Shen Wei was tidying the kitchen. He'd made and eaten his own breakfast, and prepared a meal for Zhao Yunlan which was now packed in a container in the fridge ready for whenever he got off his overnight shift at the SID. He'd just finished drying plates, and now he wiped down the counters at a leisurely pace. In no hurry, since he had no university duties that day.
He was unprepared for the front door to be thrown open with a slam, or for Zhao Yunlan to come charging in, panting and disarrayed.
"Shen Wei, good, listen," Zhao Yunlan gasped out.
"Zhao Yunlan, what —"
"No, listen!" Zhao Yunlan gestured emphatically at him. "Don't use your dark energy. For anything. You —"
"What do you —"
"We're in a time loop," Zhao Yunlan said. "You need to trust me."
And he collapsed.
Shen Wei was struck still for a second, staring. Then he dropped to his knees and carefully rolled Zhao Yunlan over onto his back. His eyes were closed, and his pulse beat rapidly in his throat. "Zhao Yunlan?" Shen Wei asked. "Zhao Yunlan!"
He didn't stir.
Shen Wei opened his hand above Zhao Yunlan's chest, and then paused guiltily. But Zhao Yunlan hadn't been making any sense, and now he was unconscious, clearly hurt or ill…
He summoned his dark energy. Not to — not to do anything immediately. Just to analyse what was wrong.
— And then he was waking up with sparks dancing in his eyes, and his head and neck throbbing where he had… hit against the cupboard? On the far side of the kitchen? He wasn't sure what had happened.
Zhao Yunlan, pale but sitting upright, was watching him grimly. "Yeah," he said. "You never pay any attention to that bit…"
Shen Wei pushed himself up gingerly. "What was that?" he asked.
"I did tell you not to use your dark energy," Zhao Yunlan said. "I always tell you. At least my team listen when I call them, or they do now that I threaten them with not getting paid at all this month and also tell them in graphic detail about what happens if Lin Jing keeps poking his devices — Sorry, I'm rambling." He took a deep breath. "Are you feeling okay? You didn't get as far as actually beginning to heal me this time, right?"
"I'm fine," Shen Wei said, blinking away the last of the sparks. "But — what do you mean? This time?"
"Time loop," Zhao Yunlan said. "I know, it sounds ridiculous. Or did. I've had a lot of time to get used to the concept. Hah, time." He laughed, a little unsteadily. "And I'm wasting it. If you're okay we have to go."
"Go where?" Shen Wei asked.
"To the SID. No, I wasn't quite just there, I'm on my way home when it happens." He opened the fridge and pulled out the packed lunch Shen Wei had recently put in there with no hesitation. "Come on, we're going on the bike."
"Why not the car?" Shen Wei asked, in some alarm. He was still not very comfortable travelling by motorbike, even without Zhao Yunlan acting so erratically.
Zhao Yunlan grimaced, opening the under-stairs cupboard to retrieve the helmets. "I crashed it. Again. It's fine, no one else is hurt, it's just the same tree every time." He pushed his hair out of his eyes with hands that visibly shook. "I'm taking a bend when the loop resets and I always hope that next time I'll be ready for it but I never quite am —"
"You've been in a crash?" Shen Wei demanded. He raked his eyes over Zhao Yunlan again. "Are you hurt? How did you get home?"
"I ran, not really, and you've already had the demonstration that you can't do anything about it anyway," Zhao Yunlan said. He opened the front door. "And no, I probably shouldn't be on the road again just yet, but I promise we get to the SID safely every time. Okay?" He reached to squeeze Shen Wei's fingers, and his voice cracked just a bit.
Shen Wei was swept along with him, feeling like he was caught in a strong current. Powerless to stop. He mounted the bike behind Zhao Yunlan and held on around his waist, as he'd done many other times. He could feel Zhao Yunlan shaking slightly through the contact, and wished that they were wearing more concessions to safety gear than just the helmets, but it seemed too late now.
They couldn't speak on the way, of course. Zhao Yunlan got them there safely, as he'd promised, but he was still trembling when they pulled up outside the SID, and was pale and sweaty when he took his helmet off. Shen Wei clasped his shoulder briefly, not sure what to say, and Zhao Yunlan gave him a smile which he was clearly working hard on.
There was something different about stepping through the door. It took Shen Wei a second to place it. "Where's the shield?"
"I made them turn it off," Zhao Yunlan said.
"Yes, we're all waiting for the explanation," Lin Jing called from further in. He'd been sitting on the sofa but got up hastily as Zhao Yunlan made a beeline for it.
Zhao Yunlan flung himself down, and then winced. "Everyone's here, good," he said, covering it. "First, Lao-Chu, I know you tried to use your dark energy anyway to see what I was talking about. You're as bad as Shen Wei." He didn't give Chu Shuzhi time to do more than open his mouth. "Xiao-Guo, thanks for telling everyone what happened, I trust we're all done with the practical experiments now."
Everyone was staring at Zhao Yunlan. Zhu Hong was the first to speak. "How did you —"
"Know?" Zhao Yunlan finished. "I told Lin Jing on the phone. We're stuck in a time loop. I'm the only one who remembers. Believe me, we've gone over this part a lot."
"You sound insane," Zhu Hong said, bluntly.
Zhao Yunlan laughed, a little wildly. Shen Wei had stood back to let Zhao Yunlan take the lead, but now he wished he'd joined him on the sofa from the start, to be there as a support. "I'm well aware I sound insane," Zhao Yunlan said. "Unfortunately, it's true. You all need to help me break the loop."
"What do you need us to do?" Da Qing asked.
"You believe him?" Chu Shuzhi demanded.
Da Qing shrugged. "He's still the boss. And Professor Shen hasn't said he's wrong."
Shen Wei found the collected eyes of the SID turning towards him. "We've encountered temporal effects before," he said. And he trusted Zhao Yunlan. If he was this convinced about what was going on, Shen Wei was going to believe him.
"The Hallows?" Lin Jing asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Glad you're keeping up," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm pretty certain this is their fault. Or the fault of someone in Dixing who's been using them unwisely."
Da Qing coughed pointedly.
