao-Chu said, frowning at him.
"I'm fine." Zhao Yunlan sat up straight again. "So. We came to Dixing. What was the plan after that?"
"Find out what the current situation is," Lao-Chu said. "Make contact with the Palace. Go home again."
"Well, we're on one out of three," Zhao Yunlan said. "Could be worse."
Lao-Chu raised an eyebrow.
"Don't give me that expression, I bet you missed me," Zhao Yunlan said, and grinned, and immediately felt a sharp spike of emotional vertigo. He had to stop reminding himself of what had happened or he would be back to fighting off a breakdown again.
"What are your orders then, Chief?" Lao-Chu asked, with only a slight trace of sarcasm.
"More intel first," Zhao Yunlan said. "Lao-Chu, you go out and scout around. Wen-ge, we'll pick your brains a bit more." He stood, and then a wave of swaying blackness slammed into him.
When it cleared, Lao-Chu was laying him firmly down on the sofa. "New plan," he said, when Zhao Yunlan groaned at him. "You're going to lie here and get some rest, until you can stand up without fainting."
"No," Zhao Yunlan protested, "I need —"
"Shut up and rest," Lao-Chu ordered, and swept the others out of the room.
Zhao Yunlan tried again to get up, with no success other than to set his head pounding sickly. He finally gave up and lay back down, exhausted.
Sleep dragged him under almost immediately.
He dreamed of Shen Wei. It seemed inevitable.
It also hurt almost more than he could bear, because it was Shen Wei dressed as he had been the very first time Zhao Yunlan had ever seen him, his eyes reddened and full of tears.
We'll find each other again, Shen Wei said, the glimmer of the space between worlds, between times, all around them.
Zhao Yunlan agreed with him, because what else could he do? He didn't dare reach for Shen Wei, because he wanted so desperately to be held, he ached so much to be wrapped in those familiar arms, that for Shen Wei's dreamself to turn out to be insubstantial would break him.
Then his dream changed, becoming bright-hot and burning, and he remembered without truly remembering that this was the Lantern, and he knew the lack of detail in his memory was nothing but a mercy.
He could feel another presence here, could recognise the pain and fear and confusion.
He knew it was Zhang Shi.
Thank you so much for reading!
Zhao Yunlan woke at a time which he presumed was the next morning, feeling much more like himself. Which was probably amusing, from a certain point of view.
He wandered out into the bar area, currently empty, and found the customer bathroom. He splashed water onto his face and used his fingers to comb his hair. At least Zhang Shi hadn't decided to change his hairstyle.
When he went back out, Lao-Chu was sitting on one of the barstools. "I thought I heard you moving around," he said.
Zhao Yunlan took a seat next to him. "Where's Wen-ge?"
"Asleep," Lao-Chu said. "He closes late. I'm surprised you slept through all the noise."
Zhao Yunlan gestured at the bright Lantern-light coming through the high window. "Does that ever change?"
Lao-Chu shrugged. "Hasn't so far. I guess they've swapped endless night for endless day." Then he frowned. "I think it flickered briefly, after we came through the portal. Just before you collapsed."
Zhao Yunlan filed that away, to be examined more closely later.
"Do you want something to eat?" Lao-Chu asked. He got up and went around the bar. "Wen Sheng showed me where — Here." He passed Zhao Yunlan something that looked like a flat-bread.
It didn't look terribly appetising, but Zhao Yunlan was hungry. And it turned out to taste better than it looked. Probably it was made of mushrooms or something even less appealing, but he didn't ask, just washed it down with the water that Lao-Chu also passed over.
"So how are things in Dragon City?" he asked, once he'd sated his immediate needs. "How is everyone?"
Lao-Chu came to sit beside him again. "Well, the SID's still going," he said. "More budget these days, between Zhao Xinci and Minister Guo and public appreciation for stopping Ye Zun. We've got several new rookies. Han Xia's the best, it's why we brought her, but they're all pretty good."
"How's Xiao-Guo?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Fine," Lao-Chu said, slightly gruffly. "His family keep trying to send him on dates." His expression showed what he thought of that.
Zhao Yunlan snorted.
"Zhu Hong's mostly off trying to make the Yashou stop arguing so much — at least that's what she says is what she spends her life doing now, but I think she's enjoying herself." Lao-Chu grinned. "Lin Jing enjoys torturing the rookies."
"And Da Qing?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"He really misses you," Lao-Chu said. "I think it's been hard for him to still be at the SID. With Zhang Shi. He's still living in your apartment; Zhang Shi moved out."
"Did he take my stuff with him?" Zhao Yunlan demanded.
Lao-Chu rolled his eyes. "No."
"Okay, good." One less thing that would have changed when he got home again. Which he was going to do. He took another drink of water, because he had one more question to ask. Again. One last time, when no one but Lao-Chu could hear him. "And Shen Wei. He's really… dead." It took an effort to say.
"You know as much as we do," Lao-Chu said, with an uncharacteristic gentleness. "You were there. As far as we know, he died along with Ye Zun. Da Qing has his pendant. He's been keeping it safe."
Zhao Yunlan swallowed, trying to blink away the stinging in his eyes. He'd already known there was no point trying to get a different answer, but yesterday had been so unreal he'd felt he had to try. "So," he said, trying to sound brisk and in control, "Did you find out anything useful after our last discussion?"
"I learned where An Bai's based, if you want to talk to him," Lao-Chu said. "Most of the citizens are waiting to see who's going to come out on top, but they've all got a view as to who that should be. Definite factions everywhere."
"Did you find out where the Regent is, too?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Holed up in the Palace. Like a rat." It was Wen Sheng speaking, entering through a different door than the one Zhao Yunlan had used.
Zhao Yunlan grinned at him. "Wen-ge, I thought you were neutral."
"Professionally neutral," Wen Sheng said, somewhat primly. "My opinions are my own."
Zhao Yunlan laughed. "Go and wake up Han Xia," he said to Lao-Chu. "We might as well bring her along."
"She's done her probation already," Lao-Chu said, a note of slight warning in his tone.
Zhao Yunlan pretended not to notice. "Yeah, but not for me," he said, grinning, wondering why it hadn't been until Guo Changcheng's arrival that he'd had any inclination of how protective Chu Shuzhi could be. He wondered if it extended to all the rookies, and hoped it did.
Lao-Chu glared at him and then went off, returning shortly with Han Xia, her hair freshly plaited. "Chief Zhao," she said, politely.
It made Zhao Yunlan's skin crawl, a bit, because she wasn't really addressing him — that was a greeting for Zhang Shi, a more formal SID chief who probably didn't give briefings perched on a table or sprawled on the sofa. (He really hoped no one had let Zhang Shi get rid of the sofa.) Still, it wasn't her fault. "Morning," he said. "We're off to see An Bai. Have you done diplomatic visits before?"
She shook her head.
"Have you done 'diplomatic'?" Lao-Chu muttered, and she shot a startled glance towards him as Zhao Yunlan laughed out loud. Lao-Chu was helping all right, underscoring the ways in which he and Zhang Shi were very different people.
"I may surprise you," he replied, loftily. Although probably not. "Come on, let's go."
Dixing in the morning was just as seemingly deserted as it had been at whatever time they'd been outside yesterday. Now that Zhao Yunlan was primed to pay attention, he could see the small differences that marked the passing of a year in changed circumstances. Windows were shuttered or hung with makeshift curtains against the omnipresent Lantern-light. Ornamentation looked slightly more run-down, although there were a few more pots of plants than there had been.
But there were splashes of colour on the walls every now and then. Graffiti which hadn't been fully scrubbed out. An Bai's name was featured several times, and angry slogans. Dixingren are equal! Choose a side! The old ways are gone! Zhao Yunlan nudged Lao-Chu, pointing them out.
"Desecrating the buildings is illegal," Lao-Chu said. "Anyone doing that would normally be arrested. And the writing would be removed immediately."
They met someone on the street, or nearly did — when the man coming towards them saw the three of them he put his head down and backed away hastily. It clearly wasn't a good time to be abroad.
"How much further?" Han Xia asked, sounding unsettled. Zhao Yunlan couldn't blame her.
"Several minutes," Lao-Chu said.
"Are you enjoying being part of the SID?" Zhao Yunlan asked her.
Her spine visibly straightened. "Yes, very much," she said. "I passed my probationary term last month."
"I'm not going to un-hire you," Zhao Yunlan said. "Probably, anyway. Relax."
She did not noticeably relax.
"So you're a field agent?" Zhao Yunlan continued. "That's good, we always need more of those."
"That's what Guo-qianbei said," Han Xia told him.
Zhao Yunlan met Lao-Chu's eyes over the top of her head. Guo-qianbei? he mouthed.
Lao-Chu gave a smug little smirk.
Okay, he could definitely deal with Xiao-Guo having finally grown up, even if he couldn't really picture it. When he got home —
The street exploded in front of them.
Zhao Yunlan was flung back, and for a moment all he could see was fire — burning, searing, roaring, devouring — and then he was scraping himself off the ground, his hearing going in and out, vision wavering as unsteadily as the rest of him.
He coughed. There was grit in his mouth. A considerable quantity of the small stones covering the road surface had gone flying, and he felt peppered with impact bruises. "Is everyone okay?" he croaked.
He found Han Xia curled in a ball, Lao-Chu sitting up nearby. Zhao Yunlan reached her, put a hand on her shoulder. "Hey."
She took a shuddering breath and uncurled. "I'm okay," she said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself of it as much as anyone. "Was that a bomb?"
"Something like," Zhao Yunlan said. Lao-Chu was on his feet and looking cautiously at the road. If any of the nearby buildings were occupied, the inhabitants weren't keen on advertising the fact. "Are you hurt? Take your time and be sure."
She sat up, slowly. "I don't think I am." Her previously neat hair was in disarray. "You're bleeding."
Zhao Yunlan dabbed at the shallow cut on his neck and disregarded it. He stood, and hauled Han Xia to her feet. "Lao-Chu, anything?"
"No explosive device," Lao-Chu said. "That was a Dixingren using their power."
"Would they have to be close by?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Lao-Chu shrugged. "Depends on what their power is."
Presumably it wouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility for some Dixingren to have the power to create remote booby-traps, although the trick would be to only set them off when the right people were passing. Or perhaps whoever it was was only interested in spreading chaos, and didn't care who they injured…
Zhao Yunlan reminded himself that Dixing wasn't his city, and therefore wasn't his responsibility or problem. Theoretically. "Let's push on," he said.
"It isn't far," Lao-Chu said. He walked on Han Xia's other side, protectively close. She had done well, for what was probably the first time someone had tried to kill her. Or was it her first time? Zhao Yunlan decided it might not be very tactful to ask right then.
The building they eventually arrived at looked like some sort of town hall or community centre — Zhao Yunlan found himself trying to guess its purpose by analogue.
(Shen Wei might have known, he thought, and nearly stumbled at the pulse of grief which followed.)
The guards at the entrance weren't wearing any kind of uniform, and were apparently unarmed — but that didn't mean anything here. "An Bai will want to see us," Zhao Yunlan told them, confidently. "I'm Haixing's Lord Guardian."
The pair gave each other alarmed looks, and then the girl vanished inside. "Wait here, please," said the other.
"Sure," Zhao Yunlan said, easily, and propped himself against the doorframe in the place the girl had just vacated.
He didn't have to wait long — she was soon back, walking quickly. "Come with me, please," she said.
Zhao Yunlan followed, the other two falling into place behind him.
He'd last seen An Bai dressed in formal palace robes, but when they reached him, at one end of a large room bustling with people, he was wearing a t-shirt and jeans like most of the other youth his age. He stood up at their approach, stepping around a desk covered in paper. "It really is you," he said, sounding surprised about it. "Zhao Yunlan."
Zhao Yunlan noted the lack of the Lord Guardian title. "Nice to see you again," he said. "How are you styling yourself these days?"
"Just An Bai," An Bai said. "I think Dixing's had enough of being ruled by empty titles, wouldn't you agree?"
"You've become a politician," Zhao Yunlan said, not without approval.
"I've had to," An Bai said. "The Regent wanted us to hide inside the palace and hoard resources, like everything would just carry on as normal after Ye Zun and the lighting of the Lantern. We disagreed over it."
"And so you set up an opposing government," Zhao Yunlan said.
"Not on purpose!" An Bai retorted. "At first I was just collecting people to protest. But then the Regent and his supporters called out the Palace Guard — they wanted to bring it to a fight. After everything! So we fought back. But we couldn't get into the palace, and the Regent's still in there with most of his supporters. There are a lot more of us, but they've got better training and resources."
"So what's your plan now?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Keep things running, basically," An Bai said. "Eventually the Regent will have to give up, when no one needs him anymore."
"You say you have more people?" Lao-Chu asked.
"More outright supporters," An Bai said. "The traditionalists are on the Regent's side. And plenty of people are waiting to see how the rock falls before they'll commit."
"Someone tried to blow us up in the street," Zhao Yunlan said. He gestured to his shallow cut.
"I'm glad they didn't succeed," An Bai said. "I've heard about things like that happening. But tell me please, how are you here? Is the Haixing portal open again?"
"It was, but only for long enough to allow us to come through," Zhao Yunlan said. "We're stuck here for now."
"And you're offering an alliance, by coming to me?"
Zhao Yunlan gave him a shark's smile. "No promises. Not yet. Remember the treaty."
"Ah yes, that you support the current ruler of Dixing. Isn't that a bit ambiguous, though? Current ruler could be taken a couple of ways in the present situation."
"You'll do well at this," Zhao Yunlan told him. "I'm not saying I won't help you. But we're still getting a full view of the situation first."
An Bai looked around briefly, to check that none of his people were overhearing. "Frankly, Chief Zhao, unless the portals open again, the situation is that in a couple of months we're going to run out of food," he said. "I don't know how much is stashed away in the palace — that might buy us some time, but after that we're still going to run out."
"Can you grow food, now you have light?" Lao-Chu asked.
"Potatoes are growing well outside the city," An Bai said. "We don't have much seed stock, though. If we had the connection to Haixing…"
But they didn't. Zhao Yunlan wished that Lin Jing had come with them, so that he could maybe answer questions on how long it would take before the portals had recharged enough to open again. "How many people know the state of your supplies?" he asked.
An Bai shrugged. "A few. We've kept it close, but not a secret. I think most people just don't want to think about it."
When the food stocks got low enough, the simmering tensions across the city would almost certainly burst into violence. Zhao Yunlan could see that An Bai knew that. "We'll see you later," he said. "If you'll have us back."
"Of course," An Bai said. He paused. "I know it was some time ago, but I haven't seen you since… I'm sorry about Hei Pao Shi. Truly."
"So am I," Zhao Yunlan managed. "Thank you."
He was happy to leave quickly after that.
They didn't encounter any more explosions in the streets. "Let's go and take a look at the palace," Zhao Yunlan said, recklessly.
Lao-Chu gave him a dubious look. "I don't think the Regent's going to be as keen as An Bai was to have us in for a chat."
"I wasn't planning on it," Zhao Yunlan said. "Like I said, we're just going to have a look."
When they eventually got there, the outside of the palace was mostly unenlightening. The gates were closed tightly. An Bai's name was scrawled low down on a wall, not yet scrubbed away.
"Seen enough?" Lao-Chu asked, after they'd stared for a while.
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said, and turned away. He couldn't think of any more distractions. He was tired. Heartsick. "Let's go back to the bar. I need a drink."
This chapter should answer a few questions. Such as, "how come this is a fic by Frith without much h/c yet?" Hope you enjoy!
"I'm opening up for the evening soon," Wen Sheng said. "You need to stay in the back."
"What, just me?" Zhao Yunlan demanded. That statement had seemed very directed. "Not the others?"
"They'll fit in," Wen Sheng said, tidying the bar. "You do nothing but stand out. How many disruptions did you manage to cause last year before everyone knew who you were?"
Zhao Yunlan sulked, but had to accept his point. And in all honesty he wasn't in much of a mood for company. "You two can do more intel collecting, then," he ordered his team.
"What if people ask why they haven't seen us before?" Han Xia asked. "We can't say we've arrived from Dragon City."
"Pretend you're a bit younger than you are, and say you've left your Regent-supporting parents across the city to join An Bai's group," Wen Sheng advised her. "It's happening a lot, that sort of thing." He was good at intrigue. Zhao Yunlan suspected it of being one of the things which had driven him to open a bar in the first place.
"See, you'll be fine," Zhao Yunlan said. He eyed the display of liquids on the back wall. "Wen-ge, have you got a bottle of something not made from mushrooms?"
"Have you got anything to actually pay me with?" Wen Sheng countered.
Zhao Yunlan sighed. He badly needed a drink. "Okay, a bottle of something that is made from mushrooms?"
He avoided Lao-Chu's eyes as Wen Sheng slid him a bottle across the bar. He didn't need confirmation of his disapproval.
The small room with the sofa now had a couple of blankets folded on it. Apparently it was his for the time being. Zhao Yunlan sprawled on the sofa and took a swig straight from the bottle. It was pretty tasteless, aside from the burn of the alcohol, but alcohol was after all the main thing he wanted.
It felt like he'd been sleepwalking all day. Holding himself to a familiar pattern out of habit more than anything — investigating what was going on in Dixing because that was what he knew how to do. That was the surest way he could distract himself from the black tide of his thoughts which were beginning to sweep in around him now that he'd stopped moving.
He missed Shen Wei so fucking much. It had taken all the air in him away, that stab to his heart when he'd been forced to watch Ye Zun devour him — he'd thought that was the worst pain he could ever feel, but this dull ache now underlying every second, every breath, was somehow every bit as unendurable.
He drank more. Drinking to get drunk — he hadn't done that for a long time, and it was probably a bad idea. He knew that even as he was unable to stop himself. They weren't safe, even if he more or less trusted Wen-ge. Zhao Yunlan was still the SID chief, and supposedly responsible for the rest of them who were currently stuck here. Including a rookie, and didn't he just have words for Zhang Shi about that.
Zhang Shi, who was burning up inside the Lantern in Zhao Yunlan's place right then. Zhao Yunlan didn't know how that had happened, but he was pretty certain about it — for whatever reason, when his body had stepped through the portal to Dixing the two of them had swapped places.
Would it happen again, if he managed to return to Haixing?
Maybe they could work out some sort of time-share. Maybe being back inside the Lantern would hurt less than this all-devouring grief. He took another swig from the bottle. "What did I do to get brought back without you?" he demanded. It was… not even unfair matched how he felt. He didn't know whether he had the resources to continue coping with it. To survive it.
The alcohol burned his throat, dulled the edges of his thoughts. It was working faster than he'd expected — did Zhang Shi drink at all? Maybe not, if his body was reacting like this. He'd used to have a good tolerance.
Before Shen Wei, anyway. He hadn't drunk nearly so regularly since.
He couldn't decide, now, whether he wanted to be forgetting or remembering. Both options seemed equally painful.
There was a knock at the door. "Nope," he called, but it opened anyway.
It was Lao-Chu. "Go away," Zhao Yunlan told him, because he was still in charge and could give orders.
Unfortunately, Lao-Chu had never been all that good at following orders he didn't like. He came in instead, but Zhao Yunlan decided not to yell at him because he'd brought another bottle of the same stuff, which he put down on the floor. "Since you seem determined to do this," he said.
"If you're here to judge me you can piss off," Zhao Yunlan said.
Lao-Chu shook his head. "I'm not here to tell you anything," he said.
He left after that, which was good, because Zhao Yunlan had no idea how to respond to that sort of kindness just then and would probably have started either crying or shouting instead. He took another deep pull from his bottle and tipped his head back against the arm of the sofa. Only too aware that he was being pathetic and irresponsible, but also he didn't think that he could have held it together any longer.
"Shen Wei," he said, and remembered the vivid dream he'd had, set inside the portal or the Hallows-created space or somewhere. "Why aren't you here? With me?"
With his eyes shut and the alcohol coursing through him he began to see that space again, star-studded and unreal. "I'm here," Shen Wei said, and Zhao Yunlan drained the bottle and reached for the second without opening his eyes, because he didn't want to risk waking up from this half-dream. "Zhao Yunlan, I'm here."
"I wish you were," Zhao Yunlan said. "I've never wished anything so much." He was crying now despite his efforts, tears trickling from beneath his closed eyelids, but he didn't much care. Shen Wei had seen him cry.
Shen Wei seemed unhappy about it, though. He came closer and lifted his hand to brush Zhao Yunlan's tears away, but his fingers were insubstantial. Not even a ghost-whisper of sensation to help Zhao Yunlan's imagination. "I wish I could help you," he murmured.
"I know, baby, I know," Zhao Yunlan said. "I wish you weren't dead, too. I thought — gods, I had so many plans for us. Why didn't we get more time?"
"I'm sorry," Shen Wei said, miserably, and that was so very like him that Zhao Yunlan snorted, and then briefly choked as alcohol fumes went up his nose.
"Not your fault," he said, and then reconsidered. "Actually, it was, wasn't it? I haven't even had time to be mad at you." He drank again. "How could you do that, Xiao-Wei? How could you throw your life away like that without even giving me some warning?" He was crying in earnest now.
He heard the door open again. "Piss. Off," he growled, without looking.
"Who are you talking to?" Lao-Chu demanded.
"Shen Wei. If you don't leave me alone, you're fired."
Lao-Chu made a noise somewhere between disapproving and concerned, but he did go away. Which was all that Zhao Yunlan cared about.
And Shen Wei was still there behind his eyelids. "I'm sorry," he said again, even more miserably. "I wish I'd…"
He trailed off. Zhao Yunlan sighed. "You wish you hadn't done it? Or you wish you'd talked to me about it?"
Shen Wei visibly struggled with the answer, and Zhao Yunlan sighed again. Even in a hallucination, that was apparently too much to ask for. "Come here, baby," he said, forgetting that Shen Wei couldn't, but apparently Shen Wei forgot too and tried to walk into his arms. Which didn't work, and only made Zhao Yunlan's heart ache more fiercely. "I wish you were really here," he said, forlornly.
"I am here," Shen Wei said.
"Yeah, I know, don't go —" Zhao Yunlan mastered himself. "I mean, I wish I was really seeing you. Not just smashed on Wen-ge's awful liquor and talking to myself."
"But you are talking to me," Shen Wei said. "It's just hard — I can't hold myself together like this for long. But I'm here. With you."
Zhao Yunlan gave an unsteady laugh. "Are you trying to convince me I'm talking to a ghost?"
Shen Wei frowned — the small inward-looking expression Zhao Yunlan remembered so well. "I don't think I'm a ghost," he said. "I think I'm just… energy."
Zhao Yunlan wanted it to be true so badly. He wanted to find the loophole that would make Shen Wei not be dead. "I don't believe you," he said.
Shen Wei looked faintly frustrated. "Why not?" he asked.
Zhao Yunlan took another long pull. "I saw what happened," he said. "And Lin Jing told me. You, and Ye Zun through you. You —"
"We were unmade," Shen Wei said. "Light and dark energies tearing each other apart. Energy is all that's left."
"But then how could you talk to me?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"I don't know," Shen Wei said, and he sounded a bit annoyed by it, like how dare his death not make total sense. "It may be something to do with the Hallows. An… entangling."
Zhao Yunlan had to fight to stop himself sitting bolt upright. This suddenly sounded far too plausible, and he was so very desperate for any drop of hope at all — "Your energy is caught up with the Hallows?" he demanded. "Can you come back?"
"I… don't know," Shen Wei said, and there was something of that painful hope now shining in his own face.
"There'll be a way. There must be a way." Zhao Yunlan surged to his feet and his surroundings spun, his legs dumping him back down again as he lost his balance. His eyes had flown open; Shen Wei and that in-between place were gone.
It didn't matter. What mattered was this knowledge, this hope. He staggered to his feet again, managed to stay standing this time, lurched for the door.
It opened, and he was intercepted by Lao-Chu. "Where are you going?" he demanded.
"To the palace," Zhao Yunlan said. "I — we have to."
"Why?" Lao-Chu was somehow managing to guide him back into the room again.
"The — the Hallows are there," Zhao Yunlan said. "We need them. To get Shen Wei back."
"Chief." Lao-Chu pushed Zhao Yunlan to sit down again on the sofa. He didn't want to, but then abruptly he was. "Shen Wei's dead. He's not coming back."
"He can!" Zhao Yunlan exclaimed — why was Lao-Chu being so stubborn? "I talked to him…"
"When?" Lao-Chu asked.
Lao-Chu sighed heavily. "Lao-Zhao," he said, with uncharacteristic gentleness. "Don't do this to yourself."
Zhao Yunlan pushed him out of the way and got up again. Then had to grab Lao-Chu's shoulder to keep himself steady. "I'm not — This is real. I saw him last night, as well. He's energy. The Hallows have him."
"So you want us to break into the palace and steal the Hallows," Lao-Chu said.
"Yes!" It was good that Lao-Chu had finally caught up. "Your brother worked at the palace when you were younger, didn't he? You — you must know ways in."
"You're extremely drunk," Lao-Chu said. "You do realise that, don't you."
Of course he did. That had been the point of drinking.
"Sit down," Lao-Chu said. "I'm getting you some water."
Zhao Yunlan again found himself sitting down without having meant to, everything around him unsteady. And then Lao-Chu was pushing a cup of water into his hands, seemingly without any delay to fetch it. Zhao Yunlan drank. "We need to," he said, between swallows. "I need him back."
"I know," Lao-Chu said. "I wish there was something we could do."
"Do you not believe me?" Zhao Yunlan demanded.
"You can tell me again once you're sober," Lao-Chu said. "How about that?"
Zhao Yunlan squinted at him suspiciously. His expression was hard to read. "And you'll get us into the palace."
"If you still want to in the morning, sure," Lao-Chu said.
It seemed like there would be some kind of catch, but Zhao Yunlan couldn't work it out. Things were wavering too much, beginning to unfocus and break apart. "You promise?" he mumbled.
Lao-Chu was helping him lie down. Laying a blanket over him. Zhao Yunlan didn't catch his answer.
He wanted to see Shen Wei again in his sleep, but he didn't.
Thank you so much for reading! Things are continuing to happen...
Zhao Yunlan woke with a splitting headache, and hadn't got his eyes more than half open before nausea struck. Someone had placed a helpful tin bucket on the floor next to him and he leaned over and retched miserably into it. When he was able to sit up again he found there was also a jug of water on the side, and he rinsed out his mouth and spat before drinking deeply.
Then he leaned back against the arm of the sofa, pressing his knuckles into his forehead. His actions the night before were a haze, and seemed rather less well-considered now.
He eventually drove himself to his feet and stole out into the bar. It was deserted, or he thought at first that it was. But on a bench near his door Lao-Chu was lying with a cushion and a blanket, sleeping.
Careful not to wake him, Zhao Yunlan crossed to the bathroom, walking cautiously so as not to jar his head too much. He rinsed out the bucket and washed his face with very cold water. In the mirror he looked every bit as bad as he felt.
He was walking back when memory abruptly coalesced out of the vague fragments of last night. He swayed, dizzy with the intensity of the emotions pounding into him, and dropped into the nearest seat, head in his hands as he tried to process it.
Shen Wei. Shen Wei had been there. Speaking to him. Like a dream, but… not a dream. He found himself still unshakably convinced of that.
He lifted his head to see Lao-Chu sitting up on his bench, looking tired. "Just about," Zhao Yunlan said. He thought again about how Lao-Chu had kept on being there, as if standing guard. "Thanks. For last night."
Lao-Chu grunted. "You look better than you did."
Which wasn't saying much, Zhao Yunlan was painfully aware. He was pretty sure he wasn't quite sober yet, for all of the hangover he was suffering through. (Probably Dixing didn't even have good painkillers.)
"We'll go to the palace later today," he announced.
Lao-Chu's face became a study in dubiousness. "Why do you still want to go to the palace?" he asked.
"I wasn't imagining things last night," Zhao Yunlan said. "What I said was true." Although he suspected that he might have been a lot more coherent in the attempt to communicate than in actuality. "Shen Wei really is… bound up with the Hallows somehow. He spoke to me."
