Not enough air. He couldn't —
He struggled, gasped, lungs pained and straining and wrong.
Voices, hands, shouting. What's wrong — What's happening — He didn't answer. Didn't know.
Breathe. Breathe. It was getting easier.
Other sensations slowly filtered in. Rough hardness under him, with sharp points of stone. Sulphur in the air.
Dixing? That fit. He remembered… Dixing…
He fought his eyes open, breathing still uncomfortable and foreign, and blinked until the faces above him came into some sort of focus. Chu Shuzhi, whom he recognised, and a woman he didn't.
"Are you all right?" Chu Shuzhi demanded.
No. He remembered… dying. Being certain that he was dying. And it hadn't mattered, he hadn't cared, because — "Shen Wei," he ground out, knowing that this would hurt worse than anything so far but unable to stop himself. "Shen Wei, is he…"
Lao-Chu's face went through a range of indecipherable expressions. Finally he said, "Zhao Yunlan?"
"Yes?" Zhao Yunlan asked, baffled by the incredulity in his tone.
"You're Zhao Yunlan," Lao-Chu said again, this time stating it flatly.
"Shouldn't I be?" Zhao Yunlan asked. His vision had come into better focus now and he could confirm that he was definitely in Dixing — the blocky lowering architecture was unmistakable. But it was all bright, almost sun-lit.
Had the Lantern been set alight after all? But he was still here. Still here, when he had never expected to be. Hadn't even wanted to remain so, at the end.
"You —" Lao-Chu began, and then cut himself off. "Not here. We need to get somewhere safe."
The woman next to Lao-Chu had been staring at him all this time, confusion giving way to curiosity. She wasn't very old, maybe Xiao-Guo's age. "Who are you?" Zhao Yunlan asked, bluntly.
"I'm Han Xia," she said. "You —"
"Not here," Lao-Chu repeated, more forcefully. He frowned at Zhao Yunlan. "Your friend with the bar might still be around and willing to hide us. We can hope, anyway."
Zhao Yunlan sat up. Or tried to — his body didn't seem to be working properly, was responding only sluggishly to his commands. And he frowned down at himself — he didn't expect to be wearing a neat button-up shirt under a jacket that was smarter than any he recalled owning, even with Shen Wei's influence on his wardrobe.
He'd… he'd lost some time. Clearly. This didn't follow from his last memories, even though he was still in Dixing.
"Come on," Lao-Chu said, and slung one of Zhao Yunlan's arms over his shoulder, taking most of his weight. Zhao Yunlan leaned against him, unsteady on his feet.
The streets were very quiet, but still they tried to move furtively, keeping to the edges of the roads. There was shouting in the distance, multiple voices raised in anger.
"What's happening?" Han Xia asked, quietly.
Lao-Chu made a no-idea noise.
Zhao Yunlan's head was spinning. He felt that there was something very important that he was missing, that he should know but was failing to grasp. "Where's the rest of the team?" he asked.
"Haixing," Lao-Chu said.
Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth to ask further questions. "Stop talking," Lao-Chu ordered. "We don't know who might overhear us."
Zhao Yunlan obediently shut up. Not least because it was taking too much of his concentration to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Finally a building entrance that Zhao Yunlan recognised loomed in front of them. He should probably have recognised the landmarks along the way as well, but his brain was another part of his body still not fully cooperating.
Lao-Chu paused in front of the door. "Should we knock?" Han Xia asked.
"No," Lao-Chu decided. "If it's not who we're expecting, that'll just give them warning." He tried the handle, and the door opened.
"We're closed," someone called hastily from the dimness inside. A familiar voice.
"Wen-ge, is that you?" Zhao Yunlan asked. He had had enough of Chu Shuzhi banning him from speaking.
Quick footsteps, and the bar owner came closer, eyes widening in disbelief. "Chief Zhao? But I thought all the Haixing portals were sealed!"
"They are, it's a long story," Lao-Chu said, before Zhao Yunlan had a chance to answer. "Have you got a back room? Chief Zhao's injured."