"Anyway," Zhao Yunlan said, ignoring that, "In a couple of hours someone brings the Dial and the Awl through the gate to Haixing. And that's such a catastrophically bad idea that it resets the time loop. That's what we need to stop from happening."
Shen Wei frowned, thinking fast. "So this was probably triggered by an event in Dixing."
"But you don't know what it was?"
"No. I'm assuming the Hallows because I've seen them begin to emerge from the portal." He winced. "I don't know who brings them. They're already burning up."
"We need to find out what happened in Dixing, then," Shen Wei said. "I can —"
Zhao Yunlan's hand shot out and grabbed the hem of Shen Wei's sweatshirt. "No."
"You don't —"
"I don't know what you were going to suggest?" Zhao Yunlan chuckled, with no humour in it. "Shen Wei, I have watched you come up with so many ideas about this, and try them all, and most of them kill you. Please just… just trust me on this."
The main telephone line rang. Wang Zheng went to answer it. "Chief Zhao," she called.
Zhao Yunlan barely looked up. "Yes, we're getting reports in of effects ranging from unstable to severely dangerous when Dixingren try to use their dark energy. Lao-Chu, you put the word out like I asked?"
"As much as I could," Chu Shuzhi said. "It's not like there's a group chat."
"Maybe you should set one up," Lin Jing suggested, and was rewarded with a glare.
Shen Wei moved closer to Zhao Yunlan as the SID members' focus splintered. "There must still be some way to contact Dixing," he said. "If portals aren't safe I could send a messenger construct, or —"
Zhao Yunlan tugged at his hand until Shen Wei came and sat on the sofa beside him. "I told you, you've tried all that," he said. "I don't understand exactly what's going on with dark energy right now, but everything's destabilised." He swallowed. "I thought all those things were worth trying too, you know. And I've ended up watching you dying as your dark energy rips you apart. A lot." He shook his head, squeezing Shen Wei's hand tightly. "I can't — don't make me do that again."
"How long have you been in this time loop?" Shen Wei asked.
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "I've given up counting the loops. Too long. And of course it had to start right after a night shift." He sighed, and leaned against Shen Wei's shoulder, but Shen Wei noted that he was continuing to hold himself tensely. Not letting himself relax more than a fraction.
"You're exhausted," Shen Wei said, too quietly for anyone else to hear.
Zhao Yunlan hesitated, then nodded. "I took a couple of loops off, a while back. Got home, told you I felt ill, went to bed. You came and lay down with me." He exhaled deeply, as if remembering something impossibly out of reach. "Right, we should get going."
"And do what?" Da Qing asked. Who had of course been eavesdropping.
"Oh, right, sorry." Zhao Yunlan scrubbed a hand over his face. "We need to contain the Hallows at the Dixing portal. Suppress their energy, whatever. Lin Jing can alter the shield, turn it inside out or something."
"Would you like to give me more precise directions?" Lin Jing asked.
"You always make it work with that," Zhao Yunlan said, waving a hand airily.
"If I make it work then why are you still in the loop?" Lin Jing asked, suspiciously.
"You're all stuck in the loop too, I'm just the only one who remembers," Zhao Yunlan corrected him. "The problem is that it doesn't work enough to suppress the energy that starts exploding everywhere when the Hallows reach Haixing."
"Exploding?" Zhu Hong asked. "How literally are you talking?"
"Very," Zhao Yunlan said. "Boom. Then we all reset."
There was a short, contemplative pause. "I'm going to get some equipment from my lab," Lin Jing said. "Xiao-Guo, help me carry it."
"Anyone else standing around can help too," Zhao Yunlan said. Making no move to get up.
Shen Wei's attention had been fastened on all his small tells, which spoke of being in pain. He leaned closer. "Your injuries —" he began.
Zhao Yunlan waved him off. "I'm just stiffening up. Don't panic. It really wasn't a bad crash this time."
"Please let someone else drive you to the Dixing portal," Shen Wei said. Almost begged.
"I was planning on it," Zhao Yunlan assured him.
Zhu Hong drove, with Da Qing in the front beside her and Zhao Yunlan beside Shen Wei on the back seat. The others took another car, still being piled with Lin Jing's equipment while they'd got a head start.
Zhao Yunlan was holding Shen Wei's hand. He'd snapped at Da Qing to stop turning round and staring, he was fine, but that was clearly a long way from true. Shen Wei ached in sympathy every time Zhao Yunlan's breath hitched, and he desperately wished that there was more he could do to help.
"Go left," Zhao Yunlan said, almost tonelessly. "It's a bit quicker. You'll get a run of green lights."
Zhu Hong complied.
The Dixing portal looked as usual — to usual sight. In Shen Wei's other senses, however, it shivered malevolently, a jarring sensation that set his teeth on edge. He found his steps slowing unintentionally as they approached.
Zhao Yunlan took his arm. "I'm sorry," he said. "I think the effect's getting worse."
"How is that possible?" Shen Wei asked. "You said everything resets."
"Well, my memory doesn't," Zhao Yunlan pointed out. "But it seems to get a bit more uncomfortable for you to approach each time. Like the energies are accumulating, or something."
Shen Wei took another few steps forward. Uncomfortable. Yes. It struck a discordant note in his bones.
Zhao Yunlan was watching him closely. "Let's wait here for the others."
"All right," Shen Wei said, though it felt like cowardice.
Da Qing, who had paused to listen, now walked right up to the portal. Though he couldn't see it he managed to instinctively avoid touching it in the way that everyone did, even those with absolutely no affinity for dark energy. "What's different about it?" he asked.
Zhu Hong rolled her eyes at him. "Apparently something which doesn't affect Yashou, luckily for you."
Both of them were sneaking sideways glances at Zhao Yunlan. Playing casual, trying to reassure him and themselves. Shen Wei didn't think Zhao Yunlan had noticed, although he usually would have immediately. Something else to add to his worries.
The other half of the SID were audible before they were visible around the curve of the path, thanks to the amount of equipment Lin Jing had loaded them all up with. Lin Jing and Guo Changcheng headed straight for the portal but Chu Shuzhi halted abreast of Shen Wei, frowning.
"You can feel it too," Zhao Yunlan said. It wasn't a question.
Chu Shuzhi nodded.