"While you were drunk," Lao-Chu said, flatly.
"I know how it sounds." Hadn't he refused to believe it himself, at first? "But it's real. I know it is. I just need to get to the Hallows."
"Which are in the palace. Probably under guard."
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan admitted. Even to himself, it sounded more than a little crazy. "But I have to try. Do you know a way in?"
Lao-Chu sighed deeply. "You'll just try and break in by yourself if I don't take you, won't you?"
"Maybe," Zhao Yunlan said, and grinned. He knew when he'd won.
Lao-Chu sighed again. "Fine. I'll get us inside."
Zhao Yunlan pulled at the collar of his borrowed shirt as they kept to the edge of the street. He wasn't quite sure about the style on him, but at least it was clean. And it hadn't been picked out by Zhang Shi. It had belonged to Wen Sheng, instead, so had the added benefit of helping him blend in a bit more as a very unsuspicious Dixingren out for a stroll.
(It turned out there was a whole upper floor to the building, which Zhao Yunlan was mildly ashamed to not have had any curiosity about the day before. He'd been able to have a proper wash, which he'd badly needed.)
"We're getting close now," Lao-Chu said. "Leave any talking to me. Absolutely any talking. I mean it."
"I already agreed with you," Zhao Yunlan said, and Lao-Chu glared at him. Apparently that counted.
They hadn't brought Han Xia. Zhao Yunlan had told her to either stick around at the bar or go back and check out An Bai's people further, as she preferred. He suspected that she'd do the latter — Dixing was interesting to her. He remembered his own curiosity on his first visit, and managed to smile a little at the memory of Shen Wei's irritated attempts to rein him in.
The back way into Dixing Palace which Lao-Chu led them to (and did something clearly practised to the lock to persuade it to open) didn't look like a palace entrance at all — it seemed to belong to another building nestled up against the walls. But inside it opened into storerooms, with a central passage leading through.
"Just keep walking behind me," Lao-Chu said, very quietly. "Hide if I hide. Don't try anything clever."
Zhao Yunlan nodded.
But they didn't meet anybody. Zhao Yunlan had felt a certain emptiness in the palace before, a feeling that it had been built to hold multitudes while its actual occupants had dwindled. This was more than that, however. Now it felt on the edge of deserted.
Some of the storeroom doors were open and they, too, were mostly empty. No food stocks that Zhao Yunlan could see — although given the current tensions, he expected those to be stashed a lot more securely.
He wasn't sure when exactly they had crossed into the palace proper. The boundary, if there was one, was marked mostly by increased caution from Lao-Chu. They heard footsteps a couple of times, and hid behind doors until they passed and faded away again.
Lao-Chu hadn't been able to offer more than a few guesses as to where the Hallows were being kept. If they turned out to be heavily guarded then even Zhao Yunlan had admitted that they would need to regroup and consider drawing up new plans. Zhao Yunlan was carrying his gun hidden beneath his shirt but had no wish to use it unless as a very last resort. For one thing, there was too much risk that the Regent might recognise it, or its effects. He'd left Zhang Shi's wallet with his ID in behind, on the same principle.
They tried several places which turned out to be empty. They had to backtrack to avoid a couple of guards at a post. They'd gone up and down stairs and through such a maze of corridors that Zhao Yunlan had no idea which direction they were facing, or even what level they were on. He'd had no idea the palace was such a rat warren, having mostly been kept to the wide public-facing parts previously.
Then, a while after he'd been starting to lose hope, Lao-Chu opened a door and let out a deeply relieved breath. "Chief," he whispered, and gestured for Zhao Yunlan to follow him in.
The Brush, the Dial, the Awl — all three of them were there, displayed on stands. Looking deceptively ordinary in the centre of a small dark-panelled room decorated with gilt.
"What now?" Lao-Chu asked, quietly.
Zhao Yunlan walked right up to the Hallows and paused, looking at them carefully. He could feel the attraction of their presence as he got close, as he always did.
The Awl, he decided. Its nature was to split — therefore theoretically it could split the energy which was Shen Wei out of all the other energy which surrounded them or was bound up with the Hallows. It made sense to him, in any case. He reached for it, grasping it firmly by the hilt.
"Wait," Lao-Chu began, urgently, "Shouldn't we —"
The Awl responded to him — the Hallows always responded to him. It dragged him down, prying at his essence, and he fought to redirect it, to bend it to his will. "Shen Wei," he ordered it, "Shen Wei," and he forced against it all the images of Shen Wei which he held in his mind and in his heart.
Shen Wei as Zhao Yunlan had first met him, an earnest university professor hiding secrets. Shen Wei in their apartment, methodically chopping vegetables. Blinking behind his glasses and dropping his gaze bashfully when Zhao Yunlan teased him. Veiled behind his black cloak and mask. Moving together with Zhao Yunlan in the dark, lips against skin. All the things that Shen Wei was and had been. Give him back to me.
Dimly, he was aware of the Awl flaring golden in his hand. Of the other Hallows joining it in light — and then suddenly the Lantern was forcing its way into his mind, overwriting the others' glow with searing fire.
"No," Zhao Yunlan choked out, and launched himself again into his memories. Shen Wei, young and staring at General Kunlun with naked admiration. Standing in front of Ya Qing passing judgement. Trading with the Dial for Zhao Yunlan's sight. Bleeding and broken and throwing himself in front of Zhao Yunlan, in front of Ye Zun.
And then — there was flaring brightness building in front of him, spinning out from the Awl, too bright to look at, and when it cleared Shen Wei was lying on the floor.
Zhao Yunlan dropped down next to him, finally letting go of the Awl. "Shen Wei," he gasped, hands on him before he could be afraid that Shen Wei would still be insubstantial and dream-like.
But Shen Wei was solid, and breathing, and his pulse was beating slowly. He was deathly pale, and in the clothes he had been in the last time Zhao Yunlan had seen him in the flesh — but though his white shirt still bore the rips from Ye Zun's punishments, the fabric was perfectly clean, without a trace of blood, and the skin Zhao Yunlan could see below was unbroken.
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said again, and shook his shoulder slightly. "Shen Wei!" But Shen Wei didn't stir.
"We need to get out of here," Lao-Chu said, uneasily.
"Take the Hallows," Zhao Yunlan said, and Lao-Chu smiled viciously and stashed them in his pockets.
"I'll carry the Envoy," Lao-Chu said. "Go and see if it's clear outside."
Zhao Yunlan nodded. But when he went to stand up his vision swam with blackness and his legs felt like water. He toppled, and clung to the floor dizzily.
Lao-Chu turned him over. "What is it?" he demanded.
Zhao Yunlan struggled to focus on him through the pieces of blackness dancing in his vision. He couldn't afford to pass out, but he was horribly afraid that he was going to. "The Awl," he managed. He recognised all too well the feeling of the Hallows' impact on his body.
Lao-Chu swore. "I can't carry both of you," he said. "Do you think you can make it all the way out of the palace?"
Zhao Yunlan grimaced. He wasn't at all sure he could make it out of the room.
"We'll have to find somewhere to hole up," Lao-Chu said. "Maybe… yes. You'll have to walk, though."
Zhao Yunlan nodded grimly. He levered himself slowly to his feet and managed to remain there, gripping the wall, even as his head spun.
Lao-Chu got Shen Wei over his shoulder. "Hold on to me," he said to Zhao Yunlan. "You look like you'll fall on your face otherwise."
"Thanks," Zhao Yunlan said, and took Lao-Chu's arm gratefully.
Lao-Chu pulled him along more endless corridors. Zhao Yunlan kept finding he had his eyes closed. He couldn't have made a guess at where they were, or even whether or not they were retracing their steps.
Finally a door shut behind them. "Sit down," Lao-Chu said, and Zhao Yunlan's knees simply buckled where he was. He put his head down, breathing deeply for several seconds, before he felt recovered enough to look up and see where they were.
They were in a storeroom, filled with large bolts of fabric, dusty and abandoned. Lao-Chu was constructing a pallet out of folded cloth which he laid Shen Wei onto carefully.
Zhao Yunlan approved of the care. He crawled his way over, still dizzy. Shen Wei hadn't moved or responded at all but he was here, he was alive, and it took all Zhao Yunlan's self-control not to break down again in front of Lao-Chu.
Although Lao-Chu looked suspiciously misty-eyed as well as he tucked more fabric over Shen Wei. "I didn't really believe you," he admitted, glancing at Zhao Yunlan.
"You should always believe me, I'm your boss," Zhao Yunlan said, managing a grin, and got a familiar snort in return.
He took Shen Wei's hand, and used his other hand to smooth back loose hair from his forehead. Shen Wei's skin was very cold. His breaths and pulse were both very slow.
"Shen Wei, wake up," Zhao Yunlan pleaded, without any real expectation of being answered.
"I don't think he will for a while," Lao-Chu said, underlining Zhao Yunlan's conclusion. "Maybe you should rest too."
It was a sensible idea — he wasn't in a state to be useful until he'd got over the Awl's effects.
He curled up next to Shen Wei, still holding his hand. Absolutely nothing was going to make him let go.
Shen Wei was still unconscious when Zhao Yunlan woke up, and continued so.
Lao-Chu stole out, and returned with a jug of water and some dried food which he had lifted from somewhere. Zhao Yunlan worried about trying to get Shen Wei to take some water, but didn't want to make him choke. He wetted his fingertips and held them to Shen Wei's lips, but that got no response.
Eventually he kept watch while Lao-Chu slept.
Like many interiors in Dixing, the storeroom was illuminated by a constant dim light from a ceiling fixture. Zhao Yunlan passed the time by wondering whether it relied on dark energy or more prosaic geothermal electricity.
Then he looked down, and Shen Wei's eyes were open.
"Shen Wei!" Zhao Yunlan was at his side a moment later. "Baby, can you hear me?"
Shen Wei stared up at him, then blinked, slow and languid. His eyes closed again.
Zhao Yunlan chafed his hand. "Baby, come on, wake up for me," he coaxed.
Long seconds passed, and then Shen Wei's eyelids finally pried themselves apart once more. His fingers twitched in Zhao Yunlan's tight hold.
"You're awake," Zhao Yunlan said, barely able to believe it. "You're here."
Shen Wei didn't say anything, but his eyes were locked onto Zhao Yunlan. He moved his hand again, and the corners of his mouth twitched in a slight smile.
Then his eyes fell shut, and no amount of pleading could stir him further.
Still, Zhao Yunlan felt like he could finally breathe. He was grinning hugely. Shen Wei had been dead and now, miraculously, he wasn't.
The rest of the night passed quickly. Zhao Yunlan was too wired up to sleep, even if he hadn't been on watch. He sat close against Shen Wei, holding his hand or stroking his hair. He could make plans again. They had a future.
Shen Wei next opened his eyes several hours later. His gaze was sharper this time, and fastened immediately onto Zhao Yunlan's face.
Zhao Yunlan beamed at him, joy bubbling up through his chest. "Hi," he said.
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei whispered, and that was definitely the best sound Zhao Yunlan had ever heard.
"Yeah," he said, stroking Shen Wei's cheek. "I'm here."
"Where…" Shen Wei trailed off, but made an obvious effort to speak again. "Where are we?"
"In Dixing Palace," Zhao Yunlan said. There didn't seem much point in obfuscating, but nor did he feel the need to elaborate.
She Wei didn't ask more questions about it, in any case. "You're okay?" he whispered.
"I'm fine, baby," Zhao Yunlan said, and had to blink rapidly. "How about you — how do you feel?"
"Tired," Shen Wei murmured.
"Yeah, I bet." Zhao Yunlan touched his face gently again. "Go back to sleep."
Shen Wei obeyed, fading out immediately.
Lao-Chu had been watching. "We can't stay here much longer," he said. "It isn't safe."
"I know." Someone could come in at any time. They hadn't brought supplies to sustain them through hiding. "Do you think we can get all the way out of here carrying Shen Wei?"
"It'll be difficult," Lao-Chu said. "Maybe you should have thought of this before you grabbed the Awl."
"It's done now," Zhao Yunlan said, slightly irritably because Lao-Chu might have had a point. "What do you think we should do?"
Lao-Chu considered. "We can give him a little more time," he said. "You might as well get some rest."
It wasn't as if there was much else to do. Zhao Yunlan stretched out on the floor, his head on the edge of Shen Wei's pallet. He didn't really expect to be able to drop off to sleep, but he did, surprisingly fast.
When he woke it was to the sound of low voices. Shen Wei was awake, and sitting up — Lao-Chu had made him a pile of fabric bolts to lean against. He was also wearing Lao-Chu's black sweater over his ripped shirt.
"You should have prodded me," Zhao Yunlan complained. Lao-Chu rolled his eyes.
Shen Wei, though, smiled. "I haven't been awake long," he said.
"How are you feeling?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Shen Wei sighed. "Very… tired," he admitted. He moved his hand in a familiar circling gesture, but no purple-black swirl arose between his fingers. "My dark energy is too low to access. As you see. But I think I can walk, if you help me."
"Lao-Chu filled you in, then," Zhao Yunlan said.
"Not much beyond the immediate," Lao-Chu said, with a meaningful look at Zhao Yunlan.
Meaning that he'd decided it was Zhao Yunlan's job to explain the full extent of their situation. Wonderful. And threats of bonus-docking had never worked on him anyway. "Right," Zhao Yunlan said, trying to convey his feelings in a look.
"We should go now," Lao-Chu said, impervious. "I had a check outside and everything still seems quiet. If we can get to somewhere safe then Hei Pao Shi can rest properly."
Zhao Yunlan nodded. "You've still got the Hallows?" he asked.
Lao-Chu nodded. Shen Wei, looking between them, frowned in confusion but didn't ask any questions for the moment. He looked pale and rather overwhelmed, and Zhao Yunlan thought he might be keeping up the appearance of tracking what was happening much better than was actually the case.
"Good," Zhao Yunlan said. "If something happens, run. Get out of here with them. They're the only bargaining chip we have right now."
Lao-Chu didn't ask, And you? which was just as well. There was absolutely no way Zhao Yunlan would be persuaded to leave Shen Wei, and he didn't want to have an argument about it. "Come on, then," he said.
They got Shen Wei standing between them, an arm over each of their shoulders. He closed his eyes for a minute as he got to his feet, and stood very still in what Zhao Yunlan recognised as an effort to fight off dizziness. Then he opened his eyes again and nodded. "I'm ready," he said.
Zhao Yunlan had doubts. He wished they had time to let Shen Wei recover properly — he leaned heavily on their support, and he looked exhausted before they'd even started walking. But there really wasn't time. And he didn't doubt Shen Wei's stubbornness — if it was at all possible for him to get out of the palace on pure willpower, he'd do it. "Let's go," Zhao Yunlan said.
The corridors were still empty. Zhao Yunlan was gratefully all over again for Lao-Chu's familiarity with the place — if it had been up to him they would probably just have walked in circles without ever realising it. But Lao-Chu didn't seem baffled by the layout at all, and led them confidently.
It was as hard going as he'd feared for Shen Wei. He was soon breathing heavily, and clinging tightly to Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. "Do you need to rest?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Shen Wei shook his head determinedly.
"We can't," Lao-Chu said.
Zhao Yunlan glared at them both. But they kept going, because there really wasn't much choice. Shen Wei's head hung down now, his face taking on an undertone of grey. Zhao Yunlan could only think, This was a bad idea.
Footsteps, suddenly, from behind them.
"Go faster," Lao-Chu snapped, but they couldn't. Or Shen Wei couldn't. He was moving as if sleepwalking, and didn't lift his head in response to Lao-Chu's order.
"Hey, who're you?"
Zhao Yunlan looked back and cursed their luck. Five of the Palace Guard, and their rifles were already out.
"Fight?" Lao-Chu whispered.
If they hadn't had Shen Wei to protect… but they did, and neither Zhao Yunlan or Lao-Chu could take on five well-trained guards without endangering him.
Zhao Yunlan swung around to place his body between the guards and the other two. "Run," he hissed to Lao-Chu. "We'll figure something out."
Lao-Chu still hesitated.
"That's an order!" Zhao Yunlan snapped. And finally Lao-Chu broke away from Shen Wei's side and ran. A shot was fired after him, but Zhao Yunlan thought it missed. He hoped.
Shen Wei buckled with half his support gone. Zhao Yunlan hastily grabbed him with his other arm, steading Shen Wei against himself.
"Don't move!" one of the guards shouted, rather too late now.
"We won't," Zhao Yunlan assured them.
Hands grabbed him. He clung onto Shen Wei, but they were pried away from each other. "What are you doing in the palace?" a guard demanded.
Zhao Yunlan swallowed. "Looking for food," he said. "I'm sorry — we won't do it again —"
"No, you won't," the same guard said, in a satisfied way. She seemed to be in charge. "What are your names? How did you get in?"
Zhao Yunlan glared at her mutinously. Then looked anxiously at Shen Wei, who was struggling to stand.
"Fine," she said. "You can sit in the cells for a while until you want to talk. What's wrong with your friend?"
"He's sick," Zhao Yunlan said.
"Better start talking quickly, then," she said.
Shen Wei didn't make it much further before crumpling. Zhao Yunlan struggled to get to him but was held firm. He had already been disarmed, and was now bitterly regretting not giving his gun to Lao-Chu for safekeeping along with the Hallows.
Shen Wei didn't react when he was hoisted up by two of the guards for them to carry between them, with some grumbling. Zhao Yunlan followed. Hoping he had done the right thing and not made an awful mistake.
He hadn't actually seen the cells in Dixing Palace before, which now struck him as an oversight. He'd done his part in sending plenty of Dixingren here… but there had never seemed to be time.
They arrived in a large room lined with cabinets, which seemed like some sort of processing area. One of the guards left through another door. Zhao Yunlan was stopped in the middle of the floor, and Shen Wei was dumped down a few feet away, but Zhao Yunlan was again blocked from going over to him. "Stand still," the guard who had stopped him ordered, and proceeded to go through all his pockets, but he wasn't carrying much. Just his phone (Zhang Shi's phone), switched off, which he'd slipped into his jeans out of habit. The guard frowned at it and then put it with the anti-Dixing gun in one of the cabinet drawers. Zhao Yunlan made sure to memorise which one.
Shen Wei was searched too. He had nothing.
"Where's Xiao-Li?" the guard leader muttered, annoyed. She got several shrugs in answer.
Before long, however, a door opened and a gangly youth hurried in, out of breath. Xiao-Li, presumably.
"Two for you to check," the guard leader said. "Took you long enough to get here."
"Sorry!" Xiao-Li said. He came to stand in front of Zhao Yunlan, who instinctively stepped back.
"You have to stand still," Xiao-Li said. He looked a bit nervous, glancing to the other guards for support.
With the odds stacked very much against him, Zhao Yunlan reluctantly obeyed. "What are you here to do?" he asked.
Xiao-Li put a hand on Zhao Yunlan's chest, and the other on his forehead. His face drew up in concentration.
"What are you doing?" Zhao Yunlan asked, uneasily.
"He's got no power," Xiao-Li said, and took a hasty step back. Apparently he didn't enjoy being around prisoners any more than Zhao Yunlan was enjoying being around him.
"Do the other one," the guard leader ordered.
"It's easier when they're awake," Xiao-Li complained.
She rolled her eyes and prodded Shen Wei with her foot. "Hey! Wake up." Zhao Yunlan ground his teeth.
Shen Wei stirred, and blinked muzzily. Xiao-Li crouched down next to him and put his hands on Shen Wei's chest and forehead. He frowned.
Zhao Yunlan held his breath. They were about to be in a lot of trouble. Even if they still didn't recognise who Shen Wei was, if they realised how extensive his powers were…
"No power," Xiao-Li said, scrambling to his feet.
"Good," the guard leader said, while Zhao Yunlan was still thinking, What? "They can both go in normal cells."
"My friend's sick," Zhao Yunlan said. "Can I at least stay with him?"
She shrugged. "If you only want half the space, sure."
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said, quickly.
"Fine," she said. "One normal cell for the pair of them."
Zhao Yunlan didn't resist at all this time, in case she decided to change her mind. He followed meekly down another corridor and allowed himself to be pushed through a door in a barred wall. Shen Wei was deposited in after him, and a heavy padlock on the outside snapped shut.
The guards left.
I'm not sure if I explained that this fic is me processing literally all my feelings about the canon ending? Because it is.
Xparrot needs a particular shout-out for continuing to beta despite how late I've been getting some of these chapters to her. I am extremely appreciative and will try to do better!
The cell wasn't a large space, gouged out of the rock. About a third the size of his office at the SID. Rough stone formed three of the walls, as well as the floor and ceiling, with metal bars across the fourth to seal them in. There was a narrow pallet on the far side, although when Zhao Yunlan tested it, the surface was so hard he suspected it of being made of rock as well.
Still, it had a covering, and was slightly better than the floor. "Come and lie down properly," he said to Shen Wei, and supported him heavily over to it.
Shen Wei rolled onto his side as Zhao Yunlan spread the thin blanket over him. "You should have escaped with Chu Shuzhi," Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan scoffed. "What, and left you behind?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, maddeningly serious.
"That's not going to happen," Zhao Yunlan said. "Not again. I let you talk me into that once, remember?"
Shen Wei exhaled, and closed his eyes.
Zhao Yunlan waited a minute for a response, but then realised that Shen Wei was asleep again. Probably not just to escape the conversation. He sighed.
There wasn't much else to investigate in the cell. A hole in the floor in one corner was clearly a drain. A pail of water stood near it, with a tin cup floating inside.
He spent some time searching for ways to escape, but none of the metal bars had any give to them. And the bars of the door were close enough together that he couldn't reach the lock, even if he'd had anything to use to pick it with. They were, he had to grudgingly admit, very well-designed cells.
The next thing he set to wondering about was whether they'd get fed. Maybe not, in a time of scarcity. He'd have to wait and hope.
He sat and brooded. Starving to death here would be an ignominious end. Hopefully it wouldn't come to that.
Eventually he looked over to find that Shen Wei was sitting up. He had taken the blanket off and moved so that he was leaning against the wall, his feet on the floor.
Zhao Yunlan came and sat down in the space beside him on the pallet. "Feeling better?" he asked.
Shen Wei nodded briefly. He still looked pale and unwell, but was clearly trying to pretend he wasn't. "Is there anything to drink?" he asked.
Zhao Yunlan tasted the water first. It was stale, but fine apart from that, so he refilled the cup and passed it over. Shen Wei drank three cupfuls in quick succession. "I'm afraid there's no food," Zhao Yunlan said.
"It doesn't matter," Shen Wei said. He waited for Zhao Yunlan to sit down again, looking around as he did so. "It's against regulations for us to be in one cell together," he said.
Zhao Yunlan snorted. "I think regulations are falling by the wayside these days." Which reminded him. "A guard checked whether we had powers before they locked us in here. He thought you didn't have one."
"Oh." Shen Wei made that circular motion with his hand again, to no visible effect. "I imagine my current level of dark energy is too low to register." He said it very calmly. Someone who didn't know him extremely well might have thought he was calm about it.
"Is it going to come back?" Zhao Yunlan asked, feeling like he was prying horribly, but needing to know the answer.
"I hope so," Shen Wei said, still forcibly calm. Professor Shen, answering a purely academic question. "Nothing like this has happened to me before." He looked at Zhao Yunlan, and waited.
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said. "What happened. Okay." He paused. He wanted to do a good job of breaking all the news, to give Shen Wei a less traumatic experience than he'd had. But there was really no gentle way to do it. "What do you remember?" he asked, hedging.
"Ye Zun," Shen Wei said. "Then…" The crease between his eyebrows deepened. "I can't properly remember. It's like a dream."
"It's been a year," Zhao Yunlan said. "We were both technically dead. I was in the Lantern, and you were just — gone. But apparently your energy was still bound up with the Hallows."
"You were in the Lantern," Shen Wei said, slowly. "Yes, I knew that, I think." His expression turned anguished. "Why did you do it?"
"Who else was going to?" Zhao Yunlan asked, trying to sound — not too flippant, but he didn't know how to go into just how he'd been feeling when he'd made that choice. "It needed to be lit. Wasn't it my duty?"
Shen Wei absorbed this without speaking, and without a change of expression. Duty was something he understood, at least. "What's been happening to Dixing?" he finally asked.
Zhao Yunlan explained as best he knew. In the course of it he found himself telling the whole story since he'd unexpectedly woken up after passing through the portal. Shen Wei listened silently.
He continued silent afterwards, until Zhao Yunlan could bear it no longer. "Shen Wei?" he asked. "What are you thinking?"
Shen Wei didn't look at him. "It was all for nothing, then," he said. "We didn't improve things for Dixing, just sealed it off and condemned it to turmoil."
"We stopped Ye Zun," Zhao Yunlan pointed out. "That has to count for something."
"Maybe we could have done it another way," Shen Wei said. His gaze turned inward.
"Maybe," Zhao Yunlan said, levelly. He put a hand on Shen Wei's knee. "A way with less self-sacrifice?"
Shen Wei still didn't look at him. "It was necessary," he said.
"Really?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "And was it necessary to not tell me about your plan? To not even give me a hint of it until it was too late and you were already dying?"
Shen Wei finally turned his head. "You're angry," he said.
It had happened over a year ago. It didn't feel like that, for either of them. "If I'd taken that sort of decision for myself you'd be furious with me," Zhao Yunlan said. "It's not different this way around. You should have told me."
"You wouldn't have agreed," Shen Wei said. He had his hand over Zhao Yunlan's now, but didn't seem to notice that he'd put it there.
"No, I bet I wouldn't have," Zhao Yunlan said. "But you know what might have happened?"
Shen Wei finally turned his head and met his eyes. "What?"
"Baby, we might have found a better plan," Zhao Yunlan said. "Isn't that what you were just wishing for?"
Shen Wei dropped his gaze. "I…"
"But we can't know, now," Zhao Yunlan said. He felt like he was being cruel. But there was a red-hot tightness in his chest, and the only good way out of this conversation he could see was through it. He needed to say these things. "You didn't give me the chance to help you. Me and my team went into Dixing blind, while you were already working on your own plan."
Shen Wei's eyes widened at something in his tone. "Was — Is everyone else —"
"I've been told they're fine," Zhao Yunlan said. "Although aside from Lao-Chu I haven't seen any of them for over a year."
Shen Wei fractionally relaxed. Then he looked down at his hand over Zhao Yunlan's, and moved it carefully away.
Zhao Yunlan lifted his own hand away from Shen Wei's leg. He waited. Shen Wei was frowning, miserable, but clearly thinking things through.
Eventually, he lifted his head, and angled his body to face Zhao Yunlan more fully. "I apologise," he said, deeply formal. "I didn't…" He fumbled for the words, frowning again. "I didn't consider the impact my actions would have on you. On everyone. Or I thought it was worth it, but… you don't. I'm sorry." He reached out again, hesitant, and then stopped.
"Thank you," Zhao Yunlan said, and leaned forward to kiss him.
Shen Wei pulled back.
"Baby?" Zhao Yunlan asked, gently.
"Are you sure?" Shen Wei asked.
"What, do I still love you even though I'm pissed at you?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "Don't be ridiculous. Come here."
Shen Wei leaned into him with no more hesitation, and his arms came tightly around Zhao Yunlan as their lips pressed together.
They were in a cell, and the future was uncertain, and neither of them were okay… but it felt like coming home all the same. "I missed you," Zhao Yunlan whispered against Shen Wei's mouth. "I missed you so much."
Shen Wei dropped his head, pressed his face into Zhao Yunlan's neck. Zhao Yunlan kissed his hair. He was pretty sure he could feel the wetness of tears against his throat. But he didn't say anything, and neither did Shen Wei.
After a while, he realised that Shen Wei was becoming heavy against him. "Baby?" he said, "You okay?"
"Yes," Shen Wei mumbled. Which Zhao Yunlan knew better than to trust. He pulled back slightly and found Shen Wei slumping tiredly.
"How about we lie down," Zhao Yunlan said. "I know it'll be a bit of a squash, but I think we'll both fit."