"Am I?" Zhao Yunlan asked, and Lao-Chu glared him into submission.
"The front door's supposed to be locked when I'm closed," Wen Sheng muttered. "This place is neutral ground."
"Weren't you standing up against Ye Zun?" Zhao Yunlan demanded. "What do you mean, you're suddenly neutral?"
"Lao-Zhao, shut up," Chu Shuzhi snapped. "Ignore him," he said to Wen Sheng. "He's — We'll explain in a minute. But we've only just arrived, and the portal shut again behind us. We need to catch up on the situation here."
"Who's she?" Wen Sheng asked, pointing at Han Xia. "I know you two, but she's new."
"She's SID," Lao-Chu said, and elbowed Zhao Yunlan sharply in the ribs before he had the opportunity to comment.
Wen Sheng nodded, satisfied for the moment, and led them through the main room to a small door behind the bar. There was a back room with a low sofa, and Lao-Chu deposited Zhao Yunlan onto it.
He sat up with an effort, propping himself between the sofa back and arm. "Can you both stop looking at me like that?" he demanded of Chu Shuzhi and Han Xia. "Did I hit my head or something? I realise I must have forgotten some stuff…" How much, that was the question. He wasn't sure he was ready to find out. He swallowed suddenly short of breath. "I remember… the end of the fighting… Ye Zun was gone…" And he'd been trying to light the Lantern…
"That was over a year ago," Wen Sheng said. "And we heard you were dead." He looked suddenly hopeful. "But, you're not. So is Hei Pao Shi also —"
The question Zhao Yunlan had been unable to voice so bluntly. He felt lightheaded as he stared at Lao-Chu, as Lao-Chu glanced at him to meet his eyes and then shake his head.
"A year," Zhao Yunlan said, hollowly. A year, and Shen Wei was dead. And he'd thought he would be, too… "What happened?" he demanded.
"Chief," Lao-Chu said, and he sounded like he was trying to be gentle. Like he had news he didn't want to break.
Zhao Yunlan looked down at himself. At the unfamiliar clothing, sort of his style but distinctly smarter, down to the boots. Han Xia, a new SID recruit, whom he had for some reason chosen to bring to Dixing over someone like Da Qing. A year which he didn't remember. "Zhang Shi," he said, very quietly. It was suddenly hard again to get enough air. He tried not to let it show.
"You died," Lao-Chu said. "You chose to be the one to light the Lantern."
"And my father knew what to do if I succeeded. I talked about it with him. Yes." He could remember that conversation, clear and sharp-edged in his memory, as opposed to the gaping hole since. Some stupid urge for his death to mean something. "So he — Where is he?"
"Zhang Shi?" Lao-Chu asked. "I don't know. We stepped through the portal and you fell down and had a seizure. And when you woke up, you were you. I haven't seen Zhang Shi since."
Was Zhang Shi still inside him but incapacitated somehow? Why had he never asked his father more details about their arrangement? Asked whether he could feel Zhang Shi's presence inside him even when he wasn't taking charge? Zhao Yunlan tried, but all he could feel was a deep and growing panic.
"So… Chief Zhao was actually someone else all this time?" Han Xia asked, in a tone of deep consternation.
At least it wasn't just him this was coming as a surprise to. At least —
Zhao Yunlan started laughing, high and hysterical, and then he was choking on it.
"Calm down," Lao-Chu said, in a surprisingly gentle voice, leaning close to fill Zhao Yunlan's field of vision, a hand on his arm. "You're fine."
He did his best. He was not going to fall apart in front of Lao-Chu and a rookie and Wen Sheng, who had been listening to all this with an air of distinct alarm. "I'm okay," Zhao Yunlan said, trying to control his breathing and make it true. "I'm okay, I'm okay."
Everyone was looking at him kind of doubtfully.
"So… how did you make the portal open?" Wen Sheng asked, at last. "We all thought Dixing was completely cut off now. It's caused a lot of problems. Shortages."
