Follow me, rescue me
Come with me to never let me go
If anyone asked Zhao Yunlan how he imagined life after death, this wouldn’t have been his answer. He tries to press the memory of Shen Wei’s face firmly into his mind as he closes his eyes, tears and smile and all. He doesn’t want to forget, whether in some form of afterlife or as a reincarnation. Wherever they'll go, he wants to remember when they meet again. Because they will meet again.
But when he blinks his eyes open, it’s to golden lights flashing over black, so unlike both the surreal landscape between dimensions and the reality as he is used to. Zhao Yunlan frowns. Is this it? Is this what the rest of his life… death… is going to be like?
Through the ringing in his ears, he can hear somebody talking. A familiar voice that makes his heart ache. It’s almost drowned out by some sort of static, cutting in and out, and Zhao Yunlan isn’t able to make sense of it, until—
“Chief Zhao,” the familiar voice says, the sound of his name penetrating the fog. But… something is wrong. The tone is off, even with the form of address, that beloved voice never sounded this… this…
“You had better obey and give me the Holy Tools,” the familiar voice continues and it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. “Why do you struggle so hard for those ignorant humans?”
Suddenly, the puzzle pieces click together. Ye Zun. That’s Ye Zun’s voice, not Shen Wei’s.
Zhao Yunlan squints against the whirl of gold and black — light and dark energy, he realizes — trying to make out the ghostly form of Ye Zun. He remembers this. The first confrontation with the mastermind behind Zhu Jiu, asking Zhu Hong to bring him the Sundial, holding Ye Zun off until Shen Wei could arrive…
His arm falters, and then slender hands join his own to support his wrist, holding the Sundial aloft. From the corner of his eyes he can make out the blurry form of Zhu Hong, her face set in determination. The dark energy is crawling over his vision, and with a start Zhao Yunlan realizes he’s going blind.
But Ye Zun is still attacking them, and if he lowers his guard, both he and Zhu Hong will be—
“Ah? Nothing to say to that? Humans must be pathetic indeed, if their Lord Guardian can’t even find the words to defend them,” Ye Zun crows, and Zhao Yunlan grits his teeth.
“I have nothing to say to you,” he snaps, a burst of light energy pushing the dark back. “What does your opinion matter to me?”
“Impertinent!” Ye Zun snarls. “You can’t win! I will squash you like the bug you are!”
Zhao Yunlan bares his teeth. “You can try, but you won’t succeed!”
“And who will stop me? You? You can barely hold out against me when I’m not even at my full power!”
Movement from the corner of his eyes gives Zhao Yunlan all the warning he needs. He grins.
“Me? Maybe not. But you forget, Ye Zun” —He meets Ye Zun’s eyes, wide and wild behind that golden mask— “No matter how hard you try, you will not achieve even half of what your brother can.”
The sound of a sword, slicing through the air. Zhao Yunlan sees Ye Zun’s eyes widen in recognition, but he’s already turning, covering Zhu Hong with his own body.
This time, Zhao Yunlan knows to brace himself against the backlash, pulling back the light energy to shield Zhu Hong and himself as Shen Wei severs the connection. The dark energy lashes out, throwing Ya Qing off her feet. Zhao Yunlan can feel the strain of holding it off in the trembling of his fingers, clutching onto the Sundial tightly, afraid to let go. Blood dribbles down his chin, but he manages to hold even as his vision darkens from the effort.
“After all these years, you’re still the same,” Ye Zun muses.
“No, didi,” Shen Wei replies, steady, firm. “I’m not.”
Zhao Yunlan can’t see Shen Wei’s face, but he can hear it in the undertone of his voice, the way he deviates from the script. Heart pounding in his chest, Zhao Yunlan lowers his arm. “Shen Wei?”
Alive, alive, alive. Relief floods through his veins, and he doesn’t care about the shaking of his limbs, the way his head swims. He falls back on his ass and laughs, because he’s alive, they’re alive, and they’re both here, and if he isn’t mistaken Shen Wei, too, remembers. He has to. There is no other option.
There’s a woosh of cold air, the sound of a blade cutting through the air, the startled squawk of a crow. Zhao Yunlan can’t see anything, is blind once again, and it doesn’t matter because Shen Wei is alive.
Dimly, he realizes he’s coughing, lifting a hand to cover his mouth. Something wet hits his palm, and Zhao Yunlan frowns. Hands are holding him up, holding him by the arms, the shoulders. Distantly, he can hear a refrain of sobs, lao-Zhao, lao-Zhao… A hand cups his cheek, tilts his head to the side, and Zhao Yunlan smiles. He will always recognize Shen Wei’s gentle touch.
“Shen Wei,” he murmurs as the coughs subside, reaching out with his dry hand. He fumbles a bit to find Shen Wei’s chest, his fingers bumping against his chin. He traces up the line of his jaw, tense from gritting his teeth, and he can’t help the laughter that bubbles up his throat, full of relief and something else. “Shen Wei. You’re alive.”
He feels the cheek under his palm hollow as Shen Wei swallows, stops him from ducking his head even though he can’t meet that gaze.
“Zhao Yunlan— You’re—”
A thumb brushes under his eye, and Zhao Yunlan feels himself soften at that obvious concern.
“—blind, yes.” He leans in, slow and careful until their foreheads bump together. Can’t help but tease, buoyed by the knowledge that Shen Wei lives, that they survived. “Guess you’ll have to take good care of me, huh, xiao-Wei?”
“Always.” Fingers wind around his free hand, and Zhao Yunlan squeezes back in reassurance. He can feel how Shen Wei’s head turns under his fingers, brushing over his cheek, down the line of his jaw. “Zhu Hong. Hand me the Sundial.”
Panic seizes Zhao Yunlan’s chest. “No.”
“Zhao Yunlan—” Shen Wei starts, and Zhao Yunlan shakes his head, dropping his hand and fumbling blindly for Zhu Hong. He finds her arm, grabs tightly onto her wrist.
“Don’t you dare,” he snarls. Remembers, too vividly, the price Shen Wei paid last time. The light energy — Zhao Yunlan’s energy — weakening him to the point where he lost to Ye Zun. The harm he was forced to endure to keep it, to balance out his energies, the dark energy he bled. The memory of Shen Wei sacrificing himself to save them all… it turns Zhao Yunlan’s tone harsh, unforgiving. “I won’t accept it. I won’t allow it.”
“I can heal you,” Shen Wei argues, because of course he does.
“By sacrificing yourself!” Zhao Yunlan snaps back. His grip on Zhu Hong’s wrist tightens, and he turns his head in her general direction. “This is an order, as your chief: Professor Shen is not permitted to touch nor hold the Hallows.”
“Understood,” Zhu Hong says, her voice wavering. Zhao Yunlan gentles his grip, quirks his lips into what he hopes is something like a reassuring smile.
“There’s no other option,” Shen Wei protests, his hand slipping from Zhao Yunlan’s cheek to his shoulder, shaking Da Qing lightly. “The use of the Dial has contaminated you with dark energy. Blindness might just be the first symptom! If left untreated—”
Zhao Yunlan squeezes her hand, before letting go of Zhu Hong to turn towards Shen Wei fully. “We’ve got time, baobei. It won’t get worse in the next couple days, you know that.”
“We don’t have the option of a miracle doctor this time,” Shen Wei shoots back, and Zhao Yunlan smiles.
“I know.” He pulls his legs under him, limbs still shaky. Immediately, Shen Wei takes his weight to help him up, Zhu Hong supporting him from the other side. “Aiya, we’ll just have to find another way, eh?”
But mention of the miracle doctor kicks Zhao Yunlan’s mind into gear. He is relatively sure this is real — after all, he’s intimately familiar with the Hallows' ability to bend space and time to their liking. The SID doesn’t have the Merit Brush yet, but between him and Shen Wei, they have more than enough knowledge to prevent… a lot of events. Save lives. Stop the quack doctor from being given that ability, stop people from dying. And at the hospital, that kid—
The hospital. Wang Xiangyang only joined Zhu Jiu to seek revenge for his wife’s death on the night of the Reunion Festival. Tonight.
Zhao Yunlan can’t recall the exact order of events, doesn’t know if they’re too late, but.
“Shen Wei.” He grabs Shen Wei’s arm, pulling at him urgently. “You can’t help me, but— Bai Suxia. You might be able to save her.”
He can’t see Shen Wei’s face, but he knows the moment he follows Zhao Yunlan’s logic by the tensing of his muscles, the straightening of his shoulders. Still, he hesitates. Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes, pushing at his chest.
“Go on! I’ll be fine. Zhu Hong can take me home.” One more shove, and he can feel the distance between their bodies yawning like a canyon. He wants nothing more than to take his words back, to pull Shen Wei into his arms and never let go, to reassure himself he’s alive. He grits his teeth. They have a duty. “Go. I’ll see you later.”
A pause, and if he knows Shen Wei at all, he’s fixing Zhu Hong with a pointed look, extracting a silent promise that she’ll look after Zhao Yunlan until he returns. Huffing, he makes a shooing motion, and then a whoosh of cold air signals Shen Wei’s departure. At his side, he hears Zhu Hong gasp, making him realize she didn’t know yet. Huh. He’d forgotten about that.
A moment later, there was a tug on his arm. “Let’s take a cab, lao-Zhao.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Zhu Hong guides him across the grass to the street in careful steps, much more hesitant about the situation than Zhao Yunlan, who walks with all the confidence of a man previously blinded once before. The car ride is subdued, too. Zhao Yunlan can feel Zhu Hong’s sideways glances, can practically hear the gears in her mind whirling, trying to make sense of the night’s events. It isn’t until after she helps him up the stairs, and Zhao Yunlan searches his pockets for the key to his apartment that she’s ready to speak.
“Lao-Zhao, about Professor Shen…”
“Ah?” It takes him a moment to find the keyhole. Zhu Hong follows him into his apartment, her steps uneven, unsure like they haven’t been since she started wearing high heels. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to stick around until he gets back, no matter what he said.”
“That’s not…” Zhu Hong trails off. Zhao Yunlan imagines how she must be biting her lip, arms crossed over her chest, averting her gaze. The dark energy throbs at his temples, an impending headache. Sometimes he wishes she’d never developed that crush on him. It would make things much easier.
“Aiya, don’t frown, Hong-jie,” he jokes, making his way with sure steps towards his couch and dropping down, without even bumping into the table. It helps that Shen Wei cleaned up recently, nothing littering the floor for him to stumble over. “It’s just a little set-back. I’ll be right as rain by next week, you’ll see.”
“If you hadn’t needed to protect me— If only I could have—”
“What? Fight Ye Zun? With Ya Qing right there to defend him?” Zhao Yunlan snorts. “Nevermind that Ye Zun wasn’t physically there, what would you have done? Stalling him for as long as possible was the right choice.”
“Stalling,” Zhu Hong echoes, a weird note sneaking into her voice. Zhao Yunlan sighs and braces himself. “Because you knew Professor Shen would show up.”
Zhu Hong’s heels click against the floor as she starts pacing. Zhao Yunlan turns his head in her general direction, listening closely as she walks by behind him, then taking a wide turn around the couch table before stopping in front of him.
“Lao-Zhao… Professor Shen, he’s…” She pauses, her clothes rustling as she presumably straightens. “He’s Dixingren, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” Zhao Yunlan agrees without hesitation. Zhu Hong stares at him, speechless at his easy admission. Zhao Yunlan offers her a contrite smile. “We’ve suspected as much from the beginning, didn’t we?”
“You knew, though.” Zhu Hong’s voice turns darker, contemplative. “You’ve known for a while.” More steps as she paces up and down the length of the couch table. “You’ve known… since the visit to the mountains?”
Of course she figures it out, Zhao Yunlan thinks ruefully. Despite their shenanigans, his subordinates are all more intelligent than average. Zhao Yunlan has standards when hiring, after all. The occasional transfer excluded, though xiao-Guo turned out to be a much better fit than anyone could’ve expected.
Reading the answer on his face, Zhu Hong stops abruptly in her pacing. A huff, then the sound of a bar stool being pulled up.
“Aren’t you worried about the Black-Cloaked Envoy finding out?” she asks plaintively, her heels kicking against the footrest. “If he finds out… lao-Zhao, you’re actively aiding and abetting an illegal immigrant from Dixing!”
Zhu Hong sounds outraged, and Zhao Yunlan has to bite down the inappropriate laughter that claws up his throat at her concern. Sadly, she seems to catch it anyway, her voice taking a turn for teary, and oh no, he hopes she’s not actually crying— he has no idea what to do with crying women—
“You could lose your job!” I will lose you, he knows she doesn’t say. He’s let her down easy more than once, and each time he has no idea how to do it again. Still, he has to try.
A stomp of her feet, and Zhao Yunlan falls silent.
“Is he really worth it? All this? Your job?”
He stands up, ignoring her sputtered protest, reaching out until he catches her by the elbows. He imagines the wet glaze of her eyes and is selfishly relieved he can’t see the gathering tears. In some ways, it makes this easier.
“Zhu Hong.” He shakes her gently. “Whatever happens, I promise I will remain Chief of the SID until the day I die.”
It’s a good thing Shen Wei isn’t here to hear that, Zhao Yunlan thinks wryly to himself. Because that day came a lot sooner than any of them expected. He shoves those thoughts to the back of his mind — something he and Shen Wei will have to hash out between them. For now, he needs to focus on Zhu Hong and her hurt feelings. His heart aches for her, yet he can’t change what cannot, will not be.
