Among Shen Wei's multitude of powers, there were none that provided adequate protection against the hazards of Haixing's growing season. Really, he was lucky; some Dixingren were all but incapacitated by hacking and wheezing through most of the springtime. Shen Wei, having grown up with more exposure to plants than most of his people now, only suffered from mildly itchy eyes and sniffles during days with the highest pollen counts.
It was unfortunate when such a day coincided with his class schedule, as sneezes disrupted the flow of his lectures. He apologized to his students, of course, and they always assured him it was fine, would point out that they were all suffering hay fever too and offer him tissues and nasal sprays and eyedrops.
Still, he observed multiple students surreptitiously taking out their phones on his more afflicted days. While some diligent pupils routinely recorded all his lectures for later review, apparently when he was frequently sneezing, more of them found video recordings regrettably necessary to keep up with their studies.
So on a particularly pollinated day, when one of his students came in early before his afternoon epigenetics lecture to present him with a thermos, Shen Wei didn't refuse. "It tastes awful," Xu Linqin said, "but it clears your nose right up! I've been drinking it all month, or else I'd be sneezing through all my classes. My friends asked me for some, and I thought I'd share, since you've...umm...your eyes are pretty—I mean, pretty red today?" and her own eyes fell, color rising in her cheeks.
Xu Linqin was one of his more dedicated students, and Shen Wei was touched that she would be looking out for her classmates by trying to improve his lectures. And while few traditional herbal remedies were as effective with Dixing physiology, even mild alleviation could be helpful today. "Thank you," he said, accepting the thermos.
Xu Linqin beamed at him. "The tea's my own version of an old family recipe.—And don't worry, Professor Shen, it doesn't have any alcohol or anything. If it works for you I can always, umm, make you more? If you want? As much as..."
"I'll let you know," he promised her, and she bobbed her head eagerly and went to her seat, her steps bouncing a little.
The tisane proved bitter, if not as foul as Xu Linqin's wrinkled nose had implied. Shen Wei took a few sips before beginning the lecture, and finished the cup partway through, when he paused to let the students pair off to discuss their previous assignments in the mock peer reviews he'd found were an effective way to encourage participation.
Perhaps it did help with the sneezing. It didn't stop the itching of his eyes, though; he was used to ignoring that symptom, but by partway through the second half of his lecture, they were watering enough to blur his writing on the blackboard. Shen Wei tried to rub them clear behind his glasses, but the fuzziness persisted.
"Uh, Professor Shen?" In the front row, He Rong had his hand up. "Is that it for today's lecture?"
Shen Wei realized he had stopped speaking, though it was some ten minutes before the class's end, and the students were all still listening attentively. He blinked at the still-blurred blackboard, squinted enough to make out the last words he'd written. Right, yes. "—The repressor proteins, as you know, inhibit the attachment of RNA polymerase—"
This wasn't the first time he had taught this course, and while his lectures were obviously shaped by each class and the students' individual levels of understanding, the basics remained the same. So it was disconcerting to reach the end of a sentence and realize he had no idea what his next point should be. Of course he had notes—though they were as fuzzy as the writing on the blackboard, and significantly smaller. Pushing up his glasses helped a bit; the lenses must be fogged. Though the little handwritten lines were still hard to track, seeming to wiggle around the page and intersect, for all he knew they were parallel.
There was a sneeze—not his—but it sounded remarkably loud, through what Shen Wei realized was a sudden silence, not unlike the hush on a battlefield after a general has fallen. He jerked up his head to see a swarm of eyes aimed toward him—his students, left waiting again, staring with their pens posed over their notebooks.
Shen Wei cleared his throat, straightened up. "Excuse me," he said. "I seem to..." 'Be going blind' sounded a touch dramatic, and 'have had the characters in my notes replaced with marching ants' was implausible. Unless it was a Dixing power he hadn't encountered before? Not impossible; he knew of a few writing-based abilities.
The tick of the classroom's clock, noisy in the persisting silence, caught his attention. If he were reading the blurred hands correctly, it was only five minutes until the class's end. With a relieved sigh, Shen Wei said, "I'll follow up on this point," whatever point it was, "next class."
The students were all still looking at him earnestly. "Have I given you your assignments for next week?" Shen Wei asked.
The students turned to look at each other; then Xu Linqin said, "Yes, Professor Shen? At the beginning of class as usual."
"Good," Shen Wei said. "Then you're dismissed."
While his students started to chat and gather up their bags and computers, Shen Wei grabbed his own folder and Xu Linqin's thermos and headed out of the classroom. He pretended not to hear the couple of "Professor Shen?"s that trailed after him; student questions could wait until after he ascertained what threat might be present.