Shen Wei made an agreeing sort of sound so Zhao Yunlan manoeuvred them around until they were both lying on the narrow bed, arms over each other. It was indeed a squash, but he didn't care. It was worth it to feel the warmth of Shen Wei's body against him, and the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.
Time had pretty much ceased to have meaning. Zhao Yunlan wasn't sure how long it was until he fell asleep, or when he woke up again.
Shen Wei was lying facing him, eyes open and watching.
"Good morning," Zhao Yunlan said, because he thought it might as well be. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," Shen Wei said. He raised his hand, and wisps of dark energy smoked around his fingers.
Zhao Yunlan sat up sharply. "Can you get us out of here?" he asked.
"Yes," Shen Wei said. "The locks shouldn't be a problem." He stood up cautiously, with a hand against the wall at first. Zhao Yunlan watched him carefully, but he looked… okay. For the moment.
If they could just get to somewhere safe he would make Shen Wei stay in bed for a week. But first they had to get to that safe place. "You're really ready to try right now?" he asked.
"You think we should wait?" Shen Wei asked.
He didn't think the evidence was in favour of it. No food had yet shown up, and Zhao Yunlan couldn't deny that his own body was already feeling worse for the lack of it. Even if waiting would give more time for Shen Wei to rest, it seemed an uneasy trade. "No you're right," Zhao Yunlan said. "If you're up for it, let's go."
Shen Wei crossed to the door. He put his hand against where the lock was on the other side and concentrated. Dark energy welled up around his fingers, and a moment later the lock clicked open.
"Yes!" Zhao Yunlan exclaimed, delighted, and grabbed Shen Wei in a quick hug. "You're brilliant."
"We're not out yet," Shen Wei cautioned him.
"Fine, but we will be soon." Zhao Yunlan remembered the way they'd been taken. He led them past a row of empty cells. Maybe they'd been put in the closest unoccupied ones. He uneasily wondered about other prisoners, and how many resources they were likely to be given in a time of stress. But they couldn't solve all those problems at once, he tried to tell himself.
The processing room they had been brought through was unoccupied, once Shen Wei had unlocked the heavy metal door to let them in. Zhao Yunlan was pleased that he had taken careful notice of where his gun and phone had ended up — it only took a couple of false tries for him to locate the right cabinet drawer and take repossession of them.
Shen Wei had to unlock the outer door too. It took him a few seconds longer this time, which Zhao Yunlan tried not to dwell on.
Then they were once again in the maze of the palace corridors. "Do you know the way out?" Zhao Yunlan asked, in a low voice.
"Of course," Shen Wei said, in a mildly offended way.
Chu Shuzhi had known the back ways of the palace. Servants' routes. Shen Wei instead took them along the main, public-facing corridors — undoubtedly the quickest way between the cells and the palace entrance, but it made Zhao Yunlan uncomfortable. They stayed close to the walls, pausing before turning around each corner.
Shen Wei was bearing up well. He was pale, still, but he didn't need Zhao Yunlan's support. It didn't stop Zhao Yunlan from worrying, or from keeping more of his attention focused on Shen Wei than he maybe should have.
They turned a corner. Sitting on a bench, apparently lost in contemplation, was the Regent.
He seemed as surprised to see them as they were to see him — his eyes and mouth both widened in shock. "You're alive!" he exclaimed, and jumped to his feet, still staring.
"Yes," Shen Wei said.
"What are you doing here?" the Regent demanded.
"Assessing the situation in Dixing," Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan would probably just have run for it. But Shen Wei had planted his feet, seemingly determined to talk.
The Regent shook his head wearily. He had quickly recovered himself. "It's bad," he said. "Riots among the population. Insurgency. Maybe now you're here, you could help me —"
"People are running low on food," Zhao Yunlan said. "What supplies do you have in the palace?"
"Not enough for everyone," the Regent said. He sounded genuinely regretful. "These things need to be distributed properly, not seized by anyone who claims them. That would just lead to anarchy."
"At the moment it seems to be leading to you lot fending off a siege in here," Zhao Yunlan pointed out.
The Regent shrugged a little. "I think we'll be the ones to outlast it."
"And what about your responsibilities to the people?" Shen Wei asked. "What are you doing to help them?"
"I had forgotten you were like this," the Regent said. He sighed.
He must have sent some sort of signal when he first saw them. Zhao Yunlan suddenly realised that there were guards now in the corridor behind them, and in front.
One of the guards in front suddenly stepped forward a pace. "My Lord — these are two thieves who were locked in the jail!"
"Really?" the Regent asked. He looked very disapprovingly at the guard, who shrank back into line. "I wasn't informed we had the Black-Cloaked Envoy in a cell."
The guard looked at his companions, but none of them seemed ready to back him up. "I — we didn't know who he was…"
"And you didn't test him for a power?" the Regent asked, sharply.
The guard now looked as if he deeply regretted having spoken up. "We… I mean, Xiao-Li did, but he said neither of them had a power…"
"Oh," the Regent said. "How very interesting." He raised an eyebrow at Shen Wei.
"I was injured," Shen Wei said, stiffly. He straightened his back slightly.
"I see," the Regent said, softly. He raised his voice. "Shoot them."
Zhao Yunlan fumbled to draw his gun from beneath his shirt. The guards' rifles were up and pointing at them and he heard the clicking of triggers —
Shen Wei reached up and tore the world open.
Thank you SO much for all the feedback, I'm really glad you're enjoying this! <3
The portal flared bright all around him. Too bright. Searing. Burning. Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth to scream but he was only energy here, only fuel —
He was gathered, protected, pulled along. Shielded, and he knew it was Shen Wei who was doing it. Carrying him away from the hungry grasp of the Lantern which was waiting for him, ceaselessly —
— And then they were stepping out of the portal into a different brightness, the dazzling sunlight of Dragon City's park.
Shen Wei folded to the ground.
"Shen Wei!" Zhao Yunlan wasn't in time to catch him, half-blinded by the sun's glare. He dropped down next to him and clutched Shen Wei's shoulder as he coughed and retched, dark red blood welling from his lips. His eyes were closed, and his face was deathly grey.
Finally the coughing slowed, and then stopped. A dribble of blood continued to leak from Shen Wei's nose onto the grass beneath him. He hadn't responded to any of Zhao Yunlan's frantic entreaties.
He was breathing, though. He was alive.
Zhao Yunlan sat back on his heels, dizzy, assaulted by his senses. The grass was so very green after the drabness of Dixing, and the sky was deeply blue. Even the breeze stirring his hair felt unfamiliar and startling.
He hadn't been here since before he'd died.
Shen Wei's breathing was steady, if slow, and so was his pulse. Zhao Yunlan kept one hand tight on Shen Wei's shoulder, and with the other he pulled the phone out of his pocket and turned it on. It had been off presumably since Zhang Shi had left Haixing, and so still had plenty of battery, but he was briefly stymied by the unfamiliar lock screen and the expectant spaces for him to enter an unknown PIN.
But it also had facial recognition. Zhao Yunlan held the phone up, feeling oddly nervous, and then relieved as it unlocked itself. But it was his face it was keyed to, after all.
He scrolled through the contacts. All actual names, very boring. Da Qing was there, though, and that was who he wanted right now, but Zhao Yunlan hesitated over the Call button, suddenly not trusting himself to speak. He sent a text instead, very brief, with his location and an order to come immediately.
He sat and held Shen Wei's hand while he waited. Shen Wei's skin was cold.
Da Qing arrived much faster than Zhao Yunlan expected. He sauntered over. "You're back," he called, from a distance, and then his eyes went wide and he almost ran the last bit. "Is that… Professor Shen?"
"Observant as ever, Damn Cat," Zhao Yunlan said. He grinned, slow and lazy. Da Qing looked — exactly the same as he'd ever done, and that was another piece of home slotted back into his heart.
Da Qing went completely still, shoulders hunching, staring at him. Finally he whispered, "Lao-Zhao?"
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said, gently. "It's me."
"Really?" Da Qing asked, in a very small voice.
Zhao Yunlan nodded.
The next instant he was being bowled over, Da Qing squeezing him tightly and then switching form to rub his furry head against Zhao Yunlan's jaw and then switching again, alternating between frantic mewing and a babble of, "It's really you — I missed you — I thought you were dead — You're back —"
"Hey, hey," Zhao Yunlan said, petting Da Qing's back and fur interchangeably. "I'm here. Have you been okay?"
"I missed you," Da Qing said. "I missed you so much. I didn't like it without you." Then he abruptly pulled back. "Where are the others? Lao-Chu and Han-jie? And how is Professor Shen here? Is he okay?"
"The others are in Dixing," Zhao Yunlan said. "They're fine." He very much hoped, anyway. "I need to get Shen Wei home. Did you take a cab here?"
"I drove," Da Qing said, proudly.
Zhao Yunlan looked at him in startlement. "You drove?"
"Lin Jing taught me," Da Qing said. "He said he was sick of driving me places."
"You'd better not be using my car," Zhao Yunlan said, flatly.
"No!" Da Qing said. "Yours is too big. I've got a small one."
"And you actually have a license?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "A real one?"
"You don't believe me?" Da Qing asked, sounding hurt.
"No!" Zhao Yunlan assured him, quickly. "I just… can't picture you driving."
"I parked just by the road," Da Qing said, waving a hand to indicate the direction.
"Well, that's certainly useful," Zhao Yunlan said. Better than explaining to a taxi driver why they were transporting someone who was unconscious, and why on top of that they weren't going to the hospital. "Help me with him."
Shen Wei was lighter than he'd expected. Still not the easiest to carry through the park — they were lucky they didn't meet anyone. Da Qing proudly led them to a compact little car parked slightly askew against the kerb, and fumbled the keys out to unlock it. Zhao Yunlan squeezed into the back seat and pulled Shen Wei in as well. He considered lying him down but opted for buckling him in with the seatbelt instead.
Da Qing was… an enthusiastic driver. Zhao Yunlan wondered whether Zhu Hong had gone along with him to the driving test to hypnotise the instructor, and was very glad for the seatbelts.
Still, they arrived in one piece. Shen Wei hadn't stirred, and Zhao Yunlan hated the amount of drying blood on his face and throat.
It was harder carrying Shen Wei up the stairs to the apartment. But they managed it, and Da Qing opened the door.
The apartment was pretty much as he'd left it, Zhao Yunlan thought from a quick glance around. He started to move towards the bed, and then changed course to lay Shen Wei on the sofa instead. "When did you last change the bedsheets?" he asked.
Da Qing shrugged.
"Well, do it now."
"I forgot you're so bossy," Da Qing muttered.
"Yes, I'm your boss. Go on and do it."
He checked on Shen Wei anxiously. Still unconscious, his condition apparently unchanged. He fetched a washcloth and dampened it with warm water, rubbing it carefully over Shen Wei's face until he had got all of the blood off.
Da Qing came over having finished changing the bed. "What's wrong with him?" he asked.
"I got him back from the Hallows," Zhao Yunlan said. "But he had almost no dark energy. It was coming back, but he used too much bringing us out of Dixing." Far too much.
They carried him to the bed. Zhao Yunlan kicked the dirty sheets out of the way into a corner, went to Shen Wei's section of the closet, and opened it. Then he stopped. "Where are all Shen Wei's clothes?" he demanded.
Da Qing gave him a very in-the-headlights look. "Gone," he said.
"Gone where? Back to his apartment?"
"It's not his apartment any more," Da Qing said, nervously. "Someone else lives there now. Professor Shen was… Well, we didn't think he… And you…"
Zhao Yunlan took several deep breaths. Ran his hand through his hair. "Okay. Okay, yes. So what happened?"
"You were listed as his next of kin," Da Qing said. "Chief… uh, Chief Zhang got someone to clear the apartment out. And his things here. I don't know what happened to them, I guess they got sold or something."
"His books, too?" Zhao Yunlan asked. There was a lump in his throat. He was having to restrain himself from yelling.
"Chief Zhang took some of them to the SID library," Da Qing said.
Zhao Yunlan made himself nod. It was reasonable. "I guess all my clothes are gone as well?"
"No!" Da Qing threw open the other part of the closet, desperate to be helpful. "Chief Zhang needed some of them, because he was being you, but he left all the ones he didn't like here." His expression became briefly mutinous. "And I didn't want him to take all of them, anyway."
Zhao Yunlan looked. He smiled a bit, in spite of everything. Some of his favourite clothes, the jeans with the artistic ragging that Shen Wei had always been mildly pained by. And a random assortment of t-shirts, socks, pyjamas tumbled in with them as he'd left them… He pulled out a set of pyjamas which would fit Shen Wei well enough. "Go somewhere else," he told Da Qing, because being carried like that would be bad enough for Shen Wei's dignity without adding to it. "Actually, go and order food. I'm starving."
"What do you want?" Da Qing asked.
"I don't care," Zhao Yunlan said, and then reconsidered. "Something Zhang Shi wouldn't eat."
Da Qing retreated to the living area with his phone and Zhao Yunlan turned back to Shen Wei, lying motionless on the bed, head tilted slightly to the side.
Maybe he should just leave Shen Wei to sleep. But Shen Wei was still wearing his green coat, and the shredded shirt under Lao-Chu's borrowed sweater… Zhao Yunlan didn't want to leave him like that.
He'd undressed Shen Wei before, of course, but when he was awake and undressing Zhao Yunlan in turn. It felt entirely different to half-raise Shen Wei to slide his arms out of his sleeves, and to undo his trousers and wriggle them down over his hips, his body slack and unresisting.
Shen Wei's ribs were starkly visible. Zhao Yunlan bit his lip. Even subjectively, he hadn't seen Shen Wei unclothed for a while. They hadn't made love since before Ye Zun had held Shen Wei captive on the pillar down in Dixing — Shen Wei had been exhausted and in pain and there had been no time — but surely Zhao Yunlan should have noticed this before. The sharpness of the bones through his skin couldn't just be from the couple of days since Shen Wei's return.
He wrestled Shen Wei into the pair of his own old pyjamas. He looked a bit better once he was wearing them. And when he was tucked safely under the duvet he looked like he was only asleep, on one of the rare occasions when Zhao Yunlan was awake and he wasn't.
Except for how Zhao Yunlan's thoughts kept skittering too closely around the edges of how that wasn't the case at all.
"I'm going to take a shower," he said brusquely in Da Qing's direction, feeling his thoughts dropping into morbid territory. He grabbed a selection of clothing items from the closet and retreated into the bathroom.
Zhang Shi, or more likely Da Qing, had never got around to cleaning out Zhao Yunlan's selection of hygiene products. It was good to be able to use the right shampoo and conditioner, and he felt better afterwards. Even more so when he pulled on a pair of jeans which had even more rips now than when he'd bought them, and a faded t-shirt with the logo of a rock band he'd loved a frankly embarrassing number of years ago.
The food delivery had arrived while he'd been in the shower, and Da Qing had spread it out on the coffee table, still in containers. Now that he had time for a better look round, Zhao Yunlan realised that the apartment was more like it had been pre-Shen Wei than after, with discarded clothes kicked behind the bed and dirty dishes stacked in the sink. He grinned, for the nostalgia, and took a carton of duck in sticky sauce.
"Good?" Da Qing asked. "It's a new place. I like them."
"Yeah, it's good," Zhao Yunlan agreed.
They ate companionably for a bit. Then Da Qing bumped up against him and said, "So what are you going to do now?"
It was like running into a solid wall he had been hoping wasn't there. There were things he had to do. Get Lao-Chu and Han Xia back from Dixing. Give Shen Wei time to recover. Go to the SID and… Go to his father…
He was too tired. Everything seemed insurmountable.
"Lao-Zhao?" Da Qing asked, frowning anxiously at whatever expression was on his face.
Zhao Yunlan hugged him, and kept an arm around his shoulders. "I don't know what to do next," he said, and even to himself he sounded… lost.
"You always know what to do," Da Qing said.
He needed to borrow some of that spark of confidence. Da Qing needed him to be himself again. He pushed fingers through his hair, and took a deep breath. "Okay. I guess letting people know we're not dead should be first." His past self would probably have thought it sounded hilarious to just walk into the SID and announce himself. His current self didn't. "Can you get Lin Jing to come over tomorrow morning?"
"Sure," Da Qing said. "And Hong-jie? And —"
"Do you think I'm throwing a party or something?" Zhao Yunlan demanded.
"Hong-jie might know how to help Professor Shen," Da Qing suggested.
That was a good point. "Okay, yeah, ask her too."
But she texted back a few minutes later to say that she absolutely couldn't come anywhere the next day, she had a meeting. Lin Jing, though, agreed to be there, and apparently even offered to bring breakfast. Zhao Yunlan felt a surprising amount of relief at being able to deal with his old teammates' reactions one at a time.
He got up to use the bathroom and check on Shen Wei, who hadn't stirred. Then he unearthed a couple of beer bottles from the fridge — he needed to do something about the inside, or get Da Qing to, because Shen Wei was going to be upset about it — and threw himself back down on the sofa. "So," he said. "Tell me all the gossip. What have I missed?"
"At the SID?" Da Qing asked.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged. "Anything you think I ought to know about," he said.
Da Qing was happy to talk. It was a rambling account with no logical order — about the rookies, and Xiao-Guo's new dog, and the fish seller who had closed up shop, and complaints about Zhang Shi's relative strictness, and the displays at last year's Reunion Festival. Zhao Yunlan let it wash through him, commenting as necessary or to encourage Da Qing to tell him more about particular points.
Until Da Qing elbowed him. "Wha'?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He had lost the thread and couldn't remember what Da Qing had just been saying.
"You're falling asleep," Da Qing accused him.
"I'm not," Zhao Yunlan said, and then yawned deeply. "Uh."
"See," Da Qing said.
It had got late. He hadn't noticed either the time or the tiredness creeping up. "I guess I should go to bed," he said, and yawned again.
He half-wondered whether he should sleep on the sofa, so as not to disturb Shen Wei. But he couldn't in the end bear the thought of finally being at home but still separated. He dropped his jeans on the floor and climbed carefully into bed, lying turned towards him.
Da Qing curled up as a warm solid weight on top of the duvet against the crook of his knees, purring.
Yeah, so, I've still got (possibly too much) plot to go...
Zhao Yunlan woke up the next morning, but couldn't get Shen Wei to do the same. He was still deeply asleep, and all attempts to rouse him failed.
Da Qing stuck closely to Zhao Yunlan as he got up and dressed, until the point where Zhao Yunlan shut the bathroom door very firmly in his furry face. When he emerged Da Qing had turned to sulking on the sofa, playing a handheld electronic game. Zhao Yunlan put the kettle on and then elbowed into the space beside him.
There was a knock at the door. Da Qing glanced at Zhao Yunlan uncertainly. Zhao Yunlan waved him to go and answer it.
Lin Jing entered bearing a plastic carrier bag. "What's so important —" he began, and then broke off sharply as he saw Zhao Yunlan. "Oh. Good morning, Boss."
Zhao Yunlan had purposefully let himself sprawl out. "You're thinking of your other boss," he said. "I'm the original one."
Lin Jing stood and stared at him, barely noticing Da Qing take the bag out of his hand. "You…"
"Bonuses only go to people quick on the uptake," Zhao Yunlan drawled. Acting much more relaxed than he was. He was finding it awkwardly stressful to have to repeatedly come back from the dead like this.
Lin Jing took a few steps forward and sat down in the armchair. "You're really — you," he said.
"Zhang Shi, is he…"
"Not here right now," Zhao Yunlan said. "Long story. But it's just me."
"Well," Lin Jing began, and then he abruptly noticed Shen Wei in the bed. "Is that —"
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said. "He's… sleeping."
Lin Jing nodded with an air of really wanting all of this to make sense. "Can I get that long story?" he asked.
Zhao Yunlan told it over breakfast, hoping he wouldn't need to repeat it too many more times.
"I've been monitoring the portal," Lin Jing said, when he was done. "I noticed a big energy flare yesterday afternoon — I guess that was you."
"Is the portal re-opening, then?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "I've been through it twice now in the last few days."
"I've theorised that it's slowly stabilising," Lin Jing said. "Like… something battery-powered that's been charging up. When you — I mean, not you really, but you know — when you went through to Dixing it had just hit the threshold of having enough energy to work, and going through ran the charge down again so that you couldn't get back immediately. But it's continued recharging since then. Shen Wei must have given it enough of an energy boost to get over the threshold, although of course it dipped back down again afterwards."
Zhao Yunlan thought about that. "So you mean soon the portal could be up and running again? Like it was, without depleting every time?"
"I don't know about soon, I don't have enough data," Lin Jing said. "But theoretically, yes."
Zhao Yunlan nodded, already trying to map out all the implications. Renewed contact between Haixing and Dixing, but in an inconsistent manner to start with. And with the situation so volatile in Dixing, once word got out he could see a flood of people trying to leave there, regardless of whether there was really anywhere to go in Dragon City.
Well, that would doubtless quickly become Zhao Yunlan's problem, as soon as he made the various ministries aware of it. Da Qing and Lin Jing were giving him looks suggesting they were coming to the same conclusion, and were glad that they weren't in charge.
His phone buzzed with an incoming message. "Now what?" he asked the air, and pulled it out.
"What is it?" Da Qing asked, as he read it. "You look like you just bit a lemon." He followed up on that display of tact by swiping the last youtiao.
"It's from my father," Zhao Yunlan said.
"You told him you're not dead?" Lin Jing asked.
"Not yet," Zhao Yunlan admitted. "It's for Zhang Shi." He read it out. "Urgent development in the case. Call me as soon as you return."
"Huh," Da Qing said. "Are you going to call him?"
"Do you know what case he's talking about?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He scrolled up through the log of previous texts but they were terse on both sides — purely requests to schedule meetings or calls. It didn't surprise him — his father had always been far too good at preserving confidentiality, and also preferred to do his business in person where possible. Presumably that had actually been the case for both him and Zhang Shi.
"I've got no idea," Lin Jing said.
"Nor me," Da Qing said. "I didn't even know he was working on a case with Zhao Xinci."
"What sort of cases have come up at the SID lately?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Not much," Da Qing said. "Just some low-level stuff around Dixingren who were stuck in the city when the portals closed. The anniversary stirred up some bad feeling."
"Anniversary?" Zhao Yunlan asked, and then, "Oh."
"Do you want me to hack into Chief Zhang's files?" Lin Jing asked, enthusiastically.
"Only if I'm watching you do it," Zhao Yunlan said. He knew better than to hand Lin Jing a blank cheque like that.
Lin Jing accepted this with equanimity. "Well, whatever Zhao Xinci means, it must be something secret if none of us knew about it."
Or it could be something incredibly boring to do with a minor discrepancy in the SID's historical tax records. Zhao Yunlan had no wish to get drawn into conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, because it might have given him an excuse not to take up what he knew was his next duty. "I'd better go to the Bureau," he said, with reluctance. "I do need to tell my father that I'm not dead."
"I should get to the SID for my shift," Lin Jing said, quickly.
Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes. "I'm not asking you to come, don't worry."
"What about me?" Da Qing asked, giving him a look filled with trepidation.
"I need you to stay here and look after Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said. "And you can clean the fridge while you're at it."
Da Qing looked relieved. Perhaps he thought Zhao Yunlan meant the second part as a joke.
Zhao Yunlan briefly considered trying to find something smarter to change into to go to the Xingdu Bureau. At least partly to delay the actually going bit. In the end he decided that what he was wearing was fine. It would certainly help his message.
"If Shen Wei wakes up, let me know straight away," he told Da Qing, not for the first time.
Da Qing rolled his eyes. "You really think I wouldn't?"
"No," Zhao Yunlan admitted. He sighed. "Well, I guess I'm ready."
Lin Jing walked down the stairs with him. "By the way," Lin Jing said, "Your jeep's in the SID garage."
"It is?" Zhao Yunlan asked. His spirits lifted. He'd been resigning himself to learning that Zhang Shi had sold it.
Lin Jing got into his own car and drove away. A taxi was idling nearby and Zhao Yunlan waved it down and got in. He gave his destination and then leaned back, awaiting his fate. To distract himself, he sent a brief text to Da Qing. I meant it about scrubbing out the fridge.
Da Qing responded with a string of insulting emoji. Zhao Yunlan grinned and sent more back.
He looked up from his phone after a few minutes of this, and frowned. "Hey, I think you're going the wrong way," he said.
"This is the right way," the driver said.
Zhao Yunlan leaned forward. "Really, it isn't. You might have put the address into your satnav wrong." They had done a wide loop around the Bureau and were now heading for the opposite edge of the city.
"Don't worry about it," the driver said. He sped up slightly.
Zhao Yunlan eyed the door locks. They were engaged, and he mentally kicked himself for not having noticed that earlier. The window controls didn't respond when he tried them. He considered trying to overpower the driver and was sure he could if he tried — choking him from behind, for instance, but they were going over the speed limit now, through a residential area. Causing a crash would be highly risky, and not just for them.
Intimidation, then. He pulled out the dark energy pistol from his waistband and loudly clicked the safety off before jamming the business end against the driver's neck. "Pull over," he ordered, calmly.
"I'm Haixingren, Chief Zhao," the driver said. "I know that thing won't work on me."
If he had still thought this was all a coincidence… "What do you want?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"I'll tell you when we arrive," the driver said. "Not far now."
The taxi turned into an old industrial area, and drove straight through the open door of one of the empty warehouses. Finally slowing.
Zhao Yunlan acted. He threw his forearm around the driver's throat, squeezing tightly. The steering wheel spun wildly as the man's hands flew up to try to break Zhao Yunlan's hold. Through the windscreen a wall rose up abruptly.
They crashed. Not dramatically, and Zhao Yunlan doggedly clung on through the jolt that slammed him hard against the back of the seat.
Then — a familiar click. And Zhao Yunlan found himself looking down the barrel of an all-too-functional-looking gun. The sort with a metal bullet chambered and ready to fire into his brain.
He let go.
The driver wheezed and clutched his throat with his left hand, the gun wobbling but not leaving Zhao Yunlan while he caught his breath. Zhao Yunlan fervently wished that he'd been able to squeeze harder.
Finally, the man opened his door, and quickly jumped round to open Zhao Yunlan's from the outside. "Get out," he ordered, his voice still hoarse.
Zhao Yunlan got out. "Who are you?" he asked. "What do you want?"
"I want you to go over there." The man gestured with his free hand.
Zhao Yunlan went, over to one of the building's support columns. The driver tossed him a couple of thick zip ties. "Lock up your wrists," he ordered.
Zhao Yunlan ran for it instead.
Gunshots rang out — but he would risk the odds. Hitting a moving target was hard. If he could just get out of the building —
He felt a punch to his leg, which buckled under him. Numb for long seconds, and then pain flooded him.
He must have blacked out. He came around to the driver fastening his zip-tied left wrist to another around the column. His right wrist was already secured. A trail of blood across the concrete marked where he'd been dragged.
"What are you doing?" he ground out, over the pain. "Who are you?"
"My name's Chen Yuqi," the man said. "My son was murdered last year by your Dixingren friends." He stepped back. He had swapped his gun for Zhao Yunlan's pistol now.
"My friends?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "No one carrying out murders is my friend. My job's to stop them."
"I thought it couldn't be true, at first," Chen Yuqi said. "When she told me you were one of them I didn't believe it. But I've been watching you. I saw your eyes turn gold."
"I'm not Dixingren," Zhao Yunlan said. Trying to focus on anything other than the pain radiating out from his leg. He resisted the urge to try and explain. Saying that there had been a Dixingren in his body while he'd been temporarily dead, but not now, didn't seem like it would help matters. "I'm sorry about your son," he said, instead, because that was true. Then his investigative impulses rose to the front. "Who's she?"
"Someone who knows about these things," Chen Yuqi said. He raised Zhao Yunlan's pistol. "If you're really not Dixingren then you won't mind me testing it."
"Go ahead," Zhao Yunlan said, with all the bravado he could muster. The pistol didn't work on Haixingren, it didn't — but still he tensed up and held his breath —
He felt the shot as a wash of ice through him, an awful alien sensation but one which didn't fully touch him. He shuddered, but no more.