“I love him, Hong-jie,” he admits quietly, a helpless smile stealing over his lips. “I know you don’t want to hear this. I’m not saying it to hurt you. But— Zhu Hong, I need Shen Wei as much as I need the air to breathe. This isn’t just a phase. It’s not going to change.”
“So what? You’re willing to throw everything away just to be with him?” Zhu Hong huffs out a laugh that sounds closer to a sob. “What about the SID? What happens to us?” Her breathing hitches, her tone turning cutting, derisive. “Whoever they send to replace you, will he fight for us like you do? Or will he only care about the humans on the team?”
He can feel her shoulders tremble under his hands, the suppressed sobs wrecking her chest. Zhao Yunlan aches for her, as much as he hates himself for having to do this to her. But he never was the knight in shining armor she saw him as, always the same selfish jerk. She deserves better, so much better, than someone who only recently stopped to think about and reevaluate his prejudices against non-humans.
“Hey, hey, it’s fine, shhh. Don’t worry. Nobody will replace me,” Zhao Yunlan offers, rubbing his hands up and down her arms. “I’m still here, ah? Not even a pesky, little adverse reaction to dark energy can stop me. Okay?”
“And once they find out? About Professor Shen, or you being blind? Do you think the Xingdu Bureau will even hesitate for a second?” Zhu Hong spits, lashing out in her anguish. She steps back, and Zhao Yunlan lets her go, assuming she wishes to wipe off her tears. “Or… I guess your dad is the director. Do you think— But what if the Black-Cloaked Envoy finds out? Will you stop him from taking Professor Shen back to Dixing?”
Zhao Yunlan sighs, slowly stepping back and feeling for the back of the couch before sinking back down. He pats the seat beside him in invitation. His dad wouldn’t hesitate to have Shen Wei shipped off if he knew, he’s certain of that. Just as well that, as the Black-Cloaked Envoy, he has special permission to live in Haixing to fulfill his duties.
“It’s not going to happen,” he tries to assure her as she gingerly perches on the couch next to him, a decent distance between them.
“How can you be so certain?” she demands, and he turns to face her.
"Hei-laoge— he isn't like that." Zhao Yunlan remembers all the times he saw Shen Wei take a Dixingren away, only to run into them again later. But if he admits to knowing that, it becomes more than a bending of the rules. Plausible deniability. Above all else, the Black-Cloaked Envoy must be seen to uphold the treaty. “Shen Wei hasn’t done any harm.”
"Just because he lets you call him that, do you think he'll make an exception for you?" Zhu Hong scoffs. “Heipaoshi is always fair and impartial. Professor Shen breaks the treaty by being here.”
She’s right, and Zhao Yunlan… Zhao Yunlan wonders if he should tell her.
Last time she managed to put the pieces together by herself. Then again, Shen Wei stayed with him while he insisted on going back to the SID. And after she left, she told the team. Things have changed, however, here and now. Maybe Zhu Hong hasn’t seen enough of Shen Wei’s powers to come to that conclusion? Yet she must have seen him create a portal, a signature move of the Black-Cloaked Envoy.
The decision is taken out of his hands as cold suffuses his apartment, signalling Shen Wei’s return. He tilts his head back against the couch, head lolling in the direction of the door with a sappy smile.
“Shen Wei. You’re back.”
"I'm home," Shen Wei agrees, and Zhao Yunlan's chest flutters. He reaches out, and Shen Wei grasps his hand, intertwining their fingers. Zhao Yunlan tugs him closer, brushing a kiss over his knuckles. At first, Shen Wei resists, before giving in without so much as a word of protest. Zhao Yunlan nuzzles his palm, pressing a soft kiss against the skin, heart soaring because this isn't a dream, Shen Wei is alive and here, with him, he's home, their home—
"Wait. You're Heipaoshi!"
Zhao Yunlan startles, having forgotten Zhu Hong's presence entirely. So has Shen Wei, going by the way he squeezes Zhao Yunlan’s hand before trying to let go. Zhao Yunlan refuses, tugging Shen Wei closer until he stands behind Zhao Yunlan, placing his hand demonstratively on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder. He presses down on Shen Wei’s hand to indicate for it to stay put, before finally letting go.
Then he turns to Zhu Hong, who he assumes has been watching the interplay.
“That’s why you’re not worried. That’s why you haven’t said anything,” she continues, now that the focus is back on her. She inhales sharply. “When the Regent visited, you— Oh.”
“Yes.” Shen Wei squeezes Zhao Yunlan, bracing himself. “I am.”
Zhu Hong is silent for a long moment. Then— “Does lao-Chu know?”
“He doesn’t,” Shen Wei admits, his free hand rising up. Probably to adjust his glasses. He does that when things get awkward.
“You should tell him,” Zhao Yunlan interjects, keeping his tone casual. “Actually, we should probably tell the entire team. We’re going to need their help, and it’ll be easier if they’re in the know.”
Zhao Yunlan leans his head back to look up at Shen Wei with sightless eyes, trying to project his support and sincerity. He can feel Zhu Hong’s rapt gaze burning a hole into him and huffs a soft laugh. Above him, he can hear the soft exhalation which means Shen Wei is mirroring his smile, knows the way his eyes must gleam behind those round glasses.
“Alright,” Shen Wei agrees, his thumb brushing down Zhao Yunlan’s neck. “Tomorrow.”
Zhao Yunlan nods in agreement.
On the far side of the sofa, Zhu Hong scoffs, muttering under her breath. He doesn’t catch all of it, but between ‘can’t believe him’ and ‘of course he picks the unattainable’ he can make a good guess at what’s in her head. He smiles up at Shen Wei helplessly, pulling up one leg to his chest.
“How’d it go at the hospital?” he asks, hoping to switch the topic back to more serious matters.
"Bai Suxia's status is critical but stabilizing. Her child survived." Shen Wei clears his throat, his grip on Zhao Yunlan's hand tightening. "Wang Xiangyang is with them right now. I took the opportunity to grab the Merit Brush."
“Wang-ge, the grocer from next door?” Zhu Hong interjects, a frown audible in her voice.
“The very same,” Zhao Yunlan confirms, throwing her a grin full of mischief. “Just so happens, that heirloom of his? Turns out to be one of the four Hallows.”
Anger creeps into Zhu Hong’s tone. “And Zhu Jiu dared target his pregnant wife to get it?”
“No,” Shen Wei denies, shaking his head. “A horrible coincidence. She went into labour during the black-out and had trouble finding a cab to take her to the hospital.”
Despite his assertion, Zhao Yunlan can hear a note of blame, of self-castigation in his voice.
“You did your best to help, baobei,” Zhao Yunlan soothes, reaching up and gripping Shen Wei’s arm. Shen Wei squeezes his shoulder in silent gratitude. “Now, we’ve got three of the Hallows, and tomorrow we’ll go pick up the Lantern. Which reminds me, Hong-jie” —Zhao Yunlan cocks his head and shoots her a wink— “as the one who took them out into the city, it’s your duty to return them back to base.”
Grinning as Zhu Hong sputters, Zhao Yunlan kicks off his shoes and sprawls over the couch. He can feel the warmth radiating from Shen Wei’s arm as he holds the Merit Brush out to Zhu Hong, listens to the click of her heels, her blazer brushing over his jeans as she walks past. Shen Wei lets go of his shoulder, and Zhao Yunlan makes a small noise of protest, craning his head to follow the footsteps as Shen Wei escorts Zhu Hong to the door.
“You promise to take good care of him,” Zhu Hong demands rather than asks. Zhao Yunlan huffs and shakes his head, smiling to himself.
“Always,” Shen Wei reiterates, solemn and sincere. It makes Zhao Yunlan’s stomach flutter, that dizzying level of pure devotion.
The door clicks shut. Zhao Yunlan swallows, propping his elbow on the back of the couch. Shen Wei is silent, his footsteps eerily quiet, barely there. Fingers brush over Zhao Yunlan’s cheek, startling him. He turns his head to nuzzle into that palm.
“You’re alive,” Shen Wei whispers, voice filled with too many entangled emotions. Pain and reverence and relief, guilt and grief and hope. “I died with the hope that you might live, and yet… when I saw you again— I thought—” Shen Wei’s throat clicks as he swallows. “Yet here we are, and— you won’t let me heal you.”
“How do you expect me to live in a world without you?” Zhao Yunlan demands harshly, his eyes stinging. He blinks the tears away, standing up. Instantly, Shen Wei is there, hands on Zhao Yunlan’s arms, guiding, supporting. “I lost you. We just found each other, and then— you— Because of me—”
“Zhao Yunlan.” Shen Wei’s voice breaks on his name, guilt and grief overwhelming him. His arms wrap around Zhao Yunlan’s waist, and he leans into the embrace, rubbing his wet cheek against Shen Wei’s, beard catching on stubble. “Why did it have to be you?”
“How could I do anything less, after you sacrificed yourself?” he confides, his throat burning in anguish. “When I have nothing else to live for, and my world comes crumbling down around me, how can you expect me to ask anyone else to make that sacrifice?”
“All I wanted, needed, was for you to be safe,” Shen Wei murmurs, and Zhao Yunlan feels his heart break. How couldn’t Shen Wei see that he wants the same for him?
"Shen Wei." His throat constricts around the words, and Zhao Yunlan closes his eyes, leaning his head on Shen Wei's shoulder. It's not like he can see anyway. "Xiao-Wei. Please. I need you, I— I need to feel you."
Shen Wei doesn't say anything in response, but his arms tighten around Zhao Yunlan.
They fall into bed together, clumsy and needy, fumbling. It finally hits Zhao Yunlan, everything that happened. Shen Wei died, sacrificing himself to defeat Ye Zun. Leaving Zhao Yunlan in an empty world, a bleak future ahead of him. His throat goes dry, and he can't swallow around the grief, his panicked heart thumping heavy against his ribs. Shen Wei pulls him closer, kisses his cheek, his shoulder, his chest, and Zhao Yunlan scrambles to hold onto him. His breathing hitches, and he can't tell if it's arousal or sobs wanting to break free.
After, they lie in a tangle of limbs, clinging to each other, too scared to let go for even a second.
Zhao Yunlan buries his nose in the crook of Shen Wei's shoulder, breathing in the musky smell of sex, the hint of icy winter winds that always clings to Shen Wei after using a portal. Under it all there's a scent that's uniquely Shen Wei, something that Zhao Yunlan can't quite put into words that make sense. It smells like home.
He strains his ears, listening to the reassuring pulse, splaying one hand over Shen Wei’s left pectoral, feeling his heart beat steadily under his palm.
Shen Wei's fingers draw idle circles on his shoulder blade, occasionally tickling the short hairs on his neck. Lips brush across his temple, a whisper so soft he may have missed it, if he were any less aware of Shen Wei at this very moment.
“I’m afraid,” Shen Wei admits, burying his nose in Zhao Yunlan’s hair. The arm wrapped around Zhao Yunlan’s waist tightens, pulls him closer. “Afraid to lose you,” he adds, voice still hushed. Zhao Yunlan hums to show he’s listening. “You saw it, when you came to the past — didi and I are evenly matched in power and skill. Without an ace up my sleeve— with you blind—”
“I’m a liability,” Zhao Yunlan murmurs, sighing heavily. Beneath him, Shen Wei freezes, before frantically sitting up, pulling Zhao Yunlan into his lap. His hands frame Zhao Yunlan’s face, his breath hitching.
“Never.” Shen Wei’s lips brush over the corner of his mouth, up his cheek, before pulling back. Staring into his eyes, Zhao Yunlan assumes and stares back helplessly, unable to meet Shen Wei’s gaze. “Zhao Yunlan, you are everything but. You are one of the pillars holding this world aloft. Even after everything you give, you would still— still offer your soul—”
Shen Wei breaks off, inhaling sharply.
For the first time since returning to life, Zhao Yunlan wishes he could see. His fingers brush over Shen Wei’s face, trying to map the expression, to match it to his voice.
“I should not have expected differently from you, Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei continues, cupping Zhao Yunlan’s cheek and pulling him into a soft kiss. “It is who you are, at your core, and I wouldn’t have you any other way. I just wish…”
“That I didn’t need to sacrifice my soul to save the world?” Zhao Yunlan hazards, one corner of his mouth tugging up into a crooked smile. “Likewise, baobei.”
Shen Wei pulls him back down on the bed, tucking the blankets around them when Zhao Yunlan shivers. Shen Wei's head rests on his chest, ear pressed over his heart. Zhao Yunlan cards his fingers through his hair, trying to marshall his thoughts. He needs Shen Wei to understand, needs him to agree with Zhao Yunlan to find an alternative. Make him see that his life is worth so much more, that there's so many good things he can still accomplish in the world. The world doesn't need Zhao Yunlan - anyone who takes over as Chief of the SID can do what he does - but it needs Heipaoshi. It needs Professor Shen.
“We’ll find another way,” Zhao Yunlan promises, turning his head. His lips brush over Shen Wei’s forehead, and he tugs him up, curls his arms around him to hold him close. “Hopefully one where neither of us dies,” he adds jokingly, but the joke falls flat, his own chest seizing in panic at the mere thought of Shen Wei, bloody and bleeding out, collapsing to the floor. He squeezes his eyes shut and swallows. “You’re not allowed to die.”