The transition from the sunny classroom to the artificially lit hall was oddly jarring; his eyes took longer to adjust, as if stepping across the door's threshold had taken him from Haixing to Dixing. Fortunately he knew the biology building well; he didn't need to see clearly to navigate to the concealed corner under the stairwell.
There he shut his eyes, opened his hand at his side. If there were a Dixingren around using some unlikely text-to-insect power...
But when he tried to extend his awareness, he couldn't coordinate it. He could feel the dark energy swirling in his core as always, but like his eyes it wouldn't focus. When he tried to force his senses broader to compensate, he was bombarded by a wave of incoherent perceptions from across the building—the squeal of a student's sneakers on the tile floor, the sharp scent of peppermint gum, the warm draft of pollen-laden air through an open window. He was only knocked out of the flood by the too-loud ringing of the bell announcing the break between classes.
Shen Wei slumped back against the wall, shook his head as he fought to regain his equilibrium against that dizzying array of minutiae. Nothing obviously of Dixing stood out in the chaos. But—something was wrong. Blurred vision was one thing, but for his powers to be so erratic—this might be an attack after all. Or something else.
Once, he would have had to deal with it himself—go back to Dixing, perhaps, see if his full powers would be enough to counteract whatever this was. He would have had no choice.
But things were different now, and the certainty of that was as lightly, solidly warm as the press of jade against his chest, under his shirt. Shen Wei waited for the second bell to mark the beginning of next period, then pushed off the wall—stumbled once, lightheaded yet from his failed dark energy detection, but found his footing and headed for the department offices.
He was grateful that the halls were clearer with classes on. It still took longer than usual to reach his office, and when he finally made it his head hadn't stopped spinning; he dropped into the chair behind his desk with no little relief. He reached for his phone, squinted at the keypad—even when he set aside his glasses, the numbers weren't just blurred now but doubling, wavering in and out of overlapping grids.
He shut his eyes on them, dialed blind. The ringing on the other end sounded strangely distant, until he realized he hadn't put the receiver to his ear. He brought it up just in time to hear the ring break off, and then a welcome voice filled his ears, saying, "Shen Wei?"
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei said, relaxing under the weightless, infinite heft of those precious syllables.
"Done with class? Are you heading over now or do you have office hours?"
"I..." Shen Wei considered. It was Tuesday, he believed, but was it this semester or last semester that that had been the day for his afternoon office hours? He frowned at his office door—he'd locked it on the way in, but if students were coming he should unlock it. Though it was inconveniently far from his desk.
"Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan asked over the phone.
"Zhao Yunlan?" Shen Wei said back.
"You call for anything in particular?" Zhao Yunlan said, in that particular tone that meant he was leaning back in his chair with a specific grin Shen Wei knew very well, informal and satisfied. "Or just to hear my dulcet voice?"
"I do like hearing your voice," Shen Wei said. "Even over the phone, it's so gentle, and yet so lively."
There was a pause, and Shen Wei frowned at his phone. Technology was so cursedly unreliable. "Zhao Yunlan, are you still there?"
The connection hadn't been broken after all, but Zhao Yunlan's voice when he replied, though gentle still, was less lively than confused. "...Shen Wei, is anything wrong? You're sounding kind of...uh..."
Shen Wei sat up suddenly at that reminder—he'd been leaning back in his chair as if just listening to Zhao Yunlan's voice had shaped the positioning of his own body. "Wrong—yes, there's something wrong. Here at the university."
And Zhao Yunlan was sitting up now, too, his lazy smile gone, replaced by the serious and intent investigator—Shen Wei could picture it as if his phone had a screen like most of his students'. "What, what is it? What's up?"
"I don't know," Shen Wei said. "First it was the blackboard and then my notebook, but then it was my dark energy, and I might have office hours today but I'm not sure."
"...Your dark energy? What about it—"
"I can't see properly with it. Zhao Yunlan, do you think I should get a phone? A cellular phone, I mean, as my office and my apartment both have the standard variety. You keep a schedule on your phone, don't you? I could check it for my office hours, if I had one."
There was another pause as Zhao Yunlan considered the question. Then he said, speaking oddly slow and distinctly, "Shen Wei, I want you to stay where you are—you're in your office, right? Stay right there, I'm coming over to the university."
"But aren't you on shift until this evening?" Shen Wei said.
Zhao Yunlan muttered something he didn't quite catch, about remembering office hours versus SID shifts, then said, louder and with that same carefully clear enunciation, "Just stay put. I'm on my way."