"You couldn't at first," Zhao Yunlan said. "The effect is definitely getting stronger."
There was no excuse now to keep standing back. Shen Wei made himself walk towards the portal, even though all his instincts were trying to convince him to stay back. It was a feeling of wrongness — and now that he considered closely, he realised he'd briefly felt the same back at the house when he'd tried to access his dark energy. Like something had been twisting it, corrupting it.
When the Merit Brush had been in use it had made Dragon City feel somewhat like this, changing the dark energy around them into something foreign. "You believe the Hallows are behind this?" he asked.
"You agree with me now," Zhao Yunlan said. Still not a question. Shen Wei wondered how many times they'd had this same discussion. It hurt, to think that he'd needed to be convinced by Zhao Yunlan over and over, although of course every time he must have felt he had good reasons to wait before allowing himself to be drawn into a conclusion.
"I agree with you," Shen Wei said. "What do we need to do next?"
"Lin Jing sets up some suppression around the portal," Zhao Yunlan said. He made a get-on-with-it gesture at Lin Jing, since everyone was listening. "That will reduce the effects a bit. Then… you had an idea about trying to link with the Hallows' energy. To counteract them."
"I did?" Shen Wei asked, but he was already thinking. "If that's possible…"
"It must be," Zhao Yunlan said. "You were waiting just in front of the portal last time, and you said you almost had it."
"Then what happened?" Da Qing asked. "It clearly didn't work."
Zhao Yunlan scowled. "We were too late. You didn't have enough time to link with the Hallows, I think. They came through anyway, and then —" He shrugged.
"I was just in front of the portal?" Shen Wei asked. He frowned, trying to think it through. "But then… I don't understand why I did that. Wouldn't it work better if I was inside the portal?"
Zhao Yunlan seemed suddenly unable to meet his eyes. "We were trying that first," he muttered. "You said it might not work."
Oh. Shen Wei must have wanted to go straight into the portal, and Zhao Yunlan had stopped him. "You spoke before about the portals being unsafe," Shen Wei remembered. "When I suggested going to Dixing."
Zhao Yunlan swallowed. "It — tore you apart," he said, his voice rough. "I couldn't — I didn't want to watch that happen again. I wanted you to try something safer first. I'm sorry."
"Why are you sorry?" Shen Wei asked, puzzled.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged, faux-casual. "I guess you don't remember it," he said, and angled his body away.
Shen Wei put a hand on his arm. "You do," he said. Quietly.
"I'm okay," Zhao Yunlan said. His eyes were wet.
He wasn't. He couldn't be. But his team were right there, and Shen Wei didn't push. "I'm going to examine the portal," he said instead.
"Be careful," Zhao Yunlan told him.
But no dire warnings, so Shen Wei felt comfortable closing his eyes and concentrating. Not extending his dark energy, merely passively sensing through it. There was the dark conduit of the portal, but turned awry by a twisting, convulsing knot of energy pushing up through the connection from Dixing. The Hallows. Yes.
If the effects were bad up here, what must be happening down in Dixing? Shen Wei felt his heartbeat speed up at the thought. Something bad enough that the Hallows were about to be ordered up to Haixing in the hope that distance would quell things. Unless this was some sort of attack, and those responsible were bringing the Hallows to Haixing purposefully to spread chaos now that their aims in Dixing had been achieved…
He couldn't do anything about those anxious imaginings. They were serving no purpose. Shen Wei tried to turn his attention back onto his surroundings. Zhao Yunlan believed he could suppress the Hallows' energies somehow…
There was a disturbance behind him, something flashing across his awareness, and he spun with his eyes flying open as Guo Changcheng shrieked.
The contraption Lin Jing had been working on — had exploded. Shen Wei hadn't even heard the noise, overwhelmed by the way the wildly erratic dark energy had fired out. Zhu Hong had a cut on her face, and Chu Shuzhi was bleeding from his arm, and Guo Changcheng was still shrieking.
Lin Jing was hunched over, coughing. Shen Wei reached him in a few paces and checked him over — small bits of shrapnel had hit across his torso, and he was bleeding freely in several places. "I'm okay," he rasped, between coughs. "Ow — tell me to check the modulation first next time —"
"Boss?" Zhu Hong asked, and then, in a very different tone, "Da Qing?"
Shen Wei looked. Saw Zhao Yunlan hunched next to Da Qing, cradling his hand as Da Qing moaned around the shard of metal lodged in his abdomen. There was already far too much blood, soaking through his dungarees and shirt and pooling beneath him.
"Call an ambulance," Zhao Yunlan whispered as Shen Wei dropped down beside him. "Da Qing, it's going to be okay, you're going to be okay."
"I can —" Shen Wei began, and then hesitated, his hand already reaching out.
Zhao Yunlan looked at him. "You shouldn't —" he began. "We'll — He'll reset. It'll be —" He stumbled to a stop, eyes desperate. "He's in pain."
He was dying. That was clear. And they'd reset, and no one except Zhao Yunlan would remember this, but that didn't matter. Shen Wei gathered energy inside him, focusing his intent before releasing any of it, because it would have to be done in one quick burst before the backlash overwhelmed him. He didn't try and hide what he was doing from Zhao Yunlan and Zhao Yunlan didn't stop him, just flicked pleading eyes to him before going back to staring at Da Qing.
Shen Wei took hold of the piece of metal. Inhaled, and pulled it out, thrusting his other hand into place over the wound and releasing the pulse of dark energy he had been crafting.
He was expecting the backlash this time. Waiting for it. It ran through him like a blade, burrowing back along the path of his dark energy with the slamming force of a lightning-strike discharge —
He opened his eyes. Couldn't bring them into focus at first, so that the shapes above him were only blurs, voices an indistinct buzz.
The voices were turning into his name. He rolled himself determinedly over, pushing himself up to hands and knees, and fought not to black out again. "Did it.. work?" he asked, as soon as he could, tasting blood in his mouth.
"Yeah." Zhao Yunlan's hands wrapped around his upper arms, holding him still. "It worked. You got Da Qing stable. How are you?"
"All right," Shen Wei said, and finally managed to blink his vision into some clarity. "Where is he?"