“Yunlan,” Shen Wei murmurs, tugging his head below his chin and wrapping his arms around him protectively. “I can’t— I can’t promise that, but…”
His throat bobs, and Zhao Yunlan presses a kiss against his adam’s apple, letting his lips rest there. Lingers over the reassuring pulse of his beating heart, steady proof of life.
“I cannot, will not accept you risking your life just to give me my sight back,” Zhao Yunlan breaks the silence, squeezing Shen Wei tightly to make sure he pays attention. “I can live with being blind. I cannot live without you.”
“And if there’s no other way?” Shen Wei asks quietly, his pulse jumping under Zhao Yunlan’s lips.
“Then I’ll stay blind, and you’ll just have to spend the rest of our lives together taking care of me,” Zhao Yunlan insists, digging his teeth pointedly into the skin above Shen Wei’s pulse point, then smoothing over the spot with his tongue. “I’m not letting you go. Get used to it.”
Shen Wei's fingers drift through his hair, the other hand cupping the back of his neck protectively. Zhao Yunlan takes it for the silent promise it is. Hope soars through his chest. Together, they may be able to pull this off.
"We're better prepared and equipped, this time. We've already ruined their plan in regards to the Merit Brush." And saved countless lives. "We're aware of their goals, can predict their next moves. Tomorrow, I'll tell the team what to look out for."
"I'll talk to didi," Shen Wei whispers, and Zhao Yunlan can feel his throat work under his lips. "I know now why he resents me. Maybe I can stop him before…"
Zhao Yunlan stays silent, not wanting to dash Shen Wei's hopes, but not sure he believes, either. He knows intimately, now, how much easier it is to accept actions and events in death. Instead, he tightens his arms around Shen Wei and lets the sound of his even breathing lull him to sleep.
Dark stars, burning hearts
You're not alone in this fight
Shen Wei leaves in the early morning hours to do just that.
It doesn't go well. Shen Wei doesn't tell Zhao Yunlan what was said, but the fact that he doesn't bring it up again is telling in and of itself. He busies himself with fussing over Zhao Yunlan, making him breakfast and coordinating his outfit. Secretly, Zhao Yunlan hopes that he matches both their clothes.
Zhao Yunlan calls a team meeting around the conference table the moment they enter the SID base, pulling Shen Wei down on the couch next to him instead of letting him hover. The team, having noticed the conspicuous sunglasses and walking stick, as well as the way Shen Wei is glued to his side, guiding him, are clamouring over each other, asking after his health and what happened. When the din doesn't die down after the initial outburst, Zhao Yunlan holds up his hand and whistles sharply.
"Alright, alright, settle down, everybody. First of all, I'm blind not deaf. It'll be fine, we're working on a solution. Second of all—"
"Why are you blind?" Da Qing interrupts rudely, kicking at Zhao Yunlan's shin. Zhao Yunlan can hear the worry in his voice, barely covered with a veneer of annoyance. "What did you do, piss off Heipaoshi?"
“I would never!” Zhao Yunlan objects, grinning. He searches for Shen Wei’s hand and entangles their fingers. “And it doesn’t really matter, it’s little more than a nuisance, I can still work—”
“Not what I’m asking,” Da Qing grumbles, swiping for his shoulder and missing deliberately, since Zhao Yunlan isn’t moving out of the way like he normally would. “Professor Shen?”
“His internal system has been corrupted by too much dark energy,” Shen Wei explains, the traitor. Zhao Yunlan huffs and slumps into his side, pouting. “Repeated use of the Hallows has left its traces, and after activating the Sundial last night — the strain became too much.”
“Lao-Zhao!” Da Qing complains, dropping down beside him and nudging his leg with his. “You should take better care! What were you using the Hallows for this time?”
“To fight Ye Zun,” Zhu Hong chimes in. Zhao Yunlan tilts his head her way, wishing he could see her expression and body language to get a better grasp on how she’s dealing with all of last night’s revelations.
“Who the fuck is Ye Zun,” Chu Shuzhi demands to know.
“Ah, that would be the mastermind behind Zhu Jiu.” Zhao Yunlan waves a hand through the air. “Ya Qing invited us to a not-so-cordial meeting, so who were we to refuse?”
A pause as everyone digests that information. Then—
“And you went with her,” Chu Shuzhi says, his voice somewhere between strangled and furious. “Without back-up.” The you idiot rings loud and clear, even as it remains unsaid.
“Actually!” Zhao Yunlan sits up straight, grinning at the room in general, unsure where exactly everyone is standing. “That’s where Shen Wei came in.”
“Zhao Yunlan.” Shen Wei sounds pained. Possibly because they hadn’t planned it, when he agreed to meet with Ye Zun.
“Like a knight in shining armour,” Zhao Yunlan barrels on, ignoring his protest. He raises both hands to gesticulate, but comes up short because he’s still holding onto Shen Wei with one. He frowns down at their hands, then shrugs and drops them again. “It was very romantic, let me tell you. There I was, a damsel in distress, and in swoops Shen Wei—”
A hand slaps over his mouth, muffling his words.
“Enough about your love life,” Da Qing declares with a huff. “Stick to the details we need to know, lao-Zhao.”
“I, for one, would like to hear the romantic tale,” Wang Zheng pipes up, and Zhao Yunlan imagines the stars in her glittering eyes. She does like her romance novels, he muses.
Zhao Yunlan licks Da Qing’s palm, forcing him to pull his hand back. For good measure, he sticks out his tongue at him, too. Then he clears his throat. “Long story short, Ye Zun is back in Dixing, licking his wounds after the ass-kicking he got. We’ve got some time to prepare until he recovers. Plus, we got all the Hallows now, so, SID one, Ye Zun zero.”
“Wait, back up,” Lin Jing gripes, his voice coming closer. Zhao Yunlan arches his eyebrows, holding up his hands in surrender. “Hong-jie brought back the Merit Brush last night, which brings us to three out of four. We’re still missing one, though.”
“The L-lantern,” Sang Zan agrees, having been tasked with researching the library for clues.
“Ah!” Zhao Yunlan snaps the fingers of his free hand, kicking up his feet on the table and leaning back against the couch. “Good point!” Pulling a lollipop out of his jacket pocket, he unwraps it and sticks it into his mouth, leaving his subordinates hanging for a moment longer. Artificial strawberry flavour fills his mouth, and he clicks the hard candy against his teeth. “Whoever finds it first gets an extra bonus for the month.”
“Find… it...?” xiao-Guo inquires carefully, shuffling his feet. “Um. How, uh, how do we do that, Chief?”
“Why, that’s easy! Do you really need me to tell you? Aiya, what am I even paying you for, do I have to do everything myself around here?” Zhao Yunlan laments, sucking in air noisily through his teeth. Taking the lollipop out of his mouth, he points at where he guesses most of the team is gathered. “It’s in one of those old storage boxes, from when we moved here from the old base, of course.”
“...it’s in the SID’s storage,” Chu Shuzhi deadpans. “Really.”
“Ah? Don’t believe me? I’m hurt.” Zhao Yunlan puts on his most offended expression, clutching the hand holding Shen Wei’s to his chest. Next to him, Shen Wei is chuckling under his breath at their antics. “Why don’t you go take a look, then?”
“Alright, enough. We can go look for it later,” Da Qing interrupts hurriedly before Chu Shuzhi can say anything caustic in response. “What do we know about this Ye Zun character?”
Zhao Yunlan shoots him a proud smile. This is why Da Qing’s his deputy. Although he can be lazy, he can count on the fat cat to pick up the slack when necessary.
“His power is one of devouring, through which he can gain the skills, knowledge, and abilities of the person he… digests,” Shen Wei explains, and Zhao Yunlan can hear the frown in his voice. He squeezes his hand. “One of the more… insidious powers he gained that way is of manipulation.”
“Manipulation?” Zhu Hong asks, concern turning her voice sharp. “Manipulate how?”
Shen Wei shifts, his body turning towards Zhao Yunlan, who does his best to give him an encouraging smile.
“Not dissimilar to the snake tribe’s hypnotism, it plants a suggestion in the mind of the victim.” Shen Wei’s tone switches into lecturing, and arousal shoots Zhao Yunlan’s veins. Damn, but Shen Wei is hot in professor mode. “The key difference, however, is that a hypnotic suggestion has a time limit — until the suggestion is carried out or the target snaps out of it. With Ye Zun’s power, as far as I can tell, the suggestion is supplanted into the subconscious and integrated into the person’s mind as if it were one’s own idea. It is… subtle.”
Silence descends over the team. Zhao Yunlan finds himself grimacing. He hasn’t given it much thought, but he remembers that voice at the pillar, trying to use his own doubts against him. Trying to create a rift between him and Shen Wei.
“And how do you know so much about this Ye Zun?” Chu Shuzhi questions, rightfully suspicious. Pride wars with worry inside Zhao Yunlan, Shen Wei’s grip on his fingers tightening before letting go. Zhao Yunlan hears the sharp hiss of air as he takes a fortifying breath, feels the shift of Shen Wei’s shoulder against his as he braces himself.
“He’s my brother.”
Zhao Yunlan turns his head towards his team. He may not be able to see them, but the least he can do is present a united front, support Shen Wei in this.
“Your brother.” Chu Shuzhi crosses his arms, going by the rustle of his cloak and scarf. His tone is dead serious, bordering on frosty judgement.
Zhu Hong hisses a low curse, followed by the sound of a chair scraping across the floor, legs wobbling before she plops into it. Zhao Yunlan feels a grim flutter of sympathy. Knowing who Shen Wei truly is, she must have realized the gravity of the situation.
“B-but—” Xiao-Guo swallows audibly. “Teacher Shen… does that mean… if he’s your brother, and he’s Dixingren…”
“Eh? Professor Shen is from Dixing?” Lin Jing sounds like an experiment just exploded in his face. “Since when?”
“Ah, technically, I was born in Haixing,” Shen Wei offers, the troll that he is. Zhao Yunlan bets it’s the truth, too — just give or take a couple thousand years or ten. He’s also aware how it’s a diversion tactic, the very same kind of humorous deflection Zhao Yunlan uses. Something he must have picked up from Zhao Yunlan, and he’s not sure if he’s feeling proud or disturbed by that fact.
“Aiyo, Shen Wei, just tell them,” he urges, keeping his tone light. “It’s not nice to string them along, you know?”
He can't see the look Shen Wei gives him in response, just feels his gaze resting on his face. Then Shen Wei sighs.
"We probably should have started with this," he says ruefully. He stands up and turns to face the team. "I'm Heipaoshi."
There’s a beat of silence. Zhao Yunlan feels a grin grow over his face, savouring the shock he can taste in the air. He really wishes he could see, just to take in their various expressions. The silence stretches, becomes awkward, and his grin falls. He can feel the tension running through Shen Wei, and he presses his knee against his legs.
“That’s impossible,” Chu Shuzhi grinds out. “You’re lying.”
“But, but why would Professor Shen lie about th-that?” xiao-Guo stammers. Lao-Chu growls impatiently.
“Heipaoshi is much too dignified to—” Chu Shuzhi cuts off with a strangled noise, and Zhao Yunlan grins as he feels a familiar robe brush against his leg.
“You were saying?” Zhao Yunlan drawls, imagining lao-Chu’s gobsmacked expression. Shen Wei has such a great sense for drama, and Zhao Yunlan is revelling in it.
“Heipaoshi-daren” —It’s lao-Chu’s turn to falter— “I didn’t mean…”
“You asked for proof,” Shen Wei says evenly, probably inclining his head. “It is only sensible to rely on more evidence than someone’s word.”
There’s a thump to his right, but Zhao Yunlan can’t tell which of his team made the noise or how. A breathy exhale of a shocked exclamation that can only be from Wang Zheng, followed by Sang Zan’s voice, low and confused, asking her something in their native language. Xiao-Guo is stammering badly enough Zhao Yunlan has trouble parsing the words. Zhu Hong is muffling a giggle behind her palm, likely at everyone’s reactions since she knows already. Lin Jing curses to his right, and oh, he dropped something in shock, that was the earlier thud.
“Are you alright, Chu-ge?” xiao-Guo asks, in a too loud whisper that draws more attention for trying to be sneaky.
“Fine, Changcheng,” lao-Chu snaps, brushing him off. He takes a stiff step forward. “My apologies, Daren. For…” Lao-Chu trails off, and Zhao Yunlan flashes back to his attempt at interrogating Professor Shen, nearly biting his head off when he reached for lao-Chu’s puppet. In hindsight, it’s pretty hilarious.
“Please don’t worry about it,” Shen Wei hastens to reassure lao-Chu. “You were treating me exactly as you should’ve in those situations. I apologize for the deception.”
“I trust Heipaoshi-daren had good reasons,” lao-Chu says stiffly, but with honest conviction. “No apologies are necessary.”
And Da Qing—
“Huh,” Da Qing says, and Zhao Yunlan can hear him scratch behind his head. “Makes sense.”
“Makes sense!?” Lin Jing explodes, before a soft thud follows. Zhao Yunlan cocks his head, wondering whether somebody hit him over the head or Lin Jing dropped his gadget again to gesticulate wildly. Either option is pretty comical in his imagination.