"My office door is locked," Shen Wei said.
"Good—keep it that way."
"But if any students come by in need of assistance—"
Zhao Yunlan breathed out, loud enough to be heard over the phone receiver. "Okay, I'll call the department head and find out about your office hours, and cancel them for you if you do have any."
"Thank you," Shen Wei said.
"No problem," Zhao Yunlan said. "Don't go anywhere, got it?"
He sounded like his expression was even more serious—not just the investigator; the protector, the Guardian of Haixing. It was one of his most noble aspects. "If I had a phone with a screen," Shen Wei sighed, "I could see your face now."
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan agreed, "you could. Hang on, I'll be right there."
Zhao Yunlan wasn't lying, either—not that Shen Wei ever thought he would be, of course. But it was mildly startling, when, after Shen Wei had taken the concerted effort to replace the receiver the right way on the phone's hook, then leaned back in his chair and taken a few breaths to steady himself and slow the turning of the room around him—even when he planted both feet on the floor to stop his chair from spinning any, the room itself kept lazily rotating; he closed his eyes to see if that would make it any better, but it didn't, so he opened them again—and Zhao Yunlan was standing in front of his desk, staring down at him.
"Zhao Yunlan?" Shen Wei said, his elbows slipping off the arms of his chair. He hastily grabbed for them again before he could fall out of the chair's frustratingly unstable seat; it wouldn't be very dignified.
"Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan said back, echoing his startled tone.
"Did you teleport here?" Shen Wei asked him. "How?"
"No, I drove," Zhao Yunlan said. "How about you—what's up?"
His voice was calm, but his face wasn't; his jaw was set and his brow was lowered. "What's wrong?" Shen Wei asked him, concerned; it took a considerable degree of misfortune to so trouble Zhao Yunlan, and Shen Wei hadn't even realized the SID had a case today.
"That's what I'm trying to figure out," Zhao Yunlan said. His voice was still very calm. "What's wrong with you, Shen Wei?"
Shen Wei blinked. "I don't know," he said honestly.
Zhao Yunlan came around his desk—he was moving cautiously, as if perhaps he too found the tilting, rotating room hard to navigate, though when Shen Wei asked him about it, Zhao Yunlan just shook his head. He reached out, carefully touched Shen Wei's face. "Did someone attack you?"
Shen Wei shook his head, which pressed his cheek against Zhao Yunlan's warm hand; he tipped his head further into that cradling palm. "No," he said. "At least, I don't think so. No one challenged me, anyway. And it's not an attack I've heard of before, to turn all one's writing into wriggling worms and ants."
"Uh-huh," Zhao Yunlan said. "Are you sick—how do you feel? You don't have a fever, anyway..."
"No," Shen Wei said, "just hay fever. The pollen count was high today." Though, it occurred to him, he hadn't been sneezing, that he recalled. Not since he'd finished Xu Linqin's tisane.
"—Wait, who's what?" Zhao Yunlan demanded.
Shen Wei opened his eyes. Zhao Yunlan was bending close, looking Shen Wei direct in the eyes. This near, even with his blurry vision Shen Wei could see his lashes, the perfect bow curve of his lips, though they were folded now in an unhappy if still attractive frown. It helped that Zhao Yunlan was more stable than the rest of the room; with his steadying hand against his cheek, Shen Wei almost could ignore the spinning.
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said, his slow, precise diction sounding like he got when he was especially frustrated with Xiao Guo, "what tisane?"
"The tea," Shen Wei said, "in the thermos," and he waved at the desk.
Zhao Yunlan let go of him to grab the thermos, unscrew it, and sniff the residue of its contents. Shen Wei sighed, leaning back in the chair again and keeping his eyes open; as soon as Zhao Yunlan let go, the room started circling again, and its orbit got distinctly faster and more skewed if he shut his eyes.
Then Zhao Yunlan was in front of him again, holding up the thermos before his face. "Shen Wei, where did you get this? Who gave it to you?"
"Xu Linqin," Shen Wei said. "A third-year—she's going into medicine, not bio-engineering, which I shouldn't regret as she'll make an admirable doctor, but all the same it will be a loss to the research field."
"Going to be a doctor, huh," Zhao Yunlan said, his eyes narrowing to dark, intensely glittering stars. "So she'd know about drugs."
"Presumably," Shen Wei agreed.
Zhao Yunlan stared down at Shen Wei, gnawing on his thumbnail in a manner that was, honestly, extremely distracting, even given possible dark energy attacks and atypically rotating rooms. At last Zhao Yunlan said, "Shen Wei, I want you to stay here for a little longer—can you do that for me? Just wait here in your office and don't go anywhere until I come back."