"Gone in the ambulance Zhu Hong called," Zhao Yunlan said. "You slowed the bleeding enough — As long as he doesn't turn into a cat in the operating theatre, I think he's going to be okay." He took a couple of deep breaths. "Thank you."
Shen Wei nodded. Lin Jing was back at work. Coils of wire surrounded the portal. "How long was I unconscious?" His chest ached. All of him ached.
"About half an hour," Zhao Yunlan said. "We told the paramedics that this was a crime scene, to stop them taking you as well. Luckily you didn't wake up in the middle of that."
"Oh." With Zhao Yunlan's support, Shen Wei got unsteadily to his feet. "How long do we have?"
"A few minutes," Zhao Yunlan said. "If you're up for it…"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, immediately. There was too much strain in Zhao Yunlan's face for him to even consider refusing to make the attempt. This endless cycle he was trapped in needed to be over.
"Only if you're sure," Zhao Yunlan said.
"I'm sure," Shen Wei said, with even greater determination. "How will we know when it's time?"
"When we stood in front of the portal last time, you could feel it," Zhao Yunlan said.
"I'm ready," Lin Jing called. "As much as I can be, I guess." He had wiped the worst of the blood from his face, but still looked shaken. "If this doesn't work… warn me for next time?"
"I will," Zhao Yunlan said. "It didn't happen before."
"Well." Lin Jing gave a slight shrug. "Shall we go live?" He raised his voice. "Everyone outside the ring, please!"
"Shouldn't you go too?" Shen Wei asked, when Zhao Yunlan remained.
"Nope," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm not leaving you. Besides, how am I supposed to help next time if I don't observe properly?"
"Maybe this will be the last time," Shen Wei said.
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan breathed, as they both approached the portal. "Maybe." The hope in his expression was painful.
Shen Wei closed his eyes, the better to concentrate. His energies were still scattered, damaged by the healing he'd forced out of himself. But the portal was there, drawing his attention, and as he focused on it he felt a ripple push through, the unstable bright energy of the Hallows.
He stepped forward, and at the last moment Zhao Yunlan took his hand. Too late for Shen Wei to leave him behind — he had already met the portal's surface, was already being pulled through.
It was like arriving inside a hurricane. The churning swirl of energy was nothing like Shen Wei had encountered before, in a portal or elsewhere, and he had to sink all his efforts into holding himself together in the face of it. He was discorporeal, tossed and pulled, and then suddenly all the rest was forced aside by the painfully golden glare of the Hallows.
But he could see how to reach them, how to subdue them. Feel the shape of what he needed to do. Shen Wei stretched out his own energies, linking to the Hallows, quelling them.
It wasn't enough.
His energies were too much in disarray, too depleted. He could see what he needed to do and he struggled to achieve it, throwing more and more of himself into the fight, holding nothing back —
He failed. And burned.
Shen Wei was in the kitchen, wiping down the plates he had just washed. There was one in his hands at that moment.
He dropped it.
It splintered on the tiles at his feet, and for long seconds he only stared at it.
Then he checked his watch.
This was — Zhao Yunlan had said —
A moment later he was pushing his feet into shoes and exiting the house with his sleeves still pushed up, soap suds on his arms. Almost running down the path, before he paused at the gate.
He didn't know where Zhao Yunlan was. There were several routes he could have taken back from the SID. Shen Wei could set off along the wrong road, which would be worse than useless.
He hesitated, paralysed by indecision, and then he heard his name called out breathlessly and spun to see Zhao Yunlan running towards him, or trying to — within a couple of seconds he had fallen back into a limping walk. Shen Wei was the one who covered most of the distance between them, almost unaware of doing so.
"Zhao Yunlan —" he exclaimed, but Zhao Yunlan pushed his hand away.
"Shen Wei," he panted. "No healing." He took a deep breath that truncated abruptly, and coughed. Spat out saliva which had blood in it. "Your dark energy's affected — everyone's is — it'll injure you. Badly. Won't help me anyway." He sagged forward, as if delivering that message had taken up all his strength.
Shen Wei caught him. "Zhao Yunlan — your injuries —" Much worse than before. Clearly much worse.
"Car accident," Zhao Yunlan said, which Shen Wei knew. "It's okay —"
Shen Wei was already braced to take his weight. He gathered Zhao Yunlan into his arms and carried him carefully back to the house, his heart pounding. He hadn't stopped to lock the front door. Shen Wei pushed it shut with his foot and didn't pause to take his shoes off before carrying Zhao Yunlan upstairs and laying him very gently onto the bed.
Then he stopped again, with no idea of what to do next. He couldn't use his dark energy just then, Zhao Yunlan was right — without knowing what the precise injuries were he couldn't craft a focused burst as he had for Da Qing. And knocking himself unconscious in the attempt would mean he was of no other use to Zhao Yunlan.
Again, it was Zhao Yunlan who solved his dilemma, this time by opening his eyes. "Shen Wei," he said, muzzily, and then his gaze sharpened. "You're okay?"
"Yes, of course I am," Shen Wei said.
"You didn't — Wow, you listened." Zhao Yunlan started trying to push himself up.
Shen Wei sat on the bed next to him and held his shoulder, trying to keep him down without hurting him more. "If I can't heal you, you might need the hospital," he said.
Zhao Yunlan shook his head decisively. "I'm fine," he said. "Well, okay, I'm not right now, but I will be. It's much better than it looks, really."
Shen Wei disbelieved that. There was too much of a rattle in Zhao Yunlan's breathing, far too much pain in his face. He touched Zhao Yunlan's hair hesitantly and Zhao Yunlan smiled a bit and turned his face into Shen Wei's palm.
"What should I do?" Shen Wei asked, finally.
"Do? Nothing," Zhao Yunlan breathed. "Just — stay here with me."
Shen Wei frowned. "Don't you need me to go to the portal — or to get Lin Jing to —"
Zhao Yunlan's eyes flew open. "The portal?" he asked, sharply.
"Yes?" Shen Wei said, suddenly uncertain himself — were his memories real? "There was — you said — a time loop?"
Zhao Yunlan stared at him. "Fuck," he whispered. "Oh, fuck, not you too."