“Of course.” Da Qing is putting on his I’m ten thousand years old, you twerp, better listen to my wisdom voice. “Professor Shen, for whatever inexplicable reason, actually tolerates lao-Zhao. Even encourages him. So does Heipaoshi.” A pause where Da Qing must be nodding for dramatic effect. “It makes more sense if they’re the same person.”
Instead of two people who can tolerate Zhao Yunlan at his most shameless, he means.
“I resent that, Damn Fatty!” Zhao Yunlan gasps in fake outrage, clutching his shirt above his heart. “I’m hurt, I’m telling you, hurt! My own deputy, stabbing me in the back! Et tu, Da Qing, et tu?”
Da Qing sniffs haughtily. Zhao Yunlan knows Da Qing is still in human form, but he can vividly imagine him flicking his ear dismissively in front of his inner eye.
“I have Professor Shen to make fish for me now, what do I need you for? Useless,” he taunts, and then freezes in the middle of flicking Zhao Yunlan in the side. Frowning, Zhao Yunlan reaches out, hand roaming up his arm to his shoulder, shaking him slightly. “That, uh… that is, if Heipaoshi-daren would forgive this greedy cat?”
Oh. It has just sunken in for Da Qing, who has been cooking for them, living with them.
“Of course, Da Qing.” Shen Wei’s voice is filled with too many emotions for Zhao Yunlan to pick up on all of them. If he has to guess, he’s mourning Da Qing’s lost memories of their time in the past, the lack of familiarity he has earned both then and now, taken away by the revelation of his true identity. “And you may still call me Professor Shen, if you’d like.”
“Actually, that goes for everyone,” Zhao Yunlan speaks up, raising his voice to catch the team’s attention. “It’s a great honour and sign of trust Hei-laoge is gifting us with, and we’re all going to prove worthy of it — by pretending nothing has changed. Professor Shen is here as our consultant and my boyfriend, unless he dons his robes of office, capiche?”
A mutter of agreement goes around, Zhao Yunlan straining his ear to make sure each and every one of them verbally complies.
“Whatever Heipaoshi-daren needs,” lao-Chu says, apparently having regained his equilibrium, “this humble servant will do his utmost to provide.”
“Thank you, Chu Shuzhi,” Shen Wei accepts regally.
“Alright, everyone.” Zhao Yunlan pushes himself up, one hand automatically seeking Shen Wei’s elbow to balance himself. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’re going to make the most of the time we have until Ye Zun recovers so, go, get! Find that Lantern!” Clapping his hands twice, Zhao Yunlan puts on a bright smile. “I’ll be at the hospital, should you need me.”
Good natured groans and grumbles run through the team as they start to disperse. Zhao Yunlan hums to himself, satisfied with having re-established the usual atmosphere at SID. He lets Shen Wei guide him towards the exit, when another thought occurs to him.
“Aiya, before I forget. Lin Jing.” Zhao Yunlan stops, Shen Wei hovering next to him, fingers a firm ring around his wrist. “If any of this reaches ears beyond this room, I’ll deduct your bonuses for the rest of the year.”
“Eh? Why would I tell anyone?” Lin Jing sounds honestly confused. “It’s not like most people actually believe Dixing exists.”
“Oh, I was thinking of any girls named Sha Ya,” Zhao Yunlan suggests nonchalantly. When did Lin Jing meet that woman, again? They hadn’t known each other long, before the end. He can hear the mutter of Sha Ya, who?, so it hasn’t happened yet. “Or, more importantly, anyone from Haixing Labs. Particularly not Professor Ouyang.”
Tension springs up between them. Zhao Yunlan can feel the muscles of Shen Wei’s arm bunch against his, ready to protect should anything happen. Zhao Yunlan isn’t worried. Lin Jing has chosen the SID over his mentor and his crush once before, he’ll come to the same conclusion again, no doubt.
"Ah?! Chief Zhao is amazing, even blind nothing escapes him!" Lin Jing exclaims, and Zhao Yunlan knows him well enough to imagine his wide, owlish eyes blinking rapidly behind his glasses. "Wait!! You know!?"
Zhao Yunlan tilts his head, one eyebrow raised. “Aiya, shouldn’t I? I’m not the chief of an investigative unit for nothing!”
Shen Wei covers his laughter with a cough while Lin Jing sputters. Zhao Yunlan salutes his team, then drags Shen Wei outside. The team deserves a break from sudden revelations for the rest of the morning, and he has an appointment with Dr. Cheng to get to.
Wide eyes, dark skies
Something's screamin' inside
Despite already knowing the results won’t help with his (temporary!) blindness, Zhao Yunlan subjects himself to all kinds of tests once more because Shen Wei asks. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of things, and Shen Wei so rarely asks for anything. Zhao Yunlan would give him the world if he could, and he knows Shen Wei feels the same. Maybe that’s why he never asks for anything. Zhao Yunlan has certainly learned his lesson about jokingly requesting things because Shen Wei always takes them more seriously than he intended, just on the off-chance Zhao Yunlan means it.
So. Hospital it is.
Besides, he likes Cheng Xinyan. This is as good a way as any to get Shen Wei to introduce them, so he can invite her over at a later point and get all the good gossip on Shen Wei’s student days from her.
Because there is going to be a 'later'.
His phone vibrates in the middle of the appointment, a reminder Zhao Yunlan has set in the past. It takes him a moment to remember what day it is and to guess at the time before he turns to Shen Wei, arching his eyebrows.
"Don't you have an eleven A.M. class to teach?"
"I cancelled it," Shen Wei returns evenly, his tone brooking no argument.
"Aiyo, you didn't have to." Zhao Yunlan finds himself floundering, surprised. He vaguely recalls shooing Shen Wei off to teach last time around, so why…? "What are your poor students supposed to do, deprived of your beauty" —Zhao Yunlan pauses to wink in Cheng Xinyan's direction and hears her chuckle— "-ful explanations of the material?"
"They could read the notes, for starters," Shen Wei suggests dryly. "I asked Wang Zheng to mail them to Jiajia, she'll make sure they're distributed among the class."
Again, Zhao Yunlan is taken aback. "Ah, Shen Wei, you didn't have to. I'll be fine on my own."
"Or you'll walk straight into traffic," Shen Wei reminds him pointedly, and okay, that is uncalled for. He still blames the vision, or else he wouldn't have done something so stupid.
"Zhao Yunlan" —and, oh no, that's Shen Wei's earnest voice, why does he have to pull that one out— “won’t you let me take care of you? At least for today?”
This isn’t about Zhao Yunlan being blind. Or, okay, so maybe it is a little bit about that, compounding the anxiety Shen Wei feels about his well-being. About him being alive, after having been dead, and perhaps Zhao Yunlan should’ve realized this sooner. One night of holding each other close, of not letting go, isn’t enough, of course it isn’t enough. Whole years may not be enough for Shen Wei to feel secure in having Zhao Yunlan back.
Because Shen Wei hasn’t just lost Zhao Yunlan once, but twice.
What else can Zhao Yunlan do but agree, in the light of that epiphany? “Of course, baobei.”
Cheng Xinyan's amusement colours her voice as she continues to talk with him about a treatment plan, scheduling regular check-ups to keep an eye (heh) on the progression of his impaired vision and any other potential health risks. If nothing else, it soothes Shen Wei into a sense of security, allowing him to talk shop with Cheng Xinyan and prepare backup plans should future problems arise.
Finally, their allotted time is over, and Cheng Xinyan gently shoos them out of her office so she can care for her next patient. Zhao Yunlan lets Shen Wei guide him through the unfamiliar hallways, his hand on Zhao Yunlan's elbow a reassuring, warm weight.
Shen Wei comes to a sudden stop, and Zhao Yunlan turns his face his way, unable to see why.
"Shen Wei?" he asks quietly.
"Yunlan," a familiar voice says, surprised and unwelcome. Zhao Yunlan tenses. "What are you doing here?"
"Aiyo, Dad, can't I come visit my own father in the hospital?"
It's not why he's here, and they both know it, but Zhao Yunlan is aware that Zhao Xinci won't doubt the assertion in public and risk losing face. Not out loud.
"Come in," Zhao Xinci returns brusquely, proving Zhao Yunlan right. Shen Wei leads him into what must be a private room, considering Zhao Xinci's high rank in the government. There's a visitor's chair Shen Wei guides him into, as the door closes behind them.
"Are you here on a case?" Zhao Xinci wastes no time to question. Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes behind his sunglasses.
"No, actually, we already dealt with that last night. Why are you here, Dad? I didn't hear about the surgery until" —until Wang Xiangyang brought it up in his quest for revenge. Zhao Yunlan bites down the bitter words pressing against the back of his teeth.
"It's nothing," Zhao Xinci dismisses, pacing across the floor. Zhao Yunlan snorts.
"Right. You just came here for the relaxed atmosphere. Great vacation spot, ten out of ten."
Zhao Xinci pauses in front of Zhao Yunlan's chair.
"You're blind," he states, tone so neutral it reads frosty. "How did you manage that?"
"Does it matter? It won't affect my work." Zhao Yunlan sighs, dropping his head on the backrest as he sprawls in the chair. Then, he admits reluctantly, "The doctors can't find anything wrong. It'll probably pass on its own."
"Is it a Dixing power?" There's a note of concern in his voice, and for a moment Zhao Yunlan wonders if he's still talking to his father — or Zhang Shi.
"No. A side effect from using the Hallows." Zhao Yunlan slashes a hand through the air, cutting off whatever his father's response to that is. This isn't a topic he wants to discuss with the director of Xingdu Bureau. "Ah, no need for concern. Shen Wei is taking excellent care of me."
The silence that follows the announcement is… heavy. Zhao Yunlan supposes he could've chosen a subtler approach in introducing his boyfriend to his father, but. Death has rearranged his priorities somewhat. Both his own and Shen Wei's.
"Is he." His father is frowning, maybe even glaring. Zhao Xinci speaks less with words, and more with minute changes of his expression, but Zhao Yunlan has made a study of the particular flavours of his father's inflections. And… this one is the familiar disapproval. Zhao Yunlan should be used to it.
It still stings.
"I would like to talk with my son" —the emphasis isn't lost on Zhao Yunlan— "in private."
"Whatever you have to say to me, you can say to Shen Wei." Zhao Yunlan is digging his heels in, knowing Zhao Xinci won't budge before Shen Wei leaves the room, but needing to make his stance clear; both to his father, and to Shen Wei.
A hand squeezes his shoulder in gratitude and reassurance. "I'll be right outside."
They remain silent as Shen Wei's footsteps echo through the room, followed by the door opening and closing. Zhao Yunlan crosses his arms and stares straight ahead, refusing to be the first to speak.
A sigh, followed by the sound of the bed springs. Zhao Yunlan frowns. Zhao Xinci must be truly tired, to show such signs of weariness. Of course, Zhao Yunlan reminds himself, it's been less than twelve hours since he underwent surgery.
"You should be more careful of the company you keep," Zhao Xinci chides. Zhao Yunlan lets out a harsh laugh, bites it off.
"Why, because he's Dixingren? You're one to talk."
"Because he's dangerous," Zhao Xinci snaps, his anger covering the hint of confusion. "You don't know what he's capable of."
Zhao Yunlan scoffs. "I know him better than most. Better than you do, for sure."
"Yunlan" —and great, there's the gentle condescension— "he's not who you think he is. He's not just some harmless professor, he's—"
"Heipaoshi, yes, I know," Zhao Yunlan interrupts him impatiently. The silence that follows speaks volumes. Zhao Yunlan huffs a laugh, his chest too tight with all the emotions its trying to contain. "What, you thought I didn't know? I figured it out before he became my consultant. Hell, he only agreed to that because I found out!"
"He didn't tell you." Zhao Xinci sounds sure, and yet suspicious.
"No." Zhao Yunlan shakes his head and sinks back into his chair, feeling tired. He doesn't want to fight with his father. That's never what he wants, no matter how often they end up butting heads. Pulling off his sunglasses, he tries to meet Zhao Xinci's eyes, hoping to convey the earnestness he feels. "He's not going to hurt me."
When his father doesn't have anything to say to that, Zhao Yunlan sighs and stands.
"Well, it was nice to talk, we should do this again." He slides his glasses back on and carefully steps around the chair, using his walking stick to check where the walls and furniture are. He's made it all the way to the door, his hand curling around the handle, when Zhao Xinci finally speaks.
"It's your mistake to make. Don't tell me I didn't warn you."
Zhao Yunlan grits his teeth and raises a hand in a casual wave goodbye.
Melting minds instinctively
United in the center of the storm
With the Merit Brush in their possession, all they are missing is a wick to light the Guardian Lantern.
"Worst case scenario, I—" Zhao Yunlan starts, then winces as fingers dig into his shoulders painfully.
"You will do no such thing," Shen Wei snaps, and despite his lack of sight, he knows Shen Wei is glaring him down.
"Aiya, who said anything about sacrifice?" He laughs weakly, playing it off as a joke, when they both know what he was about to suggest. Should push come to shove… "Regardless, Dixing is stable for now. While the Lantern could restore it to its former glory, there's no rush until Ye Zun makes his move."
Shen Wei’s grip tightens, then loosens before Zhao Yunlan starts wondering if he’s about to lose his arm. He offers Shen Wei a cautious smile, but can’t really see if it has any effect.
“We will find another solution,” Shen Wei declares, his tone one of barely leashed fury. Zhao Yunlan shivers, but not in fear. He likes it when Shen Wei gets authoritative. “First, we will look for the missing wick. It might be at the base here, or it might still be in Dixing. The palace will be a good place to start.”