"I don't understand," Chen Yuqi said. He looked from the pistol to Zhao Yunlan. "I know you're Dixingren. I saw."
"You were mistaken," Zhao Yunlan said. "Let me go and that'll be the end of this."
He wondered, for a long few seconds, whether that would really work. Then, in his pocket, his phone beeped.
Chen Yuqi started at the sound. He wrenched the phone out of Zhao Yunlan's pocket, staring down at the bloody mess of his jeans as if seeing them for the first time. He threw the phone at the floor as hard as he could, stomping on the smashed remains.
"If you let me go I'll let you go," Zhao Yunlan pleaded desperately, but he could already tell it was too late. Chen Yuqi wouldn't look at him. He half-ran to the crashed taxi and got in. Somehow he persuaded the engine to start and reversed, driving over the drying bloodstains. He turned and pulled quickly out of the warehouse, still not looking back.
Zhao Yunlan swore. Several times, in the hope it would make him feel better. Then he looked down at his leg properly and swore again. The bullet had gone through the muscle of his thigh — it must have missed the major artery or he'd already be dead, but it was still bleeding and he didn't have enough range of movement to do anything about it. He couldn't even reach the wound to put pressure on it. And it hurt.
Everything went away.
Shen Wei woke, and it was the familiarity which disorientated him. The mattress under him, the direction of the light against his closed eyelids… it all spoke of home when all his recent memories were a blurred chaos of danger, of constantly coming half-awake in places he didn't know.
There was something warm against his side. When he reached out he felt fur. It twitched under his hand and then landed heavily on his chest, so that when he opened his eyes properly the first thing he saw was Da Qing's face.
"You're awake!" Da Qing managed to remember to leap off him before shifting form. "Are you okay?"
Shen Wei sat up, slowly. He didn't recognise the pyjamas he was wearing. "I think so," he said. He felt tired, but clear-headed. Far more clear-headed than he remembered being for… days, probably.
"You look better," Da Qing said, studying him critically. "I mean, you're talking."
"How long have I been asleep?" Shen Wei asked. He pushed back the covers and tried to gauge whether he was up to standing. "Where's Zhao Yunlan?"
"You got here yesterday," Da Qing said. "It's evening now. Lin Jing stopped by on his way home, he brought you some clothes. We looked at the labels in the ones you had for sizes."
"Thank you," Shen Wei said, because Da Qing looked pleased with himself. "And Zhao Yunlan?"
"He went to see Zhao Xinci," Da Qing said, with a grimace. "Ages ago. I'll call him now you're up — I promised him I would, and I bet he's desperate to be rescued." He pulled his phone out.
Shen Wei got carefully to his feet, and was relieved when his body stayed steady under him. Abruptly he realised that he was desperately hungry. "Is there anything to eat?" he asked.
"Probably?" Da Qing said. "There's leftovers from the takeaway, or some instant stuff…"
While Da Qing fiddled with his phone, Shen Wei heated a pack of pre-cooked rice in the microwave. It seemed the thing which could be ready in the shortest amount of time.
"Lao-Zhao has his phone turned off," Da Qing reported, irritably. "But he told me to call him if you woke up. Maybe there's no signal."
Shen Wei tipped the rice into a bowl the moment it was ready and found a spoon. He reminded himself that it was the first food he'd eaten in… a long time, and he should have it slowly. "He's all right, though?"
"He's fine," Da Qing assured him. "He was busy fussing over you. You looked really bad."
Shen Wei nodded absently. He wasn't sure why he suddenly felt so anxious about Zhao Yunlan's wellbeing, unless it was in part selfish disappointment that Zhao Yunlan hadn't been there this time when he'd woken up. His memories of the past few days weren't all terribly clear, but that was the one constant. Zhao Yunlan there, always. "What about sending him a text?" he asked.
"If phone calls aren't going through, nor will texts," Da Qing said. Reluctantly he added, "I suppose I could call Zhao Xinci's office…"
"You said he's been gone a long time," Shen Wei pointed out.
"You think the Bureau's locked him up?" Da Qing asked. But he sounded a bit worried now, too. "Fine, I'll try."
Shen Wei had already finished the rice. He lingered by where Da Qing perched on the sofa arm, looking up the number to call. It was only building, the nagging sense of wrongness. After he'd shared his energy with Zhao Yunlan he'd been so attuned to him that he'd been able to tell immediately when he was injured, or in danger. But that was gone now, burned out of him. And his energy levels were low enough currently that he didn't even have a sense of the background dark energy in Dragon City. There was just this… sense.
Da Qing dialled with a very long-suffering sigh. "I want to speak to Chief Zhao Yunlan from the SID," he said. Shen Wei could only hear his half of the conversation. "No, he's definitely there, he was meeting with Director Zhao. Earlier today." A pause. "He definitely went to talk to Zhao Xinci! Well, can't you check? It's important."
There was a longer pause, during which Da Qing turned to Shen Wei. "They're saying he hasn't been there," he said. "But that's not right…"
Shen Wei leaned forward, frowning.
Da Qing's attention was pulled back to the phone. "Hello!" he said. "Yes, it's me, Da Qing. Chief Zhao came to see you today, but your office person says he didn't?" And then, "No, I am sure. Why wouldn't I be sure?"
"I could try explaining," Shen Wei suggested.
Da Qing gave him a look of relief. "Hang on, I'm passing you over," he said into the phone, and then pressed it into Shen Wei's hand and immediately leapt back onto the sofa out of the way.
Shen Wei wasn't nearly as confident about this conversation as he wished he was. "Hello?" he said. "Director Zhao? This is Shen Wei."
There was a brief silence. "Is this a joke?" Zhao Xinci asked, finally.
"No," Shen Wei said. "It's not a joke. And Zhao Yunlan… is Zhao Yunlan."
There was an even longer pause. "Shen Wei," Zhao Xinci said. "I thought you were dead."
"I was," Shen Wei said. "I… Zhao Yunlan found a way to save me."
"He's alive too?" Zhao Xinci asked. His voice managed to stay mostly calm. "Yunlan —"
"He was coming to see you this morning!" Da Qing interjected, loudly enough that Zhao Xinci would definitely be able to hear him. "He took a taxi straight there!"
"He didn't arrive," Zhao Xinci said. Tersely.
"Something happened," Shen Wei said. His stomach was curdling with dread.
"Stay where you are," Zhao Xinci said. "I'm driving over."
Zhao Xinci arrived a few minutes later, as promised. Shen Wei was waiting for him outside on the pavement.
Zhao Xinci parked his car, got out, and looked Shen Wei up and down. He appeared composed. "It really is you," he said.
Shen Wei nodded. He wished he had some of his own clothes, instead of the polyester shirt that Lin Jing had bought, and a pair of trousers which he'd had to tighten with a belt. "I know it seems unlikely," he said.
"I had to see for myself," Zhao Xinci said. His mouth tightened. "And — my son?"
"When he travelled to Dixing he and Zhang Shi appear to have swapped places," Shen Wei said. Saying it stirred up some new scrap of confused half-memory, but he ignored it for now. He could try to examine it in more detail later. "But now Zhao Yunlan is missing."
Zhao Xinci didn't ask whether he was sure about that. "What time did you last see him?"
"I didn't," Shen Wei admitted. "I was unconscious after opening the portal back to Haixing."
Zhao Xinci absorbed this with a brief nod. "When the cat stops lying low tell him to get the SID resources on this." He looked pointedly at a bush which had just trembled with no breeze to shake it.
Da Qing slunk out of the bush, looking embarrassed, and transferred the expression to his human face. "Chief Zhao left about eleven," he said. "He was going to call a taxi."
"That's somewhere to start," Zhao Xinci said. He looked at Shen Wei. "Can't you use your abilities to locate him?"
Shen Wei shook his head. "Not yet," he said.
Zhao Xinci made a slight noise of frustration but didn't argue. "We should go to the SID, then," he said, instead. He gestured to his car. "I'll drive you. Da Qing, tell Lin Jing to meet us there."
"I'll take my own car," Da Qing said. "Then you won't need to bring us back again."
Zhao Xinci shrugged. "Suit yourself. Professor Shen?"
Shen Wei got into the passenger seat. Zhao Xinci didn't say anything at first as he started the engine and pulled out.
It wasn't until they had been driving for a couple of minutes that he spoke. "I told Yunlan to be the one to light the Lantern," he said, with no lead-in, looking straight ahead at the road. "Did he tell you that?"
"He didn't," Shen Wei said. He considered for a moment. "You, or Zhang Shi?"
"Does it matter?" Zhao Xinci asked, a touch harshly.
"I don't know," Shen Wei said. "Does it?" He wasn't sure himself. Wasn't even sure which emotions he was feeling.
"It's the same thing," Zhao Xinci said. "More or less. Or it was." He took a breath like he was going to say something more, then stopped himself. After a moment he said, "You're certain Zhang Shi is in the Lantern now?"
"I think so," Shen Wei said. "It happened as he passed through the portal to Dixing. Not on purpose." There was again that sense that he knew more, if he could only remember, but a moment later it was gone. "Do you miss him?" he asked, curiously.
"Of course I do," Zhao Xinci said. "Wouldn't you, if you were joined that closely to someone?" He didn't say, though, which state of affairs he preferred. Shen Wei didn't pry.
After a minute, he asked, "Why did you tell him to be the one to light the Lantern?" Trying to keep his tone calm, free of judgement.
"He was the Guardian," Zhao Xinci said, his voice just as flat. "It was his responsibility." He glanced sideways at Shen Wei. "Don't tell me you don't understand that."
"I do understand," Shen Wei said. How could he not? He remembered clearly the conversation with Zhao Yunlan in the Dixing cell, a space of lucidity among the confusion. Even angry, Zhao Yunlan had conceded Shen Wei's responsibility. And duty.
"I imagine it was an easy decision for him, though, in the end," Zhao Xinci said.
"What do you mean?" Shen Wei asked.
Zhao Xinci didn't sound like he was speaking new thoughts. "Once you were dead."
Shen Wei frowned. "What —"
Zhao Xinci's eyebrows lifted. "Yunlan was always driven by emotion. With you gone it probably felt like a suitably dramatic gesture to make in your memory."
Shen Wei's chest was tightening. "In my —"
"We're here," Zhao Xinci pointed out, abruptly.
Shen Wei got out, his thoughts still churning. Would Zhao Yunlan really have thrown himself to the Lantern partly because of him?
He was still wrestling with the idea as he entered the SID. Which at first glance was exactly the same as he had ever known it, and that was disorientating all on its own — it was taking an active effort to remember that he had a year's gap in his memories.
Guo Changcheng stood up sharply from behind a desk and stared at him. "Professor… Shen?" he asked, like he wasn't quite sure.
There were a couple of new faces at other desks. They looked very young. Zhao Xinci glanced at them. "This is Shen Wei," he said, making it clear that he was addressing them. "He's a consultant. He has all necessary security clearances." He looked back at Guo Changcheng and raised his eyebrows a bit.
"Yes," Guo Changcheng said, and held out his hand formally. "Professor Shen. Of course. It's — been a long time."
Shen Wei shook his hand gravely. Guo Changcheng, at least, had changed somewhat. He looked older, more settled. More confident.
"Chief Zhao is missing," Zhao Xinci said. Apparently they'd finished the small-talk.
Guo Changcheng looked alarmed. "Missing?" he asked, and looked quickly at Shen Wei. "He was in Dixing —"
Zhao Xinci looked thoroughly annoyed. "Where's Da Qing?" he demanded to the air. "He can explain what on earth my son's been thinking."
Da Qing had in fact entered in time to catch the end of this, and now looked as if he would rather turn around and leave again, but it was too late. "He… wanted to tell you first?" he hazarded, pinned by Zhao Xinci's glare.
"Surely what's important right now is finding him," Shen Wei interrupted.
Thankfully, Zhao Xinci didn't argue with this. And a moment later Lin Jing arrived and was immediately ushered towards his lab.
"Professor Shen?" Guo Changcheng asked. "Can I speak to you for a moment? In private?"
"Of course," Shen Wei said — Lin Jing was already talking about cameras and he'd be no use there.
Guo Changcheng glanced towards the stairs, and then after a moment's hesitation ushered him towards Zhao Yunlan's office instead.
Or Zhang Shi's, rather. That was something which had changed. It was considerably more formal than it had ever been, the desk austere and the extra armchairs cleared out, replaced with a wall-mounted screen.
"I need to tell you," Guo Changcheng said, nervously. "Chief Zhao, he's — Well, he isn't who —"
"I know," Shen Wei cut him off quickly, before Guo Changcheng could tie his tongue into a knot. "I know what happened with the Lantern. But something else happened in Dixing, and now he is Zhao Yunlan again."
Guo Changcheng's eyes widened. "You're sure?"
"I was with him in Dixing," Shen Wei said.
Guo Changcheng widened his eyes even further. "You were?" he said. "Oh — can you tell me, is Chu-ge okay?"
"He's fine," Shen Wei assured him quickly. "He's still in Dixing, though. Zhao Yunlan ordered him to run when the two of us were captured."
"Oh," Guo Changcheng said, and swallowed rapidly. "But he's fine?"
"I'm sure he is," Shen Wei said. He had confidence in Chu Shuzhi.
"And Han-mei?" Guo Changcheng asked.
Shen Wei blinked. "Who?"
"She's one of the new SID recruits," Guo Changcheng said. "She was with Chu-ge and the Chief when they went to Dixing."
"I'm sorry, I didn't see her," Shen Wei said. "But I was only inside the palace." He didn't want to go into details just then about what exactly had happened, not least because he was hazy on it himself.
"I'm sure they're both fine," Guo Changcheng said, in a hopeful sort of way, looking for agreement.
"I'm sure they are," Shen Wei said.
"We should join the others, then," Guo Changcheng said, consciously straightening his spine.
Shen Wei followed him to the lab. Lin Jing had the screens full of grainy images of streets, winding them forward and backwards at different speeds. "You should live somewhere with more cameras," he complained to Shen Wei. "This would be much easier."
"That's you," Da Qing said, pointing to a black-and-white frozen image of a car.
"Yes, I know," Lin Jing said, slightly irritably. "I'm trying to establish reference points. When I drove off is one of them."
"You knew about Chief Zhao all day?" Guo Changcheng asked, sounding wounded.
Lin Jing winced. "I couldn't find a good opportunity to tell you," he said, rather apologetically.
"There," Shen Wei said, pointing at a screen.
Lin Jing frowned doubtfully at the car. "It does look like a taxi, but the passenger's not looking in the right direction. We don't know it's the boss."
"It is," Shen Wei said. Even with the head bent over, turned away from the window, he knew.
Zhao Xinci looked at him for a long moment. "Assume he's right," he ordered Lin Jing.
Lin Jing shrugged, and started tracking.
I continue to have lots of feelings about Zhao Xinci. Many of them are conflicting.
Lin Jing was very good at his job. He prevaricated and backtracked, but even with the four of them staring anxiously over his shoulder he was able to follow the taxi through the maze of Dragon City's streets and traffic cameras.
There was an instant when the taxi drove side-on past one of the cameras, and the passenger turned his head to look straight out of the window towards it. Shen Wei felt his heart give a jolt.
Zhao Yunlan. Unmistakable.
They lost him, finally, when the taxi turned towards one of the old industrial areas of the city. "There aren't any more cameras," Lin Jing said. "I can look in case they circled through and came out again, but…"
Shen Wei nodded. It was more likely that they had reached their destination. "We need to start searching in that area," he said.
"I'll drive," Zhao Xinci said. "The rest of you, keep working to find out who the taxi driver is and where he is now. Arrest him if possible."
"I want to come with you," Da Qing said.
"No," Zhao Xinci said, shortly. He turned and strode towards the exit, not stopping to wait for Shen Wei.
"We'll find him," Shen Wei said, and Da Qing pursed his lips miserably but nodded.
Zhao Xinci didn't try and make conversation this time. Shen Wei wondered what had spurred him to do so before. He had never been good at reading beneath Zhao Xinci's tightly controlled exterior. He suspected more emotions than Zhao Xinci would like to admit to, even to himself.
"This is where they were last on camera," Zhao Xinci said, finally. He stopped the car.
Shen Wei got out and looked around. Tried to persuade a particular direction to resonate with him.
"Is there anything you can do?" Zhao Xinci asked.
"Maybe," Shen Wei said. He intended to try, in any case. He kept walking, until he reached where the road branched. He put his hand against a wall and closed his eyes, willing the rebuilding core of dark energy within him to flow outwards, to thin and spread, to seek.
"Well?" Zhao Xinci asked, when Shen Wei opened his eyes.
Shen Wei shook his head silently. "We need to be closer," he said. "Wherever he is, I can't reach him."
There was another, darker possibility, but he shut his mind firmly to it.
Zhao Xinci fetched the car and they drove around, stopping every few hundred metres for Shen Wei to search again. His head was beginning to pound.
And then, finally — "That way," Shen Wei said, pointing even before opening his eyes.
They moved in that direction and Shen Wei maintained his reached-out dark energy senses, inhaling sharply in frustration as they had to momentarily turn away as the roads didn't align to where they should go. Holding that flicker that was Zhao Yunlan in his awareness. He could never mistake it.
"In there?" Zhao Xinci asked.
They had stopped at the side of an old warehouse. Shen Wei got out of the car without answering, striding forward. There was a small entry door but he went around the corner instead and found a large way in, wide open. And in the dimness —
He began to run.
Zhao Yunlan was slumped half-sitting against one of the iron support pillars, tied there. Bloody. Unconscious.
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei said, urgently, dropping to his knees. He broke the ties with a wave of his hand, barely noticing. "Zhao Yunlan, can you hear me?"
He could already see that Zhao Yunlan was beyond hearing. He didn't react to Shen Wei's voice, or to his hands coming free. His face was grey and slack, and his breaths were slow and shallow.
Shen Wei held his palm over the ugly wound on Zhao Yunlan's thigh. A projectile — it had gone all the way through. There was plenty of damage, but the most urgent thing was the amount of blood loss. "Call an ambulance," he ordered.
Zhao Xinci already had his phone out. "Can't you help?"
"I can help, but I can't restore this." Shen Wei gestured to the pool of blood under Zhao Yunlan's leg. He returned his focus to the injury, pulling together muscle, pushing back splinters of bone which had been sheared off. Ensuring that the deepest hurts were healed, so that Zhao Yunlan would suffer as little from this as possible. He left the surface wounds open — they would do little more harm, and confusing the doctors would only impede the treatment that Zhao Yunlan needed.
He was satisfied with his work by the time the ambulance arrived. With Zhao Xinci standing guard, Shen Wei remained on the floor beside Zhao Yunlan, holding a hand in both of his. He moved back to let the medics work, his headache coming to a throbbing stab between his eyes as he stood.
"We'll meet you at the hospital," Zhao Xinci told the medics, and gestured Shen Wei back towards the car as Zhao Yunlan was lifted into the ambulance.
"I can take us there faster," Shen Wei said.
"Then we'd be waiting for the ambulance," Zhao Xinci said. "And later when I wanted my car it would still be here."
That was true. And reasonable. "Should we call the SID to the scene?" Shen Wei asked.
"I already did that," Zhao Xinci said.
They drove to the hospital.
It was a long wait. Or felt like a long time, with Zhao Xinci there. He took a series of phone calls while Shen Wei sat on one of the uncomfortable sofas in the small waiting room, his thoughts mostly blank with worry.
He hadn't been there to keep Zhao Yunlan safe.
He half-listened to fragments of Zhao Xinci's conversations. My son is in the hospital, of course you will postpone the meeting —
At long last they were called through, Shen Wei's right to be there unquestioned next to Zhao Xinci's obvious impatience. It was a small private room, and they took seats one on each side of the bed.
Zhao Yunlan looked better than Shen Wei had feared. There were IV lines running into him, but no oxygen mask. It had been a miraculously clean wound, the doctor explained — he'd had a blood transfusion, but the injury itself should heal cleanly. Shen Wei allowed himself some private satisfaction along with his relief.
It was maybe an hour before Zhao Yunlan stirred. Shen Wei leaned forwards immediately. "Zhao Yunlan?"
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan mumbled, his eyes half-open. His hand moved around, seeking, and Shen Wei caught it and clasped it tight. "You're… okay?"
"Of course I am," Shen Wei said. "But you —"
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said. "Careless." He rubbed at his eyes with his free hand, and squinted. "Sorry."
Shen Wei squeezed his hand tighter. Zhao Yunlan smiled at him.
Then Zhao Xinci sat forward slightly and Zhao Yunlan went stiff as the sight of him registered. "Dad," he said.
"Yunlan," Zhao Xinci said. Formally.
Zhao Yunlan swallowed. "Uh. You know, I guess."
"Yes, Shen Wei filled me in."
"Right." Zhao Yunlan glanced down to where Shen Wei still held onto his hand. Shen Wei saw him make a conscious choice not to pull away. "Good."
"How are you feeling?" Zhao Xinci asked, after the pause had dragged out a couple of seconds too long.
"Fine," Zhao Yunlan said. He looked around, registering the lines connected to him for the first time. "When can I get out of here?"
"You were shot," Zhao Xinci said.
"I feel okay," Zhao Yunlan said. He pushed himself up to sitting, wincing a bit but doing a good job at hiding it. "It doesn't really hurt."
"Because you're on painkillers," Zhao Xinci said, rather impatiently. "Lie back down. You're being ridiculous."
"What did you mean when you texted Zhang Shi?" Zhao Yunlan asked, abruptly. "What case were you working together?"
It was the first Shen Wei had heard of it. He sat forward slightly.
"Zhang Shi thought he was being followed," Zhao Xinci said. "There wasn't any evidence he could find, so he didn't bring it up with the SID."
"He was right," Zhao Yunlan said. "The taxi driver — Chen Yuqi — you knew it was the taxi driver, right?" He waited for Shen Wei's nod. "Well, he thought I was Dixingren. He'd been watching Zhang Shi."
"You're sure?" Zhao Xinci asked.
"Of course I'm sure!" Zhao Yunlan said, irritably. "And he said someone gave him that information. A woman."
"Did he say any more about her?" Zhao Xinci asked, frowning.
"No," Zhao Yunlan said. "He didn't mean to say that much. He realised I wasn't Dixingren after all and freaked out."
"How did you persuade him?" Shen Wei asked.
Zhao Yunlan touched a hand to his chest. "He shot me with the dark energy gun," he said. "It didn't work on me. Guess that was pretty convincing."
Shen Wei happened to be looking, or he wouldn't have seen Zhao Xinci's quickly-suppressed flinch. His own chest tightened convulsively and he itched to have Zhao Yunlan to himself, in solitude, where he could make sure that he really was all right.
"It's fine," Zhao Yunlan said, into the sudden silence. "I said so, didn't I? I'm fine."
Zhao Xinci stood up abruptly. "I need to get going," he said. "Work."
"Of course," Zhao Yunlan said, his mouth twisting sarcastically. "Work."
"I'll coordinate with the SID," Zhao Xinci said, as if Zhao Yunlan hadn't spoken. He was looking at Shen Wei. "Do you have a phone?"
"No," Shen Wei said.
"I'll get one sent over," Zhao Xinci said.
"I need one too," Zhao Yunlan said. "Mine got smashed. Well, it was Zhang Shi's really."
"I'll arrange it," Zhao Xinci said. He gave them both a brief nod, and left.
Zhao Yunlan slumped back, the awkward tension gone out of him. "Well," he said, after a minute. "You'd think he'd be able to at least pretend that he's glad I'm not dead."
Shen Wei wasn't sure what to say. Arguing about what Zhao Xinci might or might not be feeling didn't seem productive, not when Zhao Yunlan had that particular mulish set to his mouth.
"Do you know when I can get out of here?" Zhao Yunlan continued.
"You're hurt," Shen Wei pointed out. Selfishly, he did want to take Zhao Yunlan home as soon as possible, but not at the expense of his well-being.
"I know I'm on painkillers, but I don't think I'm as hurt as I'd expect to be," Zhao Yunlan said. "Am I wrong?" He grinned at Shen Wei conspiratorially, and pressed the call button.
The nurse and then the doctor both shared the opinion that Zhao Yunlan was absolutely not ready to leave the hospital, but he argued relentlessly. Eventually he managed to win free and got himself a reluctant discharge, armed with a pack of strong painkillers and a pair of crutches. He was still in his hospital pyjamas but shrugged this potential obstacle off as unimportant. "You'll take me straight home, won't you?" he asked Shen Wei, with a slightly strained smile (he'd just tried out the crutches, and moving around clearly hurt more than he'd anticipated).
"Yes," Shen Wei sighed, having given up the argument early on. "As long as you can actually make it to the front door."
They didn't, in the end. They hit an empty corridor first and Shen Wei, already on edge from watching Zhao Yunlan so clearly be in pain as he moved, looked quickly around to make sure there were no cameras and pulled them through a portal to the apartment.
Da Qing wasn't home. Zhao Yunlan sank straight down onto the sofa with a groan of relief. "That's better," he said.
"Let me help you," Shen Wei said. He held his hands carefully just above the bulk of bandages on Zhao Yunlan's thigh, and concentrated. He'd started the healing process before, but there was still more to do —
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said, urgently. "Shen Wei, stop!"
Alarmed, Shen Wei jerked back, his eyes flying open. "What's wrong?"
"You've gone really pale," Zhao Yunlan said, sounding alarmed. "I don't think — Are you okay?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, "Fine —" but when he sat more upright his headache suddenly returned, along with a wave of dizziness, and he found himself swaying to lean against the sofa back without meaning to.
Zhao Yunlan made a sceptical noise. "No more healing," he said. "I'll take a painkiller, I'll be fine. Promise me."
"All right," Shen Wei said, reluctantly. "I'll get you some water."
"You won't," Zhao Yunlan said. "We'll both stay here." He extracted one of the tablets from the bag he'd been given and dry-swallowed it. "Actually, better idea if you're up for it: we'll both move to the bed and have a nap."
That did in fact sound like an excellent idea. Shen Wei was very cautious in standing up, and once he was sure he was stable tried to support Zhao Yunlan, but Zhao Yunlan wasn't having it and leaned on his crutches instead. They moved to the bed slowly.
"I'll get us some food when we wake up," Zhao Yunlan said. "Takeout. No cooking."
Shen Wei could only nod. He missed cooking, but it was sensible. He lay down alongside Zhao Yunlan, careful not to jostle him, but Zhao Yunlan immediately rolled over onto his non-injured leg to pull Shen Wei close.
"I missed this," Zhao Yunlan mumbled, into Shen Wei's shoulder. "I missed you. So much."
Shen Wei couldn't find adequate words to reciprocate. He brought up his hand on Zhao Yunlan's back instead, and held him close.
Zhao Yunlan woke in the night next to Shen Wei, and that was everything he wanted, even with the deep ache from his leg.
He shifted so that he could see Shen Wei's face better. He'd seen far too much of Shen Wei unconscious during the last few days, but he hoped this was different. Just sleep this time.
It was dark outside. Also, he was hungry. This finally drove Zhao Yunlan up, reaching for his phone on the bedside cabinet before remembering that he didn't currently have one. But he remembered seeing a laptop on the coffee table — With some effort he hauled himself out of the bed and used the crutches to propel himself in an ungainly manner across the apartment.
Da Qing didn't have a password set on the laptop. And he had an account with a food delivery company with his payment details stored. Zhao Yunlan had paid for enough food for him over the years that he felt not even slightly guilty about taking advantage now to place an order.
He would have preferred to go back to Shen Wei then, but didn't want to disturb him. He looked at some of the news sites instead, since he felt he should at some point get caught up on current events. He didn't try searching for anything which had been in the news relating to the SID.
When there was a knock on the door he pushed himself up and fought with the crutches again to make his way over to it. Thankfully the food was in a plastic bag, which he could slide onto his arm. He had forgotten until then that he was still wearing hospital pyjamas, but the delivery man had doubtless seen stranger.