"I remember this happening before," Shen Wei said. "Or the start, at least, but you weren't so badly injured…"
"It's not exactly the same every time," Zhao Yunlan said. "How badly I crash depends on how good my reactions are… I wasn't very prepared this time."
Because he'd trusted Shen Wei to break the loop and finally pull him out of it. Only Shen Wei hadn't. He'd only succeeded in getting himself trapped as well. "I'm sorry," he said, miserably.
"Why are you sorry?" Zhao Yunlan asked, sounding genuinely confused. "No, I'm sorry. It must be something to do with being inside the portal that's got you remembering the loops now. Or connecting to the Hallows — you did connect to them, right?"
Shen Wei nodded. "But I failed. My dark energy wasn't sufficient to contain them."
"Because you knocked it back fixing Da Qing?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Shen Wei nodded again.
Zhao Yunlan let out a long breath. "I'm glad you failed, then."
"What?" Shen Wei asked. "I thought you wanted to end the loop."
"Of course I do," Zhao Yunlan said. "But if you hadn't helped Da Qing, he would have died. And then if you'd closed the loop he wouldn't have —" He broke off abruptly. "Thank you," he finished.
Shen Wei was silent for several seconds, absorbing that. "What do you want me to do now?" he asked, finally.
Zhao Yunlan sighed heavily. "Nothing. No point."
"What do you mean?" Shen Wei asked.
Zhao Yunlan sighed again, a pained sound which turned into a groan. "I'm… pretty banged up," he admitted. "I'm not useful for anything this loop. There'll be more. There are always more." He reached out to take Shen Wei's hand, pulling him closer. "Stay with me?"
"You weren't going to tell me about the loop at all," Shen Wei realised.
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "Nope. I didn't realise — I'm really sorry you're caught in it too. 's awful."
His words were beginning to slur. Shen Wei ached to be able to heal him. "Isn't there anything I can do to help you?" he begged.
"Mmm." Zhao Yunlan's eyes were closed, and he didn't open them to speak. "There's some strong painkillers in my kit. In the — dammit. In the jeep."
"I could —" Shen Wei began.
"No." Zhao Yunlan's hand tightened, with a little gasp of pain as he inhaled sharply. "Don't go."
"Where did you crash?" Shen Wei asked, and then, to forestall Zhao Yunlan doing more injury to himself, "I'm not leaving, I promise."
"Spring Road," Zhao Yunlan said. "On the bend."
"Don't run, next time," Shen Wei said. "I know not to use my dark energy. You don't have to injure yourself racing to warn me."
"If you remember," Zhao Yunlan muttered.
"We can risk it, surely," Shen Wei said. He cast his mind back over what now felt like an incredible distance, to remember what he had been doing while all of this started. Washing up. There had been some other household tasks he had meant to do next, although he couldn't now remember what they had been. "Even if I don't remember, I don't think I was about to use my dark energy."
"You'd say that anyway to make me agree," Zhao Yunlan mumbled.
"It's true," Shen Wei insisted.
Zhao Yunlan gave him a sad little smile, still without opening his eyes. His breathing eased a short while later, as he slipped out of consciousness.
Shen Wei sat beside him, and then took off his shoes and lay down, not quite touching but close enough that he could feel the warmth of Zhao Yunlan's body, and the puff of Zhao Yunlan's soft breaths against his face.
He still felt he should be doing something. Something to fix this. Something to save Zhao Yunlan from this endlessly repeated nightmare — he hated how clear it was that Zhao Yunlan was beginning to give up hope of that, was resigned to the inevitability of it continuing on and on and on. But he could do nothing, not on his own like this and not starting so late.
He could do nothing but lie with Zhao Yunlan, so he did that. And waited. For the next time.
Shen Wei was in the kitchen, wiping down the plates he had just washed. There was one in his hands at that moment.
He clutched it tight for a second, and set it down on the rack. Very carefully.
Then he strode to the hallway, shoved his feet into the nearest pair of shoes, and locked the front door behind him. Soap suds still on his hands, sleeves still pushed up. Those things weren't important.
Spring Road wasn't that far, objectively. Just then it was far too distant. Shen Wei's heart was in his mouth and he longed to be able to portal — he could be there in a second —
Zhao Yunlan was sitting on a low wall, just off the connecting street. "Hi," he said.
Shen Wei wrenched himself to a stop. "Zhao Yunlan," he panted, and raked his eyes over him, searching for blood, for visible injuries.
"I'm okay," Zhao Yunlan said. He got to his feet, grasped Shen Wei's hands in both of his. "Really. Just some bruising and strained muscles this time."
"You didn't wait at the car," Shen Wei said.
"I never promised to wait at the car," Zhao Yunlan protested. "I just said that I wouldn't run home, and I didn't. But I don't have time to deal with the police or the paramedics or whoever the first bystander decides to call."
Shen Wei couldn't disagree. Zhao Yunlan's colour looked as well as could be expected, and he seemed in much better condition than he had been the previous couple of times. "We're going to the SID?" he asked instead.
Zhao Yunlan nodded. "We're early. I'll call a cab." He pulled his phone from his pocket and swiped at it. "Did you bring my lunch?"
Shen Wei stared at him.
"The one you put in the fridge for me," Zhao Yunlan said. He sighed. "Okay, that was a joke."
"Oh," Shen Wei said, not sure what else to say.
"Never mind," Zhao Yunlan said. "It was only really funny the first time."
They arrived at the SID. The shield was off. Zhao Yunlan had made all his urgent phone calls while sitting on the wall waiting for Shen Wei.
Shen Wei had thought, before, that Zhao Yunlan had been impatient, answering questions before they were more than half asked with clearly rehearsed speeches. Now though, sitting close beside Zhao Yunlan on the sofa, he realised just how patient Zhao Yunlan had been, and was still being. Distributing information as clearly and efficiently as he could, no matter the number of times he'd had to endure these same conversations previously, this same disbelief.
At least this time Shen Wei was with him. Could corroborate the almost unbelievable story Zhao Yunlan needed to get across. But mostly, as before, Zhao Yunlan's team trusted him. If he told them something, they would at least act on the assumption that he was correct until better evidence came along.