Zhao Yunlan cocks his head. “Do you have anyone in Dixing you trust? To search for it, I mean?”
Shen Wei thinks it over for a moment. “Wu Tian’en will be willing to help, but it won’t be easy to get him into the palace.”
Zhao Yunlan hums. “Maybe we can arrange for an incident that would allow us to send lao-Chu in there? He knows not to trust the Regent, and Ye Zun will have a hard time turning him against you.”
Several seconds pass, and Zhao Yunlan frowns, turning his head towards Shen Wei. Then a mouth brushes over his, a lingering touch filled with breathless wonder.
“Yes. That is… that could work,” Shen Wei murmurs against his mouth, before withdrawing. Zhao Yunlan whines in protest, chasing after those warm lips, but a hand on his shoulder stops him. “Leave it to me. You will know when the Regent requests your help with the matter.”
Before he can leave, however, Zhao Yunlan tugs him in for a longer, deeper kiss. Shen Wei indulges Zhao Yunlan’s request, and his heart feels lighter with hope than it has in a while.
Of course, the ministry catches wind of the situation. It's unavoidable, really. Zhao Yunlan pushes off reporting in as long as he can, using the holidays and slow pace of paperwork to his advantage, stays vague on the details, but in the end he needs to explain cutting the power on the night of the Reunion Festival. The rest comes out bit by bit, no matter how recalcitrant he acts. The situation with Ye Zun, Zhu Jiu’s unfortunate escape of justice via suicide, the Hallows, and Zhao Yunlan’s (temporary!) blindness.
Zhao Yunlan gets suspended.
“It’s not a punishment,” Minister Gao assures him, his tone kind and pitying. “But with the current tensions, the situation with Zhu Jiu and this Ye Zun — the SID cannot afford to be vulnerable at this point. Surely you must see that.”
Zhao Yunlan puts a restraining hand on Da Qing’s arm, vibrating next to him in fury.
“Of course,” he agrees easily. They’ve seen this coming. Still, Zhao Yunlan isn’t someone to surrender without a fight. “Da Qing can take over as chief. He has the experience as the deputy, and the team knows him. They’ll follow his lead.”
“Ah…” Zhao Yunlan can’t see Minister Gao’s face, but he knows the sort of strained expression he must wear. No one wants a Yashou in charge of any police unit, especially not the one meant to protect Haixing from rogue Dixing elements. Nevermind that Da Qing has been nothing but loyal in his entire career. It’s unfair.
They get a new chief. Temporary, of course. Once Zhao Yunlan recovers… Well. If.
The team, predictably, closes ranks around Zhao Yunlan. He’s touched by their stubborn fealty, even though he wishes they wouldn’t. Their obstinacy makes life harder for all of them, when keeping their heads down would be easier. Zhao Yunlan wishes Zhu Hong would curb her sharp tongue, or Chu Shuzhi would be less obvious in how he doesn’t even intend to listen. Even xiao-Guo insists on double checking the ministry plant’s orders with Zhao Yunlan before completing his tasks. Lin Jing actually comes to him to complain when his month’s bonus is reinstated.
“It’s not right,” he grumbles, pushing the thermos of tea Shen Wei left with lunch into Zhao Yunlan’s hands. “What right does he have to come in here and subvert the natural order?”
Zhao Yunlan tries to ease tensions, tells his team to behave and goes to make nice with the intruder.
It doesn’t help that the guy is hostile towards both, Dixingren and Yashou, and sees no reason to hide the fact. He’s rude to Da Qing, undermining the deputy chief’s authority at every step and ruffling all their feathers. Chu Shuzhi is treated as a criminal serving community service, which lao-Chu weathers with a stoic mien until the plant decides to belittle xiao-Guo. That time, lao-Chu nearly puts the man through a wall, which at least makes him shut up for ten minutes.
At first he tries to be nice to Wang Zheng and Zhu Hong, if too smarmy and peacocky about it, leering so obviously even Zhao Yunlan notices, blind as he is. Except then Wang Zheng loses her temper when he turns around to mock Sang Zan, and their new chief gets a lesson about ghosts. Zhu Hong appears to decide she would prefer the frosty treatment Wang Zheng receives afterwards and flashes her red eyes and snake teeth at the idiot the next time he tells her to get him coffee.
The only one who is spared is Lin Jing, who doesn’t like it. At all.
Of course, then xiao-Guo makes a point of inviting lao-Chu to dinner with his uncle and aunt, which their temporary chief overhears. He goes to Zhao Yunlan with his 'concerns' about how they shouldn’t allow a dangerous Dixing criminal to wander about as he pleases, corrupting young officials. Zhao Yunlan listens with as neutral a face as he can manage, before patting the man’s shoulder (and immediately wiping his palm with a grimace, once he’s sure to be out of the man’s line of sight).
“I’m sure Vice-Minister Guo will be just fine. They’ve had lao-Chu over before.”
The name caught the plant’s attention. “V-vice-Minister Guo?”
“Yes?” Zhao Yunlan pastes on a confused expression, raising his eyebrows. “Ah, surely you’re aware that Guo Changcheng is the nephew of Guo Ying, Vice-Minister of Public Safety?”
“O-of course,” the plant stutters, and Zhao Yunlan relishes the horror he induced by withholding that information until the man showed his ass. The ass-kissing that starts up the next day, however hilarious, is much less enjoyable.
The rising ire of his team is concerning, though. Luckily, or perhaps unfortunately, there are no new cases for them to work on, what with them having secured the Hallows and set Ye Zun back. Although Zhao Yunlan worries what he may be plotting instead, Shen Wei assures him he’s still securely trapped in the pillar.
Which leaves his team with little to do but turn their frustration into making the job a living hell for the ministry plant. So far, his retaliation has been small in scale, things his team has decided to shoulder in the name of driving the man out. Zhao Yunlan’s presence is enough to restrain both the temp and his team to some degree, mostly because their new chief is aware of who Zhao Yunlan’s father is.
But without him there? All bets are off.
It’s another thing to worry about for his upcoming absence in the wake of his road trip to ancient times. With the Hallows all gathered in one place, Zhao Yunlan expects to be ripped from the present and dropped into the past any day now. But a week passes, and then another, yet nothing happens.
"Maybe it'll have to be on the same day?" Zhao Yunlan suggests when he and Shen Wei stay at the SID's lab late one night. "Or perhaps it can't happen until we figure out a way to cure my blindness. I wasn't blind in your memories, right?"
"No," Shen Wei agrees. Zhao Yunlan can hear the frown in his tone, imagines that beloved brow furrowed in deep thought. He hesitates. "Our appearance here hasn't changed my memories of Kunlun at all. Maybe…"
"Maybe there won't be a second time?" Zhao Yunlan finishes for him, mulling over the idea. "Huh. I guess that would make sense. It already happened, for both of us. Do you think once is enough for the Hallows?"
A rustling of clothes as Shen Wei shrugs.
"We don't know how, exactly, they affect the time stream. If our being here is a continuation of that timeline, then perhaps another visit to the past is unnecessary." Shen Wei steps back from the Hallows, his shoulder brushing against Zhao Yunlan's. "The time loop has been closed already. There is no need."
On the one hand, Zhao Yunlan is relieved. He doesn’t want to leave Shen Wei’s side for another adventure in the past. On the other, he kinda wishes he could get a second chance at impressing a young Shen Wei with his knowledge and skills, leave him with… more than just improvised speeches. On the other other hand, the past will be incredibly more dangerous if he’s still blind when he visits it, and it was pure luck (or fate) that he made it through unscathed the first time.
On the fourth hand, the uncertainty is driving him up the wall. If the Hallows are to throw him through time once more, he’d rather have it over with already. Instead, he’s stuck waiting, bracing for the possibility.
He's stopped from driving his team crazy with his restless energy when, as Shen Wei has predicted, the Regent approaches him with a request.
“Lord Guardian, if I could ask you a favour…” the old man says, all obsequious bows and brownnosing. “It is… a sensitive matter… I trust in your discretion.”
“It’s none of our business,” the ministry plant butts in, clearly peeved at having his authority ignored once more in favour of Zhao Yunlan. It doesn’t help that Heipaoshi hasn’t officially recognized him, not even shown up while the man was at their base. At least, as far as the man's aware - Shen Wei tries to avoid him, which is easy enough with their lack of cases, but they did run into each other one time. Shen Wei still comes to pick Zhao Yunlan up every day after work. “What should we care if you’ve displaced some artefact or other?”
“Ah? Why wouldn’t we help? Dixing is our most esteemed ally, is it not?” Zhao Yunlan gives the Regent his own political smile. “As a gesture of good will, why don’t we send lao-Chu and xiao-Guo? Lao-Chu is familiar with the local customs, and xiao-Guo could use the field experience. I’m sure his uncle would appreciate it.”
Having come to Zhao Yunlan with his request, the Regent can’t exactly deny his chosen agents, and his arguments are sound. The ministry plant, too, isn’t in any position to argue if he wants to keep sucking up to the Guos and doesn't know them well enough to realize Zhao Yunlan is lying through his teeth.
After the Regent leaves, the man whirls on Zhao Yunlan, grabbing his arm hard enough that, for his sake, Zhao Yunlan hopes he doesn’t leave any bruises. Shen Wei won’t be amused.
“You're not the leader of this team anymore, Chief Zhao,” he hisses, and Zhao Yunlan quirks his eyebrows pointedly at the title. He’s suspended, after all, not fired. Snarling, the ministry plant lets go of his arm. “What were you thinking, promising that man, that Dixingren our resources?”
“You don’t realize who that was, do you?” Zhao Yunlan asks, amused. He rolls the lollipop into his cheek and sucks. “That, comrade, was the Regent of Dixing. He’s the highest authority they have, under the king, but between us? The king is just his puppet.”
Zhao Yunlan rocks on his heels, sticking his hands into his pockets as he lets that sink in. Then he grins.
“And now… that man owes us a favour.”
Oh there is no way to hide it
Now all the blood and pressure's rising
Everything is going well. Too well. So of course, Zhao Yunlan gets kidnapped by the Xingdu Bureau.
To be fair, 'kidnapped' may be an exaggeration. He is cordially invited to meet with Minister Gao concerning his situation. Zhao Yunlan would have assumed this is just another discussion about Ye Zun, or another gentle suggestion he take it easy due to his blindness. What gives them away is that Lin Jing, of all people, is told by the ministry plant to accompany him.
Now, if it were about not wanting a Yashou or Dixing escort along, they would've asked for xiao-Guo. As the Vice Minister's nephew, he is the most political choice.
But xiao-Guo is in Dixing with lao-Chu, searching for the wick, and Zhao Yunlan thinks the timing is rather suspicious. Why the sudden need for a debrief, when reports from the temp chief sufficed before? No new development has occurred to justify a meeting — or at least none Zhao Yunlan is aware of.
Automatically, his head swivels to stare at Lin Jing.
"I didn't say anything!" Lin Jing swears, voice filled with panic. "Not about—" He cuts himself off, and Zhao Yunlan arches an eyebrow. "But when it became obvious that something was wrong with you, I had to give them something, Chief."
And thus, with the cat out of the bag so to speak, Professor Ouyang demanded updates on Zhao Yunlan's sudden blindness and the cause thereof. Which Lin Jing informed him about.
"To avoid suspicion," Lin Jing assures him quietly, choosing his words carefully. Aware of the driver, or perhaps assuming the car is bugged. It's not a bad precaution, Zhao Yunlan muses. "It's not like it's a secret."
"I suppose it was inevitable," Zhao Yunlan grants him magnanimously. "We're going to Haixing Labs, then?"
"Yeah. Professor Ouyang is working on a, uh, a solution."
Hope sparks in his chest, before he squashes it vehemently. He hasn't given up on curing his blindness, exactly, but he's come to terms with it. If staying blind is the price he has to pay for a second chance at saving the world, at having a future with Shen Wei… then so be it.
Shen Wei, on the other hand, is far from ready to accept the situation. He hasn't brought it up since their first night back, but Zhao Yunlan knows him, can read it in the things that remain unsaid.
Zhao Yunlan puts up with the checkpoint gracefully, letting Lin Jing take the lead. The scientist is uneasy, judging by his tone, trying too hard to sound casual. Sometimes, Zhao Yunlan wonders how he managed to pull off being a double agent in the first place. Far as he can tell, the man just acted like himself and no one thought to question it.
Lin Jing has to guide him through the hallways, Zhao Yunlan's memory of the layout too spotty, having been here only once or twice.
Professor Ouyang greets them right outside the door of Haixing Labs, ushering them inside.
"—fascinating case, really. Haven't seen dark energy contamination a lot, yet, not where it started affecting biological function! A rare scenario, I suppose, for someone to be exposed to enough dark energy to get to that point; although as Chief of the SID, you are of course at a much higher risk," Professor Ouyang prattles along, and Zhao Yunlan smiles and nods.
“The minister indicated you might have a solution?” he prods. The professor is vibrating with excitement and doesn’t need more encouragement than that.
“Yes, yes, of course, I started working on it at once. Director Zhao made it our highest priority.”
Zhao Yunlan hasn’t spoken to his father since that day at the hospital. Zhao Xinci hasn’t called or asked anyone to convey a message for him. Zhao Yunlan knows because Da Qing keeps track of his texts and phone notifications, while Zhu Hong makes a point to read his emails out loud for him.
