It was nearly two weeks before the Regent's messenger arrived. Enough time for Zhao Yunlan to start believing that yes, maybe they could settle back into the old pattern of their lives, in time.
Shen Wei had started cooking again as soon as he was well enough, quickly filling up all the space in the fridge. He was also eating properly, to Zhao Yunlan's quiet relief, and looking better than he had since… Since before the energy transfer with the Dial, really.
He hadn't gone back to the university yet, though. He spent most of his time either at the SID with Zhao Yunlan, or with An Bai working on the ongoing issue of where to put all the Dixingren. With public sympathy still on their side, the marquee in the park had been quickly replaced by offers of hotel rooms, and now more permanent lodgings were being found. Some displays of Dixing powers and their applications in various Dragon City industries had been persuasive in getting the wheels moving. Zhao Xinci had been helpful in insisting that housing support and educational opportunities be extended to all the Dixingren, not just the immediately useful ones.
It was working. Somehow, it was working.
Zhao Yunlan had recounted his late-night previous conversation with the Regent to Shen Wei, but it was far from the front of his mind when the smoke messenger abruptly showed up in his office. Not conveying the voice of the Regent himself this time — just a palace official, high-handedly giving him the time for a meeting the next day.
"It's an insult, of course," Shen Wei said, once Zhao Yunlan had found him. "To demand your presence as if you are unimportant enough to simply be summoned."
"Yeah, I got that," Zhao Yunlan said. He had to smile a bit at the indignation in Shen Wei's voice. "The message didn't ask for you or An Bai, but I hope you'll both come anyway."
"Technically the Regent doesn't need either of us if he truly wants to re-negotiate the treaty," Shen Wei said. "Only Haixing's Lord Guardian."
"Yeah, but I don't think we want to encourage one person just making those decisions for everyone else to put up with," Zhao Yunlan said. "And I can only imagine what the Ministry and the Bureau would think if I actually went and signed an agreement on my own."
"I'm sure it would suit the Regent to get you alone and committed to new terms as quickly as possible," Shen Wei said.
"I'm sure it would," Zhao Yunlan agreed, blandly, and grinned.
So it was the three of them the next afternoon who entered the portal. Which had, according to Lin Jing, been capable of functioning normally for the last few days, although no one had come through it. Someone had been watching the Haixing side at all times.
Dixing was dark. Shockingly so, without the brightness of the Lantern. Zhao Yunlan blinked several times until his eyes adjusted. When they did, it was obvious why there had been no further visitors to Dragon City. Five armed guards stood waiting for them in front of the portal. The placement of a couple of benches suggested both that the guards were a constant, and that they usually faced in the other direction.
"Hi," Zhao Yunlan said, cheerfully. He stuck his hands into his pockets in a measure of studied casualness. "We're here to see the Regent."
"Follow me," one of the guards said.
He didn't speak to them further, leading them straight through the palace gates. Zhao Yunlan looked over his shoulder. The damage done by the riots was still in evidence, and no one seemed to be abroad in the streets at all.
Shen Wei glanced back as well. He was wearing a new suit today, in sombre charcoal. No robes. He didn't speak as they entered the palace.
The Regent was waiting for them in the main hall. Zhao Yunlan felt his throat tighten as he stepped through the doors. The last time he had been in this room he had been tied up there, and Shen Wei had lain there, and Ye Zun had devoured him —
But it was a different time now, and he tried not to let any of his emotions show. He was certain the Regent would be looking out for them. Shen Wei also didn't react.
"Good morning, Lord Guardian," the Regent said.
"Good morning," Zhao Yunlan said. The lack of acknowledgement towards An Bai or Shen Wei was noticed, of course, but it was no more than a cheap shot. "So what do you need my help for?"
The Regent looked unhappy at need. Good. "I summoned you to discuss the terms of the treaty between Dixing and Haixing," he said. "I believe it lies in both our interests to find a way forward together."
"Does it," Zhao Yunlan said, levelly. "What do you want?"
"Trade," the Regent said. "I've had my secretaries prepare a preliminary document, and we can amend the terms until you're happy with them." He gestured, and a robed official hurried forwards carrying a scroll.
Zhao Yunlan didn't take it. He knew this game, and had no intention of merely amending the ideas already set forward by the Regent. "You realise we don't need to trade," he said. "Haixing has been managing perfectly well without Dixing. Without even being aware of Dixing's existence, for the most part. We're here about an actual treaty on future relations between the realms, not just a trade deal which you desperately need to stop your people from starving."
There was always the fear that the Regent could send them all away. Condemn more of the remaining population to the encroaching famine. But they were betting that the Regent, too, was desperate but not stupid. He had seen what an uprising could accomplish. Could he really continue to hold onto power for much longer?
"What are you asking for?" the Regent asked, finally.