So they listened, and then dispersed as their chief gave them all jobs, and if Zhao Yunlan's gaze lingered especially anxiously on Da Qing, Shen Wei didn't think anyone aside from him noticed.
Then they leaned back in the sudden quiet, just the two of them, and Zhao Yunlan looked at Shen Wei very seriously and asked, "Are you all right?"
Shen Wei didn't at first know what to say. "Of course," he replied, a bit confused. "Why wouldn't I be? You're the one who —"
Zhao Yunlan placed a hand on his knee. "I've got used to it," he said. "I've had plenty of time. But you're still adjusting. I…" He shifted awkwardly, and dropped his eyes. "I didn't always do a great job at handling the situation," he admitted. "Especially near the start."
He didn't offer any more details, and Shen Wei didn't ask. He remembered again Zhao Yunlan's patience with his team. With Shen Wei, on the previous loops. "I'm fine," he repeated. Except for worrying about you, he didn't add, and didn't need to. He knew that Zhao Yunlan would be able to read it in him, even if he'd tried much harder to hide it.
Zhao Yunlan leaned into him, turning his head so that he could press his face against Shen Wei's shoulder. Just briefly. "Okay," he whispered.
And then it was time to go.
He had all but managed to forget about the state of the Dixing portal. Shen Wei followed the path around the bend, bringing it into view, and the collision of energies hit him like a physical blow.
"Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan, close at his side, demanded anxiously.
It was a wave of unformed chaos, repelling him. Blotting out other sensory feedback. Shen Wei staggered under it, tried to push forward anyway, and then found himself being towed forcibly in the opposite direction.
He blinked as his normal vision began to come back. Zhao Yunlan was pushing him down onto a bench. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm —" Shen Wei tried to get up, but Zhao Yunlan wouldn't let him. "I just wasn't expecting it. I can cope."
"Sit still," Zhao Yunlan insisted. "Is it going to help if you wear yourself out now, when we aren't even ready to actually do anything yet?"
That was a good argument, and Shen Wei didn't have a counter. "It's much more intense an effect than before," he said.
"It's accelerating," Zhao Yunlan said.
Shen Wei nodded. He looked down the path, where the portal was only just visible between the hedges. It seemed to shimmer malevolently as he looked at it, like an oil spill on rough water. He didn't want to think about how bad it could get if he didn't manage to deal with the Hallows this time around. The disruption at the portal might soon get beyond being contained at all, and then —
"I need to get back to the others," Zhao Yunlan said. "Please can you wait here? I'll come and get you when it's time."
He looked anxious and stressed. "I'll wait," Shen Wei agreed. He remembered suddenly — "Lin Jing said to tell him —"
"Yeah, the modulation, I know," Zhao Yunlan assured him, and clasped his shoulder briefly. "See you in a bit."
Shen Wei watched him down the path, and waited. The churning portal niggled at him, wrongness at the edge of his awareness, hurting his head. He closed his eyes, which didn't help all that much since it was still there in his senses beyond sight.
Someone sat down beside him and he looked up to discover that it was Chu Shuzhi, who offered him a bottle of water. Shen Wei took it, and discovered how thirsty he was once he'd cracked the seal and started drinking. "Thank you," he said.
Chu Shuzhi shrugged it off. "The effect's bad enough for me," he said. "Lao-Zhao told me to take a break and check on you."
Shen Wei looked at his watch. Not much longer. "How is everything going?" he asked.
Chu Shuzhi gave him a shrewd look. "The Chief's fine," he said. "Just stressing out and annoying Lin Jing. It looks like everything's going to be set up to his satisfaction, though."
"Has he eaten?" Shen Wei asked, feeling a pang of guilt that he hadn't taken care of that while they'd been at the SID.
"He sent Changcheng to pick up food not long ago," Chu Shuzhi said.
Shen Wei nodded, mollified.
He waited some more. Chu Shuzhi didn't appear to be in a hurry to leave, which Shen Wei suspected was also down to Zhao Yunlan's orders. Shen Wei kept looking over towards the remainder of the SID team as much as he could, although the disturbance from the portal made him nauseous when he did that for too long.
Finally, Zhao Yunlan returned. He could have merely gestured them over from a distance, but he came right to the bench and took Shen Wei's hand solicitously as Shen Wei got to his feet. "We're ready," he said. "If you're sure you're okay to do this."
"Yes," Shen Wei said, firmly. He didn't voice his suspicion that if left for even another loop it might become more than his capacity to deal with. He just needed to handle it now.
Zhao Yunlan kept hold of his hand as they turned towards the portal again. Shen Wei was braced for it — the effects had been continually prying at his defences, after all — but walking across the wire threshold Lin Jing had set up into the maelstrom of misaligned energies still made him gasp involuntarily and sway on his feet.
"Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan asked, anxiously.
Shen Wei squeezed his hand and kept going, braced as if it were a physical storm he was forcing himself against. His vision was tunnelling. But there was no danger of him losing his way, even without Zhao Yunlan to guide him. The portal drew him even as it repelled him, a contradiction to match the clash between its dark energy and the burning energy of the Hallows.
He hardly noticed the divide in the moment when he stepped through the portal's skin, Zhao Yunlan still refusing to leave him. And then he was falling, dissolving into the chaos, falling apart.
He struggled to focus. To hold together his fractured awareness. To follow the searing light of the Hallows, to reach out to them despite the effort of doing so. It hurt and he feared again that he wasn't strong enough, that he could do nothing but continue to fail over and over.
No. No. That was not permitted.
He sank his own energy against the Hallows, joining with them, flooding them. It could have taken a moment or a year — he had no reference points, no stable ground, unable to feel even the physical comfort of Zhao Yunlan's hand in his.
But the Hallows felt him. Responded to him — slowly, so slowly, and he threw everything he had into quelling them, calming them. Subduing their energies so that they no longer fought against the dark energy in the air, in the portal, in him. Their golden glow began to fade and the storm faded too as it found nothing to beat against.
And finally, finally, the storm was gone. Shen Wei pulled the Hallows with him, pulled the shape of energy which was Zhao Yunlan with him, back along the path he'd followed in. Back to Haixing. Back out.