“It’s still in the experimental stage, you understand, but promising, very promising so far. We’ve tested it successfully on a small youchu, about the size of a rat” —and how and when had they captured one, Zhao Yunlan can’t help but wonder— “the effect was immediate, truly astounding. Of course, it died after the second exposure, so further tests will be necessary. If you would allow us to take a blood sample, Chief Zhao?”
Dark energy isn’t contained in blood cells, Zhao Yunlan knows, he’s listened to enough of Shen Wei’s lectures with half an ear to know that much. But in Dixingren, veins and arteries run along parallel lines as the Dixingren’s energy construct, hence why Shen Wei cut his wrist to bleed dark energy.
“Ah, of course! Whatever Professor Ouyang deems necessary,” Zhao Yunlan submits easily enough. He shrugs off his jacket, and Lin Jing helps him up on an examination bed. “How does this… ‘solution’ work, exactly?”
“It’s a dark energy suppressor — a neutralizer, if you will. The reagent binds itself to the dark energy molecules, effectively disarming them. The idea is that they’ll dissolve with time, as has been observed in previous cases with lesser contamination. Although we’re already working on an alternate fix, one that will hopefully destroy the dark energy it encounters. So far, we’ve had little luck. The only annihilator we know of is dark energy itself, which isn’t all that helpful…”
Like his dark energy revolver. Zhao Yunlan hums encouragingly, and the professor babbles on while an assistant comes to take Zhao Yunlan’s blood. Zhao Yunlan hopes Lin Jing is paying better attention because the gears in his mind are turning, puzzle pieces slotting together rapidly.
Zhao Yunlan knows how his father works. Right now, with the rising tension between Dixing and Haixing, Director Zhao is preparing for a war. Blind, Zhao Yunlan is worse than useless, he's a liability: a high value target as both the acknowledged Lord Guardian and the director's son. It doesn't help that the Black-Cloaked Envoy announced him as under his protection, although Zhao Yunlan doesn't think his father heard about that.
But as with everything political, there are layers here, and Zhao Xinci is nothing if not a politician.
This is a test. For them to have a dark energy suppressor ready to administer to Zhao Yunlan means they've been working on one for months, if not years. With a pang Zhao Yunlan wonders if they tested the solution on the Dixingren he apprehended, before he met Shen Wei and Heipaoshi introduced himself. The obvious reason to create such a serum is, of course, the neutralization of Dixing powers. Oh, it will just be the dangerous ones, at first, like Ye Zun. Volunteers who can't control theirs, like Wang Yike. And then they would find more and more excuses to escalate, expand the definition of 'necessary'.
Yet to Zhao Xinci, this is a matter of personal importance. And its name is Zhang Shi.
Zhao Yunlan keeps up the small talk, asking leading questions and letting Professor Ouyang run away with them, revealing much more information than he’s probably aware. One good thing coming out of being the director’s son — everyone always assumes he’s much more privy to state secrets than he actually is. It’s not a notion Zhao Yunlan is in any hurry to disabuse people of.
“Professor Ouyang, you need to see this!” one of the researchers calls out, too eager for Zhao Yunlan’s taste.
It's nerve-wracking, to be left alone in the dark in an unfamiliar place. Zhao Yunlan breathes in carefully, trying to keep a lid on the rising anxiety. It's one thing when Shen Wei guides him through the grocery store or the park, mostly because he trusts Shen Wei absolutely, knows down to his bones he won't come to any harm.
Thankfully, Lin Jing comes back momentarily, while the other scientists mutter to each other, snippets of academic terms Zhao Yunlan has no hope of piecing together.
"The test worked," Lin Jing explains in a low voice. "The serum attached to the dark energy particles and deactivated them, sort of. No effects on the red or white blood cells, as far as we can tell."
"So it'll work?"
"Ah… honestly, I don't know, lao-Zhao. It looks promising. But—"
Whatever reservations Lin Jing holds about the process, he can't share with Zhao Yunlan as Professor Ouyang bustles over to them in that moment, chattering away a mile a minute.
"—best case scenario, yes, indeed! Promising, very promising. Chief Zhao, with your permission, we are ready to start the procedure."
"Ah? What does this procedure entail?" Zhao Yunlan cocks his head and forces his expression into something neutrally curious. "I hope you won't stick anything into my eyeballs," he jokes.
"Ah, haha, nothing that unpleasant, Chief Zhao, I assure you." Professor Ouyang shakes out a handkerchief, presumably dabbing at his forehead in the pause before he speaks again. "The reagent will be injected with a carrier fluid, all perfectly harmless to humans. It's just a simple pinprick, and voila!"
“Of course, if Chief Zhao would prefer us to run more tests, we will do that,” Lin Jing interjects, keeping his tone artificially cheerful.
“...certainly. Should Chief Zhao wish,” Professor Ouyang agrees reluctantly. It's clear he prefers action now rather than later, yet doesn't dare push considering Zhao Yunlan's connections.
Shen Wei would insist on more thorough testing, Zhao Yunlan knows. But… what tests are there left to run? What can they change? His case is unique, and even if he were willing to hand over some poor Dixingren, what would the results of that experiment mean for Zhao Yunlan, who is a contaminated Haixingren?
He gives it only a moment of thought. “Do it.”
"Great!" Professor Ouyang claps his hands together. Zhao Yunlan can't see his face, but the grin is audible in his voice. "Excellent, truly excellent— I knew I could count on you, Chief Zhao, admirable, yes."
"Let's start with a small dose," Lin Jing interjects, sounding somewhat alarmed at his mentor's obvious glee.
They attach him to several monitors — pulse, blood pressure, electro-cardiogram, etc. Just to be on the safe side, the assistant researcher assures him. Then there is the sting of the needle sliding into his arm, a light pressure as the serum is plunged into his veins.
For a heartbeat, nothing changes.
Then the fireworks start, the solid darkness of Zhao Yunlan's vision turning into writhing shadows of different depths, black on darker black. Zhao Yunlan doubles over, his chest seizing as the neutralizer starts working, colours popping behind closed eyelids. There's a worried exclamation, hands on his shoulders pinning him down on the bed, and wasn't he sitting just a second ago? Time slows and speeds up and he loses track as his skeleton burns from the inside.
And then… it's over.
Zhao Yunlan blinks the black spots out of his vision and winces.
Compared to the darkness he’s gotten used to over the last couple weeks, the lab is a stark contrast of white tiles, white lab coats, and neon bright lights making everything all the more glaring. Zhao Yunlan grimaces, squinting his eyes closed and raising his hand to block the lamplight.
“Did it work?” Professor Ouyang presses, his voice going an octave higher in excitement. Zhao Yunlan squints through the shade of his fingers, taking in the fanatic gleam in the professor’s eyes. That seems… not good.
“Looks like,” Zhao Yunlan replies as noncommittally as he can. Slowly, he lowers his hand and blinks. “Yep. Good as new.”
“We’ll have to run a couple tests, of course,” one of the subordinate researchers announces, shooting the professor a worried look. “But vitals are within average parameters.”
“Yes, yes, do that.” Professor Ouyang flaps an impatient hand at his assistant. Zhao Yunlan holds out his arm for yet another blood sample. “Now, let us know if you experience any symptoms of the energy returning, no matter when! Ah, if you can get your hand on one of those artefacts again, see if you can still use them — we should test if the contaminant can return, or if the dose is enough to neutralize future exposure…”
“That sounds” —inadvisable— “great!” Zhao Yunlan puts on a pained smile, giving Lin Jing a disbelieving look once the professor’s back is turned. Lin Jing grimaces in response. “Aiya, Professor, you’ve really outdone yourself. I’m certain my father will be pleased to hear of your progress.”
Zhao Yunlan himself feels torn. On the one hand, his father’s decision to get involved warms his heart, but on the other, he could’ve said something.
And he doesn’t like leaving something this powerful in the hands of Professor Ouyang, not after how irresponsibly he handled the serum in the other timeline. Zhao Yunlan shoots Lin Jing a pointed look, flicking his eyes towards the vials of serum, then meets his eyes again. Lin Jing frowns, following his gaze. The furrow of his brow deepens, then clears. He reaches out to take one of the vials, but retracts his hand quickly as Professor Ouyang turns towards him.
“—get the readout and start the centrifuge. This might be the breakthrough we needed!”
“Yes, Professor, right away,” Lin Jing agrees, shooting Zhao Yunlan a helpless look.
“Ah, Professor Ouyang, before I leave to report to Director Zhao…” Zhao Yunlan jumps off the test bed, mind whirling as he improvises a distraction. “It would be ideal, for all of us, if you could fill me in. Save Dad the time to have to come all this way for news. How well are you expecting this to work on a Dixingren?”
Professor Ouyang takes the bait, and Zhao Yunlan keeps his face carefully neutral as he elaborates, pressing the more academical terms firmly into his memory to update Shen Wei later. Lin Jing sneaks one of the vials into a pocket of his lab coat, managing a seamless exchange into Zhao Yunlan’s jacket pocket while they say goodbye.
Now all they have to do is find the wick and confront Ye Zun.
I can feel the thunder
Running through my veins
"And you're sure it's cured?" Shen Wei asks for the third time, his hands hovering over Zhao Yunlan's arms, wanting to touch and not quite daring. "And you don't feel any secondary effects? Headache, nausea?"
"I'm fine, baobei," Zhao Yunlan assures him patiently. He reaches out, cups Shen Wei's cheek, runs his thumb over his cheekbone. Shen Wei stares back at him, dark eyes wide and brimming with emotions. "It worked. No side effects."
Shen Wei’s eyelids flutter closed, his mouth opening to let out a faint sigh. He presses his cheek against Zhao Yunlan’s palm, just resting there for several heartbeats. Zhao Yunlan takes the time to soak in the sight of him, something he’d resigned himself to only seeing in his memory. His gaze roams over long lashes covering dark shadows under Shen Wei’s eyes, snagging on the slight furrow of his brow. He traces thick eyebrows with his eyes, follows the line of his combed hair, the bow of his lips, committing each and every feature to memory anew.
“You need to stop doing that,” Shen Wei whispers, breaking the silence. Zhao Yunlan drags his thumb over his cheek, meets his gaze as Shen Wei opens his eyes.
“Scare me like that.” Shen Wei swallows. “Every time I let you out of my sight… you do something reckless.”
“It turned out fine,” Zhao Yunlan objects, dropping his hand to cup Shen Wei’s neck instead. He tugs him closer, pressing their foreheads together. His chest twists with guilt at causing Shen Wei pain, but he doesn’t regret his decision. “It’s fine. And look, I can see again! All’s well that ends well, eh?”
“What if it hadn’t?” Shen Wei gasps out, and the tears shimmering in his eyes hurt. “You could have died. You didn’t know how the serum would work.” Shen Wei blanched. “You might still die. What if—”
“Shen Wei, no,” Zhao Yunlan interrupts him, alarmed. He leans back, framing Shen Wei’s face between both his palms, meeting that wide-eyed, panicked gaze. “Shush, baby, I’m fine. I’m here, xiao-Wei. I’m not going anywhere.”
Shen Wei grabs his wrists, pulls him off. His frown deepens, his quick mind chasing the worst case scenarios with dogged stubbornness.
“You don’t know that. That’s my point, Yunlan.” Shen Wei’s face twists in frustration, his fingers digging into his skin, before he carefully relaxes his grip. “At least let me check you over. Let me see what Professor Ouyang” —The name is spit with more venom than Zhao Yunlan would’ve believed Shen Wei capable of— “did to you.”
“Of course,” Zhao Yunlan acquiesces immediately. “Whatever you need, baobei.”
“I need you to stop being reckless,” Shen Wei asserts, his eyes narrowing.
Clearly not expecting an answer, he gathers dark energy in his palm, which he lays on Zhao Yunlan’s chest, directly above his heart. Zhao Yunlan swallows. He watches as Shen Wei closes his eyes, brow furrowed in concentration. His hand moves across Zhao Yunlan’s chest, and Zhao Yunlan gives in to the urge to cover it with his own. Finally, the dark energy fizzles away, and Shen Wei’s eyes flutter open.
Zhao Yunlan gives him a soft smile, his expression serious even as he keeps his tone light. “So, what’s the verdict?”
"The dark energy contaminating your system has been greatly reduced." Shen Wei's mouth pulls into a frown. "What remains evades my grasp, as if it's turned… slippery." His fingers twist in Zhao Yunlan's shirt. "Presumably, that new membrane is what the serum created to 'contain' the dark energy. I cannot yet tell what else it will do."
"If it makes you feel better, you can check on it whenever you wish," Zhao Yunlan offers. "Lin Jing has the research notes, I'll tell him to print you out a copy."
Shen Wei pauses to think, then nods. "Yes. I would like to study them."
Zhao Yunlan entangles their fingers, pulling Shen Wei closer so he can wrap his free arm around Shen Wei's waist.
"I don't like how quickly Haixing Labs had this solution on hand," Zhao Yunlan confesses, drawing his thumb over Shen Wei's knuckles. "They had to be working on something similar already. The implications…"
Shen Wei nods, expression grim. "They intend to use this against Dixingren."
Zhao Yunlan exhales slowly. He has come to the same conclusion, but having Shen Wei confirm his suspicion makes it. More real. Thinking of another timeline, of the actions of people in power and their ramifications, he mutters, "Frankly, I don't trust them to decide when it's necessary to use.”