Shen Wei had roused at the noise, and was sitting up and rubbing at his eyes when Zhao Yunlan turned around. Zhao Yunlan grabbed some chopsticks from the kitchen counter and limped his way back to the bed. "Hungry?" he asked.
"I — yes?" Shen Wei said, still sounding half asleep.
Zhao Yunlan sat down on the mattress and stretched his legs out gratefully. He pulled the takeout containers from the bag and spread them on top of the duvet.
"We're eating here?" Shen Wei asked, dubiously.
"I'm done with walking right now," Zhao Yunlan said, which was probably cheating but neatly cut off any argument. Shen Wei just gave a little sigh and opened the nearest food container.
Zhao Yunlan had probably over-ordered, but he had been motivated by the memory of how much weight Shen Wei had lost. And he found himself justified when Shen Wei steadily ate his way through several of the dishes.
"So," Zhao Yunlan finally said. "What things have you been filled in on?"
Shen Wei gave him a brief explanation of what he'd been up to while Zhao Yunlan had been busy being kidnapped. It contained more of his father than he had expected. At least events meant he'd now been spared that particular hi-I'm-not-dead conversation.
"And you're okay?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "I mean, I can tell you're tired, don't pretend you're not. But apart from that?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, and gave a significant look to where Zhao Yunlan's leg was bandaged.
"You've already done plenty to help," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm not complaining — but no more. Not when you might need your energy for more important things."
Shen Wei frowned at him slightly, such a familiar expression that Zhao Yunlan couldn't help but grin in response. "You should at least make sure you're resting," Shen Wei settled for.
"I'm resting right now," Zhao Yunlan pointed out, gesturing at himself on the bed. "I'll even go back to sleep again soon, as long as you're here with me."
Shen Wei's mouth twitched fondly, even though he was trying to hide it. He pulled together the food containers and took them over to the kitchen area.
"I don't know if Da Qing cleaned out the fridge," Zhao Yunlan called, in warning.
Shen Wei looked inside it. "I… can't tell."
"He probably did, then," Zhao Yunlan said.
Shen Wei put the leftovers into the still-suspect fridge, poured out a couple of glasses of water, and came back over to the bed. He handed one of the glasses to Zhao Yunlan, drank from his own, and changed into the pair of Zhao Yunlan's pyjamas he'd worn the previous night. "Do you need anything?" he asked.
Zhao Yunlan drank his own water obediently. "Just you," he said, to make Shen Wei's mouth twitch again.
Shen Wei turned the lights off. He got into bed and Zhao Yunlan immediately pressed up against him again, throwing an arm over his side. "I'm not going anywhere," Shen Wei said, sounding amused.
"Just making sure," Zhao Yunlan told him, and kissed him.
He woke up the next morning to find Da Qing eating some of the leftover takeout food. Shen Wei stirred as he sat up.
"Lao-Zhao!" Da Qing exclaimed. "Are you okay? Director Zhao said you'd been shot but we should leave you alone to get some rest."
"Yeah, I'm good," Zhao Yunlan said. "Any news?"
Da Qing nodded. "I remembered —" He fished his hand in his pocket and held it out almost hesitantly. "I had this. But I guess Professor Shen would like it back."
It was the jade pendant. Zhao Yunlan took it from Da Qing, and handed it to Shen Wei. Shen Wei closed his fingers around it tightly. "Thank you," he said, quietly.
"Oh, we found your taxi driver's house," Da Qing said. "The taxi was there, but Chen Yuqi wasn't. We'll keep looking."
Zhao Yunlan sighed.
"Your gun was in the taxi, too," Da Qing said.
"Well," Zhao Yunlan said, "At least that's some good news." He glanced at Shen Wei, who was also looking a lot better this morning — much less pale. "Am I allowed to shower?"
"Let me see the wound," Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan obediently wriggled out of the pyjama trousers and unwrapped the bandage around his thigh. Underneath, the wound looked like something he'd received a week or more ago, closed over with dark purple scar tissue.
Shen Wei held his hand carefully over it. "It seems to be healing well," he said. "I could —"
"Nope," Zhao Yunlan interrupted him. "If it's healing well it can carry on doing that. You promised, remember?"
Shen Wei frowned at him. Zhao Yunlan didn't relent. "Do we need to take the stitches out?" he asked, eventually.
"I don't think so, I think they're the dissolving sort," Zhao Yunlan said. "Right, shower." He stood up carefully, his leg reminding him that an injury that looked a week old was still very different from one which didn't hurt when he put weight on it. Shen Wei moved to help him but Zhao Yunlan waved him off and reached for the crutches instead. "I'm getting better at these," he said, cheerfully.
He could see that Shen Wei wasn't overly happy about it, but Zhao Yunlan was fine and didn't need to be fussed over. He made his way to the bathroom and had a brief shower during which he mostly leant against the wall. Then he came back out, wrapped in a towel, and found Shen Wei looking with dissatisfaction at the clothes he'd been wearing yesterday. "Didn't Lin Jing think to buy more than one set?" he demanded of Da Qing.
Da Qing just shrugged. Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes. "Well, we'll stop by a shop on the way to the SID," he said. "Since I'm assuming you want to show off your new driving skills again."
"I'm good at driving," Da Qing said.
Zhao Yunlan pulled out another pair of extremely ripped jeans and refrained from commenting.
They did get through the city safely, though. Zhao Yunlan, after realising that Zhang Shi's wallet and bank cards were still in Dixing, persuaded Da Qing to hand over his own with the promise of being paid back at the first opportunity, and Shen Wei disappeared into the clothing shop he'd chosen and emerged a while later wearing a neat navy suit and tie, looking much happier.
He put the bag he was also holding in the boot, stopping to take something out. "Since you wouldn't let me get you any more clothes," he said to Zhao Yunlan, handing him a pack of lollipops instead.
Zhao Yunlan beamed. "Nothing's wrong with my clothes," he said. And he might love Shen Wei, but new clothes were something he was going to pick out himself.
Shen Wei refrained from commenting.
At the SID, Da Qing parked the car and then twisted around to see into the back seat. "What are you going to tell the newbies?" he asked. "About you being… you?"
Zhao Yunlan had been wondering that himself. As yet, he'd come up with no good answer. "I have no idea," he said.
"Well, we're already here," Da Qing said, unhelpfully.
"Zhao Xinci introduced me as a consultant, yesterday," Shen Wei said.
So it was entirely up to him how he presented himself. Wonderful. Zhao Yunlan scowled as he got out of the car. The SID was his place. He wasn't supposed to feel this much anxiety about entering it.
For once, therefore, it was a relief to be immediately greeted by Xiao-Guo's over-exuberance. "Chief Zhao!" he exclaimed. "It's so good to see you again!"
"You'd better not have moved any of my stuff," Zhao Yunlan told him.
Xiao-Guo immediately looked a bit anxious. "Not much…"
"At least the sofa's still there, good," Zhao Yunlan said. He would have demanded it be instantly replaced, otherwise.
The new faces were disconcerting, particularly where they replaced people he still missed. Wang Zheng's absence was still a fresh stab of grief for him — he'd barely had time to mourn her and Sang Zan and Lao-Li and now it was suddenly over a year later and everyone else had moved on.
Except Shen Wei. That gave him some comfort. He wasn't alone in this.
"Are you going to go back to Dixing?" Xiao-Guo asked, having given him enough time to look round. "Chu-ge's still there, and…"
"I haven't forgotten, don't worry," Zhao Yunlan said. "I need to talk to Lin Jing about that. He's been monitoring the portal, right?"
Xiao-Guo nodded. "He's in his lab."
Da Qing peeled off, presumably to find some food.
Zhao Yunlan felt he was quite good at moving with the crutches by now. He nodded to the newbies as he hobbled past, hoping none of them would catch him with something he was unable to answer. No one did, though. They all looked slightly intimidated by him instead. He missed Zhu Hong and Lao-Chu, who would absolutely not have let him pass without some sarcasm.
Lin Jing's lair was the same as ever. He spun round to give a brief wave. "Hey, boss. What do you need?"
"Your data on the Dixing portal," Zhao Yunlan said. "How soon can we go back through it?"
"Good question." Lin Jing spun his chair back to his computer as Zhao Yunlan and the others approached. "Let me pull up what I have and show you."
"You should sit down," Shen Wei said to Zhao Yunlan, in an undertone.
Probably a good idea. "Xiao-Guo, find me a chair," Zhao Yunlan ordered.
Lin Jing opened some pages of graphs across two of his monitors. "Here you are," he said. "This is everything I've collected on the portal since it shut down after — well, after everything."
"Do you have data from before it shut down?" Shen Wei asked.
"Unfortunately not," Lin Jing said. "Hindsight is wonderful."
"Never mind," Zhao Yunlan said. "Talk us through it."
"Okay." Lin Jing pointed at the line. "This is the dark energy continually emitted by the portal. Very low level to begin with, gradually rising. Sort of pulsing up and down as it does. You see?"
"Yup." Xiao-Guo returned pushing a chair and Zhao Yunlan sat down and shuffled himself forward. "Why not a constant rise?"
"Mystery of the universe," Lin Jing said. "I don't know. Perhaps it naturally always fluctuates a bit. Increase my budget and maybe I can give you better answers."
"I've been here ten minutes and you're already angling for more budget?" Zhao Yunlan asked, feigning shock. "Tell me something more useful first."
Lin Jing gave a put-upon sigh. "This horizontal line is my best estimate for the portal's activation threshold. I've had Lao-Chu trying regularly to open it." He pointed to where the energy level spiked briefly above the line, and then dipped. "This is where he first managed to open it."
"But not when we entered Dixing?" Zhao Yunlan guessed. He could see another, much bigger spike a few days later.
"No," Lin Jing said. "That just confirmed it could be opened. And that drained the portal's dark energy to below the threshold again, as you can see."
"Right." Zhao Yunlan looked ahead on the graph. "So where's the bit when Shen Wei and I came back from Dixing? It doesn't look like the energy gets above the threshold again at all."
"It doesn't," Lin Jing said. He pointed at a spike still far below the threshold. "This is when you came back."
Zhao Yunlan looked at Shen Wei. "That's a lot of extra energy you must have put in, then, to get us through the portal." No wonder he'd exhausted himself.
Shen Wei gave a small shrug.
Zhao Yunlan looked at the portal energy level again. "This is current?" he asked.
"Yeah," Lin Jing said. "I reckon you'll be able to open the portal again in a day or so. Maybe two. Unless you put in a load of energy again, I suppose."
"We're not going to do that," Zhao Yunlan said, quickly. He glanced at Shen Wei to check he wasn't going to disagree, but Shen Wei looked like he wasn't paying full attention to the current discussion. "What is it?"
"These," Shen Wei said. He pointed to some of the fluctuations in the energy line, well below the threshold, spread out over time. "That's the same pattern as here."
"As when you opened the portal?" Lin Jing said. "Huh, you're right."
"Someone else could have been using the portal by pushing energy into it, the same way as I did," Shen Wei said.
"You think that's possible?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"It isn't particularly hard to do," Shen Wei said. "It would just need a Dixingren whose power involves conscious dark energy manipulation."
"That would definitely explain some of why the energy level doesn't rise consistently," Lin Jing said. He gave Zhao Yunlan a worried look. "Uh."
"You can't catch everything," Zhao Yunlan told him. "We only know it's possible because Shen Wei did it."
Lin Jing looked relieved at the lack of blame coming his way. "What do you want to do now?"
"Do you have a camera at the portal site?" Zhao Yunlan asked. Lin Jing shook his head. "Okay, get one set up. Oh, and do you have personnel files for the newbies? I should read those."
"I'll email them to you," Xiao-Guo said. "Oh, Director Zhao told me to get phones for you and Professor Shen, they're in your office."
"Great," Zhao Yunlan said. "Did Zhang Shi change my password?"
"I already reset it," Lin Jing said. "Just do what your computer tells you when you log on."
"Thanks," Zhao Yunlan said. He still had a good team. The SID was feeling like it was beginning to fit back into place around him.
Da Qing stuck his head round the door. "Hey, Boss?" he said.
"Yeah?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Zhu Hong's here," Da Qing said. "She's really pissed at you."
It had been too much to hope that Zhu Hong might be waiting discreetly in his office. She was standing by the table, her arms crossed, tapping her foot. Flawlessly made up. He would have expected nothing less from the Yashou Chief when she wanted to go and yell at someone.
"Hi," Zhao Yunlan said. "How are you?" He gave her what he hoped was a friendly and calming smile.
It didn't work. Her eyes flashed briefly red. "You bastard," she snapped. "You couldn't let me know yourself that you weren't dead?"
He winced. Straight to it. "I tried, but you were busy…"
She shot him an extremely weaponised glare. "Yes, too busy to go over and play video games with Da Qing, which was what that invitation sounded like! Not too busy to learn that you were back from the dead! Do you know what it's been like, having someone else walking around inside your body for a year?"
So much for any of his hopes of how to break this to the newbies Zhang Shi had hired, all of whom were covertly listening. "I'm sorry," Zhao Yunlan tried. The guilt was genuine — he did wish he'd done a better job.
"Good, you'd better be," Zhu Hong said. Still clearly furious. "And then you got yourself kidnapped? What have you been doing?"
"That's why I couldn't let you know!" Zhao Yunlan protested. He gestured with his crutches. "Look, I was shot!"
She snorted, unimpressed. "Xiao-Guo sent me a text. You could have sent me a text. It would have taken you five seconds!"
"Then you'd be mad at me for telling you over a text!"
"Obviously," Zhu Hong said. "But I'd be less mad than I am right now. You've been dead! For a year!"
All of the newbies were now staring between the two of them in considerable alarm. "I'll explain later," Zhao Yunlan said to them, resignedly.
"You haven't even told them?" Zhu Hong demanded.
"I only just got here!" Zhao Yunlan protested, needled. "You're not being reasonable."
"Oh, I'm not being reasonable?"
"Chief Zhao?" one of the newbies said, uncertainly. Another hushed him.
"Yes, that's me," Zhao Yunlan said. "I really will explain later. Zhu Hong, would you like to come into my office? Maybe?"
"I am busy," Zhu Hong said, with great dignity. "I'm glad you're also no longer dead, Professor Shen."
Shen Wei had sensibly been keeping well back. He took a step forwards now. "How are the Yashou?"
"Argumentative," she said. "They'll be pleased to hear news of you, though. Well, the Flower Tribe will be." She grinned.
Shen Wei gave her a diplomatic half-bow. "Chieftain."
"Black-Cloaked Envoy," she said.
Another round of whispers went up from the onlookers. Zhao Yunlan groaned and raised his eyes heavenwards. "Are you not going to let me break any news myself?" he asked.
"You should have done it already," Zhu Hong said, very tartly.
Zhao Yunlan decided that it was time to give up on arguing. He flung himself down onto the sofa and gestured at her with one of his crutches, putting on his best conciliatory expression and tone. "Give me your wise advise then, Ah-Hong, I can't cope with more scolding."
"Don't call me that," she said, but she was beginning to smile.
"I don't believe you came all the way to see me just to shout at me."
"I did," she retorted. "And to find out how this all might affect the Yashou."
"You're enjoying being the High Chieftain, then?" he asked. "It suits you. I knew it would."
Zhu Hong gave him another reluctant smile. "It's all right."
"The Dixing portal might be in regular use again before long," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm not sure what's going to happen then. It shouldn't be a situation the Yashou will need to take sides in — at least I hope not — but you'll want to be prepared."
She had drawn herself up into focus as she listened. "Thank you," she said. "Anything else?"
"I'm going back to Dixing," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm only taking a small team. You could come, if you wanted."
She did look briefly tempted. "I can't," she said, with some reluctance. "I've got too much to do here. I could send a Yashou representative, if you wanted."
"I'll take Da Qing," Zhao Yunlan said.
Zhu Hong rolled her eyes. "He barely counts," she said.
Da Qing made an extremely indignant noise.
"You don't come to any of the meetings!" Zhu Hong told him. "Not even when I order you to!"
Da Qing muttered something containing the words cat tribe. Zhu Hong rolled her eyes again.
"I'll come," Xiao-Guo said.
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "I need you up here looking after things. You and Lin Jing have done well holding down the fort. Keep doing that."
That made Xiao-Guo briefly flutter with pride. "But Chu-ge —"
"Can you imagine him not being fine?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "Don't worry. I'll make sure he gets back safely. And Han Xia." He was still angry with Zhang Shi for taking one of the newbies into such an uncertain situation.
"Are you taking anyone else?" Zhu Hong asked.
"Shen Wei. That's it."
Zhu Hong nodded. "Be careful," she said. "Tell me if I can help. I might even agree."
"It's good to see you," Zhao Yunlan said. Good to see how she'd clearly grown into her role over the last year.
"Good to see you too," she said. She took a quick step closer and gave him a hard, fierce hug. And left, briskly.
There was a deep silence in her wake. Shen Wei was also standing a little awkwardly.
"Uh, Chief Zhao?" one of the newbies asked.
He really had to learn their names as soon as possible. "Yes?"
"What she said… about you being dead…"
Zhao Yunlan groaned, and tipped his head back onto the sofa cushion. "Right," he said. "That."
He was briefly alone in his office, much later, when his new phone rang. He hadn't found the armchairs again yet.
His contact list had imported. Zhao Xinci, the screen read.
He rolled his eyes tiredly, and answered. "Hello."
"I got your report," Zhao Xinci said. "You're returning to Dixing tomorrow?"
"I've got people still there," Zhao Yunlan said.
"I know," Zhao Xinci said. He paused for a while. "It was when you went through the portal to Dixing before that you changed places with Zhang Shi."
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said, shortly. He had been trying very hard not to think about that too much. He already knew what the implication was, and it scared him much more than he wanted to admit to himself.
"Are you sure it's a good idea, going back through it again?" Zhao Xinci asked. Blowing past Zhao Yunlan's attempt to avoid the topic.
Zhao Yunlan raised his eyes. He couldn't see Shen Wei through the glass walls, but Zhao Yunlan thought he was in the lab with Lin Jing. "Think of it this way," he offered. "Surely the upside is that you'd get back the SID chief you work better with?"
"Yunlan," Zhao Xinci snapped. "You can't think —"
His father's voice was unexpectedly raw. Zhao Yunlan swallowed, and tried to redirect to levity. "Seriously, though, don't tell me you missed my insubordination."
"Of course I missed you," Zhao Xinci growled. "I didn't want — You're my son. Don't you dare say things like that."
Zhao Yunlan breathed out slowly, startled. He was gripping the phone so tightly it was hurting his hand, but he didn't seem able to loosen his fingers. "Dad, I was joking."
"It isn't funny," Zhao Xinci said.
And, okay, it hadn't really been very funny, but he hadn't expected the… intensity of Zhao Xinci's reaction. He didn't know what to do with it. "Dad…" he began, and couldn't think how to continue.
There was silence on the other end of the phone. Maybe Zhao Xinci was having the same problem. "Be careful tomorrow," he said, eventually.
"I'll do my best," Zhao Yunlan said. He cleared his throat. "So you read the report? How we think the portal will have properly stabalised again before too long?"
"Yes, we'll have to think about how best to deal with that situation," Zhao Xinci said.
"I'm not sure that trying to stop anyone passing between Dixing and Haixing is sustainable," Zhao Yunlan said. "I mean, it was already happening, a lot more than we had proof of. They're really suffering down there without that link."
"Yes, you put all that in your report," Zhao Xinci said. "I'll present it to the Ministry with your recommendations. I'm not sure I'd personally support them all, but I can see the logic of them."
"Good," Zhao Yunlan said. "Uh, thank you."
"We'll talk again after you return from Dixing," Zhao Xinci said, and put a faint force into the words. After. Like the world should obey his sheer will.
"Okay," Zhao Yunlan agreed. He found himself still holding the phone tightly, but smiling just a little. "Bye, Dad."
"Be careful," Zhao Xinci said, again, and ended the call.
Zhao Yunlan put the phone down and leaned his elbows on his desk. It had been a long, tiring day. At least he'd been introduced to everyone now — and he'd read all the newbies' folders, and they all seemed like good hires.
A knock on the door had him jerking his head up — but it was Shen Wei, who smiled apologetically at Zhao Yunlan's startlement. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Fine," Zhao Yunlan said. He smiled back. "Are you ready to go home?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said. "Now?"
"Now," Zhao Yunlan said. "Before the cat notices." And he led them out.
It was a cloudy morning. Shen Wei paused with the other two in front of the portal.
"Are you ready?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He had reclaimed his jeep from the SID garage the evening before and had insisted on driving them here this morning, even though it had clearly caused him pain. He was still using the crutches.
"I'm ready," Shen Wei said. He glanced at Zhao Yunlan, and then reached out. The portal responded to the touch of his dark energy, blazing dark in front of them.
He took Zhao Yunlan's arm as they approached, Da Qing on his other side. He didn't see what good a physical hold might do, but —
They stepped out onto the street in Dixing after the tumble of the void, and Shen Wei found himself gripping even tighter. "Zhao Yunlan?"
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said. He let out a deep breath. "Yeah, it's still me."
Shen Wei breathed deeply too. He had been afraid — But at the same time the passage had shaken something loose inside his memory. "I remember," he said, urgently.
"Remember what?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Shen Wei frowned, trying to put it into words. "I was — When you were in the Lantern, I could feel you," he said, stumbling over it slightly in spite of his best efforts. "And then — I can't describe it properly. But the sense of you was suddenly stronger. And I pushed."
Zhao Yunlan stared at him. "You pushed me out of the Lantern? That was you?"
"Maybe," Shen Wei said. "I can't bring it together clearly. But I think that might be what happened."
Zhao Yunlan's fingers tightened around his arm. "Thank you," he said, his voice low.
"I don't know," Shen Wei said. "We might never know for sure."
"It was you," Zhao Yunlan said. "If there was a way to save me, you found it. I know."
"I don't want to interrupt you guys," Da Qing said, "But something's happening."
Shen Wei looked up. He'd been aware of the noise — but now he was finally paying proper attention he realised it wasn't Dixing's usual background. It was shouting. Angry. Emanating from close by.
Zhao Yunlan set off towards it, the points of his crutches skidding slightly on the loose stones of the road. Shen Wei followed him, quickly catching up.
They turned the corner, and found the disturbance. A large group of Palace Guards backed against an outside wall of the palace, shouting at a crowd who outnumbered them and were shouting back with interest.
"What do you think's going on?" Da Qing asked, in a low voice.
Shen Wei listened. "Let us in!" people were yelling. "Show what you're stockpiling!" And, "You're going to let us starve!"
He started to take a step forward, but Zhao Yunlan grabbed his sleeve. "I'm not sure that's the best idea," Zhao Yunlan said, warningly.
"This could turn into a riot," Shen Wei said. "We have to stop it."
"I doubt this is the worst of what's been happening," Zhao Yunlan said, grimly. "We shouldn't just jump straight into the middle."
Shen Wei had to, reluctantly, admit the wisdom of not acting without more of a view to the whole picture. And the guards were retreating cautiously along the wall in the direction of the gate.
Then someone started throwing stones. And a moment later more were flying through the air, and one of the guards lowered his rifle and the first shot rang out —
Shen Wei stormed through the crowd, his robes swirling around him. "Stop!" he ordered, and maybe it was the shock of his sudden appearance but everything did stop, just for a second.
"What is happening?" he demanded. He looked over the pinched, frightened faces in front of him.
"They have food," someone muttered. "They won't share," someone else added. "They don't care about us."
"We don't have enough for everyone!" one of the guards protested. More ugly muttering rose up.
He wouldn't be able to hold this for more than a couple of minutes. "Get back to the palace," Shen Wei told the guards. "I'll speak to the Regent later."
The guards retreated hastily. Shen Wei could feel the ugly mood of the crowd, wanting to run them down, but he was standing between them and this was flimsily holding them back.
"Hei Pao Shi!" someone demanded. "You can make them open the gates!"
"Where have you been?" someone else asked.
"Why did you make us let them go?"
"Shen Wei!" Zhao Yunlan's voice cut through the others. "The portal's opening again!"
Shen Wei strode towards where Zhao Yunlan was already heading back up the street they had just come down. He ignored the questions which were still raining down on him.
He was in time to see the portal flare black and dwindle again. A woman stood in its place, wearing Haixing clothing, blinking.
"Hey!" Zhao Yunlan called to her.
She threw out a hand. A churn of energy tossed Zhao Yunlan backwards as she turned tail.
Shen Wei was running now. "Zhao Yunlan!" He dropped to his knees, heart in his mouth.
"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan gasped. "She —"
But she had already disappeared.
I keep feeling I should be writing more chapter notes, but I can't think of anything in particular to say. Except, I'm so glad you're still reading, thank you so much! I hope you continue to enjoy this :)
Zhao Yunlan spat grit from his mouth and struggled to get his bad leg under him as the woman who had attacked him disappeared around a corner. "Da Qing, follow her," he ordered, and Da Qing took off running on four legs.
"Are you hurt?" Shen Wei asked, urgently. He bent down to take hold of Zhao Yunlan's shoulder.
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. He felt as if he had collided at some speed with an invisible wall. "I'm okay. We should get out of here," he said.
Shen Wei glanced around, nodded, and then pulled them into a portal.
Which wasn't what Zhao Yunlan had meant, but the next moment they were in the familiar daytime-emptiness of Wen Sheng's bar, and he couldn't help but sigh in relief. Shen Wei's black robes dissolved back into his Haixing clothing the next instant, making visible the worried expression on his face.
"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan told him, again, as Shen Wei took both his arms to help him rise. He sank onto a nearby chair. "That was — I told you about the dark energy explosive that we encountered before?"
"That was it?" Shen Wei asked.
"It definitely felt similar. This time wasn't nearly as powerful, though. If one of us had been hit full-on with the strength of the previous one…"
"If she'd just opened the portal then her energy might have been depleted," Shen Wei said. "Do you know who she was?"
"I have no idea," Zhao Yunlan said. He had got his breath back now.
A door opened. "You're back!" Wen Sheng said.
"You sound surprised," Zhao Yunlan said, grinning.
"Can you blame me?" Wen Sheng asked. He looked at Shen Wei, and blinked. "Lord Envoy? It's really you?"
Shen Wei smiled, and ducked his head slightly. "Yes," he said. "I'm glad to see you well."
"Likewise!" Wen Sheng exclaimed. "We all were sure you were dead. I hardly believed it when Chu Shuzhi said you weren't."
"Well, you thought the same about me," Zhao Yunlan pointed out. He decided they had had all the you're-not-dead conversations he could stand — his appetite for them had quickly dropped to nothing. "Where are the others? Are they here?"
"No, they're with An Bai's people," Wen Sheng said. "They're both fine, though. Worried about you." He gave the crutches a pointed look.
"Oh, that's unrelated to what happened in the palace," Zhao Yunlan said. "Listen, we should probably also go and see An Bai, but you know my friend who's sometimes a cat? When he shows up here, can you tell him where we are?"
Wen Sheng nodded, somewhat dubiously. "How many other people did you bring?"
"Just him," Zhao Yunlan said, cheerfully. "Don't you like the variety I bring to your life?"
"Hmm," Wen Sheng said. He glanced towards the door, as if afraid someone could be listening. "I hope you've brought some ideas to help. Things aren't going well here."
"Yeah, we ran into some trouble," Zhao Yunlan said, sobering. "Civilians against guards. Has there been much of that?"
"Too much," Wen Sheng said. "It hasn't got properly violent yet, but it's only a matter of time. No one in the palace will talk to us."
"We'll see what we can do," Shen Wei said. His face set and serious. The current state of Dixing had to be hurting him.
"I hope you do," Wen Sheng said. "This is — I don't know how much longer we can survive for. I'm doing okay, since everyone still wants to drink, but supplies in general are running very low. An Bai will be able to tell you more, I suppose."
"We should go there now," Shen Wei said. "Where is he based?"
Wen Sheng laid out quick directions. Shen Wei helped Zhao Yunlan again to his feet.