"All right," Shen Wei said. "If you want me to."
Zhao Yunlan's face changed in some way that was both too slight and too extreme to easily interpret; then he smiled at Shen Wei, bright enough that Shen Wei had no choice but to hopelessly smile back. Zhao Yunlan leaned over, kissed his temple—the rasping brush of his beard against Shen Wei's skin was distinct, even moreso than usual, as if Zhao Yunlan somehow were more manifestly present than ever.
"Just hang on," Zhao Yunlan told him, and Shen Wei nodded, took firm hold of the arms of his chair. Zhao Yunlan's mouth twitched at that; he patted Shen Wei's shoulder, then grabbed the thermos and took off, striding across the tilting office floor as confidently as a sailor on deck in high seas, and locking the door on the way out.
With a little experimentation, Shen Wei found that if he kept his head very still and pushed back against the chair's headrest, and pressed his hands flat on the desktop, the room's rocking settled to a mostly reasonable angle.
He still felt exceedingly strange, though. Even aside from his distorted vision, it was difficult to order his thoughts; one jumped to the next, but if he tried to think back he couldn't retrace the chain. Usually he had no trouble remembering anything; he knew his students often relied on mnemonic devices to recall longer iterations of facts, but he'd never needed such measures. Perhaps he should have practiced them, in case of these circumstances, whatever they were.
The vertigo was a bit like what he could recall of his rare encounters with alcohol. Though that dizziness usually just dropped him down into blackness, while he didn't exactly feel tired now; there was a restless stimulation flowing through his limbs, unsettled and unfocused as his dark energy. Besides, he hadn't had any drink; he remembered clearly Xu Linqin saying that there was no alcohol in her tisane. Had he told Zhao Yunlan that? Perhaps he should have.
Had Zhao Yunlan noticed something was wrong with Shen Wei? He probably had; he was so intelligent, so very perceptive. Dangerously so, and Shen Wei knew it, should have known better than to get close to him, to allow him close; but he couldn't help himself. Couldn't help but to rely on him, to trust him.
When he'd last drunk alcohol, Zhao Yunlan had been there, a jacket spread over him, the phantom memory of a warm hand on his arm through the blackness. And now—Zhao Yunlan had been here, hadn't he? His voice had been on the phone, and then he'd been here, in Shen Wei's office, saying...something; Shen Wei couldn't quite remember what.
Though Zhao Yunlan wasn't here now—Shen Wei checked, turning his head gingerly, to keep the room from spinning away from him. Perhaps Zhao Yunlan had a case? At the university—maybe that was why he'd stopped by Shen Wei's office. Yes, that must be it. He could remember Zhao Yunlan's face, his searching, intent eyes. Asking him questions that Shen Wei couldn't answer, couldn't risk answering.
What case? That much, Shen Wei really should be able to recall, whatever his other lapses. Not Li Qian. Zhang Ruonan and Wang Yike? Or Zheng Zhongyuan, and his adopted daughter—but Zheng Yi, however innocent a victim, was also dangerous. And Zhao Yunlan—wherever he had gone now, he believed he had backup, believed he could rely on the Black-Cloaked Envoy; but meanwhile Shen Wei was sitting here with his dark energy unstrung, unheeding.
Shen Wei set his hands against the desktop, pushed himself to his feet. His first step was unsteady but it became easier if he ignored the lightheadedness, let his body drift on semi-disconnected limbs. He reached out and grabbed for his glaive—it took a little fumbling, but then it was in his hand, a third leg for support.
As he reached for the doorknob he noticed his sleeve, the blue suit jacket. Not what he needed, not if he was to help Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei made the internal gesture to summon his robes, but not even a wisp of dark energy gathered. He tried again with a wave of his arm to echo and emphasize the thought, but only succeeded in upsetting his precarious balance even with the glaive, so that he ended up sitting on the floor, staring at his stubbornly blue sleeves in dismay.
When a hand that wasn't his fell on one of those inopportune sleeves, Shen Wei looked up, into Zhao Yunlan's face. His dark eyes were soft on Shen Wei as he squatted next to him. "Hey," Zhao Yunlan said, his mobile mouth quirking. "What're you doing down here?"
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei said, deeply relieved.
Zhao Yunlan broke into a grin. "'Least you're still on top of the important stuff." Taking Shen Wei's wrist, he pressed his fingers over his pulse and nodded to himself. "Okay, how are you with standing?" He slid his hand under Shen Wei's elbow, pulled him up to his feet and kept holding on when Shen Wei wobbled, gripping his arm in reassuring stabilization.