"Take your guards away from the portal, for a start," An Bai said. "Anyone who wants to go to Haixing should be allowed to. You can log movement if you like — we will be doing so from our end — but you can't prevent anyone from travelling."
"You want our convicted murderers free to walk into Haixing?" the Regent asked.
Zhao Yunlan rolled his eyes. "If you have properly convicted murderers then they should already be locked up," he said. "Unless you're saying that Dixing itself is a prison cell?"
The Regent glared.
"We won't interfere with your rule down here," Shen Wei said, calmly. "So long as your citizens have the choice whether they wish to accept it or not."
"So I have to compete with the sun?" the Regent demanded, bitterly.
"You can move to Haixing yourself if you like," An Bai said. "You'd get the same deal we're negotiating for all the Dixingren. Somewhere to live for at least a couple of months, and help locating job opportunities."
The Regent's face twisted in disgust.
"The choice is open to you," Shen Wei said. "As it is to everyone. Free and unforced."
"And this is the trade you want?" the Regent asked.
"Oh, no," Zhao Yunlan said. "That's separate. This is what we want you to agree to so that then we can start talking about a trade deal."
The Regent glared at them again. His mouth worked soundlessly. "Fine," he spat out, eventually.
"Proclaim it," Shen Wei said, implacable. "Everyone across the city needs to know."
As if it was choking him, the Regent gestured a lackey forward. He took a brush and some paper, and angrily painted out several characters. Zhao Yunlan shamelessly stepped to one side and tilted his head so that he could see. It was, indeed, a notice that free passage through the portal to Haixing was now open. "Copy this," the Regent ordered, through gritted teeth. "Make sure it's displayed throughout the city."
The lackey bowed and departed.
That done, the Regent turned back. "And now you'll sign the trade deal?"
"Now we'll begin the process of a trade deal," Zhao Yunlan said. "With the involvement of the Dragon City ministers. And their lawyers. Committees. You know how it goes."
Shen Wei was smiling — a small, contained expression.
They left shortly after, the Regent still fuming behind them. But he couldn't retract his proclamation — he needed Haixing too much. Zhao Yunlan knew his own smile was not at all contained. Let the Regent live in the dark with whichever of the Dixingren still chose to cling to his rule. Everyone else would leave him behind.
The guards on the portal stepped back as they approached. They had been clustered around the poster which was still drying on the nearest wall, reading it by torchlight. "Anyone's allowed to go through now?" one of them said, uncertainly.
"Yes," Shen Wei said. "That extends to you as well. You would be welcome in Haixing."
They looked at each other a little uncertainly. "I'll — have to talk to my wife," one of the women said.
An Bai nodded to her. "We may meet again shortly, then," he said.
Shen Wei stopped before opening the portal and looked back. Zhao Yunlan looked with him, trying to see the city as he did. It was dark. No lights in many of the windows. It felt like a place closing down, on the edge of being abandoned.
"Let's go home," Shen Wei said, and Zhao Yunlan followed him back into sunlight.
Shen Wei opened the apartment door the next evening, and immediately noticed the smell of burning. He entered quickly, but relaxed as he saw Zhao Yunlan over by the cooker, scraping irritably at a pan.
Zhao Yunlan looked up. "Dammit," he said, "I thought you'd be longer and would never know about this." He grinned in a self-deprecating way.
Shen Wei hung up his coat and came over. "What are you making?"
"Dinner," Zhao Yunlan said. "Theoretically. It was supposed to be a surprise for you. Except I was busy chopping vegetables and forgot about the noodles. I probably shouldn't have put them on so soon, should I?"
Shen Wei forbade from answering directly. "Shall I help?" he asked.
But Zhao Yunlan shook his head stubbornly. "I can cook for you. Sometimes."
"Let me sort out the pan, then, and you can carry on with the cooking," Shen Wei offered. Trying to keep his fond smile off his face, in case Zhao Yunlan read it as being laughed at.
"Okay, that seems fair," Zhao Yunlan said, and gave up the pan and the space at the sink with some relief, dropping a kiss on Shen Wei's cheek as he backed out of the way. "So. How was the university?"
Shen Wei rolled up his sleeves and looked at the burned-on noodles for a minute, considering the best way to go about attacking them. "It was fine," he said.
Zhao Yunlan didn't respond, and when Shen Wei glanced over he was watching him sceptically with his eyebrows raised.
Shen Wei sighed. "It was… difficult," he admitted.
"Yeah, I'm not surprised," Zhao Yunlan said, gently. And of course he also had plenty of experience with having to deal with people who had thought that he was dead. "You stuck to the cover story?"
Shen Wei nodded. The story they'd come up with was that he had been a political prisoner in Dixing for the past year, presumed dead by everyone including the SID. It had the benefit of being almost true, when looked at from a certain angle. Still, it had been extremely uncomfortable to deliver. He was grateful that he hadn't run into any of his former students on the university grounds — dealing with the administration had been bad enough.