"Are you planning to portal again?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "I thought —"
Shen Wei frowned at him slightly, and he stopped. Reconsidered Shen Wei's need to save face, and how important that might actually turn out to be, here. And he was stronger in Dixing, anyway.
"Are you ready?" Shen Wei asked.
"Sure," Zhao Yunlan said.
Shen Wei transported them to just outside the building Zhao Yunlan had visited before. There were three people outside this time, and one was the same guard he remembered from the previous visit. She recognised him as well. "An Bai said you can go straight in," she said.
"He's expecting us?" Zhao Yunlan asked, surprised.
She shrugged, and grinned.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged too and led the way. Shen Wei kept half a step behind him. He had kindly said nothing about Zhao Yunlan's slow pace over the last couple of days. He had tried to persuade him again to let him do a more thorough healing, but Zhao Yunlan was still stubbornly set against it. He could manage just fine, and he was refusing to let Shen Wei expend his powers when it wasn't completely necessary.
There were more people inside the main room than there had been before. Zhao Yunlan looked around. "Lao-Chu!" he called.
Chu Shuzhi stood up sharply and crossed to them almost as fast as if he'd learned to teleport himself. He looked them both over. "You've been in Haixing," he said.
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said. "They didn't catch you, then?"
"No." He looked to Shen Wei. "You've recovered?"
"Thank you for your assistance in the palace," Shen Wei said. "And yes."
Zhao Yunlan didn't add any commentary, not even when Lao-Chu looked at the crutches and said, "Was that the guards?"
"No," Zhao Yunlan said. "That was in Haixing. I was kidnapped."
Lao-Chu raised his eyebrows. "How did you have time?"
"We're going to speak with An Bai now," Zhao Yunlan said, with dignity.
"Right," Lao-Chu said, his mouth curving sardonically. "Well, he's over there."
An Bai was at the same desk — in fact he was sitting on it, talking to someone who left quickly as they approached. He looked up. "Zhao Yunlan," he said. "And Shen Wei. Chu Shuzhi said you had… recovered."
Shen Wei nodded slightly stiffly. "Lord An," he said.
"He isn't using titles anymore," Zhao Yunlan said.
An Bai gave him a quick smile. "So were you locked in the palace all this time?"
"Only briefly," Zhao Yunlan said. "We've been on a detour to Haixing."
"What's the situation here?" Shen Wei asked. "There was nearly a riot a short while ago —"
"Yes, I got the report from that already," An Bai said. "That's how I knew you were on your way. It's not the first, and the clashes are getting worse."
"Between the guards and your people?" Shen Wei asked.
"People," An Bai said. "I don't presume to call everyone not huddling behind the palace walls mine." He sighed. "There are rumours spreading that there are stocks of supplies in the palace, while out in the city we're rationing. I don't know where they keep coming from. They're probably true."
"Sounds about right," Zhao Yunlan said.
"And there are mutterings that we should try invading Haixing again," An Bai said, very dryly.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan demanded.
"As far as I've been told, everyone thinks that sounds ridiculous. But clearly not everyone, since they keep recurring." An Bai sighed. "Obviously that would be a terrible idea."
"Obviously," Zhao Yunlan said. "I mean, Ye Zun had a pretty good go at it. And he caused a lot of fear and panic, there were plenty of deaths — but he never managed to muster a real invasion force."
"Exactly," An Bai said. "I assume it's a handful of malcontents — but it's still worrying."
"Do you have a plan?" Shen Wei asked.
An Bai put his hands flat on the table. "No," he said, starkly. "No, I don't. We've been trying to organise and coordinate supplies — we're on top of that. But about the overall situation?" He shook his head. He was very young — Zhao Yunlan kept forgetting. "Do you have any ideas?"
"You need more supplies from Haixing," Zhao Yunlan said. "Proper trade. A new treaty, maybe?"
"A new treaty?" Shen Wei asked, surprised.
"The current one's clearly not much good right now," Zhao Yunlan said. "It could work. I'm sure you guys have stuff we'd want. Sharing powers, for instance?" It would require a lot of talking. A lot of meetings. His father would probably hate it. He could feel himself starting to grin.
"But the portal's closed," An Bai said.
"No, it's just been rebuilding its energy," Zhao Yunlan said. "It's opening more regularly, with shorter periods to recharge each time. Soon it'll be back to normal."
"At least one other person has been using it regardless," Shen Wei said. "We saw a woman come through it, using her own power to activate it. Do you know who she might be?"
An Bai shook his head. "I wasn't aware of anyone but yourselves successfully using it," he said. "If it really will be functional again soon — that changes things." He looked at Shen Wei. "Would you be prepared to re-negotiate the treaty?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said. "If it no longer serves Dixing as it was meant to do, it should be replaced with one which does."
"Right," An Bai said. "That's settled, then." He smiled, ruefully. "This isn't exactly what I'd intended to start."
"You're doing a good job," Zhao Yunlan told him.
He scooped up his SID members on the way out. Han Xia had made friends. Lao-Chu had made people to glower at.
"I'm not sure we should walk through the streets," Shen Wei said. "It'll be bad for your leg."
"I want to see what the city's like at the moment," Zhao Yunlan said, stubbornly.
Shen Wei gave an extremely long-suffering sigh.
The city didn't look much different. There seemed to be a greater air of tension overlying it, but maybe that was just his imagination. There was more graffiti, too. None of it was supportive of the Regent.
"How many people are in the palace?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Lao-Chu shrugged. "They let some people enter the other day. Richer citizens. Ones known to support the Regent. Not many, though."
"It sounds like they're trying to wait out a siege," Zhao Yunlan said.
"Exactly," Lao-Chu said. "If they really do have plenty of supplies, they can outlast everyone else."
"What then, though?" Han Xia asked. "I mean, they can't just want everyone else to starve."
"Good question," Zhao Yunlan said. "There isn't really an exit strategy."
"Maybe they're hoping to find one," Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan shot him a glance. "You'd better not be planning on anything stupid. Like going into the palace on your own to try and talk sense into the Regent."
"Has anyone tried?" Shen Wei asked.
"You are not doing that," Zhao Yunlan said. "Definitely not without me. I will follow you around clinging onto your arm."
Shen Wei raised his eyes and sighed, but there was something of a smile on his face. "I believe you," he said.
"Good," Zhao Yunlan said, satisfied.
Da Qing was waiting for them inside the bar, and leapt up as soon as he saw them. "I didn't find her," he said. "I looked for ages, then I came here and Wen-ge said I might as well wait for you to come back from seeing An Bai."
Zhao Yunlan patted his shoulder. The bar was open now, but the customers sat in small groups keeping themselves to themselves. "I know," Zhao Yunlan said to Wen Sheng, "I'll go hide in the back."
"Up to you," Wen Sheng said. "I've already heard several stories about the disturbance Hei Pao Shi caused, in case you were wondering."
"He didn't cause it," Zhao Yunlan protested. Shen Wei just looked resigned.
"Like I said, up to you," Wen Sheng said.
"I'd rather not be recognised," Shen Wei said.
That was something Zhao Yunlan definitely understood.
They went to the upper floor. "You can have the guest room I've been using," Lao-Chu said. "I'll sleep on the sofa downstairs."
"You don't need to do that," Shen Wei protested, but Lao-Chu absolutely would not be persuaded otherwise.
It was still early evening. Once Lao-Chu had moved the things he'd been using downstairs, he came back up to the living area with a bottle of mushroom wine. One of Han Xia's new friends had shown up at the bar, and Han Xia had gone to join her. Lao-Chu poured out wine for himself, Zhao Yunlan, and Da Qing. "How's the SID?" he asked.
"Everyone's fine," Zhao Yunlan said. "Xiao-Guo's fine. He's worried about you, though."
Zhao Yunlan drank some of the wine, and grimaced. "I forgot how this tasted."
"I'm surprised you remember anything about it, the amount you drank last time," Lao-Chu said.
Shen Wei looked disapproving. Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes at them both. Da Qing just looked like he was trying not to laugh.
"So how did you get kidnapped?" Lao-Chu asked.
Zhao Yunlan told the story. Briefly. He felt Lao-Chu was judging him far too much. Either that or being amused, which was probably worse.
"The woman who encouraged the taxi driver," Shen Wei said. "Could she be the same woman who came through the portal?"
"I was wondering that," Zhao Yunlan said. "A Dixingren would be more likely to recognise Zhang Shi. And there can't be many people moving about right now. She certainly didn't seem well-disposed towards us earlier."
"On the side of the palace, then?" Lao-Chu asked.
"That or part of the group who apparently want to invade Haixing," Zhao Yunlan said, tiredly. "Too many people are angry."
"Everyone down here is angry," Lao-Chu said. "An Bai still hopes he can find a solution, but…"
Shen Wei looked pained. Zhao Yunlan remembered his words when they'd been locked in the cell. It was all for nothing. Ye Zun's defeat and the lighting of the Lantern were supposed to have brought peace. We didn't improve things for Dixing, just sealed it off and condemned it to turmoil.
Later, lying on a hard mattress with Shen Wei alongside him, Zhao Yunlan was still haunted by the lack of solutions. He knew Shen Wei was as well. "It'll be okay," he whispered, sliding his fingers through Shen Wei's hair, and Shen Wei nodded half-heartedly but didn't speak.
When Zhao Yunlan finally slept, it was uneasily.
Shen Wei dreamed of nowhere-space, of void.
Of the Lantern.
He had brushed past this awareness on his transit to Dixing. Had instinctively closed himself to it, out of… guilt.
Zhang Shi was trapped there, was fuelling the Lantern's flame — where Zhao Yunlan should have been but for Shen Wei's interference. Not on purpose, he protested, to himself or to Zhang Shi if he could even hear. Shen Wei hadn't been properly conscious of what he'd done, hadn't remembered it afterwards, but it had been a choice he had made, all the same. He had felt Zhao Yunlan in distress and pain and that had been a constant for the whole time he had been drifting himself, barely-formed energy, and as soon as he had felt that chink he had pushed.
"I'm sorry," he said to Zhang Shi, although in the void he had no voice and his intentions were meaningless.
Then there was a boom and the world shook —
— and Zhao Yunlan was shaking him although he had already started awake. "Shen Wei!"
"What happened?" Shen Wei demanded, finding himself on his feet. The echos of the noise were still dying away — the aftershocks of dark energy were an overlapping fading cacophony against his senses.
"Some sort of explosion," Zhao Yunlan said. He turned the lights on and started pulling on his jeans.
Shen Wei hurriedly dressed himself, and they hastened down the stairs as fast as Zhao Yunlan could manage with the crutches and then outside, shoving past startled bar patrons. It was still bright as daytime, of course, which momentarily was a surprise, although it shouldn't have been — he was too used to the diurnal rhythm of Haixing.
"Where did it come from?" Zhao Yunlan demanded of anyone nearby.
Shen Wei shook his head. "Over there," he said, and pointed. The dark energy disturbance was settling now, but its centre was obvious. "The palace."
Zhao Yunlan swore. "That's all we need," he muttered, and took off at a stumbling run.
Shen Wei caught his shoulder and pulled him through a portal instead. They emerged in the shadow of a house, but no one was looking their way. The gathering crowd was concentrating on the hole blasted through the palace wall. The mood was clearly ugly.
A moment later, pushing closer, Shen Wei could see why. What was behind the rent in the wall was a storeroom. People were already grabbing what they could see — bags of grain, rice, dried fruit.
Then the door at the other end of the storeroom opened and guards poured through. They started firing immediately into the crowd.
I wrote this chapter a month or so ago, but it feels wrong not to acknowledge the resonance with current events. *gestures* I promise it is extremely unintentional, and this is the main chapter of it.
"Go, go!" Zhao Yunlan shouted at people. He had lost Shen Wei — no, Shen Wei was there at the front, black robes swirling, shouting at the guards to stop shooting.
This time it didn't work.
The Dixing rifles were old and primitive, Zhao Yunlan knew. But the metal bullets could still crack a bone, tear an artery. "Go!" he kept shouting at people as Shen Wei threw up a shield.
Da Qing must have run all the way to catch up with them. "Go and tell the others!" Zhao Yunlan called. "We'll get to An Bai —"
Da Qing took the situation in with one look around, then leapt away on four feet.
People were moving, at least. But the contingent of guards was swelling. This wasn't the sort of action they'd be able to step back from. Now they'd started outright shooting at civilians… Shen Wei was still holding up a shield between them and the fleeing crowd.
An Bai's name was being shouted around. People were going to be headed there.
Shen Wei took a large step back, looked around, and made a pushing motion. The guards outside the wall dropped. Shen Wei gestured and the stones which must have burst from the wall in the initial explosion rose up, and jammed themselves back in to roughly fill the gap. He looked around in the sudden silence, then strode quickly over to Zhao Yunlan.
"Are they dead?" Zhao Yunlan asked, looking at the felled guards.
Shen Wei shook his head. "Unconscious."
"We need to get out of here. Before more come out of the gate." Zhao Yunlan was certain that they would, now. This was no longer a siege — it had abruptly broken into a battle. The Regent wouldn't be able to let this stand.
Shen Wei nodded, took his arm, and transported them directly inside An Bai's building.
It was full of people, all milling around in the slightly panicky way of having been shaken awake but not really knowing why yet. An Bai was one of them but managing to look in command despite his hair sticking up somewhat. He looked straight across to them. "Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei. What's happening?"
No titles, still. Shen Wei was incongruous here, in his black robes, but he didn't change them. "Someone broke the wall into one of the palace storerooms. There was a crowd. The guards began firing into it. I stopped them momentarily, but —"
"— They'll probably blame it on me and be on the way here," An Bai finished.
"I take it you didn't have anything to do with the attack on the palace, then?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"No, of course not," An Bai said.
Shen Wei was looking around with a critical eye. "Is this place more defensible than it seems?" he asked.
An Bai raised his eyebrows. "Probably not," he said. "That wasn't a consideration. We weren't trying to fight a war."
There was a swell of noise from outside. Then Dixingren were flooding in, a scared mass. "What's going on?" one of An Bai's people demanded.
"They're looking for protection," Shen Wei said.
An Bai's composure was finally cracking. "We can't protect them," he said. "We can't protect the city population. We've barely any weapons between us."
"Lao-Zhao! We're here!" The SID team were pushing forward, Da Qing at the front. "There's fighting in the streets!"
"More people are going to be coming this way," Lao-Chu said, grimly. "Is there a plan?"
Later, there would be time for negotiations. After this night was over, and a lot of people were dead. After that there would be time to talk, and civilly come to an agreement.
Zhao Yunlan saw the same knowledge in Shen Wei's eyes. He'd been a military commander, after all. But he'd led people who had signed up to it.
"We can't win this," Zhao Yunlan said.
An Bai swallowed. "I'll surrender," he said. "They can have me as a prisoner if the Regent agrees to withdraw the guard and leave the citizens unhurt."
"There must be something else we can do," Lao-Chu said, sounding angry about it. "We can't just give up."
"What else can we do?" An Bai asked. "There's nowhere we can escape to."
It hit Zhao Yunlan. A ridiculous plan. "There is," he said. "Shen Wei, can you open the portal to Haixing from here?"
Shen Wei stared at him. "Bring everyone to Haixing?"
"As many people as want to go," Zhao Yunlan said. He began to grin, wildly. "Claim asylum. Even if it doesn't work, that's a problem for another day."
"Leave Dixing?" An Bai demanded.
"Are you enjoying living here at the moment?" Zhao Yunlan asked, which was unfairly blunt, but he saw both the hurt and the understanding in An Bai's expression.
"I can't open the portal from here," Shen Wei said. "I'm sorry. It's too far."
"We need to get closer, then," An Bai said. He pursed his lips, eyeing Shen Wei with consideration. "Can you defend us?"
"Not if you're expecting him to hold the portal open for everyone," Zhao Yunlan jumped in, before Shen Wei could answer. And Shen Wei didn't argue, which was all the confirmation Zhao Yunlan needed. He was glad now that he had been so irritatingly stubborn about his leg — every small piece of power that Shen Wei hadn't had to expend might be needed.
"We've got people with defensive powers," Han Xia said, speaking up for the first time. "We've been making a list of everyone."
"Great," Zhao Yunlan said. "Use it. You three, start organising — get as many people as you can together, quickly." He turned back to An Bai. "We'll have to make a push for it. Sooner rather than later. We don't want to get trapped in here."
"I agree," An Bai said. "I'll collect the essentials." He turned quickly towards his desk.
"How close to the portal do you need to be?" Zhao Yunlan asked Shen Wei, in the sparse few seconds they had alone.
"I haven't tested it," Shen Wei said. "A few hundred metres, maybe."
Zhao Yunlan couldn't tell whether he looked paler than usual or not. He could only worry. "You can do it?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, shortly. He tightened his mouth. "Full civil war — I didn't think we'd come to this. I didn't think I'd have to choose a side in my own home."
"I'm sorry," Zhao Yunlan said. He lifted a hand and laid it on Shen Wei's cheek, just under the edge of his mask.
Shen Wei nodded slightly. Then he pushed back his hood, and pulled his mask off, placing it carefully in a pocket of his black robes.
"What are you doing?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Following An Bai's example," Shen Wei said. "If we are breaking away from Dixing, splitting our society… maybe I should not be behind a mask."
Zhao Yunlan would have kissed him, but Shen Wei hated that in public. "I love you," he said, softly.
Shen Wei coloured slightly. "And I, you," he said, and ducked his gaze.
"I'm ready," An Bai said, returning. He carried a satchel over his shoulder, and for a moment Zhao Yunlan saw him as one of Shen Wei's grad students. Then he drew himself up, pulling on the air of authority he'd learned. He jumped up onto the nearest table and stamped his foot three times.
An expectant silence spread out, like ripples in a pool.
"Everyone," An Bai said. "You probably know the situation by now. We're under attack from Dixing Palace. We can't defend ourselves here." He paused. "We're leaving. All of us. Dixing can no longer sustain us. Together, we will go to Haixing and ask for sanctuary there."
He waited again for the inevitable swell of voices. Murmuring, shouting, agreeing, dissenting.
"The choice is yours, of course," An Bai continued. "Shen Wei will open the gate for us — for everyone who wants to come with me." He gestured to Shen Wei, who stood in his robes with a stern expression on his bare face.
"What about our families?" someone called.
"Go and tell them to join us," An Bai said. "The portal is close to the palace. We need to make our way there. Chu Shuzhi, is your group ready?"
Lao-Chu, across the room, jerked with surprise at being publicly called out. He gave a thumbs-up.
"Good. Your volunteers will defend the rest of us." An Bai looked back at the crowd. "We need to leave now, before we become trapped here. Stay together, and we'll make it to Haixing." He leapt down from the table as noise rose up again — mostly approving, Zhao Yunlan thought.
"Good speech," he said.
"Thanks," An Bai said, slightly sardonically. "We'd better get moving."
He made his way through the crowd, Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei flanking him. Lao-Chu waved him closer.
"We'll go out first," Lao-Chu said. "We'll spread out, then everyone can follow."
"How many people have defensive powers?" Zhao Yunlan asked him.
"Probably not enough," Lao-Chu said, bluntly. "There's a whole mix of people who want to help, and some of them won't be very useful. But better than nothing. A few people can make shields."
"It'll have to do," Zhao Yunlan said. He remembered a conversation from earlier. "By the way, if you hear anyone talking about invading Haixing, let me know."
He waited for Lao-Chu to laugh, but he didn't. "You think anyone'll be that stupid to think that's what we're doing?" he asked.
"What do you expect?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Lao-Chu snorted. "You're right — probably someone will be that stupid. I'll keep a watch."
"Good." Zhao Yunlan clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll stay with Shen Wei and An Bai."
"Stay in the middle of the group," Lao-Chu advised him. "It'll be safest there."
It chafed, watching Lao-Chu lead his group of volunteers out into danger, but Zhao Yunlan knew he was right. The important thing was protecting those two — getting Shen Wei to the portal, keeping An Bai safe so that he could keep charge of his people. When the signal came to start moving, Zhao Yunlan made them hang back, rather than go at the head of the push. He could see Shen Wei fighting the same battle inside himself.
Outside was chaos. Lao-Chu's volunteers were pushing back against a group of guards — all kinds of powers were being used. Stones from the street were rising up into a cloud of grit which rolled across everyone indiscriminately. Zhao Yunlan pulled the collar of his shirt up over his mouth and nose, and followed where everyone else was going.
Rifle shots seemed to come from every direction, echoed and ricocheted from the buildings. There were more clashes all around — the sounds of shouting came from everywhere. It couldn't just be this group. All across the city, fighting must have broken out. A pall of smoke hung in one direction, a dark smudge against the harsh Lantern-light.
They pushed onward. Zhao Yunlan tried to keep track of his people — Da Qing wove in and out of his awareness — but mostly he only knew where Shen Wei was. There was more smoke now. The city was tearing itself apart. "Are we close enough yet?" he heard An Bai shout, and Shen Wei grimly shook his head.
They pushed onward. Zhao Yunlan caught sight of Lao-Chu, bleeding from a deep cut across his face. Then he was gone again. There seemed to be more and more people joining their crowd every moment, but there seemed more people against them too. Word must have spread. Everyone was choosing sides.
Finally, the palace rose up at the end of a street and Shen Wei stopped in a small plaza. "I can open the portal from here," he said.
"How long can you hold it open for?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"As long as I need to," Shen Wei said, grimly.
"Here!" Da Qing was suddenly pushing his way into the conversation. "Professor Shen, these might help. Lao-Chu told me to go and get them." He held out a cloth bag.
Shen Wei took it, and his eyes widened. "The Hallows?" he asked. "Where did they come from?"
Zhao Yunlan barked a laugh. "We stole them from the palace," he said. It seemed so long ago he had almost forgotten Lao-Chu escaping with them. "Can you use them?"
"Maybe," Shen Wei said, and then the bag was abruptly gone and the Brush, Awl and Dial were floating in the air, glowing golden. "Yes. Yes, I can use their energy."
Zhao Yunlan took a step back, to give him room.
But Shen Wei was still looking at him. "You need to go through first," he said.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan asked, taken aback. "No, I'll stay with you."
"You need to go to Dragon City!" Shen Wei said. "Think — what will it look like otherwise when this crowd of Dixingren comes through? You need to be there."
Of course he needed to be. Shen Wei was so obviously correct that Zhao Yunlan couldn't even protest. "Be careful," he said, instead, helplessly. "Don't stay when it's not safe. Come through."
Shen Wei gave him a smile. One only he gave when he couldn't say anything because what Zhao Yunlan wanted to hear would be untrue.
"Lao-Chu!" Zhao Yunlan shouted.
He was close enough to hear, and turned. "What?"
"Keep Shen Wei safe!"
Lao-Chu nodded firmly.
It wasn't enough. It would have to be. "You have to come through yourself," Zhao Yunlan insisted, again.
Shen Wei took his arms, and kissed him, briefly. Despite the eyes on them, despite everything, and Zhao Yunlan refused to know any meaning underlying it other than —
"I love you," Zhao Yunlan whispered.
Shen Wei stepped back and gave him another heartbreakingly false smile. Then he reached up to the golden glow of the circling Hallows, and opened the portal.
"Follow me," Zhao Yunlan said to An Bai, and he stepped through.
Sorry this chapter is a couple of days late, I'm having a bit of a difficult time health-wise at the moment.
The park in Dragon City was empty when Zhao Yunlan stepped through. The sky was the clear blue-grey of just before dawn. He took an instinctive deep breath, emptying his lungs of the dust and grit of Dixing.
An Bai came through close behind him. He too inhaled sharply, and tilted his head up to stare at the lightening sky. "Haixing," he said, very quietly.
Zhao Yunlan took out his phone and turned it on. "You need to manage the people who come through," he said. "Please don't let anyone go anywhere. Everyone needs to stay together. The authorities are going to panic enough with everyone cooperating."
An Bai nodded. "I understand," he said.
The first Dixing citizens began to appear through the portal then, stumbling and looking around dazedly. "Over here," An Bai said, directing them to an empty area of grass. "We need to wait. You're not hurt?"
Satisfied that things were at least immediately under control, Zhao Yunlan dialled the SID first. He got one of the rookies. "It's Chief Zhao," he said. "Put me through to either Lin Jing or Guo Changcheng, please."
He got Xiao-Guo. "Chief Zhao? You're back?"
"Yes, and I've brought a lot of Dixing refugees with me," Zhao Yunlan said. "I need you to wake everybody up. Leave someone competent to man the phone, but get everyone else over to the portal to help. Tell Lin Jing to contact Cong Bo too and get him to phone me — we're going to need public opinion on our side in this."
It was probably a lot to take in at once, but Xiao-Guo miraculously didn't waste time asking questions about it. "Yes, Chief," he said, and went straight to doing what he'd been told.
There were already a lot more Dixingren in the park. Most of them looked somewhat shell-shocked by the abrupt transition. No one was causing trouble so far, which was reassuring. Several people whom Zhao Yunlan had previously noted as part of An Bai's team were clearly helping to organise everyone.
The next phone call was going to be more difficult. He grimaced before he hit the call button. Despite the hour, it was answered quickly. "Hi, Dad."
"Yunlan." Zhao Xinci had surely just been woken up, but he managed not to sound like it. "It's you?"
"Yeah, it's me. I'm back from Dixing." His father made a noise which might have been a relieved sigh, which Zhao Yunlan didn't stop to process, instead ploughing straight on. "Uh, I didn't come back alone. Dixing's in all-out civil war now. It's not safe there, for anyone. There are refugees coming through the portal right now."
"What?" Zhao Xinci's voice sharpened into the more familiar mildly-irritated briskness. "How many?"
"I don't know yet," Zhao Yunlan said. "Shen Wei's holding the portal open on the other end for everyone who wants to come through. It's probably going to be a lot of people."
"You're bringing half of Dixing to Dragon City, on no notice, at five in the morning?" Zhao Xinci demanded. So loudly that Zhao Yunlan winced.
"That about sums it up," he said. There was no point apologising for the inconvenience. His father wouldn't believe his sincerity, and more importantly, it wouldn't matter. This was the situation. "A lot of people would die otherwise. People are dying."
"So you've made it our problem," Zhao Xinci said, but he sounded resigned. Zhao Yunlan grinned. He knew when he'd won.
"I was hoping you'd help sell this to the Ministry," he said.
"Were you," Zhao Xinci said, very blandly. He sighed. "Well, I'm coming over there to see what's going on for myself. Don't let anyone leave the area."
"Okay, see you soon," Zhao Yunlan said, still smiling, and ended the call.
"Chief Zhao?" It was Han Xia, her face dirty and hair unwinding from its neat plait. "Lao-Chu told me to come through the portal and report."
Zhao Yunlan nodded. "What's the situation like?"
"There are a lot of people queueing up," she said. "Word's got around. The guard are trying to prevent the citizens from getting through to the portal, and Lao-Chu and his team are trying to keep the streets open for them. He said to tell you particularly that Shen Wei is fine — Da Qing is guarding him."
"Thanks," Zhao Yunlan said, and summoned a reassuring smile for her. "The rest of the SID should be here soon. You can help introduce them to An Bai's people. Make sure everyone's working together."
She went off to do that, and Zhao Yunlan spent a few seconds staring uselessly at the portal. He was up here, and Shen Wei was in danger, and there was nothing he could do to influence anything happening in Dixing now.
He was being waved over by one of the Dixingren. He came closer. "Yes?"
"An Bai wants to talk to you." The young man pointed.
Zhao Yunlan went to find him. An Bai looked up at his approach and gestured for them to move a little aside, where they couldn't be overheard.
"Problem?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He took a quick look around. Everyone still seemed fairly peaceful. Many people were sitting down now, forming small groups on the grass or under trees. The sun was rising.
"Maybe," An Bai said. "Not here, though. Some reports from Dixing."
"What's happened?" Zhao Yunlan demanded. There hadn't been time for anything major since Han Xia had spoken to him, surely? Or was this something Lao-Chu was unaware of?
"Arguments," An Bai said. "Some people think this is a trap. A ploy by Haixing."
"For what purpose?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "They think we want to trick them to come up here?"