"Great, you're doing great," Zhao Yunlan said. "So, as far as I can tell this was an accident, Xu Linqin had no idea. That tea she gave you was spiked with an antihistamine, but it's second generation—doesn't even cause drowsiness, usually. You're allergic or hypersensitive or something, lucky you. She gave me the full recipe and I've got Lin Jing double-checking for any possible interactions, but for now the best bet is this is a bad drug reaction that you just have to sleep off. I'll be keeping an eye on you, make sure you don't show more symptoms of an OD, and...you're not tracking any of this, are you."
Zhao Yunlan waved a hand before his eyes. Shen Wei blinked at it owlishly, said, "Second-generation antihistamine compounds are dipolar ions given the appropriate pH, so don't cross the blood-brain barrier. In Haixingren."
"Right," Zhao Yunlan said, chuckling. "That. Okay, Professor Shen, let's get you home."
Shen Wei at first nodded, then looked around his office. "But my—"
"No office hours, as fascinating as those would be right now," Zhao Yunlan told him. "Now, come on—want to get you out of here while classes are still on and we're not going to run into anybody. I already get the evil eye from enough of the students here for my corrupting influences, I don't want to know what'd happen if they thought that I got their favorite professor stoned out of his gourd."
While there wasn't usually a break in the floor of his office doorway, now Shen Wei tripped on something on the threshold. He couldn't see what it was, even looking down at his feet to check. But Zhao Yunlan's firm grasp on his arm kept him upright, and Zhao Yunlan put his other arm around his back to steady him. Shen Wei allowed himself to cling for a moment, leaning into that warmth. "Who?" he took the opportunity to ask.
"Who's their favorite professor?" Shen Wei asked, clutching this line of thought as carefully as he was Zhao Yunlan's arm. "And why would the students think you responsible for him—is the Dixingren you're pursuing a professor here?"
"Is the what..." Zhao Yunlan shook his head with a snort, folded his arm a little snugger around Shen Wei's shoulders as he started walking them down the hall. It probably would've been easier to move if they weren't so close, but Shen Wei wasn't inclined to pull away. "Forget it," Zhao Yunlan said. "I just don't want to start anything. As it is I, ahhh, kind of owe that girl Xu Linqin an apology letter."
Shen Wei frowned. "Zhao Yunlan. What for?"
"Hah," Zhao Yunlan said. "Should've known I wouldn't get out of that one. It's okay, I was just...a little stressed. And then when she heard you might be ill she really freaked out. Once she sees you're okay she'll feel better too, and I'll buy her some chocolates or something. And you can go easy on her next exam?"
"There's no need," Shen Wei said, "she's an excellent student."
"You know, you say that about most of your students."
"Most of them are," Shen Wei agreed, and Zhao Yunlan laughed.
They reached the west exit of the biology building, stepped out into the afternoon sunlight, not much above the buildings but still bright. Shen Wei shut his eyes against that radiance, tipped his face into it. The breeze outside was cooler and it cleared his head a little. Zhao Yunlan let him bask for a moment, then pulled him over to his car. He helped Shen Wei into the Jeep, fussing as he stepped up on the running board and then leaning over him to reach for the seatbelt, as if Shen Wei had never driven in a motor vehicle before.
When Shen Wei informed him he was capable of fastening his own seatbelt, Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes, lifted his hands but then stood in the car door, leaning with his elbows propped over his head on the Jeep's roof and the hem of his t-shirt pulled up over his stomach, and watched. Which was distracting, to have his warmth and waist so close, plus Shen Wei's fingers were tingling but also a little numb, such that it took him four tries and arduous concentration to get the buckle aligned properly to click. When finally he managed it, Zhao Yunlan patted him on the shoulder with a soft chuckle, and Shen Wei blinked up at him.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan asked, his hand still on Shen Wei's shoulder.
"You're laughing a lot."
"Ah," Zhao Yunlan said, and made a strange effort to straighten out his expression. "Uh, sorry, this is just..."
What? "No," Shen Wei said, shaking his head quickly enough to regret it. He put one hand flat to the Jeep's dashboard, put the other against Zhao Yunlan's chest, as if he could borrow his enviable steadiness. "No, I like it—I like seeing you happy."
Zhao Yunlan's whole face screwed up, and then relaxed into an open-mouthed laugh. "Ah, Xiao Wei—what am I going to do with you." He dipped forward, dropped a quick kiss on Shen Wei's lips that was so soft he was hardly sure he felt it at all. Then Zhao Yunlan closed the Jeep's door, swung around to the driver's side and clambered in.