"The portal has been emitting more dark energy for a while now," Lao-Chu said. "Our scientist has been monitoring it since it sealed, and he detected the change. He said it was like it had been recharging all this time. So we waited for it to be strong enough to bring a small party through."
"Then it shut again behind us," Han Xia said. "Neither of us could detect it anymore."
"There was also a distraction at that point," Lao-Chu said, dryly.
"You're Dixingren?" Zhao Yunlan asked Han Xia.
"Half," she said. "My father. I grew up in Dragon City, though, and he wasn't really around. This is the first time I've actually been to Dixing."
"And all our information is a year old," Lao-Chu said. He turned to Wen Sheng. "What's been happening here?"
Wen Sheng shrugged. "Lots of tensions," he said. "Like I say, I'm neutral ground. The Palace is contested, but everyone still drinks here. No politics indoors."
"Who's contesting the Palace?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"The Regent's faction against Lord An's." He shrugged again. "No idea who's going to win."
"What happened to Ye Zun's supporters?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
Wen Sheng laughed, bitterly. "What supporters? Ask absolutely anyone and they'll tell you how they stood bravely against him."
"Ah," Lao-Chu said, expressively, which also summed up Zhao Yunlan's reaction. He could see all too easily how that must have gone.
"You mentioned shortages?" Han Xia said.
Wen Sheng gestured expansively. "We don't exactly grow a lot down here. Nearly everything was supplemented by smuggling from Haixing."
"How do you still have alcohol, then?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Mushrooms, mostly," Wen Sheng said. "We haven't been short of that, it's most of what I was selling all along."
"Lovely." Zhao Yunlan pressed his fingers against his forehead. He was still trying to get all of him properly online. And there was almost too much to slot in. Zhang Shi, simmering tensions in Dixing which were just skirting outright animosity if he was properly reading between Wen Sheng's lines… his head ached fiercely.
"You don't look good," Lao-Chu said, frowning at him.
"I'm fine." Zhao Yunlan sat up straight again. "So. We came to Dixing. What was the plan after that?"
"Find out what the current situation is," Lao-Chu said. "Make contact with the Palace. Go home again."
"Well, we're on one out of three," Zhao Yunlan said. "Could be worse."
Lao-Chu raised an eyebrow.
"Don't give me that expression, I bet you missed me," Zhao Yunlan said, and grinned, and immediately felt a sharp spike of emotional vertigo. He had to stop reminding himself of what had happened or he would be back to fighting off a breakdown again.
"What are your orders then, Chief?" Lao-Chu asked, with only a slight trace of sarcasm.
"More intel first," Zhao Yunlan said. "Lao-Chu, you go out and scout around. Wen-ge, we'll pick your brains a bit more." He stood, and then a wave of swaying blackness slammed into him.
When it cleared, Lao-Chu was laying him firmly down on the sofa. "New plan," he said, when Zhao Yunlan groaned at him. "You're going to lie here and get some rest, until you can stand up without fainting."
"No," Zhao Yunlan protested, "I need —"
"Shut up and rest," Lao-Chu ordered, and swept the others out of the room.
Zhao Yunlan tried again to get up, with no success other than to set his head pounding sickly. He finally gave up and lay back down, exhausted.
Sleep dragged him under almost immediately.
He dreamed of Shen Wei. It seemed inevitable.
It also hurt almost more than he could bear, because it was Shen Wei dressed as he had been the very first time Zhao Yunlan had ever seen him, his eyes reddened and full of tears.
We'll find each other again, Shen Wei said, the glimmer of the space between worlds, between times, all around them.
Zhao Yunlan agreed with him, because what else could he do? He didn't dare reach for Shen Wei, because he wanted so desperately to be held, he ached so much to be wrapped in those familiar arms, that for Shen Wei's dreamself to turn out to be insubstantial would break him.
Then his dream changed, becoming bright-hot and burning, and he remembered without truly remembering that this was the Lantern, and he knew the lack of detail in his memory was nothing but a mercy.
He could feel another presence here, could recognise the pain and fear and confusion.
He knew it was Zhang Shi.