"Apparently," An Bai said, with an edge of irritated frustration. "People still remember those who died in Haixing, a year ago."
"In Ye Zun's invasion force," Zhao Yunlan said. "I suppose we tricked those idiots into that, too?"
An Bai shook his head. "I'm just telling you what I've heard," he said.
Zhao Yunlan sighed. "People are welcome to think this is a trap. They don't need to come up here. No one's being forced to."
"I'm worried not everyone will see it like that," An Bai said.
Zhao Yunlan sighed again. "So am I," he admitted. "But I don't see what we can do. We're saving people right now. Everyone who's choosing to come up here."
"I know," An Bai said. "We're grateful. I'm grateful."
"Don't thank me too soon," Zhao Yunlan warned him. "You're their civic leader. I'm going to be throwing you to the wolves of Dragon City's administration."
"I expected nothing less," An Bai said. "Is that some of them?"
Zhao Yunlan looked where he was pointing. The SID were arriving from one direction. His father from another.
He grinned. "Yup," he said. "Come on, time to do some talking."
Shen Wei held the portal open, as he had been doing for… He had lost track. Everything was chaotic. People in the distance were shouting and screaming, and those closer were beginning to push to get through faster. There was fear everywhere.
And there were always more people. Every time he looked, there were more.
He had initially sunk a large portion of his energy into the portal, and that had kept it open on its own for a while, and then he had had to start feeding it more to hold the structure of it stable. He couldn't have achieved it for so long had he not been able to draw on the Hallows. He tried not to lean on them too much — they were slippery, not to be trusted — but their energy was now being constantly funnelled into the portal along with the thread of his own.
Eventually their energy would run out. He didn't want to think about how long he would be able to hold the portal open after that, and what would happen then. What would happen to the people who were desperate to get through but might not be able to. A part of him still clung to the hope that this wouldn't be the final path the Regent chose in the end — that somehow it was a misunderstanding, that this might still be resolved through words and treaties instead of further bloodshed, but he knew really that it wasn't the case. Dixing had collapsed.
Da Qing was constantly circling around him. Chu Shuzhi had set him as a guard, and he was taking it extremely seriously. He dropped closer now, as he had every now and then. "You're still okay?"
Shen Wei nodded automatically. "I'm fine. How is everyone else?"
"Lao-Chu and his group are still defending," Da Qing said. "We keep having more people arrive. Most of Dixing will have left soon, it feels like."
Shen Wei sighed wearily. He had a feeling that however many people it felt like to him, they were still far, far short of the total number of Dixingren who wanted to leave the city.
"Do you need anything?" Da Qing asked.
Shen Wei thought. He had rejected similar offers before, but — "Is there some water?" he asked.
"I'll find some!" Apparently enthusiastic about having a job to do, Da Qing dashed off.
He returned not long after with a glass bottle. Shen Wei nodded his thanks and drained half of it at once. It was warm, and tasted slightly sulphuric, but it slaked his throat. "Thank you," he said.
"You're welcome," Da Qing said. He looked at Shen Wei critically. "Do you need a break?"
"I can't," Shen Wei said. "If I let the portal close, the amount of energy I'd need to open it again would be much higher."
Da Qing continued looking at Shen Wei for several seconds, and then disappeared again. He returned with a chair which looked to have come from the inside of someone's house. "Here," he said. "You can keep the portal open while you sit down, right?"
Shen Wei sat, somewhat heavily, and was surprised to find how much he needed it. His legs felt rubbery, as though he wouldn't easily be able to stand up again.
"Professor Shen?" Da Qing asked, frowning.
"Yes?" Shen Wei asked, but it felt like it took him a long time to respond. And Da Qing was no longer there.
And then Chu Shuzhi was there instead, crouching down and taking Shen Wei's hands. "Lord Envoy," he said. And then, "Shen Wei?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, again. His hands felt very cold against Chu Shuzhi's much warmer ones.
"This is draining you badly," Chu Shuzhi said. "How can I help?"
Shen Wei shook his head, feeling like he was moving against some heavy weight. "I can — keep going."
Chu Shuzhi spoke again, but his words were somehow unclear. Or there was too much noise surrounding.
A chiming of metal against stone. The three Hallows, quiescent now, rolling where they had fallen, lying emptied on the ground.
But he had to keep the portal open. His vision was tunnelling, but there were still Dixingren who needed passage…
It came from nowhere. From a dream-space. Energy, winding into him. Familiar, flame-bright. Zhang Shi reaching out, offering him the fire of the Lantern.
Shen Wei took it. Breathed it in with a rush which cleared his head, stopped his body's shivers. The power he was feeding into the portal steadied, and he lifted his head.
Chu Shuzhi and Da Qing were in front of him, both looking anxious. "Professor Shen?" Da Qing asked.
"I'm all right," Shen Wei said. "It's Zhang Shi, he's helping. He —" He looked up, and in his other sight he could see the long thread of energy streaming down to him from the Lantern.
Chu Shuzhi clasped his shoulder. "I need to get back to the others," he said. "Da Qing will fetch me if anything else happens."
Shen Wei nodded. "Be careful," he said.
Da Qing remained close, watching Shen Wei worriedly. But he didn't feel in danger of fading out again just then. He was able to concentrate more on the line of Dixingren, on looking anxiously into the distance where the sounds of fighting were blocked by the buildings.
It took him a while to notice that something vital had changed. That the distance had become harder to look into. The light from the Lantern was dimming.
Other people had noticed it as well. The mood was becoming tenser, more urgent. The crowd pressed into each other, eager to reach the portal as quickly as possible.
"No!" A man's voice raised up in protest. "You shouldn't go! What if it's true that it's a trick?"
Shen Wei didn't hear what was said in response, but he was aware of how quickly that sort of panic could spread out of hand. "Get Chu Shuzhi," he ordered Da Qing, who obeyed immediately, leaping away.
He himself stood, with a hand on the chair back to support himself, so that he could see the disturbance. A knot of people close by, all arguing and drawing in bystanders. "We're prepared," someone else said. "When we all go through, Haixing won't be able to control us. They're powerless."
"Don't be ridiculous," a woman snapped.
"I'm not," the man she was talking to said. "We just need to be organised — Lin Cheng! Tell them how we can win!"
Shen Wei followed the man's gesture, and found a woman maybe in her thirties scowling at the group.
He recognised her. She was the one who had travelled alone through the portal. Who had hurt Zhao Yunlan.
Shen Wei planted himself in front of the portal, blocking the group from passing through. "This is not a Haixing invasion," he said. "We are going as guests."
Chu Shuzhi and Da Qing were approaching — Shen Wei could see them in the corner of his eye. Lin Cheng stepped forward, her friends bolstering her. "Are you trying to stop us going?" she asked.
"Yes," Shen Wei said. "I won't allow anyone through who's intending to jeopardise the relationship between our people and Haixing. You've already tried to injure Zhao Yunlan, the Lord Guardian."
"He's not Haixingren at all," she snapped. "He's a Dixing traitor. It's our own people he's been sending back. I saw him use his power."
"He is Haixingren," Shen Wei said. "You were mistaken in what you thought you saw."
"Liar!" she accused. "Don't you care about your own people at all? You want us defenceless?"
There was a growing swell of dissent around them. People shoving to try and get nearer to the portal. "I'm not allowing you through," Shen Wei repeated.
"You will," Lin Cheng said. She made a throwing motion. Between them spun a swiftly-building ball of energy, violently black, ferocious — the sort of power to bring down buildings.
In the first instant of the explosion, Shen Wei threw a shield around it. But it was too much energy, too fast — he couldn't contain it. Couldn't keep those around them safe.
He gathered that unstable mass of energy up instead. It and him and Lin Cheng. And as the explosion ripped outwards, tore into him, he bore them away.
Zhao Yunlan was busy organising. Everyone was. There was a big marquee tent going up on one of the park lawns to provide emergency shelter — many of the Dixingren were helping with its construction. Others had gathered into family or friend groups and were waiting patiently, as An Bai's people had been asking them to. The SID had begun distributing water.
There were still more people coming through the portal, and he wondered what the final head count would be. Dixing wasn't all that big, certainly nowhere near the size of any Haixing city, but seeing all the people together in one place made them look like an overwhelming quantity. It was a relief that so far everyone was obeying the instructions to stay in once place and wait quietly — Zhao Yunlan dreaded to think what could be happening otherwise.
Zhao Xinci had made a lot of phone calls. Minister Guo had actually turned up in person to see what was going on, and was still talking to An Bai, who seemed to be making a positive impression. Zhao Yunlan kept remembering the angry kid he'd met in Dixing all those months ago. He'd never have predicted that he would end up like this.
It was Han Xia, now neatened up again. "What is it?" he asked.
"The portal's still open, but no one's come through for the last few minutes," she said.
"Did something happen?" He was already turning and walking in that direction — she had to jog a few steps to catch up.
"I don't know," she said. "One of the last Dixingren to come through said there was some sort of argument going on further down the queue, but she wasn't paying much attention."
Zhao Yunlan halted in front of the portal, frowning. It certainly looked just the same. Several other people were also standing around eyeing it uncertainly. "What happened?" he asked the nearest.
"I don't know," the man said, anxiously. "I'm waiting for my brother, he was just behind me…"
And then suddenly there was a rush of people, charging through, and someone very familiar was yelling but it took a second for Zhao Yunlan to realise that it was Da Qing. "Lao-Zhao, stop that one, stop him!" he was shouting. "Shen Wei didn't want him to go through!"
The man in question tried to run. Zhao Yunlan cracked him over the head with one of his crutches, and he dropped to the floor. "Anyone else?" he demanded to Da Qing.
But the crowd who had just come through the portal were providing the answer, multiple people now holding on to the arms of another man and a woman. "These are the ones who were going on about invading," someone said.
Both SID and An Bai's people were approaching fast. Zhao Yunlan gestured to the man on the floor and the two being restrained. "Hold them somewhere," he ordered. "Don't let them go." He turned back to Da Qing. "What just happened?" He most wanted to know, but didn't quite dare ask so bluntly in front of witnesses, why Shen Wei himself had been unable to stop these people coming through.
Da Qing also looked at all the watching people, and gestured to the side. Zhao Yunlan quickly followed him. Behind him a buzz of talk rose up. Whatever news there was, it was spreading quickly. "Well?" he demanded.
Da Qing swallowed. He looked smaller, somehow. "Professor Shen — He's —"
"Is he alright?" Zhao Yunlan barely managed to keep his voice calm in the face of Da Qing's expression.
"I don't know," Da Qing said, miserably. "The woman I was chasing, the one who knocked you down — she made a bigger explosion go off. Much bigger. Shen Wei portalled away with it, and then we saw and heard the explosion in the distance…"
His pulse was pounding in his ears. "But the Dixing portal is still open. So Shen Wei must be holding it."
Da Qing shook his head. "Zhang Shi was helping him. I think he's the one holding it for now. Lao-Chu told me to get through quickly before it closed and tell you what happened." He held out a cloth bag.
Zhao Yunlan opened it, and pulled out the Awl. It felt… different… in his hand. Heavier.
"They're all used up," Da Qing said. "And I think Shen Wei used most of his own energy too. Before Zhang Shi started helping him he nearly passed out."
"Zhang Shi," Zhao Yunlan said, hollowly. "How could he help?"
"From the Lantern," Da Qing said. "He was sending its energy down. He still is, or the portal wouldn't be open, but we don't know how long it'll last for."
Zhao Yunlan turned to face the gateway, where people were still pushing through, fast and scared now rather than orderly. He felt like he couldn't breathe. He had left Shen Wei in Dixing, and now… now…
"Lao-Zhao?" Da Qing asked. "I don't know what we can do."
He could demand they open the portal in the other direction, so that he could go down and search for Shen Wei.
He could demand it, but it couldn't happen. He had no idea how long it would be before the energy levels stabilised again.
"Tell me everything," he said.
Da Qing did. Zhao Yunlan listened, feeling oddly like he was dreaming. He kept thinking about Shen Wei holding a bomb in the hospital, offering to transport it away to where he was the only one who would die when it exploded. But Zhao Yunlan been there too, then, to stop him.
"I need to tell Minister Guo and my father," he said, when Da Qing had finished. "And An Bai."
He did. Barely outpacing the swift-spreading rumours. He felt like an outside observer of himself as he delivered Da Qing's report in clipped tones.
He had barely finished when a shout went up. The portal had closed.
An Bai made the same instinctive movement in its direction that Zhao Yunlan did. "Go," Zhao Xinci said, to both of them.
An Bai outpaced him. He was already speaking urgently to people when Zhao Yunlan caught up to him at the point where the portal had been. He broke off to turn to Zhao Yunlan. "There were still people waiting to come through," he said. "Not as many as I feared. We have the vast majority of those who wished to come, but…"
But there were still Dixingren trapped down there who would rather be up under the sky now. Families, friends, lovers split apart. "We'll get them," Zhao Yunlan said. "When we can open the portal again."
An Bai nodded.
Zhao Yunlan recognised a few faces from Lao-Chu's volunteer crew. "Where's Chu Shuzhi?" he asked. "Didn't he have time to come through?"
"He didn't want to," one of them said. "He told us to go."
Like he'd told Da Qing to.
"He said he was going to find Hei Pao Shi," one of the others said.
Zhao Yunlan wanted, irrationally, to argue. That was his job. He wanted to be down in Dixing, searching for Shen Wei.
But he wasn't, and he couldn't be. He couldn't do anything.
Shen Wei lay on warm stone. He could feel the hardness of it beneath his head, his side.
Everything else was pain, and the wetness of blood. His dark energy faded like mist when he tried to gather it.
He wondered how long Zhang Shi would be able to hold the portal open, without him there to focus the Lantern's energy. He regretted —
Zhao Yunlan would be angry at him. He had been angry before, at the cost of Shen Wei's plan to defeat Ye Zun. You should have told me. He wished… he wished that this time he'd had that same opportunity to talk to Zhao Yunlan, before the necessity of action.
He didn't know whether Lin Cheng had survived. Whether she was immune to the effects of her own power. Maybe there had been a better option, maybe he should have left her behind, but then he'd have been unable to protect anyone else from her…
He'd died once before and that had been easier. He had been free of doubt. He'd known that he was doing the right thing… but that had been a mistake.
He wished he could tell Zhao Yunlan that he'd finally come to that understanding, that acceptance.
So many things to wish.
The light was failing, but the pillar still cut pale against Dixing's ersatz sky. Shen Wei hadn't meant to bring them here. Hadn't had time to visualise a destination. The chains which had held him once hung loose and empty.
He let his eyes close.
It was not a voice so much as the suggestion of one. The intention of communication.
He answered in the same way. "Zhang Shi."
"You're dying," Zhang Shi said.
"Yes," Shen Wei told him. "I know."
He could feel Zhang Shi's presence in the void, but not see him. He wondered fleetingly if Zhang Shi even remembered how he had originally looked, or if he had lost all sense of himself as an embodied person down the millennia. There was only a glow, a sense of his energy. Like the flame he now was.
"I'm sorry," Shen Wei said.
"For the Lantern?" Zhang Shi asked.
"Yes." He could have said that he hadn't realised what he was doing when he had driven Zhang Shi into it in Zhao Yunlan's place. That he wished he'd made a different choice. But though the first was true, the second wasn't, and none of it would make a difference now.
"You saved Yunlan," Zhang Shi said. "He's my son, too. I only wish…" He fell silent for a while. "I've lived so long, I almost forgot that it would end."
There was energy flowing into Shen Wei. He was too far gone to be able to direct it. It wound through his body, fanning out across his injuries. "Are you doing this?" he asked Zhang Shi.
"Yes," Zhang Shi said. His presence was beginning to fade. "It's the right choice. You made the right choice. I'm glad Yunlan got the chance to live."
And that energy kept flowing into Shen Wei, combining with his own, and then the flow of it dwindled and stopped, and there was darkness pressing down on his eyelids. The Lantern had gone out, and Zhang Shi along with it.
Shen Wei faded too, falling into the dark.
Seriously, everyone, thank you so much for reading! Getting near the end now...
Zhao Yunlan kept moving. If he stopped, if he gave in to his grief and fear, he knew he would never be able to start again. Shen Wei would want me to, was the refrain that kept him going. Shen Wei would want Zhao Yunlan to help his people. Not least because he was a self-sacrificing idiot who would genuinely believe that that was the rational choice.
And Zhao Yunlan couldn't help him. The portal was closed. Several Dixingren had already tried to open it, without success. Zhao Yunlan had demanded from Lin Jing an answer as to when it would have stabilised again, but Lin Jing couldn't tell him precisely. A couple of days. Maybe three. Maybe less, or more.
The SID were mobilised. Lin Jing had managed to get a power supply connected from somewhere and had set up a database on which everyone was collecting and entering names as quickly as they could. Calculations were being made — what basic supplies were required, how quickly. Han Xia's list of Dixingren powers was being cross-checked.
A couple of young women were hovering, both carrying large boxes. "Yes?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"These are the refugees from Dixing?" one of them asked. "We brought blankets."
Zhao Yunlan looked at her somewhat blankly. "What?"
"We saw the posts, look —" She showed him a social media app on her phone. Sure enough, there was an emotive description of the situation, and a plea for aid.
Zhao Yunlan blinked at it. Then remembered that he had asked Cong Bo to create some positive press. He hadn't thought much about what might result. "Thank you very much," he said. "Um, I guess drop them off over here…"
They were the first, but not the last. A steady trickle of Dragon City residents began showing up to donate emergency supplies. Zhao Yunlan put Xiao-Guo in charge of coordinating them — he was good at being appreciative, and could probably also do with the distraction from worrying about Lao-Chu.
Da Qing grabbed Zhao Yunlan at one point and towed him over to a young man who looked incredibly shy. "He's a healer," Da Qing said. "He'll fix your leg."
Ridiculously, Zhao Yunlan's first instinct was to refuse. It was Shen Wei who healed him when he was hurt. It felt disloyal to let someone else touch him in the same way — but that wasn't sensible. Still, he had to fight down the irrational resentment as the healer smoothed dark energy over the wound, wiping the lingering pain away.
He very much didn't expect to turn around after that and see Zhu Hong sweeping towards him with a small entourage. "What are you doing here?" he asked, surprised, as she reached him.
She punched his shoulder lightly. "We came to help, of course. The Yashou can shelter some of the Dixingren, at least for now."
"You know what's happened?" Zhao Yunlan asked. Wondering why he was surprised.
"The Crows told me," she said. "They've been watching since earlier." She ordered the Yashou who had come with her over to An Bai, to start coordinating, and lowered her voice. "They said Shen Wei's still down there?"
"And Lao-Chu," Zhao Yunlan said. He swallowed. He had been trying so hard only to think about what was in front of him, not about this. "It sounds like… Shen Wei might be badly hurt." Or worse. He prayed she wouldn't ask for details. He didn't think he could bear to retell them.
"He'll be okay," Zhu Hong said, and hugged him. He clung to her in return, much tighter than he had meant, as to a spar in a storm. "He will be," she repeated, and managed to put some of her usual unshakable confidence into her voice.
When they broke apart Zhao Yunlan had to wipe his eyes surreptitiously. Zhu Hong kindly pretended not to notice. "Thank you for coming," he said.
"You're welcome," she said. "See, I'm not always here to yell at you." Then she sighed. "I guess I'd better go and talk to Minister Guo now, since he's here."
"I thought you liked this politics thing," Zhao Yunlan said.
"I like it when everyone does what I say," she said.
He raised an eyebrow. "Oh? How often does that happen?"
Zhu Hong snorted. "Not nearly enough. How many Yashou have you met by now?" She patted him on the shoulder, and left him.
He had stopped moving. An error — his momentum had drained away, and now fear was catching up to him again. Zhao Yunlan stood, hands empty, and stared over at the portal. Where the portal had been.
They'd lost a year together already. A few more days shouldn't make much of a difference… if it was to be only a few more days…
His father's voice was unexpectedly gentle. Zhao Yunlan still inhaled and squared his shoulders before turning to face him. "Hi, Dad. What do you need?"
"Nothing," Zhao Xinci said. He had paused a couple of paces away. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan said, and pasted on a brittle smile. "I was just taking a breather."
Zhao Xinci put his hands in his pockets. A deliberately casual gesture. "I'm aware that you and Shen Wei are in a relationship."
"Oh?" Zhao Yunlan said, not sure he wanted to invite an answer. He had very much never tried to broach the subject with his father. He'd thought maybe they would all just go on ignoring it.
"I do have eyes," Zhao Xinci said, rather impatiently.
Impatience was something Zhao Yunlan was much more accustomed to dealing with from him, and it was much easier to respond to that than to concern. "I know what you're thinking then, why would Shen Wei want to be with someone like me?" he said, glibly.
He'd been trying to draw out an eyeroll, at least, but possibly for the first time in his life Zhao Xinci was refusing to rise to the bait. "I warned you away from him once," he said. "I'm not intending to do that now."
"You're saying you approve?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He raised an eyebrow. A large part of him couldn't seriously believe they were actually having this conversation.
"You seem to be good for each other," Zhao Xinci said. As seriously as if he was appraising Zhao Yunlan's work performance, not giving his blessing on his son's relationship. Zhao Yunlan almost laughed.
But he couldn't; he couldn't take refuge even in the normality of baiting his father, because Shen Wei wasn't here. "I don't even know if he's still alive," he said, a bitter taste in his throat. "What if —"
Zhao Xinci wasn't one to give false reassurances. "That's out of your hands," he said.
"I know," Zhao Yunlan said. "That's the problem." He turned away again, because he didn't want his expression to be seen. After a few seconds, his father left.
Zhao Yunlan took a deep breath, and started moving again.
They still didn't have an accurate head count, but it was coming along. The marquee was fully set up now, and more donations of blankets and food had arrived, which all had to be sorted and handed out. Zhu Hong seemed to have acquired a portion of the Dixingren — Zhao Yunlan hoped she hadn't poached all the ones with useful skills. He would have to check up on that.
More to do. There seemed endlessly more to do.
He walked into one of the rope-lines of the marquee and tripped, nearly falling on his face. Zhu Hong grabbed his arm. "Are you okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said. He rubbed his eyes.
"You look exhausted," she said.
It was a shock to realise how the shadows had lengthened. The entire day had gone.
"Lao-Zhao." Da Qing was at his elbow. "Let's go home."
"I don't think we can just leave," Zhao Yunlan said, and then yawned.
Zhu Hong folded her arms. "Seriously, you look like crap," she said. "When did you last sleep?"
He wound his memories back with an effort. They'd been woken by the explosion in Dixing, and after that nothing had stopped, there hadn't been time — He yawned again.
"Go home," Lin Jing told him. "We're fine here."
"Make sure Han Xia goes home too," Zhao Yunlan ordered. "And that none of the rest of you stay too late." A lot of the Dixingren had already started settling down for the night, he realised. Everyone was probably tired out.
"Yes, they can all manage themselves," Zhu Hong said. "You're the one who's wandering around looking like you're sleepwalking."
"You didn't talk to me like this when you worked for me," Zhao Yunlan told her.
"It's one of the perks of my new job," she retorted.
His jeep was still parked just beyond the gate, where he'd left it a couple of days ago. Zhu Hong walked him to it. "You're safe to drive?" she asked.
Zhao Yunlan nodded. "I'd say otherwise," he protested, to her somewhat dubious expression. Da Qing curled tiredly on the passenger seat, and Zhao Yunlan decided not to bother making him change form and wear his seatbelt. Home wasn't far.
But home was also empty. All tiredness fled as Zhao Yunlan stepped into and felt the lack of Shen Wei in the space they were supposed to be sharing. Overwhelming.
Da Qing looked at him. "I'll make food," he said, and went to the kitchen area while Zhao Yunlan dropped heavily down onto the sofa and stared at his hands.
Food was a pot each of instant noodles. Zhao Yunlan hadn't realised how hungry he was until he began eating, and then he practically inhaled his portion, savouring the artificial saltiness. He thought about what Shen Wei would say, and managed a smile, and then drank some water as well. After a while he persuaded his body to get off the sofa and take a shower, because the dust and smoke of Dixing was still ingrained in his skin, gritty in the corners of his eyes.
After that he was tired again, blessedly. He threw himself down onto the bed, wishing he could make himself instantly pass out, trying not to feel the aching absence of Shen Wei on the other side of the mattress.
Then Da Qing clambered into that space, treading down the duvet with his paws. Zhao Yunlan smiled, and rolled over towards him. The warmth of his furry body was very much better than nothing.
It still took Zhao Yunlan a long time to fall asleep.
He woke in the middle of the night. So abruptly and completely that he knew straight away he wasn't going to get back to sleep for a while. He sat up instead, and then carefully slid out of bed so as not to disturb Da Qing. He padded on bare feet across to the sink and ran himself a glass of water, leaning back against the counter to drink it. The apartment was painted in dim streaks through gaps in the curtains.
It had been stupid, but he'd half-hoped to find Shen Wei in a dream. Like he had before. But there had been nothing real, just his own tangled fears.
The sweet sharpness of incense abruptly stung his nose. Zhao Yunlan breathed in, hope surging for an instant, but it smelled nothing like Shen Wei. He looked around warily.
The smoke condensed within one of the shafts of streetlight, coming together in a dark writhe. Zhao Yunlan put his glass down very quietly.
It finished forming into a puppet-like simulacrum, the size of a doll, hanging in midair. "Lord Guardian," it said.
Zhao Yunlan recognised the voice. He felt very conscious that he was wearing only a t-shirt and boxer shorts. "Regent," he said, shortly. He glanced briefly across to the bed, but Da Qing could sleep through an earthquake.
"What have you done with my subjects?" the Regent asked.
Zhao Yunlan crossed his arms. "They're not your subjects, they're their own people," he said. "They got fed up with the conditions in Dixing, so they left. I haven't done anything with them."
"They have to return," the Regent said.
"Why?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Even projecting through a smoke-puppet, the Regent seemed taken aback. "Because they're Dixingren, of course. They don't belong in Haixing."
"I don't see why not," Zhao Yunlan said. "Plenty of Dixingren have been living in Haixing for years. Most of them have fitted in perfectly well, without causing any trouble."
The Regent was silent for several seconds. He couldn't really want all the Dixingren who had left to suddenly return — not even if the situation hadn't devolved into outright fighting. Even before that it had been far too precarious. But Zhao Yunlan could see how his image and power would suffer now that he clearly couldn't control a huge proportion of the population.
"Return An Bai, then," the Regent said. "He can exchange himself for the freedom of his followers."
Zhao Yunlan snorted a laugh. "Or what?" he said.
"What do you mean?" the Regent asked.
"I mean, or what?" Zhao Yunlan repeated. "He's up here already. So are his followers, and plenty of other people too. I don't know what bargaining pieces you think you have, but I don't see any."
The Regent was silent again. It must be frustrating for him, Zhao Yunlan imagined, to be so unable to bully his way out of a problem. For once. He decided to twist the knife. "I don't know how your supplies are doing," he said, "But when you want to re-negotiate the treaty so that we can open up trade, please let us know. You can send another smoke messenger."
The Regent made a furious noise. "Re-negotiate the treaty?"
"Sure," Zhao Yunlan said. "We'll be here."
The messenger fell apart all at once, dissolving back into acrid-sweet smoke. Zhao Yunlan smiled at it viciously, his teeth bared.
The Regent didn't know about Shen Wei. That was clear. That was a bargaining chip he wouldn't have failed to use, because Zhao Yunlan couldn't have failed to respond to it.
He went back to bed and lay awake again for a long time, uselessly worrying.
Da Qing woke him by stepping on his face. "Are you planning on getting up today?" he asked.
It was mid-morning. He hadn't meant to sleep so late.
Getting out of bed was an effort. The conversation with the Regent's messenger seemed almost like a dream now. Zhao Yunlan turned it over in his head as he left the house and grabbed breakfast for the two of them on the way to the park.
He relayed the conversation to An Bai, who looked troubled. At least he wasn't in the slightest bit inclined to take up the Regent's offer of himself as a hostage. "I'm worried about the people still trapped down in Dixing," he said.