"Did they give you your position back?" Zhao Yunlan asked, after several more seconds.
Shen Wei hadn't realised until then that he hadn't said anything. The pan was resting in the sink, and he held a scourer loosely in his hand without doing anything with it. He looked up, and tried to smile. "They offered it. From the next academic year."
"And… what did you say?" Zhao Yunlan asked, cautiously.
"I said I'd need some time to consider," Shen Wei admitted. Which he knew wasn't how he'd presented his feelings to Zhao Yunlan ahead of the meeting at all. "I also told them I was Dixingren."
Zhao Yunlan had laid the chopping knife down and was watching him carefully. "Before or after the rest of it?"
"Before," Shen Wei said, and dropped his eyes again. It had been easiest to deal with everything all at once. Theoretically.
He expected Zhao Yunlan to ask him why, in that case, he hadn't taken up the offer of his old position. To which Shen Wei still didn't have a good answer that he could articulate. But Zhao Yunlan didn't — he came over and hugged Shen Wei instead, and then took the scourer out of his hand so that Shen Wei was better able to hold him back.
"It's okay," Zhao Yunlan said, gentle in a way Shen Wei felt he shouldn't need. "Whatever you decide, it's okay. You don't have to have everything sorted out immediately."
That sounded logical on the face of it, but Shen Wei had been anxiously grappling over the last few days with what to do now, and was no closer to a conclusion. His responsibilities to Dixing had utterly shifted, and his responsibilities to the university had been… severed, and now were apparently his to pick up or not as he chose.
It wasn't just him. He could see the understanding in Zhao Yunlan too, the differences in how he interacted with the new SID.
It would be so much harder to be alone in this.
"I've been looking at houses," Zhao Yunlan said. "Like we talked about? We can go and see some this weekend, if you're free."
Shen Wei was grateful for the change of subject. "That sounds good," he said. Especially for Zhao Yunlan, who was clearly far less comfortable in the apartment than he had been before.
"You're sure?" Zhao Yunlan asked, abruptly worried. "I mean, I know it's a big commitment. Buying a house. With me. Especially right now."
"Of course I'm sure," Shen Wei said, surprised. Surely Zhao Yunlan understood how that was the one thing Shen Wei stood in no doubt about? "I want to live with you. I want to be with you, for all the time we have." They had already missed out on too much.
"All the time we have," Zhao Yunlan repeated, and raised an eyebrow again. "More realistic than forever, I suppose."
"I didn't mean —" Shen Wei began, uncertain again.
"No, I know," Zhao Yunlan said, the corners of his mouth quirking upwards. "You're just very precise."
But precise suddenly didn't seem like enough. Not nearly enough for what Shen Wei had been trying to express — for how much he wanted this life with Zhao Yunlan, the one that had nearly been ripped away from them too many times. Now in their grasp, so precious he almost didn't dare to grasp it because surely it must be fragile. He frowned a little in frustration with himself.
"Baby?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "What's the matter?"
"I…" Shen Wei tried to find words with the depth for what he wanted to say. Swallowed. "Would you like to get married?"
Zhao Yunlan pulled right back, leaving Shen Wei's arms suddenly empty. He stared, eyes wide. "You want to get married?" he asked. "To me?"
Shen Wei nodded, throat dry. He hadn't thought specifically of it until a moment ago, but now it seemed to follow inevitably from his thoughts as he'd lain dying at Ye Zun's pillar. Regretting every time he had chosen not to be the one to step across a gulf between them. To wait.
Zhao Yunlan's mouth moved soundlessly for a moment. "Yes, of course I want that!" he exclaimed. "You don't even have to ask — Except I'm glad you did, I'm so glad —" He started laughing, clutching Shen Wei's forearms tightly.
Shen Wei beamed at him, feeling so light he was surprised he didn't float. Everything felt… better, suddenly. Like he'd be able to find his feet again, whatever he ended up deciding about his role at the university, and with the Dixingren. Because he'd be with Zhao Yunlan, and even forever now seemed like it could be within reach.
Zhao Yunlan was still laughing, and then he surged forward for a kiss, deep and urgent. Shen Wei responded, and there was nothing else in the world; this was enough.
Until they finally broke apart, and Zhao Yunlan said, "Uh, dinner?" in a slightly dazed tone, staring around at the half-prepared food like he no longer knew what to do with it.
"Let me help?" Shen Wei offered again.
This time Zhao Yunlan grinned a bit sheepishly. "Yes, okay," he said. "I can barely remember what I was making now." Then he caught Shen Wei's eye and beamed crookedly. "We're getting married."
"Yes," Shen Wei said, smiling fondly, "but you need to eat first —" and Zhao Yunlan cut him off with another kiss before finally allowing him to step in and help, working side by side.