Shen Wei had never much cared for driving, preferring more expeditious travel. Driving with Zhao Yunlan had always been a significant improvement of the experience, though. Usually they would converse, but with the motion of the car Shen Wei found himself too dizzy to think of what to say. It was easier to just let the acceleration press him back against the seat, let Zhao Yunlan's sporadic comments flow over him without attempting to discern their meaning.
He turned his head enough to watch Zhao Yunlan, the shadows and sunlight flashing between the city's buildings outlining his profile in a flickering strobe of gold and gray. Shen Wei studied the angle of his nose, the hair tangled around his brow and the distinctive curve of his jaw. The uncertain light made the stubble of beard on his chin come and go, present and then missing, so Shen Wei finally had to reach out and verify it was still really there, pleasant friction against his tingling fingertips.
Zhao Yunlan's voice paused but he didn't look over at Shen Wei, keeping his eyes on the road. Though when Shen Wei would've pulled back, he lifted his nearer hand from the wheel, caught Shen Wei's hand and intertwined their fingers.
Shen Wei didn't notice when the car came to a halt, not until he heard the door beside him open and Zhao Yunlan said his name. But when he lifted his head from the seatback, the floating giddiness of motion congealed, abruptly and painfully, into a hard knot of sickness. Taken off-guard, Shen Wei clutched the dashboard, hunched over to press his forehead to his fists, feeling cold sweat against the back of his hands.
Zhao Yunlan's hand fell on Shen Wei's back, rubbing long soothing strokes. "Hey, hey, sorry, baby...too fast for you, huh? It's okay, we're here." He kept talking, an easy stream of solace, as he helped Shen Wei down out of the Jeep and into the apartment building.
It was only twilight, not yet night, but there was something familiar to it all the same, as Zhao Yunlan pulled Shen Wei's arm over his shoulders and walked him up the stairs. Shen Wei heard Zhao Yunlan's thoughtful huff of breath, lifted his head enough to look at him, and Zhao Yunlan shook his head, gave him a squeeze with the arm around his waist. "Just thinking how I'm returning the favor...remember when you hauled me back home and put me to bed? Think this is the same suit you were wearing then, even...it always has been one of my favorites."
Shen Wei did remember, his erratic memory flashing up a vivid recollection of Zhao Yunlan's head falling heavy on his shoulder in the taxi—the weight of Zhao Yunlan's trust. It sat as heavy in his gut as the nausea now.
When had that been? A week ago, or two, or longer? With Zhao Yunlan so close to him now, the smell of soap and detergent and sweat, the warmth of his body—the memory of that other closeness was so clear it could have been yesterday, but Shen Wei didn't think that was right.
He tried to focus, to orient himself in memory, but it was difficult, between the churning of his stomach and the pressure of Zhao Yunlan's arm around his waist, the smoothness of Zhao Yunlan's leather jacket under his hand. "What's the case?" he finally thought to ask.
"The case?" Zhao Yunlan repeated, his hip bumping against Shen Wei's as he got his key out of his pocket, unlocked the apartment door.
"What case are we working on now?"
Zhao Yunlan snorted. "Shen Wei, hate to break it to you, but you're not in any shape to be working a case."
"But you were in my office. At the university." That had been today; he was nearly sure. "Your investigation..." Zhao Yunlan had come to ask for his help, but instead...
"I was at your office because you called me," Zhao Yunlan said. "Remember? There's no case. All you need to worry about right now is taking it easy, sleeping this off."
All he needed to worry about... The knot in Shen Wei's gut was twisting tighter, more painful. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"For what?" Zhao Yunlan said blithely. "Not like you were trying to get blitzed on allergy meds. I'd tell you to be more careful about drinking whatever some cute girl pours for you, but really that's the kind of lesson every guy should learn once for themselves. Here we are, sit," and he sat Shen Wei down on the side of the bed, pulled Shen Wei's suit jacket off his shoulders and then bent over to unfasten the buttons of his vest.
Shen Wei stared down at the top of his head, the tangle of dark hair. It was thick when he wove his fingers through it, the ends a little stiff from styling gel but the roots softer. Zhao Yunlan tilted his face up, grinned at him, and Shen Wei's stomach roiled. His skin prickled with a hot wave of shame and nausea. This—he shouldn't have this.
Zhao Yunlan's smile fell away as he looked into Shen Wei's face. "Still feeling sick?" Before Shen Wei could answer, quick fingers were undoing the top buttons of his collar. A firm hand clasped his shoulder, then released, Zhao Yunlan striding away.