"The Regent can't hold them forever if they want to leave," Zhao Yunlan assured him. "The portal will be open again soon. And however many supplies he thinks they've got stored up, they're eventually going to run out. He knows that. He's going to have to accept some sort of deal."
"We might need a guard around the portal," An Bai said. "In case they try a show of force."
"That's a good idea," Zhao Yunlan said. "Preferably a mix of Haixingren and Dixingren. The quicker we start working together, the more normal it will seem." He paused for a moment. "Better than calling a guard — we'll need to register any arrivals, and offer them orientation. Like a customs office."
He spent the rest of the morning arranging that, and the afternoon in meetings negotiating more long-term support for the Dixingren refugees — housing, supplies, where they could find employment. The last meetings were at the Ministry, and afterwards he drove back to the park again, An Bai in the passenger seat. An Bai was doing well at not seeming fazed by all the new things he was being introduced to, but he held the edge of the seat nervously while the jeep was on the road, and was clearly relieved when they arrived.
Han Xia came jogging to meet them. "Chief Zhao!" she called. "We think the portal's opening —"
Zhao Yunlan took off running.
Only one more chapter to go after this! Thanks for sticking with me :)
For Shen Wei, there had been darkness, and the taste of blood, and metal. Metal and glass clutched tightly to his chest. He held onto it.
There was movement, after a while — jostling him, filling the darkness with pain. Then stillness, a voice, then nothing.
His dreams were dark as well. Full of Zhao Yunlan slipping away, out of his reach.
Movement again, and he thought he was being carried, but didn't have the strength to open his eyes. The thing of metal remained cradled in his arm.
The touch of the portal was a different kind of darkness. A void, stretching away, and while he was used to navigating its reaches this time he turned from it, waited for everything to be over.
On the other side was brightness. Warmth against his closed eyelids. Grass beneath him, and everything still hurt, but there was a hand in his.
Zhao Yunlan was close enough to see Lao-Chu step through the portal, carrying Shen Wei.
He kept running, and reached them as Lao-Chu crouched to lay Shen Wei carefully on the grass. Then he stood up, as Xiao-Guo barrelled towards them from the other direction. "Chu-ge!" Xiao-Guo panted, and Lao-Chu grabbed him in a tight hug.
Zhao Yunlan dropped to his knees. Shen Wei's face was bone-white, and there was dried blood below his nose and in the corners of his mouth. He was no longer in his black robes, and there was more blood stiff and dry where it had soaked through his clothes, although the clothes themselves were undamaged.
He looked dead, and Zhao Yunlan could barely breathe as he fumbled to find a pulse. But Lao-Chu didn't look like he was grieving and there — Shen Wei's heartbeat was faint, but present.
Zhao Yunlan exhaled heavily. "Where's that healer?" he asked the world generally, but didn't look around.
Shen Wei's right arm was curled over his blood-soaked shirt, wrapped tightly around the bulk of the Guardian Lantern. Extinguished. Zhao Yunlan pried it carefully free. In his hand it felt as the other Hallows had done — inert. Nothing more than metal and glass. He put it down and held Shen Wei's hand instead.
An Bai stepped up beside him. "We'll bring him into the tent," he said. "There are beds there."
"With everyone around?" Zhao Yunlan asked, doubtfully.
An Bai looked at him. Of course. Shen Wei still was a symbol, and he had been injured in the service of bringing these Dixingren to a new home, and An Bai wanted them to know it.
But Zhao Yunlan wouldn't let Shen Wei be reduced to only a symbol. "Bring one of the camp beds out here," he ordered. "The healer needs to see him, and then I'm taking him home."
An Bai nodded, and gave orders to some of the onlookers. A camp bed was brought out, and Zhao Yunlan was one of the people who helped to lift Shen Wei onto it, and then helped carry it, like a make-shift stretcher, further away from the portal and under the shade of one of the sun-canopies which had sprung up around the main tent.
The healer finally arrived. Zhao Yunlan held Shen Wei's hand again while the young man examined him. "He's already had some healing," the man said. "A lot, actually, but he's still pretty hurt inside."
Zhao Yunlan looked at all the blood soaked into Shen Wei's shirt. An explosion, at close quarters. He could picture all too well what sort of damage that would have done. "Can you fix him?"
"Hopefully," the healer said. "Everything urgent, anyway." Which didn't sound nearly good enough to Zhao Yunlan, but with a great effort he held his tongue while the man closed his eyes and worked with his dark energy. And maybe it was only his hopeful imagination, but it seemed that soon Shen Wei began to breathe slightly easier.
Lao-Chu had appeared next to him, his arm around Xiao-Guo. "How is he?"
"He'll be okay," Zhao Yunlan said, firmly, trying to speak it into truth. "Thank you for finding him. And bringing him back."
Lao-Chu nodded. "He was at Ye Zun's pillar," he said, low enough not to be overheard. "Lying at the top of the steps. Lin Cheng was dead — the explosion killed her. I don't think she expected to be caught up in it."
They hadn't quite had a crowd form, but word had clearly spread. A lot of Dixingren were drifting up to watch from a distance. An Bai made sure they kept back.
"Who healed him in Dixing?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"I don't know," Lao-Chu said. "I didn't see anyone else there."
Zhao Yunlan's phone began ringing. He pulled it from his pocket, and despite a strong sense of Not now,, answered it to his father.
"Chen Yuqi," Zhao Xinci said.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan asked, and then remembered. The taxi driver who had kidnapped him. It already seemed a lifetime ago. "You found him?"
"The police picked him up from the SID's alert," Zhao Xinci said. "The call about him got passed to me."
"Where is he?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"In their holding cells," Zhao Xinci said. "Do you want him transferred to the SID?"
Zhao Yunlan groaned. "I don't have time," he said. "Shen Wei's here, but he's badly off. Chu Shuzhi found him and brought him through the portal."
There was only a short pause. "I'll deal with Chen Yuqi for you, then," Zhao Xinci said.
Zhao Yunlan exhaled in relief. He hadn't wanted to have to argue about not leaving Shen Wei. "Ask him if Lin Cheng was the woman who told him about Zhang Shi being Dixingren," he said.
"The woman who caused the disruption with the portal?" Zhao Xinci asked.
Disruption, that was one way to put it. "She's dead," Zhao Yunlan said. "Lao-Chu confirmed it."
He filled in the rest of the details, as best he could. He found he couldn't manage to care much any more about Chen Yuqi, or his arrest. He was just one more fragment of Dixing's shattering.
"I'll take care of it," Zhao Xinci said, as if he understood. Maybe he did.
"Thanks, Dad," Zhao Yunlan said.
He hung up, and turned to Shen Wei again. Still unconscious on the camp bed, although the healer had finished his work and stepped back. Zhao Yunlan knelt down, and touched his face gently. "Shen Wei?" he asked, but got no response. He hadn't really expected it. "I'm taking you home," he said, and looked up at An Bai, challengingly. Shen Wei had done enough. More than enough. Zhao Yunlan was certain that Shen Wei would understand, but he shouldn't have to.
An Bai nodded, and there was an expression on his face which Zhao Yunlan took as an apology.
He looked around, and sure enough, Da Qing was skulking anxiously nearby. "Oy, cat," he said, and beckoned Da Qing closer before tossing his car keys at him. "Go and get the jeep and bring it here."
"Through the park?" Da Qing asked, uncertainly.
"I'll take full responsibility," Zhao Yunlan said, and then added, "As long as you don't hit anything."
Da Qing accepted that, and soon the jeep was driven up with an extreme caution which Zhao Yunlan approved of, carefully avoiding the flowerbeds. Lao-Chu was quick to help get Shen Wei lying down across the back seat.
Then it was all too, too familiar. Zhao Yunlan driving carefully, hyper-aware of every bump and jolt. Him and Da Qing coordinating to get Shen Wei up to the apartment. Changing him out of blood-soaked clothes. Zhao Yunlan kept feeling his eyes sting. Hadn't they done this enough?
"Do you want me to stay?" Da Qing asked. "Or I could go to Lin Jing's…"
Zhao Yunlan sat on the bed next to Shen Wei, now neat in pyjamas. "I don't know," he said. He was tired of making decisions. Tired of everything. He kept on staring at Shen Wei.
"Message me if you need me," Da Qing said, after a few seconds' more hesitation. He rubbed his shoulder against Zhao Yunlan's back briefly, and then left.
Zhao Yunlan took his boots off and laid down in the empty space next to Shen Wei. He was hungry, and thirsty, but those were distant things. He couldn't summon the energy to deal with them. But he wasn't tired enough to sleep, so he just lay and watched Shen Wei, distressed by the small speck of blood he could see left in the crease under his nostril.
He wasn't crying. He was not.
He was entirely unprepared to look up and suddenly realise that Shen Wei's eyes were open, and focused on him. "Baby?" Zhao Yunlan demanded, surging upright. He scrubbed at his eyes hastily with the back of his hand. "Baby, are you with me?"
"We're… home?" Shen Wei asked, voice quiet and uncertain.
"We are," Zhao Yunlan confirmed. "You're okay. We're safe."
Shen Wei moved his hand heavily to his chest, and pushed down with his fingers. Testing.
"You're okay," Zhao Yunlan said, again.
Shen Wei got his arms underneath himself, moving slowly and cautiously, and sat himself up to lean against the pillows. Zhao Yunlan watched him narrowly, in case he was about to do something like try to get up, but he didn't. "How did I get through the portal?" he asked. He sounded tired, but fully aware.
"Chu Shuzhi brought you through," Zhao Yunlan said. He drew in a breath. "He said he found you at Ye Zun's pillar."
"Yes," Shen Wei said. "I hadn't meant to go there, but… Yes."
Zhao Yunlan found his hand and gripped it. "Do you want anything?" he asked. "A drink? Something to eat?"
Shen Wei thought about it. "Please," he said. "Not much, though."
It was almost worrying, the lack of an argument, but Zhao Yunlan didn't want to push his luck by pointing that out. He gave Shen Wei's hand another small squeeze and went to the kitchen.
In the couple of days they'd been in Dragon City before returning to Dixing, Shen Wei had managed to buy in fresh groceries and make some portions of food he'd judiciously stored in the freezer. Zhao Yunlan found some congee and put it in the microwave to defrost while he filled the kettle. He looked over sharply as Shen Wei did get out of bed, but it was only to head to the bathroom, still moving slowly.
Shen Wei came to the sofa afterwards, and sat down. Zhao Yunlan had made tea by that point, and brought it across before collecting one of the blankets and tucking it over Shen Wei's knees. Shen Wei gave him a small smile, and didn't protest.
Zhao Yunlan fetched the congee, divided into two bowls, and came and sat down as well. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
It took Shen Wei a long time to answer, during which he ate a couple of slow spoonfuls of congee. "Zhang Shi saved my life," he said. "For you. Because of who I am to you."
Zhao Yunlan swallowed. "Is he…"
"He's gone," Shen Wei said. Which Zhao Yunlan had known, really, since he'd seen the emptied Lantern.
"I'll have to tell my father," he said, a little hollowly.
Shen Wei squeezed his hand. "He'll understand," he said, with confidence. And maybe he was right.
Zhao Yunlan looked back at him. "You still haven't actually told me how you are," he pointed out. Although there was ironically some reassurance in Shen Wei being well enough to be evasive.
Shen Wei thought about it some more. "I feel tired," he said. "Sore. And…" He frowned a little at his hands, searching for words. "I wished I'd had time to warn you. Like I had the time before, with Ye Zun, but didn't use." He looked up at Zhao Yunlan again. "I apologised before, but I didn't believe that you were right."
Zhao Yunlan laughed a little bit. "Yeah, baby, I know," he said. He paused. "And you do now?"
Shen Wei nodded. "Yes."
Zhao Yunlan made sure that neither of them were holding anything and then hugged Shen Wei from the side, tightly, fitting his chin against Shen Wei's neck. "Thank you," he said, into Shen Wei's hair. Not just for that admission, but for all of what he could now recognise as Shen Wei trying — answering honestly to how he felt, not pushing to pretend he was at normal capacity.
He stroked Shen Wei's back with his free arm, feeling Shen Wei slowly sink against him. "Do you think it might be a good idea to go back to bed?" he asked, finally.
For a moment he thought he had left it too late and Shen Wei had already fallen asleep, but then Shen Wei pushed himself upright with an effort. "I'll shower first," he said.
Zhao Yunlan would have preferred him to go straight to lying down, but if Shen Wei was clearly making an effort to acquiesce to Zhao Yunlan's worries, Zhao Yunlan should probably make an effort in the other direction and not fuss too much. He rinsed out the bowls and teacups while Shen Wei showered, and tried not to be visibly relieved when Shen Wei emerged again and headed directly for the bed.
It didn't take long for Zhao Yunlan to wash as well and then join him, turning out the lights on the way. He rolled in close next to Shen Wei, and Shen Wei put an arm around him.
And then, to his annoyance, he found that his eyes were stinging again, tears leaking from the corners even when he closed them.
Somehow Shen Wei must have realised, because he was stroking them away from Zhao Yunlan's cheeks, making a quiet noise of distress.
"It's okay," Zhao Yunlan tried to assure him. "I'm okay, I just…" He swallowed thickly. "I was so sure I was never going to see you again."
"I'm here," Shen Wei said. And then, in a softer voice, "I thought that too."
Zhao Yunlan nestled more tightly against him, and then tilted his head up to kiss him. Shen Wei reciprocated, and it was as full of urgency as their last kiss had been, but of a different kind. Not a parting, a homecoming.
Shen Wei sighed slightly as Zhao Yunlan raised himself on his elbow to get a better angle. "Zhao Yunlan," he murmured. "I'm sorry, I don't think I —"
"Of course I'm not expecting — You need rest," Zhao Yunlan said, rolling his eyes a little even though it was dark. "This is all I want right now. Having you here with me."
Shen Wei made a noise which Zhao Yunlan chose to take as agreement, and pulled him closer.
Well, this is the end! Thank you SO much for sticking with me through this fic -- I hope you've enjoyed it.
Thank you again very much to Naye and Xparrot for encouragement, pre-reading, and beta comments!
It was nearly two weeks before the Regent's messenger arrived. Enough time for Zhao Yunlan to start believing that yes, maybe they could settle back into the old pattern of their lives, in time.
Shen Wei had started cooking again as soon as he was well enough, quickly filling up all the space in the fridge. He was also eating properly, to Zhao Yunlan's quiet relief, and looking better than he had since… Since before the energy transfer with the Dial, really.
He hadn't gone back to the university yet, though. He spent most of his time either at the SID with Zhao Yunlan, or with An Bai working on the ongoing issue of where to put all the Dixingren. With public sympathy still on their side, the marquee in the park had been quickly replaced by offers of hotel rooms, and now more permanent lodgings were being found. Some displays of Dixing powers and their applications in various Dragon City industries had been persuasive in getting the wheels moving. Zhao Xinci had been helpful in insisting that housing support and educational opportunities be extended to all the Dixingren, not just the immediately useful ones.
It was working. Somehow, it was working.
Zhao Yunlan had recounted his late-night previous conversation with the Regent to Shen Wei, but it was far from the front of his mind when the smoke messenger abruptly showed up in his office. Not conveying the voice of the Regent himself this time — just a palace official, high-handedly giving him the time for a meeting the next day.
"It's an insult, of course," Shen Wei said, once Zhao Yunlan had found him. "To demand your presence as if you are unimportant enough to simply be summoned."
"Yeah, I got that," Zhao Yunlan said. He had to smile a bit at the indignation in Shen Wei's voice. "The message didn't ask for you or An Bai, but I hope you'll both come anyway."
"Technically the Regent doesn't need either of us if he truly wants to re-negotiate the treaty," Shen Wei said. "Only Haixing's Lord Guardian."
"Yeah, but I don't think we want to encourage one person just making those decisions for everyone else to put up with," Zhao Yunlan said. "And I can only imagine what the Ministry and the Bureau would think if I actually went and signed an agreement on my own."
"I'm sure it would suit the Regent to get you alone and committed to new terms as quickly as possible," Shen Wei said.
"I'm sure it would," Zhao Yunlan agreed, blandly, and grinned.
So it was the three of them the next afternoon who entered the portal. Which had, according to Lin Jing, been capable of functioning normally for the last few days, although no one had come through it. Someone had been watching the Haixing side at all times.
Dixing was dark. Shockingly so, without the brightness of the Lantern. Zhao Yunlan blinked several times until his eyes adjusted. When they did, it was obvious why there had been no further visitors to Dragon City. Five armed guards stood waiting for them in front of the portal. The placement of a couple of benches suggested both that the guards were a constant, and that they usually faced in the other direction.
"Hi," Zhao Yunlan said, cheerfully. He stuck his hands into his pockets in a measure of studied casualness. "We're here to see the Regent."
"Follow me," one of the guards said.
He didn't speak to them further, leading them straight through the palace gates. Zhao Yunlan looked over his shoulder. The damage done by the riots was still in evidence, and no one seemed to be abroad in the streets at all.
Shen Wei glanced back as well. He was wearing a new suit today, in sombre charcoal. No robes. He didn't speak as they entered the palace.
The Regent was waiting for them in the main hall. Zhao Yunlan felt his throat tighten as he stepped through the doors. The last time he had been in this room he had been tied up there, and Shen Wei had lain there, and Ye Zun had devoured him —
But it was a different time now, and he tried not to let any of his emotions show. He was certain the Regent would be looking out for them. Shen Wei also didn't react.
"Good morning, Lord Guardian," the Regent said.
"Good morning," Zhao Yunlan said. The lack of acknowledgement towards An Bai or Shen Wei was noticed, of course, but it was no more than a cheap shot. "So what do you need my help for?"
The Regent looked unhappy at need. Good. "I summoned you to discuss the terms of the treaty between Dixing and Haixing," he said. "I believe it lies in both our interests to find a way forward together."
"Does it," Zhao Yunlan said, levelly. "What do you want?"
"Trade," the Regent said. "I've had my secretaries prepare a preliminary document, and we can amend the terms until you're happy with them." He gestured, and a robed official hurried forwards carrying a scroll.
Zhao Yunlan didn't take it. He knew this game, and had no intention of merely amending the ideas already set forward by the Regent. "You realise we don't need to trade," he said. "Haixing has been managing perfectly well without Dixing. Without even being aware of Dixing's existence, for the most part. We're here about an actual treaty on future relations between the realms, not just a trade deal which you desperately need to stop your people from starving."
There was always the fear that the Regent could send them all away. Condemn more of the remaining population to the encroaching famine. But they were betting that the Regent, too, was desperate but not stupid. He had seen what an uprising could accomplish. Could he really continue to hold onto power for much longer?
"What are you asking for?" the Regent asked, finally.
"Take your guards away from the portal, for a start," An Bai said. "Anyone who wants to go to Haixing should be allowed to. You can log movement if you like — we will be doing so from our end — but you can't prevent anyone from travelling."
"You want our convicted murderers free to walk into Haixing?" the Regent asked.
Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes. "If you have properly convicted murderers then they should already be locked up," he said. "Unless you're saying that Dixing itself is a prison cell?"
The Regent glared.
"We won't interfere with your rule down here," Shen Wei said, calmly. "So long as your citizens have the choice whether they wish to accept it or not."
"So I have to compete with the sun?" the Regent demanded, bitterly.
"You can move to Haixing yourself if you like," An Bai said. "You'd get the same deal we're negotiating for all the Dixingren. Somewhere to live for at least a couple of months, and help locating job opportunities."
The Regent's face twisted in disgust.
"The choice is open to you," Shen Wei said. "As it is to everyone. Free and unforced."
"And this is the trade you want?" the Regent asked.
"Oh, no," Zhao Yunlan said. "That's separate. This is what we want you to agree to so that then we can start talking about a trade deal."
The Regent glared at them again. His mouth worked soundlessly. "Fine," he spat out, eventually.
"Proclaim it," Shen Wei said, implacable. "Everyone across the city needs to know."
As if it was choking him, the Regent gestured a lackey forward. He took a brush and some paper, and angrily painted out several characters. Zhao Yunlan shamelessly stepped to one side and tilted his head so that he could see. It was, indeed, a notice that free passage through the portal to Haixing was now open. "Copy this," the Regent ordered, through gritted teeth. "Make sure it's displayed throughout the city."
The lackey bowed and departed.
That done, the Regent turned back. "And now you'll sign the trade deal?"
"Now we'll begin the process of a trade deal," Zhao Yunlan said. "With the involvement of the Dragon City ministers. And their lawyers. Committees. You know how it goes."
Shen Wei was smiling — a small, contained expression.
They left shortly after, the Regent still fuming behind them. But he couldn't retract his proclamation — he needed Haixing too much. Zhao Yunlan knew his own smile was not at all contained. Let the Regent live in the dark with whichever of the Dixingren still chose to cling to his rule. Everyone else would leave him behind.
The guards on the portal stepped back as they approached. They had been clustered around the poster which was still drying on the nearest wall, reading it by torchlight. "Anyone's allowed to go through now?" one of them said, uncertainly.
"Yes," Shen Wei said. "That extends to you as well. You would be welcome in Haixing."
They looked at each other a little uncertainly. "I'll — have to talk to my wife," one of the women said.
An Bai nodded to her. "We may meet again shortly, then," he said.
Shen Wei stopped before opening the portal and looked back. Zhao Yunlan looked with him, trying to see the city as he did. It was dark. No lights in many of the windows. It felt like a place closing down, on the edge of being abandoned.
"Let's go home," Shen Wei said, and Zhao Yunlan followed him back into sunlight.
Shen Wei opened the apartment door the next evening, and immediately noticed the smell of burning. He entered quickly, but relaxed as he saw Zhao Yunlan over by the cooker, scraping irritably at a pan.
Zhao Yunlan looked up. "Dammit," he said, "I thought you'd be longer and would never know about this." He grinned in a self-deprecating way.
Shen Wei hung up his coat and came over. "What are you making?"
"Dinner," Zhao Yunlan said. "Theoretically. It was supposed to be a surprise for you. Except I was busy chopping vegetables and forgot about the noodles. I probably shouldn't have put them on so soon, should I?"
Shen Wei forbade from answering directly. "Shall I help?" he asked.
But Zhao Yunlan shook his head stubbornly. "I can cook for you. Sometimes."
"Let me sort out the pan, then, and you can carry on with the cooking," Shen Wei offered. Trying to keep his fond smile off his face, in case Zhao Yunlan read it as being laughed at.
"Okay, that seems fair," Zhao Yunlan said, and gave up the pan and the space at the sink with some relief, dropping a kiss on Shen Wei's cheek as he backed out of the way. "So. How was the university?"
Shen Wei rolled up his sleeves and looked at the burned-on noodles for a minute, considering the best way to go about attacking them. "It was fine," he said.
Zhao Yunlan didn't respond, and when Shen Wei glanced over he was watching him sceptically with his eyebrows raised.
Shen Wei sighed. "It was… difficult," he admitted.
"Yeah, I'm not surprised," Zhao Yunlan said, gently. And of course he also had plenty of experience with having to deal with people who had thought that he was dead. "You stuck to the cover story?"
Shen Wei nodded. The story they'd come up with was that he had been a political prisoner in Dixing for the past year, presumed dead by everyone including the SID. It had the benefit of being almost true, when looked at from a certain angle. Still, it had been extremely uncomfortable to deliver. He was grateful that he hadn't run into any of his former students on the university grounds — dealing with the administration had been bad enough.
"Did they give you your position back?" Zhao Yunlan asked, after several more seconds.
Shen Wei hadn't realised until then that he hadn't said anything. The pan was resting in the sink, and he held a scourer loosely in his hand without doing anything with it. He looked up, and tried to smile. "They offered it. From the next academic year."
"And… what did you say?" Zhao Yunlan asked, cautiously.
"I said I'd need some time to consider," Shen Wei admitted. Which he knew wasn't how he'd presented his feelings to Zhao Yunlan ahead of the meeting at all. "I also told them I was Dixingren."
Zhao Yunlan had laid the chopping knife down and was watching him carefully. "Before or after the rest of it?"
"Before," Shen Wei said, and dropped his eyes again. It had been easiest to deal with everything all at once. Theoretically.
He expected Zhao Yunlan to ask him why, in that case, he hadn't taken up the offer of his old position. To which Shen Wei still didn't have a good answer that he could articulate. But Zhao Yunlan didn't — he came over and hugged Shen Wei instead, and then took the scourer out of his hand so that Shen Wei was better able to hold him back.
"It's okay," Zhao Yunlan said, gentle in a way Shen Wei felt he shouldn't need. "Whatever you decide, it's okay. You don't have to have everything sorted out immediately."
That sounded logical on the face of it, but Shen Wei had been anxiously grappling over the last few days with what to do now, and was no closer to a conclusion. His responsibilities to Dixing had utterly shifted, and his responsibilities to the university had been… severed, and now were apparently his to pick up or not as he chose.
It wasn't just him. He could see the understanding in Zhao Yunlan too, the differences in how he interacted with the new SID.
It would be so much harder to be alone in this.
"I've been looking at houses," Zhao Yunlan said. "Like we talked about? We can go and see some this weekend, if you're free."
Shen Wei was grateful for the change of subject. "That sounds good," he said. Especially for Zhao Yunlan, who was clearly far less comfortable in the apartment than he had been before.
"You're sure?" Zhao Yunlan asked, abruptly worried. "I mean, I know it's a big commitment. Buying a house. With me. Especially right now."
"Of course I'm sure," Shen Wei said, surprised. Surely Zhao Yunlan understood how that was the one thing Shen Wei stood in no doubt about? "I want to live with you. I want to be with you, for all the time we have." They had already missed out on too much.
"All the time we have," Zhao Yunlan repeated, and raised an eyebrow again. "More realistic than forever, I suppose."
"I didn't mean —" Shen Wei began, uncertain again.
"No, I know," Zhao Yunlan said, the corners of his mouth quirking upwards. "You're just very precise."
But precise suddenly didn't seem like enough. Not nearly enough for what Shen Wei had been trying to express — for how much he wanted this life with Zhao Yunlan, the one that had nearly been ripped away from them too many times. Now in their grasp, so precious he almost didn't dare to grasp it because surely it must be fragile. He frowned a little in frustration with himself.
"Baby?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "What's the matter?"
"I…" Shen Wei tried to find words with the depth for what he wanted to say. Swallowed. "Would you like to get married?"
Zhao Yunlan pulled right back, leaving Shen Wei's arms suddenly empty. He stared, eyes wide. "You want to get married?" he asked. "To me?"
Shen Wei nodded, throat dry. He hadn't thought specifically of it until a moment ago, but now it seemed to follow inevitably from his thoughts as he'd lain dying at Ye Zun's pillar. Regretting every time he had chosen not to be the one to step across a gulf between them. To wait.
Zhao Yunlan's mouth moved soundlessly for a moment. "Yes, of course I want that!" he exclaimed. "You don't even have to ask — Except I'm glad you did, I'm so glad —" He started laughing, clutching Shen Wei's forearms tightly.
Shen Wei beamed at him, feeling so light he was surprised he didn't float. Everything felt… better, suddenly. Like he'd be able to find his feet again, whatever he ended up deciding about his role at the university, and with the Dixingren. Because he'd be with Zhao Yunlan, and even forever now seemed like it could be within reach.
Zhao Yunlan was still laughing, and then he surged forward for a kiss, deep and urgent. Shen Wei responded, and there was nothing else in the world; this was enough.
Until they finally broke apart, and Zhao Yunlan said, "Uh, dinner?" in a slightly dazed tone, staring around at the half-prepared food like he no longer knew what to do with it.
"Let me help?" Shen Wei offered again.
This time Zhao Yunlan grinned a bit sheepishly. "Yes, okay," he said. "I can barely remember what I was making now." Then he caught Shen Wei's eye and beamed crookedly. "We're getting married."
"Yes," Shen Wei said, smiling fondly, "but you need to eat first —" and Zhao Yunlan cut him off with another kiss before finally allowing him to step in and help, working side by side.