He emerged from the portal and stumbled on his first step, but still managed to be there to steady Zhao Yunlan a moment later. And then came a Dixing woman, young and afraid, whom it took him a few moments to place as An Bai's friend, Dandan. She had the Dial and Awl clutched tightly in her hands. Quiescent now, and she stared at them. "Lord Envoy?" she said, uncertainly.
Shen Wei gave her a brief nod, because Zhao Yunlan was gripping his wrist so tightly that it was painful, his face paper-white. "Zhao Yunlan?"
"It's over," Zhao Yunlan said, with a gasp. "It's over." He was shivering violently.
Zhu Hong appeared on Zhao Yunlan's other side, prying him away from Shen Wei. "Boss, come with me, come and sit down," she said.
Shen Wei wanted to protest his removal. Desperately wanted to go with him, and pay attention to nothing but Zhao Yunlan, who stared back at him with an unfocused gaze as Zhu Hong steered him away. But he had responsibilities which he couldn't simply ignore because it suited him. He turned back to Dandan.
"Lord Envoy?" she asked, again. She was blinking rapidly under the deluge on her senses that a first visit to Haixing could be. "I'm from Dixing Palace, I'm —"
"I remember," Shen Wei said, fighting to keep his full attention on her as she deserved. She had gone through difficulties herself to get here. Sacrificing herself to do so on all the previous loops, even if she didn't remember. "Haixing has been experiencing escalating dark energy disruption — that was the Hallows?"
She nodded, and glanced down as if surprised to find that she was still holding them. "One of the Palace scientists was investigating them as an energy source. We don't know what exactly she did, but they started to react with ambient dark energy, and the effects got worse and worse, spreading across Dixing."
"You thought that splitting them up might help?" Shen Wei asked.
Dandan nodded. "It was hoped — we didn't know, though. Lord An needed someone to carry them, and I volunteered."
"What happened to the scientist?" Shen Wei asked, though he could already guess the answer.
"She died trying to contain the reaction," Dandan said.
Over and over, maybe. He wondered if she'd been aware of that. Shen Wei didn't probe further, not now, although he knew they would have to make a full account of all that had happened. But not immediately. He could bend the rules for himself just enough for that. He glanced over without meaning to, to where Zhao Yunlan was now sitting on the grass, wrapped in Chu Shuzhi's coat. "The SID can hold these Hallows for a few days, to be safe," he suggested, and to cover his slip.
"Thank you," Dandan said, looking relieved. "We'll want to be sure the two left in Dixing have stopped what they were doing as well before we bring them near each other again."
Shen Wei nodded. "Please tell Lord An that I'll be assisting with remaining effects in Haixing, and I'll return to Dixing either tomorrow or the day after with a complete report to add to the Palace's."
Dandan bent her head in a shallow bow and held out the Hallows for Shen Wei to take. "At least it's all been resolved quickly," she said. She cast a curious glance towards Zhao Yunlan, but was too polite to enquire further.
Shen Wei tried to give her a smile in response, but couldn't quite manage it.
He opened the portal back up for Dandan without thinking, instinctively reaching for his dark energy, and then he barely kept his momentary panic under control — but nothing untoward happened, and the energy flowed out of him easily, not sparking off into disaster. No trace now as she stepped back through to Dixing of that discordant chaos which had so overwhelmed him.
And he had diverted his attention from Zhao Yunlan for far too long. Shen Wei strode over to the small group and crouched down. He was still carrying the Hallows, and was deeply grateful when Lin Jing immediately took them from him. One last duty, now temporarily discharged with all the rest. "Zhao Yunlan?" he asked.
Zhao Yunlan looked up at him. His face was still very white, Chu Shuzhi's black coat tucked around his shoulders and a mostly undrunk cardboard cup of tea cradled in his hands. Da Qing in cat form was pressed against his legs, and Zhu Hong sat close enough for him to lean on.
"Hi," Zhao Yunlan said, with the ghost of an attempted smile. His continual shivering rippled the surface of the tea.
"He's in shock," Zhu Hong said. "I'm pretty sure that's all."
Shock, and whatever injuries lingered from the car accident… but Shen Wei could fix those now. He reached out with his dark energy and was relieved to find that Zhao Yunlan had been telling the truth. His hurts were minor, and Shen Wei easily dealt with them.
"See, I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan said, and did a slightly better job of smiling this time.
Shen Wei wasn't sure whether the loudest noise of disapproval at that statement came from Zhu Hong or Chu Shuzhi. Da Qing made a cat noise of disgust.
"I'm taking you home," Shen Wei said. He took the cup from Zhao Yunlan's hand and set it on the grass, and lifted away Chu Shuzhi's coat to give back to him. Zhu Hong poked at Da Qing until he reluctantly detached from Zhao Yunlan's side. Shen Wei felt guilty at that, but not enough to stop her. He selfishly wanted Zhao Yunlan all to himself.
He called a portal and pulled the two of them, still sitting, onto their bed at home.
Zhao Yunlan exhaled and fell onto his back, bonelessly. Shen Wei clamped down on his immediate panic — Zhao Yunlan had simply let himself relax all at once out of the stiff control he had been holding.
Shen Wei clambered to sit next to him instead, where he could look down onto Zhao Yunlan's face. "You're —" he began, and then stopped, because he had no idea what to say. Not all right. Not yet.
"It's over," Zhao Yunlan breathed, as he had before. "It's over."
"It's over," Shen Wei repeated. He put his hand on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder and Zhao Yunlan pressed the side of his cheek up against his wrist, cat-like. "How do you feel — what do you need?"
"You," Zhao Yunlan said, "I need you," and pulled him down. Shen Wei hugged him tight and then Zhao Yunlan tried to press in even more tightly, wrapping a leg over Shen Wei and pinning them to each other. And he was still shaking — no, he was crying, and Shen Wei didn't know what to do except hold him through it and make soothing noises and kiss the top of Zhao Yunlan's head.
"Sorry," Zhao Yunlan whispered, finally. His voice shook. "Sorry, sorry."
"No," Shen Wei insisted, because there was nothing to be sorry for. And Zhao Yunlan was still suffering from shock — when he pulled back his face hadn't regained its colour yet, and his gaze was still unsteady.