At that, Shen Wei pulls back from him. "You think it should be used on my people?"
Zhao Yunlan lets him go, raising a single eyebrow. "I can see where it might be useful." At Shen Wei's doubtful look, he holds up a finger and starts counting, "Dangerous, out of control powers like Wang Yike's. People who use their power to subjugate others, like Zei Qiu." He holds up a third finger, gentling his tone to soften the blow. "Powerful Dixingren who are out to destroy the world. Like Ye Zun."
Dark eyes roil with a storm of emotions.
"You want to use the serum on Didi."
Determination fills Zhao Yunlan, and he holds Shen Wei's gaze steadily, not backing down.
"If he insists on hurting you, hurting others? Yes." He raises their intertwined hands between them, brushing his lips over Shen Wei's knuckles. "You were willing to give up your life to defeat him. If this will give you the edge you need to survive? Yes, dammit, I will use every tool at my disposal to stack the deck in your favour."
Shen Wei swallows. "It's unethical," he protests weakly, but Zhao Yunlan can see his beautiful mind working, running through scenarios, considering the wide range of consequences. His eyes dart left to right, and he licks his lips, bowing his head.
Zhao Yunlan squeezes his hand. "Ye Zun is literally manipulating people into worshipping him. He cannot be allowed to continue on like that."
Closing his eyes, Shen Wei caves.
"He's going to hate me," he whispers, his bowed head settling on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. "Even more than he does already."
His loss, Zhao Yunlan thinks uncharitably, smoothing his hands over Shen Wei's back. Out loud, he says, "This way, we might be able to contain him. With time, maybe he'll be willing to listen."
Not that Zhao Yunlan holds out much hope for it, but he gets it. Family is complicated, and Shen Wei is reluctant to give up on his brother the same way Zhao Yunlan keeps hoping to win his father's approval one day. It's unlikely, and there's little he can do without compromising his own morals, changing who he is at an intrinsic level. That doesn't stop the part of him who still yearns for a happy past which in all truth never existed.
Zhao Yunlan clears his throat. "I'll have Lin Jing looking into creating an antidote for this serum. Just in case."
Shen Wei raises his head, adjusts his glasses. "In that case, I would like to help him." He hesitates, then leans in to brush their mouths together in a sharp, desperate kiss. When he pulls back, his eyes are gleaming with tears. "I'm glad. In spite of all the horrifying implications, I'm glad they made it. That this serum could heal you."
It's Zhao Yunlan's turn to close his eyes under that onslaught of emotions. Shen Wei's bright, unyielding devotion leaves him scraped raw. The certainty of the lengths he will go to in order to keep Zhao Yunlan safe. "I'm not worth it."
"Yes, you are." The denial is fierce, and then there are lips on his, teeth digging into his lower lip. Zhao Yunlan lets himself be drawn deeper into the kiss, soaks up all the emotions of love and frustration and reverence Shen Wei pours into him. It’s too much, and yet Zhao Yunlan can’t get enough, pulls him closer, hopes he can give back even a tenth of what Shen Wei offers him up on a silver platter.
A delicate cough pulls them apart, and they turn as one to stare at Wang Zheng, sticking her incorporeal head through the closed office door.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," she says, not sounding particularly sorry at all. "But Chu Shuzhi just called. They've found the wick."
So free fall into the night storm
Face your demons tonight
"It's in the palace, as you've predicted, Heipaoshi-daren," Chu Shuzhi reports. "But there's a problem."
"The Regent?" Shen Wei guesses, the robes of his office swaying in the breeze. They're gathered in the park, in front of the portal.
"Yes." Chu Shuzhi scowls. "He’s keeping it in the treasury. Changcheng managed to sneak in to confirm it’s the Guardian Lantern's wick with Lin Jing’s detector, but he got caught when he tried taking it out.”
“And let me guess, the Regent isn’t interested in handing it over to us,” Zhao Yunlan drawls. Lao-Chu nods stiffly.
“He can’t deny me access,” Shen Wei declares, turning his hooded head to meet Zhao Yunlan’s eyes. “Not when it concerns the Hallows.”
"There, uh, there's another problem," xiao-Guo pipes up, shuffling his feet nervously. He's half hiding behind lao-Chu, now peeking his head out to speak. "The, um, the people are angry."
"Angry, how?" Zhao Yunlan pushes his hands into his pockets, rocking on his heels. He narrows his eyes at the portal.
"Angry, as in an angry mob," xiao-Guo reports, wringing his hands. He shoots a nervous glance at Shen Wei and pales. "They're, they're, uh, demanding Heipaoshi step down from his post and s-surrender to the, the people's justice."
Shen Wei doesn't react to the words, but lao-Chu's scowl darkens. Zhao Yunlan stills mid-rock, balancing on the back of his heels for an eternal moment before standing straight.
"Ah. So that's Ye Zun's plan." Zhao Yunlan stretches, cracking his neck. “Alright. Let’s figure out how to deal with that.”
“Ye Zun won’t allow us to light the Lantern,” Shen Wei opines in the even tones of the Envoy. “He’s scared we’ll reinforce his prison cell, now that it’s finally weakening.”
Zhao Yunlan hums in agreement. “He’ll have fed the mob some line to stop you from entering the palace. The Regent is an opportunist, he’ll stay out of it, but if I recall correctly, his right hand man was much more inclined to join Ye Zun.”
Their eyes meet, and Zhao Yunlan sees Shen Wei reach the same conclusion he has. His mouth draws into a thin line, the skin around his eyes tight. Zhao Yunlan offers him a smile, settling a hand on Shen Wei’s shoulder and squeezing.
“You can’t enter the palace. It has to be me,” he says, gentling his tone as Shen Wei tenses under his hand.
“I could—” Shen Wei starts, but Zhao Yunlan shushes him, pressing a finger to his lips.
“You need to distract the crowd,” he counters, softly, oh so softly. Shen Wei’s gaze is dark with pain and fear. “The Regent, too, if you can. I’ll sneak in and ignite the Lantern.”
Shen Wei closes his eyes. Zhao Yunlan knows what he sees: memories of a time that only happened for them, Zhao Yunlan tied to a pillar, bloody and bleeding. Shen Wei throwing himself to intercept the blow meant for Zhao Yunlan, dying to save him only for it all to be in vain. Knowing without doubt that Zhao Yunlan was suffering, his soul burning inside the Lantern, and he could do nothing to prevent it. Zhao Yunlan brushes his knuckles under the line of that black mask, meeting Shen Wei’s eyes when he opens them.
“Trust me, baobei.” He drops his hand and smiles helplessly. “I’ll find the wick.”
A silent, implied promise: it won’t be Zhao Yunlan’s soul this time. The corners of Shen Wei's mouth turn down, but he nods in acquiescence and turns to lao-Chu.
“Go lead Chief Zhao to the treasury,” he orders. The keep him safe goes unsaid. Lao-Chu nods, and Zhao Yunlan’s breathing stops.
His heart thunders in his ribs, and he breathes through the vice tightening around his chest. It’s irrational — he knows Shen Wei doesn’t intend to die — and yet… this’ll be the first time they’re returning to Dixing together. To the palace, where Shen Wei sacrificed his life for Zhao Yunlan, for the world. His vision tunnels, and for a moment he can’t breathe, a bloodied and dying Shen Wei superimposed over the hale and masked one before him.
Fingers dig into his arm, bringing him out of the spiral. Zhao Yunlan sucks in air, clenching his hands into fists to hide their trembling.
“No,” he objects, and Shen Wei glares at him, his grip tightening. Zhao Yunlan shakes his head. “No, Shen Wei. You’re going to need him. In fact, let me call Hong-jie for back-up. Between her hypnotism and lao-Chu’s strings, you have a better chance at subduing the mob with minimal casualties.”
Shen Wei eyes him, his expression torn between sympathetic and troubled.
“I’m not letting you go into the palace on your own,” he says, quiet steel in his voice. Then, without looking away from Zhao Yunlan, he addresses lao-Chu and xiao-Guo, “Call Zhu Hong and Da Qing. Tell them to join us here immediately.”
Zhao Yunlan licks his dry lips. “Good thinking.”
Shen Wei huffs a laugh, his eyes wet and angry. His hand slides up Zhao Yunlan’s back, gripping him by the neck and pulling him in. Teeth bite into his lower lip, and then he’s pulled into a rough kiss. Zhao Yunlan closes his eyes and melts into Shen Wei, letting him ravage his mouth, the urgency of it strangely soothing for his rapid heartbeat.
“Don’t you dare die,” Shen Wei gasps into the kiss, his fingers digging into Zhao Yunlan’s nape.
“Same goes for you,” Zhao Yunlan rasps, his throat suddenly dry. He trails his fingers over Shen Wei’s chest, bumping into the lump under his cloak. He swallows. Remembers opening that precious pendant, to see the secret hidden inside, the promise Shen Wei kept close to his chest all these years. “We will meet again in this life.”
“Don’t make me wait,” Shen Wei breathes, and Zhao Yunlan seals the promise with another kiss.
Da Qing and Zhu Hong arrive shortly after, and they are forced to part. It’s only the work of a moment to get everyone on the same page. Zhu Hong is predictably unhappy with her assignment, and Shen Wei gives him an arched eyebrow that clearly means I told you so. Still, her and lao-Chu’s abilities are best utilized to deal with the mob, and from a strategic viewpoint Shen Wei reluctantly agrees with Zhao Yunlan. He demands Da Qing be the one to carry the Lantern, however, and to offer him some peace of mind Zhao Yunlan concedes easily to that request. Xiao-Guo will lead them to the treasury, at which point lao-Chu makes a noise of protest, although he doesn’t speak up.
As Shen Wei concentrates on opening the portal, Zhao Yunlan pulls Zhu Hong aside.
"Here, take this," he mutters, pressing a syringe into her palm. "It contains a dark energy neutralizer. If it looks like Hei-laoge is losing, inject Ye Zun with this."
"This is how you got your sight back," she guesses, fingers curling around the vial. Zhao Yunlan nods, and she mirrors him. "Fine. I'll make sure your boyfriend survives so don't go and do anything stupid."
He's saved from having to answer by the woosh of the portal opening.
The journey is just as disorienting as the last couple times he went through, although Zhao Yunlan is starting to get used to the onslaught of memories and distant voices calling to him. He thinks he can make out his mother calling his name, his father's disapproval, Shen Wei's You're worth it, and then he's spit out on the other side. He doesn't have much time to regain his wits as they are immediately besieged on the other side by a crowd of angry Dixingren.
"It's Heipaoshi!" someone yells.
"Arrest him!" another person demands. A chant of Down with the Envoy, down with Haixing, down with the oppressors picks up.
Shen Wei steps forward, fearless, and materializes his glaive. With a thud the butt of the weapon hits the ground, a wave of cold air silencing the crowd.
"I will hear your grievances," he intones gravely.
With Shen Wei having successfully captured the mob's attention, it's easy for Zhao Yunlan and his group to slip away unnoticed. He glances back over his shoulder, worried as the fervour of the crowd increases with each complaint presented. Shen Wei stands in front of the portal, masked face expressionless, his robes fluttering in the cold updraft. Chu Shuzhi and Zhu Hong flank him on either side, arms crossed.
Da Qing snags his sleeve and tugs him away, and Zhao Yunlan reluctantly tears his gaze away. The faster they get this done, the sooner he can rejoin Shen Wei.
The palace is almost deserted, the number of guards greatly reduced. It causes a prickle of unease in the back of Zhao Yunlan’s neck, a sense of foreboding filling him. There’s no reason for the guards to leave their posts, unless it is to join the mob outside. Zhao Yunlan rather doubts they’re there to keep the crowd under control, not if Ye Zun is plotting to overthrow his brother.
It does make it easier to sneak in, and Zhao Yunlan can’t help but wonder if that isn’t the point.
He ducks behind a pillar, dragging xiao-Guo with him. Da Qing, having noticed the patrol approaching as well, crouches into a nearby niche. They wait for several tense moments, xiao-Guo muffling his whimpers behind his palm. Zhao Yunlan takes a deep breath, counting until twenty once the guards have passed, before motioning everyone to move forward.
“Fatty, go scout ahead as a cat. Xiao-Guo, you carry the Lantern,” he orders quietly.
Da Qing shoots him a narrow-eyed look in warning, before shoving the Lantern into xiao-Guo’s arms and transforming. The black streak vanishes down the shadowy halls, lit sparsely by oil lamps every other pillar. The humans follow him more slowly, trying to keep their steps quiet. Zhao Yunlan has to catch xiao-Guo twice as he stumbles over his own feet, nearly dropping the Lantern.
The treasury is situated in the center of the palace, and several levels below. The stairs are narrow, every footstep echoing. Ideal to catch intruders. And yet, the singular patrol is the only one they have to avoid.
The suspicion solidifies when they find no guards on the treasury's gates either.
“Where is everyone?” Da Qing mutters, his tail twitching in agitation.
“Were there guards here when you snuck in last time, xiao-Guo?” Zhao Yunlan asks, squinting into the depth of the dark hallway.
“Y-yes. Chu-ge distracted them.” Xiao-Guo looks around nervously, craning his neck. “M-maybe they’re taking a, a break?”