Shen Wei studied his hands, hanging between his knees, turned them over and back again. They didn't feel like his own appendages, hard to recognize, when he couldn't wrap the dark energy around them with a twist of his fingers.
"Here." Zhao Yunlan was back before him, smiling reassuringly and holding out a glass of water. "It'll help settle your stomach. Besides, you don't want the hangover tomorrow, trust me."
Trust me—it made Shen Wei's stomach lurch. He curled over, and Zhao Yunlan said, "Shit—hold on, just—"
A plastic wastebasket was shoved under his head, and there was a warm hand on the back of his neck, steady pressure. Shen Wei stared down into the bin—it was mostly empty, but for a few crumpled tissues, candy wrappers, and a little gray dust—
Ash: the remains of an incense cone, and the faint waft of scent made Shen Wei heave, bile burning up his throat.
Behind the pulsing spots before his eyes, he could see the missive from Dixing—the message he'd changed, as Zhao Yunlan slept before him, refuting that trust even as it was so sincerely granted. Maybe yesterday after all, if the incense were here; only yesterday, and Zhao Yunlan didn't know, didn't guess—
"Here, Shen Wei, drink," and Zhao Yunlan offered the water glass again. When Shen Wei didn't grip it right away, Zhao Yunlan's own hands wrapped around his, warm on the outside and the glass cool within, to guide it to his mouth.
He rinsed his mouth out, spat in the bin, then drank the rest of the water. Even with the wastebasket pushed away, he could smell the incense, under the sour reek of bile. It tugged at him, a faint echo of its summoning.
The empty glass slipped out of his hands. Shen Wei watched it fall, not even trying to grab it, as if the hands before him weren't his to move. It should have shattered on the floor, but Zhao Yunlan caught it, set it aside.
There were words in Shen Wei's head—unvoiced, but loud. Duty. Responsibility. Protection. He could see the characters that composed them, black brushstrokes against the white noise filling his mind now; but he couldn't remember their meanings. He only knew that he'd told them to himself, so many times that they'd become a mantra, an abstract recitation. Excuses; if they'd brought him any comfort once, it was denied him now.
"Maybe they never meant anything," he said, to hear if his own voice was louder than that white noise. It was, but only just.
"Sure, maybe not," Zhao Yunlan said. He was sitting next to Shen Wei on the bed; his hand was warm on Shen Wei's back.
"I've lied to you," Shen Wei told him.
Zhao Yunlan didn't turn away, didn't lift his hand. "Yeah, sometimes," he said. He rubbed Shen Wei's back again, circles this time, such thoughtless, easy kindness that Shen Wei felt a stinging in his eyes. "It's okay."
"It isn't," Shen Wei said, but anything he tried to say after that got gummed up in the thickness in his throat—I looked for you and you found me; you trust me and I lie; I called you and you came. It was all so huge and yet so fragile; too big for his two hands, and they were too unsteady now anyway. He'd dropped that glass; he couldn't possibly hold this, however much he wanted to.
And Zhao Yunlan was still sitting next to him, hand still on his back, murmuring softly, "Shhh, baby, it's okay. Everything'll seem better in the morning, I swear."
Shen Wei couldn't see how that would be. It was dark outside the windows, as it always was. If the sun never came up then there couldn't be morning anyway.
There was still a stone of sickness and misery in his gut, but the rest of him was floating, a tingling lightweightedness. The room swayed gently around him when he stood, or else perhaps he was swaying. Zhao Yunlan jumped up and caught his arm, grounding him like Shen Wei was lightning and Zhao Yunlan a rod, the route to the safe earth.
Shen Wei stared into his face—at the beautiful kindness of his eyes, the comfort of his smile. He wrapped his hand around Zhao Yunlan's arm, squeezed until he felt the warmth through his numb fingers. "Zhao Yunlan," he said, the words a little displaced; he heard them in his ears a moment before his mouth shaped them. He didn't try to stop them anyway. "There's something I need to tell you."
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "You really don't," he said. "Not now—"
Shen Wei shook his head back, and the afterimages of the motion smeared Zhao Yunlan's face into light. "No, now. I can't—I need—I want to." Zhao Yunlan closed his mouth, and Shen Wei said, carefully, so the words didn't get tangled up on his numb tongue, "I'm the Black-Cloaked Envoy."
There was a pause. Zhao Yunlan looked at Shen Wei. Shen Wei couldn't tell what his expression was; the white noise in his head was expanding outwards, washing sound and vision both out to a snow-cold monotone. But the knot in his stomach was dissolving; he felt so light that he might evaporate into the air, if not for Zhao Yunlan's grounding touch. "I'm the Black-Cloaked Envoy," he said again.