He did his best to hide it, though, huffing a small laugh as he wiped at his face with the back of his hand. "Does Professor Shen realise he's wearing his shoes in bed?"
Shen Wei felt himself flush slightly, both at the realisation and at the teasing. "Oh. I forgot." He took them off quickly.
Zhao Yunlan unlaced his boots. He dropped them to the floor, then paused and glanced at Shen Wei.
"What is it?" Shen Wei asked.
"I want to change my clothes," Zhao Yunlan said. "And — would you mind, too? Just, we've been wearing the same things, all these loops, and…"
And visual cues that they weren't in the loop any more would help him. "Of course," Shen Wei said, and chose himself a loose button-up shirt and slacks to put on instead. Zhao Yunlan, for his part, found a pair of lounge pants and an old t-shirt — comfortable clothes, which he wore to sleep in as often as not. His hands were still shaking slightly as he put them on.
"You should rest," Shen Wei told him. "You look exhausted."
He would have preferred to change the bedding first, since it had had both sets of their shoes on it, but Zhao Yunlan groaned in agreement and flung himself down on the bed before Shen Wei could mention that.
Shen Wei lay down next to him, putting an arm over Zhao Yunlan, who nestled close against him. And fell heavily asleep within a few minutes. He'd done a night shift, after all, before this all started. He'd been running on adrenaline and hadn't sat down to eat a proper meal during any of the loops Shen Wei remembered.
That thought eventually drove Shen Wei up, after he'd waited for long enough to assure himself that Zhao Yunlan was deeply asleep and probably wouldn't wake soon. He put the clothes they'd both changed out of into the laundry hamper and took his shoes and Zhao Yunlan's boots quietly downstairs.
In the kitchen he started by putting the now long-dry washing up away, handling each piece of crockery carefully so as to muffle any sounds. Then he thought for a while about what to make for dinner. Something comforting. He assembled the ingredients he wanted and began mixing dough for noodles. He settled into the familiar rhythm of it, chopping the greens next and making the sauce, getting everything ready so that it could be cooked quickly when Zhao Yunlan woke, and eaten fresh.
A series of loud thumps from above alerted him, and he ducked out of the kitchen to see Zhao Yunlan make an uncoordinated arrival at the foot of the stairs, hair dishevelled and breathing fast. "Zhao Yunlan? Are you —"
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said, and took a gulping breath. He clutched both of Shen Wei's hands hard, tremors coming through him again. "No — I'm sorry — I just had to make sure —"
"Come and sit down," Shen Wei said, alarmed and guilty, and steered Zhao Yunlan to the kitchen table and sat him down on a chair. He quickly grabbed a throw from the living room and tucked it around Zhao Yunlan's shoulders to calm his shivers. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have left you —"
Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "It's fine. I'm fine." He forced himself to take a few deep breaths. "I just freaked out for a moment. Don't worry."
Shen Wei had made a pot of tea not long before and there was still some left. He poured out another cup and set it on the table. "I should have stayed with you," he said. Not left Zhao Yunlan to wake up on his own, terrified that he might not have escaped the loop after all. "I'm sorry," he said again, helplessly.
Zhao Yunlan shook his head in negation, cupping the warm tea in both his hands. Shen Wei hovered, miserable. The more he thought about it the worse it got. Zhao Yunlan had been trapped in a repeating nightmare, over and over, and Shen Wei hadn't been with him. Not in any way that mattered. "I wish I'd at least shared the loops with you," he said. "You shouldn't have had to be alone, not —"
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan interrupted him, tugging him to sit down in the adjacent chair. "Baby, it wasn't your fault, none of it was your fault."
"That doesn't matter," Shen Wei said. "I should have fixed it faster — there must have been something I could —"
"Baby, stop," Zhao Yunlan insisted, and Shen Wei stumbled to a halt. "You were there. You did everything you could, everything I asked, every time. Even the times when I was awful and didn't deserve being listened to. And you're here now."
"Yes," Shen Wei said to that last, because on that point at least he was absolutely clear. He clasped Zhao Yunlan's hands, tugged them closer together. He still wished he could take back, erase, rewrite all those times Zhao Yunlan had been alone in his experience, struggling through with no one to understand what it meant. He wished…
"The sun's going down," Zhao Yunlan suddenly said, in a tone of such surprise that Shen Wei pulled back slightly to look at him. He gave a little half-embarrassed smile. "It's just such a long time since I've seen that."
That reminded Shen Wei of the food he'd prepared. "Would you like to eat?" he asked.
"You've been cooking?" Zhao Yunlan said. "Ah, you don't know how much I've missed that." He grinned.
Shen Wei got up, despite an unwillingness to separate himself from Zhao Yunlan, but after all Zhao Yunlan was still right there and watching him. "Do… do you want to talk about the other loops at all?" Shen Wei offered, carefully.
Zhao Yunlan considered, and then shook his head. "Maybe later. I expect I'm going to sleep badly for a while after this." He gave a self-deprecating grin. "Or wake up badly. Judging by just now."
"I won't let you wake up on your own," Shen Wei promised. That, at least, was something concrete he could do, for all that he should have thought of it earlier.
"Thank you," Zhao Yunlan said. And didn't smile this time, which was somehow both less and more painful all at once. "Shen Wei," he said, a moment later, and Shen Wei realised he had been just standing in the centre of the kitchen, hands empty.
Zhao Yunlan got up and put his arms around him. "Hey," he said. "We're okay."
It wasn't true yet. Zhao Yunlan wasn't okay, and he wasn't the one in any case who should have to be giving reassurances — but Shen Wei relaxed against him and tried to remind himself that it would be. He would finish cooking, and they would eat, and the night which Zhao Yunlan hadn't seen for far too long would finish descending, and though probably neither of them would sleep well they'd be together in that.
Zhao Yunlan's stomach growled, and Shen Wei pulled himself away, over to the stove. "I should carry on with this," he said.
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said, and followed him.
"You should sit down and rest," Shen Wei said.
"I don't want to rest," Zhao Yunlan said. "I want to see that things are… going to keep on going. Differently."
Wasn't that what Shen Wei had just been thinking about? He wasn't able to object.
Zhao Yunlan came with him, stuck close by as he cooked. In the present, as it changed around them.