Zhao Yunlan hums, unconvinced. He pushes the door open slowly, bracing himself for an ambush. Except… there is no one inside the treasury, either. Frowning, Zhao Yunlan motions Da Qing and xiao-Guo inside, taking another long look down the hallway before closing the door behind them.
“Alright. Let’s do this.” Zhao Yunlan takes the Lantern from xiao-Guo’s arms and sets it down on an empty pedestal. “Where’d you find the wick?”
“Over there,” xiao-Guo says and points.
The wick is an off-white, coiled length almost as thick as Zhao Yunlan’s finger. It’s lying on a small, embroidered, green cushion. To be certain it hasn’t been switched, xiao-Guo pulls out Lin Jing’s detector and double-checks. The dark energy radiating from the small item is off the charts, the gadget screeching in alarm. Da Qing yowls in protest, transforming back into a human and slapping his hands over his ears. Hastily, xiao-Guo shuts it off.
“So how do we do this, lao-Zhao?” Da Qing asks, shooting xiao-Guo a baleful look.
“No idea,” Zhao Yunlan replies cheerfully, plucking up the wick. It doesn’t feel special in his hands. He walks over to the Lantern, opening the case and fiddling with the wick until it sits securely in its bracket. Then he steps back and hums. Nothing happens.
“Um, Chief Zhao?” xiao-Guo pipes up, half-raising his hand as if he were in class. “M-maybe we should, um, set it on fire?”
“What, the whole Lantern?” Zhao Yunlan jokes, already searching his pockets. He hasn’t smoked in forever, but he’s notoriously bad at throwing stuff away, nevermind clearing out his pockets. His fingers hit metal, and he pulls out his trusty lighter. Shaking it, there seems to be some fluid still left in it. “Fingers crossed this’ll work.”
He flicks the lighter and holds the flame to the wick. A heartbeat passes, then two, three. Zhao Yunlan is just about to give up when the wick catches fire.
“Did, did it work?” xiao-Guo gasps excitedly.
Before Zhao Yunlan can reply, an explosion of energy knocks him off his feet and clear across the room. In the center the Lantern glows bright golden, emanating both dark and light energy. The light spreads over them in a tidal wave, the rays of light seeping through the cracks in the walls and leaving behind traces akin to electricity, jumping like miniature, golden lightning from brick to brick.
Zhao Yunlan lowers his arm and stares. Last time he hadn't gotten to see the Lantern in its active state. It looks… pretty unimpressive, all told.
“I think it did,” Da Qing states dryly, having turned into a cat and landed on all fours. Now he shakes his fur as if to get rid of the excess static crackling over their skin.
“Anyone else get the feeling this was way too easy?” Zhao Yunlan asks the room, brushing off his pants.
A chuckle answers him, coming from everywhere and nowhere. It fills the room, transforming into a cackle, growing louder and louder. Goosebumps break out on Zhao Yunlan’s arms, the room temperature dropping until he can see his own breath in a little cloud of fog.
“You fools,” a familiar voice declares, and the blue, transparent form of Ye Zun starts solidifying in front of the Lantern. “You have walked straight into my trap!”
"Gh-gh-ghost!" xiao-Guo shrieks, scrambling back and pointing.
Zhao Yunlan sighs. "Of course," he mutters under his breath, his mind racing. He needs to stall Ye Zun, give Shen Wei time to realize what happened, or figure out a different plan. Raising his voice, he addresses Ye Zun, "Let me guess, the mob is a distraction for Heipaoshi because you're scared your brother would beat you in a fight."
Ye Zun snarls, throwing a ball of dark energy at Zhao Yunlan in retaliation. He ducks just in time, the shelf behind him exploding into a hundred splinters, artefacts scattering across the floor.
"He might be stronger now, but once I'm free from this prison, it's over for you!" Ye Zun throws his arms wide, head falling back as he inhales the dark energy radiating from the Hallow. His body loses the bluish hue, turning more and more solid.
"Eh." Zhao Yunlan makes a so-so gesture with his hand. "Hei-laoge is pretty strong. Even if you're no longer stuck in one spot, I doubt he'll lose."
Ye Zun’s head snaps up and he glares down at Zhao Yunlan, his devouring interrupted.
"Fool! Why else keep me imprisoned in a pillar for thousands of years if not because he knows I'm the stronger one!?"
"Ah? I'm pretty sure he had little control over that," Zhao Yunlan points out. He shoots Da Qing a look and jerks his head towards the door. They need to get the Lantern away from Ye Zun, but someone also needs to inform Shen Wei. Da Qing's brow furrows and he shakes his head, shifting into a ready stance to pounce. Ye Zun notices his distraction and turns to look, so Zhao Yunlan quickly lobs his next verbal gambit at him. "You forget, I was there, too."
Ye Zun sneers, glaring at Zhao Yunlan. Success.
"Ah, how could I forget your little ruse, General Kunlun," he spits. He cocks his head, smirks. "Tell me. Was my brother worth it?" His eyes flash. "Did he beg for it?"
The grin dies on Zhao Yunlan’s face. Without his conscious thought, he pulls his gun on Ye Zun, stepping forward and shooting once, twice. Ye Zun teleports away each time, and Zhao Yunlan plants himself between the Lantern and him.
“Don’t you talk about Shen Wei like that,” he snaps, his aim steady despite the fury boiling in his blood. Ye Zun stands in front of the door, blocking the exit, but Zhao Yunlan can’t bring himself to care. “You have no right!”
“I have every right!” Ye Zun screams, his face distorting with pure hatred. “Am I not his brother? Is he not supposed to take care of me?” Wind howls through the treasury, and Zhao Yunlan raises his arm against the onslaught. “Instead he’s so busy bowing and scraping to you inferior humans, it makes me sick!”
With a twist of his hand, shadowy chains of dark energy erupt from the floor, wrapping around Zhao Yunlan and forcing him down to his knees. Zhao Yunlan grunts, struggling to keep his gaze locked on Ye Zun, who laughs mockingly.
“That’s right, kneel,” he hisses, voice going faux-gentle. “That’s where you Haixingren belong.” Ye Zun steps up to Zhao Yunlan, ignoring the Lantern glowing behind him in favour of forcing his chin up, fingers digging into Zhao Yunlan’s jaw. “We would have won the war if it wasn’t for my dear, older brother.”
“I don’t know,” Zhao Yunlan grits out, catching movement from the corner of his eyes. He makes sure not to react, not to look. Whatever his team is up to, it’s better if Ye Zun doesn’t notice. “But I wouldn’t count us humans out quite yet. We’re rather inventive when backed into a corner, you know.”
“Inventive,” Ye Zun echoes derisively. “In your cruelty, perhaps. Do you know how easy it was, to turn these fools against Haixing? Locked down here in eternal darkness, killed for daring to search for light in this world. You made it easy for me, Chief Zhao.”
“Then I’ll make this easy for you, too.” Zhao Yunlan bares his teeth. “You’ve already lost, Ye Zun. Checkmate.”
Ye Zun frowns, pulling back slightly. Then he chuckles. “I see you’re desper—”
He cuts off, eyes bulging in shock. His hand drops from Zhao Yunlan’s face, rising to his neck.
“Should’ve just listened to our chief,” Zhu Hong drawls, pressing the plunger down in one smooth move. “He’s usually right, you know? Just don’t tell him I said that.”
The chains dissipate, and Zhao Yunlan scrambles away as Ye Zun lashes out, face a pained grimace. Then Da Qing is there, pouncing on Ye Zun’s back, bearing him to the ground. Zhu Hong grabs his arms, twisting his wrists behind his back, eyes flashing red. Xiao-Guo, not to be left out, bellyflops on top of Ye Zun’s legs.
“Don’t worry, the pain will pass,” Zhao Yunlan drawls, crouching down next to Ye Zun’s head. “Presumably. Haven’t had a chance to test this on a Dixingren yet.”
“What. Did. You. Do!” Ye Zun growls, struggling.
“Oh, you know. Restored the Hallows to Dixing.” —Zhao Yunlan holds up one finger, then a second— “Taken away your powers. Saved the world.” He stands up, brushing off his pants. “You’re welcome.”
I can feel the thunder
Outside, the crowd is calming down. Maybe it’s the lack of Ye Zun’s continued influence (possible), Shen Wei’s talent at holding motivational speeches (doubtful), or the arrival of Dixingren they’ve helped over the last year making their voices heard, which is a rather touching display.
Or maybe they're just busy gaping at the suddenly lit sky. Who can tell, truly?
“Gift for Heipaoshi,” Zhao Yunlan calls out cheerfully, the crowd falling silent and parting like the red sea as he pushes their handcuffed leader ahead of him. Da Qing follows in his steps, carrying the lit Lantern, xiao-Guo and Zhu Hong presenting the other three Hallows. They all bow their heads before the Black-Cloaked Envoy, Zhao Yunlan kicking Ye Zun’s legs out from under him to make him comply.
Shen Wei tilts his head in acknowledgement. “Who have you brought before me?”
“He calls himself Ye Zun, former leader of the rebellion of old, current leader of the discontented Dixingren,” Zhao Yunlan announces. “He tried to devour the power of Dixing’s most sacred Holy Tools.”
Murmurs run through the crowd. They fall silent as Shen Wei raises a hand.
“And what do you have to say in your defence, Ye Zun?”
Ye Zun sneers, tossing his hair over his shoulder. “How like you, Ge, to take the word of our enemies over those of your own people.”
The mutters intensify, turning displeased and suspicious.
“The Lord Guardian has spent the last year looking for the four Hallows,” Shen Wei returns, making no attempt to mask his anger. “And yet the moment he returns them to Dixing, you ambush him and try to take them for yourself! His actions speak for his intentions — and so do yours.”
“How do we know the Lord Guardian intended to give the Hallows back?” a voice shouts from the crowd. Agreement is murmured around them.
Shen Wei is frowning, glaring at the person who spoke. The mask is hiding his expression, but Zhao Yunlan knows by the tense line of his jaw, the downturn of his mouth. He turns around and spreads his arms, eyebrows arched.
“You want proof? Fine!” Zhao Yunlan takes a step back to stand beside Shen Wei, creating a united front. "As Lord Guardian I am Haixing's representative down here. And I hereby return the lost artefacts, known as the Four Hallows, to Dixing, where they belong according to the treaty between our people."
His team steps forward, setting the Hallows down at Heipaoshi's feet.
"I have reignited the Guardian Lantern as part of my duty to Dixing, and look!" He waves his hand towards the sky. "You have all seen its effects."
Shen Wei's hand lands on his shoulder, but when he speaks, it's not directed at him.
"The Lord Guardian has fulfilled his duty to uphold the treaty. For returning the sacred Hallows, he has our gratitude. Doesn't he, Lord Regent?"
The Regent startles, covering his pause with a cough as the crowd turns on him.
"Ah, yes, yes, of course." He bows soliciticiously, deeper than appropriate, his tone ingratiating. "We are most thankful to the Lord Guardian. And for apprehending the criminal, Ye Zun, as well." The Regent turns to hiss at the guards next to him, "What are you waiting for? Arrest Ye Zun at once!"
"But—" his right hand man starts to protest, before quailing under the Regent's glare. The crowd starts to break into smaller groups, muttering among themselves and slowly dispersing. Shen Wei squeezes Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder, then lets go.
"Secure the artefacts and make sure they are well-guarded," he commands, and the guards rush to obey.
His gaze lingers on the snarling Ye Zun as he’s dragged away. Only when Zhao Yunlan bumps their shoulders together does he manage to tear his eyes away, meeting Zhao Yunlan’s instead.
“I have to deal with this,” Shen Wei offers apologetically, and Zhao gives him a reassuring smile.
“Hei-laoge, ah, always so busy,” he teases, sticking his thumbs into his jeans pockets before he gives in to the urge of touching Shen Wei. It wouldn’t do to ruin his reputation as the untouchable Black-Cloaked Envoy. Shen Wei ducks his head, and Zhao Yunlan chuckles. “It’s alright. I understand.”
“We don’t know how long the neutralization holds,” he starts, avoiding Zhao Yunlan’s gaze. “And the effects of Ye Zun’s manipulations might take time to fade. To ensure the safety of the Hallows—”
“Hey,” Zhao Yunlan interrupts, rocking back on his heels, lest he’s tempted to stop the deluge of words with a kiss. “Really, it’s fine. I get it, Hei-laoge.” He leans in, unable to help himself, and winks. Keeping his voice low, he adds, “I’ll be waiting for you at home. Possibly naked.”
It’s worth it for the blush creeping up Shen Wei’s neck, staining the tips of his ears. He abruptly turns his head away, and Zhao Yunlan laughs, taking a step back. He yells for his team to get ready for their return trip, buoyant with the knowledge that they did it. Despite all odds, Ye Zun is dealt with and Dixing is stable and they’re both still alive.
“Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei says, his voice breaking through the din. Zhao Yunlan turns to him like a compass needle points to the North, unable — and unwilling — to resist. “I will hold you to that promise.”
“Eh?” Zhao Yunlan blinks at him, confused, and then realization hits him. Shen Wei smirks and winks, the expression gone within the blink of an eye. He turns away, leaving Zhao Yunlan a blushing, sputtering mess.
And… well. Rather looking forward to it.
Laughing in disbelief, Zhao Yunlan slings an arm around a loudly complaining Da Qing’s shoulders. “Let’s go, team. Day’s saved.”
And the whole future is ahead of them, problems and promises and all.