He focused on Zhao Yunlan's mouth, saw it twisting. Of course he would be angry, his trust betrayed. It was only that Shen Wei was too attenuated to feel it, that it didn't hurt like it should, like he deserved it to hurt. "I wanted to tell you," he said. "I wanted to tell you everything, but I didn't," though he didn't understand why not, when it was this easy.
Zhao Yunlan's lips were rippling still, but his eyes were crinkled, so that in Shen Wei's off-kilter world they almost looked like a smile. Like care, like affection.
Then Zhao Yunlan's mouth settled into a smirk. He rocked back on his heels, looked Shen Wei up and down, challenging, and said, "Prove it."
"Prove...?" Shen Wei said.
"You? The Envoy?" Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "I don't believe it. Prove it."
"I..." Zhao Yunlan was watching, waiting, so Shen Wei reached down into himself, tried to take hold of the dark energy swirling through him. It was there, as powerful a storm as ever, but grasping for it was like trying to catch smoke through his fingers.
He frowned, made the gesture to at least don his robes—and off-balanced himself, so that Zhao Yunlan blurted a hasty, "Whoops!" and changed his grip in a hurry to catch Shen Wei.
All the dizzier for nearly falling, Shen Wei clutched at Zhao Yunlan's shoulders. Zhao Yunlan managed to hold them both for a suspended instant, grinning down at him—and then let go, so they fell together on the bed behind them.
It felt like a very long drop, but then the mattress felt very soft, when Shen Wei's shoulders sank into it. His head was whirling and Zhao Yunlan was over him, nearly everything he could see.
Zhao Yunlan ducked his head to kiss the tip of Shen Wei's nose, then sat back, sprawling beside him on the bed. "Nope," he said, combing his fingers through the hair fallen over Shen Wei's brow. "No Black-Cloaked Envoy here. All I see is Professor Shen, pride and joy of Dragon City University, the bio students' very favorite member of the faculty. You must be confused."
Shen Wei was definitely confused. "Zhao Yunlan, I..." It was so hard to think, under the radiance of Zhao Yunlan's smile, under the caresses of those fingers, gentle against his scalp. There was a lamp behind Zhao Yunlan's head and its brightness and shadows divided his irises into black and gold, chiaroscuro bifurcation.
Zhao Yunlan was laughing again, not softly but out loud, a brilliant sound. "Professor Shen," he said, "who, so high he can't see straight, still can pronounce 'chiaroscuro.'" He passed his thumb over Shen Wei's eyebrow to smooth back a last strand of hair, his grin softening. "I'm glad you called me."
"Called...?" Shen Wei struggled to make sense of this. "Why would I call you? You're here."
"Yeah, I'm here. Wouldn't have missed this for the world." Zhao Yunlan's smile grew wider but even gentler. "And I'll be telling you this again tomorrow, when you're all here, too, instead of whenever you're thinking you are now. But yeah, you called me. You didn't have to, but you realized something was wrong—and you didn't even know what it was, but you still called me to help."
Was something wrong? Shen Wei wasn't sure. If there were, then he should...he should...but this bed was so very soft, and Zhao Yunlan's smile was so very warm. "I really am the Black-Cloaked Envoy," he said, though he wasn't quite certain of that, either.
"Sometimes," Zhao Yunlan said. "Not now. Right now it's only Xiao Wei in my bed, where he's going to sleep very well and deeply tonight, and when he wakes up tomorrow morning, if he remembers any of this, he's probably going to feel a little silly. Though really he shouldn't."
Shen Wei blinked. "I don't feel silly," he said, "I feel..."
Zhao Yunlan's eyes were bright, twinkling like stars on a clear night; his lips were rippling again. Shen Wei reached up his hand, touched his fingers to them, and Zhao Yunlan kissed his fingertips, caught his hand and turned it to kiss his knuckles. Zhao Yunlan's lips were water-soft while the scruff on his chin was rough like sand, and Shen Wei sighed, let his eyes close.
There was more he thought he should say, now, when he had forgotten why he shouldn't. But his body, floating before, now was so weighted that it stilled the mattress under him, kept it from tilting. He couldn't lift his head, couldn't lift his eyelids.
Zhao Yunlan's fingers were still running through his hair; Zhao Yunlan's lips moved against his fingers. His voice was tender, vibrant with his laughter. "How do you feel, Shen Wei?"
"I feel..." It was so easy to say, so light, even when his body was so heavy. The world was falling away and his last fragmented thoughts were scattering, and Zhao Yunlan was...Zhao Yunlan was. That, he remembered, and smiled as he sank into blackness. "I feel loved."